There’s Always Burnt Jam

I thought I’d written about this before but can’t find it anywhere. I know I did write a poem at least, and I know it ended with the line ‘But there’s always burnt jam.’ I can’t find that either. I wonder how many other poems or snippets of writing I’ve lost, many of them on paper from my teenage years, and many more on broken computer disks since. Ah! Sometimes you just have to let things drift down to the dim depths of the Akashic Records.

It was the late sixties, possibly 1970; I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I used to hang around with a group of young people from around the town of Llanelli, where we behaved in ways that defined that period if you believe the myths that have arisen since. The truth was there were not that many of us, no more than a few dozen – a hundred or so at the most, and that from a population of around 77,000.

Llanelli Beach - Stradey Woods in the background
Llanelli Beach – Stradey Woods in the background

We were a small group, but we were highly visible because of the way we dressed and the way we behaved – roving around the streets, openly smoking joints and tripping on acid, as well as squatting the grass opposite the town hall, playing guitars and engaging in free love, well free foreplay at least.

When the weather was too harsh to host our outdoor shenanigans we’d dive into the one or two pubs that tolerated us and carry on with the same conduct in their dark back rooms; and when the innkeepers got fed up with our feeble spend on alcohol we’d mosey on over to someone’s parents’ house, or if we were lucky an abode occupied by one or more of our tribe.

The burnt jam episode occurred in one such place – a grotty shared house, not far from the train station, where a few friends lived. We’d lie on the floor in the living room getting stoned, talking about eternity while listening to music by Roy Harper, Graham Nash and their ilk.

One day a small band of us went on an expedition and dropped tabs of acid. I can’t remember who was in our little party now – I don’t know if I could have remembered them the day after to be honest – we were so out of our minds on the drugs. I also don’t know if any of my fellow day-trippers had the same or even similar experiences to the ones I had, or if it was all in my mind – well OK, of course it was all in my mind – that’s where everything is, isn’t it? I mean if it’s not in your mind then it doesn’t exist, does it?

I don’t remember exactly when or where we ate the acid, but it kicked in while we were sitting on a hill above the town, under a tree in Stradey Woods, a place where I’d wasted much of the time I was supposed to be a scholar at the boys’ grammar school, which nestled on the edge of the woods near the main road, close to the waters of the Burry Inlet.

Stradey Woods could be a spooky place, dense and impenetrable in parts, and local folklore included scary tales of vicious dogs and armed guards, who patrolled the perimeter of the castle it contained; but I suspect those were rumours deliberately started by the toffs to keep the local oiks like me from sticking our noses where they shouldn’t be. At that moment, though, in that clearing, warmed and lit by a beaming sun – it became the Garden of Eden. There was a feeling of bliss and a sense of grace; everything was fresh and bright as if we were being bathed in the love of a benevolent God.

We danced in the dappled sunlight – I was the Divine Elf, swift and carefree, wise and happy, strong and confident. We traipsed down the hill through the trees and came out onto a deserted leafy street where a row of pretty cottages were surrounded by wonderfully scented flowers of red and yellow and blue and white.

I paused at the gate of a dwelling and took a deep grateful breath. I heard a growling whooshing sound and turned to look down the path that led from the gate to the side of the house. Suddenly, a huge serpent slithered and twisted at great speed towards me, its mouth open and snarling with massive bloodied teeth, its long body, as thick as the torso of a man, flowing behind it along the whole length of the path.

The shut gate stopped it dead; I looked down to see a small terrier dog, snarling, the hatred in its eyes spitting a horrible realisation directly into my soul – evil existed. I understood at once that what I’d thought was a serpent’s body were the after images the charging dog left as it sprinted up the path, but it didn’t stop the dread I felt, and I shook with fear and paranoia.

I can’t remember how my companions reacted, they probably laughed. We continued our journey out of the Garden of Eden, across the main road and the railway track, towards the beach.

The walk back to the house near the train station took millennia and along the way we passed smoke-belching factories and the steelworks with its hellish metallic sounds and emissions of noxious gases. The only respite was when we paused at the edge of the sea and looked into each others’ eyes wordlessly – afraid to voice what we were thinking and feeling.

With relief we arrived back at the house and I fell onto a mattress that was on the floor of the living room and thanked God or someone that I had survived. Then – a smell, an acrid smoky stench that suddenly permeated the house. I stood up and followed my nose to the kitchen where one of the residents was standing over the cooker staring at a saucepan in which he was heating jam that was already burnt. He had a look of utter bewilderment in his eyes. He pointed at the jam and said ‘Burnt Jam’, then, laughing hysterically he repeated ‘Burnt Jam’, ‘Burnt Jam’ . . .

I stared at him, realising that the whole of human existence was a terrible tragic story. The Garden of Eden, gifted to us by the love of God – us partaking of the forbidden fruit in the form of LSD, the encounter with the evil serpent, the journey from the pure natural beauty of the woods, through the infernal factories, and at the end the smell of burnt jam. That which was sweet we had soured; we took that divine gift and befouled it, thus condemning ourselves to an eternity of pain and fear.

Later, the acid wore off. It was just a metaphor.

But there’s always burnt jam.


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