Sibling Rivalry

In which The Author plays second fiddle

I’m not the best-looking of guys.
That’s hardly a revelation to any of my friends, but those of you who only know me through the Cyberverse might envisage a 5′ 5″, handsome, muscular, dark-haired, rugged, bearded Celtic warrior.
That’s just my radio face.
Back in 1991 a couple of girls came into Blackwell’s and asked if they could take photos of the interior. I cleared it with Hilary (the manager) and they spent ten minutes with an SLR and a video camera while we pretended to be customers. It transpired that they were making a video to attract international students, as part of a Media Studies project. We got chatting once they’d finished filming, and to my surprise they asked me if I’d be interested in recording the voice-over.
‘You’ve got such a lovely Welsh accent,’ one of them added.
I was very flattered and agreed to help them out. I asked them if they wanted it done Richard Burton-style or Dylan Thomas-style. The other asked what the difference was.
I replied, ‘Burton drank vodka, Thomas drank whisky – and it’s your shout.’
Unfortunately, the post-production stage was a few months down the line, and in the interim I was made redundant. Twenty years ago, when you lost touch, it stayed lost.
Another time, working in Dillons, I took a call from a lady named Jane W., who wanted French plays and novels in translation for her Open University course. She teased me when I couldn’t spell the name of one of the authors.
I told her that my degree would have been in Applied Biology and added, ‘I bet you can’t spell deoxyribonucleic, can you?’
She asked me how I’d ended up working there.
I said, ‘Long story.’
So we arranged to meet up and swap stories over coffee when she came to town to collect her books. (Highly unethical, of course, but not technically Fraternisation with the Enemy.)
On a Saturday morning a week or so later, I was sorting out some ordering on the back till upstairs when a female voice said, ‘Are you Steve?’
I turned round and saw a slim, petite, very pretty woman in her late twenties holding a couple of books.
‘I’m Jane.’
She’d asked for me at the main counter and Laurie had sent her over. We went for coffee and hit it off well, but she already had a boyfriend. And she was blonde, so it wouldn’t have worked. (Laurie fancied her, of course.) But it turned out that our mental impressions of each other had been totally wrong.
When I took over the Account Sales Department from Glenn, I had to phone some of my regular customers several times a week. I often used to wonder what Mandy, Denise, and Mary looked like. I expect they wondered the same thing. We never met face to face, so the mystery remains to this day. One time I was on the phone to a supplier in Abingdon, and the guy on the other end said my voice reminded him of John Humphrys.
I said, ‘No, if you were talking to John Humphrys, I’d have said “It’s precisely nine minutes past eight and we’ve got the Home Secretary in the radio car.”‘ He laughed and Laurie gave me an odd look. Just the latest of many.
I listen to the radio a lot, and am usually surprised when I see a photograph of one of the presenters. They very rarely look anything like I’d envisioned – for example, Eric Robson, who’s presented Gardener’s Question Time for years, is dark-haired and bearded. I’d always pictured him as balding and with a grey moustache. I must admit I was rather disappointed when a picture of another presenter popped up on the BBC website a couple of weeks ago. I’d imagined a rather lovely Indian woman. Never mind.
When I loaned The Routes of English to Ayo, our lecturer, he was very surprised upon seeing the picture of Melvyn Bragg on the back cover. He’d built up a mental picture of the man after listening to In Our Time, and it was way off target. I expect your mental pictures of me are wide of the mark too. As comedian Arthur Smith once said of himself, I’ve got the perfect face for radio.
On the other hand, my brother has the looks of an indie rock-star (albeit a slightly superannuated one). We look nothing alike, and didn’t even we were kids. Having said that, many people think I’m younger than him, so it’s not all bad news.
When I hosted the quiz for the French assistants’ leaving party a few years ago, Phil and his girlfriend came down for the night. I was chatting to the girls before it got underway.
French Sarah said, ‘I thought your brother was coming tonight.’
I said, ‘He’s here – he’s sitting at the corner table.’
She looked absolutely stunned. ‘Was one of you adopted?’
And he pulls the women, too. Not that I’m jealous or anything. When he was younger I used to call him Roger Moore – because he seemed to roger more than his fair share. I’ve always had loads of female friends, but only Sam ever fancied me.
Phil went out with a succession of girls in short order. However, nearly every other woman just ‘likes me as a friend.’ They have done from the early days in the Black Lion, when I first met Maria B., right through to my most recent failure with C—.
There was a short-lived romance with Karen L. (but no sex) before she went completely mental. She’d been going out with Phil before that. Ironically, one evening I went into a backstreet pub in Aberdare and found Phil and Karen in there. We chatted for a while before Karen and I left together. We had quite a kissing session in the street, but nothing more. Phil sent me a text later saying that I’d blown his chance of getting his leg over that night. I just told him, ‘Revenge is sweet!’
Michelle was another of Phil’s hand-me-downs. Gema and I were so pissed neither of us are sure whether we actually did anything. Emma the Australian girl kept her knickers on throughout our brief acquaintance. Last night, Lynne and I arranged to meet up at the White Lion for the band. She was looking particularly fabulous in a great fur hat (I do like a woman in a hat!) She’s beautiful, intelligent, newly-single and – needless to say – completely demented. Well, she would be. I fancy her, after all!
Things got a bit silly while the band was playing. (Sadists, take note: spanking a born-again Christian comes highly recommended – they even turn the other cheek.) I won’t go into any more details, but if I hadn’t been wearing my gloves, Lynne might have left an even more serious bite mark on my right thumb. Apparently her neck is bruised this morning. I had to defend myself somehow, after all. We texted each other earlier on to apologise. I told her she’d have to wear a poloneck for the next few days. I can always live in hope!
But to make things more complicated, Phil was there too. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Lynne was going to go home with either of us, I’d have been the second choice. In the event we went to town and ended up in a pub where it was too loud to talk anyway. I haven’t been into town on a Sunday night for months. I probably won’t do it again for months either. That’s another story.
However, I must confess that my brotherly love is being severely stretched by Phil’s habit of blatantly pinching women from under my nose. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that he’s made a play for C— at some point. After all, they’re both pissheads and frequent the same pubs. It probably wouldn’t make a difference whether he fancied her or not. I don’t know whether he does it deliberately, to spite me for some reason. I definitely wouldn’t be surprised to find his face stuck to Lynne’s in the near future.
Never mind. Naomi from our Creative Writing lecture group thought I was in my early thirties. At least I’ve got youth on my side …
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No Future

