In the City

In which The Author weighs up the pros and cons

I’ve never been a ‘city’ person as such, in spite of living, studying and/or working within fairly easy reach of Cardiff and London during my life. When I was growing up, getting to Cardiff was a long and very complicated expedition by bus (there were no trains from Aberdare until 1988). Mother always hated the drive into the city centre, so we used to visit Swansea out of preference. That was where we did our Xmas shopping every year. Cardiff was an occasional necessary evil, best avoided if we had the choice.
Now, in 2013, the train to Cardiff takes about an hour. On the other hand, you can get to Swansea from Aberdare, but it takes ages, involving two different companies and at least one change of buses. There’s no possibility of getting there by public transport if you’re working normal office hours, and you can forget any idea of getting home after the shops close. (See A Letter to the Editor 17.) So it goes…
Even when I was at university only an hour away from the centre of London, I never ‘used’ the city to its fullest extent. I recalled some of the things that were going on at the time in Zigzagging Down Memory Lane, when I was far too shy to take advantage of when I was in my late teens, but I’d like to give you a few more examples.
When I had the opportunity to do so on a fucking plate, I never visited the British Museum, the National Gallery, Kew Gardens, the Tate Gallery, the National History Museum, the Science Museum, or the Victoria and Albert Museum. The only one of the great collections in South Kensington I did visit was the Geological Museum, when my brother came up for a flying visit and we made a point of going there.
Now that I look back on my time in Uxbridge, instead of being bored on a Sunday, I could have taken the tube into the city and really broadened my education. I had a golden opportunity to frequent the finest museums and galleries anywhere, and I pissed it away because I simply wasn’t interested. I was a very shallow teenager, now I come to think of it.
I haven’t even mentioned the plethora of lesser-known collections dotted throughout the Greater London area. For example, when I was staying with Uncle Tony and Auntie Elaine in Walthamstow, I didn’t know that there was a museum devoted to William Morris less than ten minutes’ walk from their house. Mind you, I only knew the name William Morris vaguely – I think I had some idea that he was an artist in the Victorian era, but that was about it. Had I known about the Morris Museum, I probably wouldn’t have gone there anyway.
Some years later, an article in the anarchist journal The Raven about the Garden Cities movement led me by a circuitous route back to Morris, and his visionary story News From Nowhere. Even though I’m not a devotee of the Arts & Crafts Movement, it would have been interesting to check out the museum for myself. The odd thing was that Tony and Elaine were both active members of the Labour Party, and they knew about my own interest in radical politics. I wonder why they never tipped me off about the place. Perhaps, like me, they didn’t know it was there. I only found about it via a book, many years after I’d moved back home. So it goes…
Similarly, there’s a museum devoted to the collection of Sir John Soane, the polymathic architect and antiquarian who had a huge influence on the ‘look’ of London in the first half of the nineteenth century. Then there’s the collection of anatomical specimens collected by the pioneering surgeon John Hunter, which was featured in Prof. Brian Cox’s Science Britannica a few months ago.
There are many other places like this, known only to locals and the cognoscenti who specialize in the history of the city. Casual visitors probably walk straight past them. I’ve never set foot in any of Wren’s or Hawksmoor’s magnificent post-Fire churches, or visited any of the great houses which are open to the public. When Martin H. and I were in London during the summer, we passed Apsley House (otherwise known as Number One, London) and it dawned on me that there was another glaring omission from my notional ‘to do’ list.
In London Orbital I told you about the way I spent three non-consecutive days circumnavigating the city by bus, travelling through the Isle of Dogs before it became Docklands. I wish now that I’d had a decent camera and money to spend on photography, recording the old East End before it was ‘redeveloped’ and the real Londoners moved out to the new towns of Essex and Hertfordshire. Once again, I just wasn’t especially interested in the history of the place. Now it’s gone forever. So it goes…
Having said that, there were (and still are) pubs with centuries-old back doors opening onto the Thames. One of the best-known is The Prospect of Whitby, which Gaz has been to a couple of times. I was in that neck of the woods in January 2011, the last time I had a proper day in London (see Limehouse Blues and Twos), but I didn’t make it that far east.
I was exploring the area around the old Radcliffe Highway. Most of the old pubs thereabouts have closed;they’ve been converted into flats or pulled down altogether. Instead, I stumbled upon Limehouse Basin, which has been completely transformed into a marina surrounded by luxury apartments with price tags to match:

Limehouse Basin panorama

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Talking of pubs: I wasn’t a big drinker in those days, so it didn’t even occur to me to make one into my ‘local.’ When you’re new to a place it’s hard to sort the good from the bad and the indifferent. It was difficult enough in Cardiff, where there were a dozen pubs of varying quality within easy walking distance of the station (see A Letter to the Editor 6). When you find yourself in a new city with quite literally thousands of pubs to choose from, where do you even start?
Dad took me into Dirty Dick’s in Bishopsgate when we were there in 1985, but that was a nostalgia trip for him. It had been his after-work local when he was working on the electrification of the Liverpool Street-Shenfield railway line, long before I was born. I paid a visit there some time during the 1990s, and it was full of yuppies. The old regulars wouldn’t have pissed on it if it had been on fire. So it goes…
If you’re working in a new city, your colleagues will probably have a favourite place to which they repair after knocking-off time, so you can get eased into the drinking culture that way. That was what happened in Cardiff, when Laurie introduced me to Mulligan’s. I didn’t have that advantage in London. Martin H. and Matt L., who were living and working there at the same time as I was, did. As young students from the provinces, Rob P., Richard W., Duncan P. and I were adrift in a sea of pubs, with no map, no compass and no fixed points to navigate by. It was far easier to settle into the steady routine of the Mandela Bar of the Students’ Union (oh, those great days of the left-wing SU! See Marxist Economics) and explore no further.
