‘I’m worried, there’s a generation of young people, some around thirty, who have never had a job in their life. And what’ll happen when they get older, and these people retire then? There’ll be no-one to do the jobs, cos they won’t have the skills.’
– talk at the Miner’s Institute, Blackwood.
I wake up in Aberdare, a little tired after another late night writing and trying to catch up with emails. Sleep deprivation’s dragging over many days, and the recent journeys have pushed my abilities, covering the most miles and steep hills in recent days. Fatigue I can deal with, but the slow starts are hard. There’s not enough time in the day for all the things I am trying to do. It’s not simply writing what’s happened, but arranging the different places I’ll be staying over the coming weeks, as well as keeping up with the modern dance of emails and their replies. Cut away meetings and emails, and what would remain of the activities of the average workplace?
I awake at Bethan’s in Aberdare, surrounded by a Mulder and Scully cut-out, an FBI jacket and a treasure trove of X-files and other sci-fi and fantasy fan ephemera. The previous night I’d heard a woman crying to herself in the night as she walked along the street, and this part of Aberdare is a place I’d like to know more of. I’ve been able to wash and dry my clothes at least.
Bethan is extraordinarily hard-working, capable of carrying out two very different and difficult jobs more or less at the same time. By night she’s a PhD researcher, continually producing articles and collected journals on fan studies, particularly sci-fi and fantasy. She has an excellent collection of sci-fi board game adaptations which her and a mutual friend have just completed an edited journal exploring. And by day she helps organise Wales’ Work for Skills Programme, a kind of skills Olympics in which young people in all manner of trades, from flower-arranging to carpentry, compete at local, national and then international level to be recognised as the best in their field. I’m surprised not to have heard it before, and beneath the competition is a running campaign and series of events that celebrates and encourages vocational skills, recognising excellence in ways other than a university degree, an expensive accomplishment so little in the long-term interests of those that earn them. I think it’s to be warmly encouraged. It’s a scheme also highly dependent on the European Social Fund. Were the UK to leave the European Union and achieve its dreams of being the foremost tax haven in the world, then not only would so many farmers lose their livelihoods, but much else that supports and enriches ordinary people’s lives too.
After breakfast I say goodbye to Bethan, Loki and Milo, her cats. Bethan drives to work, and I attempt to fix the back wheel. There are more problems than I realised. The wheel will not align at all, and goes awry after fixing it right. The back brake is now springing against the wheel, meaning that the brake pad drags against the wheel at all times, making it hard to ride. Again it’s hard to tell when this began, but it probably kicked in sometime yesterday, making that hill even more of a struggle than it needed to be. After about 45 minutes in the street I realise I’m getting nowhere. I pop down to the Jubilee café for a quick bite and use of the loo. I’m told about the community here, the friendly welcomes everyone gives. I’m enjoying the Valleys, generally a warm and friendly place, and despite the tough and rough and ready appearance, largely safe. There’s little immediate beauty to the cramped housing and small town centres, but look deeper, the treasure’s in the people here, in the welcome and the banter.
I cycle down to Aberdare where there’s a bike shop, I’m told. There’s a statue here to Griffith Rhys Jones, or ‘Caradog’ as he was known, a local blacksmith who conducted a 460-strong mail choir to national success in the late 19th century, a local hero of the choral tradition. Behind him stands the shut-up remains of the Black Lion, once a coaching inn, then a post office, and even a tax office, before returning to being a pub, and now… Caught in between times and purposes, Aberdare’s industrial heritage and pride seems lost in time, unable to recollect the animation that powered and sustained the town in its dirtier, earlier expansion.
There’s a couple of curious features about this small town, with a refreshing number of independent shops on its small but bustling high street, and a cenotaph designed by Lutyens. Mark in Dare Valley Cycles takes a look, and spots that the cones are loose, a concept I’ve not come across and which I have no tools to repair. He fixes these and the brakes and refuses money at all, such excellent service. Local people pop in and out, talk to him, and ask about bikes. His prices are very cheap, and I warmly encourage people to take a look. Aberdare’s a friendly little place, though the abundance of young to middle-aged people milling around and talking in the street on a Monday morning suggests a higher than average degree of unemployment. I tell Mark of my plans to head to Blackwood, and he gives me a funny look. ‘Why would you want to go there?’
