In which The Author declines an invitation
A couple of weeks ago Gareth L. mentioned a rumour he’d heard. Apparently some of the old gang in Aberdare are talking about organizing a Carpenters Arms reunion.
Gareth asked me what I thought of the idea. I told him I thought it was a complete non-starter. Then I told him exactly why I thought that. He pondered what I’d said for a couple of minutes, and agreed that I had a valid point.
After all, the Carpenters Arms – as we knew it, anyway – ceased to exist about fifteen years ago. Towards the end of its life it had been taken over by smackheads and video machines. It was like an amusement arcade frequented by heroin dealers. The beer certainly wasn’t worth drinking; most of the ‘regulars’ were buying cans, which is always a bad sign.
Soon afterwards it closed entirely. I don’t know the circumstances, but it seems that South Wales Police had a hand in it. Who can blame them?
The pub re-emerged as ‘Rasputin’s Vodka Bar’ a little while later. I’ve been in there exactly twice since it changed its identity. The first time was with some of the old gang, who just wanted to check it out when we were out for one of the girls’ birthdays. We had one drink before we made our excuses and left.
The second time was with Gema and Helen R., during the Xmas/New Year holidays some years ago. We’d been out all day, and I was fairly pissed by the time I got there. I couldn’t work out why all the denim-clad long-haired regulars had been replaced by tattooed, pierced, bottle-blonde sunbed freaks in white tight t-shirts. (And you should have seen the women!) Once again I made my excuses and left.
I’ve since passed it on numerous weekends (the only times it’s open), but it’s never crossed my mind to cross the threshold again.
My friend Ian W. was responsible for my introduction to this particular den of iniquity. He’s a year or two older than me, and we became pals after I finished my A Levels, back in the summer of 1984. I was home from Brunel University (Easter 1985), and I bumped into Ian in town.
It was early afternoon, and the thought of going into a pub during the lunchtime session had never occurred to me. Ian wanted to score some dope, so he asked me if I fancied a pint in The Carpenters, where he could kill two birds with one stone. Innocently enough, I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ That was the exact moment when the rot set in.
The Carpenters had recently reopened under new management, and the rock/punk/hippy crowd of Aberdare had adopted it as their new watering hole. I was marginally too young to have drunk in The Iron Bridge or The Commercial, their previous haunts. (Both had been demolished to make way for the Aberdare bypass by the time I started drinking in town.) Meanwhile, the new landlord of The Conway had decided that he didn’t want a bunch of scruffy long-haired herberts cluttering up his pub. It was obviously time to find a new home.
The Carpenters was central, cheap, convenient and laid-back. The distinctive tiled frontage proclaimed that it was part of the Ansell’s estate. It had a great jukebox, a pool table, a small ‘beer garden’ which opened during the summer months, and a beautiful etched glass window which concealed a multitude of sins.
Older friends of mine can still remember the internal layout before it was ‘done out’, as we say in the Valleys. I never saw it like that, though. When I started going there it had been knocked into one very long space. You walked through the front door and turned sharp left into the pub. (Straight in front of you was the ‘Staff only’ door, leading to the bar and the accommodation upstairs.) There were tables and seats near the front window and along the left-hand wall, with the long bar on the right as you entered. At the far end of the bar there were wrought-iron railings, framing three steps which led to the ‘back room’, where the pool table and the juke box lived (as well as the toilets, off on the right-hand side.)
Although the space wasn’t physically divided any more, there was still a subconscious gulf between ‘front’ and ‘back’ – the younger drinkers liked to sit in the front, and the older dope smokers gathered at the back.
The great thing about The Carpenters was that it wasn’t primarily a ‘drugs’ pub, even though it had that reputation. Sure, there was dope and speed in circulation if that was what you wanted; if you didn’t want to bother with it, nobody thought any the less of you. We all rubbed shoulders by the bar, and all of us got to know each other.
Although I was only in my early twenties by the time I started going there regularly, the guys who were in their thirties would chat happily about music and books they liked. Among my other interests I was a Pink Floyd fan and a Tolkien aficionado. Even without ever rolling a spliff I was already in good company!
Thursday nights were always popular. In those days MTV had a show called Metal Hammer (Note for younger readers: you might find this hard to believe, but the M in MTV originally stood for ‘music’.) We’d all go to The Bush in Commercial Street to watch that on the big TV, and then relocate to The Carpenters for the live band. I’ve mentioned some of the gigs previously, but some of them still stick in my mind for various reasons.
I never picked up an instrument or got behind the mic, but I was on the periphery of the scene, through knowing most of the key players. I even reworked Jimi F.’s poster for the three-way gig of March 1987, and managed to get a mate of mine to photocopy it on rather eye-catching orange paper.
