In which The Author writes an unsolicited (and unpublished) review
About fifteen years or so ago the extraordinary comedian and impressionist Phil Cool came to the Coliseum in Aberdare. I went to the show and afterwards I submitted an unsolicited review to the Cynon Valley Leader. It wasn’t published, but I found my typewritten copy when I was looking for something else yesterday. I decided to check out what Phil Cool is up to these days, and was sad to learn that he’s currently coming to the end of his farewell tour. For nostalgia’s sake, here’s what I made of his show…
From the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise to the Amazon rainforest; from the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau to Monument Valley; from the Royal Variety Performance to a classroom in 1950s Lancashire – only one man can take you to all these places and more besides in the space of two hours. Welcome to the surreal world of Phil Cool.
Paying a welcome visit to Aberdare as part of a marathon UK tour, Phil and his sidekick Keith Donnelly kept a rather meagre audience in stitches continuously. Keith, perhaps better known as Jasper Carrott’s scriptwriter, warmed the evening up beautifully with his intimate routine – perhaps more suited to a smaller venue, but great fun nonetheless. I hadn’t expected a support act, so it was all the more enjoyable to see someone whose name I knew, armed with his guitar and repertoire of silly stories, on the stage less than fifteen feet away.
Which is, of course, the best vantage point from which to appreciate Phil Cool’s mutations. A master of physical comedy, Phil’s unique selling point is his almost unnatural ability to become the person he’s representing on stage.
Whereas Mike Yarwood and his contemporaries utilised make-up, wigs and costumes for their characterisations, and Rory Bremner relies mainly on his voice for effect, Phil simply distorts his features into whatever shape he requires – Prince Charles, Bill Clinton, Mr Spock, a giant turtle. Armed only with a pair of glasses he becomes Eric Morecambe or Michael Caine; add a false beard and you can spend ten minutes in the company of Rolf Harris. The show went by so quickly I’d need deep hypnosis to remember it all, and the lady two seats away must need tranquilisers after tonight.
It’s a pity (once again) that the attendance was so poor. Given the choice of an oft-repeated James Bond on the TV, or two hours of sheer lunacy with these guys, I’d take the latter every time. Perhaps someone should tactfully suggest to the Coliseum management that a few posters around the place well in advance of events like this wouldn’t go amiss. When I mentioned it to my friends over the weekend, very few of them even knew the show was happening at all.
Still, when Phil Cool finally left the stage, he said, ‘See you here again soon.’ Phil, you’ve got yourself a deal.
(Although, in fairness, it wasn’t actually my money to waste, and the day wasn’t a complete waste of time.)
As I’ve already told you, Martin H. and I had to go to Cardiff on Tuesday for a meeting. After that, I was meeting Nerys for a pint. Nerys left Wales about ten years ago to move to New Zealand, and we haven’t seen each other since. Shanara couldn’t make it, because the branch of the Circumlocution Office which deals with child health had sent a letter a week ago, and she’d received it on Monday. It advised her that the health visitor was calling in on Tuesday to see my honorary nephews. So, then there were three…
Martin paid my train fare – all £7.40 of it! – so that we could get there bright and early. In fact, I was out of the house before 8.30, so we were early. To make sure I had enough cash for the fare, I borrowed a quid off Kieran L. (He’d also made an early start, busking in the lane beside the Pickled Pepper.) Martin joined me at Mountain Ash, and on the way we thrashed out a plan of action for our lunchtime meeting. We got off the train at Queen Street, and I saw the first signs of the improvements to the Valley Lines.
This week’s Cynon Valley Leader has an article about the proposed future developments for public transport in South Wales (Law, 2013). It’s not nearly as ambitious as Prof Kevin Morgan’s scheme, which I outlined in Nice Work If You Can Get There. Still, baby steps are better than no steps at all.
