Summa: diary (July 1-5, 2024)

… and, afterwards, as a friend.

July 1 (Monday). Newport. I released the Affirmation/Cadharnhad album. What has begun for the audience, now, has ended for me. Yesterday was the 37th anniversary of my mother’s death. My abiding memory is not of her suffering but, rather, her smile. At this time of the year, I revisit South Wales and (sometimes) the cemetery where she’s buried; my home town of Abertillery (always); the interstice that is Bourneville, where my paternal grandparents’ once lived; and Blaina, where my mother had grown up and I, as a child, visited her siblings and my grandparents. The only surviving members of my father’s family live between Abertillery and Newport.

7.00 am: I arrived at the railway station half-an-hour before the train departed. Where travel is concerned, I habitually err on the side of caution. At Caersws, where we waited for the delayed train to Aberystwyth to pass (there’s only a single line track from here to Shrewsbury), it appears that a Zen garden has been established.

En route, and to prepare my heart for the return home, I read Rob Atkins’ and Julian Meek’s collection of poems (most of which were lyrics, originally) entitled The Abertillery Songbook (2024). Rob is the town’s unofficial troubadour, whose theme is his undying love for its people and history. Having grown up together, we share many of the same memories: wimberry picking on the mountainside; attending Saturday-morning ‘pictures’ [cinema], while our parents shopped; saving up our pocket money to buy Airfix kits, Corgi and Dinky cars, and ‘ammo’ for toy guns at S M Ash’s shop (‘Smashes’); and guzzling quality ice cream from metal bowls on marble table tops bolted to cast-iron Singer sewing machine stands at the Italian cafe on Somerset Street.

10.45 am: At Abergavenny, where Mam died at the hospital beneath this mountain, I paused and remembered.

11.30 am: Arrived on time.

After depositing my suitcase, I orientated myself to the city. These days, Newport’s shopping area (such as it is) is never busy. In my childhood, when the streets weren’t pedestrianised. Commercial Street, during the weeks leading up to Christmas, resembled Oxford Street, Lond0n.

I headed for a cafe that serves a consistently good bacon sandwich and cup of tea. It’s situated at the bottom of Charles Street. At the top used to be the Fashion department of Gwent College of Higher Education. The building today has been converted into flats. In times past, buses from Brynmawr would enter the town down this precipitously steep hill. God help us all, if the brakes had failed.

I walked the town in search of retailers and landmarks associated with my childhood and undergraduate student days. Arnold’s Lighting and Electrical has conducted business from the same premises for over 200 years. They began operation twenty years before the commercial development of the incandescent light bulb. Many other shops in town come and go on an annual basis, it seems.

My tour took me along the mud banks of the Usk to the remains of what was a wharf where paddle steamers to Cardiff and Bristol docked. It’s situated opposite to what was my art college in the late 1970s and early 80s. I touched the college’s sandstone wall, as I’d done when a student. Surface continuity across time. I can still sense the residual resonances of that period. And ‘ol’ man river keeps rolling along’.

In the evening, I met up with my friend and fellow art college alumnus, the artist Mark Williams, at the Pen and Wig on Stow Hill. (Presumably, the pub had links to the judiciary in the past.) We talked about local serial killers, students we’d known but who no longer practice, dark secrets behind the facade of functional families, personal matters, and Christian and biblical theology. Our usual platter of conversation, in other words. Neither of us drink booze, but we’re both enthusiastic about experiencing untried brands of non-alcoholic beer.

July 2 (Tuesday). Abertillery/Cwmbrân. On arrival at Newport bus station, I realised that the timetable I’d downloaded was woefully out-of-date. My transport into the valley departed 15 minutes earlier than anticipated — which justified turning up at the stand ridiculously early. 9.30 am: I was on my way to Crumlin (where once a magnificent viaduct spanned and connected the two sides of the valley).

From there, the husband of my cousin on my father’s side picked me up. (He has an impressive knowledge of local transport history.) At their home, we discussed politics for two hours, over tea and biscuits. To my dismay, I was told that Uncle Tom (my paternal grandfather’s brother) had been a Conservative. What possessed the man?

1.00 pm: I met with Andrew ‘Dylan’ Price, a long-standing friend, former member of my teenage rock and experimental groups, and leader of a very accomplished local blues-band called Blind Mans Bluff — for lunch at a local watering hole. He is among of the best of men. No politics on this occasion; just music. He connects me to my most remote past, where an engagement with music and sound exploration is concerned.

