Back in the DDR

In which The Author uses his time machine again

On Saturday afternoon I was lucky enough to catch most of Radio 4’s Afternoon Play. Born in the DDR was a fictionalised account of the build-up to Bruce Springsteen’s landmark concert in East Berlin on 19 July 1988, and the adventures of a group of young friends trying to get tickets for the gig. Humorous, poignant and oddly nostalgic, it painted an intriguing picture of how Erich Honecker’s ailing communist regime tried to step on any pro-US propaganda which might have crept into the set.
The clash of ideologies lay in the background, of course. I still laughed at the organisers’ attempts to read anti-American content into each and every one of Mr Springsteen’s songs, just to make sure nothing subversive was coming over the PA.
Needless to say, things didn’t go entirely to plan. The concert was one of the catalysts which sparked the revolution, inspiring the young people of the German Democratic Republic to join forces, reject their authoritarian government, and – just sixteen months later – tear down the Berlin Wall.
The play might have been fiction, but it reminded me that in March 1984 (just before my eighteenth birthday, in fact), the UK music paper ZigZag ran a fascinating feature about the Punk scene in East Germany.
I mentioned it briefly in ZigZagging Down Memory Lane, a couple of years ago. I said then that it was one of the factors which turned me into an anarchist, rather than a communist (which was another option at the time).
I’ve never got round to digging it out again until now. A reporter named Steve Zucker had gone into the beleaguered totalitarian enclave with a photographer named Armin Hasse. They met some of East Berlin’s counterculture – the squatters, musicians and music lovers – and shed some intriguing light on the officially-sanctioned ‘youth culture’ of the times.
Most young people might not know very much about that secretive state – after all, the nearest equivalent we have today is North Korea. It’s difficult to believe that, just over a quarter of a century ago, a police state beyond the wildest imaginings of George Orwell lay in the heart of Europe, within spitting distance of the free and prosperous West.
With that in mind, it’s probably a good idea to put the ZigZag article into its broader context. In the afterword to his Cold War thriller Brandenburg (Orion Books, 2004), former Observer correspondent Henry Porter provides that context.
As you read on, it’s a good time to reflect on the measures which successive governments in the UK and elsewhere have introduced to limit our human rights, monitor our communications, and clamp down on any form of dissent. We may have left the Cold War behind, but we’re collectively sleepwalking into a totalitarian state with all the hi-tech accoutrements Mr Porter speculates about in this piece. Don’t have nightmares…
East Germany was the only member of the communist bloc to disappear as a state. A decade and a half after the Wall came down and the process of German unification began, most people would be hard pressed to trace the border between East and West Germany on a map. The very idea of two Germanies, of an Iron Curtain slicing across Europe, seems astonishing today, especially to those after 1975. And nothing was more bizarre during that era of division than the arrangements in West Berlin, a free enclave 100 miles inside communist territory, unswervingly guaranteed by the Western allies but surrounded by the watchtowers, barbed wire and concrete of the Berlin Wall.
We have forgotten East Germany’s baleful presence at the centre of Europe, the tragic power of the wall and also perhaps what it meant when on Thursday 9 November 1989 East Germans massed at the border crossings and West Germans climbed onto the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate to demand its destruction. Few who were there will ever again experience the surge of joy and optimism of those hours. Or the incredulity. For even after one million East Germans demonstrated against their government in Alexanderplatz, no one would have dared to predict that within a week those same people would be shopping in West Berlin.
It seemed a miracle then but it’s easy today to see how events combined to destroy the GDR and spark the fall of communism across Eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of the policies of Glasnost (freedom of expression) and Perestroika (restructuring) came with a new realism about the failure of the Marxist economies. Put simply, they were broke. East Germany, which unlike West Germany had little coal or steel of its own, survived into the eighties on cheap oil from the USSR and by exporting agricultural and industrial machinery at bargain-basement prices to the West. But Russia could no longer afford to subsidize the GDR, and the emerging Tigers of south-east Asia were producing far better machinery at even lower prices. Erich Honecker’s East German government seemed incapable of responding to the mounting crisis other than by resisting the reforms of the Soviet Union. To the old men in Berlin the unthinkable had happened: the mother ship of Marxism had veered wildly off course, leaving them to continue the socialist struggle.
