2022 is the 40th anniversary of what would prove to be a pivotal year in my life and work. As though in unconscious recognition of this annus mirabilis, I, John, on the first day of the sixth month of the one thousandth, nine hundredth, and eighty-second Year of Our Lord, began writing a diary. The practice has been maintained, intermittently, ever since. (See: ‘My Diaries’ and ‘My Diary (July 16, 2014 – September 4, 2018)’.) In the absence of any accompanying narrative, photographs, and aural recordings, the first half of that year is preserved in only a handful of memories. Only a few things of import happened to me between January and the end of May. Having graduated the year before, I was now living in Cardiff, wondering what to do next in my life, poor, following Jocasta Innes’ life-saving The Pauper’s Cookbook (1971), surviving on offal bought from the butchers on Albany Road at the close of Saturday trading, and rarely travelling other than to my parents’ home in Abertillery for an occasional weekend’s respite, decent meals, and periods when I’d draw in the landscape.
It was the coldest January in a hundred years. I remember trudging through thick snow to the milk depot on City Road, because the delivery vans couldn’t get supplies to the local stores. Since November 1981, I’d been gainfully employed as a graphic designer by the owner of a central heating company in Abertillery; he wanted to ‘branch out’ into areas of business about which he knew absolutely nothing. John Selway, who’d taught me painting at art school in Newport, Monmouthshire and also heralded from Abertillery, had been commissioned by this small-time entrepreneur (for reasons that I never understood) to draw designs for button badges, letter-headings, and business cards. John — no doubt in order to extricate himself from the obligation — recommended me as someone who could undertake the job too. The working arrangement was flexible, the wage kept body and soul together and the Department of Health and Social Security off my back, and the habit of ideating, composing, and drawing prevented me from getting blunt as an artist.
Alongside, I drew the landscape around my home town and worked on a stained-glass window design for a newly built Brethren chapel in Caerleon, Monmouthshire. My graduation exhibition had comprised mainly paintings of Ebbw Fach. Now, however, the vision and the poetry of that place deserted me; all I could perceive was its topography. The Brethren congregation decided that, in the end, a plain-glass window would be a cheaper and more serviceable option. I was paid for the work already undertaken, and that was that. It was around that time that my ambition to undertake an MA in fine art began to crystallise. (I had to get myself out of this en passe.) On an overcast day in March, I caught the bus from Cardiff to Ammanford and from there to Aberystwyth in order to attend an interview at the Visual Art Department on Llanbadarn Road. (The building, which was formerly a dairy, is now the site of the Gorwelion Day Hospital.) That journey changed the trajectory of my life.
Having been offered a place on the full-time, 2-year postgraduate degree, I proceeded to seek funds for my tuition and subsistence. After a good many disappointments and frustrations over the next seven months, the money was eventually procured at the latter end of the eleventh hour — just five days before the (then) University College of Wales, Aberystwyth’s academic year was about to begin. (This had been the greatest trial of my faith up until then.) The renewed sense of direction, along with the anticipation of what a return to education might bring with it, provided a necessary fillip to my days from then on. We cannot live only in and for the present; we must have hope. And hope always points to something that we expect to take place at some point in the future. Thus, hope is never to hand; never visible (as the Apostle Paul believed).
The end of the Falklands War on June 14 did not receive as much as a passing mention in my diary. I recall, in the months leading up to it, discussing with my house mates — over a rare evening meal together — whether the UK Government would initiate a draft. Would the Malvinas be our country’s Vietnam, we wondered? Throughout June I made weekly trips (weather permitting) to Blaenavon, to draw Big Pit. This had been a working mine for over a hundred years. After it closed, the (then) National Museum of Wales took charge of the site and opened it to the public in 1983. The drawing had been commissioned by the ‘small-time entrepreneur’ with a view of selling prints of it to the Museum. That ambition didn’t come to pass. Nevertheless, he paid well for the artwork. (But I vowed never again to make art for a central heating company.)
The discipline of sitting in the landscape for a whole day, exposed to driving wind and rain, with only the prospect of a thermos of tea and cheese sandwich for comfort, prepared me for the challenges that I’d face when I began drawing and painting in Aberystwyth.
In anticipation of my relocation to Aberystwyth, I quit Cardiff at the end of July and moved-in with my parents. During my time away at art school and Cardiff, I had changed and my parents had changed, but we’d not changed together. Each of us was struggling politely and for different reasons with the reunion. My father made been made unemployed following the closure of the Dunlop Semtex rubber factory in Brynmawr, a year earlier. He was only 52 years of age, but unlikely to get another job in the locality. His health and wellbeing were also deteriorating due to not only the loss of that routine which had previously structured his life and given him an identity but also a heart problem that would eventually take his life a decade later. My mother supported them both by working as a local library assistant. She also had to cope with an increasingly frail and periodically hospitalised father and worry about an only child (on whom all her hopes and aspirations rested) who’d no obvious career trajectory. The strain of those years, I suspect, contributed to the onset of cancer, which claimed her life in 1987.
I arrived at Aberystwyth on September 26. (With the exception of the period from 1985 to 1986, when I returned to Cardiff, I’ve remained in the town ever since.) My decision to apply to the university was predicated on a desire to study the history of art in Wales (for which the resources of the National Library of Wales would be essential) and learn more about colour theory and abstraction from David Tinker. He was, then, Director of the Visual Art Department. David was a good teacher in that ‘hands-off’ way so typical of practice-based pedagogues at the time. He challenged me in ways that he’d probably not have been aware of. For example, at the conclusion of one tutorial David made the off-hand remark that, in his experience, many of the students he’d taught from the South Wales art schools (of whom I was one) rarely pursued a particular course of action to its logical conclusion. They lacked commitment. Henceforth, I determined to prove to him that I was an exception to the rule. David also held the opinion that I was far too shy ever to be an art teacher. I determined to prove him wrong in that respect, too.
Once I’d been ensconced as a university student (an identity that I never thought could be realised, given my appalling secondary school qualifications), I headed for the hills. The prospect from Constitution Hill looking eastwards over the town recalled the structural configuration of a view of Abertillery, as seen from mountainside above Warm Turn (as it was called) in the south if the valley. Thus, I immediately felt at home in a strange land.
Personally, 1982 was a period of considerable emotional intensity and vacillation. I ran hot and cold, and wanted certainty, clarity, and a sense of direction (where there was none to be found). At times, I knew only anxiety, tiredness, confusion, and a failure to maintain consistency. In short, I didn’t know what I either wanted or needed. I tended to be righteous over much, hard-line, self-condemnatory, uptight, insecure, inflexible, condemnatory, unsure of myself, socially awkward, right in my own sight, over-tired, and easily discouraged. In that year, I reached the final and painful phase of what had seemed to me to have been a protracted adolescence. Since then, I’ve come someway in rectifying a number of these deficits, and added others to the list.
Forty years later, I’ve now reached the end of the arc of my commitment to university education — one that had started in March 1982, when I first travelled to Aberystwyth. Presently, I’m within a semester’s reach of early retirement. The last two years of my employment have coincided with the most challenging period in the university’s history and my teaching career. This isn’t how I anticipated that it would end. Nevertheless, the experience has been both enriching and humbling. I’ve witnessed the extraordinary hard work, self sacrifice, and imaginative care of the School’s staff, and marvelled at its students’ tenacity, creative problem solving, strength of character, and determination to make something worthwhile against the odds. The worst of times has brought out the best in the best.