In Desire Lines I reproduced an old map of a fairly small part of Aberdare town centre and mentioned the pubs which were marked on it. I promised myself then that I’d try and flesh out the rest of the picture. In fact, I’ve spent several months on and off doing just that, drawing on the extensive information compiled by former Aberdare librarian Richard Arnold and published by the Cynon Valley History Society (Arnold, 1982).
In his article, Mr Arnold states that
The oldest inn in the Parish of Aberdare, according to the author of one of the essays published in ‘Gardd Aberdar’, was the Cap Coch at Abercwmboi (not the present establishment there). In Aberdare itself the oldest inn is said to have been the Bon-y-Groes, which stood where the Town Hall is today in High Street … The last landlord of the Bon-y-Groes was W. E. Phillips, who died there in 1826 aged 104 years (Arnold, 1982: 107).
Fair play to him – and I thought the old landlady of the Temple Bar in Aberaman was knocking on a bit!
It’s quite frightening to realise just how many watering holes there were in and around Aberdare at the height of the Industrial Age, but given the way the population grew exponentially in such a short time, it’s hardly surprising. Look at the census figures: in 1821, the population of Aberdare Parish was 2,063; in 1831, 3,961; in 1841, 6,461; in 1851, 14,999; and in 1861 a staggering 32,000.
In 1793, it is said that the Parish of Aberdare could boast of two shops and five inns … Scammel’s Directory of Bristol and South Wales for 1852 lists fifty-five inns and hotels, and forty-eight beer retailers in Aberdare and district, a total of 103 houses (Arnold, 1982: 107-109.)
Even the smallest settlements had at least one pub, and some of them, like the Halfway House – on the mountain track between Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil – were isolated to say the least.
This was by no means unrepresentative of the rest of the country at the height of Britain’s industrial boom. In 1830, the government of the day introduced the Beerhouse Act. It was originally intended to cut the number of gin shops which were taking a huge toll in terms of public health and social disorder. It sort-of worked, insofar as people stopped drinking gin. The only trouble was, they started drinking beer instead!
The Act allowed anyone to sell beer only, merely by obtaining an excise licence, which could be obtained on demand, by the payment of two guineas [two pounds, two shillings] … Often collections were made to get the required amount in order, for instance, to set a widow up in business as a beerhouse keeper. (Arnold, 1982: 109.)
By 1836, forty-six thousand new beerhouses had opened in England and Wales. By 1869 the figure had reached fifty-three thousand, with two thousand new ones being added annually. Even the increased cost of a licence (to three guineas in 1834) and various other measures designed to limit growth seemed to have little effect.
To counter this upward trend, the 1872 Licensing Act restored the power of magistrates to grant licenses, and this seems to have worked. Between then and 1900, twenty-four public houses in Aberdare and district closed, and only one opened – the Rhos Wenallt, in 1881. After two unsuccessful attempts, the Aberaman Hotel was granted its licence in 1906.
Mr Arnold refers to the earliest surviving register of licences, for 1872, which lists 71 beerhouses and 129 fully licensed houses. In addition,
if we include the two hundred alehouses and beerhouses … and the seventy-three known houses that disappeared before that date, at least two hundred and seventy-three alehouses or beerhouses existed or had existed in the area from Hirwaun to Abercwmboi.((Arnold, 1982: 110)
It’s little wonder, then, that the Temperance Movement tried to make substantial inroads into Wales around the turn of the last century. The Aberdare Leader ran a regular series of articles entitled ‘Temperance Topics’ throughout 1902 and 1903. Even twenty years ago, when my pal Baz was the best man at a wedding in Llandysul, it was impossible to get a drink on a Sunday in the borough of Dinefwr.
The prohibitionists had their last fling as recently as 1997, believe it or not, when a referendum into whether to allow Sunday drinking throughout Wales was held. The ‘anti’ lobby was defeated by an overwhelming seven to one – possibly the last time an election issue really exercised the people of this small country.
However, the law and economics won out where religion had failed. The 1904 Act allowed magistrates to close pubs where they considered that there were too many in the same vicinity. Prior to this, public houses could only be closed because of the licensee’s misconduct. In 1906, the new law claimed its first victims, when four public houses were declared redundant. The following year, seven houses were closed, and ten the year after that.
In all, between 1906 and 1941, ninety licensed premises were closed because of redundancy in Aberdare and the surrounding districts. No applications for the renewal of another four licenses were made (Arnold, 1982: 111).
This took the number of licensed houses from 177 to just 83. It marked the start of an inexorable downward trend, interrupted only by the war and, rather oddly, the subsequent austerity years. The Plasterers Arms closed in 1950, but the next closure took place a decade afterwards. Between 1960 and the publication of Mr Arnold’s research, another twenty-four pubs closed.
There was a brief flurry of pub and club openings during the 1980s, when a number of enterprising people established new premises in Aberdare town centre. For a short period, it became known as ‘the Las Vegas of the Valleys’, and there were no fewer than six late-night clubs aimed largely at the youth market. Most didn’t last, though, and the story since has largely been the continuation of the downward trend.
The pub names themselves are fascinating. They reflect the area’s development from its rural beginnings (the Lamb, the Farmers Arms), through its growth as an industrial town (the Engineers Arms, the Puddlers Arms, numerous Colliers Arms), and into the present era of gimmicky or plain daft names. I recall reading somewhere that pub names were originally pub signs – in a time before widespread literacy, an easy to recognise picture would be used as a sort of early ‘corporate logo.’ This would certainly explain why so many names are duplicated from district to district. The names of the iron and coal owners were commemorated in the pub names, too: Crawshay, Fothergill, Wayne, Scales. They’re all gone now.
The words ‘inn’ and ‘hotel’ seemed to be fairly freely interchangeable in the old days, which may have proved rather confusing when Mr Arnold was compiling his list, and certainly didn’t do me any favours when I was researching the photographs.
Obviously, the earliest entries on the list didn’t leave any photographic evidence behind. When you’re walking along a street, a raised roof-line or suspiciously wide frontage might suggest the previous incarnation of an innocent-looking private house. Otherwise, there’s often nothing to reveal the rich history behind the front door.
Mr Arnold’s original list is prefaced with this caveat:
Included in the list are the licensed premises of all types, which were actually licensed in January, 1982. The area covered extends from Abercwmboi in the south to Rhigos in the north, and also Penderyn. As the public houses of Penderyn and the former Breconshire part of Hirwaun did not come under the jurisdiction of the Aberdare magistrates until 1974 [when the county boundaries were redrawn], early information on them has not been available, nor are their closing dates known in most instances, indeed, some may not be included at all. Houses listed as ‘Before 1872’ are those whose names survive from various other sources, but are not included in the Licensing Registers for 1872 (the earliest still in existence) or any subsequent register, and are therefore presumed to have closed before that date (Arnold, 1982: 120).
