Category Archives: Department for Work and Pensions

That Was The Month That Was

In which The Author helps a friend, loses a friend, and makes some new virtual friends

January can be a low point in many people’s lives, and 2013 got off to a bad start for me and a lot of my friends. The rot set in a few days before that, actually. The last week of December was ruined by a combination of flu, severe back pain, and appalling weather which kept me indoors much of the time. Rowland and I had arranged to meet in the Prince of Wales on Boxing Day afternoon, for our traditional Bank Holiday drinking and crossword-solving session.
In the event I spent the day under the duvet in my armchair with the radio on, drinking hot Lemsip, and the crosswords and The Chambers Dictionary at my side. Meanwhile, Rowland embarked on a mini pub crawl of his own, occasionally texting me for backup when he got stuck on a particular clue. It wasn’t exactly what we’d had in mind. That was pretty much the situation until New Year’s Eve. I only ventured out at all because the cupboard was bare.
I never go out on the night of New Year’s Eve, as the whole thing is so hyped up that the Americans would be proud of us. It’s a bit like the Six Nations weekends, when the ‘let’s go to the pub once every three months’ drinkers emerge from hibernation and cause havoc in town (see Bugger Rugger).
Every single pisshead gets horrendously drunk, proclaims that everyone is their best friend, and when ‘Auld Lang Syne’ strikes up, grabs hold of a random stranger and starts crying on his/her shoulder. The following day, the same person will pass his/her new best mate in the street without even acknowledging his/her existence. In the run-up to New Year’s Eve I spoke to a great many people who feel the same way. A lot of them were planning to go home early as well and have parties with their real friends instead.
For me, it was the end of 1999 and the start of 2000 that ruined New Year’s Eve.
[A digression: I didn’t (and still don’t) refer to that particular event as ‘Millennium Eve’ on purely mathematical grounds. I blame George Pal, the great Hungarian-born film director. His version of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor, is one of my favourite films, but flawed from the outset. It begins on the last day of 1899, and the Time Traveller and his friends are talking about the new century which is about to dawn. That seems to have put the idea in the public imagination that new centuries begin when the calendar ticks over and ends in -00.
The only problem is that, when you think about it logically, the Twentieth Century didn’t start until 1 January 1901. There was never a Year Zero (except in Cambodia under Pol Pot). Therefore, the First Century began in the year 1 CE, the Second Century in the year 101, and so forth. Applying the same reasoning to the last changeover, the Twenty First Century began on 1 January 2001. I didn’t see the point of celebrating the new millennium a year early. When I look back at the decade or so since, there wasn’t much worth celebrating anyway.]
In December 1999 a different strain of flu was doing the rounds of Aberdare. By the time midnight struck in the Whitcombe, only Angharad D., Graham B. and I were still standing. Angharad and I set off to Cwmaman in search of a rumoured party, but failed to find it. By the time we’d walked back home (she to her parents’ home and I to mine, alas), we’d both sobered up. I didn’t even get a New Year kiss from her when we parted company. C’est la vie.
Around that period, I worked most New Year’s Eves anyway, depending on how the rota had worked out. After 2000 CE, my annual ‘celebration’ consisted of picking up a pre-ordered mushroom omelette and chips from the Pagoda, locking the front door, switching off my phone, and watching old films until the fireworks began in the next street. I used to let everyone else go out in fancy dress, paying £5 or £10 or £15 to get into a series of packed pubs, going to Aberdare’s only ‘nightclub’, then paying through the nose for a taxi home in the small hours.
Anyway, this year I did a bit of food shopping in the afternoon and had a few pints, chatting to my friends until about eight o’clock. Only the regulars were in the pub, but I had a sinking feeling that the Fancy Dress Crowd wouldn’t be far away. My next lot of painkillers were calling out to me, so I didn’t even bother walking to the Pagoda.
I stopped off at a takeaway closer to town instead, where I could sit down and psych myself up for the final push home. My old friend Jeremy was in there, waiting for his order. We used to work together in the days of the Cynon Valley Profile. He lives around the corner from the takeaway, so we still bump into each other in town every now and again. Occasionally Stella and I pass him and his daughter when they’re running in the Country Park.
Straight away Jeremy noticed that I was struggling to get around, and told me that he has a similar problem from time to time. (I once teased my GP that, after five million-odd years of bipedal motion, Homo sapiens should have come up with a more robust structural design by now.)
Jeremy made me a very kind offer, which I was only too pleased to accept: once he’d dropped the order off for his family, he’d bring the car around, wait for me on the corner, and give me a lift home. He was as good as his word, fair play, and I was at home within two minutes of collecting my food. I ate my supper, enjoyed a double-bill of Casablanca and Some Like It Hot, cracked a couple of the cans which Neil and Sonia had bought me for Xmas, and stayed up until the fireworks died away in the small hours. 2012 (all 366 days and three Friday the Thirteenths of it) was finally over. Good bloody riddance to it!
