Not Born Beautiful

In which The Author dreams of a life more ordinary

I started work on this about six weeks ago before losing track of it. It was originally entitled A Life More Ordinary, and explored why I’d managed to stay alive, drug-free, and without a criminal record, in the shithole I’ve chosen to call ‘Home’ all my life. Things happened which made me think that I may have been too pessimistic. There was a new woman in my life, I had a new circle of friends, and things were looking good for a change.
I stopped on 30 December when an old and dear friend took his own life. We buried him last week. With the benefit of time to reflect, after six weeks lurking in the dark and dusty Drafts folder, it all came together on a wet Thursday night:
Let’s start with some music.

When I was a teenager I didn’t know what I wanted. Does anyone? I had a few ideas, of course.
A house, certainly. I suppose we all want somewhere to live. Not necessarily a house with big thick doors, and big brown rooves, and rippling fires, and windy chimneys. One with my own name on the title deeds would have been nice. I didn’t want to go through the whole palaver of renting a gaff (or several gaffs) and having nothing to show for it after twenty or thirty years. Friends of ours were living in a custom-designed new-build bungalow at the end of the next street, and I spent hours designing my ideal place on paper. As it turned out, when I went to view the house I own (at least until the repo men arrive), the estate agent met me outside.
‘Did you find it okay?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, no problem – I’ve been here several times.’
And I had. It was my old primary teacher’s house. After Miss Morris retired, I used to call and see her every Xmas. She’d always deck the halls. The funny thing is, the front room seemed much smaller when she lived there. I live there now. I don’t trim up for Xmas, though. Not any more.
A library was a prerequisite, of course. By the time I did my O levels I had about four hundred books, and I’ve still got at least of half of them. Once they started accumulating, I knew I’d have to make room for them somewhere. If you count the ones which are out on loan, I’ve got over 1,300 at last count. I’ve acquired four this week alone.
Later on, I realised that I’d need space for records as well. I’ve still got most of them. I made the fatal mistake of lending some to a friend who was burgled. That’s another story. They disappeared without trace. I’ve got most of the music back via illegal downloads. I can probably find the artwork and lyrics online if I look.
In fact, I could get rid of most of my vinyl and have it all in digital format instead. I won’t bother. When you listen back to them in the cold light of adulthood, Bauhaus were rubbish at best. That goes for a lot of the bands I used to listen to when I was concerned with subcultures.
Shock Headed Peters still sound great, though, even after 25 years. When I was working on my critical review for Creative Writing (Yr 2), I got in touch with their main man Karl Blake via MySpace and asked if I could quote part of his song ‘Bad Samaritans’ in my essay. We’d corresponded previously when I used MySpace regularly, and in fact he put me in touch with an installation artist living in Abercynon. I stopped using MySpace a few years before everyone else did and lost all my contacts.
Anyway, I was working on a piece about Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. I was looking at the way Thomas de Quincey’s essay On Murder informed the main theme of the novel, and speculating about how Victorian popular newspapers might have treated Ackroyd’s fictional serial murderer. Mr Blake emailed back a few days later. To my eternal gratitude, he not only gave me his kind permission to use his lyrics, but explained the background to the song – the unsolved murder of a young girl near his childhood home in Berkshire, and the media feeding frenzy which ensued. (About a month ago the BBC announced a new forensic breakthrough in a 40-year-old murder investigation near Reading. I wondered at the time whether it was the same case.)
As for media feeding frenzies: I stockpiled the best part of a decade’s worth of music papers until I decided to sling them all in recycling bags a couple of years ago. There was hardly anything of historic value in them anyway. I’ve lived through more Next Big Things than Anthony Worrall Thompson has stolen hot dinners. Interviews with bands nobody had listened to, reviews of LPs nobody had bought, and ads for poorly-attended gigs in long-closed pubs might have been useful to someone writing a novel set during the 1980s.
By that stage of my life, I wasn’t writing one any more. I got rid of my old railway ‘Spotter’s Handbooks’ a couple of months ago. They would have also provided period detail. The past is another country. I got deported a while ago. I emptied the shit from my attic and moved on. Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing, when you consider this news item:
So, that was the essentials sorted. That’s the gear you can easily take from place to place. A couple of trips in a car (or maybe a rented Transit) and you’re done. Get a mate to drive and another couple of lads to help you with the heavy stuff and you’ll be done in an afternoon. I know. James, Nigel, Jason and I did it, back in August 1998.
Then I started to meet people with the sort of baggage you can’t just stick into temporary storage when you move house. Children, for example. I don’t mind children. In fact we always seem to hit it off pretty well, once they get over the fact that I look a bit scary and use long words without prior warning. As the Doctor said, ‘I’m universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult.’