When he concluded his study, there was a total of seventy-three ‘licensed premises’ in Aberdare and District. Obviously, things have changed considerably in the last thirty years, so I’m going to try and adapt the original information for a contemporary survey of the scene.
Although he says that he’s included ‘licensed premises of all types’, for some reason, Mr Arnold decided to ignore the large number of social clubs throughout the area. I’ve also chosen to omit them, for a couple of reasons. I know that they’ve been an integral part of Valleys culture for many decades, but as private ‘members only’ establishments they don’t fill the same role as pubs did (and still do.) Furthermore, a large number of clubs have closed or merged in the past couple of decades, and it would be very difficult to find accurate information about them.
I’ve also made no attempt to list the many off-licences which have sprung up in the past three decades. Along with the supermarkets, they have made massive inroads into our Valleys communities. They have undoubtedly had an impact on the pub trade, and it could be argued that their burgeoning presence in our towns and villages have led, directly or indirectly, to a fair number of pub closures. At the time of writing, Aberdare town centre has no fewer than seven off-licenses, with a similar number within a mile radius. It would be beyond the scope of this entry to try and catalogue all of them, so I won’t even try!
Mr Arnold marked the pubs which were open in January 1982 (when his article went to press) with a *. I’ve transferred them to my adapted list. I’ve also marked the pubs which are still open today (and even a few later additions) with a †.
To gather my information, I’ve worked my way through Mr Arnold’s list, cross-referencing it with the Ordnance Survey maps kept at Aberdare Library, which date back to the 1870s. They’re works of art in themselves, hand-coloured on sheets of linen, and now encapsulated in plastic to protect them. Each one contains a wealth of historical information, and I’ve come across a few surprises, as you’ll see.
I’ve raided the Rhondda Cynon Taf Digital Archive for many of the old photos, and added some of my own to give a sort of ‘then and now’ feel. My old pal Dave Workman took a fair number of them, and I’ve marked them as DPW. Others were taken by the local photography pioneer J. Lendon Berry (JLB), a chap named Glyn Davies (GD), or are otherwise uncredited on the RCT website. Unfortunately, many pubs vanished before photography became widely accessible. The only traces they’ve left behind are faint footprints in the trade directories of the time.
Without access to older maps, some locations are a complete mystery. Mr Arnold’s information was limited to the Aberdare Urban District, which meant that details of some of the outlying places were sketchy at best. Even the OS maps (and a substantial amount of legwork) have failed to pinpoint some of them, but it was still a good way to while away countless wet afternoons in Aberdare Library.
Mr Arnold listed his findings in alphabetical order, which is handy for reference. However, I’ve taken the liberty of starting at the foot of the Glynneath Bank (just within the county line) and worked my way south, with a few detours so that you can stop for breath. It’s the first Virtual Valley Pub Crawl. Make sure, as Mams always advised us, that you drink a pint of milk before you set out ‘to line your stomach.’ After all, this could take some time.
Ready? Okay, let’s wet our whistles at …
* The Butchers Arms, Pontwalby 1872 – 20?
This one closed a few years ago. I went in there just once, on my way back from Swansea after the connecting bus from Rhossili had buggered up. I ended up travelling back in several stages, and caught a taxi home from the terminus of the X5 route – which was the Butchers. (I even got my taxi fare back after complaining to First Bus.) It’s now a private house.
* † The New Inn, Rhigos Unknown – Still open
I haven’t been in here for ages. They used to do fantastic meals when I was younger.
* † The Plough Inn, Rhigos 1851 – Still open(-ish)
I’ve been told that there’s some sort of legal covenant in effect, which means that it can’t be changed from a pub, and must remain open in perpetuity. Having said that, I’ve never seen it open. Gaz had a pint there once, but it’s a complete mystery how he managed it.
It’s time for some vigorous exercise to work up a real thirst. Let’s take a brisk walk down Halt Road, over the Foel into Penderyn, and stop at everyone’s favourite country retreat …
* † The Red LionUnknown – Still open
Another one which keeps odd hours. It tends not to open during weekday afternoons, but the evenings make up for it. Its key features include open fires, real ales, and a building project which seems to have been in progress since my first visit thirty years ago.
The Cynon Valley Profile gang managed to gain access to it one lunchtime in 1987, when we were taking photographs around the area. We enquired about bar snacks, and were offered pies or pasties. Kathleen was a vegetarian, and when she mentioned this fact, the landlady replied, ‘Have a pastie, love, there’s not much meat in them.’ You couldn’t make it up!
* † The Lamb HotelUnknown – Still open
This is a quaint village pub, with an open fire and an odd range of beers. It’s old-fashioned and popular with the farming community. My brother and some of our mates used to play for their pool team years ago.
The last time I was there, they wouldn’t let Stella in. I assumed, as a country pub, they’d have been dog-friendly, but I was wrong. In the batch of old photos which Rowland gave me was a cracking shot of some of the regulars, probably taken by Leader photographer John Wright, but not dated.
* Butchers Arms, Pontbren Unknown – Closed 199?
I’m not sure when this one closed. Its most notable feature was a load of stuffed animal heads on the walls of the lounge. I remember that Trevor and the Sprouts played a storming gig there back in about 1985. I actually danced with a girl I fancied, but that was far as it went between us. Strange things happen in Penderyn, I tell ye…
This was another Cynon Valley Profile stop-off on the same photographic expedition. This time Kathleen decided she’d have more luck ordering ‘crisps and a roll’, and was given a sliced bread roll with a few plain crisps inside. Penderyn wasn’t exactly at the forefront of the Gastropub movement, as you’ve probably gathered.
Brecon Arms, Penderyn Unknown – Unknown
This one doesn’t appear on Mr Arnold’s list, presumably because it was in Breconshire throughout its lifespan. I found it by chance on the 1904 OS map. It’s right on the northern edge of this section. Aberdare Library doesn’t have old maps stretching further north. Once again, Facebook came to my aid. After I shared this map, my friend Mel C. put me onto the Penderyn Community Historical Society website. Their online leaflet about the village pubs filled in some gaps about this pub, and others which I’d never heard of. It was apparently still open until the 1940s; after that it became variously a dairy, a hairdresser’s, and the village Post Office. It’s now a private house.
Rose Arms, Penderyn Road 1867 – Unknown
I found this one marked (just!) on the Ordnance Survey map of 1885. It was tucked away in a little row of cottages beside the railway line, opposite to the entrance to Bryn-y-Gaer Cemetery. On the maps of 1904 and 1919, the cottages are still marked as ‘Rose Row’, but there’s no sign of the pub.
* Mount Pleasant, Hirwaun Road 1867-20?
