Land of my fathers, poets and punks

From the depressed valleys of South Wales rises the Welsh equivalent of the Seattle grunge scene. Tortured souls always did turn to art. By Emma Forrest
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The Independent Culture
"Six days a week upon his knees/ Taffy dug for coal/ On the seventh he was kneeling too/ Praying for his soul." Halfway through a poetry reading in the South Wales town of Pontypridd, I don't get a sense of sheep, rolling hills or land of my fathers. Swansea may be renowned as a literary centre, but voices like these are rarely heard. Punk-poet John Evans sighs, "The great tradition of culture in Wales is never given a chance to flourish because the pounds 14.7 million the Welsh Arts Council receives each year is misspent. There are great bands in the valleys who will never get a chance to be seen. Poets are publishing themselves." One such publication is Mike Jenkins's Red Poets Society, which includes the above re-working of "Taffy Was a Welshman" by Alun Rees. Tonight, contributors are gathered in the back room of a pub, determined to speak, even if the WAE won't listen.

The poets range from old ladies gazing sadly into the past to angry young men. They're not all good. There is a strain of socialist worker misogyny that runs through the work of the less-accomplished male readers. But they are supporting each other. Which is a good thing because they aren't going to get help from anywhere else. To the Welsh Arts Council, Wales is romantic, poetry in the soul and pretty accents. Images of the life that's left in former mining towns are not what they're looking for. The artists who survive that life don't have to worry about whether they can go home again because they never really leave.

"To me, it's about as important as New Jersey is to Bruce Springsteen." Richard Parfitt, singer and guitarist of choppy boy-rock band, 60ft Dolls, is explaining precisely how significant growing up in South Wales is to the music he makes. "I was born in an industrial town built around steelworks. Then Thatcher sold us to the Japs and now you see grown men packing batteries for pounds 3 an hour. People walk around with a look of defeat. This is a town full of losers." But losers, some say, make the best poets and pop stars. It is no coincidence that many of the most promising bands and determined poets come from the economically and spiritually depressed valleys of South Wales.

60ft Dolls, following music-press praise, were quickly picked up by Indolent records and the PR company, Savage and Best (responsible for the careers of Pulp, Elastica and Menswear, among others). Newport noisemeisters, Flyscreen, have just been signed to MCA. Cardiff glam-rockers, Gouge, are working with the people who put the Stone Roses on the map. Novocaine are hotly tipped. The influential Welsh rock label, "ankst" is flourishing, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, despite singing in Welsh, are NME favourites. Newport funk-metallers, Dub War, are considered those most likely to make inroads in America.

Musically, the valley bands have a lot in common with those of Seattle, the centre of the recent "grunge" movement. As with the best Seattle bands, the music is unpolished and primal. "A lot of bands that come out of here," muses Jayne of Gouge, "are real American-type rock bands. I guess because it has with it dreams of the kind of lifestyle you know you could never be allowed to lead here." And as in Seattle - the rainiest city in America - the relentlessly bleak weather in Newport and Cardiff reflects in the faces of the kids who battle through it on their way to school. Unlike Seattle, however, there is no booming economy, no airplane industry. No nothing.

The band who expressed this emptiness the best, and the band who managed to prise open the barriers, were the Manic Street Preachers. In 1992, they tore on to the scene from their ex-mining town of Blackwood, with a manifesto of "culture, alienation, boredom and despair". This month they play Wembley Arena, their first gig since a clinically depressed guitarist, Richey Edwards, vanished in February. People who've escaped Blackwood describe it as the kind of place the government keeps meaning to do something about. They say that growing up there locks the sadness into you for ever.

The Manics' earliest influence was bassist Nicky Wire's brother - the poet and librarian Patrick Jones. A quote from one of his poems adorns the sleeve of their debut album, Generation Terrorists: "There is eloquence in screaming."

Jones himself is one of the most eloquent screamers on the scene. His latest work, "The Guerrilla Tapestry", includes the line "victory is acknowledging the fact that you have not yet lost". Jones, like many other young poets, wants poetry to be useful. After the pits closed, the miners in Blackwood were told they had to retrain. Part of the retraining involved learning how to type. But, having spent every working day of their lives in the pits, their fingers were too thick to use the keyboards. Jones set up a weekly poetry class for them, so they had some means of expressing their frustration.

The guiding inspiration behind the new poetry is their 68-year-old ex- miner, Mogg Williams, who turned to poetry nearly 30 years ago. He is furious that "bands, poets and sculptors aren't encouraged or nurtured by the Welsh Arts Council because they don't fit in with the image they want to present. My themes are built around the utter brutality of a miner's life. I know the mines are gone, but the residue is still seen today."

And he's right, of course. That "residue" is rolling through the violent streets, where to walk into the local McDonald's is to invite a broken nose if you're a man and shouts of "oi bitch" if you're a woman. On the other hand, like Patrick Jones, the poet, and Nicky Jones, the pop star, you may be able to draw on the country's greatest natural resources: music and language. They're probably more reliable than the resources controlled by the WAE.

As the lines separating "art" from "popular culture" mercifully fade, Patrick Jones is considering collaborating with the Manics' frontman, James Dean Bradfield, in putting "The Guerrilla Tapestry" to music. John Evans has published Out of the Coal House, a collection of new Welsh writing. 60ft Dolls go into the studio this week to record their eagerly anticipated debut album. As the Welsh Arts Council dreams of sheep, the aspiring poets and pop stars of South Wales find themselves contemplating life after the mines and after the Manics.