I guess if you look old but think young, you’re off to a decent start. Friends of mine reckon I’d have made a great teacher. I can explain stuff in a nice accessible way, go off-topic when required, bring weird sidelines into the course of a discussion, invite questions, and tackle awkward issues honestly. Other friends of mine think I’d make a great father. Maybe they’re right. I’ll probably never get chance to prove them wrong.
In the meantime, I can make do with being honorary uncle to my friends’ children. I hold that position to loads of youngsters already. I’ve told them all, ‘I’ve got one real niece whom I never see. She’s the only person entitled to call me “Uncle Steve”. The rest of you just call me “Steve.”‘ I’ve acquired two honorary nephews in the last month – one white and one Bangladeshi. I’ve got another two on the way. That’s cool by me.
There are kids who themselves give birth to kids. There seems to be a competition in the Cynon Valley to see who can become the youngest great-grandmother. My cousin Diana almost got the prize a few years ago, not even aged sixty years at the time. If her own mother hadn’t passed away a few months before, the local rag could have had a photo of five generations in one family. A pal of mine has half a dozen children by as many women. I’m sure he’s not the only one. I’d love to work for the Child Support Agency. There’s no possibility you’d ever be out of work, that’s for sure. I don’t know how the banks are going to cope in the future:
‘What’s your mother’s maiden name?’
‘Er … it’s the same as my surname, actually.’
I can see all the old genetic conditions making a resurgence in the valleys in a couple of decades, as half-brothers fuck half-sisters with no idea of the consanguinity involved. And I’d love to be a fly on the wall when a fight breaks out in the school playground:
‘My dad’s bigger than your dad.’
‘You reckon? My dad is your dad!
 The Cynon Valley Leader Bonny Baby Contest – sponsored by Genes Reunited.
At least there’s zero probability of some previously-unknown eighteen year old knocking my door one day and saying, ‘Hi Dad!’
Moving on …
As Vivian Stanshall might have said, I like a couple of pints or five. In fact, when I think about the women I’ve got close to over the years, I’ve met them all except Lisa in a pub. It’s not a good way to meet women. Or men. It’s a good way to meet pissheads. That’s all.
I’ve mentioned the Aberdare Afternoon Piss-Artists Association in a previous post and stand by my original opinion. Even C— has renewed her membership of AAPAA. It’s a strange mix, considering her God-bothering instincts. Much as I’d like it to (and I think sometimes she’d like it to as well) I can’t see anything developing between us. It’s a real shame. She’s rather pursue some good-looking but useless drugged-up young chav with a violent temper and a criminal record, than explore the possibility of going out with a sensible older bloke who’ll treat her properly.
C— and I were supposed to have gone to Pontypridd yesterday for a change of scene and to sort out her mobile phone. I texted her at 10.30 a.m. and am still waiting for a reply. My pal Jeff saw her earlier on with a couple of likely lads. Even though she claims to be cutting back on the booze and cleaning up her act, she finds her way back into that scene far too easily. The following morning she wakes up on some stranger’s settee, full of self-loathing and self-pity, argues with her parents, and goes off the grid for a few days.
I’m not sure I can cope with that after the shit I had from Jenny. Last weekend C— told me that our getting together would ‘spoil things between us.’ I reckon her various addictions are more likely to spoil things, personally. She’s not even prepared to consider the possibility of us going out on a date, because she thinks I’ll expect bedroom fun afterwards. She’d rather get hurt and blame the world. She’s already told me she’s not going to waste her time on guys who just want to fuck her. I don’t know whether that was aimed at me.
It’s not even as though sex is on the cards at the moment. The new anti-depressant I’m on at the moment is ‘known’ to have deleterious side-effects in that department. ‘Known’, by Goddess! Some years ago, the rep from STM publisher Springer Verlag – whose name I can’t remember – gave me a matching set of a pen and a propelling-pencil. I picked up the pencil this morning and discovered that there was no lead in it. How fucking ironic is that?
(Of course, this was back in the day before Waterstone’s stopped their buyers accepting gifts from reps for fear that they constituted bribes. I proved on many occasions that there was such a thing as a free lunch. Nowadays we’d have been sitting in St John’s Churchyard with a Greggs pastie each.)
At my last medication review, my GP asked me if I was experiencing any problems in the bedroom.
‘No, not at all,’ I said casually. ‘It’s rather like having my appendix removed.’
‘How do you work that out?’
‘It’s a piece of tissue that serves no useful purpose – how would I notice if it wasn’t there anyway?’
How would I even know if I suffered from ‘delayed orgasm’? The last time I had as much of a sniff of a cunt was with the Bi-Psycho, back in spring 2001. My perfect soulmate the Oz Girl (see From a Land Down Under) kept her knickers on throughout our brief acquaintance. I joined an online dating site before Xmas, catering for what we in the shop used to call ‘marginal interests.’ I’ve had one hit so far – a woman in Edinburgh. No profile picture.