Having said that, I remember that Martin W., Pete P. and I walked down to the towpath of the Grand Union Canal one sunny spring Sunday afternoon (our Halls of Residence were a couple of minutes’ walk away) for a leisurely pint outside The Shovel. To our amusement, the Grand Union Morris Men had moored their boat nearby, and they treated the clientèle to an al fresco performance in the beer garden. (That was another occasion which definitely called for a decent camera!)
One pub always caught my eye whenever I passed towards West Drayton on the bus; the charmingly-named The Paddington Packet Boat was a throwback to the days when mail was carried by boats, not unmanned aerial vehicles. There were several pubs in Uxbridge town centre as well, but it never occurred to me to go into any of them. Some older students had been slung out of more than one of them, so they weren’t especially accommodating to the Brunel crowd. You can’t really blame them, can you?
The one place I did visit a few times (strangely enough, when you consider that I was studying Applied Biology) was the Institute of Contemporary Arts. They’d advertised a week of events for new students in the Time Out Student Guide to London, so I decided to pop along on the first Wednesday afternoon. The bands they were showcasing weren’t much cop, and the exhibits consisted largely of what Kim Howells MP would memorably describe as ‘conceptual bullshit’, but there were plenty of punky girls there to attract my roving eye.
The ICA’s programme of upcoming events was interesting as well. One early evening slot was a talk by Brian Aldiss and Christopher Priest, whose latest books (Seasons in Flight and The Glamour respectively) had just been published by Jonathan Cape. I went into town and made it to the ICA in time for the talk, but for some inexplicable reason I didn’t stay for the signing session which followed. As a result, I missed my best chance to shake Mr Priest’s hand and tell him how much I loved his earlier novels. So it goes…
Probably the one aspect of London life which I really failed to take advantage of was its cosmopolitan cuisine. I’ve only eaten out in the city a handful of times, strange as it may sound. (I’m not counting pub lunches and fast food, obviously!) The first time was with my cousin Matthew E. and some of his pals; we went to an Italian restaurant in Soho after having a few pints in The Porcupine, just off Leicester Square.
Two other occasions were when Sam and I were an item. We went to the Satay Malaysia in Finsbury Park on the evening when we failed to see Elton Dean’s Newsense (see Elton Dean – Sorely Missed), and we once went to a Chinese restaurant near Turnpike Lane. (I recognised the actress Siobhan Redmond sitting at the next table, weirdly enough.)
Even so, to this day, I’ve never had any of the traditional grub of the city’s working folk: rock and chips, pie and mash, or jellied eels. In fact, I passed Tubby Isaacs’ legendary jellied eels stall near Aldgate Station several times on my travels, but I never sampled his wares. Now, I never will – the business ceased trading in June this year after an extraordinary 94 years and four generations of the same family (Brooke, 2013). Yet another chapter has closed in London’s rich history. So it goes…
The last time I ‘ate out’ in London was in November 2003. George W. Bush was visiting the UK and I’d gone up to join the anti-war march through the city centre. I had some time to kill before everyone assembled, so I’d gone for a walk around and chanced on a pub near Old Street Station which advertised food. I can’t remember now, but I think it was called The Bell, or possibly The Bluebell – one of those cavernous pubs on a corner that are such a feature of the London streetscape. The landlady was a small, middle-aged, grey-haired lady with a real EastEnders accent – a proper chirpy Cockney character – and she gave me a warm welcome and served me some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever had in a pub. It wasn’t expensive, either. The chances are that it’s a Wetherspoon now, or some bloody gastropub – always assuming it’s still open at all, of course. I’ll have to try and find it again next time I’m in the city.
That leaves the tourist traps. I’ve never been big on those anyway, to be honest. I haven’t been to Madame Tussaud’s or the Tower of London since I was a kid. I’ve been to the House of Commons once, when we delivered a petition against the Poll Tax to Downing Street in about 1990. I’ve never done Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Planetarium, or the London Eye. Apart from the last two, I don’t think they’d be my scene, really.
Sam and I did visit the London Dungeon one Saturday afternoon, but it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We had rather more fun when we decided to have a drink in The Miller of Mansfield, a few minutes’ stroll away in the old narrow streets of Southwark. (Chaucer scholars will spot the origin of the name, of course.)
At one point, the barman asked us if we’d mind moving to another table. We assumed that they had a party booked in for a meal, so we found somewhere else to sit. Before long, we discovered why the cosy corner we’d settled in was in such demand. A TV crew and several fairly familiar faces descended on the building; they were filming an episode of The Knock, a drama series about customs officers in London. Sam spent quite a while drifting around by the bar, hoping to be immortalized on video. Sadly, her big break never came. So it goes…
On my January 2011 trip, I found myself wandering around near the Tower. Even though I didn’t especially want to visit it, I had a quick look at the admission prices. For one adult, it cost a staggering £18.70. When I got home, I had a look at Dad’s old copy of the International Police Association Guide to London (published in 1971):
IPA Tower of London
Has anything else in the UK exhibited such massive price inflation in four decades? (Answers on a postcard, please.)
