|The view from Constitution Hill (Click to enlarge)
|National Library of Wales
Written Summer 2003
The Welsh countryside flits by, hills and sheep, sheep and sheds, the shrubbery of the railway siding and the trees shrouding the hillsides and providing partial cover to the houses, old and new, solitary and huddled together, that make up this landscape.
I’m returning to Aberystwyth now, back to the place where so much started, to finish something that began both before and after my arrival in that little town by the sea.
Five years ago I was younger, with a thick head of hair and an innocence I didn’t even know I had. I found an advert for the place in a newspaper called The Independent, I drove down, thought “this will do” and about a month later I embarked on my university career.
Back then there was a desperate hope. I came here with the idea that I was to somehow reprise – to reclaim, or perhaps just claim, for the first time, something positive and whole, to find a place on the sunny side of the world. That didn’t happen, looking back on it, it never could have. Now there is just this tired, balding twenty something on his way to fulfill a very specific and banal task of writing something no one will ever read and isn’t worth writing.
I’m not going back to reprise a mythic past; I’m fully aware that those days are gone. I’m going back for very functional reasons; the sea, the library, the peace, to be anywhere other than Coventry. My time in Aber feels a lifetime ago, and indeed it is. Humanistically, I’m a ghost to this town as it is to me. All that I knew here is gone, and all that I was to it is no more – it was never a Nirvana for me; that which would have taken the angst away was always beyond reach, as far out of reach as it had been two years earlier, in the long summer of 1996 in the Caribbean, whilst I was serving as a deck cadet in the Merchant Navy.
I have arrived in Aber and have installed myself in what should be my home for the next two or three weeks, a new student hall in what was the car park of Carpenter hall of residence. With a touch of irony my view from my bedroom window is very much like the view I had from that skanky room in Carpenter through October 1998, before I moved up to Rosser to rendezvous with what turned out to be my ill-starred destiny, Penglais hill dominated by the neo-classical edifice of the National Library of Wales, a huge slab of ice-sugar gripping onto the hillside, backed by the concrete meadow that is the University campus.
I can’t see the sea from here, but the air is laced with the sound of seagulls’ crys. They say that seagulls are the souls of dead sailors, perhaps in Aber it would be no exaggeration to say that they are also the souls of dead students who have passed through here and left something of themselves in this peculiar little town between the wilds and the blue green sea.
Aberystwyth, or the town of Aber on the river Ystwyth, is a strange sort of place by objective standards, there’s something about this place that isn’t quite right, something that makes it “other” compared to generic British towns and cities. I’m not the first person to have remarked on this, perhaps most every other graduate who has passed through here would say something similar, but there certainly is something very odd and out of place about Aber, something which sometimes catalyses the negativity of loneliness and isolation, and at other times seems to have a positively magical air about it.
If you came here for a day trip, or a weekend, you wouldn’t see it – it would definitely pass you by; to the uninitiated it’s little more than another little gray town nestled on the Welsh coast. The magic, the intangible essence of a place is rarely perceivable to the uninitiated, to those who have not endured a rite of passage, and this holds for this town.
People pass through here daily, touring holidaymakers and day tripping families from Brum (Birmingham). For them this is a different place than it is for me, as my experience is different from that of a local or even another student. Just as Paris is a different place for me than it is for an ex-pat in residence there, still less a born and bred Parisian.
This is what we mean when we talk of “discourse”. The sign appears the same, but its meaning is radically subjective. Think of a word association game, I say a word and you say the first things that come into your head. Those words you come out with are cardinal points on a cognitive map of the World; they are clues as to personal understandings, personal discourses and evidence of the subjectivity of how ‘we’ see the world.
I’ve met one of my new flat mates, a guy called Tom. Although profoundly deaf his spoken English and lip reading is to a level as to be able to carry on a proper conversation. Last year he studied at University College London, but things didn’t work out academically or socially because of his disability. It would seem that Aber has found a new loyal recruit in the form of this challenged International Relations student who has found a home academically and socially in this town between hills and sea.
