A Leap in the Dark

In which The Author looks for the hidden cameras again

It’s 29 February. (Apologies to my readers in the USA, but that’s the way we write the date here, and that’s the way it’s gonna stay!) That means that we get an additional day on the calendar to try and do something to shout about.
Radio 4’s evening news programme PM has been leading up to the occasion by inviting its listeners to try something new. They did the same thing in 2012, apparently, and had some unexpected results. One couple got married; another chap started his own business – you can imagine the sort of thing. Last time out they also spoke to a listener named Jeff (or maybe Geoff), from Neath. It’s a former industrial town in South Wales, not too far from where I live (unless you’re making the journey by public transport, of course).
Jeff is a middle-aged chap who’d suffered a stroke, and had been too nervous to travel anywhere since. To mark the last Leap Day he’d taken the bull by the horns and caught the bus into Swansea. He’d literally got off one bus, bought a cup of coffee, and headed straight home again. For someone who’d been pretty much housebound for a few years, that’s quite a brave step.
PM‘s presenter Eddie Mair caught up with Jeff for a chat on the phone last week. He seems like a nice old boy, with a wry and quite self-deprecating sense of humour. To mark this Leap Day, he was planning to make the train journey into Cardiff. He seemed to be looking forward to it, but he did say that he was worried about getting lost.
I don’t blame him. I was in Cardiff a fortnight ago, for the Plaid Cymru election manifesto launch, and nearly got lost myself. I worked in the city for the best part of two decades, but finished in the book trade before work really got underway on the St David’s 2 retail development. I only needed to get from Queen Street station to the bus stop beside John Lewis, but it was hard work.
I found out afterwards that I could have got off the train at Cardiff Central and caught the bus from Wood Street. Even though the bus station has been demolished, the services haven’t been substantially altered. (Alternatively, I could have bought a through ticket to Ninian Park and walked straight to the venue from there. But I wanted to travel out to Cathays in the afternoon, so it made sense to buy a day ticket on the bus and make the most of it. The weather in the morning wasn’t really conducive to wandering far, either.)
Anyway, Jeff’s quest came to mind this morning, when I was on a bus heading out of Aberdare. I’d missed the postman on Saturday, and I didn’t want to wait for a scheduled redelivery, so I had to pay one of my occasional visits to the sorting office at Aberaman Industrial Estate.
It’s a pain in the arse to get to, because some buses going south serve it and others don’t. If you’re feeling energetic and/or brave, you can get off a Cwmbach bus at Asda and walk the rest of the way. There’s only about half a mile and one very busy traffic roundabout (with no provision for pedestrians) between you and your destination.
The other bus route(s) either skirt the top of the estate, which also means a bit of a walk (but with no potential death traps), or run straight past the entrance. The timetables in Aberdare Bus Station don’t really make it clear which route goes where, though. Is it the 60, the 60A, the 95, or the 95A which will drop you you off two minutes’ walk from the sorting office? (I found out this morning that it’s the 60.)
[A digression: The whole thing reminds me of a classic courtroom exchange some years ago.
The scene is Llwynypia Magistrates’ Court; the occasion is a three-day Traffic Commissioner’s hearing into the operation of the late unlamented Shamrock Coaches.
In the chair is David Dixon, the Traffic Commissioner for Wales. In the witness box is Clayton Jones, the managing director of the bus company. In the public gallery are representatives of all the other local operators (who’d have had to fill the gaps if Shamrock had lost routes), a lady who covers these affairs for the trade press, and your humble reporter.
Under discussion are two routes in the Pontypridd area, both of which served the University of Glamorgan.
DIXON: I’ve been looking at the timetables for the 8 and 8A services. Now, bear in mind that I’m not familiar with the area – and many students catching these buses will also be new to South Wales. Don’t you think some people might find your timetable confusing?
JONES: Mr Commissioner, I’ve been running buses in Pontypridd for twenty years. If you can show me one person who finds my timetables confusing, I’ll give you a thousand pounds.
