Front cover potching v4

How Tame Life Will Be Now

In which The Author sends an email and receives an email

The email I sent wasn’t just any old email, mind you. I send dozens of those a week and I don’t write a blog about most of them. However, this one was different. It was the final submission of a book, with some extra notes for the printers. Like sending an essay in when I was a student, it’s an important psychological milestone. It’s the point of no return – after this, nothing can be changed. All the possible amendments and afterthoughts are now firmly in one of the Parallel Universes where things like that live.
As my regular readers already know, I’ve spent several weeks working with my friend Geoff E. on his forthcoming book about the Cynon Valley servicemen who died in the Great War. I’m pleased to say that it’s been a most rewarding experience.
I’ve learned a great deal about the history of my home town. I’ve made some new friends, notably Fr Robert Davies and his wife Christina, from St Elvan’s Church in Aberdare. I’ve taken some fairly decent photos, and in the process I’ve paid far more attention to local monuments than I would have otherwise. I’ve even met one of my regular readers in the flesh: Dr Colin Rees, a former Aberdare boy and local history enthusiast, was generous enough to nominate this here blog for archiving by the British Library, no less. He called into Aberdare Library one day last week, while Geoff and I were putting the finishing touches to the typescript. Geoff introduced us, and it was great to be able to put a face to a name after a couple of years. Colin very kindly emailed me earlier, with some feedback about my last entry and a link to a useful map archive. (Incidentally, Colin’s idea about where Trecynon ends and the Gadlys begins pretty much coincides with mine.)
On a more practical side, I’ve acquired a lot of useful hints and tips about LibreOffice, the Open Source (and largely undocumented) alternative to Microsoft Office. I now know how to use page styles, and am slowly coming to terms with the automated Table of Contents feature. I’ve also learned that even my non-existent artistic side can be compensated for with a small amount of GIMP know-how. Obviously, this isn’t how the finished version will look, but considering that I once came 33rd in Art in school – and there were only 31 of us in the class – I don’t think my first attempt at a book cover was too shabby.

Front cover potching v4

In addition to all that, I’ve met the printer and talked Tech Speak with him for a while. That means I’ve actually been intimately involved with the production of a book. I’ve sold hundreds of thousands of the things over the years, but being at the other end of the supply chain has been a fantastic experience.
Geoff did the research and the lion’s share of the writing, of course, and justifiably it’s his name that appears on the cover. Even so, I get a Mention in Dispatches and some photo credits. That’s not a bad outcome from a throwaway remark in conversation about six months ago, is it?
We made the final amendments to the typescript this morning, and then repaired to the pub. Geoff had promised me a pint anyway, but since the Aberdare Library wifi had decided to take a unscheduled long weekend, we headed for the Conway and sent the finished files to Emyr at Dinefwr Press from there. Geoff rang him when he got home, and then texted me to confirm that everything had arrived safely. It’s quite extraordinary to think that in three weeks’ time, we’ll probably be driving back to Llandybie to pick up the finished copies.
It’s a testament to the technology the publishing industry has at its disposal these days that we can talk of a turnaround in terms of days, rather than months – or even years. Just before I finished in the book trade, I remember a bizarre story which appeared in The Bookseller. A mysterious book had arrived in the post at a small shop somewhere in England. Nobody in the shop could remember ordering it. After they dug through the paperwork, there was still no trace of the original order. A phone call to the publishers soon elicited the truth: the book had been ‘subbed’ (sold in as part of a ‘subscription’ order) by the rep – in 1975! Unsurprisingly, anyone who would have remembered the original order would have moved on or retired (or possibly died) by the time the book finally saw the light of day. It certainly put the occasional five- or six-year delay on an academic textbook into perspective. (Having said that, I did start to worry that if Geoff unearthed any more interesting sidelights, we’d be lucky to get the damn thing finished before we commemorated the centenary of the Armistice.)
So, it’s finally all over. In the book, Geoff quotes a letter from Lt Fred Radford, a soldier from Abercynon, written immediately after the end of hostilities in November 1918. At one point, Lt Radford says, ‘How tame life will be now without the moments of excitement.’ I feel a similar sense of anticlimax, now the typescript has gone to the printer. In fact, I’m going to adapt Lt Radford’s words to suit my own circumstances.
No longer will I be bombarded with emails at all hours of the day and night, with extra bits of research to add to the ‘in progress’ pile. How strange not to see obscure memorials in chapels I’d thought had closed years ago, to experiment with obscure aspects of software, wondering how long it will be until it all fucks up, occasionally forced to take cover in the pub because the Library is full of Loteks and bores. I have realised my ambition. I have seen the end and cannot but give thanks for this. How strange it all seems, not a email pinging, no fear of rewrites, photos or software glitches – it is astounding.
Except, of course, that it isn’t the end.
Earlier on, Geoff showed me some of the work which he’d done on the Street Names project. It sounds as though he’d be happy to collaborate on a book based on our shared research. In the meantime, Colin himself emailed me, asking when Geoff was going to finish off yet another book he’s been working on for ages.
I’ve got a funny feeling that I might have signed on for the duration – and beyond.
Part of Trecynon, 1875, with Cynon Side on the west bank of the river

