Summa: diary (May 15-24, 2022)

May 15.

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the series of lockdowns that began in 2020, closed churches for public worship and created, of necessity, remote congregations (collectively, larger in number than those that’d previously sat in the pews). This ‘new order’ also drew-in an audience that would’ve otherwise never considered crossing the threshold of a church building. It also allowed regular attendees of a particular local church an opportunity to see beyond the doors of others, situated almost anywhere in the world — if they were broadcasting on either Zoom or YouTube. St James’s Church, Piccadilly in London is one that has served as online alternative during the height of the pandemic and subsequently. Latterly, I’ve thrown in my lot with the congregation and joined the Electoral Roll for the parish of Westminster. Given the physical distance between where I am and where they are, this may seem like an absurd decision. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel like the wrong one. There’re times when some thing, event, place, person, or time may appear to us to be both distant and immediate, simultaneously. St James’s Church — the building — is a case in point. It was designed by Christopher Wren, and consecrated in 1684 (338 years ago). And yet, as they say, ‘here it is’ — in the present: a fully-operational example of top-draw ecclesiastical architecture. The church also boasts a magnificent woodcarving, which frames the reredos, made by Grinling Gibbons in 1684.

19 May. 1.30 pm: I took the train from Aberystwyth to Newport, Gwent, at the beginning of a four-day stay in the ‘old pastures’. When I was studying for my PhD Art History in the late 1980s and early 90s, I’d regularly travel at this time, on a Wednesday, to Cardiff, where I stayed with friends overnight, before taking up my duties as an art history tutor at my former art school in Newport the following day. I’d quite forgotten how long the journey took. En route, I began reading Robert Atkins’s autobiographical book Abertillery Kid. He’s two days younger than me. We went through school together, from beginning to end. He was the better man; Robert had an agile intelligence, a broad range of competences, and considerable musical gifts.  I equalled him only in our respective incompetence in sport. But I was the Best Man at his wedding. We rarely kept in contact after he was married. It was just one of those things.

7.00 pm: Mark Williams is a local artist. He was two years behind me in art school at Newport, when we were both studying for our BA (Hons.) Fine Art degree. We meet for dinner and discussion every time I’m in town. He’s someone who, by his own admission, was failed by the art school education system. In those days, students who weren’t seen to push at the boundaries of Late-Modernism were actively penalised when it came to their final degree classification. Quite appalling. When I became Head of the School of Art, I was determined to develop a non-discriminatory culture of education. Students, I believe, ought to have the liberty and encouragement to engage and develop art’s past, as much as its contemporary, expressions. The School has maintained that conviction ever since.

May 21. 8.45 am. I walked along the banks of the River Usk towards my old art school at Clarence Place. This is my habitual pilgrimage of respect when I visit the town. Along the way, I was heartened to see a supermarket trolley sunk into the mud. Thus ‘it was, is now, and ever has been’, a Newport tradition.

10.20 am: Later, I travelled to Llanhilleth. At Pyle Corner (where I changed for the Ebbw Vale-bound train), I met a man who’d, that morning, driven a car that’d been bought in Canterbury to the purchaser, who lives in this area. He was returning to London. The proprietor of the pub/hotel that I was staying at greeted me with a hug. (I’d been here several times before.) She has a lovely heart, and arranged for one of her regular customers to drive me to Abertillery. The accommodation has been transformed, very recently. I could still smell the paint in my bedroom.  And the pub now sports a bistro; (pronounced: ‘beestror’, in this part of the world).

12.30 pm: Abertillery, for its part, now sports five new barber shops within as many yards of each other (or so it seemed), along with four pouch parlours, and various agencies that provide drop-in help and support for those who’re struggling at this time. Other businesses have closed within weeks of opening. Many of the long-established shops are now boarded up too. The town’s identity has changed gradually but comprehensively since the time that I lived there. A certain dignity has disappeared along with it.

I met my old school friend and former band mate Andrew at a local eatery. In less than four hours, his band would be strutting their stuff at The Met, as one of the acts contributing to the Abertillery Rock & Blues Festival 2022. The event has been reconvened after a two-year suspension during the pandemic. I’d not been to a concert there since the early 1970s, when I heard either the Cory Band or Black Dyke Mills Band — two of the finest brass ensembles in the world. On a Saturday morning, back then, the ground floor of the theatre was occupied by an indoor food market, where my father brought sprats from a lovely woman named Sylvia.

It was during the festival that I met Robert Atkins (far right) again, after over 40 years. He greeted me with: ‘As I was saying … !’ What a wonderful ice breaker. We got into the old groove of conversation without any difficulty — shouting questions and answers in one another’s ears as the opening act played (very loudly). I can think of very few people who’ve been out of my life for so long.  Being confronted by the cumulative change, wrought by four decades of lived experience, to the character and appearance of another was, I imagine, as uniquely unnerving and exhilarating for him as it was for me.

7.30 pm: In the early evening, I walked down one side then up the other, then down that side and up the other side again, of what’s known locally as Llanhilleth hill. Although you’ll not find that name on a map. (It’s actually called Ty Bryn Hill.) Many places around here (as elsewhere, I imagine) have many names. My accommodation is variously known as the Llanhilleth Hotel, the Rugby Club (which it isn’t), and the Top hotel (because it’s situated at the summit of the hill). Not that there’s any other hotel in the valley. Dogs bark suddenly, fiercely, and out-of-the-blue at anyone on the pavement. Their owners, on the other hand, make an effort to lean over the garden wall and ask ‘How are you, then?’ to passers-by. It’s hardly possible to cross the path of anyone in the street without being acknowledged with an ‘Alright, butty!?’ from a complete stranger who act as though they’ve known you for years. I miss those warm and familial courtesies.

