The Welsh Riviera
“There is only one good thing about a small town/You know that you want to get out.” (Lou Reed, Smalltown, from 1990’s Songs For Drella album)
In 2004 I had the dubious pleasure of interviewing Lou Reed by telephone. Attempting to interview Lou is one of life’s more pointless endeavours, such is his marked antipathy towards journalists. Even so, there was one question I’d long wanted to put to Lou. Given the nature of the question I decided to save it to the last. 25 minutes went by without Lou saying anything of remote interest. “Last question,” he barked down the phone with customary grace. I took a deep breath and went for it. “Lou,” I piped up, “why are you such a miserable old cunt?” There was a brief silence and then Lou burst out laughing. Quite possibly, this was the first time Lou Reed had laughed in years.
I figure there’s a good reason why Lou grew up to be such a miserable bugger. He had the misfortune to grow up in a small town where nothing ever happened. Small town upbringings do that to people. They grow up weird and old before their time.
Lou grew up in Freeport, New York state, a former oystering community, now famous for being the home of Lou Reed, but not for anything else apart from the fact that Flavor Flav, the nutloop from Public Enemy, also grew up there. You might detect a pattern emerging here.
I grew up in the Welsh equivalent of Freeport, a former fishing port that I’ve always assumed was God’s idea of a practical joke, played on those unfortunate enough to have to live there. No-one quite as famous as Lou Reed grew up in Milford Haven but that’s not to say it’s a been a complete dead loss in birthing celebrities. The 17th Century pirate Howell Davis was born there. Not that he was much cop at pirating, his career lasting only eleven months before the Portuguese lured him into an ambush, plied him with cheap wine, and shot him in the nuts. George Winter, who had a small part in 1979’s Scum, was also born there. Not forgetting the contralto Helen Watts who made a name for herself singing opera and who was awarded the CBE in 1978. Milford Haven folk often claim best-selling lesbian novelist Sarah Waters as one of their own although Waters was actually born and raised in nearby Neyland, a place even more deadly dull than Milford Haven.
If a visitor was to ask a resident of Milford Haven to describe the place he would most likely be told, “It’s basically a few square miles of sweet fuck all, with quite a nice beach attached.” Truthfully, you could spend a night there and it would feel like an entire year. Great God, it’s an awful place.
However, like any small town, you only have to do a little digging to find the looniness within. Back in my day, chief among the local characters was my own brother, Christopher. It doesn’t take much for someone to stand out in a town like Milford Haven. But Christopher possessed a unique talent, one that would have made him stand out in any town or city. At a certain age, probably around sixteen, Chris discovered he had the ability to urinate over double-decker buses. Straight over, that is, from one side to the other, without touching the sides or the top.
They used to come from miles around to see him perform, some as far as Cardigan. Saturday afternoons he preferred. Swarming crowds would gather at the local bus station. The atmosphere was electric. You could have cut the atmosphere with a cricket stump as Chris warmed up to his act. This involved drinking copious amounts of liquid, usually Strongbow. By now unsteady on his feet, holding a can of beer in one hand, he would unbutton his flies with the other. He’d then remove his not inconsiderable member and, with molten concentration, turn to face the bus. The crowd would stand rigid with expectation, ready to be tickled by the rub of pure spectacle. Chris was not one to disappoint the faithful.
They would watch as he gripped his testicles with one hand, his member in the other. Then he would point. Towards the vast expanse of sky. Then he’d let go, producing a fabulous, foaming, green-yellow arc that would climb and climb with eager acceleration, and keep climbing, like it would never stop, like it would surely hit the ample sky and keep climbing, beyond gravity’s steedy drag, beyond the sun and the moon and all the stars, shuttling, rocketing, gathering, climbing into the fast expanding, fast disappearing universe, climbing in unceasing glory until it reached the threshold of infinity, until the last cold star had crashed to earth. That’s how it felt. When my brother was pissing over a bus, miracles were in the air. His performance completed, the crowd would break into a Cup Final roar. And Chris would always celebrate his triumph with great nonchalance. Lesser men might have danced around the bus station, milking the applause. Not Chris. Despite his brilliance he refused to worship at the altar of himself. A little like Cantona in his pomp, he would simply stand there, hands outstretched, eyes directed skywards as though offering thanks to a higher power for the precious gift bestowed upon him.
Just as the Chris Jagger and Michael McCartney had to learn to live in the shadows of their famous rock’n’roll brothers, I too had to come to terms with the fact that there’s only so much genius to go around in one family. My brother was the chosen one. In terms of talent, I had to make do with the scraps left over after Chris had wolfed down the meat and carcass.
