In which The Author reflects on another security leak from the future
As with Not Born Beautiful, to which this forms a sort of sequel, let’s start with some music:
‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what those mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.
Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts. But, as they say, money isn’t everything.
The four of us were dressed in the height of fashion, which in those days was a pair of black very tight tights with the old jelly mould, as we called it, fitting on the crotch underneath the tights, this being to protect and also a sort of a design you could viddy clear enough in a certain light, so that I had one in the shape of a spider, Pete had a rooker (a hand, that is), Georgie had a very fancy one of a flower, and poor old Dim had a very hound-and-horny one of a clown’s litso (face, that is), Dim not ever having much of an idea of things and being, beyond all shadow of a doubting thomas, the dimmest of we four. Then we wore waisty jackets without lapels but with these very big built-up shoulders (‘pletchoes’ we called them) which were a kind of a mockery of having real shoulders like that. Then, my brothers, we had these off-white cravats which looked like whipped-up kartoffel or spud with a sort of a design made on it with a fork. We wore our hair not too long and we had flip horrorshow boots for kicking.
‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, 1962
[This isn’t technically a digression, as I haven’t even started yet. However, it makes for a nice ironic twist. I wanted to use this very quotation at approx 1230 Zulu, 23 March 2013, so I went into Aberdare’s so-called Lending Library. It differs from the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library in three important respects:
The Cosmic Tigger Lending Library occupies a mere fraction of the square footage occupied by Aberdare Lending Library, and has only 36 shelves.
The Cosmic Tigger Lending Library is a self-financed one-person operation, as opposed to a municipal facility with a large budget and a large number of staff (only a percentage of whom seem to know anything about books).
The Cosmic Tigger Lending Library actually does have a copy of A Clockwork Orange on the shelves.
Just to clarify the situation, the book wasn’t out on loan. I asked Daz and he checked the catalogue. It’s not a stock item. I remember the five or six spinners of 20th Century Fiction that used to live just inside the main door. I’m fairly sure there was a copy there at one time. There doesn’t seem to be much (if anything) left now. The remaining shelves are full of romances and crime novels and best-selling shite like Dan Brown. I tackled the sorry state of the so-called ‘Reference Library’ in A Turn-out For the Books back last year. It was less than reassuring to see that the same thing has happened downstairs as well.
In another lovely ironic twist, I borrowed ‘my’ copy of A Clockwork Orange from Lauren about fifteen years ago and she never asked for it back. I got the feeling that she hadn’t really enjoyed it. Anyway, having established that my own library is better stocked than the ‘central library’ in the Cynon Valley, I found the full text of Burgess’s classic twentieth-century novel online instead. That’s all very well if you’ve got an electronic book device, or have access to the internet at home. If someone fancied borrowing it over the weekend, or just having a quick look at it (as I did), they’d go away empty-handed. As it was online, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the quotation, but it’ll do for now.]
For the first time in about a year, I attended the Aberdare West PACT meeting on 1 March 2013. For those of you who don’t already know, PACT stands for Police And Communities Together. It’s an initiative whereby the local LEOs (sorry, I spend far too much time watching NCIS) and the public get together to discuss issues of mutual concern. I used to go regularly, but it seemed as though the same issues were being raised every single time, so I sort-of lost interest. However, I thought it was time to show my face again.
About eight or nine months ago, my new neighbours moved in. They’re a couple in their twenties. I’ve only seen them half a dozen times (if that). If only they were seen but not heard. I’ve had to put up with their nightly ritual of shouting, banging (of doors), arguing, and fighting pretty much since Day One. I had to call 999 one evening before Xmas, because I honestly thought he was going to murder her. I went along to the PACT meeting because I wanted to have an informal chat about the situation afterwards.
My local PCSOs are a pair of decent guys named Paul and Ceri. They mean well, obviously, but they have only limited powers compared to the regular officers. (Ken Bruce once said that PCSO stood for Police and Community Something-or-Other. He wasn’t far off the mark.) Paul and Ceri frequently admit that they’re fighting a losing battle. They’re expected to cover a large area, and only work during the daytime anyway, leaving the rest of the full-time police to handle everything else. Even Andrew, who used to be our local Beat Officer until he was re-assigned last year, frequently expressed his frustration at the way the law has been tilted against the victim in favour of the offender.