January itself got off to a shaky start, largely thanks to my back, the weather, and the lack of public transport over the holiday. I didn’t venture into town until the fourth, and then I didn’t stay out very long. I stayed in for the next two evenings as well, in too much pain to venture to the pub. I did catch up on a couple of films I hadn’t seen for years, mind – Capricorn One and Yankee Doodle Dandy. An odd juxtaposition, granted, but well worth revisiting all the same.
On the seventh the nonsense set in again. I found a comment on my subsidiary (and now-deleted) blog Security Leaks From the Future.
It was a well-meaning (but totally copyright-breaching) attempt to showcase the talents of my favourite science fiction writers. I’ve been working on it for a couple of months, and was amazed to find a comment from one of the UK’s greatest SF authors, Christopher Priest. You probably haven’t read any of his books. However, when I mention Christopher Nolan’s amazing film The Prestige, and then tell you that Mr Priest wrote the novel upon which it was based, you’ll get some measure of the man’s talent.
It was difficult to judge the tone of his comment, but he’d asked me to contact him ASAP. I’d reproduced his extraordinary short story An Infinite Summer on my blog, and I imagined that he wanted me to remove it. I sent a him very apologetic and humble email, and waited to see what happened:
Dear Mr Priest
Thanks very much for getting in touch via my blog. I really hope you aren’t upset or angry by my unauthorised sharing of your story An Infinite Summer. I’ve been a huge fan of your writing since I first chanced upon Indoctrinaire in my local bookshop when I was about fifteen (1981-ish). I read everything that you had in print at that time (and also Inverted World, a US hardback copy of which I found in Hay on Wye). I was in the audience when you and Brian Aldiss gave a talk at the ICA, late in 1984 or early in 1985. I was a student at Brunel University at the time, and made a special trip into town when I saw the event listing in Time Out. You’d just published The Glamour (a book which still haunts and baffles me) and Mr Aldiss had just published Seasons in Flight. It was a pity that I had to dash off after your talk, as I’d have loved it if I’d been able to have my copies signed at the time. I’ve lent your novels to several of my friends over the years, and somehow managed to get them all back (except The Space Machine).
Rest assured, if you’d like me to remove your story from the blog I will do so immediately. As I said in my disclaimer, I’d intended it to act as an introduction to authors whose work I both love and respect greatly, in the hope that people will be tempted to find out more. However, I will understand completely if you’d rather it wasn’t there.
I mentioned it to a couple of my friends, and they reassured me that if Mr Priest had wanted me to take the story down, he’d probably have asked me straight out. Still, it preyed on my mind for a couple of hours. I really hoped I hadn’t pissed off a guy whose novels have been a big part of my life since I was in school.
A little while later, the night went chaotic, thanks largely to the intervention of my friend Hannah W. (It wasn’t her fault, mind you.) Hannah used to be a weekend barbint in the Conway, which was where we first met. She’s tall, dark-haired, very attractive, intelligent, rather scatterbrained, and young enough to be my daughter.
On my forty-second birthday she, her mother Eirlys, and her friend Rhiannon came into the pub, where I was having a drink with Pam. Hannah announced that it was her twenty-first birthday, and I said, ‘Oh my god, you’re exactly half my age!’ to everyone’s amusement. Since then, she keeps telling her friends that she’s half my age. (Every time she does, I have to point out that that particular situation could only occur once in our lifetimes. I’m still twenty-one years older than her, of course, but when I turn forty-seven in a couple of months’ time, she’ll be only twenty-six. It’s a bit like one of those verbal algebra problems that used to appear on O level Maths papers.)
Anyway, I was in the Prince one evening working on a blog when she looked in. She didn’t stay for a drink, but sent me a message on Facebook soon afterwards – ‘Come to Spoons.’
I’ve mentioned Aberdare’s runt of the J.D. Wetherspoon litter several times in this blog. It’s notable for its cavernous and echoing interior, its bizarre Fritz Lang-style decor, its Vanishing Barmaids, its position at the vanguard of the Slow Food Movement, and its much-advertised ‘Free Wifi.’ (Sonia, my old schoolfriend and adviser at TBG Learning, asked me this morning why I call it the ‘periodic WiFi’. I told her, ‘Because it comes on for a couple of days every month.’) It’s cheap and fairly cheerless, but it would be nice to catch up with Hannah. We always have a good chat and a laugh when we’re out together, so I finished my pint and took a walk to the other end of the town.
In common with most pubs just after the holidays, Thereisnospoon was almost empty. Hannah was sitting by the patio doors, talking to a big bloke with short-cropped hair and an even shorter fuse. I had a flashback to meeting one of her previous boyfriends (on the night I met Jenny, in fact, on our shared birthday in 2009), who was nothing short of a total wanker. Yes, folks, here’s a huge surprise for you! I have yet another female friend who attracts, and/or who is attracted to, Aberdare’s never-ending supply of good-looking, muscle-bound, brainless, paranoid, violent thugs.
I got a pint in and felt like a bit of an interloper when Hannah called me over. She introduced me to the steroid monster and I took an instant dislike to him. (The feeling might have been mutual, but I don’t care. For my part, I always find taking an instant dislike to people like that saves a great deal of time.) I’m not even sure what happened between them a minute or so later. Suddenly the idiot picked up the drink he’d bought for her and poured it onto the carpet. He told us that he was going to sit somewhere else, and indeed he did – at the very next table!
