IMG_0499My father Jack Newman, was a member of the civil defence and had recently lost his job as a miner when Llanbradach pit closed. He was collected by the civil defence and went there to work with the other miners trained in pit Rescue. One of the first teams to arrive, he helped dig in and pull the bodies out. Bodies of children the same age as me. I was 6 at the time. When he eventually came home, maybe 2 days later, he cried. I never saw him cry before or since. This was a man who fought in WW2, saw the horrors of war at first hand. But Aberfan touched him in a way nothing else seemed to have done. He changed. He was distant, didn’t laugh anymore. He withdrew into himself and never really came back. He gardened, studied for a diploma in horticulture and became eventually a park and garden officer for the local authority. But he, the Dad who went to Aberfan on the 21st of October never came back. Today we’d probably call it post traumatic stress disorder. I’m sure many families also suffered this. The children were the first victims, their familes, the second wave of victims. Then there were the rest. People like my Dad. He died in 1978, aged 59. But I lost him in 1966. This was just my way of marking this 50th anniversary and finally letting him go. And sending love to everyone else who lost someone in or because of Aberfan. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

A city by the sea – part 1

When I first told friends I was moving to Brest, they looked sad….

Brest has a reputation in Brittany… an ugly concrete jungle thrown up in a hurry to replace the old city flattened during the Allied bombardments in 1944. To an extent this is true. The city centre has little to recommend it to the eye. Built on the “block system” in symmetric grids, the city centre is modern. Not quite modern but recent. It’s 1950’s origins show up loud and clear. It could be worse. It could be a whole lot better.But if you scratch the surface, Brest is a lively and thriving city with some really interesting little corners that surprise and delight if you know where to look. I spotted this little gem from the top of a multi story car park serving FNAC, H&M, the Body Shop etc which was finished a few years ago. One Saturday, doing the “shops” with the Girls Of The Family, the lower levels of the parking were all full. So rather than doing the trawl from level to level, I just headed on up to the top on the basis that there is always space up top. 
Yes, there was space. And a superb view over a cemetery with an amazingly gothic skyline profile. Not having time to get down there that day, I noted it for a trip out another day, minus the Girls Of The Family. 
Two weeks later, a grey Sunday with little else interesting to do, I set out with the significant other on our motorcycles to do the visit. I couldn’t work out how to get to the cemetery from my limited knowledge of Brest’s backstreets. But luckily significant other did, having lived just next to it for several years and regularly crossing it on foot on his way to work. 

We spent over an hour exploring the alleys between the tombs, fascinated by the monuments erected by wealthy families to their loved ones over 150 years ago. Poignant details of short and sometimes tragic lives seemingly forgotten in the intervening years. 

Occasionally other walkers crossed our path, a brief “Bonjour” and a nod. Respecting each others’ enjoyment of a peaceful Sunday stroll. 

I couldn’t resist recording some of the details with my iPhone camera – deliciously gothic and poetic vignettes of the general atmosphere.

A bit of research reveals that the Cimetiére de St Martin was created in the 18th century and was in the countryside. It was forbidden to buy the dead within the city limits. Shades of Amadeus… in the early years animals dug up the corpses overnight and quite soon a wooden fence was erected replaced a few years later by the first stone walls. 

The cemetery is still open to the public and many of the gothic style family tombs are up for sale to new owners. Descendants often think that the City Council is responsible for the upkeep of the tombs but legally, the ground and the monument belongs to the family.
Some work has been done to try and locate descendants and to let them know the situation. For some tombs, no family is left to maintain them or show any interest. The most original and interesting tombs are part of a salvage programme. 

It seems a huge shame that little interest was shown until relatively recently and a superb site is gradually disappearing for want of civic interest in the little that is left of Brest of the 18th Century when it was a major part of the French sea defense and a thriving commercial port.

For me, part of the charm is the way that nature is taking over the abandoned tombs. These gargoyles are almost enhanced by the ivy that creeps around them.

A calm and beautiful place to walk or reflect a while, a little haven slap bang in the city centre, this is a place to visit.

While some might find this a morbid place to linger, I’d say the contrary is true. It’s a peaceful place with poetic forms created by the chaos of abandonment.

There must be a fair few regular visitors. Several of the tombs seem to be used by a community of feral cats. Signs of nesting and regular use are visible and it looks like people come regularly to feed them. Tupperware containers tucked into a corner with leftover food and plastic bottles cut down to hold water bear witness to the cat-lovers’ activities. 

I’d guess that some of the tombs house living residents at night too. Odd blankets and signs of someone trying to decorate their “home” can be spotted by the careful eye. Funeral vases from other tombs have made their way onto shelves and have artificial flowers placed in them despite the fact that the original owner’s descendants have long ago ceased to be interested in the site. This window is part of a tomb that is probably, at least occasionally, occupied by a homeless person. 

The cemetery is clean and closes at night. The alternative population have their own ways in and will not disturb a lunchtime visit to eat a sandwich in peace and quiet, just a few metres from one of the busy streets criss-crossing the city centre. An hour quickly passes. 

Strangely enough, I feel recharged and relaxed after a break here. It’s like finding a quiet place within, an earthing. 


Thinking of visiting – Here is the map. http://goo.gl/maps/8e2gZ

Why an aspidistra?

Back home in the valleys of South Wales, most of the houses looked pretty much the same when I was growing up.  Terraces sprawled along the valley bottom and scrambled up the sides when the floor was full. Homes sprung up with a speed never before or since seen, to house the influx of workers for the mining industry. Not much had changed by the early sixties when I was growing up.

There were some interesting and quirky exceptions. To break the monotony, some mine owners and other home-builders in the early 20th century had adopted a slightly different view. Here and there sprouted houses that were more individual, less crowded one against the other. The concept of the garden village was born.

My grandparents lived in one such house, with a big garden and a pretty, cottage-style frontage. But what singled it out for me was the entrance hall. No corridor effect that had the stairs straight in front and the doors off to one side but a wide space where the doors opened in front, to each side and the staircase turned elegantly with a real wooden bannister that allowed you to look down on the hall.

Their hall was cool and smelled of wood polish and had a real tile floor. As you entered through the front door, there was a wall opposite with a door to the left-hand side leading to the sitting room. To the left of this door was a polished wood table, with barley-stick legs which was always dressed with a little lace-edged table cloth and upon the table cloth was the aspidistra. It sat in a big, red bowl with its glossy leaves bowing gently over the sides. It sat there for as long as I can remember, a symbol of calm and steadiness.

It meant something to me, that aspidistra. It meant that everything was fine in the universe. As I crossed the hall to get the bottle of Tango out from the cupboard under the stairs or a packet of Smith’s cheese and onion crisps, it was always there. It didn’t move. It didn’t wilt. Its leaves stayed green and brilliant all the year round whatever happened, whatever the season and whatever sagas and scandals agitated the family.

It left a lasting impression on me and later, when I read “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” by George Orwell,  I laughed out-loud when I understood what the aspidistra represented – a respectable, middle class lifestyle.

The aspidistra represented for me a confusion, a dichotomy – the longing for that comfortable and calm lifestyle and my inability to grasp it when the chance presented itself. Even a conscious rejection of it sometimes. But far more often, a chaotic passage straight through the middle of life’s events, astounded by the absurdity, tragedy and ultimately the comedy of it all.

Now living in France, I still think of that aspidistra in the hall of my grandparents house and what it stood for in its red, gleaming bowl. I don’t know what happened to it. Maybe it got thrown out?

I have never owned an aspidistra but I do find myself frequently looking at them, sideways when I go to the garden centre……..