After going through the time-honoured agenda of car parking and speeding, we started chatting about the general issue of public safety, especially at night. One of my neighbours said he felt safer walking through Cardiff at night than he did in Aberdare. I mentioned my recent visit to Manchester (see It’s Grand Oop North!), and a visit to Brixton to see my mates’ band a few years ago. On both occasions I felt much more confident to walk around at nine o’clock than I would have in my home town.
Back in the days when Vix and I were publishing the Cynon Valley Beacon on Geocities, we came up with a satirical idea to draw attention to the situation in town. Even though Geocities is long-since defunct, nothing ever truly vanishes from the World Wide Web. To prove this, I was able to show Martin our article last week.
Even though Vix and I had been taking the piss, at least one person took it seriously. A few months after this appeared on our site, someone went onto DragonNinja (a youth forum devoted to the music/skating/gaming scene in South Wales) and asked if we were really having Formula One in Aberdare.
I printed it out and a couple of the landlords mentioned in the piece displayed it in their pubs. It raised some eyebrows and attracted quite a few complimentary remarks. The printed version went missing from one of the pubs the following weekend. It turned out to have been pinched by one of the regulars. He was a copper, drinking in there off duty, and he decided to shake things up.
A few days later, apparently, our piece of mischief appeared on the internal noticeboard at Aberdare Police Station. Suffice to say that the joke was lost on some people. The pub landlord in question told me later that the Chief Inspector hadn’t been in the least amused. However, the issue of boy racers was addressed quite quickly and firmly – in the town centre, at least.
That was then.
In August 2004, Aberdare’s shiny new police station had been opened in a faint glimmer of publicity. It had cost a million pounds or so, and replaced the Victorian red-brick station which had occupied the site previously.
On 17 August the South Wales Echo reported that ‘officers will be back in the busy town centre’ as part of a ‘£10m spending programme to bring facilities in the division into the 21st century’. According to the same article, a million quid was being spent at upgrading the station at Ton Pentre in the Rhondda Valley, and another half a million at Mountain Ash. The chairman of Cynon Valley Crime Prevention Association, former Aberdare Woolworths manager Mike Jacklin, told the newspaper, ‘It’s been long-awaited. It will give a visible police presence in the town centre and the public somewhere to go with their problems.’
Less than a decade after it opened, Aberdare Police Station closed its doors to the public at the end of 2012. The revamped station at Ton Pentre closed as well. In this particular division, only Merthyr Tydfil and Pontypridd remain as ‘walk-in’ facilities, open for sixteen hours a day.
Across the South Wales Police area, all told, fourteen stations were closed to the public. Almost unbelievably, only Cardiff Bay and Swansea Central stations are open to the public 24 hours a day. Here in the Valleys, we’ve got a nice phrase to throw at someone whose only apparent use is as an ornament: ‘Don’t just stand there like a lemon – do something!’ Can we include the police station in that statement, I wonder?
This is now.
In Another One Bites the Dust, I told you what the outlying villages of our valley used to be like on a Saturday afternoon. Everyone used to head into Aberdare instead. The streets were thronged with people shopping and enjoying their day off.
Take a walk through Aberdare town centre on a Saturday afternoon in 2013.(Actually, I’ve saved you the bother. I did it myself on 23 March, just after three o’clock. It was a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.) Have a look at the beating heart of the Cynon Valley on the busiest afternoon of the week:
Helen (not one of the many aformentioned Helens) and I were talking about the situation this morning. I said, ‘It looks like Mountain Ash on a Saturday afternoon.’ She replied, ‘Yes, I live there, remember?’ Good point! One of the main factors driving people out of town was highlighted in the Cynon Valley Leader dated 21 March 2013 – the cost of car parking. I took this photograph of the car park behind Aberdare Library on Saturday 13 October last year, just after 2.30 in the afternoon:
As you can see, there wasn’t a single vehicle there. That’s hardly surprising when you consider how much a motorist would pay to get in there:
Length of stay
Up to 1 hour
Up to 2 hours
Up to 3 hours
Up to 4 hours
Over 4 hours
Yes, that’s right, ladies and gentlemen – as from next month, anyone who wants to park their car in any of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council’s municipal car parks will have pay nearly thirteen quid a day for the privilege. That’s well over sixty quid a week. Consider that a weekly ticket to Cardiff on the train costs only £25.50, and the (admittedly limited) car parking near the station is free. It’s far cheaper to go to Cardiff for the day.
