Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

3. Fetisch, X-mal Deutschland

July 13, 2017

Or: I was a teenage goth.

I was a teenage goth

As soon as I picked this out of its cover, I thought: I bet I don’t like this as much as I used to like this, and I was right. It all seems quite the dirge now – same pace (plodding), same drum beat (pounding), same guitar (fuzzing)– and I don’t really remember what any of my standout tracks were then. I can barely muster a standout track now.

It seems laughably downbeat today. Sample lyrics from ‘Young Man’: “Young man may die” (repeat three times). All this gloom and death was a natural progression from macabre-obsessed early adolescence: reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards, witchcraft, spontaneous combustion and the part-work The Unexplained. Maybe being a goth was just about coming to terms with your own mortality.

Being a goth was definitely about coming to terms with your own sexuality. What does pop music do for adolescent girls and boys? They say it’s about belonging, being in this tribe, not that one. It’s also about separation. Pop let me to quantify my difference and protect myself, projecting a self that was something else. It let me to keep the world at arm’s length while I tried to understand it. Being a goth and a punk and a psychobilly were place markers along the track to the biggest difference of them all. I’d made it clear I was weird already. They’d get used to it.

So would I.

To like Scottish-German industrial bands made one a sore thumb in a world of Wham! (never liked them then, don’t like ’em now).

It’s also why I sound a bit posh, when I’m not a bit posh: little gradations of separation. It’s no coincidence that in my old goth circles there were plenty of us who ended up L, G and T.

Which one of these do I wish they’d play at the disco? I have no recollection now of what song I wanted to dance to but I do remember the kind of disco I wished I could dance at.

One day, me and my friends were were sitting on some steps by the beach, on a sunny afternoon (it’s hard being goth at the seaside: so much physical activity; so many healthy glows), discussing what we’d call our nightclubs. I don’t remember what theirs would be but mine was going to be called the German word for “prison”, whatever that was. I didn’t know what the German word for prison was but I knew that it beautifully captured what a disco should be.

Now I have a working knowledge of the language and I do know what the German word for “prison” is, I know damn well it doesn’t. (Look at those lyrics though! More hilarious gloom: ‘Verrachte dich/mishandel dich’, a snippet from ‘Kampfen’, one of the numbers I think I liked best then, though don’t ask me why.)

I only dipped my toes in the rusty waters of industrial pop. No Einsturzende Neubauten for me (though I know these were the most interesting and enduring), only Xmal and the disco-din of SPK. My heart really belonged to Siouxsie and Peter Murphy.

Would I buy this record now? Hell, no. Sex moans, echo chambers, pulsing drums – at best, it sounds like a series of Bauhaus b-sides.The cover is a po-mo delight though, with gorgeous typography. I would copy it over and over with my calligraphy pen, with dreams of being a record cover designer.

Fetisch by Xmal Deutschland

Label: 4AD.

Release date: 11 April 1983.

Chart position: This didn’t trouble the upper or the lower reaches of the album charts

Run-out message: Bubo Tapgore (?)

PS: The band were quite pretty.


2. Baggy Trousers, Madness

December 28, 2016


Along with every other pupil at a state school in 1980, I loved Madness with a passion. I walked like them, One Step Beyonding up and down the back garden, and the chewing gum-grey concrete schoolyard, and the deep purple pile of the front-room carpet.

I loved their cartoon antics and their black-and-white clothes. I wanted Doctor Martens; I did not not get Doctor Martens. I wanted monkey boots; I did not get monkey boots. I got 2-tone plastic badges from the stalls at Swansea Market. I played my sister’s copy of One Step Beyond… repeatedly, pretending the lamp was a microphone stand. I joined the preteen cohorts at the Studio Cinema to see a matinee of Take It or Leave it in 1981. I wished I was a Nutty Boy. I looked like a Nutty Boy, in a trilby hat and borrowed wraparound sunglasses.