I think there might be a curse on that table. I was sitting at the very same table the first time I met Becky S. and the other Hannah, when Professor Whitebread crashed in on our conversation (see All Trussed Up and Nowhere to Go). I’ll have to check the table number next time I’m in there – it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was 666.
The idiot fucked off and Hannah and I carried on chatting as though nothing had happened. At the end of the night we repaired to a takeaway, where she bought a kebab and I bought a pizza. I’d forgotten that she lives in town now. I’d been anticipating walking her back to her mother’s house, more or less opposite mine. Instead, we went our separate ways.
At least she hadn’t brought a cute but crazy red-haired friend to the pub with her. That was a turn-up for the books. The first time we went for a drink in Spoons was the night I met Jenny. I still bear the mental scars.
On Tuesday I went into town at lunchtime. To my infinite relief, when I checked my emails, I found this reply from Christopher Priest:
Dear Steve
Not at all angry, I assure you. But I do think we might be talking at cross-purposes. I’m truly grateful, though, for what you say about liking my stuff, and I was interested and amused to learn you had been lurking at the ICA, etc. Seems like a long, long time ago, doesn’t it?
Please add the following wording to my story, and make it prominent (either right at the beginning, or in larger type at the end):
An Infinite Summer, Copyright © Christopher Priest 1976, 1979. Published here by permission of the author. All rights reserved. This story may not be downloaded from this site or copied to others.
I grant you the right to use the story for the rest of this year — i.e. to the end of 2013. If you still want to use it on the site after that, you must seek my permission again, or remove it. OK?
And I earnestly advise you to seek similar permission from the other writers, because I do assure you that you are going to fall into hot water if you don’t. You are messing with some famously unpleasant people. Just ask politely, and accept any requests they make. If you don’t like what they say, drop the story.
All best
Chris Priest
Wow! That was all I could say. Oh yes, I like his ‘stuff’ all right! The man’s a fucking genius! Like the email from Professor Kevin Morgan, Mr Priest’s email was another fine example of the kindness of strangers. I immediately amended the blog, altering the text slightly to read ‘with kind permission of the author.’ I also sent him another email to thank him for his good grace, good will and understanding.
Since then, though, I’ve been puzzling about the last paragraph. Of the authors whose work I’ve shared so far, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Bester and Damon Knight are no longer with us. Since the pseudonymous ‘Paul Latham’ was writing in the 1940s, I think we can discount him as well. That leaves seven living authors. Which of them which could be ranked amongst the ‘famously unpleasant people’, whose wrath might rain down on me? I can’t help wondering which of them Mr Priest had in mind. However, since he was commenting on someone else’s story, I’ve got a vague idea …
I had a doctor’s appointment on 10 January, so I made my way into town in good time to visit the library first. It was a good thing I did, as things turned out. I was in the Prince doing the crossword when my old friend Martin H. walked in. He’s quite a bit older than me and we used to drink in the Carpenters, but with different circles of friends. We’ve known each other for years, and we’d had a very pleasant afternoon of conversation and nostalgia on Xmas Eve.
That afternoon, though, he looked like he’d seen a ghost. Straight away he asked me to walk through to the smoking area with him. He had a hell of a job to get the words out. He’s had an extremely painful medical condition for quite a while now, but he’d managed to grit his teeth and carry on until I saw him. He was in total agony, and I couldn’t begin to imagine how he was feeling. Instead, I could only try to extrapolate from my own previous experiences.
I had an impingement in my right shoulder (which led to a torn tendon) for seven years until I had an operation in April 2008. I remember what it was like: excruciating pain 24/7 (which strong Co-codamol didn’t touch); a right arm which was useless much of the time; having to sleep in the armchair because the gravitational pull on the joint would stretch the tendon; spontaneous coldness in my right hand, followed by pins and needles down the length of my arm; at worst, not even being to do the crossword because it was impossible to hold a pen.
Unfortunately for Martin, he’s been dragged a lot further down that road than I ever had to venture, largely because the local hospitals have (as our GP put it) ‘cocked up’ in grand style. If someone in the Third World had inflicted that degree of pain on another human being, he’d find himself in The Hague charged with war crimes. I persuaded him to have a can of Coke, and we chatted to try and take his mind off things. When the surgery reopened after lunch, I dragged him up there and managed to get him an urgent appointment.
When Dr Nicholls called him in, I said I’d wait for him, but he asked me to go into the consulting room with him. Dr Nicholls said she didn’t mind, so we went in and sat together. Martin explained his symptoms with some difficulty while I helped him to remove his shirt so that she could examine him. Dr Davies came in to offer a second opinion, and I nipped out to the reception desk to reschedule my appointment for early in the following week.
I had a sinking feeling that I’d be spending the afternoon with Martin in the local hospital. Neither of us drive, and he was in no fit state to travel by bus. We agreed to split the cost of a taxi, but Dr Davies prescribed him some new painkillers and advised him to see how things went overnight. In the meantime, Dr Nicholls made some phone calls and promised to chase up the consultant first thing on Monday morning.