Meanwhile, parking on-street is by Resident Permit only. The council’s Civil Enforcement Officers, who replaced the old traffic wardens, are busy little bees, issuing parking tickets at every opportunity. RCTCBC would appear to have given themselves a licence to print money.
It’s not as though there’s much in the town centre to draw people in, either. We’ve got Iceland, Wilkinson, B&M, Poundstretcher, Superdrug, Holland and Barrett, Peacocks, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, New Look, Specsavers, The Works, Boots, Bon Marche, Sports Direct, and Store Twenty One (which used to be called QS, which used to be called something else.) They offer pretty much the same range, and the same deals, whether they’re in Thurso or Truro.
We’ve got Greggs and Subway directly opposite each other. It’s no wonder the Aberdare-based baker/confectioner, Ferrari’s, went under a few years ago. A national chain and a global brand were far better placed to weather the economic storm than a local company with about forty outlets across South Wales.
In terms of sole traders there’s an electrical retailer, a cake shop, a couple of jewellers, a shop selling jewellery bits and bobs, a butcher, a fishmonger, a glazier, a few newsagents/off-licences/convenience stores, a greengrocer, a florist, a pharmacy, a bridal wear shop, an army surplus outlet, two or three card shops, a ladies’ outfitters, two mobile phone shops, a shop selling children’s clothes, a computer shop, a photographic studio, a couple of places selling ‘designer’ clothes for chavs, a Christian bookshop, a handful of cafes which close at five o’clock, a load of kebab shops which open as soon as the cafes close, a couple of fish and chip shops, at least three tattoo studios, a cycle shop, a carpet shop, a t-shirt printing shop, a sex shop, a party/fancy dress shop, the various stalls in the Market, and a place that will do your ironing for you.
There are half a dozen pubs open in the afternoon, only three of which are on the main drag. The rest are in the side streets, and are struggling to get punters in most days. There’s been one small improvement, mind. Barbara relocated her books from 2½ stalls in the Market to a little shop opposite the bus station a few months ago (see Up the Amazon.) I think it’s fair to say that she’s more far more in stock than the library itself (I bet she’s got a copy of A Clockwork Orange.)
Unbelievably, yet another Helen and her boyfriend have taken the plunge and opened a restaurant in the main street, open in the evenings and weekends. There are two sit-down Indian restaurants and a sit-down Chinese restaurant in town as well. In terms of eating out, Aberdare’s not exactly Ludlow.
There used to be a shop called Auras, which sold imported handicrafts, ornaments, tarot cards, joss sticks and that sort of thing. It would have worked well in Brecon or Bath or Glastonbury. It closed just before Xmas. I don’t know many people who can afford to spend sixty quid on a carved wooden Buddha. There was a nice cake shop on the main drag. That went at the end of 2012 as well.
One of the charity shops pulled out last year. We can’t even sustain a pound shop on the high street. There’s a plethora of banks, building societies, estate agents, insurance offices, solicitors, accountants, travel agencies, dentists and opticians. We’ve got no fewer than three amusement arcades, but the bingo hall is closed.
Just about every other building is occupied by a takeaway, a hairdresser, a beauty salon, or a tanning studio. It’s small wonder everyone in town is starting to look like everyone else (see And Now For Something Completely Identical.)
Alongside them you’ll find Cash Generator, a payday loans company, a moneylender, a handful of charity shops, and at least two places which will Buy Your Gold For Cash. Aberdare had a dry cleaner up until a few months ago. It closed late last year with hardly any warning. A pal of mine had to trek to the nearest branch, on the outskirts of Cardiff, to collect his suit, which had been in there when they pulled out of town.
On a lighter note, Gema saw someone jump out of a car last week and post a DVD through the door of Blockbuster. It won’t be picked up any time soon – their nearest branch is currently in Caerphilly. This retail extravaganza is just the ticket to get the shoppers and tourists flocking in, as I pointed out in a recent Letter to the Editor.
Needless to say, people are voting with their feet instead. There’s a giant retail park outside Merthyr Tydfil, a twenty-minute bus ride away. It’s only an hour to Cardiff by train. If you drive, you can cut those times in half, add Swansea and Brecon to the list, and save yourself a shitload of money on car parking charges.