There were other straws in the wind. In Hungary a new regime had removed the barbed wire border with Austria in May of that year and in September the Hungarian foreign minister announced that East German tourists would not be prevented from crossing to the West. At the same time the communist government of Czechoslovakia seemed powerless to halt the flood of East Germans coming over the border and claiming asylum at the West German Embassy in Prague. Much the same was happening in Poland. Those not intent on fleeing the country were bent on change. ‘Wir sind hier,’ they shouted through September and October – we’re staying here. Diverse groups – punks and skinheads, greens, peace campaigners and those who simply desired political reform, free expression and unrestricted travel – came together around the thriving evangelical churches of the East, particularly the Nikolai Church in Leipzig. As the Monday evening demonstrations swelled with crowds chanting the simple but unprecedented self-assertion, Wir sind das Volk – we are the people – Honecker seemed incapable of acting. It’s interesting to speculate what might have been if a younger generation of hardliners had succeeded at the beginning of the decade. Honecker was seventy-four and had undergone an operation that summer, Willi Stoph, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, was seventy-five, Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi, was eighty-one. The other members of the Politburo were mostly over sixty-five. In the face of such orderly and disciplined defiance of the state they simply froze.
Yet it is also true that China and Russia had been ruled for long periods by ruthless old men and in China that summer between 800 and 1,200 demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. So it is important to understand that while the conditions seem favourable to us today, the German uprising was not bound to succeed. The reality was that the protestors who met outside the Nikolai Church in Leipzig every Monday evening might have been crushed by the Stasi at any step along the way, just like the students in Beijing. It’s still largely a mystery why the orders to suppress the demonstrations with all necessary force on 9 October were never carried out, though of course former leaders and members of the security forces have since tried to take credit for defying the high command in Berlin.
We have also forgotten the curious nature of the East German state. Besides its fanatical pursuit of sporting glory, the obsessive militarism and religious belief in science and technology, the GDR possessed the most formidable intelligence services the world has ever seen. A population of just over 17,000,000 was served – if that’s the right word – by 81,000 intelligence officers belonging to the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit – or Stasi for short. There was very little in a person’s life that the Stasi could not reach. Some estimates put the number of informers at 1,500,000, which meant that every sixth or seventh adult was working for the Stasi by making regular reports on colleagues, friends and sometimes even lovers and relations.
Run from a vast complex in Normannenstrasse, Berlin, the Stasi was a state within a state. It had its own football team, prisons, special shops selling foreign luxuries, holiday resorts, hospitals, sports centres and every sort of surveillance facility. Large and well-equipped regional offices were in every city. In Leipzig [where much of Brandenburg is set] … thousands of pieces of mail were opened every day, over 1,000 telephones were tapped, and 2,000 officers were charged with penetrating and monitoring every possible group and organization. Their efforts were augmented by as many as 5,000 IMs – Inoffizielle Mitarbeiters, or unofficial collaborators – who were debriefed by Stasi controllers in some seventy safe houses around the city. In numbers this effort in Leipzig far exceeded the joint operations of Britain’s Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
The dismal paranoia of Erich Mielke’s organization is hard to imagine today. Suffice to say that even school children’s essays were examined for signs of political dissent at home, and in museums in Leipzig and Berlin you can still view the sealed preserving jars containing cloth impregnated with the personal smells of targeted dissidents. It has never been clear what use this archive was put to, but there is no better symbol of the Stasi’s powers of intrusion and absurdist obsession. The special equipment they made for themselves has a comic ingenuity about it: the cameras hidden in briefcases, petrol cans or the headlight of a Trabant car; a bugged watering can, which lay unregarded in one of the garden allotments outside Leipzig to catch anyone being disloyal as they tended their vegetables. The Stasi officers took delight in these gadgets and were in love with the shoddy business of spying on ordinary human beings who represented no threat to the state whatsoever. The breaking of spirits in Hohenschönhausen interrogation centre and at Brautzen prison, the persecution by rumour and lie, the destruction of relationships and careers, the crushing of individual creativity and talent, the tireless search for ‘hostile negative elements’ were all done in the name of security. East Germany was a truly dreadful place to live if you objected to the regime, or showed anything but craven loyalty to the state. Looking at the relatively crude surveillance apparatus sixteen years on, one wonders what the Stasi would have done with today’s technology – our tiny radio tracking devices, biometric identification, number recognition systems and the rapid processing power of surveillance computers. One thing’s for certain: the reformers in Leipzig would have had a much harder time of it.
The GDR may have disappeared along with the Berlin Wall, the institutionalized vindictiveness and the slogans calling for ever greater sacrifice, yet East Germany is still very much in evidence today. You can walk around the soulless housing complexes in Dresden and Leipzig, visit Hohenschönhausen and Erich Mielke’s office in Berlin – now both museums – or in the forests of the south happen upon the huge secret installations of the Cold War, long ago abandoned by the Soviet army. The fabric of East Germany is still pretty much intact and, naturally, the people are there with their memories of one of the most efficient dictatorships of modern times.

