Go East, Young Man

In which The Author makes some new friends and a plan

As I’ve said before, I used to spend a lot of time in Bristol when I was in my twenties and early thirties. It was within easy reach of Aberdare by bus (until deregulation) and, later, by train. Even though I had to be back in Cardiff by 8.00 p.m. to catch the last train home, it still gave me plenty of time to explore the nooks and crannies of the city.
There was a thriving alternative subculture, too. The Green Leaf café at the top of Christmas Steps provided a nice relaxing space to have a vegetarian lunch and browse the magazines and books for sale. There were green groups, feminist groups, anti-nuclear groups, anarchist gatherings, gigs, talks, and all sorts of meetings and activities. (Cardiff might have had a similar scene, but if it did, I never got to hear about it.) For a while I started applying for jobs in the city centre, thinking that relocation might be a good idea. There was a bit more life than there was in Aberdare, that was for sure.
I can’t really remember why Bristol fell off my radar: maybe because the train fares kept going up; maybe because Cardiff itself was starting to offer interesting ways to spend my time. Maybe because it was starting to resemble every other city – the small record shops and bookshops were closing down, and the centre was increasingly becoming a victim of the Clone Town phenomenon (see ‘Location, Location, Location‘). Whatever the reason was, my visits gradually dwindled to nothing.
It came as a bit of a surprise a couple of weeks ago to learn of a forthcoming event via the Cardiff Anarchists Facebook page. The Bristol Radical History Group was going to host a talk entitled ‘The Spanish Anarchists of Merthyr Tydfil in the Early Twentieth Century.’ The Spanish anarchists of Merthyr Tydfil? What the actual …?
I clicked ‘Interested’ and checked out the venue details. It was the Hydra Bookshop, which I’d never heard of. I had a quick look on Google Maps and learned that it was in Old Market Street, a stone’s throw from Temple Meads station, but not a part of the city I was familiar with. I know the areas around the Broadmead shopping centre, Colston Hall, and Corn Street and St Nicholas Market, pretty well. I still don’t know why I’d never gone the other way whenever I left the station.
When I got home I dug out my old A-Z street map. It would be a ten minute walk from the station, at most. I decided that a break away from Aberdare would make up for missing out on London before Xmas. I booked my train ticket, as I related in my other blog ‘Online booking? Not worth the trouble‘ on Friday. On picking them up from the machine at Aberdare Station, I decided to check the normal fare. I’d wasted twenty minutes of my life and hadn’t saved a single penny. On the other hand, £14.90 puts a day trip to Bristol in the same price bracket as a coach trip to London, more or less.
One of the strange things about living in South Wales is that in order to get to the ‘West Country’ you actually have to go east. I set off from Aberdare just after 1000 on Saturday, got an immediate connection at Cardiff Central, and arrived in Bristol at around midday. That’s a decent day trip by anyone’s standards.
It was raining there, too, so I jumped on a bus and headed for the Broadmead. I wanted to have a look in Waterstones, and they’ve got a branch in the Galleries shopping centre. Unfortunately, their ‘range’ is just about as limited and predictable as the range in every other Waterstones these days. I left empty-handed and went for a walk through the Broadmead instead.
I said it was an old street map, didn’t I? In fact, it’s so old that it doesn’t include Cabot Circus (which is just more shops, rather like the Grand Arcade in Cardiff). However, one of my original observations about the West Country still holds true – the women there seem to be far more attractive than they are in Wales. I wandered around for a while, killing time, falling in lust occasionally, and hoping the rain would ease off before I headed out to the bookshop. (There aren’t any photos for this entry, I’m afraid. It was too wet to use the camera while I was out and about, and by the time the rain did stop it was dark.)
I made my way towards the bookshop between showers, and quickly found out how outdated my map was. (It was either that, or the city fathers had got wind that the Welsh were coming, and had removed the street signs to confuse the enemy.) I walked a fair distance before realising I was heading the wrong way. I cut across a busy road, plunged into a maze of side streets, took another wrong turn, was set on the correct course by a couple of friendly coppers, and eventually made it to Hydra with about ten minutes to spare.
I’ve often commented about what a small world it is. Even though I might not remember exactly where or how I’ve met a particular person, the chances are that I’ll bump into someone I know on my travels. Last time I was in Bristol, I met a friend from Aberdare, who was doing some market research in the Broadmead. On Saturday afternoon I opened the door of Hydra and ran straight into Darryl, a history postdoc and Plaid Cymru member from Ynysybwl who writes an interesting blog called ‘History on the Dole‘. He was standing just inside the door, holding a very large cup of tea, and seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him. Darryl told me that he’d done quite a bit of research into the subject of the talk, so he’d come down to compare notes with the speaker. I decided to get a cup of hot chocolate and grab a seat before kick-off.
