Friday, 31 March 2017

No Welcome in the Hillside

In which The Author punctures an old myth
A few weeks ago, on a Friday evening, I was chatting to my old pal Adrian T. over a pint in the Lighthouse. He'd come in after a short stop in Thereisnospoon, just around the corner, and was telling me of an interesting experience he'd had.
He was having a smoke in the beer garden when he struck up a conversation with three young women. They turned out to be from Germany, and were in Aberdare because they're working as language teaching assistants in the local area. I had a bit of a flashback to meeting three crazy girls from Brittany in the Cambrian, ten years or so ago. They were language teaching assistants, also staying in Aberdare. They'd found their way to the Cambrian in time for the Wednesday night quiz one week, had a great time, and made it a regular stopover during their time in Wales. (I'm still in touch with Judith and Sarah via Facebook; Marine didn't do social media.)
Anyway, these three girls were new to town, and asked Adrian's advice on what to do for a good time on a Friday night. My first answer – 'Get on the first train to Cardiff' – didn't occur to him, so he ran down a virtual pub crawl for them: a quick one in the Lighthouse, with the free jukebox; one in the vodka bar (which used to be the Carpenters back when it wasn't full of blokes in muscle T-shirts and bints in white stilettos) just to say they'd been there; one in the reopened Bute (ID permitting); one in the Cambrian, where Jocelyn would be doing the karaoke; finish up either in the Bush or in the Con Club, both of which open late.
Times have changed. When we were the age these frauleins were, our circuit involved the Black Lion, the Bute, the Cambrian, the Carpenters, possibly the Bush, possibly the Boot, possibly the Market Tavern, and possibly the Depot, always ending up in the National Wine Bar until chucking-out time.
The Depot and the National are long gone. The Black Lion and the Boot are covered in scaffolding; I don't know what's happing to the former, but the latter is going to converted into flats and a retail space. I imagine we can add it to the growing list of empty premises in Aberdare (three more since Xmas, with another to come after this weekend).
Until fairly recently, the Market Tavern used to be packed early on a Friday evening, then everyone would descend on Judges, just up the street. Last time I was in Market Street at about 9.15 on a Friday night (the even sadder prequel to one of the Cure's earliest songs, maybe) neither place was open.
I refer the honourable ladies to the answer I gave some moments ago, as John Major might have said.
Anyway, Adrian went back inside and approached a group of young lads sitting at one of the tables. He outlined the situation I've just described, and suggested that it might be a nice gesture if they invited our visitors to join them on a little pub crawl. He sounded quite surprised when he told me his idea had been dismissed out of hand.
'I thought we Welsh were supposed to keep a welcome in the hillside,' he said, rather bitterly.
On the other hand, I wasn't surprised in the slightest.
Anyway, after Adrian moved on (possibly to one of the places I've listed, or maybe to one of the other three) I started thinking about what he'd said. One of the first things that came to mind was a lovely compliment that Jamila, the Nigerian Princess, paid me during a rambling late-night phone call from Nottingham when she was working on her MSc in Forensic Science. (I know – in anyone else's blog that sentence would sound totally avant-garde, wouldn't it? Every word of it is true. We'd become friends when we were studying together in 2009, and we're still in touch via Facebook and Instagram.)
'I'm so glad I met you,' she said. 'You were the first person in Wales to make me feel welcome.'
Bear in mind that she'd been here for the best part of two months before I invited her to share my table during a wet Thursday lunch hour towards the end of October. By the time we'd finished our puddings, we both knew we'd be friends for life.
She also told me that she'd felt excluded by many of the students in her group (we went in different directions after our first year), and she thought that their racist attitudes were almost certainly at the heart of the problem.
And I thought of many other minor incidents (quite a few of which I've recounted in my old Wordpress blog of the same title) which I've been witness to during my time in Aberdare. I thought of the countless racist comments I've heard in pubs, at bus queues, in the streets, and which have been reported to me via Facebook by some of my friends.

I thought of the number of times some Daily Star-reading fuckwit has remarked, 'It's getting like the fucking United Nations around here,' every time a non-white face passes the pub window.
No – what it's 'getting like' is a proper 21st Century town, a real contemporary community, including people from all continents and cultures. Maybe because I spent my first year at university in London, where this way of life was a novelty at first and quickly wore off, I'm pleased to see the Valleys diversifying and opening up to the world. How long it will last once Britain leaves the EU and the far right start to feel vindicated in our new-found isolationism, remains to be seen.