Since it’s such an interesting historical artefact, I thought I’d transcribe the whole ZigZag article (with a little judicious proofreading here and there) and share it with you.

LOOKING OVER THE WALL

Berlin punks 1

‘What does it mean?’ demanded the cop, staring hard at the punk’s ‘No Fun’ badge.
‘Means there’s nothing to laugh about … just like him,’ mocked the second policeman.

Berlin punks 5

Tom is tall and gangly. His hair is cut to the bone with a tail of dyed blond hair down the nape of his neck. In his left ear, which he pierced himself, he sports four tiny earrings. His pride and joy is an old motorbike jacket, swapped for his grandfather’s military uniform.
As he stands there between the two policemen, the raucous strains of the Au Pairs come swirling over on the wind. The group are playing the huge circus tent of the Tempodrom. It’s a five minute walk away. It might as well be over the rainbow.
The demarcation between right and wrong is often small. Here it is 100 yards. The arbitrary line followed by the military planner’s pen 37 years ago has forced Tom and thousands like him to walk close to the edge.
Visitors from London or Paris, grown blasé to most street excesses, do a double take when they see Punks on these streets. For this is East Berlin.

Berlin punks 3

Stray off the straight and narrow of the tourist traps, the goose-stepping guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier on prestigious Unden den Linden, the massive concrete tanks of the war monument at Treptow, and you enter a different world.
Alexanderplatz, the modern showpiece city centre development, stops abruptly as you go under the main railway station. Concrete and bronzed glass give way to the war-damaged slums of Prenzlauer Berg, unchanged since the Thirties.
This is the city’s punk territory.

Berlin punks 4

Berlin punks 7

Tom is living in a squat with five friends. The furniture looks as if it has been thrown out of a Liverpool doss house. Graffiti covers the walls.
Fast asleep in a corner is Gerd, his spiky green hair wilting slightly. He has been held overnight by the police. His T-shirt and peace buttons were confiscated. His trousers, formerly covered in ‘Anarchy’ and ‘UK Subs’ slogans, have received a quick paint job courtesy of the state.
There have been a few punks in East Berlin since soon after the Sex Pistols hit the headlines in England in England in 1977. The difference now is that the clandestine quirk of a few has blossomed into a full-blown craze. Teenagers as young as 14 are involved in the movement and I heard reports of an increase in truancy from schools. The punks of East Berlin have come out. Much to the astonishment of neighbours and displeasure of the authorities, they are no longer afraid to be seen on the streets.
The punks are a phenomenon which neither the police nor the SED (the ruling Communist party) really know how to deal with. Harassment is the most favoured method.
Alexanderplatz, indeed most of the city centre, is a no-go area. Any who stray here face instant arrest. Things are marginally better in Prenzlauer, but still most shops and cafés offer only closed doors. The punks’ music is still effectively forced underground, to the cellars of the old tenements and church crypts.
Gerd’s experience with the police is commonplace. It is nothing special when someone is taken into custody for a time. Most punks are, of necessity, quick-change artists and with the aid of a trusty toothbrush and home-made dye can restore their hair to something approaching normality.

Berlin punks 2

But seen now, Gerd wouldn’t attract a second look in West Berlin’s freaky SO 36. The music club, frequented by David Bowie in the mid-Seventies, holds a childish fascination for him. ‘What’s the place really like?’ Gerd kept wanting to know.
As the evening drew on, Tom’s squat settled down to celebrate the return of the newest member, Will, from prison. Hard-to-get canned beer, a punk status symbol, had to be obtained from a foreign currency Inter shop near Checkpoint Charlie.
Will was caught spraying a slogan on the Berlin Wall: ’20 Jahre Mauer, wir werden langsam sauer’ – less poetically in English: ’20 years of the Wall, we are slowly getting sick of it.’
Will is 19 now. He was held for four months in custody for the offending wall painting. Subsequently he was put on probation for 14 months.
He stayed silent for most of the evening with Nadja, the only girl in the squat, dominating the conversation. She has only been before the authorities once. That was last year, after she had applied for a travel permit to England. Her parents, who are party members, have disassociated themselves from her.
Many of the city’s punks come from good homes, many from academic families. Tom’s parents are well-known doctors.
Spiked hair and a tramp’s wardrobe test family bonds to the limit and it’s especially hard when parents are SED members. What often serves to keep the young in the family home against all the odds is Berlin’s acute housing shortage. Flats are extremely difficult to find, hence the inner city squats – another eye-opener for Western visitors.
Apart from these squats, East Berlin also mirrors its Western twin in exerting a powerful pull on the Bohemian element in the rest of the country. The city is a mine of information on the current international scene. One thing can leap-frog the Wall unhindered is news. All of West Germany’s broadcasting output can be picked up. So too can the American (AFN) and British forces (BFBS) radio and TV stations.
The authorities may be striving to enforce a cultural straitjacket, but East Berlin has a selection of Western television greater than that available in Britain.
With so much information at their disposal, people can afford to be discriminating. When it comes to the punks it means that they are choosy in their musical tastes. They much prefer the Dead Kennedys or UK Subs to the imitative ‘Deutsche Neue Welle’ – German New Wave – sweeping the city’s Western sector.
The West German television Rocknight spectaculars broadcast live by ZDF throughout the Summer were one big bore for them. Much more to their liking is John Peel’s late night programme, which they pick up on BFBS radio.
When it comes to fashion, Levis are no longer highly prized rarities. Much more punk kudos attaches to hard-to-come-by Adidas training shoes. When I first went to East Berlin I couldn’t understand why people kept looking at my feet … it turned out to be nothing more fascinating than those three stripes on my running shoes. Indeed any streetwise East Berliner most easily identifies a Westerner by his footwear – a useful facility if you’re trying to get foreign currency on the black market.
The churches play an important practical role in the lives of the punks. Church halls provide virtually the only forum for bands to appear in a sort of semi-public capacity. News of any gigs spreads quickly through the grapevine.
In the cellar of one of the Prenzlauer Berg tenements Tom’s punk band have a secret practice room. It’s sparsely furnished with two speakers (home made) and a microphone. ‘Equipment is unbelievably expensive and hard to get,’ said Tom. ‘If you are in the know and have the ready cash you can grab the stuff when it appears on the black market. Otherwise you just grow old waiting,’ he explained.