While we were walking through town afterwards, Martin nearly collapsed under the pain. It was lucky that I was there to grab him, or he’d have keeled over in the lane by the market. We managed to get as far as the bus station, where he nearly hit the deck again. Before getting a taxi, we both needed a piss, so we went to the toilet nearby. Gents’ toilets attract graffiti writers, of course, but they tend to be variations on the words ‘cock fun’. We must have a better class of rough trade in Aberdare – in the cubicle I spotted a graffito which read Gent Seeks Tryst. That provided us with an unexpected chuckle on a very stressful afternoon.
We jumped in a taxi and went back to Martin’s place in Mountain Ash. While he made a cup of tea, I went online on his laptop. A quick search turned up a firm of No Win, No Fee Medical Negligence specialists. I sent his details on to them, and before long they rang him so that he could outline his case. He felt a bit more cheerful at the end of the call, and I made sure that his medication was sorted out for the night and the next morning.
I wanted to try and pick some things up in Iceland, but by the time I walked from Martin’s flat to the town centre, and then to the railway station, it was Arriva Thursday. Trains never run as timetabled on Thursdays for some reason, so I decided to have a pint instead.
Rhian and I had a happy accident a while back, taking photos around the town centre. We walked into the Mountain Ash Inn, and found that the landlord was a guy who used to drink in the Carpenters years ago. Anthony R. and I recognised each other, had a nice chat, and linked up on Facebook soon afterwards. I hadn’t been into the pub for ages, so I decided to call in for ‘just the one’. It turned into a very nice session with good company. I made a mental note to call in there again next time I’m in that neck of the woods.
From there, still a victim of Arriva Thursday, I called into the New Inn. A couple of the lads who’d been in the Mount came in, and we tried to come to terms with a very user-hostile jukebox. I chatted to a guy named Lee (yet another former Carpenters drinker) at the bar, and had a nice couple of pints in there. Then, with no warning, the evening went chaotic again. Lee asked me why I was wearing gloves. I said, ‘It’s so that when you put a pretty young girl over your knee and spank her arse, you don’t leave fingerprints.’ That was a daft thing to say, as it turned out. As I described in Zigzagging Down Memory Lane, in the mind of the average tabloid reader nowadays, any type of sexual deviation is equated with ‘paedophilia’. Once again, I was up against the infinite power of human stupidity. I made my excuses and left before Lee decided to kick my head in. For fuck’s sake …
The following day I was signing on, so I tried logging into Universal Jobmatch beforehand. I’d first registered for this new Government ‘one-stop shop’ on 25 November, and since then I’d been unable to access it at all. The bint in the Jokecentre seemed to think I hadn’t tried. I told her that I’d been ‘on hold’ to their No Helpdesk for ten minutes or so, until my phone ran out of credit. She arranged for me to see her colleague (and my mate) Gavin on the following Tuesday to re-register. I’m pretty tech-savvy, so it takes a fairly incompetent software designer to devise a website which I can’t negotiate. This particular company should be building role-playing fantasy games, as nobody I’ve spoken to has been able to make it past Level 1 without fucking it up.
I called into the Prince afterwards. I needed a pint after my experiences in the Circumlocution Office. Martin had just got there, and I was pleased to see him looking a little bit better. I’d called into Iceland and picked him a couple of packs of microwaveable porridge. He’d been living on choc ices and rice pudding for ages, as the pain made it difficult for him to swallow. At least he’d have some protein and vitamins inside him if he ate a couple of those every day. We’d exchanged phone numbers the day before, and I’d promised to be ‘on call’ if he needed anything. I know he’s five miles away from me, and neither of us has access to a car, but at least he’s got someone to talk to if he needs a sympathetic ear.
On the Saturday I decided that Stella and I were in need of fresh air and daylight, so I went round to Kath’s house. It had only been three weeks, but anyone would have sworn the Mad Labrador and I hadn’t seen each other for years. We had a nice Stroll as far as town, and when we got back, Kath asked me if I could do a bit of Tech Support on their new laptop. It was an easy enough job (and didn’t involve spending a shedload of money on Microsoft branded software), but it impressed everyone in the house. I decided to have new business cards printed, with the words Technical Support for all the Family.
To check that everything was working okay afterwards, I logged into Facebook and read some bad news. The Rev John Graham, aka Araucaria, the presiding genius behind our Boozy Bank Holiday Crossword Collaborations, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the grand age of 91, he’d broken the news in his own inimitable fashion – hidden in the solutions to one of his puzzles. It crossed my mind that Bunthorne had left half a dozen unpublished puzzles at the time of his death. Rowland and I can only hope that the Monkey Puzzler will do the same thing, so that he can torment us from beyond the grave, like something from a Japanese horror film.
Sunday was an afternoon of more Tech Support for Kath and Co. Kath texted me to say that her partner had bought a new laptop running Windows 8. The guy in the the showroom had done his best to sell them Norton Antivirus (which is where he earns his commission, of course). I saved some installation files to my USB drive and went to the house, thinking that they were already back from the shop. They weren’t – but I couldn’t leave Stella unwalked! By the time we’d had our hour’s Stroll, together with Swimming, Stick and Sneak (see Stella’s Rambles for more details), the laptop was ready for my tender ministrations.