From the station we walked along Churchill Way and into Queen Street. The sky was cloudless, but apart from that, the whole atmosphere was dispiriting and depressing. It’s been the best part of a year since I really had chance to wander around the city centre. Instead of filling me with the sort of excitement I used to feel when Cardiff was a Day Out, this week’s excursion reminded me of why I was glad when I finished work there in 2009.
Lots of the old shops were closed, and/or have been converted into coffee shops. Churchill Way seems to have become one long outdoor boozer, much as St Mary Street did a decade or so ago. There were tables and chairs outside most of them, obviously in an attempt to fool tourists that the British summer lasts more than two days at a time.
Later on, Martin and I were chatting later on about the way the old Glamorganshire Canal still breaks cover here and there in the city centre. You can catch a brief glimpse of it from the train between Central and Queen St stations, tucked down below the bridge just alongside the Big Sleep Hotel. I remembered reading a feature in the South Wales Echo ages ago about the building of Churchill Way, and the way that the canal was covered in order to make the roadway. In my vision for the city, the buses and cars are diverted, and Churchill Way is dug up, leaving a double row of waterside bars and offices linked to the Bay by a frequent (subsidised) river taxi.
When I visited the SS Great Britain in 1993 (see Shipshape and Bristol Fashion, I was able to get there and back from Bristol city centre by catching a motor launch down the Avon. Cardiff has a water bus which runs from the Bay to the Castle grounds (see Things to Do Before You Graduate), but my scheme gets you into the heart of town. Maybe, when I finally dust off my model railway, I’ll construct my vision of Cardiff in N Gauge and see how it looks.
(I actually did start collecting bits and bobs for a model railway when I was working in Blackwell’s, back in 1990 or so. It was frighteningly lifelike, though – the investment dried up years ago, and my ambitious plans remain shelved for the foreseeable future.)
We were so engrossed with our conversation that we passed HMV without even noticing it. We turned back and decided to have a look inside. The front of the store was full of clearance stock – DVDs of films nobody watched and TV shows nobody liked, I expect. There was a big section filled with headphones, iPod docks, game consoles and other electronic paraphernalia. A little further along, we found three tables full of books by cutting-edge contemporary authors like Jack Kerouac (1922-69), William S. Burroughs (1914-97), Luke Rhinehart (b.1932) and Bram Stoker (1847-1912), with some recent titles to fill the gaps. I found a new book about Pink Floyd which I quite fancied, but I can wait until it comes into The Works in Aberdare.
The Rock & Pop section has been relegated to the back of the ground floor, tucked away behind all the computer games, and the range is embarrassingly poor. Marc Almond’s name caught my eye, so I had a look at the three CDs on offer. I bought one of them (Stories of Johnny) on vinyl when it first came out in 1985. The other two were compilations of his singles, most of which I’ve also got on vinyl. I followed the sequence around until I got to Caravan. They had Cunning Stunts and Blind Dog at St Dunstan’s, but that was it.
On an impulse I decided to check if they had anything by Hatfield and the North. They were another 70s band from the tangled Canterbury family tree (see Leaving No Turn Unstoned), who’ve been given fresh exposure by Jonathan Coe in his novel The Rotters’ Club (as well as giving the book its title). HMV had two CDs of theirs in stock: one featured fifteen tracks and was priced at £15; the other had an identical running plus two bonus tracks, and cost just a tenner. I pointed out the inconsistency to Martin, and told him that I used to spend about a third of my working week in Waterstone’s ensuring that offer stock was priced correctly. It was nice to know that the Stealth Compliance Supervisor hadn’t lost his touch.
In the meantime, Martin had found his way to the Reggae section – all two racks of it, and not featuring anything off-the-grid or surprising. I had a quick look through Brian Eno’s section, and was shocked to see Here Come the Warm Jets priced at a fiver. I didn’t pay much less than that for my vinyl copy, thirty years ago. Nothing else caught our eyes, so we left empty-handed and emerged back into the brilliant sunshine.
