LEADING ARTICLE : Mud, blood, Verdi ... and hard men with time to kill

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The Independent Online
TEN years ago this week, I had about convinced Murderville, Gwent, that I really was an industrial archaeologist, not a copper up from Newport snooping around the unsolved double axe-slaying five years before. Once this was cleared up, things got friendly.

"What you doing over there on your own, writing your will or what? Come and have a drink for Christ's sake."

"Like a fight, do you, butt?"

I replied with the necessary lie.

"Not being funny," says Dai Hard, whose name was actually Sledda, several pints later, "but are you a Tory, really? I don't mind, like, honest, no offence. You sound like a Tory."

In Pontypool, itself, hardly a centre of nancydom, Blaenavon is known as Murderville. When there is sleet in Ponty, Blaenavon is like a base camp to nowhere; in 1947 the Army had to dynamite the snow to get through; by 1963 they had helicopters. Blaenavon has six pubs, all higher than the highest pub in England, 6,000 people (two to be murdered in the six months I was there), one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK and no Tories.

Sledda had been number one hard man in town for 20 years, former NCB middleweight champ and Mr Wales, a lump-hammer job indeed, but going on 45; the young lions were creeping closer, every now and then one would even have a crack. As yet, the result had always been the same: "So he comes at me like a f--ing spaniel, and I says to myself: more mince for the pie, boys."

One night Sledda fell asleep kneeling on the pub floor, with his chin in his hand and his elbow on my knee. Everyone bought me pints all night to stop me moving and waking him up, in case he had one of his turns.

The only thing scarier than Sledda were the girls. Jez the brickie was advising me on women one night ("Thing is, Jim, once you marry them, they won't have it, see. Mind you, mine's as good as gold in the house, fair play to her") when he indicated the five unmarried over-16s in town, Big Pieces all, with skinheads and braces: "Don't look bloody round, she'll drop the nut on you soon as look at you. Put me down with a right cross last week, she did." One evening a couple had this meltdown fight; the climax came when he shoved her out into the square, allowed the crowd to gather, and declared:

"You common f--ing slag. I had you before we was married!" to which she replied, after a deadly laugh and with cleavers in her eyes:

"And your mates!"

Nineteen eighty-five, Maggie triumphant and now this middle-class Englishman with his Tory voice appears in Murderville to take over the archaeological site and starts actually trying to make the boys on Job Creation graft. I can never work out why they did not kill me too.

Partly, it was being seen with Sledda. And then there was the mud; mud is status wherever men used to be men when they had work. Break three was Indiana Jones: archaeology in 1985 was about as sexy as it will ever be. Then, I was known to drive the huge Komatsu excavator about in the snow, squashing walls: I let the driver take Tuesday mornings off to sign on if he gave me lessons Tuesday afternoons. Tank-tracks and blizzards: it felt like taking a T34 out to smash the Panzers on the Volga. And talking of the Volga, there was, finally and vitally, the coir. Well, that's how they pronounced it.

The Blaenavon Male Voice Choir had been on a trip to the Volga some years before as a prize for winning a National Union of Mineworkers eisteddfod.

"Free? They're bloody better off there than we are! And the voices, Jim! Mind, those boys can drink, bloody hell aye." We sang Beethoven in German, Verdi in Italian, Parry in Welsh and Andrew Lloyd Webber with dismaying fervour. We went a-concerting on buses. The first time I made the mistake of taking my girlfriend. The secretary came up the bus and spoke softly but publicly, in front of her too:

"Now, Jim, we won't make a fuss this time, we know you didn't do it on purpose, but: no women on the coir bus." The choir was an escape from wives who were saints out of time, which means demons, still hunting down untidiness on an autopilot from the age of coal-dust and huge families. After rehearsals we went to the pub, and after three pints someone would say:

"Not being funny, boys, but I think we could have done with more staccato in the Gounod," and so we all hit "Babylon The Mighty" again - Babylon being 19th-century nonconformist code for the City of London, of course.

But the truth was, the Choir was the ghost of the grand past. R S Thomas called Wales "a nation sick with inbreeding"; overbreeding, he should have said. He should have mentioned who did the breeding: Babylon. Blaenavon manhood has been selectively bred for the productive brutality of heavy industry, to accept scars, burns, toxic chemicals, limb-hacking machinery and suchlike as part of the everyday CV which only solidarity and strikes could improve. Now CV = DHSS, all that was left was the cheated hardness that turns inwards. One man was kicked to death in the main street on Saturday night; the police found the kickers snoring in bed, still covered in blood. Another was kitchen-knifed by his prospective son-in-law an hour before the wedding. In January, when the nights were -10, never mind the wind-chill, a third was found curled up foetal on the moonscape slag- heap mountain top, his clothes carefully folded a hundred yards away.

And one evening, I was drinking with a gang of the younger men, declared socialists all, when the clock must have struck 12 or something, because suddenly one of them said, in a voice that made a silence for itself in the bar:

"You know about history, Jim: Hitler. He sorted the rich bastards out, eh? And the Jews. Jobs for his own, not for some black c--, eh? That's what they should be doing, eh?"

Time to go. Soon, I went.

Ten years on, half the shops in Blaenavon are boarded up, not just a third of them. Meanwhile, we have learnt the words "ethnic cleansing" for future use. There is a connection: the miners' strike and the wipeout of heavy industry belong to the decade that ended the post-war deal between the big states and the blue-collar boys. Dai Hard has been betrayed worldwide - as everyone who gives the state rights over their dreams will always be betrayed. But who will feel his vengeance? When he wakes up, will he set off on the long march against Babylon The Mighty, or might he go Serbian, and take some media-magician's short cut to an inbred heaven?

James Hawes lectures in German at Swansea University. His first novel 'A White Merc With Fins', will be published by Jonathan Cape in January.

Alan Watkins is on holiday.