A Little Economy

In which The Author embarks on a new project

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Geoff E. about the research for his forthcoming book on the Cynon Valley war memorials (see entries passim.) During one of his frequent digressions, he said that he’s already toying with an idea for another book. I don’t know how much progress (if any) he’s made so far, but something about the idea caught my imagination. I haven’t mentioned it to him yet, but yesterday I decided to make some inroads into the scheme anyway. When the war memorials book is safely lodged with the printers next week, maybe we’ll sit down and discuss it in more detail.
Some years ago, a local historian named Deric John wrote a book called Cynon Valley Place-Names (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1998.) He examined the etymology of the many Welsh names which visitors to this area have to come to terms with: Blaennantygroes, Caegarw, Godreaman, Abercwmboi, Llwydcoed, Penrhiwceiber, and so forth. (Try and ignore that screaming in the background – it’s just the Firefox spellchecker begging for mercy again.)
Geoff’s idea, in a very brief outline, is to pick up where Mr John left off, and uncover the history behind some of the Valley’s street names. It’s a topic of which I’ve also scratched the surface over the years. I mentioned the roots of some of the Trecynon place names in Nooks and Crannies a few years ago. I modestly think that, between us, we could probably come up with a rather interesting little book.
I don’t know yet whether Geoff would be amenable to a collaboration. He might be jealously possessive of his brainchild. On the other hand, he might welcome someone else to lighten the load. (I’ll find out either way tomorrow, because he reads this blog regularly!) Either way, on Thursday evening I started compiling a list of the streets throughout the Cynon Valley.
I was working from the pocket atlas compiled by Philip’s Publishers for Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC, and adding some extra bits from memory. I’m sad to report that their little book isn’t as comprehensive as it could have been; some places mentioned in the index aren’t actually marked on the maps themselves. Quite often they’re too small to be squeezed onto the page, and are simply numbered – but in a lot of cases the key to the numbered streets is missing. It seems to be a rather slapdash effort, if I’m perfectly honest. However, the alternative was wearing out yet another pair of boots while compiling my own list from empirical data. I decided it would do while I constructed a basic framework.
By last night I’d virtually completed my outline, with the towns and villages divided into manageable chunks. Once again, I’ve encountered the problem which I discussed in Where Do We Draw The Line? – trying to decide where one community ends and the next begins. With fewer than half a dozen streets, is it worth giving Robertstown a section of its own, or do I incorporate it into Trecynon? Speaking of Trecynon: where exactly is the dividing line between that village and the Gadlys, which adjoins it directly to the south? I know these areas like the back of my hand. If I can’t make my mind up about them, how the hell do I divide up the various areas of Mountain Ash, a few miles to the south? With any luck, that’s a problem which I can tackle further down the line.
This morning, in Aberdare Library, I remembered a box file which Denise had shown me a month or so ago. I’m still halfway through a huge project (which will eventually see the light of day here), and Denise thought that the contents might be useful for my ongoing research. I asked to have a look at it again, and straight away I knew I’d hit paydirt.
I probably first came across it back in the days of the Cynon Valley Profile, but I’d forgotten all about it since. It was a copy of a 1945 housing survey by Aberdare Urban District Council. As I already knew from reading A World to Build, David Kynaston’s tremendous history of the original Austerity Britain, the Attlee government put improving the housing stock at the centre of their plan to modernise Britain. I assume that this AUDC survey, undertaken building by building, was carried out in order to assess the postwar demand for council housing. My friend Rob H. must have analysed the data in detail when we were working on the Cynon Valley Profile. However, I was only interested in the bare bones: the systematic cataloguing of every street in the northern Cynon Valley, giving information on when the houses were built.