‘Baggy Trousers’ was the first Madness record I bought. All my classmates loved it, too. In this song, Madness were talking to us, a bunch of scruffy ten-year olds that nobody had addressed directly before. Even if we weren’t participating in the mitching and misbehavour, we were surrounded by it. The fights with other schools: Brynmelin Park, 3.30pm. Waun Wen boys against St Josephs. The oddballs who lurked about the neighbourhood: the school handyman who grabbed a boy by the ankles and dunked him in an oildrum full of water. When I was ten, Madness was my band and this was my song. I was a sometimes-naughty child, an always shy child (yet also a show-off) in an inner-city school that my grandmother had gone to (left school at 12) and my mother had gone to (left school at 14; shouldn’t have) and now here was I, with a life ahead and no map for where it would go. And now here were some musical hall minstrels singing about all that.

The song is nearly 37 years old. It was released the year Ronald Reagan became president and the Rubik’s Cube came out. It is as old as the St Paul’s Riots in Bristol and the Moscow Olympics. It marked my last year in junior school and turned me to towards the terrors of secondary school: a place where the older girls flushed your head down the toilet on your birthday, they said. Where people played chicken on the railway lines and stole the detonators off the tracks.

The 1980s were the days when everyone sold records: Woolworths, WH Smith and John Menzies, the Co-op and Debenhams. The place I actually bought it from could not have been more fitting: over the counter, at Boots. I probably bought it on the day it came out, (5 September) because I have a clear recollection of standing in its record department (Quadrant Centre, first floor, next to the exit for the bridge to Debenhams) and having to ask for it. I didn’t like doing that at all, because my shyness made ‘Baggy Trousers’ seem like the most embarrassing words you could say ever.

I must have asked for it, or made my mother ask for it, because I have it and it is glorious.

The artwork is beautiful, Humphrey Ocean’s pencil drawing of the band outside Cairo East underground station. Over the years, while I still wanted to be an artist and design record covers, I would copy it with increasing skill. I also catalogued this one using my own system (be gone, Stiff’s own BUY 84!: this one is NUT -145 – NUT for Nutty Boys, 1 for the first single of theirs, 45 for a single. So there.)

The B-side is ‘The Business’, a nice enough piano-driven piece with some echoey dubby bits. I have listened to that track three or four times at most.

‘Baggy Trousers’ never got to number one in the charts, only number three. A crime against pop music.


(7”, Stiff Records, 1980). B-side The Business

Matrix signature: A – WE HAVE LIFT-OFF B: WIND ME UP

Baggy Trousers by Madness.

Label: Stiff

Catalogue Number: NUT-145

Run-out message: A – WE HAVE LIFT OFF B- WIND ME UP

Release date: 5 September 1980

Entered charts: 13 September 1980

Top chart position: 3

1.1 Beginning.

December 4, 2016

Is it possible that I remember buying this record or am I remembering remembering? A dust-caked chain back through the decades places me in front of a free-standing bargain singles bin at Duck, Son and Pinker.

It turned out that Duck, Son and Pinker didn’t exist only at 11 Union Street in Swansea. In my circumscribed world, I thought this palace of drums and keyboards and electric drums and electric keyboards and electric guitars and Spanish guitars and tambourines and tunes and sheet music and singles and albums belonged to us alone; it didn’t. It belonged to Bath and they made pianos and printed their own music as well, and it isn’t in either of those places any more. It closed in Swansea in the 1990s and shut its doors for good in Bath in 2011.

I am in front of a bargain bin at Duck, Son and Pinker and I am buying my first record. I don’t know what year this is, although the year the single was released I was too young, so it isn’t 1972.

1972 was the year of the Munich Olympic massacre.

1972 was the year of the Watergate scandal.

1972 was the year of Bloody Sunday.

1972 was the year of Cabaret and Mastermind and Emily and Ernie Bishop’s wedding.

In 1972, Britain held its first gay pride march.


1972 was the year of ‘Crocodile Rock’, which somehow ends up unsold and a few years’ later is in the cheap racks, then in my hand and then now in the room in which I am sitting.

I don’t know in what capacity I ‘buy’ it: do I get pocket money, aged five or six, enough to buy anything bigger than a comic or sweets? Do I peel off a mitten and point a pink index finger at it and say ‘this one’?

But I am here, in town, with my mother and my sister, in the basement of the shop that sells music to the people in every shape they can get it, looking into a container of cheap singles.

My sister buys a single by Flintlock.