DIXON: It’s probably not a good idea to offer me money, Mr Jones.]
Anyway, back to this morning.
Even though I’d been slightly baffled by the timetables, I was nowhere near as confused as two brain-dead bints in their late teens or early twenties, sitting a few seats behind me. One of them, I gathered, had an appointment at Ysbyty Cwm Cynon – the new hospital a short distance north of Mountain Ash, alongside the A4059. Now, I believe that one of Stagecoach’s southbound services does run to YCC. You can bet a thousand pounds that it isn’t the 60, though.
Having realised that she was on the wrong bus, Brain-Dead Bint 1 started to panic. However, Brain-Dead Bint 2 was able to reassure her (slightly) by telling her she could walk across from Fernhill. This, however, wasn’t an ideal solution.
‘I might get lost,’ BDB 1 replied.
By some miracle, I managed not to laugh out loud.
Let me paint a picture for you. There’s a two-lane road at the bottom of a shallow hill, with a bus stop on either side. To the west side of the road are some large houses; behind them is a very large council estate (Fernhill); behind that is the Forestry Commission land on the mountain dividing our valley from the Rhondda.
To the east of the road there’s a line of trees; behind this, the railway line runs alongside a shallow brook. A signpost a few metres from the bus stop indicates a footpath to the east. This short path (twenty metres or so) runs through the trees and leads to Fernhill Station. There’s also a continuation of the path, over the single (non-electrified) track, into Peace Park.
Peace Park is a small, roughly triangular area of land enclosed by the brook and a loop of the river Cynon. It’s not so much a park, more a tennis court with delusions of grandeur. Less than a minute’s walk from there, you cross a small footbridge over the Cynon and emerge at the entrance to the hospital.
To be on the safe side, the hospital is also mentioned on the sign at the path’s origin, and on a second sign near the rail crossing.
In short, you couldn’t fail to get from the bus stop at Fernhill to YCC, even if you had never set foot in the Northern Hemisphere before and were only relying on the stars as navigational aids. It’s an expedition on a quite different scale from Rhian’s first trip to London, when I reminded her of the first rule of being the Doctor’s companion: ‘Don’t wander off!’ Getting lost in London is one thing; getting lost in Glenboi is quite literally impossible.
When BDB 2 had to explain this short cut to BDB 1, I started looking around the vehicle for hidden cameras. I was obviously on the sidelines of some sort of TV prank show, with these two fuckwits as stooges and the other passengers (and possibly the driver) as the intended victims.
I assumed from their accents that these two bints were local to the area. Unlike the hapless students aboard the 8/8A services back in the day, they don’t really have a valid excuse for not knowing their way around. Even if they’d grown up in a remote backwater like Rhigos or Penderyn, surely to Goddess they must have ventured into the big wide world at some point in their lives.
Perhaps, though, they’re an early warning of widespread future ignorance. Raised in an age when Dad’s Taxi takes them everywhere, when satnavs have supplanted maps, and when they aren’t allowed to explore because of tabloid-induced hysteria, it’s quite possible that in ten years’ time almost all young adults will be equally fucking clueless when they’re allowed outside the front gate for the first time.
I say ‘almost all’, because I’m pretty sure there are kids who’ll be confident enough to roam around unaccompanied and discover places for themselves. My honorary nephews Thomas and Evan will probably fall into that category. I’ve yet to introduce them to the joys of detailed Ordnance Survey maps, but I can guarantee they’ll love them. I’m going to try and catch up with them over the Easter holidays, so that’ll be a good opportunity to switch them on.
I’m really looking forward to PM tonight, to see how Jeff’s excursion to Cardiff panned out. I do hope he enjoys himself, and I also hope he has the bottle to venture a bit further afield than he did on his trip to Swansea.
I wouldn’t blame him for being apprehensive, mind. When I was working in Waterstones, we once met a rugby widow who’d been shopping while her husband was at the Millennium Stadium. She’d called in to buy a street map, because she’d got lost after leaving Queen Street – not the station, but the main shopping thoroughfare.