The other major deterrent keeping people out of the town centre is the large number of drunks, junkies, criminals, and general lowlife infesting the place in the afternoon. I mean every afternoon.
I explored this aspect of the town in Not Born Beautiful, and if anything the situation’s deteriorated in the year or so since. I hate going into Boots to pick up my own prescription for antidepressants and/or painkillers. I can guarantee that one of the smackheads will come in just after me to take his/her methadone. The pharmacist usually gives him/her priority over the rest of the customers. (I don’t blame him, personally. In one of billions of parallel universes, I studied Pharmacy in Bradford, and am standing behind the counter in a branch of Boots dispensing the stuff myself. I want those people out of my shop ASAP as well.) I was in there one day, spending my Advantage Card points on deodorant as I didn’t have enough cash on me. One of the methadone mob walked in and announced to everyone that he’d just had a £600 loan to buy a fucking car! As Terry Wogan would say, is it me?
By mid-afternoon this lot are completely off their faces. They’re banned from most of the pubs, so they get pissed on cans from one of the off-licenses and then start fighting in the main streets. It appears that the PCSOs have decided to move them on from Junkie Corner, the little collection of seats outside Shepherd’s pharmacy where the rest of them go to pick up their fixes.
Nowadays, they congregate in the car park near St Elvan’s Church (or in the nearby alleyway if it’s raining), swearing, fighting, and intimidating passers-by. Another little group hangs about on the steps of the Palladium (originally the Temperance Hall, later a cinema, then – until recently – the Bingo Hall) and swig their cans of Special Brew there, in full view of people getting off the buses as they reach town.
[A digression: Just after Xmas a rumour started in Aberdare that the Palladium was going to be converted into a mosque. It was the talk of certain sections of the population (needless to say.) Some of them even started a petition to oppose this plan, without bothering to find out if there was any basis to the story. Listening to their conversations was an unenlightening experience, to say the least. They were convinced that within six months the pubs would be closed, the girls’ school would be firebombed unless the pupils started wearing niqab, the town’s remaining independent butchers (one on the main drag and two in the Market) would be forced to source only halal meat, and that bacon and pork would be off the menu in the cafes.
One youngish guy – an aggressive young alcoholic and former cocaine user of my acquaintance – reliably informed the pub regulars that the adhan would be blasted from huge speakers on the roof three [sic] times a day. I told him gently that Muslims pray five times a day – and that there’s an app for that these days anyway. (There is, believe it or not!)
The rest of the gang by the bar asked me if I was in favour of the scheme. I said I was. Then I asked them, even assuming that it was true, what difference they anticipated it would make to their everyday lives. Most of them conceded that it wouldn’t affect them by even the tiniest imaginable degree. It was just something that had triggered their tabloid-reading, uneducated, untravelled, right-wing knee-jerk reaction.
When I asked Shanara about this rumour, she said she hadn’t heard anything about it. She told me that, if anything, the existing premises (a former Anglican church on the outskirts of town) was rather too big to be practical. She doubted very much whether the money would be forthcoming to convert such a massive building, and didn’t think there’d be much call for it anyway.
A few days later I was going to the surgery and I met some Muslimahs chatting at the corner of the street. I greeted them (in Arabic) and asked (in English) if they knew any more about the proposals. The youngest of the three (a young Bangladeshi who might have been one of Shanara’s many cousins) said she’d heard about it, and thought it was a load of nonsense as well. When she asked me why I was interested, I said, ‘I just want to shut the racist idiots in the pub up.’ She laughed and we went our separate ways.]
At five o’clock the scene changes. The cafes start winding down for the day, and the smaller shops close soon afterwards. Just after 1730, most people are on their way home, leaving only the library, Iceland, and Wilkinson going until six. Shepherd’s stays open until about seven, so that people coming from evening surgeries can pick up their medicine. The fish shops stay open for another couple of hours, to cater for people on their way home from work. The convenience stores open until 2100 or so, for the same reason. Apart from those, the first-time visitor to Aberdare is greeted by a whole street of steel shutters.
Since the Palladium closed, most elderly people have stopped coming to town in the evenings. They kept the fish shops in business, and a fair number of them would call into the Old People’s Club on the main square for a drink afterwards. They were usually the majority of passengers of the evening buses. Owing to the decline in user numbers, those services are being curtailed as well.