In which The Author comes unstuck in Time

I recently became involved with the Rhondda Cynon Taff Ratepayers’ Action Group. We’re a bunch of disaffected folk who intend to field Independent candidates at the May 2012 council election. The plan is to challenge the Labour stranglehold on the former mining valleys of South Wales. This hegemony has existed (barring a very brief period when Plaid Cymru were the majority party at Clydach Vale) pretty much since the Labour Party was formed.
James Keir Hardie’s monument at the Rock Grounds, Aberdare
The plinth of the Keir Hardie monument, marking 100 years of the One-Party State
Telling people in the Valleys that there is a viable alternative to voting Labour is (as a Carpenters Arms toilet graffito once said) like trying ‘to nail a jelly to the ceiling.’ For example, in the last General Election, when Dafydd Trystan Davies was the Plaid Cymru candidate, Mother still voted Labour. She knew full well that Dafydd was my friend, and that Dad and his father Rowland had been friends as well. She admitted afterwards that she thought Ed Miliband was a waste of space, and that Ann Clwyd might as well not exist. So I pressed on her on why she voted to send Ms Clwyd back to Westminster after her annual appearance in Aberdare.
Her excuse was classic: ‘Well, Dads [her adoptive father] was a miner, so, you know …’
Well, no, actually I don’t know. However, I do know that the Labour Party stripped the miners’ pension funds and awarded my gran a stupendous 75p a week pension increase. Oh yes, Comrades – Up the Workers indeed!
Back in 1987, the Red Wedge tour came to Aberdare. The aim was to persuade young people to vote – regardless of whom they actually voted for – when election turnouts were dwindling. Our leg featured a gig at the Coliseum by Billy Bragg. Rowland was editor of the Aberdare Leader at the time, and asked me to cover the event for the paper, which I did (complete with typos!)