Her excuse was that she was born in Bristol, lived in Gloucestershire, and hadn’t been to Cardiff for years.
I said, ‘You can hear the stadium from here, never mind seeing it!’
In fact, if Jeff himself (or any of his family or friends) happens to come across this entry, I’d like to extend him an offer. If he fancies a trip to Glynneath on the bus one day, I’ll come down and meet him for a coffee. Glynneath lies directly on the fault line between bus operators, so it would be an ideal rendezvous.
And let’s be honest – at least neither of us would run the risk of getting lost.

Static Shock

In which The Author sees some people who are stuck in time

In Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s classic novel Slaughterhouse-5, the protagonist Billy Pilgrim famously comes ‘unstuck in time’. Unable to stay in one chronos-zone, poor Billy finds himself randomly hurled between his day job as an optometrist, his wartime experiences in Dresden (during the catastrophic firestorm of 1945), and his future life as a zoological specimen on the planet Tralfamadore.
Tonight, I was randomly hurled into the early 1990s. Having said that, it was difficult to tell at first. It could equally well have been the South Wales Valleys in the mid-80s, or London ten years from now, or even any small town in the USA any time since about 1975.
Unlike Mr Vonnegut’s hero, I should begin at the beginning and explain why I’m here, in Thereisnospoon, posting yet another late-night entry.
I opened my emails today and found one from Twitter. It said, ‘are you going to the Brits tonight?’ I couldn’t resist sharing it on Facebook – so I did. My reply was, ‘Sorry, Twitter, but I’ve got a prior engagement with real musicians…’
The Lighthouse has started putting on Rock Nights every other Wednesday. I’ve missed the first couple because of the weather. I couldn’t be bothered to mess about catching a bus to Aberdare in the Twilight Zone, only to have to come away early because the last bus home leaves at 2230. However, the sun has been sighted twice in the last two days, so I decided to venture into town and see what was what. I already knew from the poster that tonight’s band had the word ‘whiskey’ in their name, which sounded fairly promising. I thought we might be in for some blues-tinged R’n’B, or even a folky combo. I should really have known better.
This is the Valleys, you see, and rawwwwwk music is the staple diet of our youngsters – as well as providing the fairly limited bill of fare for a lot of older people. (When I say ‘older people’, please bear in mind that I’m less than a month from the big five-oh.)
The band came in and started setting up their gear while I was talking to Alwyn. I was showing him some ideas I’d come up with for his forthcoming website. Every so often we glanced up, in time to see yet more kit being brought in. The area of the pub where the pro/am karaoke takes place is just about big enough to accommodate three people and a laptop. Whiskey Lies were trying to squeeze a gallon into a pint pot. I don’t know whether they actually set up their entire PA, or if some of it was still in the van. Mark’s only just rejigged the pub’s own sound system, so building a Marshall stack behind the built-in speakers seemed rather like gilding the lily.
Anyway, Alwyn and I carried on chatting in between Gareth S. loading up fairly mainstream music on the in-house speakers. Then the band decided to do their soundcheck.
At which point the Tralfamadorians arrived (I was stealing a mirror, oddly enough – something else I owe to the late Mr Vonnegut), and threw me three decades back along my own timeline.
The MIT cognitive scientist Professor Steven Pinker (a man whom I’ve had the privilege of speaking to) has written several fascinating books about the human brain. In How the Mind Works he tells the sad story of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, and his plunge into depression through a simple mathematical exercise. Mill, apparently, did some calculations based upon the notes of the musical scale, the number of keys available, the range of orchestral instruments, and other related variables with a fairly narrow range. He concluded that, taking all these factors into account, Western civilisation would – quite simply – run out of music within a few decades. This was enough to plunge Mill into a blue funk which lasted for a long time.
Prof. Pinker takes this argument apart using the mathematics of combinatorics, which works well on paper, but doesn’t really convince me. (In fact, I wish he’d written that book before we met, because I’d love to have discussed this aspect with him at his book signing.)