By eight o’clock, the only places open are Subway, the amusement arcades, the pubs, a couple of the convenience stores, and the takeaways. It seems that all one needs to do is to apply to open an off-licence and the powers that be give it the green light without any hesitation. If you want to open a takeaway, that’s even better. It doesn’t seem to need any approval; you can just go ahead and do it.
There’s nothing left in town to attract youngsters since Chequers closed (see Nose-Painting, Sleep, and Urine.) The sports centre, swimming pool, and skateboard park, all situated at the Ynys a few minutes from the town centre, are due to be ‘redeveloped’ to make way for a new school. Those facilities would only appeal to kids with an interest in sport, anyway. Even so, by seven o’clock six nights a week, Aberdare is crawling with teenagers, who descend on the town centre like a plague. They patrol the main streets in groups a few dozen strong, or descend on the kebab shops, where they hang around for hours.
(A friend of mine from West Wales had a theory about how kebab shops manage to stay in business, considering that they hardly even seem to have any customers before the pubs chuck out. He suggested that the huge ‘elephant’s legs’ of meat would be ideal to hollow out and use to conceal illegal drugs. The scent of the meat would confuse the sniffer dogs, and then the owners could deal on the side, laundering their proceeds through the legitimate businesses. It’s just a theory, as I said, but it’s an interesting one nonetheless.)
The favourite haunts of these droogs, however, are within easy shouting distance of the off-licences. Their modus operandi is always the same. They lie in wait for adult customers, then one of them will ask with no semblance of manners, ‘Will you go in the shop for us?’ When the adult refuses, he or she is met with a volley of abuse.
I once spent an unedifying evening in a pub next to an off-licence watching a well-known junkie-about-town making several trips to buy quite literally as much booze as he could carry. His visits were made on behalf of, and funded by, for a gang of teenagers who were waiting around the corner for him. The whole escapade took about twenty minutes, during which time the pub landlord was on the phone to the police. The police station is, again, quite literally half a minute’s walk away from both pub and off-licence. Hands up, everyone who thinks an officer attended the scene. Quite right …
We did laugh at another incident in the same pub at around the same time. Two of the pub regulars were outside having a smoke. One is a copper, the other works for the UK Borders Agency. The teenagers came along and did their stuff, the lads produced their warrant cards as neatly as if they’d rehearsed the manoeuvre a hundred times, and the kids scarpered in all directions.
The bus station is another favoured hangout. On any given night there are usually several dozen of them hanging around there until the last buses leave, at 2230 or even 2300. It’s virtually a no-go zone in the nights. A friend of mine, who has a young child, was threatened with violence there last week – in broad daylight. I told her she was lucky she wasn’t there after dark.
I started with the quote from Anthony Burgess’s novel because it seems to be another Security Leak From the Future. Fifty years ago, he seemed to have Twenty-First Century Youth Culture pretty much nailed. He was working merely on the evidence of Teddy Boys – and with no foreknowledge of Mods, Rockers, Skinheads, Punks, Hell’s Angels, Gangsta Rappas, or any other development which has come about in the five decades since he wrote his book. And yet, by some uncanny means, he entirely predicted the casual sex, illegal drug use, gang warfare, rape, and (of course) the ultra-violence, which makes up a substantial proportion of some young people’s lives. My friend Alan always says that the future will resemble the world of Mad Max. I don’t agree. I think it’s more likely to resemble the world of A Clockwork Orange, with naive parents, well-meaning teachers, misguided social workers and hapless politicians of all parties trying in vain to tame the feral generation that’s coming into being.
I stayed quite late at Rhian’s house one Saturday night late last year, and was walking home through the back streets at about two in the morning. The town centre was still full of youngsters, shouting and screaming in the main street near the taxi rank. There wasn’t a police car to be seen. Presumably, one of them was making the round trip to the custody suite (or ‘Bridewell’, as they’ve decided to call it) in Merthyr, a half-hour round trip away, not including the paperwork.
South Wales Police recently announced that they’d be carrying out random eyesight checks on drivers. Somebody mentioned this idea at the PACT meeting. Paul just laughed. There’s one traffic officer assigned to the whole of our division, apparently. He’s got enough on his plate just doing his normal duties.