We headed back into Queen St and passed one of the bronze statues featured at the end of the Doctor Who episode ‘Blink’. It was surrounded by sightseers, so a photograph was out of the question. We decided to cut into Queen’s Arcade, because Martin needed to go to the Post Office.
It’s changed for the better since I was there last. Many is the time that I’ve queued for ages waiting to be served (often while waiting to post a book to an overseas customer), my poor legs and back calling me rotten until the refreshing electronic voice called out, ‘Cashier number x, please.’
This time, as we walked in, a nice lady greeted us on the threshold. Martin asked her if they had an ATM. They don’t, which seems an odd omission for such a busy office. Instead, she gave us a ticket and we were ale to sit on comfy seats while the queue went down. They’ve obviously taken a tip from Argos, situated more or less above them in the centre – which, in turn, has taken a tip from the deli counter in Aberdare Tesco three decades ago. Progress, eh…?
Outside again, Martin suggested stopping for coffee. However, instead of calling to one of the overpriced and trendy coffee places – all baristas and gimmicky names and marshmallows on the top – we decided to get our drinks from the Hayes Island Snack Bar. This is one feature of Cardiff which has remained surprisingly untouched and unchanged for as long as I can remember. There were no frills and no fripperies; we just took our paper cups and wandered away to check out the passers-by.
There was a very furtive-looking chap lurking nearby, and Martin told me that drug dealers used to arrive at the Island on bicycles, deliver the goods to their waiting punters, and zoom away again in full view of the public (and, presumably, the police.) We must have had a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings from our window in Waterstone’s, but we never paid them any heed either.
Martin had mentioned a clothes shop named Urban Outfitters in one of the units which occupy the old David Morgan’s buildings. I have to be honest and confess that the very name had always deterred me from going inside.
[A digression: People who know me well will appreciate this next bit: it’s either supremely ironic, or else a vast cosmic joke, that on the very day that I was born, The Kinks were topping the Radio London singles chart with ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’. Mind you, bearing in mind that I’m currently signed off with depression, consider that on the same day, the national Hit Parade was headed by The Walker Brothers’ ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)’. Make of that what you will.]
To me, the word ‘urban’ can either describe architecture and town planning, or a style of unlistenable music put out by people who dress like South Central LA crack dealers and pretend they didn’t go to posh schools. Anyway, Martin told me that as well as clothes, they often had an interesting range of books in stock, so we went in for a look around. In fairness, the books weren’t that interesting – not to someone who spent twenty years in the trade, anyway. There were big piles of the Banksy book, which surely everyone in the world has bought by now. There were little art books and photography books, books on environmental topics, and gimmicky things like the ones Waterstone’s used to display on the counter as ‘add-on sales.’ There was a really nice retro-styled USB turntable, but, as I said in Not Born Beautiful, I’ve got most of my old music in digital form and don’t really want to revisit the rest. One of which the items on display caught my eye, mind you: a vacuum flask shaped like a camera lens. Martin’s always been a keen photographer, so I pointed it out to him. I took one off the shelf and checked the price. It was twenty quid! It would have been a nice talking point, but greatly overpriced. We put it back and headed back into the sunshine.
I suggested calling into Waterstone’s and seeing what was what. Once again, there was nobody I knew working downstairs. The Classics section – which once occupied thirty or so shelves – has been reduced to a dozen, and a cursory glance revealed about 80% of the stock to be published by Penguin. As I’d long suspected, the Big Five publishers now dominate the stockholding policy of Britain’s only national book chain. The Poetry section was (maybe) six shelves. Meanwhile, the Fiction section had been shunted down by two entire alcoves.
