Summa: diary (November 6-10, 2023)

‘Remember this!’ [again] (May 13, 2023).

November 6 (Monday). 8.00 am: Studylogy. A review of the week ahead (and its preparations); then, on with the track descriptors. After much consultation with those who’ve the expertise, I’ve received a Welsh translation of the album’s title, Spirit Communication: ‘Negeseuon o’r Tu Draw’ [messages from beyond/the other side]. It’s a dynamic rather than a formal equivalence. Rarely can the nuances and ambiguities of a concept in one language be fully rendered in another.

9.30 am: Dai ‘the Greek’, the electrician, turned up to replace a thermostat and light. He has a utility belt that would make Batman blush — a veritable wearable toolbox. But it found it difficult to manoeuvre through the house without dragging objects off table tops and clattering against the banister uprights.

A morning of writing; an afternoon of building (ending with an ambulation across the Promenade as the sun dipped below the horizon); and an evening watching a live-stream presentation from St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London, on dying and palliative care.

November 7 (Tuesday). A dismal night’s sleep. A symptom of old age, apparently. 8.15 am: Studiology. I was determined to complete the visual furniture for the Spirit Communication website before elevenses. 11.00 am: Job done! On to the bench, and the implementation of a revised Pedalboard I layout. Thirteen years experience of building pedalboards has taught me to test the whole system every time a new effector is added to the chain. There’s nothing quite so dispiriting as joining them all together and switching on, only to discover that no sound emerges at the end of the signal path, and there’s no way of finding out where the fault lies without disconnecting each effector in reverse order. Or, far worse: there’s sound but, in addition, a mysterious and wholly unacceptable 50 MHz hum in the system.

I’m a fan of Danny Robins’s series Uncanny, which I first followed as a podcast on BBC Sound. Latterly, the program has migrated to BBC iPlayer. Several of the case stories refer to domestic light bulbs that suddenly explode — signifying the activity of an irate supernatural entity. Back in 1999, I had a similar experience. A professional photographer and I visited the home of the coalminer and painter, Cyril Ifold (1922-86). He was one of a number of artists from the South Wales coal fields included in my curated exhibition entitled Miner Artists: The Art of Welsh Coal Workers (2000). We’d been invited by his widow to select and photograph works from her collection, which she lovingly curated in the front room of a small bungalow. As we discussed her late husband around the dining table, the light bulb above our heads issued a loud ‘pop’ and scattered thin shards of glass over everything below. ‘He’s here!’ He’s listening!’, she remarked calmly (as though such manifestations of his presence were a regular occurrence).

Cyril Ifold, Cwmtwrch (mid-1950s) oil on board (courtesy of Y Gaer Museum, Art Gallery & Library, Brecon).

November 8 (Wednesday). This morning, I received an email reply from a well-healed UK university informing me that the ‘ERROR’ message I’d received on their reference-submission website was itself erroneous. My file had been uploaded yesterday evening, in spite of appearances to the contrary. Two wrongs can make a right. 8.15 am: Studiology. 10.30 am: The delivery of a new washing machine. After seventeen years’ service, the old one had sprung an irreparable leak. The ballast used to prevent the machine from wandering across the linen room floor, when in spin mode, was made of concrete. The new machine is weighted with cast iron instead — which makes it considerably heavier: 89 kg as opposed to 50 kg, in this case.

11.00 am: Back to the bench. ‘Testing. Testing. 1-2-3!’ No matter how diligent I am in piecing together a pedalboard, the challenge of an apparently inscrutable failure will inevitably present itself. Frustrating though this is, I relish the detective work. There’s always a specific cause and solution to a problem. Today, the final effector in the chain refused to fire-up. Diagnosis: it was being fed 100 mA at 9 v from the board’s power supply, whereas the effector required 300 mA at 9 v to operate.

After lunch, I popped over to the School of Art Gallery to see Simon Tune’s PhD Fine Art exhibition, entitled Searching for Thomas. I’d spoken to Simon about the project on a number of occasions during his candidature. The exhibition traces a journey made by the Welsh photographer John Thomas (1838-1905) from Cellan in West Wales to Liverpool, where he set up a commercial studio. I first came across his work when undertaking my MA Visual Art. Thomas was a Calvinistic Methodist, and the first person to photograph chapels in Wales as a subject in their own right. At the time, I was writing a thesis entitled ‘Art and Nonconformity in Wales’ (which was published as The Art of Piety: The Visual Culture of Welsh Nonconformity (1995), subsequently.)

After dinner, the domestic Wi-Fi network went down. Ethereal connections are so much harder to deal with than physical ones. The guidance issued by the manufacturer and the wisdom of fora rarely address the particular manifestation of the problem that I’m encountering. When all else fails, reboot, reset, and … wait. Hooray!

November 9 (Thursday). Newport. 7.00 am: I’m habitually early for train departures. ‘Best to be on the safe side’, as my Mam used to say. This wisdom admits no contradiction. 7.28 am: En route, first, to Shrewsbury, then, Newport, Gwent. It didn’t look as though passengers were about to be turfed off the train at Machynlleth, to continue their journey by road on this occasion. Remarkable (when it shouldn’t be). My returns to the land of my fathers and mothers are always enriching and restorative.