This was where Lisa and I used to go, back in the autumn of 1983. It was near her house, but quiet enough that we wouldn’t get asked for ID (not that it happened very often in those days anyway.) The last time I was there was after Uncle Stan’s funeral a few years ago. I passed it a while ago and there was no obvious sign of life. I’ve since been told by a friend from Penderyn that it’s been converted into houses.
* † Ty Newydd Guest House1975 – present
It may be licensed, but it’s hardly part of a pub crawl. It’s the sort of place that caters for wedding receptions. It’s on the list just because it is. I’ve never been there, and probably never will.
Three OaksUnknown – Unknown
Another mystery. Mr Arnold’s list states only that it was ‘on railway line to Penderyn’; other than that I’m none the wiser. The Hirwaun Historical Society list names it as ‘Royal Oak’. However, I found it on the OS maps of 1870, 1904 and 1919, indicating that Mr Arnold was right. This section of the 1904 map has it marked as a ‘beer house.’ Only ruins remain, according to the Penderyn Historical Society. Intriguing, eh?
If you’re already feeling a bit unsteady on your feet, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Welcome to Hirwaun.
This is a bit of a problem as far as the historical records are concerned. Until 1974, a fair part of the village was in Breconshire and the rest was in Glamorganshire. For this reason, the information in Aberdare Library was rather sketchy in the early 1980s. It’s probably a lot easier these days, in this age of digital archives, but for the time being I’ll work through Mr Arnold’s list as best I can. I’ve also found a list compiled by Hirwaun Historical Society, which filled a few gaps on my database.
Some of the pubs have nothing but a name. Even with an up-to-date street atlas I’m at a loss to pin down some of them. I know my way around the place quite well, but so many old buildings were demolished during the 1960s that a map doesn’t really help.
Like many Valleys communities, the original village grew organically, with no rhyme or reason to the street layout. Its industrial origins are reflected in the names of some former pubs – for example, the Crawshays were a family of wealthy ironmasters who built Cyfarthfa Castle in Merthyr Tydfil.
This leg of the pub crawl is going to get a bit messy, so any people with experience of Operations Research should probably get on board now. It’s a perfect example of the Travelling Salesman’s Problem, as you can see from the following map.
I’ve reconstructed this as best I can, using Ordnance Survey maps dating back to the 1870s and Mr Arnold’s list as a guide. Even so, I can’t pinpoint a fair number of the older ones. Cross-referencing the list with the 1904 map has enabled me to mark twenty-two pubs. (There’s no guarantee that I’ve identified all of them correctly, mind you!) I’ve numbered it from approximately north to south, west to east, and the numbers appear in brackets before the pub name on the list below. Take a deep breath, here we go to …
(3)* Bodwigiad Arms, Station Road 1865 – ? Demolished 2010.
I only went there once, with Baz, after a Defcon gig in Hirwaun Church Hall. The gig itself was an odd one – a thrash metal band called Snakebite were headlining, and at about 10.00 Russell Chiswell, the vicar, came in to tell us our time was up. I don’t know what he thought about the inverted crosses on the drumkit, or the Satanic lyrics. He probably wouldn’t have minded, to be honest, he was a laid-back kind of guy.
Baz and I were surprised to find Brian, the former guv’nor of The Carpenters, running the Bod, so we had a couple of late ones and made our way home via the minor roads. At one point we came across a ‘courting couple’ in a car. There was a highly embarrassing moment when Baz went over to investigate, thinking that it might have been stolen. Weird night all round!
(4) Rolling Mill Inn, 42 Station Road Unknown – Unknown
(5) Maesyrhidiau Inn, 31 Station Road Unknown – 1972
(6) Blacksmiths Arms, 4 High Street 1865 – 1906
(7) Railway Inn, Neath Road 1852 – 1908
I’d assumed that this would be further from the village than it actually was – maybe out towards the present Hirwaun Industrial Estate. Imagine my surprise when I found it clearly marked on the OS maps of 1885 and 1904, only a short stagger from the junction with the Penderyn road. Then again, I’d forgotten that there was a railway junction right beside the row of cottages which included the pub.
(8)* Globe Inn, Rhigos Road 1872 – 20?
This was opposite the old road junction to Penderyn. It was one of the few pubs in the northern part of the Cynon Valley which I never set foot in. It went through a variety of changes for a while, becoming Rasputin’s, The Hungry Horse and a restaurant in quick succession. Last time I passed there, in July 2014, it was a Chinese takeaway.
(9)* † Lamb Inn, 78 Brecon Road 1864 – Still open
I’ve never been in here either. It seems to be very sports-oriented, with big screens and Sky Sports advertised on big banners outside.
(10) Greyhound Inn, 81 High St 1865 – 1923
(11)* † Cardiff Arms, 33 High Street 1835 – Still open
I say ‘still open’, but I’m not actually sure whether it is. This was substantially tarted up in the early 1990s and became known locally as ‘The Dagmar’ (after the trendy wine bar in the BBC TV soap opera EastEnders. Since then, it’s seemed to slide gradually downhill. The last time I was there was the day Hirwaun Flats were demolished, in May 2004.
(12) Puddlers Arms, Trevenock Place 1841 – 1907
Belle Vue Inn, Davies Row Unknown – Unknown
Hiding somewhere in the side streets somewhere in the centre of the village.
Colliers Arms, Wind Street 1869 – 1907
Also tucked away in the same area, but not marked on the map.
(13) Beehive Inn, 44 High St 1844 – 1922
(14) Masons Arms, High Street 1844 – 1908
(15) Crawshay Arms, 53 High Street 1835 – 1919
The pub appears to be the building on the far left of the photograph. When I was growing up, Hirwaun Conservative Club, where Dads used to go on a Saturday evening, was on this same block, but I don’t know whether it was the same building. The club itself mutated into the Village Tavern a couple of years, but now appears to have died a death entirely.
(16) Bridgend Inn, Merthyr Road 1850 – 1971
(17)* † Glancynon Inn, Swansea Road Unknown – Still open
A big pub with a beer garden overlooking the river. Noted for real ales and good food.
(18)* Croesbychan1848 – 20?
This pleasant riverside pub on the minor road between Hirwaun and Llwydcoed is now a private house. It seemed to close under everyone’s noses, and took people by surprise when the news got out.
(19) Golden Lion, 45 Merthyr Road 1844 – Unknown
(20) Red Cow Inn, 61 High Street 1867 – 1908
(21) Patriot Inn, 66 High Street 1864 – 1928
(22) Cross Inn, 13 Cross Street 1865 – 1922
(23)* † Prince of Wales Inn, 1 Harris Street 1871 – Still open
My friend Martyn E. ran this pub for a while back in the day. I’ve only been there a few times.
