In which The Author and his friend have a mammoth day out
A few times recently, the
Jokecentre Jobcentre staff in Aberdare have mentioned the fact that I qualify for discounted fares to travel to interviews and other job-seeking activities. I picked up a leaflet at Pontypridd Station last time I was there, which gave me some more information on the scheme. As I’d guessed, it would involve picking up a Travel Warrant from the Jobcentre.
I’ve had a couple of these precious pieces of paper over twenty years or so – especially when I had job interviews in London, which would have been completely unaffordable otherwise. They used to issue them a couple of days before you were due to travel, and it involved a bit of paperwork beforehand.
Last week there was a ‘Jobs Fair’ in Porth, at the southern end of the Rhondda Valleys. Apparently several employers would be there, recruiting new staff on the day. Rhian and I decided to take advantage of the half-price train fare and see what was on offer. I mentioned it to my adviser while I was signing on, and was told that we’d have to pick the Travel Warrants on the morning itself. Rhian and I met outside the Jobcentre before they opened, hoping that we’d be able to get the paperwork done and dusted in time for the 0922 train from Aberdare. Some hope!
We were first into the
Circumlocution Office and explained what we needed at the main reception desk. Initially we were met with blank expressions all round, then someone made an internal phone call and referred us upstairs to Kevin. I’ve already mentioned (in Nothing Short of a Total War
) that Kev W. is an old pal of mine. He’s also Rhian’s adviser, so we were confident that everything would go smoothly. We went upstairs and explained (again) at the reception desk what we were up to. The lady on the desk went over to have a word with Kev, and a couple of minutes Ellen (my adviser) called Rhian over, and Jean (whom I see when I sign on) called me over. The four of us went through the paperwork together, chatting light-heartedly about the whole palaver, before Ellen gathered everything together.
‘If you wait downstairs, they’ll process this and call you when they’re ready,’ she told us.
She headed for the internal stairs, and we made our way back to the main reception desk. We saw a different lady, and she showed us into the waiting room. There are a pair of little counters just off this room where the emergency payments are normally issued. We waited for a few minutes and then the lady came in again.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘but we’ll have to take your details again.’
It seemed that Ellen had been mysteriously abducted by aliens somewhere on her way downstairs. This particular lady didn’t even have the printed forms, just two sheets of A4 paper on which she noted the bare minimum of information. She was obviously confident of reconciling two sets of data later on. Rather her than me.
She vanished again and Rhian and I kicked our heels until the cashier called us through to collect our precious slips of card. It seemed an awful lot of fuss in order to save £1.70 each. By now, of course, the 0922 train was halfway to Pontypridd, so we made our to the station in time for the 0952 departure.
Elaine at the ticket office was amazed when we produced our Travel Warrants.
‘I haven’t seen these for a while,’ she commented while she issued our tickets. ‘I thought they were supposed to be phasing them out.’
‘No,’ I told her, ‘they’re going to hide them in the winning bars of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate.’
It was obvious by that stage that Rhian and I were going to have one of our occasional Silly Days.
The Jobs Fair was a little more than a waste of everyone’s time. Hundreds of people had turned up, obviously lured there by the promise of interviews on the day. On the employment front there were representatives from Argos, Hargreaves (who are operating the opencast site in Hirwaun), an engineering company outside Llantrisant, a call centre in Cardiff, and the Army (keeping up the great British tradition of using the working-class poor as cannon fodder). Otherwise there were a employment agencies, a couple of training providers, and some voluntary work organisers. It wasn’t what we’d expected, but it was a day away from Aberdare. Rhian has an old schoolfriend living in Porth so we called in to see her for an hour before heading for the train.
In Pontypridd we had time to kill, so we decided to call into the Patriot Inn. It’s the sister pub to the Prince of Wales – but with a slightly more disreputable crowd. We found some seats in the corner, well aware that the pianist had stopped playing as soon as we walked in, and chatted for a couple of minutes, feeling very out of place among the fully paid-up members of the Pontypridd Afternoon Piss-Artists Association. Fortunately, Phil C., the area manager, walked in after a few minutes and said hello. That seemed to put everyone’s minds at rest, and we took our time over our beer before making our excuses and leaving.