Here are just a handful of the standout bands of the time:
- Trevor and the Sprouts – possibly the fullest the pub ever got. Every single glass was in use, and Tim M. had to make frequent appeals over the mic for punters to return their empties so that the landlord could continue serving;
- Defcon/Shrapnel/Life Cycle – the gig that never was. Because of illness and absenteeism, it turned into a weird anarcho-punk jam featuring some of the visitors and a few local lads;
- Terry Williams – yes, that Terry Williams, he of Dire Straits fame, playing with some of the cream of unsigned South Wales talent;
- The Original Mind Band – some great gigs by local(ish) lads, one of which was punctuated by frequent power outages when the ropey pub wiring wouldn’t stand the strain;
I’ve previously mentioned old ‘Tug’ Wilson, who used to live around the corner from me in Llwydcoed. He was well into his seventies, tiny, white-haired, immaculately dressed, always as pissed as a fart, and he hardly ever missed a Thursday gig. Someone somewhere must have a photo of ‘Tug’ dancing with a tiny female singer from a long-forgotten rock/metal band. She was a third of his age (if that) and more or less the same height. Talk about the odd couple!
I was in The Carpenters one Xmas night, many years ago. It was just about the only pub open, so those of us without family ties had headed out for a pint or two. I’d only just ordered a second pint when Rowland walked in. We’d become friends when he was editing the Aberdare Leader and I was doing the odd bit of hackwork for them now and again. He wished me season’s greetings, bought himself a drink, paid for my pint, and then surveyed the regulars with a sly smile.
‘I like this pub,’ he said eventually. ‘It’s an oasis of sanity in a mad world.’
I thought, ‘Fuck me, if this place is an oasis of sanity, what must Xmas Day be like chez Rowland?’
I can’t begin to list all the friends I made while I was drinking in The Carpenters. Even though we don’t often see each other these days, I’m still in touch with a decent number of them. Here’s a small and incomplete list of people I met in those days: Pam; Dean W.; Carole; Alyson; Jason W.; Ray P.; Geggs; Kristy M.; Deno B.; James T.; Anna E.; Olly; Griff; Martin M.; Nicola P.; Jon R.; Stuart J.; Huw F.; Martin H.; Alun G. and Emma G.; Jimi F.; Stuart F.; Big Bird; Gene; Chris T.; Gareth L.; Emma P.; Robert P., the Two Sharons; Sharon B.; Sharon R. (wow, that’s four Sharons!); Leighton L.; Curly; Floss; Nick and Hilary; Richard J.; Richard F.; Mark J.; Mavis; Jock; Jaffas; Tonto; Smurf; Leigh J.; Sweedy; Paul T.; Jayne B.; Lyndon G.; Benny B.; Toffas; Crusty; Johnny Bow; Wayne the Fugitive; Lenny; Mike C., Nigel C. and Jamie C.; Tracy; Christian E. (Churchy) and his sexy sister Sam E.; Benji; Herbie; Neil J.; Dino; Wuss; Karen J. and Ed L.…
Regardless of your musical interests, your educational achievements, your literary preferences, your sexuality, or your tastes in drugs, everyone in The Carpenters was on the same level. One guy who’d done a bit of time used to sit at the back and do the Times
crossword every day. Some of the others would have had trouble reading the front page Sun
headline. It didn’t matter! Everyone was welcome as long as they weren’t a complete arsehole. The pub was pretty much self-policing, even counting the occasional crossbow-related incident (see I Don’t Like Thursdays
.) In spite of its fearsome reputation, I can count the number of serious incidents I witnessed on my fingers.
The Carpenters was always a great place to make new friends and put old enmities aside. Mike Headford and I made up our previous differences over a pleasant pint on a Saturday afternoon. I met Stuart Cable in there one evening, years later, and we were friends from that moment on. It was that sort of place.
The list of people I met there goes on and on. It includes pretty much every local musician currently aged over about 35, as well as just about all the artists, writers, poets, creative spirits, drug casualties, and (in the words of Robert Anton Wilson) every genius, charlatan and lunatic in Aberdare and the surrounding area.
I first met Sam H. in The Carpenters, when she was drinking (marginally underage) with Kath S., Julia, Gayle E., Emma B., Claire B., and Claire S. (I haven’t seen Claire S. for years. Oddly enough, she came to mind a couple of days ago, when I was working on the Guardian prize crossword. To mark Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday, the compiler had put a themed puzzle together – and I remembered that Claire was a huge Sondheim fan. It’s funny how things like that come back to you, isn’t it?)
When the hard drugs scene began to predominate in The Carpenters, a lot of us decamped to the newer places that had opened in town. We were spoilt for choice. After all, Aberdare was the ‘Las Vegas of the Valleys’ in those days. As well as The Bush, The Black Lion, The Cambrian, The Whitcombe, The Glosters, The Market Tavern, The Bute, The Railway Club, The Full Moon, The Boot (upstairs and downstairs), The Morning Star, and The Bird in Hand, there were the new kids on the block: Deckers; The National Wine Bar; Smugglers; The Depot; Connections/Flintstones; Shabees…
It’s hard to believe it now, in this era of the Wetherspoons virtual monopoly, but you could start an Aberdare pub crawl on a Friday night and not cross your own timeline until Sunday. Unless it was Good Friday, of course.