Perhaps there is a clue to Aber’s appeal there; it accommodates and provides safe harbor to those who the outside world rides roughshod over, whereas in London the little people are lost in the rush and panic of the city, here there is a little more space, a little more comfort in the winding seafront, little gray streets and plethora of pubs. Even I found temporary respite here.
To get to my platform 9 and ¾ you can’t visit Aberystwyth and traipse around a few locations, you have to take a bit of me with you, a bit of me from back then, that younger, thinner and slightly less broken Adam Taylor of the summer of 1998. This is what I’m going to try and give you here; please be careful with it, like a lot of old things it is fragile, and is likely to crumble to dust if handled too roughly.
After jumping the not so good ship SS Edinburgh Castle following what might have been my near fatal run-in with a homicidal South African alcoholic, I was on the bones of my arse, working nights in an Elf garage where my employer stole my wages in the form of illegal ‘stoppages’. Around August the day came when it was time to return to my dilapidated Further Education (FE) College to collect my A-Level results, which really were the key to the rest of my life. I’d been working until eight that morning and decided to drive to the Asda hypermarket to buy two tapes, one for if I ‘won’, that is if I passed, and one for if I ‘lost’, that is if I failed. From the Asda I drove straight to college, mind dreading the possibilities of what was to come, quietly convinced that I was all washed up.
The results envelopes were alphabetically sorted into boxes in a room off the ground floor reception. I picked up my envelope and opened it there-and-then without ceremony. The results exceeded my wildest expectations. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, I don’t think I’ve ever felt achievement like it, nor will I ever again, PhD or non. The irony is that the beautiful people of Warwick, by the Great corporations that it services, would later mock those grades.
This ‘achievement’ probably requires some explanation otherwise it sounds like melodrama. It comes back to what I was saying before, about how the same thing can have a very different meaning to two different people, depending on their experiences and who they are.
The only degree I could conceive of taking at that time was Law. It was what I wanted to do, I really believed in it. I wanted to go to University to embark not only on a career but on a new and purposeful life, one where I felt fulfilled and complete. The only way this could happen was by achieving good results, something that had evaded my friends and colleagues I had known until that time. Without that seemingly impossible approval from the establishment, my life seemed to be going precisely nowhere, without so much as a bank of good, close friends to give it meaning.
The first night back in Aber, five years later, the reprise that was never really intended:
I bought a frozen lemon merangue pie from the all-new and improved Spar 24 hour shop. In the first year whilst on exercise with the University Officer Training Corps, a sort of part time Army for students, I’d craved after such a stupid thing as strawberry cheesecake, but on getting back to my hall of residence no longer had the will to fulfill that esoteric desire. This time was no different, I looked at the cheesecake but decided on the merangue since it was half price – I guess I’d long since missed the moment for the cheesecake!
Tonight I saw one of Charlie’s lucky conquests, one of those who had qued at his door just begging for the chance to sleep next to the great Charley Baker. She was working in Rummer’s, where, apparently, Zoë also works whilst not doing her masters degree.
The National Library of Wales has changed in my absence; the map room remains much the same but the South wing of the building is in the process of being converted into a second reading room (something I once imagined as happening but didn’t think I’d actually see) and the basement has been renovated beyond recognition. Gone are the narrow little stairs, the warren of private corridors and the old-style canteen. It is an improvement, undoubtedly, and will help to bring the library closer to people, but I can’t help but feel a slight nostalgia for the old style simplicity, when the NWL felt a little more exclusive, a little more different, as did Aberystwyth more generally. Those were my days here, but now the library and the town belongs to a new set of passers through, and it is their discursive personal narrations must take precedence over mine. Even if I remained here forever and day my time here has long since passed.
There is a new display area in the basement currently consisting of various exhibits from the archives. Amongst the display was the seemingly arbitrary inclusion of ‘the flags of Celtic nations’, a discursive myth that rarely fails to get my back up. I fired of a tart email to the Library’s director.