That’s a hell of a long trip to meet someone who might be blonde, or (as my friend John pointed out) might not even be a woman. There was a girl in Llanharry who popped up on my search. It’s not a million miles away. In fact, we’re both a bus ride from Pontypridd. That might be worth a look. If I can be arsed to pay the £7.99 to send her an email, of course. ‘Free online dating’ be fucked!
Last weekend, some random bint approached me in the pub while the band were packing up. She was tall, slim, dark-haired, very pretty, and as thick as shit. She’d been talking to a bunch of steroid boys at the bar before she came over. Our extremely brief conversation went like this:
Random Bint: Fancy coming to town? My friends reckon you’re a really good shag.
The Author: Really? I don’t remember fucking any of them.
Exit Random Bint.
The Mary Whitehouse Experience once did a sketch based onBernard Shaw’s famous put-downs to a beautiful actress who propositioned him at a party. The video seems to have vanished from YouTube, alas. Mine didn’t have the same comic flair, I admit – but it got the point across. Somehow I doubt if I blew out a definite shag, though. It’s more likely that I avoided a kicking from a bunch of pissed thugs.
That same evening I had a Facebook friend request from someone who apparently lives in Cwmbach. We’ve got one mutual friend, but that’s nothing to shout about. I ignored it, and a couple of minutes later the same guy messaged me. I replied, ‘I know it’s a silly question, but do I know you?’
A minute or so went past before the next message: ‘Seen you around town.’
And therein lies the rub. Aberdare, in spite of its thirty thousand-odd inhabitants, is still a small town. As Kelly Jones once sang, it’s life in a goldfish bowl. (See Extract From the Uncollected Notebooks.) If you choose to adopt an appearance which is slightly out of the ordinary, people will notice you. I was on Facebook a few months ago and scrolled through the list of People You May Know. I was appalled at the number of fake-tanned, bleached-blonde, gelled, styled, bling-wearing, tattooed, pierced, designer-clad clones who popped up. And they were only the males.
Yes, I suppose this guy had seen me around town. I’ve probably seen him around town as well. If it wasn’t him, it could have been any one of his hundred or so lookalikes.
Just ‘seeing someone around town’ isn’t a basis for a Facebook friend request. If it were, I’d be virtual friends with most of the alcoholics, junkies, shoplifters and troublemakers in Aberdare. Anyway, any hope that he and I might have something to talk about was shattered by his next message: ‘How are things dude?’
A comedian (whose name I missed) said on the radio last year, ‘You’ll never hear anyone say, “Dude, I’m greatly honoured to receive this award from the Nobel Committee,” or, “Dude, I’m going to be operating on your brain tumour tomorrow.”‘
Call me prejudiced if you must, but anyone who uses the word ‘dude’ to a man old enough to be his father must be a dickhead at best. I didn’t feel at all guilty about rejecting his friend request and ignoring his subsequent attempts at communication.
I was in the library with C— a fortnight ago when a young lad asked Menna for help with Facebook. Menna’s about my age, and was clueless in the face of Granotechnology. The lad looked at me and said, more out of desperation than hope, ‘I don’t suppose you know how to do it, chief?’
Well, I’m pleased to say that the Doctor stepped into the breach and sorted out his problem without the aid of the sonic screwdriver. Meanwhile the lad unleashed a five-hundred-miles-an-hour expletive-heavy torrent of consciousness involving some seventeen-year-old bint who’d sent him a friend request and was now accusing him of trying to sleep with her behind his girlfriend’s back and how she was going to tell her old man that he’d raped her and he’d already done time and didn’t want to go back down that road and if anyone knew of any catering jobs going he’d be grateful because he wanted to improve his CV and he wanted to delete his old Facebook because it was causing too many problems with idiots adding him as a friend and then stirring shit about him because he was settled down with his girlfriend and they were having a kid and …
At which point C— made her excuses and left, taking my pen with her. I advised the guy to start afresh, with a brand new profile, and be selective about the people he let on board. He agreed that I was offering wise counsel, shook my hand, and we parted company.
I reminded C— about that afternoon this week, when she found my pen at the bottom of her bag during a reverse space packing exercise.
‘He’s a drug dealer,’ she said in a low voice.
Well, knock me darn wiv a fevver, guv, I’d never have guessed in a million years!
Drugs are not a part of my life. My drug comes in a pint glass. Occasionally it comes out of a can, or a bottle, or an optic. It’s always controlled by the law. Sometimes I’ve bent the law to acquire it, but the worst I’d get is a smack on the wrist and a small fine. I’ve never been interested in any other drug administered by any other means.
I’ve had my opportunities, of course. I’ve lost count of the number of times a joint has moved widdershins in my direction and been allowed to pass by unmolested. I’ve been offered speed, acid, cocaine, E, poppers (and turned them down) and been spiked a couple of times with substances unknown. I’d rather be more or less in control – even while pissed off my face – than totally out of control.