Berlin punks 6

Ironically many families in East Germany do have substantial savings. 60,000 Marks (about £15,000 at the official rate of exchange) was one figure quoted me as being quite common. That is really not so surprising. The country has a Gross National Product which, per capita, is higher than Britain’s. But when it comes to consumer durables there is very little to spend one’s earnings on.
Barred from performing publicly, Berlin’s punk bands get hardly any money from their appearances. The so-called state grading committee, who play a vital role in the politics of culture, choose which groups will get state blessings and which are destined to a lifetime of playing private parties. For the punks it’s all a foregone conclusion.
Prospects of actually producing a record are nil. I heard of only two recording studios, one concentrating on classical music, the other on the country’s legitimate pop music. Groups such as the politically innocuous soft rock ‘Karat’ – a sort of cross between Jean Michel Jarre and the Moody Blues – get state backing and full red carpet treatment, including tours to the West. Without such state blessing there is not only no recording contract, but also no gigs, no proper practice room and, most important, no decent instruments.
The Amiga pop recording label issues at most two new releases a month. It’s a record censor’s dream. Back in Alexanderplatz the friendly salesgirl at the record shop proudly showed me the rock section. I counted no more than ten different albums, including the latest import from Italy by Macchina Maccarone.
To be different is to be a direct threat to the state. For the musical and the sartorial dissident it’s a hard life. But then the most amazing thing, really, is that they exist at all.
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Local Boy in the Photograph

In which The Author remembers a great fellow

The shiny metal weathercock at the top of St Elvan’s Church in Aberdare perches roughly 180 feet above the ground. It perches at the top of the impressive stone spire that dominates the skyline, and it can be seen from pretty much anywhere in or around the town.