I had a quick look for J. G. Ballard’s books. He was one of Britain’s most prolific writers of sf during the 1960s and 70s, before moving to a more realistic style in the 1980s and beyond. There were four on the shelf: The Crystal World and Hello America (both of which I’ve got, in old Granada paperback editions I bought when I was in school), The Drowned World, and Concrete Island. These latter two were dramatised on Radio 4 recently; otherwise, I suspect, they wouldn’t have been there at all. There was no sign of Crash, Super-Cannes, High-Rise, Cocaine Nights, Empire of the Sun or The Atrocity Exhibition. Some years ago, HarperCollins issued two volumes of Ballard’s (very numerous) short stories in uniform covers. I saw them once. I doubt if I’ll see them in Waterstone’s any time soon.
[A digression: Rhian’s mother Siân is a huge fan of Catrin Collier and similar writers, who churn out a relentless tide of sub-Cookson historical romances set against the background of industrial communities in South Wales. Siân also had a holiday booked for the middle of June, and didn’t fancy the prospect of filling her case with books. As a result, Rhian decided to treat Siân to a Kindle about six weeks or so ago. She could stock it up with a dozen or so potboilers and it would keep her busy for the duration and beyond. The Prince of Wales dedicated Tech Support Desk (i.e. yours truly) was called on to set the damned thing up and get the first couple of titles onto it. While I was playing with it, I decided to see what was available by Christopher Priest. I’ve already mentioned (in That Was The Month That Was) that he and I corresponded briefly in January. My copy of The Space Machine still hasn’t turned up, and I was wondering whether I could replace it. Anyway, it turned out that he had a new novel, The Adjacent, lined up for publication this month.
Over the last Bank Holiday I was talking to Matthew L., an old schoolfriend who now teaches English as an Other Language in Cardiff. He mentioned the e-book phenomenon, and we’re both rather ambivalent about it. For one thing, we’re both huge bibliophiles, and nothing beats the tangible sensation of possessing a printed book. But, if (like Matthew) you’ve been offered a contract to teach in a foreign land, the sheer convenience of having hundreds of books on a gadget the size of an old pocket calculator would be a godsend. I mentioned the Chris Priest example: I could either order The Adjacent electronically onto Rhian’s (sorry, Siân‘s) Kindle at £6.49, get a brand new hardback copy (to sit alongside the rest of my collection) for £8.57, or spend £7.40 on a trip to Cardiff in the hope that Waterstone’s might be knocking a couple of quid off the published price – always assuming, of course, that they were stocking it at all! It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? As soon as I’ve got a bit of spare cash, I’ll be ordering my copy online. Waterstone’s are doing themselves no favours, and I don’t see why I should lose any more sleep over an obviously sinking ship which doesn’t concern me one iota any more.]
We didn’t bother going upstairs, so (once again) we left empty-handed. Having said that, there was a table full of ‘add-on sales’ just inside the doors. There was a small stack of the camera lens vacuum flasks there too – priced at £13.99. It obviously pays to shop around. I was quite tempted by a mini graphics tablet, about the size of a beermat, which you can use for jotting quick notes before connecting it to your computer. It was £7.99, not a bad price for a potentially useful piece of kit. Maybe next time. If it had been a shopping trip, it would have been a rather disappointing one thus far.
We re-emerged onto The Hayes and Martin realised that he’d given his rolling papers to a chap who’d blagged a smoke on Mountain Ash Station. While he’d been turning his pockets out, I’d pointed out the side entrance to Waterstone’s, where the BBC built the false ATM for the Doctor Who episode ‘The Runaway Bride’ (see Location, Location, Location). There’s a pair of steel gates over the entrance now. People from the nearby offices used to cluster in the doorway in wet weather for their smoking breaks. I can only assume that the Powers That Be took a dislike to the accumulated dog-ends all over the place. Added to that was the fact that people coming out of the nearby pub used to use the recess as a toilet. I can’t blame Waterstone’s (or the building’s landlords) for fencing it off.
Once Martin had restocked his stash of papers, we strolled up The Hayes past the old Library. I caught sight of a familiar figure striding past St John’s Church, and pointed him out to Martin. It was one of Cardiff’s most distinctive, striking and colourful individuals – Ninjah Pendragon.