A vinyl store has returned to the town. The last one was owned by Andrew, I suspect. Cannily, there’s also a cafe on the premises. So the proprietor has two income streams. While the sale of vinyl is on the rise, nationally, I doubt whether there’s a sufficient clientele in the area to support that enterprise alone.

Before returning to Newport, I touched the stones that I had known in childhood. From the summit of Gladstone Street, I looked down the steep terrace to where, at the bottom, I’d lived for the first eighteen years of my life. Unlike the sentiment of ‘The Green Green Grass of Home’, popularised by the Welsh singer Tom Jones, ‘The old hometown’ doesn’t ‘look the same as I step down from the [bus]’. Nevertheless, this is reality, rather than a dream (as it is in the song).

6.30 pm: In the evening, Mark and I walked roads and grassland of Old Cwmbrân (English: the valley of the crow) — an ancient, mythical, and magical place — where he’d spent his youth. (It was the stomping ground of the mystic and writer Arthur Machen too.) I’d known only ‘new’ Cwmbrân, which was designated a ‘new town’ in 1949 and distinguished for having one of the first pedestrianised and covered shopping precincts in the UK. The two versions of the town — the ancient and modern — sit uncomfortably, side by side. Our non-alcoholic micro pub crawl took-in two establishments and an acceptable curry.

July 3 (Wednesday). A day of wandering through woodland. It was the journey that I took inside my head too. Intuitions and patterns of response were confirmed. A time for drawing lines underneath, setting aside, renewed resolve, and ‘reaching toward those things that are ahead’. There’s little left to undo, but much to reform and bring into play for the first time. I’m ever hopeful of betterment.

July 4 (General Election day). Newport. 10.00 am: After a hearty breakfast, I made a final tour of Newport’s shopping centre. It was heartening, on this of all days, to see on gather Main Street a pop-up museum dedicated to the Chartist uprising, which took place close by in 1839. 4,000 men and women marched on Newport in the cause of universal suffrage and the representation of working people in the House of Commons. The Chartists won for me the right to vote. An estimated 24 protesters gave their lives in so doing. Our political freedom has been bought at a heavy price. Today, having cast my vote, I stood at the ground-zero of parliamentary democracy. I was shown the remains of bullets fired by the militia and rioters during the fateful exchange at the Westgate Hotel, next door to the museum. My family remarked that they looked like either seashells or fossils.

11.15 am: On to the railway station to begin my journey home. It’s an utterly dispiriting and architecturally banal replacement for the noble neo-regency, red-brick building further down the road, which had preceded it. While I’ve a love-hate relationship with Newport, I always succumb to melancholy on leaving. En route, I caught up on writing, correspondence with family and friends, and news from the polls. It would be a long day and following morning for me.

3.20 pm: Arrived back home in Aberystwyth. After unpacking, I walked around my sector of the town to witness polling taking place. 9.00 am: When the evening’s work was done, I settled to wait for the general election to unfold.

10.00 am: As the polls closed I was committed to an all-nighter, buoyed up by pot noodles, chocolates, crisps, cheddar cheese, and cups of tea. It was an easy vigil; the unfolding of events prophesied by the exit poll were riveting, and Nadine Dorries‘ contribution to the panel of ‘experts’ on Channel 4’s coverage, cringingly compelling.

3.00 am:

5.00 am:

9.00 am:

The Conservative Party reaped a whirlwind, finally; the Labour Party revived its victory of 1997, led by Tony Blair (but with greater restraint); the Liberal Democrats proved that bungee jumping and paddle boarding are politically expedient; and Wales is now a Tory-free zone. I feel as though the land has been purged of a great evil. The election began and ended in the rain.

10.30 am: Back to work (with the BBC News chattering-on in the background): filing, sourcing, and reviewing the rig as it presently stands. Having put aside the sound projects for several days, my mind has coalesced around modified cassette-tape recording technology. This will contribute to the second strand of the (notional) performance unit, and required the table to be substantially dismantled and rebuilt more ergonomically. The task occupied the remainder of the morning and afternoon.

On Tuesday, Andrew presented a challenge that stuck with me. I’ll continue to chew on it.

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

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