Two days of successful IT support had obviously angered the Goddess of Chaos. On Monday the charger for my Netbook broke. The DC cable had been loose for some time, and there was only about three electrons’ width between a connection and a disconnection. On Monday afternoon it snapped entirely. I had enough juice in the battery to put out a quick appeal to my friends on Facebook, to ask if anyone had an old charger gathering dust in a drawer somewhere.
Olly said he had one that might be compatible. My friends Dave and Kath said I could drop my Netbook in with them in the evening and they’d charge it for me while I walked Stella. I made my way to the surgery for my appointment, and Julia told me that I was an hour late. I blame my phone. I’d stored the appointment as a Reminder, but the battery had died mid-morning. Julia booked me a new appointment for later in the week, so I walked up to Trecynon, dropped the Netbook off, and the Beast got an unexpected Stroll while it was charging up.
The following day I had a new experience entirely. I went to give blood. The trailer was parked up near Tesco when I went into town, so I decided to see what appointments they had. They couldn’t do anything until mid-afternoon, so I spent a couple of hours in the Library before heading back there. I didn’t even come away with an empty arm. It was a surprisingly straightforward experience, and I was glad of the excuse to head home and have a a quiet night in the armchair.
On Wednesday I went to the surgery for a medication review. My GP went through my recent history and queried a couple of referrals which hadn’t been followed up. I’d fallen victim to the Circumlocution Office again, by the looks of things. Later on, I met up with Olly so that he could give me his spare charger. Needless to say, it didn’t quite fit. It was close, but not close enough. Sammy’s old charger hadn’t fitted either – but her old Netbook was (sort of) working, so I was equipped with that as well. I say ‘sort of’, because – like my old one – the keyboard was buggered. (Take a fourteen-year old girl, add a Netbook, pour out a glass of Coke, and throw in an extremely bouncy Black Labrador. It’s a recipe for disaster.)
The keyboard was drying out in my airing cupboard, so I was using an external USB keyboard. I put a status on Facebook, saying that I felt like Rick Wakeman, and wondering whether I should rack-mount the whole setup. My mate Chris, a huge Prog Rock fan and a brilliant keyboard player, asked me why I was even wondering about it. ‘It’s a no-brainer, surely,’ he replied.
In Spoons, after Olly had left, I decided not to muck about any longer and ordered a new charger online instead. Yes, folks, you read that correctly – I was online in Spoons. Or rather, as I said on Facebook, I WAS FUCKING ONLINE IN SPOONS! That didn’t mean that I was engaging in cybersex; just that I’d managed to get the fucking WiFi to work.
Rob H., Andrew S. and Islwyn came in after the Cambrian Quiz and we had a good chat. I’m doing my best to persuade Rob to go in for Brain of Britain. I told him that even if he crashes and burns, he’ll have a great couple of days in Manchester. I don’t think he’s convinced, though. We shared a taxi home and I went straight to bed. It had been a very long day.
On Thursday, normal service was resumed. I’d arranged to meet C— for coffee and/or lunch. You’d think I’d have learned from the Jenny non-experiences, wouldn’t you? But no – I keep giving the bint another chance and she throws it back in my face. After her customary no-show, I chatted to Rhian in the Prince for a while. I borrowed her laptop again to tide me over until the new charger arrived, and took it to Wetherspoons later on to try and get online for a second day on the trot. It worked!
I hadn’t been there long when Martyn E. came in with his laptop, and we set up a little IT table in one corner. Although it was Curry Club, it was remarkably quiet. There was a simple reason for that – snow had started to fall. All public transport had stopped within three seconds of the first flakes hitting the tarmac. Friends of mine were posting photos on Facebook of the bread, milk and fresh produce aisles in Tesco. They had been stripped entirely bare, as if there’d been widespread looting after a nuclear attack.
After Martyn went home, I walked over to Elliots. There was hardly anybody there either, but there was a comedy singer/guitarist performing in the big room. It was a real shame the weather had put the mockers on the evening, as he was very clever and very entertaining. From there, I made a move to the Lighthouse. It isn’t my favourite pub in town, but they have Karaoke in there and I was in the mood. Hannah was there with some friends, but the queue was solid so I decided not to sing.
On Friday the snow was deep and crisp and even. Stella’s blogged her own account of the next week or so – and believe me, I didn’t do very much without her for company. Two years ago, it was the snow that spelled the end of my university career. I wasn’t going to risk another crash on the coccyx and the concomitant catastrophe. Apart from a couple of Strolls with the Horrible Hound, I stayed put for the best part of the week.
Last Friday was signing-on day again, but before that I had an appointment in the morning. Sonia and her TBG colleague Bethan suggested before Xmas that I might be interested in a course on Self-Management of Long-Term Health Conditions. I was in. Day One was last week. I’d already asked Sonia if they could squeeze Martin onto the course, as he could really benefit from it as well. In the event, he rang me on Thursday night to say he wouldn’t be able to make it. I told him to call an ambulance, as he needs to be in the right hands at this stage. I haven’t heard from him since, and he’s off-grid, so I hope he’s taken my advice.