I buy Elton John’s ‘Crocodile Rock’.


I never listened to the record apart from to say to myself, to new friends, to whoever’s in the room that this, this is the first record I ever bought. Listen:

“I remember when rock was young…”

And yet, although I remember the act of buying, I don’t remember what leads me to this record. It isn’t the cover (look at it; even when pristine it would have been dowdy in its mustard and moss-green tartan). It isn’t the music: I’ve never leven iked Elton John, apart from the Kiki Dee one. Maybe he is the only pop star I’ve heard of in the pile. Maybe it is because I am mad about animals and will want to be a vet when I grow up and this sounds funny: a crocodile! Rocking! Ha ha.

Whatever my reasons were, it’s mine now.

What I don’t remember is the record ever making an impression on me. No spark’s ignited when I hear it’s first bar. I don’t know all or even any of its intonations and pauses. I can sing the la-la-lala-lala-la bits but it’s just a chubby fist banging up and down a piano chugging through some standard pub rock and it only makes as much impression on my as any other song from that time. It didn’t set the pattern for my tastes and I glad for that. The B-Side is ‘Elderberry Wine’. I’ve no idea if this song sounds familiar: it just sounds like every song Elton John has ever written.

Even so. This is where it all began and it’s travelled everywhere with me wherever I’ve gone: just not in my heart.

Crocodile Rock by Elton John

Label: DJM
Run-out message: /
Release date: 27 October 1972
Entered charts: 4 November 1972
Top chart position: 5

I catalogued this myself with ‘4A Eld Wine EL’ and clearly went wild with a date stamp on 30 Aug 1978 30 Aug 1978 30 Aug 1978 30 Aug 1978 30 Aug 1978.

Carmarthen Road

December 30, 2013

The road I grew up on, at the time I was growing up on it.

Swansea Recalled

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March 3, 2010


Second-hand book shopping isn’t an addiction. It’s more of an impulse. You don’t spend day after day seeking out the next fix, but it’s lodged in your genes and whenever you pass a musty tower of paperbacks, some reflexive muscle launches you at them. You never know what might be in there. Another old Fodor’s Modern Guide, for example, to go with 1957’s Switzerland, with Liechtenstein (Ralph’s Books, Dillwyn Street, Swansea, 1991, though originally owned by one KA Linscott, Oxted, June 1957, and a snip at 50p).

Second-hand book shopping is a refuge from modernity; you won’t find instant gratification nestling among the curling, foxed pages. You do it because you have no clue what’ll turn up in those ramshackle stacks. You do it because it’s a two-fingered salute to Amazon, that dreary experience which is entirely about known quantities, right down to what Nina in Ohio thought about your next buy.

It’s not about getting cheap, hard-to-find or out-of-print books, though it’s all of these things. Nor is it about discovering a book you want but haven’t got – though you might well find one (Marguerite Duras, The Whispers of Love, Spui Boekenmarkt, April 2001, 8fl) – more often, it’s about buying a book you already own and love in every different edition you can find.

There’s something comforting about buying used books; it makes you feel immortal. You must always write your name, and the time and place of purchase on the flyleaf. Not for your own benefit – because you always remember precisely when and where you bought it – but for future readers. William Jones of Tyn yr Heol scratched his name and the date, Oct. 16th 1864, in black fountain pen into The Child’s Guide to Knowledge by A LADY (Dylan’s, Salubrious Passage, Swansea, March 1993, £1) and its pages reveal that this poor Victorian child was tested on the – improbably esoteric – contents. (“Q: Are not vast quantities of sturgeon caught annually in the Caspian Sea? A: Yes; and from a species called the starred sturgeon, the best caviar and the strongest isinglass are obtained.” TICK. Poor William. Do you think he was beaten senseless with a rod if he got one wrong, as he did on page 282, “Q: What is chyroprase?”*).