(24) Royal Exchange, Tramway 1871 – 1927
Not on the map, but off to the east beyond the village centre.
Plus a handful which I couldn’t locate on the map:
Butchers Arms1869 – Before 1872
Farmers Arms, 1 High Street 1871 – 1920
Hirwaun Castle, Bethel Place 1830 – 1869
Holly Bush, Rhigos Road 1869 – Before 1872
Joiners Arms, Rhigos Road 1869 – Before 1872
Vulcan InnUnknown – Unknown
Welcome to TownUnknown – Unknown
I think we’ve probably lost some of the lightweights by this stage, but we’re going to press on regardless, to Penywaun …
Black Horse Inn1871 – 1933
* Colliers Arms1865 – 2014?
I’ve always been too scared to go in here. Last time I passed it, in July 2014, it was boarded up.
New Inn, 5 Penywaun Terrace 1841 – 1884
We’re going to take a little detour to Cwmdare now …
* † Tonglwydfawr Inn1854 – Still open
I’ve been in there for a couple of quizzes, but I’ve never bothered otherwise. Bit of a far-right hangout, apparently.
Castle Inn, Bwllfa Road 1866 – 1968
Colliers Arms, Dare Road 1853 – 1931
Dare Inn, Dare Road 1858 – Before 1872
And back down the hill to Trecynon. I’ve already explained the story behind some of the street names in Nooks and Crannies. The historical link to the Earl of Plymouth is marked in some of the pub names as well…
Railway Inn, 56 Cemetery Road 1864 – 1926
* † Llwyncelyn Inn, 51 Cemetery Road 1864 – Still open
Bear Inn, 27 (?) Hirwaun Road 1861 – 1871
Blue Bell Inn, 58 Mill Street 1826 – 1926
Now a private house.
* † Bridgend Inn, Harriet Street 1867 – Still open
This used to be our Sunday night local when I first moved to Llwydcoed, as it was an easy stroll downhill and back again. I haven’t been in there for ages. The house to the left in the picture was demolished when the Aberdare bypass was built.
Bush Inn, Harriet Street 1869 – 1884
Butchers ArmsUnknown – 1870
Carpenters Arms, 11 Mill Street 1844 – 1939
Coopers Arms1864 – Before 1872
Corner House, Margaret Street 1835 (1811?) – 1908
Apple Tree Inn, 7 Hirwaun Road 1861 – 1917
* † Cross Inn, Hirwaun Road 1861 – Still open
* † Welsh Harp, Hirwaun Road 1861 – Still open
I’ve grouped these three together because they were apparently next-door neighbours. The Apple Tree is now a private house. However, the Welsh Harp and Cross Inn merged during the 1908s, when the landlord of the one married the landlady of the other. It even made the national media, and the pub(s) is (are) in the same hands today.
On the wall in the Welsh Harp you can see an old photograph of Thomas Lewis, a blind harpist who used to entertain the customers. In Victorian times the landlord was fined for serving after time and keeping a disorderly house. Perish the thought …
Cross Keys, 10 Bell St1835 – 1906
Earl of Windsor, 4 Mill Street 1854 – 1914
* Full Moon Inn, 60 Harriet Street 1844 – 200?
Now three private houses
Glancynon Inn1867 – 1870
Globe Inn, Harriet Street 1865 – 1870
Golden Lion, 1 Cynon Place 1848 – 1939
Not only has the pub gone – Cynon Place has long gone as well. My pal Graham remembers a pub which used to be on the tramroad, but it was obviously closed when he was young. I assume it must have been either this one or the Royal Oak.
Greyhound InnUnknown – Before 1872
Labour in Vain, Harriet Street Unknown – Before 1872
Masons Arms, 47 Bell Street 1861 – 1881
* † Mount Pleasant Hotel, Mount Pleasant Street 1835 (1811?) – Still open
This was the pub I wrote about in ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, after it closed for what seemed like the last time. To everyone’s surprise it reopened a couple of years ago, and I’m pleased to say it’s been a great success. It’s good to see Dad’s old local (and mine) back at the heart of the community.
New Inn, Mount Pleasant Street 1835 – 1882
Park View Inn, 17 Hirwaun Road 1867 – 1909
Patriot Inn1860 – 1872
Plymouth Arms, 49 Harriet Street 1844 – 1929
Rose and Crown, Mill Street 1833 – 1870
Royal Exchange, 81 Harriet Street 1864 – 1924
Royal Oak, Cynon Place 1841 – 1908
Scales ArmsUnknown – Before 1872
Six Bells, Margaret Street 1861 – Before 1872
Stag Hotel, 61 Harriet Street 1839 – 1914
I don’t know when this was demolished, but I’m pretty sure it was before my time. Stag Street is the lane behind Harriet Street, so the name still lingers on.
Star and Garter, 12 Mount Pleasant Street 1854 – 1908
This was a bit of a news item in 1984, just before I did my A levels. A row of houses in Mount Pleasant Street was being renovated. While they were knocking off the render, the builders uncovered the original pub name. It’s now a private house.
Swan Inn, 34 Bell Street 1860 – 1910
Wheatsheaf Inn, 12-14 Bell Street 1863 – 1871
Wyndham Arms, 24 Hirwaun Road 1861 – 1922
It’s time for another detour. From the bottom of Harriet Street we’re going to head uphill to Llwydcoed, taking in the hostelries there before coming back into Trecynon and carrying on where we left off.
* Corner House, Merthyr Road 1852 – 2014
Earl Grey,, Greys Place 1861 – 1920
Fox and Hounds1848 – 1910
According to the caption for this picture, this was ‘Dr Wilson’s house’ in 1972. I’ve absolutely no idea where it was (is?)
Masons Arms, Moriah Place 1861 – 1889
I found this marked on the OS map when I was rummaging through the drawers in Aberdare Library. It wasn’t where I thought – it was right on the main road, near the entrance to the new housing estate. If it still exists, it’s now a private house.
Miners Arms, Miners Row 1841 – 1928
* † Red Cow Inn, 6 Merthyr Road 1855 – Still open
Ysguborwen Hotel1976 – 198?
We’re going to take a quick sidestep into Robertstown for this next leg of the journey. This is probably a good time to duck onto the old tramroad and water some Japanese Knotweed.
Belle Vue InnUnknown – 1872
Britannia Arms, 8 Thomas Street 1861 – 1908
This used to be the village shop when I was young. It’s now the office of a local company with flats upstairs.
* † Gadlys Arms, Bridge Street 1852 – Still open
Right next to Salem Chapel, this has hardly changed externally since the old photo was taken. This pub has a reputation for its meals, although it’s been a while since I’ve been there. Shanara and I called in there on a Sunday afternoon a few years ago, because the dippy bint had got the train times muddled up. I could be wrong, but I think it was the first time some of the locals had seen an Asian person (apart from on TV).