One Good Friday Deno B. had worked the morning shift on the Hirwaun Industrial Estate, and then headed to town by bus. Unfortunately he made it into The Carpenters about thirty seconds after ‘stop tap’, because in those days the pubs still closed in the afternoon. Come the next early finish, he rang the pub, spoke to one of the guys, got him to pay for his pint, and arrived just in time to pick it up before the doors closed. Deno’s bank holiday timekeeping became a Carpenters legend.
Another great story came to us courtesy of Neil J. He somehow got separated from his gang at the one-day Monsters of Rock Festival (now the Download Festival) and missed the minibus back. Pissed out of his tree, Neil was walking towards the exit when a couple pulled up and offered him a lift. They took him to the nearest railway station, where Neil caught a train to Birmingham. From there, he managed to make it as far as Gloucester, and was able to hitch to Chepstow. It was now Sunday afternoon. There was no public transport. Neil decided he could make it under his own steam, and set off on foot. On the Monday lunchtime – having caused a major panic when he hadn’t got home – he allegedly strolled nonchalantly into the pub and ordered a pint of cider. Anyone would have sworn he’d only walked the three hundred yards or so from his house.
I was in there one Saturday afternoon when Little John decided he wanted to circumnavigate the entire pub without touching the ground. John was a four-foot-and-a-fart raging piss-artist who worked for the DHSS. He was also a keen rock-climber, and the thick artex covering the walls made for an ideal free-climbing challenge – in John’s mind, at least. (He’d apparently attempted it the previous week, but had been disqualified by Daphne the barbint when he slipped and put his foot through a wall light.)
Anyway, John set off with a decent turn of speed and quickly reached the wrought-iron railings above the stairs. Then he stopped. There was a triangular timber framework (more for decorative than structural purposes) above the railings, where the speaker cables and electric flex ran from one half of the pub to the other. A small and agile person could squeeze through the gap. John was small and agile. He was also as pissed as a trumpet.
He went head-first through the triangle, and then stopped dead. His belt buckle had got tangled up in the cables, and he couldn’t move in either direction. Anyone walking into the pub would have seen John’s arse and his legs waving from the woodwork. (How could you explain that to a casual visitor?)
Eventually sense dawned on John, and he decided to turn round inside the triangle. He removed his belt and ended up going through the gap Dick Fosbury-style. Suddenly he shot through the gap, fell head-first onto the jukebox, tumbled to the floor, crashed to the foot of the stairs, and sat there for a moment mopping blood from his forehead. We all laughed and some of us gave him a round of applause, while Daphne was still giving him a bollocking from behind the bar.
‘I’ll do it next week!’ he announced with supreme confidence. If he did eventually achieve his target I wasn’t there to see him do it.
There’s quite possibly a book waiting to be written about that place. I would attempt it myself, but I wasn’t privy to many of the best stories – and most of the people I’d need to speak to wouldn’t be amenable to an interview anyway.
After all, Stuart Cable is dead. So are Mike Headford, Jon W., Little John, Tug, Lenny, Lyndon, Benny, Toffas, Johnny Bow, Crusty, Tull, Paul G.… They’re just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. I daresay a good many other regulars have fallen by the wayside over the past thirty years. The dark side of the drink and/or drugs scene accounted for too many of them. As my regular readers know, I’ve always steered clear of the latter. Looking back through this entry, I realize why.
At least one Carpenters landlord (Gary) died during his tenure of the place, too. He was a comparatively young man, but the stress of running Aberdare’s craziest pub did for him.
Which brings us back to the reunion idea. Many of the people I’ve mentioned in my list of characters are married or living together – not necessarily with the people they were going out with at the time. I’ve got a large number of honorary nieces and nephews dating from those days. A fair few of them are living away. Churchy is in Australia, for example. How the hell would we be able to get the former regulars together without their spending a fortune on babysitters and/or B&Bs?
And what would be the point, anyway? Rasputin’s isn’t The Carpenters. It never could be. It’s a place for kids, and their scene is entirely different. We drank pints, or bottles of Newcastle Brown, or Pils. They drink premium lagers or expensive fruity ciders washed down with shots of Jägermeister. Those of us who indulged in more illicit substances liked a spliff or a dab of speed. Nowadays it’s all E and MCAT and cocaine. It’s a different culture entirely.
We don’t even have music in common any more. I’ve already told you about the unfortunate mix-up in The Lighthouse a few weeks ago, when Sam E. and I were going to karaoke ‘Comfortably Numb’ on a Thursday night. Instead of racking up the classic song by Pink Floyd, Tara loaded up the shite ‘cover’ version by Scissor Sisters. (Honestly! Do either of us look as though we’re about 25?)
If a hundred or so ageing rockers, bikers, punks, hippies and assorted ne’er-do-wells crashed into Rasputin’s on a Friday night, there’d be a riot. I’ll give it a wide berth personally.
Then again, if there was a load of trouble, people who remember The Carpenters only by reputation would roll their eyes and say, ‘See, nothing’s changed in that place, has it?’
They don’t know a thing.