I know now – and probably knew then, even though I chose to ignore the fact – that the greatest city on Planet Earth boasted a wealth of treasures: a host of cinemas, both mainstream and art-house; theatres large and small; intimate café bars where one could have a reasonably-priced meal while listening to the cream of the touring jazz scene…
In fact, across the city, seven nights a week, hundreds of musicians were playing in pubs and students’ unions: some were well-known bands like the headliners from my Incomplete List of Gigs; others were probably the sort of jumpers-for-goalposts cover outfits who still plod along the circuit three decades later (see The Great Valleys Songbook).
Once the pubs chucked out in the afternoon, there were several hundred (!) Soho drinking clubs where you could raise an elbow with the likes of Francis Bacon, Peter O’Toole, Tom Baker, Keith Waterhouse, Willie Rushton, Peter Cook – not to mention No-Knickers Joyce, Maltese Laurie, and the rest of the colourful characters whom Jeffrey Bernard chronicled in his weekly Spectator column. Bizarrely enough, Martin H. has just sent me a link to an article in the Daily Telegraph, and it seems that even these hardened piss-artists were in the Second Division compared to some writers of bygone days (Thomas, 2013). Peter O’Toole has gone now. So it goes…
Matt was lucky, because he found his way into the periphery of that scene while he was working in London. Martin worked for a company which supplied gear to the top recording studios, and he also met a host of interesting characters. The ironic thing is that, although we were all from Aberdare, and were all there at the same time, we were unaware of each other’s presence. Matt and I had lost touch after our A Levels. I’d gone there to study; he’d gone there to work. Martin was older than both of us, and we only became friends long after the fact, when The Carpenters in Aberdare was the pub to go to.
Having said that, the Brunel University SU offered some interesting nights out. In March 2015 I’ll tell you about what was undoubtedly the weirdest night of my life thus far, on the occasion of its thirtieth anniversary. (How’s that for forward planning, eh…?) Based on his previous experience in the Sheffield am-dram scene, Duncan P. manned the lighting desk for gigs on Fridays and Saturdays. I was his wingman on the follow spot. Our SU was also part of a small network of venues which hosted a baffling variety of acts, and our big night was Sunday night: Alternative Cabaret.
On two occasions we lit the stage for an energetic octogenarian American named Will Gaines, who had taught Sammy Davis Jr to tap dance. He was a lovely guy, as laid-back and charismatic as you could hope to meet. We lit The Joan Collins Fan Club (with Fanny the Wonder Dog), long before Julian Clary became a household name. We lit Benjamin Zephaniah, who (many years later) received an honorary doctorate from the University of Glamorgan on the day of James E.’s graduation. We lit Mark Miwurdz, Aswad, the Redskins, Shriekback, The Poison Girls… We lit an array of comedians, ranting poets, and a fair number of up-and-coming bands. Duncan and I were the dream team.
[A digression: The funniest night of all was the one night I wasn’t there. A band called Infaction had been booked to play, but I had a ticket to see The Fall in the city centre. I’d never heard of Infaction, so I made my apologies to Stubbsy, the SU Ents Manager, and headed into town. Afterwards, I got off the tube at Uxbridge Station, where I was met by a girl I recognized from the SU. She was a Biology student as well, but she was a year ahead of me. (I can’t remember her name at this remove.) She was very small, very pretty, and very punky. I’d fancied her from the get-go. We’d never spoken to each other, but she pounced on me as I detrained and said, ‘Where were you tonight? You’ve just missed a great gig!’
I explained that I’d been to see Mark E. Smith and his less-than-merry men, and she shook her head.
‘This band are fucking brilliant,’ she insisted. ‘It’s Mick Jones’ new band. They’re going to be fucking huge!’ Then she jumped on the train and headed off into the distance (well, Ickenham, two stops away, which is where she lived.)
You’re probably thinking that you’ve never heard of Infaction. You’re right. As it turned out, she was right as well. A couple of months later, they changed their name to Big Audio Dynamite and became massive. I eventually caught them at Clapham Common in the summer of 1986, when they headlined a huge anti-apartheid gig. As with Christopher Priest, I’d missed a perfect chance to shake Mick Jones’ hand, and maybe have a beer with Don Letts. So it goes…]
Anyway, those Alternative Cabaret nights were pretty much as far as my involvement with London Life went. I had a golden opportunity to really throw myself into the city, and I totally wasted it. In those far-off days I was (in Morrissey’s words) ‘the son and the heir of a shyness that is cripplingly vulgar’.
Even when I was at gigs with bands I loved, I don’t think I ever spoke to anyone else in the audience. In Behind the Mask I told you about the one and only time when I broke the First Commandment of the London Underground: Thou shalt not speak to thy fellow passengers.
Apart from the students from my own group, my year tutor, one of my lecturers (when we were on the same bus one afternoon), the regulars in the SU, Paul the steward, and a couple of guys who worked in the Rough Trade record shop, I don’t think I ever had a proper conversation with anyone throughout the two academic terms that I was there. As Ian Dury put it: what a waste! So it goes…
Things were pretty much the same when I started working in Cardiff. From the vantage point of Aberdare, the nightlife of that city seemed almost as remote as the nightlife of New York or Amsterdam. At that time, the last bus to Aberdare officially left at 2130 (see Nice Work If You Can Get There.) In reality, it would leave at any time between 2045 and 2215. You’d have to hang around in the bus station from about half past eight, afraid to take a leak unless the driver tore up to the stop, found the stand empty, and shot straight through again. If you were waiting by the Castle, the chances were that the bus wouldn’t even slow down, never mind stop.