Great Western Hotel, 28 Bridge Street 1871 – 1969
Back up to the main road and onto the Gadlys. The first stop is right opposite the park gates …
* † White Lion Inn, 56 Gadlys Road 1841 – Still open
* † Beehive Inn, 3 Gadlys Street 1870 – Still open
Very much a local pub for local people, I think. It doesn’t seem to have changed since Glyn Davies took his photo, apart from a lick of paint. I’ve been there a few times, but unless you’re a sports fan there doesn’t seem to be much on offer.
Farmers Arms, Cwm Place 1868 – 1870
I was lucky to find Cwm Place on the Ordnance Survey map for 1875. By then, the pub was closed. Cwm Place no longer exists.
* † Glandover Inn, 98 Gadlys Road 1870 – Still open
This one seems to change hands quite frequently, which is usually a bad sign when it comes to pubs. It was popular with youngsters a few years ago, but is usually fairly empty whenever I pass it.
Kings Head Inn, 86 Gadlys Road 1858 – 1919
* † Mackworth Arms, 25 Gadlys Road 1867 – Still open
* Waynes Arms, 30 Gadlys Road 1864 – 198?
I can’t remember exactly when this closed, but it was our local for a while in the late 1980s. Defcon played a gig there, and local guitarist Pete Morley played the entire Sgt. Pepper set on the twentieth anniversary of the LP’s release. For a while during the Miners’ Strike, it bore the words REMEMBER 1984, THE YEAR OF THE SCAB on its side. Someone later altered the last word to read MINER. There’s now a tiny patch of land where it stood. It’s hard to believe it was once a pub.
And we finally arrive at Aberdare town centre. Only the die-hards are still going by this stage of the expedition, but we’ll press on regardless in Part 2. Watch this space …
In which The Author proves there is such a thing as a free lunch
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, unable to sleep (as usual), I found myself reminiscing about some of the friends I made during my time in the book trade. I grabbed a notebook and a pen, and started making a list of the sales representatives I could remember.
This small army of men and women used to call to the shop, some very frequently, some less often, to check on our stockholding and showcase their forthcoming titles. A lot of them worked for a single publisher, usually the very big houses with a number of imprints. Others carried a variety of lists represented by a single agency, while a large number of freelancers could be relied on to produce a lucky dip of new titles whenever they called in.
Over time I became friends with a good many of them, and I was amazed by how many I could still remember. By the time I got to seventy I was running out of steam, and some names, perhaps unsurprisingly, escaped me entirely.
This weird selling-in process took place back in the era of the dinosaurs, of course. In those bygone days the individual shops – staffed with experienced and knowledgeable booksellers – made their own buying decisions.
I don’t suppose Waterstones is visited by many reps these days, now that all the buying is done centrally. Perhaps at Xmas time a few of them still turn up with ‘car stock’ – last-minute top-ups of the bestsellers, before they reach the inevitable ‘out of stock at warehouse’ status. Otherwise, I imagine the trade sales rep is heading in much the same direction as British Books In Print on microfiche, the Booksellers’ Association Directory, and the once-traditional lunchtime pint (or two) – fondly-remembered historical artefacts, supplanted by advancing technology (on the one hand) and corporate standardisation (on the other).
Back in the good old days, though, the relationship between buyer and rep was an important part of the supply chain. Everyone knew everyone else, and their visits would provide an opportunity for gossip and informal networking. Sitting down with a rep to look through folder(s) of Advance Information (AI) sheets came as a welcome break from the normal routine of shelving, standing behind the till, fielding queries, and the everyday tasks of shop work.
Some of the reps lived fairly locally, and would drop in whenever they were in Cardiff. Ian Tripp from Transworld, Alun Owen from Random House, and John Garcia from Penguin all fell into this category. Ian lives in the Rhondda Valley, a few miles away from me as the crow flies. Alun also lived in the Valleys somewhere, and John lived just outside Swansea.
I’ll give you one example of how neatly the small world of the book trade worked: Ian’s son Rob works in the same office as my friend Gaz, at the Welsh Joint Education Committee. When I returned to university six years ago I needed copies of my O Level and A Level certificates (the originals were in a drawer in Mother’s house, and I couldn’t wait for her to dig them out). I rang Gaz and explained the situation, and he assured me that he’d put the wheels in motion as quickly as he could.
It turned out that Rob Tripp was responsible for issuing the duplicates. Not only did he rush them through, on the grounds that I was a friend of his father’s; he waived the fee as well. I’ve never even met Rob, but I was (and still am) extremely grateful for his help.
Many of the reps stayed with one company for all the time I knew them. Alun, Ian, John, Mike Morgan (Random House), Derek Ainge and Steve Brindle (HarperCollins), Graham Ireland (Orion), George Gamble (Headline), Adrian Rowe (Letts), and some of the other old stagers were pretty much synonymous with their publishers. In fact, I had to think very hard on Wednesday morning to remember just what their surnames actually were – most of the time we just used to refer to ‘Graham Orion’, ‘George Headline’, and so forth. As you’ll see, I still can’t remember the full names of some of them, over twenty-five years after I first entered the book trade.
I do remember with fondness old Dave Probyn, who used to represent Collins when I was working at Blackwells in the Polytechnic of Wales. Dave was the first rep ever to buy me lunch. I wasn’t even a buyer; I just happened to be going on my midday break when Dave was leaving after his appointment. He asked me where he could get a cup of coffee, and I invited him to join me in the refectory. In return, he treated me to nut cutlets with spicy tomato sauce, chips, and a can of Coke (how’s that for an eidetic memory, Dr Sheldon Cooper?) and we chatted for ages about the history of South Wales. I think Dave must have retired soon after that; when I started working in Dillons, about eighteen months later, he was no longer on the scene.
Even though I wasn’t directly involved in the buying process, Blackwells was such a small shop that everyone knew everyone. It was nice when I achieved buyer status in Dillons, because I was able to catch up with some of my old friends again.
John Blake worked for McGraw-Hill when I was in Blackwells; he went on to represent Routledge, and we were friends for many years. Alan Sedgeman represented Blackwell Publishing, Blackwell Science, Polity Press and Verso; his lists were always interesting, diverse and – often – baffling, as I told you in ‘And Now For Something Completely Identical‘. Martin Reed was another connection from Blackwells to Dillons. He was the rep for Sweet & Maxwell, and we crossed paths many times over the next two decades. (Martin once told me that he’d seen a dead ringer for me in the Broadmead in Bristol a few days earlier. My immediate response was, ‘Oh, poor bugger.’)