It was an interesting couple of hours, and got me out of the house (which I needed!) After that I went to the Circumlocution Office, armed with my Job Search Log, and a list of objections to the Universal Jobmatch system. The last time I checked, neither Milford Haven, Haverfordwest, Aberdeen nor Singapore were within a thirty mile radius of Aberdare. I’m trying to work with Google Earth to produce an ‘as the crow flies’ map of South Wales, centred on Aberdare, as a sort of FYI for the stroppy bint in the Jokecentre. (By the way, they’ve finally produced the ‘Travel to Work’ map from Aberdare, which I referred to in Nice Work If You Can Get There. According to that, it takes 158 minutes to get from Aberdare to Swansea by bus. That’s great if you fancy an hour buying laverbread and cockles in the Market. It’s fuck all use if you want to work there!)
After that, I went round to Rhian’s to return her laptop. My new charger had arrived, so I was back in business. We went to the Prince, but the WiFi was down for some reason. We didn’t even bother going to Spoons, and headed to the Library instead. I logged onto Facebook for the first time in a week or so, looking forward to catching up with the usual nonsense.
I was immediately horrified to learn that a friend of mine, who’d been treated for cancer and was (supposedly) making a full recovery, had passed away during the week. Her funeral is on Monday. She was younger than me, with a teenage daughter, and was engaged to an old pal of mine. I emailed him my condolences and went home in a state of total shock.
However, Rhian had lent me the first five seasons of The Big Bang Theory on DVD. By the evening, I needed cheering up, so I watched a couple of episodes. I’ve heard of it, of course, and I’ve seen it a few times round at Rhian’s house, but I didn’t know the characters and their dynamics. Then I watched a few more. By last night, I was a quarter of the way through Season 4. It pissed down with rain from Saturday night until this morning, so I had nothing better to do, really.
It’s absolutely brilliant! Arguably the best US comedy show since Frasier, its dialogue and acting are top-notch, and for sheer squirming embarrassment there’s no better show on TV. I can’t wait to watch the rest of them. With any luck, a member of my family will take the hint and buy me the boxed set for my birthday. I’m still wondering which of the Fantastic Foursome I resemble least. I’ve got a feeling it’s Rajesh. At least I can talk to pretty women without having to drink first. However, I am concerned that I might have more in common with Sheldon that I’d like to admit. To my surprise, nobody in my social circle has made the comparison yet. Then again, last time I was compared to a character from a US comedy show, two people came to the same conclusion. One was Becky in the Conway. The other was one of the girls in my First Year Psychology group. Apparently I reminded them of Stewie from Family Guy. I still don’t know what to make of that.
I’m seeing my GP again tomorrow. I can’t imagine what he’ll say when I tell him, ‘I’ve got this weird pain in my left shoulder.’ Surely history can’t repeat itself … Never mind. It’s February on Friday. Surely we’re over the worst by now.



Death Warrants

In which The Author and his friend have a mammoth day out

A few times recently, the Jokecentre Jobcentre staff in Aberdare have mentioned the fact that I qualify for discounted fares to travel to interviews and other job-seeking activities. I picked up a leaflet at Pontypridd Station last time I was there, which gave me some more information on the scheme. As I’d guessed, it would involve picking up a Travel Warrant from the Jobcentre.
I’ve had a couple of these precious pieces of paper over twenty years or so – especially when I had job interviews in London, which would have been completely unaffordable otherwise. They used to issue them a couple of days before you were due to travel, and it involved a bit of paperwork beforehand.
Last week there was a ‘Jobs Fair’ in Porth, at the southern end of the Rhondda Valleys. Apparently several employers would be there, recruiting new staff on the day. Rhian and I decided to take advantage of the half-price train fare and see what was on offer. I mentioned it to my adviser while I was signing on, and was told that we’d have to pick the Travel Warrants on the morning itself. Rhian and I met outside the Jobcentre before they opened, hoping that we’d be able to get the paperwork done and dusted in time for the 0922 train from Aberdare. Some hope!
We were first into the Jobcentre Circumlocution Office and explained what we needed at the main reception desk. Initially we were met with blank expressions all round, then someone made an internal phone call and referred us upstairs to Kevin. I’ve already mentioned (in Nothing Short of a Total War) that Kev W. is an old pal of mine. He’s also Rhian’s adviser, so we were confident that everything would go smoothly. We went upstairs and explained (again) at the reception desk what we were up to. The lady on the desk went over to have a word with Kev, and a couple of minutes Ellen (my adviser) called Rhian over, and Jean (whom I see when I sign on) called me over. The four of us went through the paperwork together, chatting light-heartedly about the whole palaver, before Ellen gathered everything together.
‘If you wait downstairs, they’ll process this and call you when they’re ready,’ she told us.
She headed for the internal stairs, and we made our way back to the main reception desk. We saw a different lady, and she showed us into the waiting room. There are a pair of little counters just off this room where the emergency payments are normally issued. We waited for a few minutes and then the lady came in again.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘but we’ll have to take your details again.’
It seemed that Ellen had been mysteriously abducted by aliens somewhere on her way downstairs. This particular lady didn’t even have the printed forms, just two sheets of A4 paper on which she noted the bare minimum of information. She was obviously confident of reconciling two sets of data later on. Rather her than me.
She vanished again and Rhian and I kicked our heels until the cashier called us through to collect our precious slips of card. It seemed an awful lot of fuss in order to save £1.70 each. By now, of course, the 0922 train was halfway to Pontypridd, so we made our to the station in time for the 0952 departure.
Elaine at the ticket office was amazed when we produced our Travel Warrants.
‘I haven’t seen these for a while,’ she commented while she issued our tickets. ‘I thought they were supposed to be phasing them out.’
‘No,’ I told her, ‘they’re going to hide them in the winning bars of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate.’
It was obvious by that stage that Rhian and I were going to have one of our occasional Silly Days.
The Jobs Fair was a little more than a waste of everyone’s time. Hundreds of people had turned up, obviously lured there by the promise of interviews on the day. On the employment front there were representatives from Argos, Hargreaves (who are operating the opencast site in Hirwaun), an engineering company outside Llantrisant, a call centre in Cardiff, and the Army (keeping up the great British tradition of using the working-class poor as cannon fodder). Otherwise there were a employment agencies, a couple of training providers, and some voluntary work organisers. It wasn’t what we’d expected, but it was a day away from Aberdare. Rhian has an old schoolfriend living in Porth so we called in to see her for an hour before heading for the train.
In Pontypridd we had time to kill, so we decided to call into the Patriot Inn. It’s the sister pub to the Prince of Wales – but with a slightly more disreputable crowd. We found some seats in the corner, well aware that the pianist had stopped playing as soon as we walked in, and chatted for a couple of minutes, feeling very out of place among the fully paid-up members of the Pontypridd Afternoon Piss-Artists Association. Fortunately, Phil C., the area manager, walked in after a few minutes and said hello. That seemed to put everyone’s minds at rest, and we took our time over our beer before making our excuses and leaving.
On Thursday there was another Jobs Fair. This one was in Cardiff City Hall, and we ‘dressed to impress’ as there would ‘definitely’ be employers there on the day. Suited and booted, Rhian and I were outside the Jobcentre when they opened at 10.00 a.m., hoping to get the Travel Warrants sorted out a bit more quickly this time. After all, when I’d called there in the week, Ellen had told me they knew what they were doing now.
This time we only had to wait 25 minutes and see four different people before our Golden Tickets were issued. The late opening on Thursday morning had already cost us an hour, so we had to catch the 1052 train. This time Elaine showed us half a dozen Travel Warrants which had come over the ticket office counter already that morning. How on earth they had got there before us was a mystery. Maybe it was possible to collect them the day before travel, after all. There was another woman on her way to Cardiff as well, apparently, but she certainly wasn’t dressed to impress. She didn’t get off the train in Cathays, either, so what happened to her was another mystery.
I’d forgotten about Rhian’s fear of heights, which meant that crossing the footbridge at Cathays was out of the question. Instead, I led her into the Students Union, up several flights of stairs, through a crowd of freshers, and down the external steps into Park Place. Students are definitely getting younger every year. From there it was a few minutes’ walk to City Hall, and as we were approaching it Simeon spotted us from across the road. It’s funny – I haven’t seen him for months and last week I bumped into him twice in as many days. He told us he’d already been inside for a look around, but it wasn’t as exciting as he’d hoped. Rhian and I went to see what all the fuss was about.
It was bigger than the one in Porth, that much was true. There wasn’t exactly a host of employers there, mind – there were people from Debenhams, Tesco and Argos (again!), representatives from commission-only agency jobs like Provident, Avon and Kleenezee, numerous agencies, a couple of training providers, some voluntary sector recruitment people, and (most oddly) a stall from The Big Issue Cymru. It crossed my mind that Mike A., an old colleague of mine from Waterstone’s who now works in their offices, might have been there, but I’d forgotten that he was on his honeymoon. Rhian and I chatted to a lady from an agency who were there on behalf of Admiral Insurance. We’ve got their contact details, so we’re going to do the applications online this week.
With the rest of the day to kill, we decided to call into the National Museum of Wales, a fossil’s throw from City Hall. The last time I was there was with Luke and Beth (my sort-of nephew and niece), about ten years or so ago. If anything, there seem to be even fewer exhibits than there were then. Everything has gone ‘hands-on’, ‘interactive’ and ‘themed’ to suit the dumbed-down nature of education in this country. I seem to remember a set of glass cases displaying dozens of specimens of butterflies. Instead, there’s a single exhibit intended to showcase the diversity of the Insect world. It’s not the same.
It’s not all bad news, of course. There’s a small chunk of Moon rock in a section about the evolution of Wales over geological time. It’s behind two layers of glass, but I still wondered whether I could sneak it out under my jacket. You can put your hands on some of the oldest rock on Earth – four billion years or so – and see the skeleton of a Humpback Whale which was washed up on a beach in the Vale of Glamorgan during the early 1980s.