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In Aberdare: Pictures From the Past Volume 2 there’s an intriguing photo, dating from the 1930s. The weathercock had been removed for cleaning, and the local kids took turns to be photographed sitting astride it. A couple of months ago I was chatting to a nice old chap in the library. He told me that he remembered being one of a group of youngsters who’d taken the opportunity to get up and close with this unusual landmark.
I’ll return to the weathercock later, but please keep that fact in mind for the time being.
19 May 2015 would have been Stuart Cable’s 45th birthday. Instead, five years ago today, we laid him to rest. I say ‘we’, because everyone in Aberdare – indeed, across the whole of Wales and even further afield – was shocked by Stuart’s death. He passed away at home in the early hours of an ordinary Monday morning, only a couple of weeks after he hit forty.
It seemed that everyone in the Cynon Valley came to stand in the car park adjoining St Elvan’s Church, or in nearby Victoria Square, to say goodbye to one of this town’s most famous sons. It was hardly surprising, though.
If you’d spent any time in Aberdare, it was almost impossible not to have known Stuart. After all, he wore so many hats during his forty years on this planet: husband, father, rock star, broadcaster, raconteur, child safety campaigner, party animal, generous charity supporter, and – most importantly – a true and big-hearted friend to everyone who met him.
I’ve mentioned Stuart a few times in this blog already. I’m sure everyone in Aberdare will be conscious of the date today. It’s a good time to record some of my own memories of a great guy who was suddenly taken from us in his prime of life.
I first met Stuart in (where else?) the Carpenters Arms, a very long time ago. He was going out with my friend Emma P., and we struck up a conversation over a pint one evening.
We already knew each other to say ‘hello’ to, of course. Stuart had been part of a five-piece rock covers band called Zephyr, along with some other lads I also knew by sight. I’d first seen them play in The National Wine Bar, one Thursday night in the very late 1980s or early 90s.
(Calling it a ‘wine bar’ was just a marketing exercise. That place is worthy of a chapter in its own right. It was actually a great big pub in the old National School building. It had three bars, a pool room and a restaurant space on the first floor level, a disco upstairs, and a pizza place at ground level. They also hosted singers at weekends and live bands on Thursday nights, as well as the relatively new sport of karaoke every so often.)
I was working in Blackwells, and used to call in for a pint on the way home. (Some nights I went home later than others.) The first time I saw Zephyr I wasn’t too impressed, to be honest. They were decent enough musicians, but the Great Valleys Songbook (v. 1.0) was already well-established and the boys seemed happy to stick with it. My taste in music was already radically different. About a month later, I was in the National again, chatting to the lads at the bar, when the same gang of boys came in, carrying flight cases and PA gear.
I recognised them immediately. I wasn’t in the mood for Bloke Rock that particular evening. When the front man – a short, slim chap with strong features and longish dark hair – arrived at the bar, I turned to him and said ‘Oh no, it’s not you lot again, is it?’
When Stereophonics hit the big time, I had to tell that story on several occasions. After all, it was the only way to explain why Kelly Jones was – at best – rather cool towards me whenever we encountered each other in town.
As with most of the bands of that period, Zephyr went their separate ways in time. I still see some of the boys around every so often. Chris Davies, Paul Rosser and Nick Geake have continued to be involved in various musical projects (usually at least two at the same time, in fact).
Stuart and Kelly eventually teamed up with some other guys and formed a new band: Tragic Love Company. Along with Nick’s band Pilot Fish, they became one of the house bands at the Globe in Cwmaman. My brother and a lot of our mates were living in Cwmaman at the time, so I spent a lot of time in the village too.
The Globe was our pub of choice when we weren’t drinking in Aberdare. It’s a convenient stroll from Aberdare, along a former railway line which has been made into a footpath. The Globe has several large rooms where different groups of friends can make themselves comfortable over a couple of pints or five, and a large beer garden sloping gently towards the path.
In addition, Martin W., the landlord, had pioneered all-day Sunday opening before it was actually legal in the rest of the UK. He stayed open mainly to cater for a small army of soccer fans, who would otherwise have found themselves between hostelries during the big late afternoon fixtures. Even if we weren’t interested in the games, we used to go up there anyway. Martin also took advantage of the pub’s relatively secluded location to host all-day gigs on bank holiday weekends.
It was at one of these bank holiday gigs – a nice sunny August afternoon – that I eventually caught up with Tragic Love Company. By now their line-up had stabilised: Kelly at the front, Stuart at the back, Richard Jones on bass, and Simon Collier on second guitar. They played a decent outdoor set to a very mixed audience.
As well as some of the old Carpenters gang, there were some local guys whom I knew, and a fair number of local families out for the afternoon. I remember being quite impressed by their spin on ‘Voodoo Chile’ and thinking that I might have to apologise to Kelly for my earlier remarks. I’ve got a feeling that I did say something fairly kind about their set afterwards, but I can’t recall Kelly’s reaction.
Tragic Love Company at the Globe Inn, Cwmaman
Tragic Love Company at the Globe Inn, Cwmaman