Paul Richards was another rep who lived in Cardiff. He’d read law at university, but had gone in a different direction afterwards. He used to represent another arm of the massive International Thomson group. Paul had a warped sense of humour, and our conversations would often veer into rather off-colour territory. We both had a massive crush on Gillian Anderson, who was starring in The X-Files at the time. He once sent me a filthy postcard from a sales conference in Amsterdam, which is on my wall at home with the message – rather than the picture – facing out.
Before I finished in Waterstones, Paul decided to resume his career in the law. The last time I saw him was on graduation day at the University of Glamorgan in 2011. I’d gone along at the invitation of my friend James E., and I bumped into Paul as we were waiting to go into the sports hall for the ceremony. He was with his new girlfriend, and was there to receive a postgraduate diploma. We exchanged numbers and promised to get together for a pint, but my phone was stolen shortly afterwards and I haven’t been able to track him down since. (Sorry, mate – maybe next time.)
Julian and his partner Glynis were freelancers who lived in South Devon and covered a fair swathe of the country. Among their many catalogues they used to carry the eclectic Airlift list, which ranged across the entire spectrum from cutting-edge fiction, poetry, counterculture heroes like Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary, through health, self-help and pop psychology, to weird occult and Mind, Body & Spirit stuff. They also carried Omnibus Press, who publish all sorts of music-related books, and a plethora of obscure small publishers.
Julian was a tall, lean chap with longish greying hair; Glynis was younger than him, with long jet-black hair. I’m not sure whether they were actually married, or just living together. They had a healthy interest in kinky matters, and used to frequent a fetish club called Westward Bound. (They once invited Sam and me to stay with them and accompany them to the club, but we could never get the same weekend off.) The three of us got on well, and we always had a good chat whenever they were in Cardiff.
Waterstones used to take on students to help during the annual stocktake, and one year two girls stayed on for a few days while we sorted the inevitable discrepancies out. Julian and I were chatting when we spotted the girls whispering and giggling by the counter.
When he’d gone, one of the girls approached me and asked shyly, ‘Was that your father?’
It became a standing joke in the shop. Every time Julian came in, he’d greet me with a cry of, ‘Morning, son!’
I’d reply, ‘Morning, Dad – and how is Stepmother?’ (Glynis would often be visiting another shop, as they represented some stationery manufacturers as well.)
Among the publishers they represented was SAF, who produced David Keenan’s book about the occult-inspired music scene of the late 1970s and 1980s, England’s Hidden Reverse. We didn’t order it for stock, but they very kindly got hold of a copy for me. It was a limited print run, so I wouldn’t have it on my shelf if not for Julian and Glynis.
Everyone ‘on the area’ knew everyone else, because they were constantly crossing paths. It wasn’t unusual to go for lunch in one of Cardiff’s many cafés and find the next table occupied by (to take one memorable example) Mike Morgan, Derek Ainge, Ian Tripp and George Gamble.
It was hardly surprising, then, to learn that Fiona from Faber was married to Jim Crawley from 4th Estate. Bob from Cambridge University Press was Jim’s brother. Kate Beal from Bloomsbury was the sister of someone who worked in their head office.
I didn’t realise just how small the world was until I was chatting to Gerry Witt, one of the freelancers. Gerry lived near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, and I mentioned that a few weeks earlier I’d been in that neck of the woods.
Pam, Gaz, Billy and I had gone on one of our Bank Holiday expeditions, to try and visit the source of the Thames. A poorly-signposted ‘right of way’ led us on a wild goose chase through a couple of muddy fields before we decided to abandon our quest and have a pub lunch instead. We repaired to the nearby Thames Head Inn, and I mentioned our predicament to the landlord.
‘Oh, he’s up to his old tricks again, is he?’ he smiled. The farmer’s habit of diverting the footpath was well known, it seemed.
Anyway, I mentioned the Thames Head Inn to Gerry, and his eyes lit up.
‘I often go there for a meal,’ he said. ‘The landlord’s a good friend of mine.’ Six degrees of separation, or what?
Speaking of food: Breffni O’Connor, the rep from Williams & Wilkins, told me that lunch with a buyer was a nice perk for the reps as well. He pointed out that there was a limit to how many Little Chef burgers one could eat in a month. Nowadays, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that buyers aren’t allowed to ‘do lunch’, for fear that it might be construed as some form of bribery.
Back in the good old days, though, it was an occasional treat which everyone enjoyed. It was a chance to unwind and discuss aspects of the trade, our lives, hobbies, and the world in general, without having the watchful eye of management over our shoulder.
I once had an unexpected lunch with Lisa McCluskey, the tall, dark-haired, beautiful and slightly nutty rep from Oxford University Press. She’d got snarled up in traffic on her way into Cardiff, and arrived in the shop about two minutes before I was due to go for lunch. I didn’t want to go late, because that would have had a knock-on effect on everybody else. I explained the situation, and Lisa said, ‘Why don’t we do the sub over lunch?’ (A ‘sub’ is book trade jargon for a ‘subscription order’ and not anything remotely kinky, by the way!)
We went to Swallows in the Royal Arcade, had a very nice meal at a reasonable price, went through the AI sheets, did the order, had a good chat, and got back to the shop only about ten minutes late. The owner came over to me at one point and asked if Lisa was an actress – he thought he recognised her from the TV soap Hollyoaks.
On her next visit to town, Lisa told me that her manager had queried her expenses claim.
‘He thought I’d treated myself,’ she laughed. ‘He wouldn’t believe that the bill was for two people, and not just me.’
One regular lunch date became a highlight of the calendar. Angela Pumo represented one of the medical publishers, and only came into Cardiff about twice a year. She was a huge fan of obscure cheeses, some of which are almost impossible to buy outside Wales. We’d go to the Celtic Cauldron and do the order over a substantial vegetarian feast. (Vijay’s place became a popular lunch spot after I’d taken a few reps there. It’s a shame it’s closed now.) On the way back to the shop we’d call into Cardiff Market and the food hall of Howell’s department store so that Angela could stock up her larder. I teased her once that, if she ever had an accident and had to be taken to hospital, the doctors would wonder whether she was selling medical textbooks, Welsh cheeses, or both.
One of my most unusual lunch dates also involved medical textbooks. Joely, the rep from Times Mirror (Mosby, Wolfe and a host of other half-forgotten imprints), phoned the shop to make her regular appointment. Unfortunately, she wanted to call on my day off.
Ordinarily I’d have been able to swap with someone else, but I’d made a dental appointment for that afternoon. Instead, we came up with a cunning plan. Joely was due in Cardiff in the morning and Swansea in the afternoon, leaving herself a couple of hours leeway for lunch and travelling time. I suggested that she could travel to Swansea via Aberdare instead of going straight down the M4, and we could do the sub over lunch in the Cambrian. Joely thought it sounded like a fun idea, so that’s what we did.