You get glimpses into other times and other lives with pre-owned books that you never get in new ones. The Fodor’s Modern Guide to Morocco (See am pattern emerging?), picked up for €1 at’t Ouwe Boekje, Graventsraat, Den Burg, Texel, June 2002, is full of clippings, jottings, mementoes. We know its old owner went to Rissani, UN CADRE TYPIQUEMENT MAROCAIN, in Casablanca, and that he or she obsessively snipped bits about the country from magazines. The same owner, I suspect, also visited Austria (€2), drove down the Brenner motorway on 12 April 1969 (60 schilling toll) and, 30-odd years later, left me some empty sugar bags and a very nice Werfen im Salzachtal sticker. You don’t get that in Scheltema.

Second-hand book buying, then, is a serendipitous thing. You don’t decide what you’re going to get, or when you’re going to get it. And there is no place in the world that better encapsulates this form of shopping in all its glorious randomness than Sporadisch Antiquarisch on Sarphatipark. It is, as the name yells you, an on-off thing (the only regular opening hours are Saturday 2-4 and even that’s not guaranteed), piled up with a disorder of reading matter. Outside, there is also a bargain windowsill of the most unpredictable books, at 50c a pop. Perfect. This shop is where I have culled some of my best finds, ever.  I remember one sunny Saturday afternoon in April 2003, riffling through the outside tables and coming across the garish, sensationalist cover of a 1960s gay pulp fiction paperback. And another. Then another and another and another. This was pay dirt, and at €10 per half dozen! I came away with two carrier bags full of the buggers and each is a sociological specimen.

We begin in 1965 with James Barr’s Quatrefoil, a sub-Querellian (complete with matelot and cap’n on the cover) self-hating wank-piece masquerading as a serious study. “An unforgettable – deeply moral – adult novel…” trails the back blurb. “The chest and thghs, heavy against him and hot with an animal vitality that Phillip could feel through their wet clothes” reads the quite random page I opened.

As gay lib is invented, the tone changes. HOMO House of Male Order (1968) by Bert Schrader is a ridiculous tale of a knocking shop in the Midwest. Despite it’s straightforward porn talk (a new direction), it’s really a romance and consciousness has most definitely been raised: “Spud shrugged. ‘What do you call them?’ ‘gay or even homo after you get to know them but queer is not a word that they like.’”

The last books in the collection, from the early ’80s, are dark, sexually complex literature (like John Rechy’s Rushes) a million years from the internalised homophobia of the early works. ‘Nico van Dalen’ is written in red biro inside Quatrefoil. In my imagination, he is an old gay man, no longer with us, whose possessions were sold off – no heirs, you see – and who experienced seismic shifts in attitudes to being gay, both in the outside world and inside himself, then bequeathed it all to me with his library.

A few months later, I was walking past Sporadisch Antiquariat and saw a copy of Paint Along With Nancy in the window. Nancy Kominsky was an ur-Bob Ross, whose how-to-paint programmes I watched every dinnertime at 12.30 p.m. on HTV Wales in teh late 1970s. Of course, I went back to the shop every day until I found it open and when it was, I snatched up Nancy. The owner asked if I wanted it for kitsch value; I put him right and told him, no, there was nothing ironic here: this book unleashed real emotion. I often wonder what funny journey brought this book to Amsterdam.

I did think of taking some of my finds back to the Antiquarisch, holding each one up and asking the owner: “Remember this? Or this or this?” and getting the history of all my lovely books.

But I couldn’t do it.

I might find out the truth, you see; and that, dear reader, would spoil the story.

*“A: A beautiful stone of a delicate apple-green colour, much prized by jewellers, brought from Silesia, in Germany.”

Published in Amsterdam Weekly, 16-22 February 2006. 

Coming face to face with death

January 19, 2010

Published on RNW website, 8 July 2005
The fall of Srebrenica’s 10th anniversary
by Kim Renfrew

Tuzla was the ugliest town I had ever seen.

To get there from Sarajevo, we had to drive for four hours through the mountains, passing half-built – or perhaps half-destroyed – villages still pock-marked with bullet holes from the war which had ended ten years before.

It was winter when we went, and the car skidded and slid through the snow to arrive in a town full of filthy chimneys belching out smoke, and row upon row of austere socialist architecture, crumbling now and well past its prime.

Grim setting
There couldn’t have been a grimmer – or a more appropriate – setting for the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) morgue. It’s here that part of the painstaking process of collecting and identifying many of the thousands of bodies of men and boys massacred in Srebrenica in July 1995 takes place.