One night I’d been to a public lecture and book signing with robotics engineer, computer scientist, author, and all-round top bloke Steve Grand, at the Riordan Smith Theatre, part of the National Museum of Wales. (His book Creation had just been published in hardback.) Prof. Phil Thomas of Cardiff Law School used to organize these lectures and Dillons looked after the book signings. They were always great fun, and I got to rub shoulders with some well-known academics as a result: Professors Steve Jones and Steven Pinker, for example. After the signing, we repaired to a room in the university for drinks and nibbles, where Mr Grand and I chatted for a while about his work. He was fascinating company, and I’d have liked to talk to him for much longer, but I didn’t want to chance my arm and miss the last bus.
I made my excuses and headed to the Corbett Road bus stop. My friend Linda had been to the lecture as well, so we were chatting about it. Without any warning, I saw our bus a couple of hundreds yards away, and it was in the outer lane, with absolutely no intention of picking up any passengers. Linda and I walked into the middle of the road and literally stood in front of the bus, so that the driver was forced to stop and pick us up. The following morning, Shamrock logged another two complaints about the last bus. I’ve little doubt that they were filed in the bin, along with all the hundreds of others.
Meanwhile, in the early 1990s, the last train left Cardiff at 2021. How the actual fuck was anyone supposed to plan a night out when they were up against such piss-poor public transport? I once wrote to the BBC (see A Letter to the Editor 11), pointing out (in rather more pre-watershed language) that people in the south-east of England who complained about their piss-poor public transport didn’t know they were fucking born!
Even after Arriva Trains Wales extended the operating hours, the service was (and still is) woefully inadequate compared to that in and around other major cities. When I was in Manchester last November, I was able to get a tram back to Salford at a fairly civilized hour. I hadn’t investigated the situation in detail, but I strongly suspect that night buses kick in once the trams stop – just as the night bus network in London does. (After three very late gigs in the city centre, the N91 from Oxford Street out to Uxbridge, skirting the campus and taking less than an hour, was little short of a gift from Goddess.) Here, Dai the Shit Engine and his friends are tucked up in their sheds long before we hear the chimes at midnight.
Apart from the harrowing new production of 1984 which I saw in the Sherman Theatre in November (see How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up?), I haven’t had a late night out in Cardiff for ages. If you live in the Valleys, and don’t make a point of reading the Western Mail, the South Wales Echo, and/or the regional edition of Metro every day, you won’t know about anything that’s happening there anyway. Let me give you two examples.
The noted Irish poet and critic Paul Muldoon once gave a talk at Cardiff University. I spotted a tiny reference to it in Metro during my lunch break, and decided to try and rope in some of the Waterstone’s gang. After all, we were Cardiff’s only bookshop, so I thought it would reflect nicely on us if a few of us made the effort to go along. However, it was a Friday evening, and everybody had made other plans. It was far too short notice to be of any use to us.
In the event (as usual) I was on my own, and I got there just in time for the start. (I’d left in good time, but had misread the newspaper item; instead of the Music School, I’d headed for the Welsh College of Music and Drama, a few minutes’ walk away on the other side of North Road. It was no wonder the girl on the reception desk didn’t know what I was talking about! Luckily there was a Metro lying around, so I double-checked the details before making my apologies and leaving.)
Once I’d ironed out the misunderstanding and found my way to the lecture hall, I was surrounded by the usual collection of what we in Wales call the crachach – academics, media folk, civic dignitaries, professional Welshmen (q.v. Kingsley Amis’ novel The Old Devils) and (of course) the sort of pretentious people who simply like to be seen at these events. (See Bullshit Detector, where I relate a similar evening at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay.)
Prof Muldoon was erudite and witty, and didn’t even raise an eyebrow when a couple of the audience made an unsuccessful attempt to sneak away during his talk. The fire door swung open with a loud bang, at which he glanced in their direction, raised a hand, said, ‘Goodbye now – thanks for coming!’ and returned to his lecture without missing a beat.
Afterwards, I made my way back into the city centre, which was the usual Friday night bedlam of hen parties, stag parties, and general pissheads. I didn’t even stop for a pint; I headed straight for the train, and wrote a free verse poem which I dedicated to Prof. Muldoon while the evening was fresh in my mind. (I lost the notebook ages ago, so I’ll spare you from the horror of my effort.)
The other evening was also the result of something I’d seen in the newspaper that day: the Cardiff Archaeological Society was hosting a talk about Avebury and Silbury Hill. Like Prof. Muldoon’s talk, this took place at Cardiff University, and it was pure luck that I’d spotted it listed in the South Wales Echo. Once again I arrived just before things got under way, having negotiated a maze of corridors to try and find the lecture theatre. I can’t remember the name of the researcher, but he was intimately involved with the excavations, and gave a fascinating insight into the state of current theories.
As with Prof. Muldoon’s talk, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go along, facilitated by the fact that I was already in Cardiff anyway. If I’d been working in Aberdare, I’d never have been able to get there in time. Having said that, I probably wouldn’t have seen that day’s Metro; unless someone in work had bought the South Wales Echo over lunch, I wouldn’t have known that either of these events was even taking place.
Working in Cardiff did enable me to make friends with some of the city folk. My friend Jasmine used to work in Rebel Rebel, a modern-day ‘head shop’ with an interesting array of goods in the back room (see Portion Control), and through her I became friends with Tim and Rick, the guys who ran the place.