On Thursday there was another Jobs Fair. This one was in Cardiff City Hall, and we ‘dressed to impress’ as there would ‘definitely’ be employers there on the day. Suited and booted, Rhian and I were outside the Jobcentre when they opened at 10.00 a.m., hoping to get the Travel Warrants sorted out a bit more quickly this time. After all, when I’d called there in the week, Ellen had told me they knew what they were doing now.
This time we only had to wait 25 minutes and see four different people before our Golden Tickets were issued. The late opening on Thursday morning had already cost us an hour, so we had to catch the 1052 train. This time Elaine showed us half a dozen Travel Warrants which had come over the ticket office counter already that morning. How on earth they had got there before us was a mystery. Maybe it was possible to collect them the day before travel, after all. There was another woman on her way to Cardiff as well, apparently, but she certainly wasn’t dressed to impress. She didn’t get off the train in Cathays, either, so what happened to her was another mystery.
I’d forgotten about Rhian’s fear of heights, which meant that crossing the footbridge at Cathays was out of the question. Instead, I led her into the Students Union, up several flights of stairs, through a crowd of freshers, and down the external steps into Park Place. Students are definitely getting younger every year. From there it was a few minutes’ walk to City Hall, and as we were approaching it Simeon spotted us from across the road. It’s funny – I haven’t seen him for months and last week I bumped into him twice in as many days. He told us he’d already been inside for a look around, but it wasn’t as exciting as he’d hoped. Rhian and I went to see what all the fuss was about.
It was bigger than the one in Porth, that much was true. There wasn’t exactly a host of employers there, mind – there were people from Debenhams, Tesco and Argos (again!), representatives from commission-only agency jobs like Provident, Avon and Kleenezee, numerous agencies, a couple of training providers, some voluntary sector recruitment people, and (most oddly) a stall from The Big Issue Cymru. It crossed my mind that Mike A., an old colleague of mine from Waterstone’s who now works in their offices, might have been there, but I’d forgotten that he was on his honeymoon. Rhian and I chatted to a lady from an agency who were there on behalf of Admiral Insurance. We’ve got their contact details, so we’re going to do the applications online this week.
With the rest of the day to kill, we decided to call into the National Museum of Wales, a fossil’s throw from City Hall. The last time I was there was with Luke and Beth (my sort-of nephew and niece), about ten years or so ago. If anything, there seem to be even fewer exhibits than there were then. Everything has gone ‘hands-on’, ‘interactive’ and ‘themed’ to suit the dumbed-down nature of education in this country. I seem to remember a set of glass cases displaying dozens of specimens of butterflies. Instead, there’s a single exhibit intended to showcase the diversity of the Insect world. It’s not the same.
It’s not all bad news, of course. There’s a small chunk of Moon rock in a section about the evolution of Wales over geological time. It’s behind two layers of glass, but I still wondered whether I could sneak it out under my jacket. You can put your hands on some of the oldest rock on Earth – four billion years or so – and see the skeleton of a Humpback Whale which was washed up on a beach in the Vale of Glamorgan during the early 1980s.
In another room, there’s a reconstruction of a woolly mammoth (adult and calf), which caught our attention for a few moments. Then the calf’s ears twitched and it looked in our direction. Rhian nearly jumped out of her skin. The models are Animatronic, but there’s no warning that they’ll suddenly come to life. I shudder to think how she’ll react when we visit the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay. Yasmine freaked out a few years ago when I showed her my little video clip of the Dalek moving around. This time, the monsters will be life-size and real!
In another room we had a look at a Bronze Age hoard of a cauldron, axe-heads and other tools. They were uncovered at Llyn Fawr, a few miles north of us, when workmen were building the reservoir a century ago. We saw a longbow and a sword dating from the late Middle Ages, and marvelled at the sheer size of the warriors who would have carried the damn things! We were almost swept away by a torrent of schoolchildren who erupted into the toilets when we were changing our shoes. Outside, waiting for Rhian, I asked one of the teachers how many of her charges she’d managed to lose.
‘None – unfortunately,’ she grinned.