Back to 1998
After receiving my surprisingly “good” results I didn’t know where I was going to go to study. This problem was solved whilst Dave, a mate I met in the Merchant Navy, was filling up his pride and joy, a clapped out Astra Mk II, at the Hyde Shell station, Manchester. Acting on an impulse I bought a copy of The Independent newspaper and, on the bottom left of the first page of the University ‘clearing’ places was an advertisement for a place I’d never heard of called Aberystwyth, offering to pay for return travel expenses to any prospective students who wished to visit an open day that week. The font was impressive so I thought ‘why not’ and immediately gave them a ring. That week, having again worked all night at the petrol station, I drove down to Aberystwyth, getting hopelessly lost somewhere after Bala and eventually cresting the towering Penglais hill to see the student village to my right, the campus to my left and the town of Aber running away below me into the vast plate of water that is Cardigan bay. A quick tour of the campus and a chat with Professor Chris Harding and I had decided that Aber was for me, a decision that hinged less on pouring over The Times Good University Guide, which I had never had reason to look at, and much more on the sun shining, the campus smelling of fresh flowers and sense that this was a happy place. I spun around the little roundabout in town, went over a bridge and remember thinking to myself “this will do”. I started driving back to my home town of Wirral for the night shift and fell asleep at the wheel and gently drove into a hedge.
My National Library work routine seems to have reinstated itself with ease. I’ve happily occupied myself here for four hours and have done precisely no work. I ate lunch in the swanky new café, wrote an email and engaged in a long conversation with an eccentric Welshman on the steps of the library whilst knocking back Red Bull. Just like old times.
We talked of University education, democracy and politics in that order. The nature of university education has certainly changed since his time, when he was a student sometime in the 1960’s. Regardless of the usual, tired cliché of “falling standards” there are many students now who shouldn’t be students, not because they are stupid or lazy but because University simply isn’t for them. But this is a subjective assertion as it assumes “University” to be a constant thing, a sign who’s “true” discourse does not change, a yard stick against wish we can judge the subjective efforts of a generation of students. Of course, this isn’t the case. The change in the nature and quantity of students reflects and is related to a change in the quality and quantity of ‘University’ itself. The rapid expansion of Higher Education seems to have less to do with promoting the value of knowledge per sae and more to do with the promotion of industry, with students simply attending University to equip themselves, at their own expense, with the basic skills that will make them the round pegs for the round holes of industry. The concept of all education being primarily if not solely focused toward prostitution and industry has become commonsense and orthodox, almost beyond question. The dreaming spires may be no place for the mundane ‘Business Studies’ student but then the dreaming spires would seem to have forgotten their dream, or found that their dream turned into a postmodern nightmare. Perhaps it is the dreamer, or the bearer of nightmare, who is now out of place in ‘University’, a sign that now has more meaning as a training academy for industry than a garden of ideas, spire of nightmare and dream.
As the intellectual elite have vacated the house of learning or withdrawn to its basement to brood on their broken modernist dreams and debilitating postmodern nightmares, so too has politics, the modernist idea that we can make a difference and that this difference matters, has also been lost to the masses. Democracy is rapidly becoming a hollow word that is flashed like a warrant card in tearing apart regions and prosecuting wars of aggression on the enemies of capital and state. In my postmodern world there is nothing worth fighting for and the sense that even if there was one could only fail.
Modern and Postmodern are just words, and words can be empty without discursive meaning. For me the modern is that which believes in things such as objectivity, truth and progress – it believes in the great narratives of the world, and the projects that seek to make those narratives flesh. The Postmodern, on the other hand, is the agent who crawls from the wreckage of a modernity, of a fight for truth and progress that has left a wasteland. He stands and looks around and sees what the big words of modernity, for all their fine ideals, have reaped upon the world and he feels a little saddened, a little disillusioned and angry. He cries “a plague on all your houses” and lays down to die, he becomes undead, dead in his own lifetime, no longer with the will or ability to fight for a promise of modernity which so failed to materialize.
My parents drove me down to Aberystwyth in a hired Ford Escort. On cresting the hill we ran into heavy traffic, which turned out to be everyone else arriving at the same time. Initially I was in Carpenter Hall, a seafront residence that was badly in need of refurbishment. The building was more than a little on the dilapidated side, a warren of creaky corridors decked in ageing brown paint and loose green carpet tiles, a bathroom on every other floor and a few showers hidden away somewhere in the basement at the bottom on of one of the many stairwells. The biggest problem for me was that I was sharing, sharing with a drama student lovie who thought himself something better than me and probably most of the world. We acted civil to each other but it was strained and we avoided the room, and each other, as much as possible. I put my name on the waiting list for transfer to campus, usually referred to as “up top” since it was atop of a huge hill, as soon as I arrived.
