Norma Procter invited me to the unveiling of a plaque in Gwaelod-y-Garth village hall on December 6th, a memorial to the 16 killed in the Lan colliery disaster on the very same day in 1875. I had to go, even though every fibre of my being wanted to stay at home attending to more pressing matters – like working out slightly disrespectful anagrams of ‘Jane Hutt’¹ or bleeding the radiators or, oh yeah, re-writing a certain book. But I couldn’t let Norma down; she says http://dicmortimer.wordpress.com/2011/09/23/cardiffs-mining-disaster/ was the catalyst that motivated her and the Gwaelod community to organise and fund the memorial, so it would have looked really snotty of me not to have turned up.
Here’s a thing: to drive from Splott to Gwaelod-y-Garth, four miles north-west as the crow flies, the wacky-races dysfunctionality of Cardiff’s transport framework is such that you must head south-east²! As it was bitterly cold down at sea-level, I wrongly assumed I would need a snow-plough up on Garth mountain and compensated by setting off far, far too early. I was already at the A470 Taff’s Well exit by 10.20, just minutes from my destination and with forty minutes still to kill. I parked in Pugh’s Garden Centre, rolled a fag and wandered off down the footpath that marks the line of the old Pentyrch & Melingriffith Railway. I love this part of Cardiff, especially where the footpath crosses the Merthyr-Cardiff line at Cardiff’s only pedestrian level-crossing (except for the one at Wingfield Road) (and the one at Parc Caedelyn). I had my smoke slap bang in the middle of the level-crossing, looking up at mist-shrouded Castell Coch from the frosty Taff watermeadows (note: this vantage point is not suitable for mortals) before strolling back to the car. I don’t wear a watch (I’m against them), so was amazed to see it was 10.55 on the car clock. Shit! Having been too early moments before, I was suddenly late! Thankfully there was no passenger to hear language that would curdle milk as I zipped up the hill to Gwaelod, parked with extreme difficulty in a tiny space on the narrow, steep, drastically misnamed Main Road, and slid anonymously into the packed village hall just as the ceremony was about to start.
I have a problem in crowded spaces: facial recognition. You know the old racist adage about the Chinese – “they all look the same to me”? Well, I genuinely think that about the entire human race. Old, young, woman, man, black, white, I find it really tricky to tell you lot apart – in the same way I wouldn’t be able to pick out an individual bird in a flock of starlings. And when I’m trying to locate one person (Norma) in a room containing 100, I’m in serious trouble. I sat at the back and concentrated on the short, eloquent, informative and perfectly-pitched bilingual ceremony, which culminated in Ann Gray, great niece of overman Abraham Phillips who died in the explosion, unveiling the plaque. For lots more on the disaster, the inspiringly dynamic and proactive Norma Procter has written a novel around Phillips’ story, The House of Abraham Phillips (available online). There was one bum note when Pentyrch councillor Craig Williams elbowed his way into the proceedings for no obvious reason other than self-promotion: a big mistake, because the few stilted, stumbling, insincere words Toryboy uttered did him no favours. Plaid must make the retaking of Pentyrch a priority in the next Council elections.
When it was over people milled around in the hall. It was good to hear Welsh being spoken so readily as a first language in the capital of Wales. I scanned the room for Norma. Guests had been invited into an annexe for ‘refreshments’. Having seen Rhodri Morgan and Tyrone O’Sullivan disappear like stampeding buffalo through the door (must be those mid-morning blood-sugar dips!), wild horses could not have dragged me in there unaccompanied. I started to feel awkward and conspicuous, then anxious and uncomfortable. And then weepy. Yet again. Oh Norma, where are you?
Then I spotted her, saying goodbye to people at the exit. She took me under her wing, before saying to a friend “This is Dic, take him to the guest room, he’s painfully shy.” I laughed unconvincingly. The nice woman ushered me through the throngs into the annexe. There I sat alone with a cup of coffee thinking about what Norma had said. “Painfully shy”…hmm…she’s a painter, she observes, she’s perceptive…hmm.
A very friendly chap came and sat next to me and we got chatting immediately. Rhodri and Tyrone, both surprisingly huge men, larged it in the middle of the room, joshing loudly and guzzling cake. My companion told me he was from Pontypridd, so I asked what brought him to the ceremony. “I represent Cemex³,” he answered. In a graphic novel, a thought bubble coming from my head at this juncture would have contained the words “Fuck me! If this guy only knew what I’ve written about Cemex…!” But I composed myself with the cool professionalism of the hardened reporter. Oh alright – I twitched, took a gulp of cold coffee and played dumb. He was freely forthcoming anyhow about the future of the quarry – information I will incorporate into future work. We could have talked all day, we left together – and I made a new pal. Only when I was back on the A470 hurtling southwards did I realise I’d spent time with nobody else. Doesn’t matter. Gwaelod-y-Garth has remembered.