June 29, 2015

8.45 am. One needs to look above the shop level to perceive those features of the town that look the same now as they did when I was younger. I walked over the Town Bridge to Clarence Place — the site of my first art school:


Behind the school there was, at the time, a café where you could buy the egg and chips and mug of strong tea for a song. Both staff and students patronised the establishment; it was a great social leveller. Ernie Zobole, John Selway, Jack Crabtree, and Ron Carlson (the painting and South Walian tutors) frequented the place, but Keith Arnatt, Keith Richardson-Jones, and Roy Ascott (the conceptualists, constructivists, and cyberneticists, and English tutors) did not, in my experience. Today, the café is hollow:


At the end of Church Road, are the external remains of an art deco cinema. ‘In my day’, it was one of Newport’s many privately owned cinemas (all of which were either converted or pulled down in the 1980s):


9.47 am.  I took the X15 bus to Abertillery. After a dreary and circuitous journey around roundabouts and by-passes, I eyed the familiar elbow formations of mountain tops that have, over time, stamped themselves onto my visual psyche. On arrival, I alighted from the bus, like a Terminator rising from its time-displacement sphere, scrutinising the people and the townscape before making my first ‘kill’. 11.00 am. A cup of tea at Marenghi’s Café in the Arcade. The à la carte menu includes:


‘Why can’t I have a Chip Roll and Gravy and Curry and Beans and Cheese in a Cone?’ And, ‘Why do you capitalise Food names?’ In Abertillery, such banter is understood as coming from a good place. (It would meet with an entirely different reaction in Aberystwyth.) I listen to conversations, to an accent that isn’t my own (nor was it ever, for some reason), and to homely phrases such as: ‘Where you to, innit?’, ‘Orite?’, and ‘Come byuh’. In Abertillery, I’m every woman’s ‘love’ … even the police women’s.

Each time I return home, the same track is followed … as one would on a pilgrimage. In many respects this is a sacred journey, undertaken in order to reaffirm its spiritual significance and my inner resolve. The first station: my home for the first eighteen years of this life:


While living there, I discovered everything that has remained important for me. Afterwards I climbed the precipitous Portland Street, like I’d done twice every Sunday to attend Blaenau Gwent Baptist Church:


The old buildings were demolished after I left for art school.

On the left side of the valley is the Arael Mountain — a tall curtain of green pine, oak, and beech trees:


It exerts an almost supernatural presence, watching over the town — its inhabitants’ entrances and departures from this world — with silent indifference. Unlike the rest of the area, its rate of change is imperceivably slow, such that it appears to exist outside of time. My journey took me to the boundary of Cwmtillery, down roads that I’d often walk alone in the late evening, half-praying, half-remonstrating with myself, pondering my life ahead, turning over questions, and forging my values. (None of us should know what the future will demand of us. ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’.) Today, every object that my eyes alight upon summons a particular and intense memory. At times, the experience is overwhelming.

1.00 pm. Back at the centre, and time for lunch at the most upmarket eatery in town: Wetherspoons, which occupies the old Pontlottyn store (rebuilt in 1897):


1.30 pm. On, then, towards the park, down Carlyle Street and Glandwr Street, and passed a still-operational garage where my father worked as a bus engineer after he was demobbed:


The Park, with the exception of primary and grammar school-sports days (dreadful memories), is not a place that I associate with games. Again, it was, in my teens, an arena for thoughtful perambulation, whenever circumstances threw-in a hand grenade from behind the door of my life:


3.00 pm. Then … a moment of illumination; a small epiphany that did ‘flame out, like shining from shook foil’, reminding me that I’m still in good hands:


As I left the park, someone with a camera (far more impressive than mine) was walking towards me. We acknowledged one another … knowingly. It’s rare to see people taking photographs using a proper camera, rather than with their smartphones or iPads. When I’m photographing in Abertillery, people come out of their houses and ask me what I’m doing. I’d be less conspicuous walking around with a sawn-off shotgun.

4.30 pm. The journey back to Newport. Observations for the day from ‘The Black Notebook’ (March 10, 2015-), 20-23:

Buses used to arrive into Newport down Stow Hill and Charles Street / many of the bus route numbers are still the same / I experience the valleys with one foot always in the past / vision and memory coalesce / if I brought someone to Abertillery, they’d see little of what I can ‘see’ / I observe many young and middle-aged men with a limp and a stick (?) / young men pushing buggies / the weight of memory / I still don’t understand the Arael’s full significance / if you concentrate on the dereliction … that’s all you see / there are so few people about, outside the town centre / I don’t recognise them, nor they me  / if I’d not left the town, what would I be doing or like today? / gratitude for the opportunity to leave, education, marriage, family, and career / here, it’s not only the Arael that limits the inhabitants’ horizons

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