By and large, the people who make decisions affecting our community are based miles away, in the Rhondda Valley, or in and around Pontypridd/Llantrisant. They simply vote on a proposal, regardless of the consequences, and their block votes ensure that the very limited opposition is steamrollered into submission. The situation before the elections of May 2012 was bad enough:
Yes, that’s right, folks – at the time of writing, Labour councillors hold a full 80% of the seats on my local authority. Of 75 councillors, only 15 represent a contrary view. Apart from my time in London, and a very brief interval when Plaid Cymru seized control in a bloodless coup, I’ve lived my whole life in the world’s oldest one-party state. Compared to the Socialist People’s Republic of Rhondda Cynon Taf, North Korea is a progressive democracy with a thriving opposition.
Rowland seemed quite philosophical about the results when we caught up afterwards.
‘Labour always do well in the Valleys when the Tories are in Number Ten,’ he told me.
As a former newspaper editor, he’s been watching elections since the early 1970s (at least!) I suppose he spotted this trend a long time ago. I can’t lay all the blame at the door of the Cabinet in Clydach Vale, either. This problem’s been around for a lot longer than some of the current councillors have been in office (see No Future.)
I don’t claim to have all the answers (or even some of them.) However, as an Aberdare resident and a person who uses the local services, I’ve as much right to express an opinion as anyone else. It could conceivably be argued that I’ve got more right, simply because I’m an Aberdare resident and a person who uses the local services. That’s a lot more than can be said for the majority of our elected representatives.
Aberdare was apparently mentioned on Wales This Week on 25 March 2013, in a programme about the decline of the high street. I didn’t know that when I started this blog, well over a week before. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe it’s just another coincidence that Bob P. and his mates were having the very same discussion in the pub the other day. Maybe the front page of last week’s Cynon Valley Leader was just a coincidence as well.
Or maybe – just maybe – the people of my home town have heard the wake-up call at last. The time has come for everyone to stop whining, and to get off their fat arses and do something constructive about the situation. There’s no point in writing letters to the paper, as nobody reads it anyway. We can’t wait another four years to elect the present complacent lot out of office.
Personally, I think it’s high time for a spot of non-violent civil disobedience. This could take several forms: lobbying the local authority at every opportunity to voice our dissatisfaction; boycotting the extortionate parking charges and refusing to pay the fines afterwards; displaying posters and handing out leaflets in every single independent business in the area, drawing attention to the situation.
Best of all, how about a mass ‘park-up’ in the main streets of town in the middle of the week, bringing the entire community to a standstill for hours on end? That would get the press and the TV on the case in no time. There’d be only a handful of PCSOs on duty available to arrest them, and precious few cells across South Wales to bang them up in. There isn’t even a magistrates’ court in Aberdare any more to handle their initial appearances before the Short Arm of the Law. All the offenders would have to go to Pontypridd instead (like everyone else who wants to sample the way Aberdare used to be twenty years ago).
In a year’s time, when the whole town closes for business and everyone relocates to Pontypridd or Merthyr, perhaps the local people will realise they left it too late to speak out. At the moment, we’re surrounded on all sides by characters from A Clockwork Orange, and protected by lemons. Is it any wonder I sound so bitter?
Before then, I shouldn’t be at all surprised if vigilantes start patrolling the town at night, to protect decent people from the lowlife who are running the place. It won’t last, of course. There’ll be no reason to come into town anyway. We might just as well hand it over to the scum.
And we know a song about that, don’t we, boys and girls?
In which The Author doesn’t want to be in your gang
Respect seems to be the buzzword amongst today’s wannabe gangstas. (I’m deliberately using the US slang term here!) When he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair launched a half-baked policy called the Respect Agenda. It was designed to bring some rogue elements of Britain’s inner-city youth back on track. In the inner cities, gang-related crime, violence and murder are a real problem. Almost daily, the media report ‘postcode rivalries’ where kids from one part of (say) London will declare war on kids from the neighbouring estates, simply because they aren’t from the same part of town.
We all used to do that, of course ‒ our ‘gang’ was that in all but name. Ian, James, Phil, Slim, and a couple of other boys were ‘a gang’, to all intents and purposes. As I sketched out in ‘Where Do We Draw the Line‘, our areas weren’t even defined by postcodes. The Mill Street Mob were constantly doing battle with the Trefelin Terrors, the Broniestyn Beasts and the Llwydcoed Lloonies. (I’ve made all these names up, by the way!) Occasionally a scrap would break out and everyone would walk away, bloodied but unbowed. Sometimes a real feud would ensue, which split an entire school intake along fault lines delineated by families’ and friends’ allegiances.