Ninjah is a very tall, very athletic mixed-race guy with long hair (he used to have dreadlocks; now it’s in bleached braids) who cuts an unmistakable figure in the city. He’s a DJ; a rapper; a musician; a raconteur; a self-styled ‘Bin Basher’ (his website used to have the strapline ‘Keeping Britain Lively’);a wearer of outrageous outfits; a very intelligent, irrepressibly creative, but somewhat mentally unstable chap. He used to call into Waterstone’s regularly and would talk to us for hours, sometimes perfectly lucidly, sometimes less so. I remember being at a gig in Clwb Ifor Bach one night. The whole thing was a nightmare, and I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. It actually came as a blessed relief when Ninjah came in, and I spent the rest of the night chatting to him about all sorts.
Martin knows him too – anyone who’s spent any time in the pubs and clubs of the city does – so we decided we’d try and catch up with him. We tracked him down outside Beanfreaks, the health food shop, and he was delighted to see us. For once, his choice of costume seemed a bit low-key – apart from the tinsel halo. He was shocked to learn that it’s been over four years since I finished work, so we had a good chat and a catch-up before moving on down St Mary Street.
Since it’s been pedestrianised, St Mary Street really has become a deep depression consisting of tightly-packed eyesore bars (see A Letter to the Editor 6). Even The Cottage, one of the old-school Brain’s Brewery pubs in the middle of town, has decided to go continental.
We walked to the corner of Wood Street, where there’s a most remarkable piece of street art which was new to me. Enclosed in a glass case about twice the height of a man is an enormous clock, its workings exposed for all to see. I was fascinated by it, and took several pictures from different angles, with varying degrees of success. It’s difficult to shoot through glass without a polarising filter, as you’ll see – and one of my pictures came out as an amazing trompe l’oeil work, without any effort on my part.
This is the one that’s amazed everyone I’ve shown it to. It’s like something from a Fritz Lang film – but there was no trick photography involved. It’s just people waiting to cross the road, a taxi, the buildings behind them, and a close-up of the clockwork, all juxtaposed in a weird Steampunk montage:
(In spite of all of the inticate mechanical detail, the clock isn’t quite what it seems. While I was taking these photos, Martin spotted a large electric cable snaking into the paving slabs beneath. It’s the best way to make sure it keeps perfect time, I suppose.)
While we were there, we spotted a stocky guy making his way towards us, clutching a can of Special Brew. His head was bandaged and his face was scarred, but he was walking normally. I don’t know whether he was a rough sleeper – he wasn’t carrying any bags – but something about him seemed to spell ‘trouble’. We thought we’d have a bit of bother with him, to be honest, but all he wanted was for me to take his picture. I told him that I would have the picture, not him, but he was undeterred. I’ve never gone in for portraiture, but the finished result captured the essence of this oddly amiable nutter entirely.
For a moment I expected him to charge me for the privilege, but he looked at the result on the camera monitor, nodded his satisfaction, and went on to hassle some people sitting outside the pub nearby.
We walked back up St Mary Street, and we struck by the number of empty premises on both sides of the road. While we were chatting to Ninjah, I’d noticed that H. Samuel, Cardiff’s long-established jeweller’s shop next to the Market, had closed down. Further down, Crouch the Goldsmith’s has gone as well. On the corner of Quay St, Jacobs’ camera shop is empty, with notices of liquidation still on the windows a year after the event. There were TO LET signs all over the place, and piles of uncollected refuse all over the pavements. The whole area felt run-down and dispiriting. Consider that it’s probably the first place (after the railway station) that visitors to the city see, and it’s hardly a welcoming sight.