A few months later, Stuart and his then-girlfriend Julia invited me to join them on a trip to Ebbw Vale one Friday night. By this time, the band had slimmed down to a trio, and were still gigging under their rather cumbersome handle. I travelled over in the back of Stuart’s little yellow van, wedged in the back with a drum kit and half a PA. (In his day job he delivered school dinners in his little yellow van.)
It was probably a good thing I accepted their invitation. It was hammering down with rain when we arrived, and if I hadn’t been there I doubt whether the audience would have made it into double figures. Once again they were competent, but not great. The good people of Ebbw Vale can rest easy in their beds, confident that they didn’t miss a great deal that night.
However, Kelly had started to infiltrate some of his own songs into the tried-and-tested rock standards. It’s always hard to pull that trick off around here. It’s usually the Great Valleys Songbook or nothing. It was pretty obvious that he had a nice line in lyrics, and the songs had some decent hooks. I told them as much when I was helping them carry their gear outside. Even so, none of us had any idea what would happen about six months down the line.
I wasn’t present at the now-legendary gig at the Coliseum. Under their new moniker Stereophonics, they made enough of an impression on a visiting A&R man for Richard Branson to sign them to his new label. I’d stopped reading the music papers long before that, and I haven’t listened to Radio 1 since my first student days.
Therefore, the first I knew about the boys’ good fortune was when I picked up the Cynon Valley Leader and saw them splashed across the front page. After that I read several press interviews with the band, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Stuart had done most of the talking.
Stuart was a noisy bastard par excellence, and it was no wonder he became a drummer. Even a Marshall stack with the volume turned up to 11 would have struggled to make itself heard over that foghorn growl. In the meantime, Richard (who was always the quiet one anyway) just about managed to get a word in edgeways.
I remember being in the Cambrian during the August bank holiday weekend, shortly after they signed to V2. I was sketching out some preliminary ideas for the Xmas Special Quiz (see, that’s forward planning!) when the band and some of their backline crew came in, with their girlfriends and a few other people I knew by sight. I congratulated the boys on their big break, and we started chatting.
Meanwhile, a few kids were playing in the street, and (as Kelly himself observed), word gets around. Before long the pub car park was full of youngsters, and Simon the guv’nor was giving them occasional hard stares through the side door. It must have looked like the opening scene of Oliver!, with the kids jostling each other before one lad was eventually thrust into the room.
‘Can we have their autographs?’ he said in a tiny voice, and Simon gave him an even harder stare. Kelly’s face fell at the prospect, but Stuart just opened his arms wide and boomed, ‘Aye, bring them in!’
Knowing when he was beaten, Simon got some pens and paper from behind the bar. The boys found themselves doing an impromptu signing for half the kids in Maesydre, while Stuart chatted to each and every one of them. One little girl even approached me and asked me to sign her piece of paper.
‘I’m not famous,’ I protested, but she insisted.
‘You know them – you’ll do,’ she replied.
Stuart and Julia had been regulars at the Cambrian quiz on Wednesday nights before the boys made it big. Dad was a semi-regular too, depending on the weather. He didn’t know what to make of Stuart at first. People’s first impressions of him were often reminiscent of Matthew’s eulogy to Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral. ‘Loud’ was the word that came most readily to mind. ‘Incredibly foul-mouthed’ rang a lot of bells, too. In spite of this apparent mismatch, Dad and Stuart became firm friends. He followed the band’s progress as their career developed, and always asked me if I’d seen anything of Stuart when I was in town. If Dad called into the Cross Inn for a pint, and Stuart was in the Welsh Harp, the entire building would resound to Stuart’s bellowed greeting across the bar.
I’ve previously outlined my theory of why certain Cwmaman people (Deno, Alan Swanson, Stuart) could usually be heard long before they came into view. Stuart was undoubtedly the loudest of the three, though. Paul E. and I once accepted his invitation and joined him to watch Wales v England at Cwmaman Institute.
By the time we got there, Stuart was already well-oiled and even louder than usual. The room was packed with families watching the match on the big screens, but his voice could be heard over the top of all the other background noise. I still remember his anguished howl of ‘Come on, boys, stamp on the fucking English cunts’ heads!’ echoing through the function room. It didn’t matter to Stuart that there were kids and elderly couples in there. How he managed to contain himself when he was on the air, I’ll never know.
Once Stuart left the band, he went on to carve out a second career as a broadcaster on TV and radio. This gave him a chance to meet some of his heroes, tell tall stories, learn the Welsh language, and add to the store of anecdotes in his frank and very funny autobiography Demons and Cocktails. He never forgot his roots, though, and became a fine ambassador for Wales in general and the Valleys in particular.
Stuart occasionally filled in on the mid-morning show on BBC Radio Wales. I was working in the cash office of the shop by that stage, so I always had the radio on for company. If I knew he was on the air, I used to (reluctantly) tune away from Ken Bruce and listen to Stuart’s programme instead. For some reason, I was working on my birthday (I always used to try and book that week off) and I was shocked when Stuart mentioned my name on the air.