It was around about then that my hair started to recede in earnest. Standing in the centre of the room one day in front of the large mirror that was bolted above the blocked up fireplace, I was combing my hair when I noticed that the left side of my hairline was noticeably thinner than the right, a thinness that was only really discernable whilst wet and in the light, but a thinness non the less. As the bathroom on my stairwell didn’t have a shower, I had to take a bath, in which there would be a veritable log flume of my hair, hundreds of strands each bath. If things had proceeded at that rate I would have been bald by Christmas! Now, five years later, my hair is well on its way to being gone, having first receded and now thinned.
In that first month I missed a few lectures, partly because I hadn’t realized that fresher’s week was over when it was – hard to believe but true. Those I did attend failed to either impress of disappoint – Criminal Law was nothing new to me and contract seemed bland to say the least. The less said about ‘Legal Process and the English Legal System’ the better. Socially I attended the Law Department’s cheese and wine evening in the relatively fancy ‘Rosser Bar’ below one of the then new en-suite halls on campus, a fairly typical ‘getting to know you affair’ where people mill around in their preformed groups and don’t get to know anyone at all. I actually did meet someone though, Sinead, a pretty girl with medium length wavy hair and a cute button nose. I quickly got chatting to her and we ended up driving down to the seafront to meet some of her friends in a pub come nightclub called ‘The Glenn’. As we left Rosser Bar I noticed that she had a new-car type car key with an integrated alarm button. I put it to her that she must have money. The concept of money, and the security and privilege that can go with it, dominated my brief but intense relationship with Sinead and perhaps stopped anything positive, beautiful or longer term coming from it. That was partly my fault, partly the fault of the structure of society that skews wealth, privilege and security, dividing us from one another. But it was mostly my fault.
I have just returned from a nighttime stroll around town and along the beach. As I walked along the promenade below the castle I became aware of the peaceful quiet, not a deathly silence but a quiet accompanied by the gentle sounds of the sea rolling a trillion little grits of rock up the stony shore. There was an ever so slight breeze in the air, carrying the smell of wood smoke from a beach fire surrounded by a group of students chatting quietly. The white strings of fairy lights looping along the promenade’s streetlights illuminated the dozens of national and regional flags flying in the unseen breeze and lent a gentle light to the rough blackness of the beach and the smooth blackness of the summer sea. I walked a little further along to a promontory where I lent against the rail, back to the sea with the quiet south shore and harbor curving away to my right and the brightly lit north shore of pubs, hotels and halls of residence to my left. It was here three years earlier that a canny police patrol had wound their windows down to enquire what myself and Leon were doing hanging around at half three in the morning. We told them the truth, that we were just going for a walk and taking the air, it was only later that we realized that we had been standing below the British flag, a prime trophy for many a drunken Welsh student I’m sure – the police must have thought that was the purpose of out midnight outing!
That first October in Aber seemed an age, and if I am honest sharing a room in Carpenter did get me down. I had a very particular idea of what being a student meant to me, and for that experience I needed to be on campus and with my own room, a place where I could go and be alone. Toward the end of the month the accommodation office found me a room on campus in Rosser Block D, Flat Y, since the former occupant had dropped out and moved down to Swansea to be with her boyfriend. When the time came to move in I was very excited, it was exactly what I wanted, exactly what I had in mind.
Rosser, being still quite new and en suite, was luxurious by the standards of the time and I had an incredible view out of my window across the university, the town and Cardigan Bay beyond. I can honestly say, without recourse to nostalgia, that those first three months in Aber were the happiest days of my life.
In the first semester my university friends consisted of my Rosser Hall flat and the people I knew from the seafront, basically Sinead and her housemates from the old Plynlymon hall. I had a strong crush on Sinead but nothing ever came of it. I can only speculate as to the reasons but looking back on it I should have tried harder. I should also have been less of an arsehole.