We walked along Quay Street towards Westgate Street, where we’d arranged to meet our contact. Here again there were piles of rubbish outside business, and a little rivulet of piss had dried up next to what used to be The Model Inn. It seemed that the first victim of the austerity years must have been the local authority’s sanitation department. The glass case surrounding the clock was covered in bird shit as well, and the pavements were filthy. Martin wanted to show me the new home of the Moon Club, in Womanby Street, more or less where The Horse and Groom used to be. As we walked up the lane, we spotted a little row of cottages tucked away behind large gates. I’d never noticed them before, so I can only assume that the gates are locked outside office hours.
There was a plaque in the entrance to the lane, so we learned that Jones Court had been built by the Marquis of Bute to house labourers working on the canal. Now the whole block is occupied by a commercial translation business.
We’d arranged to meet our contact in Fire Island, one of three bars that occupies the old Glamorgan City Council Staff Club on Westgate Street. It’s bang opposite the entrance to the Millennium Stadium, so I took a few photos while Martin had another cigarette.
We went into the pub to wait for our contact to arrive, and immediately we were struck by how tatty the place looked. Martin described it as ‘shabby chic’ (in which case my house must be at the very cutting edge of interior design), but we couldn’t decide whether it was intentional or not. There was no wallpaper on the bare plaster; old softwood doors had been used to make wainscoting around the walls, and other offcuts of timber had been formed into tables and benches. A couple of rather sad aspidistras drooped in large pots, and together with the very dark varnish on the door frames, the subdued lighting, and the generally seedy atmosphere, the whole place reminded me of the set of The Stranglers’ video for ‘Golden Brown‘.
[A digression: I was going to post the link for the video here, but for some unknown reason it won’t work. I haven’t any problems linking YouTube videos before, so I’m assuming WordPress have done something strange again. I’m not especially worried, to be honest. If you’ve found your way to this place, you can certainly figure out how to watch YouTube videos. As E. M. Forster once wrote, ‘Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.’]
To add to the general down-at-heel ambience, when I went to the Gents’ I found a guy on his hands and knees fitting a sink. There was one very camp young lad on the phone when we got to the bar, and he didn’t make any effort to end his call so that we could get served. Another few guys were wandering around, and we weren’t sure whether they were staff or punters. I decided to have a pint of Budweiser on draught, and Martin had a glass of Coke. The two drinks came to exactly five quid! I’m definitely out of touch with Cardiff prices.
We’d been in there for about ten minutes when in walked our contact: Martin Shipton, the Chief Reporter for the Media Wales group. Back in April, having seen Martin H. go from pillar to post within the NHS and within the complaints system, I sent a quick email to the South Wales Echo newsdesk highlighting his plight. To my surprise, Martin S. emailed back the following day, saying that he was very interested in the story and asking for Martin’s contact details. He made the journey to Mountain Ash a few days later, and at the end of April he ran a full-page story about Martin’s predicament (Shipton, 2013).
There have been some interesting developments in the meantime. Our MP, Ann Clwyd, has been appointed by the Prime Minister to oversee an enquiry into the entire NHS complaints system. Martin’s been invited to the House of Commons for a preliminary session of the enquiry. It seemed like a perfect timing to update Martin S. on the whole sorry saga. We had a couple of pints and a good chat (we knew each other by sight from when I worked in the book trade). We’ve promised to update him when we get back from London. Martin S. went back to work after a traditional journalist’s liquid lunch; Martin H. went for a walk around, and I stayed put because Nerys had arrived.
Nerys was only in town on a flying visit from Ammanford on her way to Glastonbury. Even so, we had a fun couple of hours and a few pints, comparing notes on the economic situations in our respective countries. I was amazed to learn that New Zealand doesn’t have a social healthcare system. For some strange reason, I’d always assumed that it had more in common with the UK than with the USA. We chatted for ages before Martin returned, and Nerys headed off to get her festival stuff together.
Martin and I decided to head home before the evening rush hour, and I have to say I wasn’t sorry to leave the place. It seemed shabby, neglected, and in a state of gradual but inexorable decline. As I said at the end of A Capital Day Out, I won’t make a point of heading there again any time soon.