I was lucky to make it back to work at all after one unexpected free lunch. I’d been captured late in the morning by Tony Lawrence, who carried a huge variety of lists covering all subjects under the sun, and his old pal John Blogg, who’d recently retired from the University Bookshop. Tony had cleared his diary for the rest of the day. That was a bad sign. We went to the Prince of Wales (Cardiff’s largest Thereisnospoon) for ‘lunch’, and I managed to escape after only two pints – the others were in for the long haul.
The book trade was a lot boozier then than it became towards the end of my time. Tony told me that he’d once arrived at a shop in Manchester (pretty close to his home) just as the manager was locking up. Rather than reschedule, they decided to do the sub in the nearest watering hole instead.
‘We stayed there until I had to catch the last train,’ he said, with a gleam in his eye. ‘I was so pissed I actually signed a returns note!’
Alan Ramsay was a dry, affable Scot who lived in the extraordinarily-named village of Week St Mary, Cornwall. When I first met him he was carrying the Sybex computing list. Alan had a warped sense of humour, too, and we’d exchange sick jokes every time he called in.
It often amused me that reps who sold computing books were often total technophobes. I suppose it’s true that you don’t need to know about the contents of the books to be able to sell them.
Lesley Martin, a very attractive Emma Forbes lookalike who started with McGraw-Hill before moving to Sybex, once tried to send me the copy order as an email. After failing dismally several times, she phoned me up in gales in laughter to explain what had happened. Then she sent me a fax showing the seven pages of error messages she’d managed to generate from her PC.
Keith, who worked for Prentice-Hall for a while, was another Lotek who’d found himself lumbered with a list he didn’t fully understand. I remember having to explain to him what the acronym SNAFU meant when we found it in an AI sheet. Luckily for me, I’d only just finished reading Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy, so I was familiar with SNAFU and its variations.
Philip Ivory was a pleasant and rather eccentric chap who came to the shop once or twice, carrying several high-level medical lists which were really out of our range. He was quite excited to tell me that his next-door neighbour’s son had signed a record deal; the chap in question turned out to be one half of the Chemical Brothers. Another nice ‘separation’ there!
Most medical books were too expensive and too high-level to suit our customer base, so the reps used to limit their visits to once or twice a year at best. Consequently, their areas became larger and larger as the number of calls dwindled. Angela, Breffni, Linda Albin, Tony Histed and Klaus Beran found themselves travelling across most of Europe, and only dropping into Cardiff as the need arose.
On the other hand, law textbooks were always a sure-fire hit with students. They’d be updated regularly, and the publishers would wait until the last possible moment to issue the new editions. That made every academic season into a ‘waiting game’, with us and the students poised for the latest delivery from Blackstone Press. They were originally represented by Roger Bayliss (who also carried a number of specialist publishers, like Hart, Legal Action Group and Willan). Roger later handed our account over to his colleague Graham Uden. Graham would call in a few times a year, make sure that we were completely up to date with the current editions, check our back-orders, and sort out any problems we were having. He very rarely (if ever) found an old edition lurking around, as I always kept a close eye on my sections and made sure the stock was current.
It was a different story in ‘the other branch’ (now Cardiff’s only Waterstones). I’d call in every so often and check their shelves for old editions. It was always reassuring to know that we were on top of our game, but they were sitting on a small quantity of dead stock.
A new publisher came on the scene at around this time: Cavendish. I knew their founder, Sonny Leong, from Blackwells, when he used to rep for HLT. I wasn’t surprised when Sonny decided to go out on his own, as he was always ambitious and innovative. I’ve already mentioned their quirky covers (see ‘Adventures in the Book Trade Part 9‘), a sign of their refreshing approach to publishing.
Another breath of fresh air was their decision to set up in a building called The Glasshouse, not far from Kings Cross Station in London. Sonny told me the main reason he chose the building was that ‘It’s such a great place for parties.’
Sam and I were invited to the Cavendish summer party one year, and we gladly accepted. We spent a very pleasant evening chatting, nipping to and from the barbecue behind the office, and drinking with Sonny, Nicky (the rep), and some friendly down-to-earth London booksellers whom I’d never met before (or since).
Sam and I wandered off when the party started to wind down, and found ourselves outside a pub called the Carpenters Arms. Given that we’d met in a pub of that very name (albeit some 200 miles away) we decided to call in for just the one, and ended up staying until closing time. It would have been rude not to, really.
One book I didn’t have any difficulty in ordering was shown to me by Steve Collins. Steve repped for Hodder Education, and his list included the long-running Teach Yourself series. I was pleased to see that his forthcoming titles included Teach Yourself Guitar, written by Steve himself. I think I ordered about five copies, rather than the usual one or two, to give it a decent start in life.
As well as buying for my own sections (Law, Computing, STM), I’d occasionally have to see reps whose ranges were way outside those narrow fields.
I remember doing a sub with David Simm from A & C Black, early in January 2009, not long after the Xmas holidays. One of the first books he showed me was the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for 2010! That’s how relentless and predictable the publishing/bookselling year had become by that stage. (Is it any wonder I decided to get out as soon as I could?)
One Monday morning I was asked to see Robin House, the immaculately-dressed rep from Amalgamated Book Services. He never had anything for my sections; instead, he carried Ian Allan (trains and boats and planes) as well a plethora of publishers whose books hardly ever found homes on our shelves.
Robin had acquired a new list shortly before his visit – Farming Press. Most of it was pretty specialist stuff, but three small books caught my eye: one on cheese-making, one on sausage-making, and one on polytunnels. Robin was quite surprised when I decided to take a copy of each for stock. Nevertheless, we sold all three within a fairly short space of time.
I developed quite an eye for unusual and quirky titles, and was often surprised by the sort of books the agency reps and freelancers carried. Martin Remmers worked for an umbrella sales organisation representing a couple of dozen small publishers: BFI, Oberon, Nick Hern, Serpent’s Tail, and so forth. I remember one of his titles was a screenplay for a new film which was getting critical acclaim at the time.
Martin outlined the story, and I said, ‘I’ll definitely keep an eye for that when it comes out.’ I’m glad I did, as it became one of my favourite films of all time: The Truman Show.
Helen was a radical lesbian who repped for Turnaround Distribution in London. (It was Helen who gave me the infamous Necrocard I mentioned in ‘Zigzagging Down Memory Lane‘.) Like Julian’s and Martin’s lists, her catalogues were bizarre in the extreme. I remember running into goods-in one morning, grabbing Alun G., who was busy unpacking, and showing him one of Helen’s forthcoming titles: Shibboleth, the autobiography of Crass’s founder Penny Rimbaud, published by AK Press. I also took two copies of Wreckers of Civilisation, Simon Ford’s massive book about Genesis P-Orridge and COUM Transmissions. I bought one; the other sat on the shelf for a while until a middle-aged customer came in and bought a copy for her son. She was amazed to find it on the shelf. If anyone else had done the sub with Helen, she wouldn’t have found it in Cardiff. She’d have left empty-handed, and we’d have lost a twenty quid sale. That’s a fact.