I met people in university who attested that the same things happened in their areas. That’s why people from Abercwmboi couldn’t possibly consider playing for Mountain Ash RFC – even though they’re only about half a mile apart. In fact, it’s probably possible to kick a penalty in the Abercwmboi ground and get it over the post at Mountain Ash. It’s tribalism at its most ridiculous, when you think about it. On the whole, though, these things didn’t descend into murder and mayhem.
There are some pathetic youngsters to whom I’ve often referred (most notably in No Future and Not Born Beautiful) who seem to have mistaken the South Wales Valleys for South Central Los Angeles. There’s a terrific scene in Joel Schumacher’s film Falling Down, where Michael Douglas’s pissed-off commuter finds himself in the middle of an LA turf war. Parts of Britain’s inner cities are heading the same way, if the media are to be believed.
There are kids in the Valleys who think they can live the same lifestyle. I overheard one of them on the train a while back, as I related in Strangers on a Train. They’ve adopted the American style of dress, manner of speech, and the ridiculous swaggering walk that film characters use. (Swagger – or ‘swagga’, as they spell it – seems to be the Word of the Year so far.)
Aberdare even has a new ‘designer clothes shop’ called Swagga or something similar. Primark would be more appropriate in the current economic climate. For fuck’s sake, even the pound shop closed down a while ago. Meanwhile, a so-called disco in a neighbouring town has launched a dance night, also called Swagga. I’ve seen posters for it. The girl on the poster looks attractive and quite hot. In reality, it’ll be full of pissed-up teenage single mothers fending off the local steroid boys in their best JJB Sports purchases.
In their slavish attachment to American ‘yoof culture’, these boys and girls seem to fancy themselves as ‘gangstas’. Not even proper gangsters, but the imported US variety.
The Krays, the Richardsons, ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser and Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie were gangsters. They were legends of the Swinging Sixties, equally at home in London nightclubs as in East End pubs such as the Blind Beggar. I once met a man who knows a man who knew some of these figures of London folklore. (I saw him briefly on Wednesday, in fact.) He’s a friend now, but here’s an interesting fact: I didn’t have to prove myself ‘worthy’ of his acquaintance.
He knew some friends of mine through the tattooing scene in Aberdare, and that enabled us to strike up a conversation in the pub one night. He was standing at the bar and so was I. I worked in a bookshop, and he wanted to know if I could get him a particular book on tattoos. (I could, of course.) Job done!
There was no complex initiation. I didn’t have to kill anyone in cold blood, or rob someone with a shotgun in my hands, or undergo any sort of terrifying ordeal in order to become his friend. I’ve never been involved with illegal drugs, or crime, or violence (if I could help it). But he wanted a book, and at the time I was the go-to guy in Aberdare.
[A digression: Yes, okay, I know we’ve got The Works in town these days, but I’m not sure whether that really counts. A mate of mine suggested it to me as a possible employer when it first opened. He meant well, of course, but I couldn’t help feeling that he was taking the piss. He’s not a big reader (as he’d be the first to admit), but he’s a huge music fan, so I put in terms that he could understand: ‘If you wanted to buy a CD, would you go to Spillers (a shop in Cardiff, which claims to be the world’s oldest record shop), or to Wilkinson’s in Aberdare?’ He saw the point of my argument once I’d phrased it like that.]
Anyway, even the headcases who used to drink (or, rather smoke) at the back of the Carpenters gave my friends and I some grudging ‘respect’. Whether it was just for having the sheer balls to walk into the place, and then sit and talk about films and books and art and music, I don’t know. None of us ever had any grief in there that I can recall. We got to know some of the Cynon Valley’s Most Wanted (and some of its Least Desirable) while we were drinking there. Some of them remain mates. Not many of the others are still around, for one reason or another. A friend of mine pointed out a couple of years ago that the area’s ‘going to be missing a whole elderly generation’ in twenty years’ time – so many people have died prematurely in the past few years.
Now, there’s a whole generation of kids who’ve grown up on US ‘pop culture’ – films, (c)rap music, video games, and so forth – and see themselves as bit-part actors in a Spike Lee film. There’s only one problem with this, of course – we don’t have that many black, Asian, or Hispanic kids around here.