And I thought of the numerous sickly ballads romanticising life in the industrial Valleys, especially those churned out by a guy named David Alexander which are fixtures on the pub jukeboxes in Aberdare.
Mr Alexander (not his real name, apparently) did indeed work down a coal mine after leaving grammar school, but then trained as an engineer. He was born in Blackwood, so whether he'd ever seen the Rhondda is a matter for conjecture. It didn't stop him from singing at length about it, though. On one of the live recordings which torture us youngsters regularly, he introduces a song about the Rhondda as 'a song my daddy used to sing' – which itself appears to be bollocks, because it was written by Byron Godfrey and Johnny Caesar and released in 1971.
It's this sort of sentimental trash which has done much to perpetuate the myth of South Wales as 'welcoming'. Just last night, a guy called Lee sang a karaoke song which notched up pretty much the full Valleys Cliche Bingo card: 'coal', 'miners', 'daffodils', 'Rhondda', and – naturally – 'welcome'. Just as the Jewish people dream collectively of returning to the Promised Land, so it seems that every Welshman dreams of returning 'home'. We've even got a word for it: hiraeth. It's often translated as 'nostalgia' or 'homesickness', but it's one of those mysterious words that simply doesn't map exactly on to any target language. Only a real Welshman can truly understand hiraeth, it seems.
Well, in that case, I put my hands up. I'm not a real Welshman.
I was born in Mountain Ash, I grew up just outside Aberdare, and (apart from my year in London) I still live here, but even when my first bout of real clinical depression was in full trough, in the spring on 1985, I never wanted to pack my course in and head back here. In fact, I would quite happily sell up tomorrow and get the fuck out, returning only for family events.
And, to judge from Adrian's bemused retelling of the Thereisnospoon comedy episode 'the Germans' a month or so, you're only really welcome here if your grandparents can trace their ancestry back to Owain Glyndŵr's time on both sides, with no genetic intervention from any other source. Unless you can point to at least a dozen names on the long lists of the mining industry casualties and prove via documentation that they were your distant cousins on your Aunt Eirlys' side of the family, you'll never be part of the community.
Sure, there are numerous cheats and tweaks you can play with your identity in an attempt to become Welsh. You can look as white as you like, so much so that have to lie on a sunbed simply to reassure your neighbours you aren't actually dead. You can wear your red shirt every weekend during the 6 Nations and sing the anthem which as much hwyl as you can muster. You can even join your local rugby team, if you really want to look the part. To pretend to assimilate even further, you can send your kids to Meithrin and Welsh-medium school, and dress them in manufactured costumes for school photos every St David's Day (please see the classic book The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, published by Cambridge University Press, for more on this subject). To go all the way, you can mumble your barely rationalised Wenglish racism as inarticulately as you can manage. But no matter hard you try, you'll never really pull it off.
Even Plaid Cymru, the only political party operating solely within this country, raised eyebrows about ten years ago when Pakistan-born Mohammad Ashgar was elected as the first Asian member of the Welsh Assembly. He simply wasn't 'one of us', after all.
That's the state of things in the Valleys in 2017. Nearly seventy years after the MV Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, bringing the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to London, simply the imminent opening of a Turkish restaurant in Aberdare is enough to incense the locals to vocal apathy. They can't even be bothered to get off their fat fucking arses and start a race riot. As long as they can sit in the pubs, or in front of their huge fucking TVs, and moan about 'these people taking over the place' they're happy. And that's the way it's going to stay.
And if three young German girls stroll in here tonight, I'm sure I can call on some extremely rusty phrases to say 'hello' and make some new friends. Whether any of us will be allowed to stay for a second pint is debatable, of course.
So, I hereby renounce all claims to Welsh nationality, citizenship, identity, whatever, everything. If all I can look forward is another twenty, thirty or even fifty years in this place, where even the sight of someone reading a book in the corner of the pub strikes terror into the heart of the regulars, I have nothing to live for any more.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Where I Go in My Dreams (Part 21)

In which The Author continues where he left off
(No, don't worry – you haven't missed a bit. The rest of the recurring and/or bizarre dreams which make up this occasional series can be found in my old Wordpress blog.)
Anyway, this is a place which has turned up several times, but which I'd forgotten about until this morning's rather strange sequence of dreams. In common with several places I dream about fairly regularly, this pub doesn't exist in the real Aberdare (and never has, as far as I can tell). However, it definitely should, to judge from the way my subconscious mind paints it.