Well, as I told him in the shop, and as I remind myself as I cycle down through Mountain Ash towards Ystrad Mynach, the Manic Street Preachers grew up in the former mining town here and the places around it, and used to meet in Dorothy’s café in the town, a place which later sold their first record, Suicide Alley, and which is now a Halifax bank. They drew on international influences like Neruda, Che Guevara, but combined with a radicalised and impatient working-class intelligence, in songs like the ‘Masses against the classes’. Bevan lived in the nearby mining village of Tredegar, and the Valleys were once radicalised bastions of working class pride and confidence, in a similar though different manner to Liverpool. Consider the significance of their 5th single, Motorcycle Emptiness, released in June 1992. ‘A six minute song about alienation and despair’, Nicky Wire has it, one that uses the motifs of biker culture to identify and attack the transformation of youth culture into another sales opportunity for capitalism:
‘Life lies a slow suicide
Orthodox dreams and symbolic myths
From feudal serf to spender
This wonderful world of purchase power’.
The lines are clipped and become memorable only really in their delivery, where the ellipsis of certain phrases tends to make the listener hear different words being spoken to those recorded. It’s remarkable to think that a song with lines like ‘Your joys are counterfeit, this happiness corrupt political shit’ made to the number 17 in the British charts, or became huge in Japan, but then again, behind the angry rejection of complacent pop is a fairly conventional-sounding slow rock swagger, guitar solos, and relative predictability of structure.
The journey to Blackwood passes through some small village-town settlements with names utterly unpronounceable like Ystrad Mynach and Maesycwmmr. Along the busy road I pass all manner of road debris, from shoes and baseball caps, ossified animals, one sun-dried rotten rabbit that looks like a crumpled paper bag, and at least three smashed fenders from separate car accidents. It’s slightly uphill reaching it, but well worth the detour. The town doesn’t seem to be suffering from any obvious economic malaise. There’s a bustling high street with many high street chains represented, as well as around three or four independent caffs, a real rarity. I cycle through the busy shopping parade towards the Miner’s Institute, built by one mining company out of deductions from miner’s wages, a paternalistic gesture. There were many of these built around the industrial valleys, though few survive one now. There’s another I plan to see near Cardiff, preserved in a kind of aspic, but what about this one?
I’m told inside by a friendly retired local woman staffing the reception that there was a reading room and library, and the concert hall, also used as a ballroom and for other functions. The mine in Blackwood closed in 1984 following the Miner’s Strike. Today it’s a small theatre and arts centre, showing a mix of small stand-up comedy, travelling wrestling shows, horror and local kitchen-sink dramas marking in different ways the thirtieth centenary of the Miners’ Strike. Outside, the venue is advertising ‘Velvet Coalmine’, a festival of music about coal, with the Manics’ connection to Blackwood obviously prominent. The lady tells me that James Dean Bradyfield and Nikki Wire still come back to the town and see family, but their homecoming concern a couple of years ago was ‘a bit too difficult’ for the small venue, unused to concerts. The BBC distributed tickets, and I get the impression that locals were disappointed to have had no favourable treatment. In the nearby Blackwood Little Theatre back on the 4th October 1986, there was a full-scale riot between football and rugby fans and local punks and goths at the Manics’ third ever gig. Their frontman James Dean Bradfield took pleasure in winding them up, lifting his shirt to reveal ‘I am sex’ written on his chest, capturing the arrogance and self-importance of the band on the one, but what I take as an admirably heroic, piss-taking, intellectual vandalism of political and social clichés. The police were called out and many arrested. I feel disappointed that there’s no commemorative plaque.
