Monday, 1 May 2017

Tactical Withdrawal

In which The Author kills off some comedy characters
My Facebook friends already know about the long-running Aberdare-based fly-on-the-wall docucomedy The Library, with its regular cast of characters and voice-over comments from yours truly. I'm sad to announce that after five years of uninterrupted fun, the show is coming to an end. Here's a letter which I'm going to send to the head of Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC Libraries Service as soon as they reopen for business tomorrow morning.
Being of a certain age, I remember when reference libraries were invaluable community resources, as well as being places of pleasant retreat and almost sepulchral tranquillity.
In those halcyon days, the stacks would be crammed full of books on every conceivable subject. Racks of magazines would keep us up to date with the latest developments in our chosen field. Newspapers of all political hues offered their take on home and world events. Comprehensive selections of street maps and guides covering the whole of the UK, and road atlases for this country, Europe and the USA, were available to anyone. Anyone wishing to consult the Dictionary of National Biography or the Encyclopædia Britannica would find every volume on open display.
Experienced and knowledgeable local staff would put the most random queries to bed, often without ever picking up a book. They were libraries in the true sense of the word – repositories of information and scholarship, and facilities for learning. All the while, any sound louder than a fieldmouse breaking wind half a mile away was greeted with a glare of thunderous disapproval from the enquiry desk.
You try telling the young people that, and they won’t believe you.
Over the past ten years, the ‘reference’ section at Aberdare Library has been transformed into a hubbub of conversation and electronic babble. At the same time, its primary role – that of information provider – is being whittled down to a handful of public access computers. These are booked solid most days – although they must on operate a shift system, as we are lucky to see them all working at the same time. The book stock, once the first port of call for anyone working on a school or college project, is thin, outdated, or virtually irrelevant to the needs of modern students.
A few months ago, while copy-editing a novel, I took a number of history books off the shelf. I had failed to find anything on the Crusades or the Hundred Years War in the lending library, so I had to make do with what was on offer upstairs. I suspect, given the excellent condition of some of them, that I was the first person to open them since they arrived some in stock fifty years ago. I recently felt sorry for anyone writing an essay on the EU referendum, who would have learned – from a textbook on the shelves – that there are fifteen member states of the European Community, all of which operate their own national currencies.
Long gone are the DNB and the Britannica, superseded by the all-powerful and flawless (apparently) Wikipedia. I still regret that I missed those books in what I refer to as the Not Closing Down Sale. I would have happily snapped them up at a quid each. (Not a quid per volume, you understand – a quid for the whole book.) The online subscription to the DNB has since been discontinued, naturally.
The space formerly occupied by these multi-volume reference works, and others, was converted into a ‘meeting room’. I dare say this seemed like a good idea at the time. Victoria Hall had closed, and community groups needed a space where they could get together. Where better than the library …?
New reference purchases appear to consist solely of the Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue, the Sky Sports Football Yearbook, Patrick Moore’s Astronomy Yearbook, the Statesman’s Yearbook, Who’s Who, and Whitaker’s Almanac. I suspect that most of these only slip through because nobody has yet thought to cancel the standing orders. It’s fair to say that I have never consulted the first two, and very rarely look at the third. I do find the last three of occasional use, although having bought outdated editions of each last year, I rarely refer to them on site.
(As an aside: On the most recent occasion when I wanted to look at Whitaker’s Almanac, I had to ask the librarian for it. It is kept behind the counter, along with the very few street maps which are now held in stock. It would have been quicker to jump on a train to Cardiff and buy my own copy than to wait for the librarian to mentally process this simple request.)
The solitary English dictionary published this millennium is on the shelf because, when I upgraded to a later edition a few years ago, I offered it to the library. I needed a reliable up-to-date dictionary on hand when I was working, and it seemed as good a home for it as any. Have we really returned to the 19th century, where libraries were run by charitable bodies and relied on donations from the public? Margaret Thatcher would have been proud of our Victorian values.
Similarly, all magazine purchases have ceased, although it seems that a few subscriptions to obscure left-wing periodicals have yet to expire. However, the online portal which formerly allowed access to academic journals free of charge seems also to have been discontinued.
Those of us wishing to keep up with world events have a vast choice between the Western Mail, the South Wales Echo, and the Daily Express. For my part, I would not touch that poisonous racist rag unless I was wearing full biohazard gear. As for the ‘local’ papers: like many people I know, including one former local newspaper editor, I simply cannot see the point of both titles. When the Echo truly was an evening paper, it might have been worth picking up a copy later in the afternoon. When one can buy both the morning and ‘evening’ papers in Cardiff at 7.30 a.m., and in Aberdare half an hour later, is there any valid reason for stocking both?
My primary grievance, however, is that the fundamental nature of the ‘reference library’ has changed beyond recognition.
Libraries have, of course, always been havens for lonely old men seeking a bit of warmth and comfort – and maybe even a couple of hours’ shut-eye – in the guise of ‘reading the papers’.
However, the daily meetings of Aberdare’s unofficial Debating Society have lately begun to dominate proceedings, to the increasing annoyance of serious students and researchers like myself and others. Our Debating Society is never going to outshine OUDS, though. It’s a loose group of a dozen or so older men who treat the library as a social centre. They used to gather every morning around a table in the magazine section, from where they could pontificate on the Great Matters of the Day in repetitive droning monologues. At first, my regular Facebook updates about Horse Racing Bore, Motorcycle Bore, Robot Man, the Ancient Mariner et al amused my friends and acted as a safety valve. It was only by satirising them that I managed to contain my anger.