I know there are 88 keys on a keyboard, and over a dozen different keys within which a composer can work, and all sorts of time signatures and variables which multiply out to huge numbers. However, as far as I can tell, there will only be a limited subset of this huge set which actually sound pleasant to the human ear. One just has to look at the way Western music started to broaden out in the late nineteenth century, with the abandonment of the leading tone and the subsequent rise of serialism – a radical development which left audiences and critics baffled, angered or alienated for quite a few decades. Other composers started to draw on non-Western music, bringing in the sorts of microtones heard in Eastern music to extend the range of expression available.
It only took a few decades for this sort of experimentation to filter through to a wider audience – first into modern jazz, with the wild excesses of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sun Ra, and then into what evolved into rock music.
With rock music, the time was right for this cross-cultural hybridisation. An explosion of interest in Eastern philosophy fed into the youth culture of the Hippy era. As soon as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones introduced sitars on their records, it suddenly became apparent that Tonic Sol-fa was a fairly narrow playing field. At the same time, early synthesisers enabled musicians to generate sounds which nobody had ever heard before. I think it’s fair to say that the interval between 1965 and 1980 was probably the most productive, creative, thought-provoking and innovative period of musical composition ever experienced in the West.
And, unfortunately, it seems to be where most Rock bands stopped dead.
I have no doubt that Whiskey Lies are competent musicians. It’s clear that they know their way around their instruments. The problem is that they aren’t doing anything with those instruments that hasn’t been done a million times before, by everyone from megabands like Metallica and Slayer to the local teenagers in the scout hut on a Sunday afternoon.
I closed my eyes for a couple of minutes during their set. That’s when the Tralfamadorians caught me and took me back to the Carpenters on a Thursday night in about 1987. There were five guys at the back of the pub, armed with the best gear they could afford from their crappy factory jobs. Most of them had long hair, and some of them had curly perms – this was the era of Hair Metal, remember. I think the lead singer was wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt; the rest of the boys were advertising the big names of the Heavy Metal scene, too. Tight denims and big hair were the order of the day – together with a plodding 4/4 beat, four-chords-and-a-screaming-solo, indecipherable words, and fuck you attitude.
I opened my eyes again, crashed back into 2016, and saw four lads in their early twenties, wearing tight black jeans and black T-shirts (one had a band name across his chest), with fairly trendy haircuts and at least one hipster beard. There was the same 4/4 beat, the same tempo, the same structure, the same attitude. Even a cover of Stevie Wonder’s amazing ‘Superstition’ was reduced to the formulaic chug-chug of the rock cliché.
It came as no surprise to learn that Whiskey Lies are (mostly) from Bridgend. Musically speaking, Bridgend is even more stuck in time than Aberdare. At least we’ve got some older guys (friends of mine) who’ve broken free of the mould and come up with some interesting music over the years. On the whole, though, the Valleys have gone nowhere in the past thirty-odd years.
I wondered whether I should have told them that Lemmy – one of the most important and original voices of the UK Heavy Metal scene – had died just after Xmas. Then it occurred to me that they might not even know that John Bonham is dead. That’s how insular and narrow the contemporary Rock scene is.
They won’t go to jam nights, so they’ll never meet people outside that sphere, and cross-fertilisation of genres becomes impossible. With the spread of dedicated radio and TV channels for each narrow niche, they don’t even have to listen to anything outside their own sphere. There’s no room for innovation, for experimentation, for development. Everything has collapsed into baby universes, completely divorced from the rest of creation – and I mean musical creation.
This isn’t just true of Rock music, though. It applies to jazz, folk, reggae, electronic (with a handful of notable exceptions in each case), and especially to pop, where all musical content seems to have been replaced by an unimaginative drum program.
I actually had a shock tonight when I realised how static the scene has become. I kinda knew it anyway, but when I’m this close to marking my half-century on Earth, I can finally justify my decision to never venture forth to see live music again.