Phase Three of the Grand Day Out involved a stroll through the residential and commercial streets of Cathays. Normally, this is Studentville par excellence, but the new term hadn’t got under way. We wandered past ethnic supermarkets, fun pubs, letting agencies, and dozens of takeaways, encountering small groups of International Students here and there, but the real influx happens this weekend.
I’m reasonably familiar with this area of the city, but I wasn’t entirely sure that we were heading in the right direction. Fortunately, my sense of dead reckoning, coupled with my ability to find a pub, came in handy. We were on Salisbury Road when I spotted a footbridge. I knew that (in theory) it would take us onto Richmond Road. I also realised that Rhian would have to confront her acrophobia again. In order to get to our next port of call, we’d have to cross the railway line. As we climbed the steps, Rhian closed her eyes and clung onto my arm like some Rift Creature from Torchwood until we were safely on the Roath side of the line.
From Richmond Road it’s a couple of minutes’ stroll to Death Junction and on to Albany Road. Nicola in the Prince had told us to look out for Iceland, and I spotted the shop sign just down the road on our left. A minute later we strolled into the Andrew Buchan, the latest addition to the Rhymney Brewery estate. We’d arranged to meet Rowland there, but we were running early, so we got a drink each and sat down to wait for him.
The two features both pubs share are a wood-burning stove and a moose’s head on the chimney breast. The key difference is in the windows. In the Prince they’re etched glass, meaning that people can’t easily see in. The Andrew Buchan’s are clear plate glass, which is a bit like sitting in a fish tank. On the other hand, they’ve got a great view of a chip shop and no fewer than four shops which buy old gold.
It was a new experience for Rhian to see such a multiracial mixture of faces drifting past the windows. Whereas our pub is busy in the weekday afternoons and quietens down in the evening, the barmaid told us that in Roath the opposite is true. I wonder what it’ll be like next week, when the students discover it. We’ve already pencilled in a return visit, and I’m sure Rowland will be adding it to the Cardiff CAMRA Group’s agenda fairly soon. Rowland turned up on time (for once) and we had another drink in the Andrew Buchan before embarking in a mini pub crawl.
I haven’t been into PC’s on City Road for years. Last time I was there (when it was the old-style pub) was with Ross, Kathleen and some of the other gang from work, about 25 years ago. Kathleen’s brother Mike was in a band called City Giants at the time (see Snap, Crackle and Pop
) and they were playing a gig there. I think that night still stands up as the most drunk I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was also the night that the old Co-op in Miskin burned down. We could see the flames belching above the village as our van drove along the New Road on the way home. Apart from that, I’ve got no recollection of the night at all. It must have been good!
We made our way back into the city centre and hummed and haahed before deciding on our next port of call. The Central Bar is okay by Wetherspoons standards, and we had one there before going onto Kiwi’s. It used to be in Wyndham Arcade, and always struck me as a seedy place which I never fancied. Now it’s relocated to St Mary Street, and looks a bit more welcoming from outside. It’s very sport-orientated, though, and I wouldn’t make a habit of drinking in there any more than I would in Walkabout opposite. That end of St Mary Street used to be packed with bars and nightclubs, but quite a number of them seem to be closed or in terminal decline. It’s inevitable, I suppose. The city centre bars were bound to feel the pressure eventually. Maybe the Andrew Buchan will pick up some of the trade as people return to the suburbs to drink, rather than flocking into town at weekends.
Rowland headed off for the bus at 8 p.m., so Rhian and I made our drinks last until the 2041 train was due. As we got back to Aberdare it started to rain, so I headed straight home for something to eat.
Signing on yesterday, I told the Jobcentre gang about our adventures in Cardiff. As I told them, it would have been a pity to waste the day, and we had made a job contact when we were in City Hall. The next Jobs Fair is in Aberdare, so at least we won’t have to play silly buggers sorting out our train fares beforehand.
James E. from uni sent me a message on Facebook today, saying that he’d been helping out at the event on Thursday and had spotted me in the crowd. Unfortunately he’d been too busy to come over and say hello. That was a shame, it would have been fun to have dragged him on our pub crawl. Never mind, we’re bound to catch up with each other soon (always assuming the Jobcentre will fund another expedition, of course).