I once spent an evening in the company of Leon Charles, a Butetown chap who called into the shop regularly. Leon was always heavily involved in events for Black History Month, and when he walked into Kitty Flynn’s one night, I decided that I could afford to stay until the last train. We chatted for ages about the history of Cardiff, and it made for a very pleasant diversion. (I was sorry to leave, in fact.)
Through the Kitty Flynn’s crowd I met Greg Tindle, who used to be the Health Correspondent for the Western Mail and South Wales Echo. I think he must have retired during the last round of staff cutbacks, as his name hasn’t been in the papers for ages. By drinking with a decent regular crowd, I got to know that the best chips in Cardiff were to be had from Dorothy’s in Caroline Street, and that the City Arms was by far the cliquiest pub in the city centre. You don’t find that sort of local knowledge in the guide books.
When I was a lot younger, I seriously considered moving to Cardiff, but something always held me back. I knew that I wanted my own house (see Not Born Beautiful) and I realized that the only chance I’d have of buying a place was to stay in the Valleys. I feel very sorry for today’s students, who can probably kiss goodbye to any hope of owning their own home any time soon – even when the Government’s Help to Buy scheme comes fully on-stream in the next year. I glanced into a estate agent’s window in Aberdare this afternoon, and a terraced house a couple of streets from me is on the market for £85,000! That’s over five times what my own place was valued at when I bought it. What did I say earlier on about price inflation? (Mind you, I read something in yesterday’s Daily Mirror about the next round of rail ticket increases. Apparently, some people commuting into London will be paying over five grand for an annual season ticket. I thought paying over £1,200 a year was a bit steep.)
However, living in Cardiff would open up many more options than living in Aberdare, not only on the jobs front, but also in terms of things to do. I know most of the cinemas are multiplexes showing the latest blockbusters, but even the smaller films get a screening. For example, there’s a film out about the college days of the Beat Generation called Kill Your Darlings. It was showing in one of the big Cardiff cinemas for three days in the middle of December (possibly longer, as I didn’t see the previous week’s listings). It might have transferred to Chapter, which is a small art-house cinema in the suburbs, but I didn’t bother looking. Ross and Richard are living in Brighton, having been in London for a long time, and they saw it before it even got to Cardiff. As with most films which have been out in the past few years, I’ll have to wait for the DVD. (Then again, even getting hold of the DVD might be tricky, now that Blockbuster has rolled the final credits.)
There’s absolutely no possibility of it coming to the Coliseum in Aberdare. It’s not a kids’ film from Pixar Studios, after all, which is pretty much all that our only local ‘cinema’ seems to show these days. There hasn’t been a live performance worth watching for months. Unless you’re a fan of pantomime, or an aficionado of the dramatic works of Frank Vickery (see Connecting People), there’s been nothing to get the punters in for well over a year.
Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC announced their proposed second wave of spending cuts a couple of weeks ago (Tegeltija, 2013). I wasn’t especially surprised to see Pontypridd’s Muni on the list of facilities to face the axe. It’s the town’s equivalent of our Coliseum, and has a far more enterprising outlook. It hosts touring musicians, plays, live comedy, films, and has a café bar which opens throughout the day. If it can’t survive on that basis, what hope does the Coliseum (with a ‘reduced programme’) have? If Phase 3 of RCTCBC’s Operation Austerity doesn’t include closing the Coliseum altogether, I’ll be extremely surprised.
[A digression: Neil R. lives between Brynmawr and Abergavenny, and frequently compares RCTCBC to Blaenau Gwent CBC, his own cash-strapped authority. He told me that a few years ago Brynmawr’s municipal cinema was threatened with closure. It was taken over by a little group of local entrepreneurs and transformed into a thriving business which shows the latest films as soon as they’re available.
During my little weekend break in the Forest of Dean earlier this year, I was amazed to find that the little town of Coleford still has a cinema; not only that, but they were showing The World’s End, which had only been released a few days earlier. The same was true of Monmouth, where the Savoy Theatre offered a far more varied and interesting bill than anything RCT has managed to pull together in the past ten years. Surely that has to be that way forward.]
Here, once again, we see the same City/Valleys dichotomy which I referred to exactly a year ago, in Nice Work If You Can Get There. The topography of the area doesn’t help, as I pointed out in that examination of the public transport ‘system’ in this part of the world. I cited Prof. Kevin Morgan’s study of Stuttgart and the surrounding area, which has tackled the issue of public transport with extraordinary results.
When I was eighteen, I saw for myself the enormous difference which a decent public transport system can make. The metropolitan area of Greater London, where I spent my first first year at University, is exactly that – Greater London. It might take a bit of forward planning and a few hiccups en route, but you can travel pretty much across the entire county, twenty-four hours a day. (In fact, Transport for London recently announced that the tube will begin to operate around the clock at weekends. That’s a huge leap into the Twenty-First Century as far as the UK is concerned.)
A pure accident of geology means that it’s much easier to travel north-south in the valleys than it is to travel east-west. I spotted an article in one of the papers (I’m sorry, but I can’t find the reference online and the Library is closed today.) Someone had toyed with an express bus service linking Pontypridd and Pontypool – which would give a direct feed into the Cardiff-Manchester rail service. Almost immediately, someone from the bus company had responded, saying that there wouldn’t be a market for such a service.