Last night I went drinking with a group of people I met in Rummers wine bar, a mixture of passing through workers and students. I must have been drunk because I woke up this morning on a stranger’s coach with a terrible headache. On the wall there was a framed architect’s drawing of Rosser Hall, probably a trophy seized by one of the residents. I’m sure there is an irony in there somewhere – how I should wake up not knowing where I am, in a strangers house with a fire plan of Rosser on the wall.
I was in no condition to anything useful today so I didn’t even try. I went for a swim on the south shore, partly to try and alleviate my hangover. The rough gravel of Aberystwyth beach felt uncomfortable underneath my feet, and as I waded into the sea the cold made me shiver, competing with the hangover to dominate my senses. Once immersed the water felt wonderful, cold and salty, the salinity buoying my body in a way the swimming pool water in Spain never could. After a while I dragged myself back onto the beach and tried to sleep, but I was feeling too ill for that. I made my way back to the residence and my bed, busying my thoughts with images of pretty girls in short skirts and knee high boots.
By the evening the hangover had receded into a comfortable numbness and I went and watched an Argentinean film at the Arts Centre called ‘Son of the Bride’. I enjoyed it, it was a people story which had a subtlety that American films usually lack and British films usually lose either by focusing on some ridiculously narrow group of stereotypical English middleclass, or the grinding poverty of the very poor and underprivileged. On coming back down to town I shared a kebab with a pair of stray dogs in the castle, an eleventh century ruin of tumble down walls and smashed towers, an edifice that remembers the ancient Welsh principalities before Wales was annexed by the ascendant English proto-state. It also bears witness to the wave of ‘Celtic’ romanticism back in the 19th century, with a fake set of standing stones and some sort of altar erected in the grounds – place for neo-fascist ‘Celts’ to sacrifice virgins perhaps?
Wake up hard and fast never really slept. Something hurts inside soul has been shot internal bleeding to the spirit black dog lapping up the blood on the floor. Get up go outside shake the pain a cancer in the soul. Cool outside gathering anger in the air thunder rolls wave of the worlds rage crashes through the unseen spectrum fat globules cool rain pitter pat pitter pat slow at first getting faster getting harder cool hits the body cools the fire anger and fear recedes under the gathering storm in the canopy of gray. Suger water buy a drink knock it back standing in doorway watching the sky assault and pound the ground smash smash SMASH a million little fists of vengeance pounding the road trying to wash away its being – never more. Pain and madness intermingles wander through the rain washing my skin but not reaching inside not quite inside. No absolution. Never an absolution.
At Rummers last night I met a German who I chatted to but failed to meet today and a pair of environmental science girls who had just finished their Masters. The German guy has studied at Warwick in the old days before it was cold cruel and shit, whilst the girls, “Kate and Pixie”, where cute though possibly Christians. They were sweet, how they leant on each other – perhaps it wasn’t real, perhaps it was, but it twisted at a string somewhere inside me and I remembered a bit of a song I never knew. Kate and Pixie, how ironic – evil fairy and cute pixie if I recall, The Katie, and Rachael, five years ago on top of the hill, and I the Other then as now, not sure why, no one is, but the Other none the less. Not all that much more to say about that, other than I liked them and they might as well have been sitting on the other side of the Atlantic as the other side of the table, I jabbered endlessly and they wouldn’t have had anything to say to me even if I hadn’t which is possible why I did; if I were someone else perhaps it would have been different. So it goes.
Chicken kebab on my own in the castle, shared with one of the dogs I met last night, friendly faced mutt with black and white fur and a cool wet nose. Dodgy looking guy seems to lurk in the castle, leaves on seeing me – up to no good maybe, maybe not.
I had woken up early this morning with the horrors, which eventually receded; perhaps they just wanted to remind me who’s in charge, not I but them. No truce with the furies.
Dizzy. Don’t know why – possibly my eyes, maybe my mind, maybe both. What is the point, no more than that; why bother, to continue? The things that hurt aren’t going to change, indeed they will probably just get worse as even hope becomes a memory.