Mother had phoned in a couple of days earlier, to ask if he’d give me a shout out on his show. He was only too pleased to oblige; my old schoolfriend Darren Broome was producing the programme, and added his own best wishes to Stuart’s message. It really made my day. The next time we were in the pub together, Stuart stood me a pint for my birthday.
I took him to one side and said, ‘I’ve got a message from my mother for you.’
‘Oh aye?’ he said, intrigued.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘She told me to tell you to stop saying, “Where are you to?” when you’ve got a caller on the line.’
He burst out laughing and said that he’d try and bear it in mind in future.
Every so often during his broadcasting career, though, he reverted to his native Wenglish. One morning, while talking to his fellow presenters about Valleys carnivals, Stuart used the word ‘gazoot’. His colleagues were completely baffled. ‘You know, those comb-and-tissue things they play,’ he said. Eventually one of his colleagues realised he meant ‘kazoo’ – by which time I was bent over the desk, laughing my head off.
Publicity shy he wasn’t. He was only too pleased to chat to anyone who recognised him, and you never felt as though it was too much trouble for him to say ‘hello’. I remember one of his random public appearances, in the Welsh Harp on a Friday night.
A young lad was out celebrating his birthday with some mates, and they were on a pub crawl from Hirwaun to Aberdare. They called into the Welsh Harp. Stuart was in his usual spot at the end of the bar. They were amazed to see him, and spent a few minutes debating whether to approach him or not. Eventually one of the boys asked me if I thought he’d be willing to have a photo taken with them. I told them I didn’t see why not, and when Stuart paused for breath I asked him on the boys’ behalf. Sure enough, Stuart insisted on posing for photos (which I took, using one of the boys’ phones) and stood them a round before they headed off for the next pub. That was typical of his attitude to people who approached him for photos or autographs. He was always extremely generous, but never flash with his cash.
Stuart became friends with everyone he met, in fact. Catherine P. called into the shop one Saturday afternoon, just before I was due to finish work. She’d been visiting some of her friends at a youth club she was involved with, and fancied a browse around the shop before heading for the station. It was the weekend of the motorcycle races in Aberdare Park, a couple of minutes’ stagger from my house.
The weather was surprisingly pleasant when we got off the train in Aberdare, and I invited Cath to join me for a drink outside the Cross Inn/Welsh Harp. She was a bit nervous about being turned away (she was a couple of months short of her eighteenth birthday). I assured her that if she sat outside while I got the drinks, nobody would ask to see her (non-existent) ID.
When we got there, I wasn’t at all surprised to find Stuart holding court in the beer garden. He was a biker himself, and always made a point of staying in town for the races. Cath was amazed to see him standing there, so I told her it was his local pub. I fetched our drinks and we found a seat on the corner of a table overlooking the main road. A couple of minutes later Stuart spotted me and bounded over to where we were sitting.
‘How the fuck are you, Steve?’ he erupted. ‘I haven’t seen you for fucking ages!’
I stood up to shake his hand, but he gave me a big hug instead. Then I introduced him to Cath, and he gave her a hug as well.
‘Lovely to meet you, babe,’ he said, only slightly less loudly than when he’d greeted me. ‘Any friend of Steve’s is a friend of mine.’
When Cath told her friends she’d met Stuart Cable over the weekend, half of them believed her and half of them thought she was pulling their legs. Neither of us had a camera that evening. Typical, isn’t it?
Stuart was in the Welsh Harp the night Dad passed away, in February 2006. I’d called in for a pint because I couldn’t face going straight home from the hospital. Stuart was gutted when I told the regulars the news, and bought me a pint straight away to commiserate with me.
He stood me another pint in September 2009. I’d been offered my university place, and I called into the Welsh Harp with Shanara to celebrate.
A few months earlier, Shanara and I had been on the train home from Cardiff when my phone rang. Stuart’s name came up on my caller ID, and I answered it with some surprise. It turned out that he’d selected the wrong ‘Steve’ while scrolling through his phone book, and thought he was ringing someone else. We chatted for a while – he was snarled up in a traffic jam in Monmouth – and I promised I’d catch up with him soon. Shanara hadn’t believed me when I told her who’d been on the line; however, when we walked into the pub to be greeted by Stuart from his usual perch, she had to concede that I did actually know him. When we were in the gents’ together a bit later on, he complimented me on my choice of female company. I told him that Shanara and I were just good friends. He roared with laughter and said, ‘Aye, if you insist!’
Having Stuart’s mobile phone number meant that I was able to text him silly jokes, some of which he repeated on his radio programmes. One of our particular favourites, ripped off (I think) from Ken Bruce, came in two halves:
Q1. How do you slow a drummer down when he’s playing?
A. Put a sheet of music in front of him.
Q2. How do you stop a drummer from playing altogether?
A. Write some notes on the sheet of music.
Having his number also meant that I was able to contact Stuart out of the blue one day, with an offer he unfortunately had to refuse. Chris G. and I were chatting in Waterstone’s one morning. He mentioned that his thrash metal band (Hunted) and their drummer had gone their separate ways, and asked me if I could think of a likely replacement. Knowing that Stuart was a metal fan, I thought he might be up for the chance to team up with Hunted.