Other Miners’ Institutes were demolished or used to new purposes after the mines closed (‘there was nothing after’), but this one was taken over by the council after being derelict for several years in the 1990s, and turned into an arts and drama theatre. Productions are still occasionally put on, and the room is used by various local organisations for its rooms for meetings and interviews.
We talk about employment. Blackwood has high unemployment and its direction is a little uncertain. There’s a large Asda outside and a large retail park to the left of the institute, something that’ll no doubt create McJobs and damage the bustling high-street (though it doesn’t seem to have been so successful yet). I ask her what might be done. She thinks that lowering the retirement age would force some professionals to leave and create spaces in middle to higher positions for younger people. I share my idea based on the Isle of Man, of creating high-tech factories that train and employ skilled local workers. I see it as key to developing a more skilled working population, keen to embrace new ideas and technologies, able to earn a sustainable high wage through international competition, profits shared cooperatively. But she tells me of the council’s vain attempts to woo local factories to the area. ‘They used to give out grants to set up here, employ a hundred people say. Once the grants ran out after a couple of years, the factory would close down and move on.’
She tells me of the Chartist history of the area, of the meetings in the nearby Red Lion pub, now boarded up, and of Chartist Bridge, a bypass recently built after strong local opposition – it destroyed ancient woodland simply in order to make it a little quicker to pass the town in the car. There is however a notable statue of a Chartist on the other side of the bridge.
I leave Blackwood after locating Dorothy’s, wandering down the high street nad getting some porridge from Greggs. I’m heading towards Cardiff, and choose to go via Caerphilly. I retrace the road back to Ynstrd and keep rolling down the road, a short distance, to Caerphilly. It’s a very small town with a small shopping centre. All that stands out is its castle, which is in fact huge and majestic, particularly the picturesque tumbled ruins of one tower. I wander up to the large grounds, around the moat, but the entrance is a little steep. One can climb one tower for free and pretend to be a paranoiac English longbowman looking out for roving Welsh militia sneaking by the surrounding houses and bushes.
I spot a cycling tourer trying to photograph his bike, one of the first I’ve seen wearing jeans (though light-to-heavy drizzle earlier, soaking). I offer to take his photo. His name is Celwyn, and he’s been touring around Europe and just coming back, and he shares his dream of finishing the year with a tour of the three peaks. He’s from Blackwood, and is again baffled but happy a stranger has chosen to pass through. He left the area to find work and settled in Leicester, though is coming back for the moment, having travelled a long while after quitting his job. He’s unsure what’s next. I hope to keep in touch and wish him well.
There’s a superb cycle route, good old Route 4, heading out of Caerphilly, which after winding through the back of the houses ends up on an old railway line, cutting right through the steep hill between Caerphilly and Cardiff which Celwyn warned me about. Wales truly has the best bicycle paths, nearly always clearly pointed, well maintained, usually tarmacked and on pleasant routes. I follow this lovely trail, eventually passing through a road to the village of Tongwynlais, then joining another cycle route, the Taff trail, along the river Taff. It’s a lovely ride through parkland by the river, rarely busy at all, I follow it a long while, past the Cardiff rugby club, sign that I am nearly there, and eventually reaching a park that approaches Cardiff Castle.
There are large metal gates and police barring access. The NATO summit is on here and the city has been in a kind of lockdown garrison for nearly two weeks, all for one three hour lunch at the castle. I cannot get further and must take a diversion round, bringing me by the law courts, a road towards the centre divided by a thick metal rail, and filled with platoons of police motorbikes and wandering cops. Judging by their vans they’ve come from all over the UK. I hear and see police from Cumbria, Merseyside and Thames Valley, and who knows where else. I’m later told the cost of all this is around £140 million.
Cardiff’s a surprisingly small town, and its centre is a little uncentred. Perhaps it’s marked by the large castle, with its one peculiar tower and open expanse of green inside. Entrance is steep so I turn back, watching the crowds in the now afternoon sun, before passing into the centre. There’s a huge shopping precinct built in the last four years, St. David’s, filled with familiar shops. I spy a statue to Aneuran Bevan and John Batchelor, ‘the friend of freedom’, and hear buskers and watch people stroll or sit. I pass through the precinct, its John Lewis and other structures easily could be found in Liverpool, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester, even reminiscent of Bury. I filter through, and take a busy road towards the docks.