However, the Wilde clan is a fighting clan and I was not about to let a conspicuous lack of talent get in the way of making my mark in the world. The only thing to do was form a punk band. The timing could not have been better. Punk had upset the apple cart in the big cities in late 1976 and had all but played out as a cultural force by mid-1978. It was just then that Milford Haven finally woke up to its charms. Actually “woke up” is exaggerating it ever so largely. “Barely stirred” would be more accurate. Those bare stirrings took the form of a combo calling itself Personality Defects. The names Timothy Barrett, Illtyd Barrett, Dominic Barrett and Jon Wilde don’t trip off the tongue quite as nimbly as John, Paul, George and Ringo. At least to the world at large. But, back in Milford Haven, those four names inspire something like awe in those who were present at any of The Defects’ “legendary” late-70s gigs.
Like any truly iconic band, Personality Defects was greater than the sum of its wildly disparate parts. Up front on vocals was fifteen-year-old Timothy, the town’s resident poet ruffian, a slovenly sensualist with a brain like a small child’s clockwork windmill and the owner of one of the most prodigious organs outside of Westminster Abbey. On drums was 10-year-old Dominic, a lad of unguessable depths, not given to small talk, only the most eloquent silences. On incendiary guitar, Illtyd, twelve, a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain long before Kurt invented himself, a boy whose rock’n’roll ambition obeyed no law other than its own insatiable appetite. Not forgetting bassist Jon Wilde who had the worst haircuts, the worst teeth and by far the worst trousers.
It’s said of many a great band that their greatness is born out of slavish imitation gone perversely wrong. Take The Beatles, for instance. Their earliest recordings merely set out to ape the works of their rock’n’roll heroes (Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Little Richard) but, in so doing, and getting it all slightly skew-whiff, they accidentally forged their own unique style. The same might be said of Personality Defects. In their own heads they were The Undertones: snappy, concise, effortlessly tuneful In reality we were the world’s first proper Dadaist punk band. In other words, we made a hell of a din, a terrible rumpus, a mess affiliated to Bedlam, mad clean through. In rehearsals The Defects sounded like a gang of deranged workmen building a wharf. Live, we sounded even worse. In short, we were all over the place like a madwoman’s custard.
Most guys form bands to get laid. But we were different. Two of the band were too young to know anything about sex. The other pair were regarded by the opposite sex as far too strange to be taken seriously as prospective bed-partners. With sex well and truly out of the equation, The Defects had two main reasons to exist. Forming a band offered brief respite from the boredom that enveloped the town like a heavy smell. There were only so many hours in the day that you could spend vandalising phone-boxes or playing nicky-nacky nine drawers. We were also out for the glory. As clueless as we were, it didn’t escape our notice that all bands started out as fairly clueless. Then they got a little better. Before they knew what was happening, it was all headlining shows at Shea Stadium and how’s-yer-father with the likes of Princess Margaret.
However, The Defects were a rare example of a band who got exponentially worse the more they practised and performed. Our first couple of gigs were well received, possibly because the audience were so starved of entertainment they’d have clapped loud and long had we simply stood on stage and washed a scarf. The best show we ever did was at the record counter of the Milford Haven branch of Woolworths. Turning up unannounced we managed to get through two and a half songs before being chased off the premises by local butcher Jones The Meat. But I swear I can still hear the check-out girls’ applause ringing in my ears as I scarpered up Charles Street.
Our last couple of gigs were not so well received. The natives were growing increasingly restless. Dadaist punk had its place, they seemed to collectively decide, but there was no place for it around these parts. It was halfway through our final gig at the local youth club when a javelin sailed past my head that I came to the sobering realisation that I would never headline Shea Stadium and that Princess Margaret would never want to sleep with me.
"Milford Haven: A few square miles of sweet fuck all, with quite a nice beach attached."
It is often remarked that Milford Haven is a hotbed of incestuous behaviour. This is calumny of the foulest order. Incest is actually quite rare in my home town. It’s bestiality that’s all the rage. Or, at least, it was in my day. Nor was it considered something to be bashful about. Those who indulged in it did so with no little pride. On any given weekend, one chap by the name of Springer Wingate could be seen marching across the fields in his Wellington boots and sherbert green flares, cheerfully whistling Paddy McGinty’s Goat, eyes dilating with fornicatory intent, in search of yet another sheep to torment. Had you suggested to young Springer that his behaviour ought to be a source of deep shame, he’d have snorted with derision and repeat his mantra: “A little of what you fancy does you good.” Logic like that causes a man to ponder. Springer always claimed that his mother was a tightrope dancer in a travelling circus but we she actually worked behind the wet-fish counter of the local supermarket. It was often said about her that she’d do anything for a bag of chips but I wouldn’t know anything about that.
