What a Difference a Year Makes

In which The Author wonders what the hell just happened

If nothing else, 2015 has proven to be an even more remarkable year than I’d thought possible. Only about six months ago I was on the verge of chucking the towel in. I had no job, no money, no chance of resuming my university career, and the DWP were on my back. There were only dark clouds on the horizon. After a visit to the chemist and a cock-up with my repeat prescription, I had a hundred full-strength Co-codamol and I wasn’t afraid to use them.
Luckily I saw my GP; she referred me to the Crisis Team at my local hospital, and some very good friends talked me out of doing something stupid. I wrote at length about that in the early summer, when I honestly thought there was nothing around the corner.
Then I bought Ben Aaronovitch’s latest paperback Foxglove Summer on a day trip to London, and everything turned upside down and inside out. A simple Tweet to Mr Aaronovitch, pointing out that (in spite of what it says on their website) his publishers really don’t have all the freelance proofreading help they need, triggered a chain of events which has resulted in my reincarnation as a fully-fledged proofreader and copy-editor for one of the biggest publishing houses in the UK.
I haven’t done much with this blog for the past few weeks, because I’ve been working on Jon Wallace’s third novel, to be published in the spring. I’ve recently finished Barricade (Mr Wallace’s first book), and I’m biding my time before starting the sequel, Steeple. Here in Wales it’s actually stopped raining for an hour or so, and I’ve come into Aberdare for a bit of last-minute shopping and a quiet-ish pint.
Last Wednesday I went into Cardiff, to meet Shanara for lunch. I walked around the city centre for a while, calling into some of my old haunts before popping into Waterstones for a look around. There was nothing much that caught my eye, but it was good to catch up (albeit briefly) with Jeff T. and Christos. Jeff still isn’t happy there. When he told me who the new store manager is, I could see why straight away.
He hasn’t even got the possible escape route into Ian Allan any more – that shop has disappeared. I don’t know whether it’s relocated, or just pulled out of Cardiff entirely. Spillers Records has relocated, to the Morgan Arcade, but there was nothing there to catch my eye either. I explored the market for a while, but nothing much has changed there. It’s the same odd mixture of food stalls, clothes stalls, a place selling vacuum cleaner parts, and a second-hand book stall which isn’t a patch on Barbara’s place in Aberdare.
I walked the length of St Mary Street, and it’s even more of a deep depression consisting of tightly-packed eyesore bars than it was when I wrote ‘A Letter to the Editor 6‘, way back in January 2003. For a so-called ‘capital’ city, Cardiff hasn’t got a great deal to distinguish it from every other city and large town in the UK. (Most of the others do have a bus station, though.)
After meeting the Dippy Bint and her friend Yasmin (who is even madder than I’d imagined), I headed out to Pontyclun, and the Brunel Arms. The previous landlady, Siân S., had kindly agreed to host a collection box for the Anthony Nolan Trust. It’s been in place for about a year and a half, so I reckoned it was time to check on its progress. As things turned out, it was nearly full, so I swapped it out for one of the new designs and headed back into Cardiff.
I made my way to the Old Arcade, which is a pub I’ve never been into before. Rowland and a motley crowd of journalists, ex-journalists, Mensa folk, music fans, real ale fans, and other general eccentrics have what’s known as Wednesday Club. Rowland has often invited me to join them, but it’s always been a bit of a stretch for me. However, since I was in town in Wednesday, I’d texted Rowland earlier in the day to find out the arrangements.
It became a rather boozy session, unsurprisingly, and I made it back to Queen Street station in time for the traditional last train chaos. I was shocked by the number of rough sleepers I encountered while walking through Cardiff that evening and night. There was always a hardcore of homeless men and women in town, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people huddled in doorways.
I paid the money from the Brunel into the bank the following day. It came to £33.35 – not a bad total, considering that it’s just one of four charity boxes on the bar.
This morning I made a little spreadsheet, so that the people at Anthony Nolan can track my seven collection boxes and issue updated certificates to the businesses who’ve kindly agreed to host them. I swapped out the boxes in the Lighthouse a few weeks ago. It was fairly late on parade, but it had still managed to accumulate £11.00 and some shrapnel (which I paid back in).
My friend Chris Davies runs a dispensing optician’s shop in Aberdare. His box is filling up nicely, but it wasn’t worth a visit to the bank when I swapped the boxes over. The same was true of the Vapour Den, managed by my friend Sharon. It’s building up nicely, but there was no great rush to pay it in.
I still haven’t checked the progress of the boxes in the Pagoda takeaway (a semi-regular stop on my way home from town) or the Bridge in Ebbw Vale, where Rebecca C. is working now. I need to visit Ebbw Vale for the Vanishing Valleys project anyway, so I can kill two birds with one stone early in the new year.
For the time being, though, here’s the cumulative total raised by the seven Anthony Nolan boxes which I’m looking after.
Screenshot from 2015-12-23 15:14:04
If you have a business which would be prepared to host a collection box, or know anyone who’d be willing to help out, please get in touch with them and they’ll be happy to provide you with all the material you need.
I probably won’t have chance to write again this week, so I’ll take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year. Thanks for continuing to read my blog, and thanks also for supporting me through what has been a very emotional and eventful year. It really is greatly appreciated.