In transpires that the dizziness was a direct side-effect of cutting down on the pills, that is cutting down on peroxatine, better known under its original commercial name of Seroxat. It would appear that, in some small way, my body has become physically addicted to the drug. Its not something I’m particularly worried about as I think I have enough tablets left to see me until the end of the month, when I go back to Coventry and can obtain some more. Still, it’s a funny feeling both being on them and trying to come off them – I seem to feel pretty good for a few hours after having taken a table, but then pretty miserable and hollow sometime later. Or something like that.
I had an email from Anna today, a repost to my dig at the exclusivity of so-called ‘Celtic’ identity. In my reply I unleashed on her a sizeable chunk of my postmodern bile and fury – in a way goading her to just fuck off. Why not, why not.
I originally wanted to talk about something I called the post-modern event horizon in my diss, something that might no longer happen. I think I have crossed the postmodern event horizon and am now lost somewhere in the black hole of despair and nihilism.
Ironically I can apply to myself all three of Diez’s conceptions of the postmodern; temporal, epistemological and ontological. Temporal is the easiest as, somewhere over the past year or two, I lost even my residual hope in my own part of Modernity, my own faith in science and progress, in the idea that things were going to get better.
Epistemologically I now feel that my truth, my perspective, is no more truthful than anyone else’s, and that for other people life may well be wonderful and that I don’t see it that way is neither more or less valid from an absolute perspective- all just stories, just texts screaming at one another.
Finally, ontologically, I now see a world of pluralities, difference and uncertainty, a chaotic world with no grand plan for me or anyone else.
Tired, tired, tired. Been tired for so long. But not afraid, which is an improvement on other situations.
Today I was supposed to have gone down to Brecon with Andy, but, as usual, I felt like utter shit in the morning and so didn’t go. I remained in a moderately feverish sleep until around twelve, when I dragged myself out of bed to face the world.
I paid for my accommodation, bought some ear-plugs and had a coffee in town, downing my 20mg of happiness with iced coffee. I’d bought the ear plugs to block out the sounds of the dozens of laptops that have invaded the National Library, mostly owned by South East Asians exclusively studying business and marketing and such like.
Some American guy recently wrote a controversial book called ‘The Death of the West’ about the declining birth rate and the threat of large-scale immigration. On one level it sounds the same fearful talk of being ‘swamped’ by the Other, of the supposedly homogenous happy family of the ‘Nation’ being undermined by alien foreigners. On one level this is, of course, utter shite. The Nation always was imagined and the undermining of community probably has a lot more to do with consumer capitalism and the hyper individualism and the crime that goes with it than immigration; perhaps immigration merely injects a colored die into the injustice of so called ‘liberal democracies’, like a radium scan for the body social. On the other hand, perhaps there is something in the idea of The Death of the West, in the ascendancy of the postmodern in the Western heart and sole, the eclipse of Western modernity and the failure of the western cultural elites will to power. That may sound strange, bearing in mind the global dominance of ‘Western’ capitalism, but bare in mind that this seemingly solid global dominance has a weak heart, it is, but who really believes in it? Where are the bards for this postmodern kingdom? They are busy singing of its flaws, of the death of its beauty and the failure of its truth.
The pretty white girls in the National Library were mostly alone, all studying literature, politics, history and such like. Many of them looked tired, still beautiful but tired, a couple even dozen off at their desks, the light streaming across the unread pages of books that narrate the failure and flaws of our civilization. The Asian girls, often with a sensible looking boyfriend come study partner, where intently focused on their mountains of business management literature and their humming laptop computers, never sleeping, always working, reading and writing about the very real project of doing business and making money.
Sitting their, feeling half dead myself, I can see what that guy might mean by the death of the west, but, in a way, its not something I would wish to change, certainly not reverse. If these Chinese ‘young Americans’ want to throw their civilization into the pit of despair of late modernity, that grubby, greedy modernity stripped of its earlier utopian promise, let them get on with it. I feel no love for them or it, but I can feel an affinity with the pretty young white girl asleep on the desk, half still believing in the castles in the sky of modernity but already half broken by the realization of this life.