Hydra is the sort of place which first attracted me to Bristol back in the day. It’s a bookshop and coffee shop, run as a co-operative by a group of youngish politically savvy people. The shelves were subdivided into sections on Politics, Economics, Environment, Culture, and so forth. The bulletin board was full of posters and flyers for events, talks, meetings, campaigns, demos and advice lines. I don’t know how long it’s been around, but I’ll make a point of going there again next time I’m in town. The shop was already quite full, and people kept coming in behind me, so I didn’t have chance for a good look through the shelves. I took my mini-bucket of hot chocolate and settled at the end of a comfy settee to enjoy the talk.
A very pleasant chap named Roger kicked things off, explaining the background to the event. He’d been to an annual conference called ‘Unofficial Histories’, where academics and researchers can exchange ideas away from the scrutiny of university authorities. That was where he’d met the guest speaker, James Yeoman. James is doing his PhD at Sheffield University, and has a particular interest in the Spanish anarchist movement. They’d exchanged contact details, and James had been invited to give his talk as a result. After Roger’s introduction, James cranked up his laptop and unveiled the fruits of his research.
I won’t steal his thunder, as he’s obviously hoping to publish his work. Suffice it to say that it’s an aspect of semi-local history which I had no idea about. He’s been back and forth to Wales to rummage in the archives, and was in Merthyr last week, in fact. It was fascinating to see some light being shed on an overlooked episode in the political life of the South Wales coalfield.
The talk was followed by a lively and good-natured discussion, with Darryl adding a fair bit of information from his own research. I’ve got a feeling he and James will be exchanging notes in the near future. I added an observation about the political atmosphere of the Valleys in the twenty-first century, and contrasted it with the situation of a hundred years ago. That sparked off a bit of a debate with a Welsh ex-pat named Hannah and a chap named Stuart, which was nice. It was almost like being back in university, with a range of opinions and perspectives flying around.
The chap I was sitting next to turned out to be from the Forest of Dean. We chatted for a little while about the shared heritage of our neighbouring coalfields. I got up to go and spotted Tom F., one of my anarchist pals from Cardiff, standing near the back of the room. He knew Hannah, of course, and introduced me to a few more people before suggesting, ‘Pub?’ That seemed like a plan, so everyone made their way out in dribs and drabs. I wanted to have a word with Darryl, though, and by the time I got outside everyone had vanished.
Today’s Top Tip: When you’re in a large city and someone says the word ‘pub’, remember to ask which bloody pub? It’s not like being in Aberdare, where there are only three decent pubs and Thereisnospoon to choose from. There were at least five pubs on Old Market Street alone. I popped my head into each one in turn, but there was no sign of the others. Slightly dejected I headed back towards the station, where there’s a large Thereisnospoon at Temple Quay. I didn’t want a pint, but I knew I could access the wifi and send Tom a quick message to see where they’d all gone.
It turned out that they were in the Volunteer Tavern, only a short walk from the bookshop, but tucked away in a side street. I’d never have found it without consulting my trusty old map. Roger, James, and the chap from the Forest (whose name I can’t remember, alas) welcomed me into their group and we chatted for a good while about all manner of things. They’re very knowledgeable about aspects of history of which I’ve only explored the outlines. The chap from the Forest even knew about C. B. Stanton, Aberdare’s MP during the Great War. They were extraordinarily well-informed, and I felt like a bit of a dilettante, to be honest. My interest in history was almost killed off entirely in school. I’ve only recently managed to rekindle it, largely thanks to books by Simon Garfield and Prof. David Kynaston drawing on the Mass Observation archives. It was fascinating to listen to the discussion about the nature of academia in the present era, when the focus of acceptable ‘research’ seems to be getting narrower and more prescriptive.
I headed back to the station in time for a train back to Cardiff, and missed my connection by five minutes. Between Newport and Cardiff it seemed as though the driver was attempting a historical re-enactment of his own – trying to outdo Trevithick’s grindingly slow first ever train journey in 1804.
I had a quick pint in the Golden Cross before heading back to Aberdare. At Pontypridd a gang of lads in their late teens and early twenties boarded, and engaged in loosely antisocial behaviour for the next half an hour. Needless to say, the conductor didn’t emerge from his cubbyhole, so all the other passengers had to put up with their crap. As always, my return to the Valleys after an interesting day out was accompanied by a plunge in my mood. I was back in the land where nothing ever happens, except gangs of rowdy kids roaming around the streets (and pubs) of dying little towns.
I’ve offered to put some feelers out locally, to see if James can give his talk a bit closer to the centre of the Spanish anarchist action. I also had a confirmation email from the BRHG yesterday, so I’m on their mailing list for future events. All in all it was a very enjoyable and worthwhile way to spend a wet January Saturday.
Most importantly, though, it’s replanted the idea of relocating to Bristol in my mind. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing to keep me in Aberdare. As long as I have access to the Internet I can work from anywhere in the UK. If I sell my house I can clear a few debts and have a safety net while I get settled in somewhere else. I think I’ll definitely look into the situation next time I’m in Bristol – and for only fifteen quid it’s well and truly back on my radar.