Let’s think about that statement for a minute. When the trains returned to Aberdare in 1988, it was just an experiment, remember. In 2013, the railway network feeding into Cardiff has seen such an upsurge in passenger numbers that the platforms at Queen Street Station are being remodelled to cope with increased traffic. Nobody saw that coming a quarter of a century ago. As the man said, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ I’ve got a feeling that a direct link between the eastern and western valleys, circumventing the need to go via Cardiff, could be a roaring success after the first couple of years. It’s sad to know that’s it’s already been dismissed out of hand.
The biggest problem, mind you, is that the geographical and historic barriers between the Valleys don’t stop at the lines on the map. They’re in people’s minds as well.
The idea of a Greater South Wales, along the Greater London, Greater Manchester (or even Greater Stuttgart) lines, will never become a reality, no matter how appealing an idea it may seem on paper. We’re living in an area where many people’s worlds extend only as far as the corner shop, the pub, the workplace, and the rugby ground. Some years ago I came up with a theory that one’s ‘inner’ landscape reflects one’s surroundings. It’s especially true in this place. Narrow valleys breed narrow minds.
One Bank Holiday Monday many years ago, I strolled into The Carpenters early in the evening. The Two Sharons (T. and P.) were sitting together as usual, and Sharon T. asked me why I was so late on parade.
‘I’ve been in Bath,’ I told her.
‘It doesn’t take this long to have a bath,’ she replied.
‘No, not in the bath – in Bath! You know, the Roman city in the west of England.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ she countered. ‘You can’t get there and back in a day, can you?’
Of course you can get there and back in a day. It’s barely an hour from Cardiff by train. Then again, if (like the two Sharons) you grew up in the era when simply getting to Cardiff was a major expedition, and never went further afield when you were a student, it’s hardly surprising that so many Valleys people think of day trips as being impossible unless you organise a minibus and do it yourselves. I know older people for whom Pontypridd is a big day out. Cardiff is reserved for Xmas shopping trips or rugby matches. As for London…
You might as well tell them you’ve organised a day trip to Cairo or Sydney.
Martin H. and I have been talking for some time about running a bus to London on a Sunday morning when there’s nothing at all to do around here. We’d arrange the transport, everyone would pay a tenner or whatever to cover the cost, and once there, we could do whatever we liked. We wouldn’t have to come back ridiculously early, so that people could head up to Camden Town and check out a couple of bands, or go exploring with their cameras, or take in the shops, or just visit the tourist traps. As long as everyone was back at the rendezvous point on time, they’d be free to do our own thing. On paper (and on this screen, in fact) it sounds like a fantastic idea.
Of course, in the Real World, it would fall apart long before we even got a quote from the bus company. I’ve seen it happen too many times. You try and interest people in doing something out of the ordinary, and everyone’s really enthusiastic to begin with. Then they start looking at the sports fixtures or the TV schedules, and decide that watching yet another soccer match or yet another fucking TV karaoke contest is far more interesting than doing something completely new. To complicate matters further, you have to take account of the personal politics – ‘I’ll only go if she isn’t going!’ and/or ‘I can’t go unless he’s going!’ – and before too long you’re on your own.
I told you about our excursion to see the Severn Bore in Time and Tide. On that occasion, we were planning to run a minibus. In the event, there were three of us. Go figure…
I’ve got a funny feeling that Martin and I would end up keeping each other company in London, substantially out of pocket and severely regretting voicing the very idea.
And that’s pretty much the state of play in the Valleys. It’s exactly a year on from my last extended status report into what we laughingly refer to as ‘civilization’ in this part of the world.
Nothing has changed. Cardiff has the cream of the culture – St David’s Hall, the Wales Millennium Centre, the New Theatre, the Sherman Theatre, Chapter, The Globe, The Moon Club, multi-screen cinemas with a range of blockbusters and arthouse releases, art exhibitions, rock and jazz gigs… We’re stuck with the dregs: an endless cycle of karaoke singers, cover bands, tribute acts, pantomimes, musicals, fucking kids’ films…
In fact, when the economic cutbacks really come into effect early next year, things are going to get a damn sight worse. Several years ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to my local paper with a radical approach to town planning (see A Letter to the Editor 9.) Now, I’m beginning to wonder whether we might as well apply the same approach to the entire Valleys area, right across from Blaengwynfi and Glyncorrwg in the west, to Brynmawr in the east. It’s become perfectly apparent to the people living here that the UK Government doesn’t care a jot about us, that the Welsh Government is just an expensive talking shop implementing Westminster’s policies, and that the local authorities are simply a gravy train for the entrenched political dynasties and the rest of the crachach to ride in their retirement.
It isn’t even worth buying a starter home in the Cynon Valley, because about half of them are on flood plains. The rest are being built over disused coal mines. I’m just waiting for the first big sink hole to open up in our area. In today’s i there’s a very alarming photograph of a 150-foot wide, 130-foot deep crater on the site of a former colliery at Foolow in Derbyshire. It’s been opened up by the relentless heavy rain which these islands have experienced for the last couple of weeks. Mark my words, it won’t be long before the first new houses vanish into the Stygian gloom of the former coalfield.
Take a piece of advice. Forget any ideas you might have about coming to the Valleys to live – go straight to Cardiff, do not pass GO, do not collect £200. This place is finished: economically, politically, socially – everything.
I’m sorry to end the year on such a sour note, but, like the Ghost of Xmas Present, I have no comfort to offer. I’ve tried to be as upbeat about this place as I can be over the last year or so, but with the Con-Dem policies firmly in place for the foreseeable future, what we’ve seen so far is just the thin end of the wedge.