Pieces in a grisly jigsaw
I’d read about similar places. Zoë Brân, in her book After Yugoslavia, has a chilling description of her visit to Bosnia’s Visoko morgue, also engaged in piecing together the grisly Srebrenica jigsaw. She writes of “the all-pervading stink. I thought I’d prepared myself, but it’s not only worse than I imagined, it’s completely different. The mortuary is filled with an acrid, ammonia smell that lingers weakly in the entrance and gets progressively stronger inside the building. The scent of old death disturbed.”
As I walked through the doors I expected to feel nauseous, but the smell wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. It was there, certainly – a peaty, earthy, sort of sweet smell. If you didn’t know it was the stench of death, it probably wouldn’t be that awful.

Grisly truth
The mortuary building itself looked unremarkable: a series of Portakabins, with rooms leading off a long corridor whose walls are papered with war-criminal Wanted posters and pictures of missing men. But behind such workaday appearances lurked a grislier truth. Through the first door, to my left, was a small room that looked like a regular doctor’s consulting room: plain, clinical, with a white table at centre. On the table a young American woman laid out human remains – discoloured, brown bones that she placed in the vague form of a skeleton. When she’d finished, she took a photograph, picked up the bones, put them in a bag and then started the whole process again with another bag. And another. And another. And another. Her task was both precise and – I thought, though I’m not proud of that thought – very, very boring. And it seemed to be endless.

Never-ending task
In fact, the never-ending nature of her work became even clearer when we went into the room opposite. Our guide – a cool, shaven-headed Bosnian wearing wraparound glasses – told me I should put my coat on; it was stuffy, so I was not keen, but he insisted and I’m glad I did, when he pushed back a big steel door and we walked into what was essentially an enormous fridge. It was in here that the sheer size of the massacre hit you. Finding a comparison for tragedy on this scale will always undermine the impact, whatever words you choose – but it was as big as, and looked like, a DIY superstore. Shelves, reaching up maybe ten metres, lined the walls, each packed with buff packages and grubby white bags, labelled, prosaically, “DNA matter”. The male population of Srebrenica will wait in here until bodies are matched to names, then re-interred later in proper graves.

Intimate, everyday objects
Up to now, all this death – though ever-present – remained kind of abstract. Bones aren’t upsetting because they don’t really resemble people. Brown bags of ‘DNA matter’ aren’t that moving because they’re so far removed from what human beings are. But when we entered the room at the very far end of the corridor, which contained the dead Bosnian Muslim men’s belongings, it all becomes too real. Walking sticks, clocks, spectacles, clothes, shoes, all of them disinterred from mass graves along with the remains of bodies. These everyday objects become an old man uncertain on his feet, a bookish boy squinting over his reading matter, someone’s dad, someone’s lover: sad and intimate reminders that nearly 8,000 people lost their lives in the senseless slaughter, which is no easier to understand a decade on.

As well as these personal effects, there were dozens of books – big, hardback things, like family photo albums – documenting page after page of the men’s clothes and belongings. Dependents of the dead men come here to look through them, hoping to recognize something that once belonged to their relatives. The fact that clothes worn by the men were often home made makes it easier for the women left behind to identify what once belonged to whom.

Cold comfort
The process is slow and laborious, but it seems to be working. In 2002, the year before I saw the Tuzla morgue, just 2000 out of the 7800 dead had been found, exhumed from mass graves in and around the Srebrenica region. Only 200 had been identified. In 2005, a year after my visit, still more remains of the dead men have been located, and the identities of 2079 of these confirmed. Small comfort though it is, it seems likely that one day at least, the surviving relatives will know for certain what happened to their menfolk, and know at last where they are buried.

This picture speaks for us all

January 9, 2010

Prolonged cold period seems to be addling people’s brains. Last night, some larky drunk types stood in the street in the middle of the night yelling and singing a dirty version of ‘Winter Wonderland’. Not funny or clever at any time of day; particularly unhilarious at 3am. When sung again. And again. And again.

This morning, I saw a woman walking down the terrace outside in her dressing gown.

Fasten your seatbelts

January 3, 2010

It’s going to be a bumpy blog.