On turning to sleep, later, the singer from the pub band on the floor below my room gave a passable rendering of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for solo voice. Usually, it’s only drunks who attempt this.

May 22. The bistro/breakfast room looks like a provincial French café. The local buses don’t begin operating until 11.30 am on a Sunday. So, at 9.45 am, I decided to walk the 3.1 miles to Abertillery. I arrived there in just over an hour. At Aberbeeg I took a photograph of the village for Mr Fripp, whose mother once lived there. He was delighted.

Having crossed the Abertillery town boundary, I took sustenance at a local eatery. Afterwards, I walked across the Foundry Bridge (that straddles the two sides of the valley upon which the town is built) to Gladstone Street and, finally, Diamond Jubilee Terrace, where my parents had lived from their early years of marriage until they died. On this occasion, I didn’t visit the old house. I no longer either want or need to. I asked myself: ‘If a child from the town were to ask me: “What should I do?”, then, how would I answer them?’ I’d probably tell them the same as my parents had strongly advised me: ‘Get out of here, if you can!’.

There was a blue-plaque memorial on the community garden wall dedicated to the artist John Selway, who’d taught me in art school. The recognition was apposite.

12.45 pm: I walked the road back to Llanhilleth. 2.15 pm: My cousin’s husband, Phil, picked me up in his car from my hotel. They’re the only family that I’ve left in this valley. Ann has served as family historian for my father’s line for decades. She has the intelligence, passion, intuition, and vision of a scholar. Had circumstances and opportunities permitted, she should’ve studied history at university. But, like most working-class women her age back in the 1970s, she had no choice other than to find employment in local factories.

I recorded our conversation while we examined the family photographs and documents that Ann has collected over the years. She has the capacity to make past/passed family members vivid once again. Ann showed me the only extant photograph of my paternal grandfather dressed as a coal miner (left). He was then working in a colliery lamp room. Later in life, Trevor got an evening job as a cinema projectionist in order to supplement the desultory wage that he received while working at the pit. That was news to me. Grampa, as I used to call him, was a strong advocate for social equality, and vehemently hated poverty; which is why he voted communist.

My father’s and Ann’s family had its fair share of black sheep and eccentrics too (mercifully): a great uncle who was a drunkard and a womaniser, a great great uncle who stole military epaulettes and pretended to be an army major, a flamboyant wife who spent too much of her husband’s salary, those who voted Tory (and should’ve known better), and my Auntie Rosie, who was decidedly odd in her dotage but looked, in her youth, like Juliette Binoche.

I handed over the family weapon to Ann: my paternal great grandfather’s pistol. Trevor John Harvey was a police sergeant at the Abertillery constabulary. According to family lore, he’d bought it in order to arrest a gang of dangerous crooks who’d set up camp on the Arael Mountain, overlooking the town. Hopefully, the gun will be deposited in the Abertillery & District Museum.

The voices of those (with exception of my father) portrayed in the photographs were never captured. That dimension of their being and presence has gone forever. Most families didn’t have access to sound recording equipment as they had to a camera. And even when they did, few possessed the presence of mind to document themselves and their loved ones. That would’ve required a sophisticated grasp of the relationship between identity and posterity that only an audio-ethnographer possesses, usually.

7.45 pm: I ate a mediocre Chinese takeaway for dinner. The hotel proprietor had laid a place for me in advance. What a thoughtful gesture.

May 23. Leaving. Leaving the valley and my history behind. Time to move on, and to move on in time. Every time I leave I make a vow I’ll never keep — never to return. (There’s song lyric in there, somewhere.) So much of that which was is now no longer. Attraction and repulsion have been twin principles that, like binary stars, have orbited one another with respect to many of my passions and commitments in life. My emotional connection to my first home is a case in point. One moment it’s elevating and the next, stultifying. (I’m reminded of why there was no option other than to get out, all those years ago.) While I’ve always anticipated my visits home with relish, I’ve never regretted departing. I suspect that I suffer from an inverse separation anxiety, in this respect; that’s to say, I’m irrationally fearful (as I had been as a teenager) that I won’t be able to extricate myself from this place.  

10.49 am: I took the train from Llanhilleth to Newport with an elderly couple who’d not been on one since before the first lockdown. The Newport to Shrewsbury train was cancelled due to an ‘operational incident’. I was rerouted to Aberystwyth via Birmingham New Street, and told that I’d get to my destination two hours later than scheduled. (At least there’s the prospect of a full refund as compensation.) I arrived home at around 7.20 pm, feeling as though I’d been away a lifetime.

May 24. 8.30 am: Enthused and in praise of my pals’ performance two days ago, I paeaned:

Blind Man’s Bluff performance at Saturday’s Abertillery Rock & Blues festival in The Metropole was a blast. I’d waited a long time to see the band live, and wasn’t disappointed. They held the stage and the audience’s attention throughout the set. The songs, composed by Andrew Price principally, were tight, succinct, and disciplined in their conception, arrangement, and delivery. Good to know that the band is going to lay-down some of this material soon. Go and hear them.

1.20 pm: The CD of Seven Prayers for Stephen Chilton: Requiem arrived on my doorstep, courtesy of Mr Garrett. It will be available for purchase from the middle of June. The revenue will be donated to a men’s mental health awareness charity.

The sixth release in the Aural Bible series — Penallta Colliery: Sound Pictures –– will go into production in early June, and be available for purchase in July.

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