By the time the next General Election comes, there will be parts of South Wales just as hopelessly abandoned as the slum districts of Third World cities. The gulf between the wealthy and the poor is already as wide as it was in the Victorian Age, and it’s set to get wider. In fact, if I had to create a new atlas of the country, based on its economic fortunes, I think I’d probably overwrite the whole of the Valleys with an old quotation:
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here
So it goes…
REFERENCES

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Looking Forwards, Looking Backwards

In which The Author is determined not to be outdone

As regular readers know, I don’t have fixed internet access at home. That went out of the window at the same time as my university career, back in October 2011. I’d only just paid one phone bill when the next one thudded onto the doormat. I couldn’t afford to maintain it, so I reluctantly let the phone line go. I have to rely on Aberdare Library and/or various pubs for sufficient bandwidth to update my Netbook and get the various podcasts to which I subscribe. At home, when I’m just surfing the net and not using a huge amount of data, I can get by using a MyFi.
Neil G. from the pub sold his MyFi to me during the summer, as he couldn’t get a signal at his flat in Cwmaman. I’ve been to Cwmaman many times, and my phone drops off the grid as soon as I pass The Fforchneol. It’s the Land That Mobile Signals Forgot. Allow me to expound a theory…
The three loudest people I’ve met in my life – Alan Swanson, Stuart Cable, and Deno – were all from Cwmaman. Let’s consider each one in turn.
There was a running joke in the old days of the Cynon Valley Quiz League, that you heard Alan Swanson coming long before he entered the room. During the games themselves, his ‘whispered’ discussions must have inadvertently fed the correct answers to many rival teams over the years. We always said that if ever Aberdare decided to appoint a town crier, Swanny was a shoe-in for the job. I remember the season when we fielded a team in The Whitcombe, and had won every game so far. The day before we were due to play Cwmaman Club, I bumped into Swanny in Aberdare.
‘We’ve got you tomorrow,’ he said, with an evil gleam in his eye.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘We’re unbeaten so far.’
‘So are we,’ he replied.’And you won’t beat us tomorrow.’
‘Swanny, you’re up against the dream team,’ I countered. ‘You’ve got no chance. Good luck for tomorrow – you’ll need it.’
It turned out to be the closest match of the season. When James announced the final score, it was a dead heat. We stood up to shake hands with our opponents as usual, and I gave Swanny a big hug.
‘I told you you wouldn’t beat us, didn’t I?’ I grinned.
Swanny died several years ago, far too young, and it seemed as though the wind had gone out of the Quiz League’s sails. After that we saw the wholesale closure of pubs throughout the valley (see Another One Bites the Dust), and we lost most of the function rooms which were so important for the league’s survival. You couldn’t have a serious quiz in the surviving pubs, which had only one big room (as opposed to the traditional bar/lounge setup), and which invariably had a jukebox, pool table, big TV and/or ‘singer’ to disturb the proceedings. The CVQL wound down slowly, with the older quizzers falling by the wayside and the venues disappearing along with them. It finally died five years or so ago.
Stuart Cable was better known to the outside world and, if anything, even louder than Swanny. When he joined a band, it shocked nobody that he decided to play the drums. Even if he’d had a Marshall stack that went all the way up to 11, it still wouldn’t have been loud enough. On the other hand, a drum kit enabled him to make the maximum possible noise with the minimum possible amplification. It was a no-brainer, really.
I first met Stuart when he was going out with Emma P., and he was playing with a four-piece band named Tragic Love Company. We became firm friends, and even after the band changed their name to Stereophonics and became massive, he was still the same old Stuart. He was without a doubt one of the kindest, warmest, most genuine people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. When he left the band, he pursued a second career as a DJ and broadcaster. If I ever came across a nice joke about drummers, I’d text it to him, and he read a couple of them out on his BBC Radio Wales show.
Shanara and I were on our way home from Cardiff one evening when my phone rang. I was surprised to see Stuart’s name on the screen, so I answered it and he burst out laughing. He was snarled up in traffic in Monmouth town centre, and trying to phone a different Steve to say he was running late. We chatted for a few minutes, and after the call Shanara asked me who’d rung me. I told her it was Stuart and she didn’t believe me. When I first took her into the Welsh Harp several months later, she was amazed to find Stuart there, and even more amazed when I introduced her to him.
On the day of Stuart’s untimely death, his colleagues at Radio Wales were paying tribute to him throughout the morning. I phoned in and spoke about our friendship for a few minutes. I recounted how he’d invited some of us to watch the Wales v England Six Nations game at Cwmaman Institute a few years earlier. We were at one side of the room, fairly near the TV. Stu was propping up the bar at the other end of the long function room. During one violent maul, I remember his eruptive bellow resounding throughout the room: ‘Come on, boys, stamp on the fucking English cunts’ heads!’ While I was on the air, I decided that a verbatim quote probably wasn’t suitable for Jason Mohammad’s show; instead, I described the occasion as ‘like watching Scrum V with Ozzy Osbourne in the commentary box.’ Unlike Black Sabbath’s main man, however, Stuart wouldn’t have needed a microphone to reach the back of the stadium.