Compared to Alfie Smith The Gypsy, Springer was a model citizen. No looker, Alfie was so thin he might have been mistaken for a six foot centipede. He possessed goosegog eyes, a lazy eye, a nose like a diving-board, a lard-like pallor and also suffered from chronic halitosis. Not what you’d call a catch as such. Alfie’s Uncle Dudley older once set a new Welsh record when crushing twenty walnuts between the cheeks of his anus in a mere 45 seconds. But that was before my time.
Alfie wasn’t one of your proper gypsies, the Romany types who are forbidden to wear trousers and suchlike. Alfie’s family were more the type who come round and tarmac your drive without permission, then put a curse on you when you refuse to cough up for the work.
It’s often said about certain men that they will have sex with anything. This is not meant literally. It usually means that a woman doesn’t necessarily have to be conventionally beautiful for desire to overtake him like a hot, breaking wave. In the case of Alfie Smith, the literal interpretation certainly does apply. Alfie would happily have sex with anything. Sex with animals was just about all that Alfie thought about. Occasionally other thoughts would creep into his head but he’d just ignore them.
Luckily, Milford Haven was fairly limited in terms of the animal kingdom so panthers and marmosets were safe from Alfie’s lustful advances. Nearby Skomer Island was awash with puffins and it is unrecorded as to whether any of these colourful seabirds got to know Alfie in the biblical sense. Definitively on the record is that Alfie enjoyed unnatural connections with cats, dogs and goats. That wasn’t all.
It is said that choice, not chance, leads a man to his destiny. In Alfie’s case chance had nothing to do with the predicament he found himself in one autumn afternoon in 1979. On the outskirts of town he was discovered in a barn, having sex with a carthorse. Presumably there was nothing unusual about the fact that Alfie was whiling away a Sunday afternoon enjoying carnal relations with a horse. The difference on this occasion is that Alfie had managed to get himself trapped. That’s to say, the horse’s vaginal muscles had contracted during intercourse and Alfie found himself well and truly stuck. Imagine if you will the scene that greeted a gaggle of teenage girls as they passed the barn en route to the beach to spear mud-crabs. Hearing human cries of distress they enter the barn to find one of their schoolmates balanced precariously on a wooden stool, trousers around his ankles, halfway up a Clydesdale pony, his body contorted in violent agitations of delight. Nothing if not quick-thinking, the girls alerted the local farmer who, for reasons best known to himself, telephoned the local fire brigade. By the time the fire engine was on its way to the scene, a fair proportion of the town’s population were stampeding their way to the barn to witness Alfie’s moment of destiny. It was like the cavalry turning up in the last reel of a cowboy film.
"Christopher possessed a unique talent, he had the ability to urinate over double-decker buses."
By all accounts it was the devil’s arse of a job to wrench Alfie free from the wretched animal, ultimately achieved with the help of a makeshift pulley system. Once free, across the fields Alfie was carried, hoisted high on the shoulders of young men old enough to know better. He was taken to the nearest pub, greeted with the kind of reception that would have flattered the Apollo 11 space crew on their return to earth. That night, the drinks, cigars and sandwiches were on the house. Alfie could return to his family caravan and put his feet up on the pouffe, safe in the knowledge that his day’s actions had more than earned him his fifteen minutes of Warholian fame.
I believe it was ex-Defect Timothy Barrett who wrote to the town mayor, suggesting that a commemorative statue be minted and installed near the barn to mark the event, thoughtfully enclosing a 25p postal order to help the project on its way. Some other wag wrote to The Palace, nominating Alfie for a Duke Of Edinburgh award, but I’m assuming nothing came of either venture.
It’s been many a moon since I’ve visited my home town. Indeed, I hold dear to the thought that everything will be alright, so long as I stay out of Wales. Even so, I often find myself thinking about those young turks who brought much-needed colour and vibrancy to Milford Haven back in the day.
Sadly, they’re not all still in the land of the living. My brother, Christopher, passed away in 2004. He’s gone but not forgotten. His name has long since passed into local legend. I’m told that many have attempted to emulate his achievements though none have come close to clearing a single-decker, let alone a double-decker. There’s every chance that his record will remain intact through eternity.
Timothy Barrett’s whereabouts have been a mystery for many a year. Throughout the 90s it was strongly rumoured that he was employed as a soothsayer in the Chad capital of N’Djamena. He recently resurfaced to post a short Personality Defects film on YouTube. Dominic Barrett is said to be involved in top-secret work with the Russian government. Illtyd Barrett is a full-time bird bandit of no fixed abode. A guest of Wormwood Scrubs for much of his twenties, Springer Wingate found God and moved to Ohio to run his own church. As for Alfie Smith The Gypsy, he slipped off the radar many years ago. No doubt he’s out there somewhere, with a black cat and a tub of Vaseline in very close proximity. Milford Haven will always be proud to call him one of its own.