A Cabinet of Curiosities

In which The Author loses his phone, makes a new friend, and discovers a treasure trove

Yesterday was a day of less than frenzied activity, but it turned into one of the most interesting nights I’ve spent for ages.
I completed my copy-edit of Jon Wallace’s forthcoming novel on Saturday morning, having finally convinced LibreOffice that I’m not an ‘Unknown Author’, and emailed it back to him from the Lighthouse. I thought I deserved a pint at that point.
On Sunday the beer flowed even more easily. I don’t know whether the weather is driving people to drink (Stagecoach in South Wales certainly don’t any more), but everyone seemed to be in a party mood. I called down to the Lighthouse just before 3.00, for a quiet pint and a chat with the boys. I hadn’t been in there long when Hannah, Lee and Joe walked in. I went over to join them, and we had a good chat and a fair few pints. Claire S. joined us when she finished work, and the beer continued to flow.
We were toying with the idea of checking out the new Soul Suite in Wind Street, Aberdare. Previously Elliot’s, before that the ‘Shot and Shell’ (the United Services Club), and originally Bryngolwg, the extensive and presumably grand home-cum-surgery of Dr David Davies and (later on) Watkin Llewellyn Rhys. To judge from the photos I’ve seen it’s been substantially revamped as a music venue, following the success of a similar venture in Pontypridd. We debated going down for a while, but didn’t come to a consensus.
As soon as the professional karaoke guy started setting up his gear, that was my cue to make my excuses and leave. I decided to play it safe and headed for the Prince of Wales. Gaz and Gareth E. were there; Brian and Steve and the rest of regulars were by the bar. Denis, Jeff and Ken were working their way through the crossword. Carlsberg is £2.50 a pint. You can probably see where this is going.
I’ve mentioned before my belief that Coors Light (the brew of choice in the Lighthouse) is ‘the Weeping Angel of beers’. It creeps up on you when you’re not looking and robs you of hours of your life. Well, it struck again on Sunday night. I have little – if any – recollection of leaving the Prince. Yesterday morning I struggled to wake up, and immediately realised I’d lost my phone.
Yes – my new phone. The all-singing, all-dancing smartphone which I’ve been battling with for the last three weeks. I know I’ve been tempted to chuck it through the window a few times, but at least I’d be destroying it on my own terms.
My electricity had also tripped out overnight, to add to the chaos. I hunted through the house for it for a while, then decided to retrace my steps through and from Aberdare. I had enough hot water for a quick bath, so I headed straight into town. My first port of call was Thereisnospoon – not because I’d been there on Sunday, but for something to eat. I picked at an extremely spicy but rather tasteless chili burrito for a while before abandoning it and going to the Lighthouse. I decided to stick to soft drinks, for obvious reasons, because I mainly wanted to use the wifi.
I logged onto Facebook and mentioned the fact that I’d lost my phone. Jason B. tried ringing it, but it went straight to voicemail. That figured. I knew the battery was low before I even left the Lighthouse on Sunday, and it was unlikely to last the night.
It didn’t take long before Claire S. replied, too. A friend of hers had found a phone in Trecynon, and decided to ask around via Facebook. It seemed like too much of a coincidence, so I sent Claire’s friend a message, describing my phone (make, model, wallpaper, ringtone) in enough detail to identify it without any hesitation. It certainly sounded like a promising lead.
I decided to call to the Prince in the meantime, to see if it was there. There was no sign of life. Specsavers next door was closed as well. A gang of guys in high-vis gear were digging up the street to work on the electricity supply. I headed for the Glosters, where Wayne very kindly let me use the pub phone to call British Gas about my own domestic supply. It was a simple enough problem to rectify, as things turned out.
I’ve had to contact them a couple of times recently, and I must say that I’ve always found their phone support invariably friendly, extremely helpful, and a credit to the call centre industry (which often gets a bad press).
I chatted to Wayne until Ros and Catrin (her granddaughter) came in, and I chatted to them for a while. Then I decided to see if the power had been restored in the Prince. Emma G was working when I walked in, but she said nothing had been handed in at the end of the night. I bought a can of Coke and sat by the fire for a while, wondering what to do with the rest of the day.
I’d only been in there for a couple of minutes when a guy from the electricity board walked in. They were going to cut the power again at 5.45, once the shops had closed, so that they could work on the supply. That seemed like a good excuse to head back to the Lighthouse, and see whether Claire’s friend had replied to my message.