But the joke soon wore thin. Once these people realised that they could take an inch – that they would be allowed to chunter on for hours, at full volume, without any member of staff asking them to keep their voices down – they proceeded to take a mile. They staked out their little table every day and bored the rest of us rigid with ill-informed rants about the benefits system, bus timetables, ‘current affairs’, immigration, and all those fascinating topics which are usually the preserve of afternoon drinkers.
Young people saw this as an open invitation to play loud music on the public PCs and use their mobile phones, or else chat loudly about failed relationships, criminal records, drug deals and so forth, using the sort of language which also belongs in the saloon bars.
As an experiment I recently took to bringing headphones to the library. Even with the music on my laptop turned up to levels which would make an audiologist blanch, the background noise still won out.
The library, it seemed, was becoming simply a cheap alternative to the Prince of Wales. The town’s elderly bores could gather every day and loudly put the world to rights without having to stand a round of drinks. At the same time, youngsters used it as a glorified cybercafe, but without having to fork out for coffee every half an hour.
Consequently, those of us who wished to work in (relative) peace retreated into the stacks, away from the daylight and the fresh air, and where there are precious few 240V outlets for laptops.
And then we didn’t even have the stacks to ourselves. Once the new school had opened and the Lower Girls School was sold off, the adult education classes found themselves homeless. Current provision for non-vocational adult education is limited to a couple of language classes, a local history class and a creative writing group. Naturally, the perfect home for these would be the ‘meeting room’ – or so everyone thought.
The problem is that it’s too small for more than about eight people at a time to work comfortably, so they had to invade the stacks instead. There are just two tables: one long table around which a dozen or so people can sit without encroaching on each other’s space; and a smaller table around which three people can work comfortably – maybe four at a squeeze, assuming two of them aren’t using laptops.
It is around this first table that the Spanish, creative writing and local history groups gather for two hours a week apiece. In reality, they start to drift in about half an hour beforehand, to chat about life in the week since they’ve last met. Then they drift away at the end of each session, happily picking up where they left off. This means that for approximately eight hours a week the smaller table is effectively out of commission; there is no way to get any work done when the classes are in full flow.
The final straw was laid last week, when the increasingly misnamed ‘reference’ section was revamped yet again. This was as a direct result of a fall sustained by an elderly gentleman – one of the more pleasant regulars, who fortunately also remembers the reason why libraries were built in the first place. In order to reduce the risk of any future accidents, it was decided that the low partition between the Debating Society’s HQ and the main part of the floor should be removed. It never served any useful purpose anyway, except to house the bound history journals, but it acted as a psychological barrier between them and the rest of us.
(It is to be hoped that some elderly playgoer doesn’t suffer a fall inside the Coliseum one evening. Would RCTCBC employ similar panic measures and rip out a dozen rows of seats? Or would they bite the bullet and close the place entirely?)
Then some bright spark decided to remove the table from the former magazine section.
‘It looks more modern like this,’ I was told when I commented on the change last week.
Yes, it does.
In fact, it now looks like the lounge of a day centre for the elderly – which, I fear, is what the ‘reference’ library is rapidly becoming. At the current rate of change, I half-expect to walk in there after the Whitsun bank holiday and find two dozen pensioners gathered around a widescreen TV with the volume turned up to 11, watching Bargain Hunt and sipping cups of lukewarm tea.
Robbed of a table around which they can gather, the Debating Society have now made their way into the stacks. Here they can spread out their papers and drone on relentlessly about their limited areas of interest, while the few of us attempting to use the library for its intended purpose give up any attempt at study and head for the exits.
On Friday afternoon, in fact, I had to ask two elderly gentlemen if they wouldn’t mind wrapping up. A mature student and I were trying to work at the next table, while they discoursed loud and long about supermarket prices, glasses and rugby teams. After an hour, I decided it was time to intervene. I kept my tone reasonable but firm; anyone would have sworn I’d asked them each to give me one of their kidneys. Next time, I won’t be so polite. I know a fair number of young people, and they’ve taught me a word or two which might come in handy.
I freely admit that I no longer talk in a whisper when I’m in the library. After all, it seems hardly worth trying to conceal a fart in the teeth of a stiff gale. But if one of my friends calls in, we at least have the common courtesy to leave and continue our conversation over a cup of coffee or a pint. I seriously doubt, however, that I shall hitherto be visiting the library as often (at least three days out of five most weeks) following this latest development.
When the magazines dried up, there was a public consultation in which many library users (myself included) took part. There was a more recent public consultation about which daily ‘news’paper should be propped up with public money. I submitted my views to that one as well.
I must have missed the public consultation which asked whether library users would be happy to see the entire first floor turned into an overspill area for St Mair’s Day Centre.
In future I shall probably spend more time at the University of South Wales, where they still remember old-fashioned concepts like Books, Reference Materials and Silent Study Areas.
It is to be hoped that when the new library at Pontypridd opens at least one of these quaint traditions can be revived. Having said that, if trends continue, RCTCBC Libraries will consist of a couple of dozen obsolescent PCs, the complete works of James Patterson, and three corpses sitting around the previous day’s Daily Express while the staff wonder why they’ve gone so quiet.

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 …