Between 1985 and 1987, when a full-time PhD Art History student at the, then, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, I travelled from Shrewsbury to Newport most Wednesday afternoons during term time to teach art history at my former art school. In those days, the rolling stock came (so it seemed) straight from Carnforth railway station, which was one of the settings for David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945).

Platform 4, Shrewsbury station, 2.30 pm+, January 5, 1987.

The sound of the carriage doors being slammed shut was strangely comforting; the voice on Shrewsbury station’s PA, always male, intelligible, and spoken in real time; and the announcements en route, straight from the guard’s mouth as he (mostly) walked through the train. Today, he speaks through a tinny and barely audible speaker in the carriage ceiling. 11.10 am: Abergavenny. Where my mother died, in 1987.

11.33 am: Arrived in Newport. Here, I am called ‘my lovely’ by people whom I’ve not met before. Having taken respite, I travelled on by train to Cardiff. I’d not visited the city since before the pandemic. Where, in 1987, a bus station sprawled before Cardiff Central, the BBC Cymru building now stood instead. I was here, but in another place entirely too.

Later, as I walked past the site of the former Howell’s department store, I’d exactly the opposite experience. A building that had not been ‘there’ for a century had now re-materialised. Previously, Bethel Particular Baptist Chapel (built 1807, rebuilt 1821 and 1827) had been incorporated into the store (rather than be demolished), and was thus invisible to the outside world. The chapel has now been ‘excavated’ from its enclosing shell.

Remembering is a mode of ‘excavation’. As I wove through the arcades and onto the mains streets, I cast upon my environment an earlier version of the city drawn from my childhood trips here with my Mam and Dad around Christmas time. An independent jewellers and goldsmith (reputed to be the oldest in Cardiff), which is situated at the entrance to the Morgan Arcade on St Mary’s Street, is the only shop I recall seeing back then. Most every other premises has evolved into something else entirely, many times over since.

Newport at night is an edgy town. 5.00 pm: A small group of pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel protesters had convened peaceably on the steps of the Westgate Hotel, to listen to speeches. There were was many police in attendance. Afterwards, I met with the artist Mark Williams, who’s a friend from my art school days at Newport, at the Pen & Wig on Stow Hill for a meal and reckoning. The biggest mixed grill that I’ve EVER eaten.

November 10 (Friday). A Friday that felt like a Saturday … all day. 8.45 am: I took the bus to Abertillery. ‘So, you’re an Abertillery boy, are you!’, the bus driver asked/said, in that typically Newportian manner that suggests neither a question nor a statement. 10.15 am: After a late breakfast, I determined to make the most of the chill and glorious autumn morning and walk to Blaina, 3.4 miles away. There have been fleeting moments over he past decade when a vivid emotional memory of a cold, sunny Saturday in December 1981, when I took to bus to Ebbw Vale to for a haircut, casts itself upon me, spontaneously. Back then, I remember being filled by a powerful sense of contentment and well-being. ‘Just a perfect day’, as Lou Reed sang. Which, I suspect, is why it made such an impression, and my subconscious draws upon that intensity from time to time. Today was a close as I’ve ever got to a repeat of that experience.

10.30 am: I took the path northward towards Brynmawr, passed the site of the Abertillery Grammar/Technical School — where I studied for a year, before being bussed-off to a dismal comprehensive school six miles away. There, I stopped at the gates of the rugby ground on Roseheyworth Road, where we used to play the game as part of the school’s Physical Education provision. I loathed the experience. Being a ‘goggle-eyes’, I couldn’t find the ball without my glasses, was frequently pushed into the mud by bullies, and had to suffer the embarrassing indignity of taking communal showers in unheated dressing rooms.

Today, I confronted my trauma and walked down the pitch for the first time since 1972. Outside the dressing rooms, I met a man who was undertaking maintenance. It transpired that we knew one another. His mam and my mam had been best friends. He and I were at the same school; although five academic years ahead of me. We’d not met in over 55 years. What a warm and an unexpected reunion with someone who I’d forgotten, for all intents and purposes.

At Bournville (which I regard as an interstitial zone between Abertillery and Blaina), I stopped off at my paternal grandparents’ house and explored the back lane entrance to what was once their allotment. A garage now occupies most of that parcel of land.

On reaching Blaina Cemetery, I paid my respects at my Mam’s and maternal grandparents’ grave. I still talk to her when I visit, even though more than half my brain insists that I’m being absurd. This is one of the few occasions in my life when I allow necessity to triumph over reason. From the top of the cemetery, the constant, soft swoosh and hum of traffic moving up and down the valley below is audible. It’s made more reverberant and defuse by the precipitous slope the Arael Mountain (which serves as a sounding board) in the far distance. That drone has always been deeply consoling, for reasons that I don’t wish to understand. Let it forever remain a mystery.

See also: Intersections (archive);  Diary (September 15, 2018 – June 30, 2021)Diary (July 16, 2014 – September 4, 2018); John Harvey (main site); Instagram.

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