AK Press also brought out a book of artwork by Gee Vaucher, who’d designed the posters and record sleeves for Crass. One evening, quite late, a very attractive young girl with long red hair and glasses came in, wanting to know if we had a copy. We hunted for it for a while, but it had gone walkabout. I offered to take her number and ring her if it turned up. Thinking about it later, I should have taken her number anyway. A redhead, wearing glasses, who was into Crass – she could have been the next Mrs O’Gorman if she’d played her cards right.
As Waterstones decided to concentrate on the larger publishers (who offered a bigger discount), the number of reps we saw gradually dwindled. First of all the freelancers, such as Gerry, Tony, Graham, Julian and Glynis, Jim Peck and Phil James received letters telling them that they wouldn’t be allowed to make appointments. The agency reps (Martin, Robin, Ellie Cripps and others) got similar letters. Then head office started cutting back on the number of academic reps we were allowed to see.
At the same time, UK publishing was undergoing a massive reorganisation and ‘rationalisation’. The first really big merger happened when I was still working in Blackwells: Harper & Row merged with Collins. The process really gathered momentum in the 1990s. The big trade houses, such as HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, Penguin, Transworld, Orion, Hodder & Stoughton and Little, Brown, started gobbling up smaller publishers at a rapid pace. Eventually, of course, Hodder merged with Headline; Hodder-Headline was bought by Hachette; so were Orion and Little, Brown. As if by magic, four large UK publishers became part of one colossal multinational corporation.
Academic and technical publishers started to go the same way. Pearson, Taylor & Francis, Harcourt, Wolters Kluwer and International Thomson swallowed numerous smaller houses. In some cases the original names survived, giving a sense of continuity to the publishing industry, even though their catalogues bore no resemblance to those from their earliest days. (For instance, Charles Dickens was originally published by Chapman & Hall. Towards the end of their days as a distinct identity, Chapman & Hall were one of the UK’s biggest STM publishers.) In other cases, though, the old names vanished entirely, subsumed into a blanket heading such as Pearson Education or Palgrave.
Other long-established and respected names vanished from bookshops as the decade wore on: Allen & Unwin, Sphere, Granada, Macdonald & Evans, Longman, Pitman, Edward Arnold, and more besides, were absorbed by the multinationals. There were numerous mergers and takeovers, and often the new companies were themselves taken over.
These were just some of the changes. Lippincott merged with Williams & Wilkins. Thomas Nelson merged with Stanley Thornes. (The new creations were themselves parts of the massive Wolters Kluwer empire.) Oxford University Press bought Blackstone. Cavendish was bought by Routledge; Routledge was bought by Taylor and Francis. Blackwell Publishing merged with John Wiley. One of the biggest of all, Pearson, owned a whole raft of imprints ranging from Addison-Wesley to Frederick Warne.
Not surprisingly, fewer companies needed fewer reps. Alan Sedgeman’s regular visits ceased when Mike Crayford started carrying the new Wiley-Blackwell list. On the other hand, John Blake’s list grew like Topsy as Taylor & Francis gobbled up STM publishers like they were going out of fashion.
At the same time, Waterstones was concentrating less and less on academic sales and focusing almost entirely on product from the big boys. Some of the larger independents, such as Faber, Canongate and Bloomsbury, still (somehow) manage to get their product onto the shelves. When you walk into a Waterstones today, you might be forgiven for thinking that there’s a broad range to choose from. However, pick up a book and flick to the title page, where you’ll be able to see just who owns the publisher.
It’s a pretty depressing list. I’m willing to bet that at least sixty per cent of the stock in an average Waterstones comes from the Big Five: HarperCollins; Macmillan (i.e. Holtzbrink); Hodder-Headline, Orion and Little, Brown (i.e. Hachette); Simon & Schuster; Penguin Random House (i.e. Pearson/Bertelsmann). By the time you read this, judging from recent trends, we might well be down to the Big Four.
The rest – and there are literally thousands of them in the UK alone – struggle to make their voices heard. They’re lucky that a defiant independent sector makes time and space for their output. They’re lucky that the Internet enables publishers and readers to connect directly, without relying on the restrictive ‘shop window’ where you need to pay your admission fee to be allowed in.
I realised the other night just how much I miss the banter with the reps. Their lists gave us a chance to see what the rest of the publishing world was up to. Even if we never took a copy of The Re:Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, it was good to know that such an obscure book existed.
I don’t know how many of my old friends are still around in this brave new world of online customer service and central purchasing. I’ve had a quick look at the websites of the Big Five, and I can’t find trade reps listed for three of them. I’ve found reps listed for a couple of academic publishers, but their names don’t ring any bells with me.
It’s sad to think that I’ve lived through the end of a tradition in the book trade. It’s even sadder to think that all the friends I made during two decades have probably been forced in other directions by the radical change in the bookselling environment over the past ten years. Who can tell what will happen in the next ten years?
However, there’s a brighter note on which I’ll end this rather depressing entry. Yesterday I signed a contract to work as a freelance proofreader for Orion Books. Graham Ireland was one of the many reps who gave me a great deal of encouragement when I decided to try and develop my skills, way back in the late 1990s. He would make a point of dropping off uncorrected bound proofs for me whenever he came to town. I used to use them for practice, but I never thought I’d end up in their pool of freelance helpers.
If Graham happens to come across this blog I’d like to thank him for his support. (Oh, hang on, that was Robin’s catchphrase!) Also, I’d like to mention everyone else I found on my trip down memory lane the other night: Mandy (Mainstream); Doug Neely (Penguin); Mandy James (Welsh Books Council); David (Greenhill); Cordelia (Bloomsbury); John Connelly (Macmillan Education); Andrew Curd (W. H. Freeman); Ashley Drake (University of Wales Press); Amanda (Taylor & Francis); Cara (Pitman); Roger Forsey (D Services); Nigel Passmore (Ian Allan); Sarah Leedham-Green (Harcourt); Chris Hossack (Butterworth-Heinemann); Joanna (Addison-Wesley); Lucia Pyke (Butterworth/Lexis-Nexis); Chris (Michelin); Leslie Crascall (SPCK); Oliver (Oxford University Press); Teresa (Nelson Thornes); and all the others whose names escape me at this remove.
I hope you’re all well, and I wish you all the best in whatever you’re doing now. It was fun!
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.
You must be logged in to post a comment.