Despite the awful weather, there was a good crowd in there. I bought a can of 7-Up and fired up the netbook once again. To my delight, Claire’s friend had replied to my message. It was my phone that she’d picked up. She told me I could either call to her house and collect it, or she could meet me in town in the morning. Happy with that outcome, I sat down with Mark the guv’nor for a while and discussed the plans for the website project. He gave me some photos, which I’ve got to pass on to Chris, and I’ve made some notes for the text content. I love it when a plan comes together.
Mark decided to close up early, as people were drifting away after 9.00. I went back down to the Prince, and then the evening took a bizarre turn. Denis and Jeff were starting to work their way through the crossword in the Daily Mirror. After they’d asked for Tech Support a couple of times, I decided to join them. Gaynor joined us when we were halfway through, and we made short work of it between us. Then we started chatting about all sorts.
I’ve known Denis for a few years now. He’s the son of another Irish family who came to Wales in search of work. He remembers Dad from his time on the council, and while we’ve talked on many occasions, we’ve never had a really good conversation. Last night’ the topics ranged far and wide, through nostalgic tales of working in a small quarry in Penderyn, to his time driving buses, through the Irish diaspora, books, films, the internet (a bit of a closed book to Denis, unsurprisingly, given that he’s 73 years old), and local history – a subject we’re both very interested in.
I’ve known Gaynor for a good while, too, but we’ve never really had a decent conversation until last night. She used to work in the police service, and she’s fascinated by forensic science (both factual and in fiction). We talked for a while about the best way to kill someone without leaving any trace evidence. I was surprised to learn that we’ve both got an unfulfilled interest, too: we’d both like to try our hands at archery. I don’t know whether it would be a practical proposition, given my recurrent back and shoulder problems, but we’re going to look into it in the new year.
We stayed until closing time, and then the three of us walked up through town together. (Jeff lives in Aberaman, in the other direction.) I told them about the sudden change in my own circumstances, and they were amazed by how quickly everything has come together for me. I invited Gaynor to join me on my next trip to London, to take in the exhibition about the Celts at the British Museum. It’ll be nice to have company for the journey.
When we got to the corner of Denis’s street, he surprised me by inviting me in to ‘see some photos.’ I hadn’t realised that he’s a keen – and very accomplished – photographer. His stairwell is lined with monochrome prints of vanished valleys landmarks: Aberaman Workingmen’s Hall, just after the fire which was responsible for its demolition (see ‘Last Chance to See …?‘); the Phurnacite Plant at Abercwmboi; the Palace Cinema in Hirwaun.
He showed me a large collection of glass and stoneware bottles, which he’d found buried in coal tips and ash heaps, as well as when he working at the quarry. He’s a collector of odd things, too. He’s got a cobbler’s last, for no apparent reason. (We used to have one in our shed in Trecynon, also for no apparent reason.) He showed me an old sidelight from a vehicle, which he’d picked out of a skip. One very peculiar metal object, shaped something like a beetle, had me completely baffled. It’s a lever for pulling off riding boots, of all things. He’s got puzzle boxes on his mantelpiece and curios of all sorts stashed in his cupboards.
‘Never just walk past a skip,’ he told me, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘You’d be amazed at what people chuck out.’
We chatted for ages in his living room, and he very kindly gave me a book of historic photos of the Heads of the Valleys area. He’s a well-informed, interesting and articulate man, and I’ll definitely try and involve him in a new blogging project which should be coming on stream early next year.
I met Claire’s friend Carolyn this morning, and she had indeed found my phone. She’d even charged it up for me. We knew each other by sight, of course, but we’d never spoken before. I’m extremely grateful to her for making sure it got back to me in one piece.
I know I’m often less than complimentary about Aberdare and its inhabitants, but as I approach my fiftieth birthday, I realise that the good people outnumber the bad by a considerable margin. It’s just that the idiots make more noise, and so they attract more attention.
And who really still needs six degrees of separation in the wired world? It turns out that just one is enough to get the job done.