In another room, there’s a reconstruction of a woolly mammoth (adult and calf), which caught our attention for a few moments. Then the calf’s ears twitched and it looked in our direction. Rhian nearly jumped out of her skin. The models are Animatronic, but there’s no warning that they’ll suddenly come to life. I shudder to think how she’ll react when we visit the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay. Yasmine freaked out a few years ago when I showed her my little video clip of the Dalek moving around. This time, the monsters will be life-size and real!
In another room we had a look at a Bronze Age hoard of a cauldron, axe-heads and other tools. They were uncovered at Llyn Fawr, a few miles north of us, when workmen were building the reservoir a century ago. We saw a longbow and a sword dating from the late Middle Ages, and marvelled at the sheer size of the warriors who would have carried the damn things! We were almost swept away by a torrent of schoolchildren who erupted into the toilets when we were changing our shoes. Outside, waiting for Rhian, I asked one of the teachers how many of her charges she’d managed to lose.
‘None – unfortunately,’ she grinned.
Phase Three of the Grand Day Out involved a stroll through the residential and commercial streets of Cathays. Normally, this is Studentville par excellence, but the new term hadn’t got under way. We wandered past ethnic supermarkets, fun pubs, letting agencies, and dozens of takeaways, encountering small groups of International Students here and there, but the real influx happens this weekend.
I’m reasonably familiar with this area of the city, but I wasn’t entirely sure that we were heading in the right direction. Fortunately, my sense of dead reckoning, coupled with my ability to find a pub, came in handy. We were on Salisbury Road when I spotted a footbridge. I knew that (in theory) it would take us onto Richmond Road. I also realised that Rhian would have to confront her acrophobia again. In order to get to our next port of call, we’d have to cross the railway line. As we climbed the steps, Rhian closed her eyes and clung onto my arm like some Rift Creature from Torchwood until we were safely on the Roath side of the line.
From Richmond Road it’s a couple of minutes’ stroll to Death Junction and on to Albany Road. Nicola in the Prince had told us to look out for Iceland, and I spotted the shop sign just down the road on our left. A minute later we strolled into the Andrew Buchan, the latest addition to the Rhymney Brewery estate. We’d arranged to meet Rowland there, but we were running early, so we got a drink each and sat down to wait for him.
The two features both pubs share are a wood-burning stove and a moose’s head on the chimney breast. The key difference is in the windows. In the Prince they’re etched glass, meaning that people can’t easily see in. The Andrew Buchan’s are clear plate glass, which is a bit like sitting in a fish tank. On the other hand, they’ve got a great view of a chip shop and no fewer than four shops which buy old gold.
It was a new experience for Rhian to see such a multiracial mixture of faces drifting past the windows. Whereas our pub is busy in the weekday afternoons and quietens down in the evening, the barmaid told us that in Roath the opposite is true. I wonder what it’ll be like next week, when the students discover it. We’ve already pencilled in a return visit, and I’m sure Rowland will be adding it to the Cardiff CAMRA Group’s agenda fairly soon. Rowland turned up on time (for once) and we had another drink in the Andrew Buchan before embarking in a mini pub crawl.
I haven’t been into PC’s on City Road for years. Last time I was there (when it was the old-style pub) was with Ross, Kathleen and some of the other gang from work, about 25 years ago. Kathleen’s brother Mike was in a band called City Giants at the time (see Snap, Crackle and Pop) and they were playing a gig there. I think that night still stands up as the most drunk I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was also the night that the old Co-op in Miskin burned down. We could see the flames belching above the village as our van drove along the New Road on the way home. Apart from that, I’ve got no recollection of the night at all. It must have been good!
We made our way back into the city centre and hummed and haahed before deciding on our next port of call. The Central Bar is okay by Wetherspoons standards, and we had one there before going onto Kiwi’s. It used to be in Wyndham Arcade, and always struck me as a seedy place which I never fancied. Now it’s relocated to St Mary Street, and looks a bit more welcoming from outside. It’s very sport-orientated, though, and I wouldn’t make a habit of drinking in there any more than I would in Walkabout opposite. That end of St Mary Street used to be packed with bars and nightclubs, but quite a number of them seem to be closed or in terminal decline. It’s inevitable, I suppose. The city centre bars were bound to feel the pressure eventually. Maybe the Andrew Buchan will pick up some of the trade as people return to the suburbs to drink, rather than flocking into town at weekends.
Rowland headed off for the bus at 8 p.m., so Rhian and I made our drinks last until the 2041 train was due. As we got back to Aberdare it started to rain, so I headed straight home for something to eat.
Signing on yesterday, I told the Jobcentre gang about our adventures in Cardiff. As I told them, it would have been a pity to waste the day, and we had made a job contact when we were in City Hall. The next Jobs Fair is in Aberdare, so at least we won’t have to play silly buggers sorting out our train fares beforehand.
James E. from uni sent me a message on Facebook today, saying that he’d been helping out at the event on Thursday and had spotted me in the crowd. Unfortunately he’d been too busy to come over and say hello. That was a shame, it would have been fun to have dragged him on our pub crawl. Never mind, we’re bound to catch up with each other soon (always assuming the Jobcentre will fund another expedition, of course).