It's on the northern bank of the River Cynon, some distance upstream from Llwydcoed, but a fairly easy walk from the village itself along a pleasant country lane. In fact, you could probably get there from Gelli Isaf, if you crossed the stone tramroad bridge north of the little row of cottages and followed the track from there.
It's a big old building, divided into several large rooms, and probably has substantial living quarters above the public area. It has a well-equipped function room, although I've never been there when anything is going on, a decent-sized restaurant, and a cosy bar with a good crowd of customers every time I call in. There's also a large beer garden overlooking the river, which must be great in the summer, as it would get the sun all day and late into the evening.
I've no idea what the pub is called, but the main reason I go there in my dreams is because (unlike some many pubs in Aberdare) it actually has decent WiFi provision. Go figure …

Friday, 10 March 2017

No Timewasters

In which The Author does exactly what it says on the tin
Those of us who remember the old days of newspaper classified advertisements will be familiar with this little phrase. (Like the news stories these printed artefacts contained, they seem to have fallen into disuse at around the turn of the century.)
The words 'no timewasters' were usually appended to a 'For Sale' ad – for a car, say, or a musical instrument. The idea was to make sure that only people who were genuinely interested (and, more important, who had the money) turned up to check out the item in question. Otherwise, the seller's house could quite conceivably have looked like the scene in The Commitments, when half of Dublin turns up to audition for the band.
Anyway, the next stage of Project No More Nice Guy does just what it says on the tin: No Timewasters.
It seems that my pal Clint has made the same decision independently of me, to judge from his recent decision to stop offering his photography services gratis to 'worthy causes' – who, we all know, have a contingency fund for things like that anyway.
Like me, Clint is (was?) an easygoing guy who gets ripped off because he's too polite to say 'no' when anyone asks for his help. He's a student, so he needs every penny he can get. Every time someone takes him away from his university work, he has to devote time and energy to a project which counts for nothing professionally, and which might – if he's very lucky – earn him a cup of coffee. Last week, he announced on Facebook that he's no longer willing to lug his gear off to some far-flung place (he doesn't drive) in return for fresh air and goodwill.
Relatable post, as the young people say these days. My proofreading and editing skills are also no longer available out of the goodness of my heart. Just because I once met you in the pub twenty-odd years ago, and you now think you're capable of writing a book, don't think I live on Scotch mist and kind thoughts. If you can't at least match the below-NUJ hourly rates paid by Orion Books, then by all means have a search online and find someone cheaper. If you can.
The same goes for my social media skills. I don't claim to have the expertise of my friends Richard J., Chris D., Andrew C. or Siân S., but I can find my way around Facebook, Wordpress, Twitter and Instagram fairly easily. (I've still no idea what Whatsapp or Snapchat are, and since I'm fifty years old I'll probably never bother to find out.) But I know how to use the main channels, and I can use ifttt with only a few hiccups, so I was a lot cheaper than using a web hosting company and trying to tweak all the settings later on.
In fact, just about a year ago I set up a Twitter feed and a Wordpress site for Plaid Cymru Cwm Cynon, our constituency branch of the Welsh political party. I knew that Richard was a member of the Labour Party, and would more than likely be offering his hosting and design services to them when the council elections were on the horizon. A few months later, Andrew (who runs a full-scale multimedia production company) announced that he and a friend were setting up the Cynon Valley Party in order to contest council seats this spring.
Although we'd had the online drop on them both, trying to get any information about the key players in our group was almost as difficult as getting a tax refund. In fairness, Cerith Griffith's 2016 Welsh Assembly election campaign was fairly switched on electronically. He used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram while we were out and about leafletting, and we both contributed to the Facebook page. The rest of them, though, seemed perfectly happy to use the same tired toolkit that Dad and the late Dafydd Roberts had used when they were standing for election in the early 1970s.
At the March 2016 branch meeting I raised (for, I think, the third time) the subject of magic sufficiently advanced technology as a valuable campaigning tool for the next round of elections. After all, how many young people do you know who read (never mind buy) a newspaper these days? Most of them don't even watch the TV news any more. If they're anything like the ones I know, they get virtually all their information about the world through their laptops, tablets or smartphones.
It was a section of the electorate that we urgently needed to reach out to. The media (even the electronic media) are dominated by a small clique of neo-liberal or neo-fascist entrepreneurs. Plaid Cymru's message is being swamped by a rising tide of racist, anti-European, anti-Corbyn, anti-worker, anti-NHS rhetoric. The only way to reach out to younger voters, I told them, is via the Internet.
Well, I tried to put the message out there, but it fell mainly on deaf ears.