That seems to put me well and truly in the minority in Aberdare pubs these days. Even in the afternoons, you can spot the youngsters who are on drugs. Their body language, modes of speech, and whole demeanour differentiate them from the common or garden pissheads I’m used to. After nearly thirty years of drinking, I can tell the difference between a pisshead and someone who’s doing something else entirely.
They’re not just in the pubs, mind you – junkies and their associated hangers-on are everywhere these days. They roam around the streets day and night, bawling obscenities at each other without any regard for passers-by. The seats outside the pharmacies where they congregate to pick up their methadone are no-go zones for decent people. It’s an amusing diversion to sit in the Prince in an afternoon and listen to the running commentary over the Storenet radio system, while shop staff track the shoplifters’ progress along the main street.
One of the town smackheads died in the toilets in a pub last week. My brother was having a piss while the guy was ODing in the cubicle and thought he sounded severely constipated. I loved his account of hearing the junkie’s death throes through the door. The stiff was known to the town’s Pubwatch scheme. He shouldn’t have been in the place at all.
The following day in one of the pubs, his picture had been crossed off the sheet, like Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Someone else had written ’29 TO GO’ on the sheet.
I knew the guy by sight. I never spoke to him. I wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. Why would I? He and I inhabited different worlds. Apparently all the junkies in town reckon Phil could have saved their friend’s life if he’d acted more promptly. He pleaded not guilty for two reasons:
‘A. I don’t carry an adrenaline shot in my pocket,’ he told me over a pint earlier today. ‘B. I wouldn’t have saved the cunt anyway.’
C— knew him. A friend of mine had said on Facebook: Smackhead dies in Spoons toilets. What a blow to society. I told C— that when we met the following day, and said I thought it was spot-on. I don’t know how well they were acquainted, but she seemed a bit upset when I made light of his death. I’d like to think that it was just her Christian kindness expressing itself. I don’t think it was, though.
She told me earlier this week about encounters she’s had over the years with what can best be described as Low Life: addicts, dealers, jailbirds, rapists, gangsters, thugs and generally nasty pieces of work. I sat there while she related tales from a world I’ve never visited and have never wanted to visit. I’ve met people who’ve been there, of course. I’ve been invited to join them over the years, but it really isn’t my scene. I’d be as out of place as I would be at a rave. But if I had gone to a rave by accident, there’s a good chance that I’d have met C— years ago. I’d have hated her.
C— still bumps into the odd face from her past now and again. I don’t want to know any of them. I don’t want them knowing anything about me, knowing where I live, or knowing anything about my family. I’m very much afraid that my friendship with C— has been a fun interlude but will have to end for my own safety.
I was working on this very piece earlier when a friend of mine came in. He didn’t entirely derail my train of thought, but it did cause an unexpected delay to the normal running. We were chatting for a while until he got round to telling me how someone had put a brick through his window. I stopped him rather forcefully in mid-sentence, told him he was a perfect example of what I was writing about at that very moment, and showed him the draft so far. He shook my hand, apologised, and asked me to send him the link on Facebook.
The world I’ve written about tonight isn’t the world I live in. It’s the world of Shane Meadows films and Irvine Welsh novels. I don’t know most of the people I’ve referred to in this blog. They’re background artists in the ongoing screenplay of my life. I’ve no doubt that a good many people do live that way – whether by choice or by circumstance. It’s not the way I’ve chosen to live. I’ve watched the films and read the books and wondered occasionally about the way people get into that particular sphere. It’s simple, when I think about it. I’m strong. They’re weak.
I don’t follow the herd. When it comes to drugs, Timothy Leary had it spot-on: Just Say Know! If that means that C— and I go our separate ways, then so be it. It’s not as though as I’m missing anything spectacular, after all. It’s been nearly eleven years since my last presumed fuck (we were so pissed I’m not sure Gema and I count!) – and what you don’t have, you don’t miss.
As for her Low Life friends, I’m sure they’re fascinating people. But I’d rather read about them in the paper when they go to prison (or die in the bog of a crap pub) than meet them face to face.
Which brings me back to Karl Blake and ‘Bad Samaritans’:
We are gravel pit lovers
Naked against the might of Man
Scooped the Earth like ice cream
And left a grass kerchief scrub
Into which the sky could weep
Scant cover but all we need
Not all we crave
Fake oasis pinned to the city skirts
A body dump, a schoolgirl nadir
Smut park rumouring ankle-socked dead
Discarded bike and satchel
A wet-lipped expectant fear
We are gravel pit lovers
Fed them as a treat over cornflakes, toast and jam
We are gravel pit lovers
All day, every day, all day, every day
In our sexy Vietnam.
We’re not born beautiful …
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