Red Wedge

In the afternoon, Mr Bragg gave a ‘meet and greet’ at Trecynon Hall. Looking back, that was where the fault line between Old and New Labour first became apparent. The councillors were there, party stalwarts and trades unionists to a man, rubbing shoulders with the bright young things from Walworth Road.
The local lot turned up in their Sunday best, their council ties, and with their hair immaculately coiffed by Ken One-Cut on the Gadlys. At least one of them is still around. He was a councillor before Dad ever got elected to the old Cynon Valley Borough Council, and remains a councillor at the time of writing. He might as well have been awarded a Life Seat by Clement Attlee himself.
The Party apparatchiks wore designer gear, expensive shoes and spoke in a dumbed-down Estuary English. Each of them sported what a long-forgotten Ranting Poet of the day termed ‘his/her non-sexist haircut on top of his/her head.’ They kept their degrees in Sociology or Politics or PPE under their haircuts for the duration. They didn’t want to intimidate the Workers by being ‘college boys and girls’, after all.
Mr Bragg himself was charming, down-to-earth, funny and very entertaining. He’s subsequently distanced himself from the Labour Party. Even a quarter of a decade ago, the divide between Old and New Labour was there for those with eyes to see.
I voted Labour for the last time in 1997. Like the rest of us, I celebrated Tony Blair’s victory and watched it turn sour as the years unfolded. They weren’t interested in the working class any more. So when a former councillor named Graeme Beard announced that an alliance of independent thinkers was getting together to contest key seats in RCT, I pricked up my ears. I put a load of posters around town to publicise an open meeting in Aberdare at the end of November. We promoted it via Facebook and Twitter. Graeme even managed to get a mention in the Cynon Valley Leader. And nobody came.
I think I identified a major part of the problem over ten years ago. I refer the honourable ladies and gentlemen to my unpublished letter of April 2001.
Since then things have gone from bad to worse. After a raft of broken manifesto commitments, blatant volte-face (see Marxist Economics) and the Parliamentary expenses scandal, it’s no wonder that politics and politicians have been discredited.
Talk to anyone in their twenties or thirties and you’ll hear a variation on this basic theme: They’re all a bunch of crooks!
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s no point even discussing politics with the majority of people aged over sixty. They’ll vote Labour for the same reason that Mother does – they still believe they’re the party of the working class. That’s when you can steer them back into the Twenty-first Century, of course, and away from the general run of pub conversation one overhears:
‘What was that pub called …?’
‘Barry John is the best number ten Wales has ever had …’
‘My father was there the night the committee in the club paid Tom Jones off …’
‘Remember old Frank? Used to work days regular down Deep …?’
‘That bloody Dr Beecham [sic] ruined the railways …’
Then they sink another pint of bitter (bemoaning the fact that it no longer costs tuppence) and sing along to Engelbert Humperdinck on the jukebox.
As for the youngsters …
The majority of the white working class I meet these days would make up the bedrock of Nick Griffin’s support if they lived in England. The guy I wrote about in Insights into the Mind of a Working Man is a perfect example. Their parents were the ones who voted Labour throughout the 1980s, when they were the party of Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament and Racial Equality and Gay Rights.
If they’d actually stopped and read the party manifestos for two minutes, they’d have realised that the Labour Party was totally antithetical to their own views. They’re racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and bigoted in every way.
Even so, they’ve allowed Ann Clwyd to indulge her hobbies at the taxpayers’ expense for nearly thirty years. They have what Kelly Jones called Just Enough Education to Perform.
There’s also a fair percentage without even that much education. They’re the ones I wrote about in Not Born Beautiful. We can count them out entirely. They wouldn’t know how to vote if their lives depended on it. Just putting a cross on a ballot paper would stretch their literacy skills to breaking point.
I’ve called this entry No Future because that’s the way a very large number of people in the valleys tend to think. Telling older people that they need to think about their children and their grandchildren, and the sort of world they’ll inherit, is like pissing into the wind. Meanwhile, the youngsters inhabit a weird parallel version of the late 1940s. There are jobs for all once they’ve done their stint in the army, and the MV Empire Windrush has just docked at Tilbury with our first wave of colonial cousins. O brave new world, that has such people in it.
Just seeing a non-white face in the Valleys is enough to strike Old Labour supporters down with paroxysms of terror. They must be ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘illegal immigrants’, apparently. They conveniently ignore the fact that there’s a massive university ten miles away, attracting students from all over world. There’s a huge hospital just over the mountain, and an even bigger one in Cardiff, filling the local skills gap with nurses and doctors from overseas. Property is as cheap as chips. People sell up in the cities and move into the area. That’s what people do, when their horizons aren’t limited by the houses they live in, the places they work at, and the pubs they drink in. That’s a subject for another blog.
I’m pushing the RCTRAG argument as often as as forcefully as I can, but I have a terrible feeling that I’m wasting my breath.
As for the people who vote Labour, election after election and generation after generation, without any thought for the consequences, there is a good reason for it. Just ask my mother.
Even better – take it away, Topol!