Undeterred, I set up a hosted (i.e. free) Wordpress blog. I made Twitter and Instagram accounts for us as well. Cerith made me an admin on the Facebook page, so that I could link everything together via ifttt. Once I was sure everything was running properly, I emailed the login details for the Twitter and Instagram accounts to the people whose email addresses I already had. I thought if we all had access, we could use them as and when the mood took us. I encouraged them to post photos or information about local issues whenever they found something to talk about.
When I told them that all this wonderful magic wouldn't cost a penny (that's the single most powerful spell I know, taught only to Hogwarts sixth-formers), and that I'd do it in my own time, they were sold.
Or so I thought.
I decided to keep the Wordpress login to myself. Any decent first-year wizard can retweet stuff, or make a Tweet up themselves. Anyone with a reasonable smartphone can use Instagram. But using Wordpress calls for a knowledge of HTML, widgets, CSS, and other Dark Arts which would have left the others standing.
I started retweeting stuff (even my own stuff) immediately. A few of the others would retweet things I'd published, but hardly ever came up with anything of their own. I think I'm the only person ever to have used the Instagram channel. But the Wordpress site was almost dormant from the start. It wasn't as though it called for any technical involvement from any of the Muggles. I was going to look after the whole thing. Famous last words in the Land Where the Apathetic Rule.
I wanted to set up a page giving a bit of background about the key players in the local group: the chairman, treasurer, secretary, our councillors, and so forth. All I needed was about 250 words about themselves and a decent photo. Dai W., the branch secretary, is a fluent Welsh speaker; Gwyn M., my old pal from Trecynon, is also fluent. Translation wasn't a problem. Neither were photos – in theory. Nearly everyone's got a digital camera these days, or at least a smartphone.
The exception, needless to say, was Brian A., the branch chairman (or Chief Muggle). I knew we'd have an uphill struggle putting his piece together. In the event, Pauline J. ghosted a little biography and took a photo when they were out campaigning together. Gwyn translated it, and I added it to the drafts page.
And that was as far as it got.
Pauline eventually sent me something which I thought needed fleshing out, given her considerable experience in local and national politics, and a stock photo.
Peter F., the branch treasurer, sent me a rather underexposed and blurry photo of himself in his office at home. It was OK, but not great. No text, though. Two and half down, several to go.
Meanwhile, Dai and Karen M. (our councillor in Hirwaun) failed to come up with anything at all. I reminded them frequently that they were writing about the subject they know more about than anyone else alive – themselves – and it shouldn't be too difficult to put 250 words together.
I was wrong, apparently.
Anyway, the council elections are on 4 May. We started selecting candidates back before Xmas. As soon as people came forward, I started pointing out at every single meeting (and about once a week by email) that Richard and Andrew were throwing loads of material out via social media, at least once a day, and occasionally more often than that. We'd gone from being Achilles to being the tortoise in a very short space of time.
Nicola B. (whose father Terry had been a councillor back in the day, and whose brother Geraint ran for Westminster in 2005) sent me a rather elongated photo, which I was loth to use on the page. She also sent me a biog which I thought needed a bit of explanation at one point. I sent back my comments, and I'm still waiting for the revised version.
Between Xmas and New Year, I worked on a draft 'Meet the Candidates' page for a whole afternoon, to give everyone an idea of what the finished design would look like. I sent a couple of page previews out and asked for their feedback, so I could tweak it before it finally went live. The response was exactly what you'd expect. Only Danny A. from Mountain Ash West – a bit of a techie himself – told me he liked the general layout. Nobody else even deigned to reply.
I was keeping the Wordpress site ticking over with a motley assortment of community announcements (blood donation clinics, that sort of thing). They were already bilingual, so I didn't have to fuck about getting them translated, which usually took a couple of days.
In the meantime, I was posting stuff on Twitter and Instagram (see Mind the Gap in my public transport blog) as well; I was mostly retweeting news items and press releases from Tŷ Gwynfor, which nobody else seemed able to do – although Nicola claimed to have used the account a couple of times as well.
Danny sent me a very good biog and a decent picture, which I was able to use without too much intervention. Julie W. from Aberaman South was similarly co-operative, and I had their information ready to go live within a few days of its arriving in my inbox. It never did get published, though, as I had too many outstanding queries from the others to make the page public.
Just after Xmas, totally out of the blue, Danny sent me a scan of a two-page newsletter focusing on the plight of Mountain Ash town centre, and asked me if I could publish it on the blog. It featured bilingual text, a black and white photo of Danny, Nicola and Pauline on Mountain Ash Bridge, and contact details for the three candidates. In spite of my frequent suggestions, it didn't mention our Facebook page, our social media feeds, or the blog.