I sent Stuart a quick text in the lunch hour. It didn’t take him long to get back to me. He said he appreciated the thought, but he’d only just formed Killing For Company with some other lads he knew. He hadn’t made it public at the time, so I just told Chris that my idea had gone south. I hadn’t mentioned any names, so I didn’t have to let anyone down gently.
A few days later, in the pub, Stuart asked me about Hunted, just to find out what he’d missed out on. I assured Stuart that he’d come to mind straight away, as I’d thought they’d mesh together nicely. I said I’d told Chris I knew one drummer who was resting between engagements, but I’d also warned him that he wasn’t all that good.
Stuart roared with laughter and said, ‘Aye, you’re fucking right there!’
Another night, Stuart was out with his ex-wife Nicola and their young son, Kian. I’d called in for a pint, and Kian was nagging his dad to help him play the quiz machine. Stuart called me over and asked me if I’d give Kian a hand. I was only too pleased to help out.
‘You’re better off with Steve than me, anyway,’ he shouted across the room, ‘I’m too thick to win on those things.’
I eventually got to see Killing For Company at the Coliseum. Former Alarm frontman Mike Peters was doing a charity gig, and Killing For Company played on the same bill. They could have gone a long way, if circumstances had been different.
As things unfolded, Stuart’s legendary partying caught up with him one fateful night. Mother rang me on the morning of 7 June 2010, telling me the terrible news. Matt H. heard the shattering headline at about the same time. As soon as I logged onto Facebook, I read it for myself. It seemed that everyone in Aberdare was in shock.
It took several minutes for the full impact to sink in. He used to invite me to his home in Llwydcoed fairly regularly, usually on a Sunday night, and I always had to decline because I was working the following day. This time, I was busy with university work (my first year deadlines were fast approaching). I already knew from our friends that Stuart’s house parties tended to be rather messy affairs, going on well into the wee hours of the morning. I probably couldn’t have taken the pace anyway.
I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading online. It didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be real.
I switched on Radio Wales, where Jason Mohammad was presenting a scratch show devoted to memories and stories of Stuart. I sent Mr Mohammad an email expressing my own shock. A few minutes later his producer emailed me back, asking me if I’d like to talk about our friendship on the air. I said I’d be honoured to, and gave him my phone number. Thus it was that I spent a few minutes live on Radio Wales, reminiscing fondly about my old pal and trying to keep my own grief and shock at bay.
I began by saying it seemed as though a bright light had gone out in Aberdare, and that Facebook was full of people who were equally horrified by the news. I said I’d known Stuart for many years, and shared a few incidents in his company. I mentioned the Cwmaman Institute rugby match incident, but skipped over the unbroadcastable details for obvious reasons. Instead, I said, ‘It was like listening to Scrum V with Ozzy Osbourne in the commentary box.’ When Mr Mohammad asked me for my favourite memory of Stuart, I told him about the evening I introduced him to Cath outside the Welsh Harp. I thanked him for the opportunity to remember my old friend, and offered my condolences to Stuart’s family and many friends everywhere.
When the pub opened, Matt and I called round there for a pint, more out of shock than thirst. We sat outside, glumly nursing our drinks and chatting to the other lads, who were equally shell-shocked. Stuart’s car was still parked outside, and well-wishers were placing floral tributes all over it. At one point a journalist rocked up outside, obviously hoping to get some unguarded quotes about the tragic events of the night before. Instead, he was sent on his way in no uncertain terms; a couple of the boys had to be restrained from sticking one on him.
Five years ago today, on one of the hottest days of the year, the entire Cynon Valley came to a standstill. A horse-drawn hearse made its slow, sad way through Victoria Square and as far as the gates of St Elvan’s Church. Rhian and I were standing together in the car park nearby, shoulder to shoulder with several hundred people who’d come to pay their respects to Stuart.
The service was relayed through a large PA system to the crowd thronging the town centre. My cousins Christine and Katie came up from Cardiff to say their farewells. Paul E. appeared from nowhere, too, and vanished just as suddenly once the service was over. (He asked me if we were going to go for a pint afterwards. I said, ‘Where – Ponty? You’re banned from everywhere in town, remember!’)
We all sang a couple of hymns and said the Lord’s Prayer, standing in the baking sun. Richard Thompson’s song ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ was played, and at the finale there was a fitting musical tribute to Cwmaman’s most famous son. High Voltage, an AC/DC tribute act consisting of Dai Barrow, Paul Rosser, Dai Turner, Justin Beynon and Wayne Barlow, fired up their gear and blasted two massive songs into the Victorian Gothic structure.
And the cock rocked.
Katie told me she’d been standing in Victoria Square. From her vantage point, she could clearly see the weathercock literally swaying under the sonic onslaught from below. Stuart, whose own taste in music could well described as ‘Cock Rock’, would have pissed himself laughing at the idea.
It’s a good way to remember a man who touched all our lives for the better, never had a bad word to say about anyone, and made a lasting impression on everyone he met. Aberdare’s been a much quieter – and slightly greyer – place without him.
Rest in peace, mate.

Stuart Cable