This morning, therefore, I made my way through the typed sheets, divided into individual districts, and started to put some meat onto the bare bones of my list. To my surprise, I was able to complete the entire box before closing time.
As I’d already suspected, the majority of Aberdare was constructed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hirwaun seems to have sprung up a couple of decades earlier, and the outlying villages lagged a little way behind. Some of the dates given in the document are clearly approximate, but others are remarkably exact, suggesting that foundation stones or original plans still existed when the survey was carried out. It would be an interesting diversion to take an old map, and colour it according to approximately when the houses were built.
I already knew that the majority of the council properties dated from after the war. It appears that a lot of private houses are also more recent than I’d originally thought; looking through my list again, a fairly large number seem to be missing from the AUDC report. I can only assume that they were built after 1945 – quite a few decades later than I’d originally thought.
As well as the core of the modern street layouts of Aberdare, Hirwaun, Trecynon, and the other villages in the northern half of the valley, there were some intriguing entries on the list which are no longer there. I was talking to Alan, one of the pub regulars, this afternoon. He told me that he’d been brought up in Greenfach, a little warren of tightly-packed cottages alongside the River Dare. That whole area, except for two chapels, was demolished in the early 1960s. Aberdare Library and the Jobcentre now stand on the site. Similarly, my mother grew up in Bethel Place, in Hirwaun. The modern maisonettes which bear that name are a world away from the cottages which previously stood overlooking the River Cynon.
Closer to my house, it will be interesting to find out exactly when Cynon Place, Cynon Row and Cynon Side, all of which were in Trecynon/Robertstown, were pulled down. In fact, some of the foundations of Cynon Side can still be seen, beside the footpath which runs between the Iron Bridge in Trecynon and the railway station in Aberdare.
Part of Trecynon, 1875, with Cynon Side on the west bank of the river
Part of Trecynon, 1875, with Cynon Side on the north bank of the river
Part of the remnants of Cynon Side
The remnants of Cynon Side
The biggest shock of this whole exercise so far, though, was seeing my old house on the list. As I told you in The Folks Who Lived on the Hill, I grew up on Meirion Street in Trecynon. Our house was one of two semi-detached houses at the end of the street; beyond our house, the road continued downhill to Robertstown, and the little terrace of Gadlys Uchaf branched off to the left. I knew our old house would have been there, of course – but it wasn’t listed under the name which I always associated with it. Instead, it was called something which I haven’t heard for over thirty years.
When I was growing up, every so often a letter would come to our house seemingly bearing the wrong address. You see, our house had a name, as did the houses on either side and the bungalows opposite. The terraced houses further up the hill had numbers, but ours were identifiable by their unusual names. Even so, once in a blue moon, its original address would crop up in correspondence. It’s too late to ask Dad about it, and I doubt whether Mother would know the explanation. For some reason, an occasional letter would thud onto the doormat addressed to ‘1 Economy Cottages.’
And ‘1 Economy Cottages’, and not the familiar name I remembered from my childhood, was the entry on the AUDC survey from 1945.
I’ve absolutely no idea why this particular name would have been attached to two semis on the fringes of the village. Maybe I’ll uncover the explanation at some point. Maybe it will remain a tantalizing unsolved mystery. Either way, it’s an intriguing flashback to my childhood, and another potential story to be uncovered – regardless of whether I do it on my own, or Geoff and I do it together.

Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.

Ann McGauran

Freelance journalist and social policy commentator

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