I published the scans as he'd suggested, but at the next branch meeting I'm afraid to say I lost my temper with everyone. I pointed out that by the time the information got to me, the newsletter was through most of the doors in Mountain Ash, and probably went from there straight into the recycling bag.
I reminded everyone that George Michael had died late on Xmas Day – after the Boxing Day papers had gone to press – and so people who rely on seventeenth-century technology for their information wouldn't have known about it until they read the headlines on 27 December. By way of contrast, within ten minutes of breaking on the BBC website, the news of Mr Michael's death was all over social media.
'We're not in the area of reactive news management any more,' I told them. 'It's all about being proactive these days. If I'd had that information at the outset, it would have been on the blog and all over social media even while Danny was still sorting out the DTP document.'
Dai objected, saying that older people don't use social media (which is true, for the most part), but I told him I wasn't suggesting replacing one means of communication with the other.
I added that we needed to use both channels to complement each other. We had to reach the biggest number of people possible, to convince them that Plaid Cymru is a viable alternative to another five years of Labour domination in the Valleys. Older people are going to be the most difficult to shift from their established voting habits anyway (see No Future); they'll turn out and return the same tired faces to Clydach Vale as they have ever since Clement Attlee was prime minister. On the other hand, younger voters aren't going to look at something printed, no matter how exciting it might be. We needed a two-pronged approach.
That was my argument, anyway.
As it turned out, it was also the argument of one of the other parties. They'd accidentally left behind a briefing document after a recent meeting, and it had fallen into enemy hands. It stressed the importance of social media, and laid out a strategy for pumping material out across all channels every single day between then and the elections.
Pretty much what I'd been telling Plaid Cymru Cwm Cynon we needed to do for over a year, in fact.
Anyway, the slow trickle of information continued. Ann J., who's fighting the Cwmbach ward, was fastest off the blocks. I had her information and photo within a couple of days.
Paul J., from Penywaun, is another first-rate Muggle. I bumped into him after a funeral, so I gave him my number and said I'd sit down with him and work on his biog together. So far, not a sausage.
Nor have I heard anything from Dan B. (Ynysybwl), Karen (Hirwaun), Dai (Aberdare East), Dai's wife Liz, or her father John D. (both Aberdare West). I don't even know who's been selected to fight the other seats throughout the Cynon Valley, because I haven't been to a constituency meeting or event since that night. I realised soon after leaving Mountain Ash RFC that evening that I was talking to the fucking wall, and decided to leave them to it.
I last posted something on the group's Facebook page on 10 February; the Instagram feed hasn't been updated since 29 January (me); nobody has used the Twitter account since 5 February (again, me). As for the Wordpress site … Well, I regret to inform you that it went out on the piss for St David's Day, and choked on its own vomit during the night. It seems that nobody else in the group has noticed, because I haven't had any emails asking me what's happened to it.
I've since withdrawn my long-standing offer to the Colstars to look after their Internet presence, as well. It's obvious that Derek would rather rely on an obsolete website, Facebook shares, and a few posters in key locations, to publicise their forthcoming events, than have a full-blown website with links to social media and a rolling blog with news items and features on the group.
It's obvious, too, that he doesn't want me to get involved in any way. I don't know why. We don't have any history between us; I was briefly a member of the Little Theatre group in the late 1980s, but that fell by the wayside when I started working in Treforest. I certainly wasn't party to the Great Cynon Valley Performing Arts Earthquake three decades ago, which gave birth to the Colstars in the first place, and the aftershocks of which continued to ripple down through YES, TUSC and even Showcase, none of whom were even born at the time.
Considering that every amateur dramatics group I've ever known has been crying out for older men to take to the boards, it seems nothing less than fucking rude that Derek has spurned all my attempts to get involved. My old pal Adrian T. told me a few months ago that it's a very cliquey organisation, though; if your face doesn't fit you'll never be welcome, no matter how enthusiastic you are.
(By sheer coincidence, the Colstars have just announced a fund-raising quiz this Sunday night, a couple of minutes' walk from my house. I think I'll have to have a subsequent engagement.)
My own involvement with other people's websites and social media will be limited to Alwyn's artwork site when that's up and running. At least he's going to give me a cut of his online sales, so I'll get some reward for my time and effort. Everyone else, though, is going to be rebuffed with the words NO TIMEWASTERS. Alternatively, in the words of the film, show me the money!