The third Cwmaman noisy bugger, Deno, is an old mate from the Carpenters days. He’s always been a noisy bugger, as we proved on our impromptu tour of Wiltshire some years ago (see Getting Stoned.) He’s married to Julia, and their children go to my old school in Trecynon. He has a tattoo studio on the village square, just around the corner from my house, and if I’m passing the school at the beginning or end of the day, I can always hear his less than dulcet tones echoing from the high perimeter walls.
It occurred to me one day, while we were chatting near the school gates, why the three guys I’ve talked about here were such noisy buggers. It was obvious when I thought about it: mobile phones are useless in the geographically-challenged side valley where they were brought up, so the inhabitants shout at each other as a substitute for phone calls. It’s the Welsh equivalent of yodelling, only rather less tuneful and tourist-friendly. (Lately, Bob P. has entered the list of Noisy Cwmaman Buggers as well, but his noise level only increases in direct proportion to his beer consumption. The other three started loud and stayed there.)
Anyway, in Trecynon the mobile phone situation is rather better. My signal is generally pretty decent, although it has its moments, especially when we have a period of stormy weather like the one we’re going through at the moment. The signal to the MyFi is usually problem-free as well.
Strangely, the one thing that is adversely affected by the weather conditions is the FM radio signal. After about ten o’clock at night, I can usually say goodbye to BBC Radio 2 entirely. On the very rare occasions that I’ve tried listening to Radio Wales, that’s been hit and miss as well. Radio 4 comes and goes, Radio 3 is usually okay, and Radio Cymru is always available for some unknown reason. (It’s just a pity I don’t speak Welsh.)
The stated aim of the UK Government is to shift entirely from analogue to digital radio, as the TV broadcasters did in piecemeal fashion until 2011. In fact, I wrote to the BBC a few years ago, pointing out that the existing FM signals in my area were already becoming unreliable. I wondered whether the analogue transmitters were being deliberately powered down, in a back-door attempt to force people to switch to the new technology.
However, the switch-off date has already been postponed a couple of times, because of the sheer number of analogue sets still in use. There are hundreds of thousands of people like me, with a radio in virtually every room of me. On top of those, there are millions of car radios. All of these devices will become obsolete at a stroke. This policy, like so many, clearly hasn’t been thought through.
Which brings me back to where we started. As well as the channels we’re all familiar with in the UK, the BBC also has a number of digital-only stations: BBC 6, 1Xtra, 4 Extra (formerly BBC 7), the Asian Network… While I had a landline, streaming these services wasn’t a problem. I got quite hooked on BBC 7 for a while, with its interesting mix of old and new comedy, drama and SF. However, streaming those via the MyFi would soon eat up my monthly bandwidth allowance.
That’s why I finally decided to bite the bullet this week and buy a DAB radio. I first looked into it about ten years ago, but at the time the coverage in this area was pretty poor. I checked out the available channels on the BBC’s handy website, and discovered that I could pick up Heart (which plays ‘classic pop’ all day) and very little else. It seemed to be an expensive investment – a basic DAB set was over fifty quid – with very little return.
One person I knew did invest in a DAB radio around this time; Glen from work lived in Cardiff, and had the full range of BBC services at his fingertips. However, if he spent the night at his partner Andrew’s house in Newport, scarcely ten miles along the coast, nearly all of those channels vanished from the scan results. I decided to see how things developed.
Things finally developed this week, when Mother gave me money for Xmas. I rang her on Xmas Day to thank her, and told her that I’d probably spend it on a DAB radio. To my horror, she told me that Mary and Les had bought her a DAB radio for Xmas. That made my mind up for me. After all, I couldn’t be outdone on the technology front by one of the people who’d enabled me to coin the word Granotechnology. Thus it was that I treated myself to a DAB/FM set from Argos yesterday.
It’s a basic model, but I didn’t want anything elaborate. I don’t have an iPod, so I didn’t want one with a docking station. I’ve already got two CD players, so that would have been redundant as well. The most important fact is that I was able to listen to Steptoe and Son and Yes, Minister on BBC 4 Extra last night. I haven’t bothered programming the presets yet; I’ll probably do that tomorrow, when I’ve had time to study the instruction manual properly. I’ve finally got more than the four basic channels to listen to, and when I combine those with the various podcasts from the BBC, there’s very little radio content that I’ll miss from now on.
The strangest thing about the radio, though, is the design. Apart from an LCD display where the old tuning dial would have been, and a number of push-buttons on the face, it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Mams’s kitchen during the 1970s. It’s boxy, with rounded edges, a big speaker grille, and an aerial sticking out of the top. It’s ‘retro’, if I’m being charitable, and downright old-fashioned if I’m not. About a month ago, in PC World in Pontypridd, I had a look at their range. Apart from a couple of streamlined matt black exceptions, they all looked as though they’d fallen through the Rift before I was born, and arrived in 2013.
I can’t help wondering why the designers of such high-tech products are so nostalgic for designs which were already obsolete in 1980. Have a look at the product advertisements which I revisited in OMNIscience, and remind yourself of how bulky and chunky those old hifi systems look in the light of today’s streamlined midi units. Externally at least, DAB radios have taken a step backwards from there, to the era of the first transistor sets.
It’s almost as though Samsung and Nokia had decided to bring out their latest range in two parts, a mouthpiece and an earpiece, linked by a little piece of wire. Maybe the manufacturers are trying to attract the Granotechnology generation by giving them something familiar to anchor themselves to. Or, maybe, as with every music and fashion trend of the past thirty years, the human race is destined to simply rehash the past in regular cycles, with true innovation banished to the sidelines as usual.