7.00 am: Aberystwyth railway station. The platform announcement strongly advised: ‘If you see something that isn’t right, speak to the staff or text the transport police’. I pondered the scope of ‘unrightness’: walls that aren’t precisely perpendicular; a jarring juxtaposition of colours; a woman who lifts a suitcase in such a way as to risk injury to her back. Conceived thus, the authorities’ hotline would never stop ringing.
7.30 am: I began my return. The older I get, the greater the compulsion to touch the earth of my birth. Abertillery is a source, resource, and recourse. I go there whenever the need presses upon me to, variously, take stock of life, find myself again, reaffirm my sense of mission, and recover my poise. On this occasion, the objective was also to listen to and record the town and its environs. I’ve photographed the landscape on every revisit. (Although, I don’t consider myself to be a photographer; I’m just a man with a camera.) But, I’ve never audiographed it; that’s to say, rendered its audible features.
When I was a young boy, the town – heard from the summit of the Arael Mountain – was sonically active. Typically, its acoustic landscape featured a distant reverberant hammering emanating from the iron foundry; the clank and screech of coal trucks as they juddered haltingly up and down the line between Rose Heyworth Colliery and Newport; and always the throaty burr of a motorbike moving at speed through the valley, fading and phasing as it gained distance. (If I had a choice in the matter, this would be the last sound I hear before casting off from this world. It has an indefinable significance for me – one that’s profoundly evocative, melancholic, and filled with longing and loss.) The sources of these sounds couldn’t be seen from that vantage point. They were invisible – abstracted from, or independent of, the means of their making.
I can recall (reimagine) sounds more vividly than sights. Sounds tend to be singular, focussed, and event driven. They summon the context and circumstances of their audition. I remember sounds because I’d had listened to (rather than merely heard) them. I had listened because they either beckoned to me or else asserted themselves by dint of their volume and overbearing presence. The recollection of sound is, for me, a source of solace. Audio recordings of people, places, and things reconnect me with the past (the moment of their capture) far more intimately than do photographs of the same. In audio recordings, they retain the ghost of their anima.
11.20 am: I arrived at Newport, and made a track to my customary stables in the city. Once unpacked, I headed for Stand 18 at the bus station to catch the X15 to Abertillery. Serial roadworks delayed the upstream traffic, adding twenty minutes to the journey. My relationship with the town is ambivalent. Throughout my stays, I switch from connect to disconnect and back again. The rain arrived with me:
I took shelter and lunch in the Arcade’s café (now renamed ‘Bear Grills’), where I was the only customer:
A hallowing light found periodic gaps between the dark clouds. (Here was metaphor in action.):
I revisited the corridor down which my mother and her four year old entered health clinic to pick up a box of fortified cocoa powder. Then, I peered up the staircase of a dental surgery (and it still is), where I’d experienced some of my most traumatic pre-teen experiences at the hands of Mr Mills the dentist, and where my maternal grandmother nearly died under the charge of an incompetent anaesthetist. (Had she succumbed, then, I would not be writing this.):
So much of the town has been abandoned; the hollow shells of failed businesses, like so many collapsed teeth, ruin the town’s smile:
So, it’s all the more extraordinary that a contemporary photography gallery (now in its fourth year) has thrived in this environment. I met and talked with some of The Kickplate Gallery’s organisers. This is a small, intimate setup with large ambitions and an impressive track record of big name and new blood exhibitions. Beyond the bounds of art and possible projects, we talked about Abertillery’s notorious serial child killer, Harold Jones (1906 – 1971), and that part of the Arael Mountain, which backs onto Old Blaina Road, and has a reputation for being haunted. I’ve experienced a vaguely unsettling sensation there myself. I’ll be sound recording there tomorrow, I hoped:
I returned to Newport at the close of the afternoon, ate locally later and cost effectively in the evening, and, afterwards, considered the day: