Jobless find a message in code of the West

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The Independent Online
LIKE many others on the dole in the Welsh Valleys these days, Dai James, unemployed for 14 years, divides his life between two fantasy worlds. In one of them he becomes 'Dusty' James, Wild West cowboy, lifting himself out of the vacuum of everyday life in the village of Rhigos, near Hirwaun, Mid Glamorgan.

In the other, aged 42, a former drift miner and father of three children whose prospects look equally bleak, he attends compulsory government courses where he learns how to fill in forms for jobs which do not exist. Then he goes home to his village council estate in what he calls 'the land that time forgot'.

Pardners in adversity with neighbours down the road, such as Bob 'Rustler' Edmonds and the Big Fellow, Dusty James has become part of a host of valley cowboys (estimates put their numbers of between 500 and 1,000) killing time across the vast prairie of the recession.

'They're all on the dole,' says Dusty's mother, Barbara, 71, who lives in a council house across the street from her son. 'They all cling together and they enjoy every minute of it. They've nothing else to do really.'

Dai knew his working days were over 15 years ago. 'I was 27 and went over the factories and the foreman said 'You're too old',' he recalls. 'In the Sixties you could finish one job today and start another one tomorrow because everything was going strong. All the jobs I had were by word of mouth; now it's courses teaching you how to write letters for jobs which aren't there.

'There was one over a cafe in Aberdare 'to help you find your perspective.' For the Restart programme 10 of us spent a week in a classroom in Aberdare College telling us how to apply for work. One bloke there was 65. One boy was looking very vacant and said, 'I can't read or write so what's the point of me being here?' A lot of it doesn't make sense to me.'

Becoming 'Dusty' did. It gave him a new identity - a 'handle'. Every Saturday night he and his wife Christine join other country-and- western enthusiasts for a hoedown at the Ash Grove Inn at Coelbren seven miles away.

'It fills in a lot of time for the simple reason you're in the house all week. Saturday nights there's no holds barred. You can just let yourself go and completely unwind.'

The Jameses laid out their kit on the parlour floor. There were checked shirts at pounds 1 from Oxfam, skilfully decorated by Mrs James using lampshade fringe. 'Stitch that on and you've got a Western shirt,' Mr James said.

The black bandana was 50p from the cancer charity shop. The replica Winchester rifle was traded with Bob Rustler for an old citizens' band radio handset. The Bowie knife was picked up for pounds 5 at Aberdare market because it had marks on the blade. The sabre was bought for pounds 3 during a charity bicycle ride to Great Yarmouth in 1988. The battered leather gunbelt, with its fast-draw holster, was a gift from a friend in Prestatyn; and the blanks-firing Colt revolver ('the gun that won the West') was a Christmas present from Christine eight years ago.

It is not an outfit for dudes but Dusty loves its well-worn authentic style.

'It's a couple of bob here, a couple of bob there, but what you see here is a lifetime's collection,' he said. 'I try to live as my heroes would live in the West. People look at me and say 'Why have so many cowboys got beards and long hair?' The point is there's no barbers' shops in the Territory.

'You never see a clean cowboy because you've 2,000 head of cattle at the back of you. Riding track behind them you've all that dust and shit coming at you. That's the true Western side of it; it's how they used to look. He only got a dollar a day and his food. It was a very hard life - a way of life.

'I can't imagine life without it. On Saturdays we'll dance and the music lifts you up. Anything you want to do, you can do it. If you dance on your own no one laughs. Sometimes I even dance with the Big Fellow. It takes all the tension out of the week. Why people need drugs and stuff like that I just don't know.

'I've heard people say 'Ooh, look at him', but they don't get to me because you'll find nine times out of ten that the people taking the Mickey are the people that haven't got the guts to do it themselves.

'You put the gear on, and the spurs and when you walk you feel different in yourself. I feel prouder, taller.'

(Photograph omitted)

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