Police security is everywhere, with strange black military helicopters patrolling the skies. There’s the BBC Cymru building on one side, and the Doctor Who experience nearby. There’s little sign of the docks’ old usage, typically enough. There’s the golden front of the Millennium Centre, and the modest aspirations of the Welsh Assembly. A large funfair sits in Roald Dahl place, and by the Norwegian church and a statue commemorating the Antartic explorers that looks like an ice cream. I sit and eat tortilla wraps with beans, watching the helicopters and hordes of bored police. Most are friendly, and the air is lethargic. The imposing red-brick gothic of the Victorian Pierhead Building stands amongst these glassy and brash spectacles like a disapproving parent, its self-important clocktower reflecting the urgencies and vanities of another era of capitalism past. Nearby too is the old Coal Exchange, now derelict but once a prosperous place where the first million pound cheque was signed, and more recently a music venue. I look around the Millennium Centre before cycling back up towards the centre, along an eerily empty stretch with some newbuild housing and trees that almost aim to cover up the earth-bound walker from seeing the emptiness around. Tons of boring and ugly blocks of flats.
I wander along St Mary Street, popular with hen and stag dos at the weekend, a Walkabout, Wetherspoons and various tacky pubs here. I go into Kitty Flynns, a run-down looking Irish boozer which catches my eye. Over a pint of Brain’s stout I talk to the barmaid, a local Cardiff girl, about the town, about the Nato summit, about growing up in a place where friends and family bind you, and the details of places do not. It’s a sociable enough city, though the pub’s empty. She tells me about the large number of homeless people here, a problem more of alcohol than drugs (though this is a big issue here and in the surrounding towns).
I leave and cycle back through the centre towards Roach Park, where I’m staying with Hanni and Sebo who I met through the couchsurfing website. Sebo opens the door and I’m greeted by their enthusiastic dog, Ropo. Sebo’s a photographer, and their smart spacious apartment is filled with curious images. I’m quickly made at home, and told more about the costs, extent and unpopularity of the Nato summit security. Hanni’s a PhD student and gets in later. Money’s a struggle. We cycle out to Lidl to get some veg for a basic curry and rice. We cook and prepare the meal together, and talk about travelling.
Sebo once lived for two months along in the mountains of Chile, entirely on his own, and sustained largely by hunting and foraging. ‘For the first three weeks I missed my bed, the warmth. Then I got used to it and started to like it. I fetched wood for the fire, cooked meat, fished. I brought a lot of books. I was just on my own, didn’t see anyone.’ He was taught by an uncle to catch rabbits near their shit, and learnt how to create a fire, fish and other things I do not, and which do impress me. For much of the time, he says, he never wore any clothes. No-one knew of this valley and he never saw another soul during that time. ‘Why did you return?’, I ask, realising the heroic (if heroically mad) accomplishment of his own freedom. He had a course to start back in the city, and accommodation arranged. The adjustment from that to normality wasn’t that hard, he found. They’ve returned to that part of Chile since, Hanni and Sebo together, and it’s where they later got married.
We talk about drugs legalisation, doing a PhD, and good organisations in the city, like Punk Bikes and Food not Bombs food kitchen. We’re all politically liberal, and I ask them why no left-wing organisation has tried running a large-scale, politicised soup kitchen or homeless advisory service? I think of the community work of the Black Panthers in the United States. They’re unsure. Whilst groups of political radicals meet to discuss and produce small and obscure publications, it’s Christian Churches that have stepped in to assist the poor and subtly insert their messages of submission and redemption. Over beer and wine, then chocolate, we talk, then I stay up writing until even later than I have before, and eventually get some sleep in their comfortable place, among friendly newly made in a city that has something about it, not a charm, but something ineluctably there, in the air, in the step of its feet. I’ll seek out more in the morning.