Consequently, we have loads of fake-tanned wannabe gangstas swaggering around, openly drinking cans of lager in the ‘Alcohol-free Zones’ of Aberdare, fighting, shoplifting, and dealing drugs in full view of the general public. They’re all known to the police and the PCSOs (as Ken Bruce once suggested, this might stand for Police Community Something-or-Others). A mate of mine suggested the other day that half of them are police informers, which is why their presence in town is condoned. And you can bet your life that in any confrontation, the one thing the enemy will be accused of is ‘disrespect’.
Well, okay, let’s analyse this in more detail.
My friend Ross Dinwiddy wrote and directed a film a number of years ago. It’s never seen the light of day owing to a legal dispute with the distributors, but it exists. That’s the main thing. Now he’s written a children’s book. My friend Josie Henley-Einion is also a published author. My photographer friend Rob Hudson self-published a fantastic coffee table book on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, an often overlooked part of the country.
In a related field, Pam is a web designer and CGI artist. I’ve already told you (in Connecting People) about how I arranged for her to meet my mate Stuart, who writes screenplays. That brings me to Geraint Benney, an actor – he’s turned up in an episode of Doctor Who, and regularly appears in the Welsh language soap Pobol y Cwm.
I’ve got musicians coming out of my ears. Three lads I knew from Cwmaman used to play the Great Valleys Songbook in backstreet pubs, calling themselves Tragic Love Company. Apparently they changed their name subsequently – I’ve no idea what happened to them afterwards.
Talking of music, my old schoolfriend Darren Broome works as a radio producer for BBC Wales. We were in the same class as Dai Evans, who sat his Maths A Level in New Zealand while touring with the Wales Under-18 Rugby squad. Other friends of mine from school went on to become doctors, or teachers, or engineers, or (in one case) a petroleum geologist.
As I said in Connecting People, I’ve got a wide network of friends in all sorts of interesting, creative, fulfilling lines of work. One has recently set up in business with a friend of his installing solar panels. He’s always been passionate about the environment, and they’ve got in at the right time.
Through my own work I’ve met world-famous scientists (Prof. Steven Pinker, Prof. Steve Jones, Steve Grand), actors (Simon Callow, Roger Lloyd Pack, Joan Collins), writers (Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett), and even shaken hands with Cardiff City’s former manager Peter Ridsdale. Further out, in the Expanding Sphere, there are chefs, fashion designers, photographers, and film stars with whom I can claim One Degree of Separation.
And what it all boils to is this: They’ve done something with their lives. Not all of them will go on to become world famous, of course. For every Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, there are thousands of people knocking out books in their spare time, while holding down full-time jobs and juggling family responsibilities. On Saturday afternoons during the autumn and winter, playing fields across the Valleys echo to the sounds of amateur club rugby (possibly even a local derby between Abercwmboi and Mountain Ash). One of these players, Ian Evans, got lucky, and is in the current Welsh squad. The rest of them don’t get discouraged, they soldier on in the true sense of the word ‘amateur’ – doing it for the love of the game.
There are half a dozen amateur theatre companies around. Once in a blue moon one of the youngsters might break into the professional stage. It doesn’t matter whether they go on to conquer the world, but they’ve all made a small contribution to society. These, and the people like them, are the people who deserve respect, in the true sense of the word.
The junkies, criminals, drug dealers, wife beaters, and other assorted scum of the Valleys, inspired by the whole gangsta phenomenon, seem to think that people should show them some ‘respect’.
For having managed to live into their second decade? That might have been one of Prof. Steve Jones’s evolutionary hurdles a century ago, but now it’s nothing to shout about. A lot of them have cleared Prof. Jones’s other hurdle as well – bringing children into the world. Well, congratulations! At least they’ve proved that they’re qualified to do something – even if the children are immediately placed into care, and they end up paying through the nose to the Child Support Agency.
And they’ve got ASBOs galore, of course. Criminals see them as a ‘badge of honour’, we’re told. I don’t. The only thing I’m going to show these people is contempt.
My respect is reserved for people who’ve done something to increase the sum total of human happiness. Gaining it is not a right; it’s a privilege which has to be earned – and I’m afraid that no pathetic smackhead has done anything yet to prove himself worthy of it. If you’re only capable of adding to the sum total of human misery, don’t demand my ‘respect’, because you won’t fucking get it!
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.
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