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Sirhowy Valley

It's been a while now.

The UK PCB scandal has affected a whole load of places, but probably none more than South Wales.

For all of this year, a colleague and I have been getting in the dirt, investigating the pollution caused by Monsanto and the effect on the community around the Sirhowy Valley.

A full publication is due, but, for now, a little raw snippet, and some of my own personal photographs.

We stop and look at the floor. It’s the wrong colour. The leaves of sprawling ivy are browned. A unique shade of decay. Matthew crouches with his camera and gets up close, but has to resurface after a minute or two, because the smell is making him feel unwell.

Walking makes him feel better, so we follow the guilty, orange trickle down to the bottom of the valley, which re-joins the road, the same one we started on when we got here this morning.

We stop to look at the Pontgam houses, just sitting there, at the foot of the hill, wondering what it must be like to live in a place where carcinogens are dumped basically into your back garden. Maybe they don’t know. The three men and their dog knew, but they’d worked closely with it. Maybe the residents are oblivious, and maybe it’s better for them to be.

And then there’s a man, a seemingly middle aged, stout bald man, walking along the pavement towards us. The man nods at us and says hello.

We tell him we’re here because we want to investigate the pollution. We ask him if he’s local. He says yes, he lives fifty metres away, on the other side of the road on a small piece of land, old farmland, it looks, with a field and some horses, and a bungalow.

He invites to come meet his wife.

Neither me nor Matthew says it out loud, but we’re marvelling at how friendly and welcoming people are here so far. Maybe it’s because of that guilt I’ve been feeling, but I expected a bit more suspicion, some more narrowed eyes.

And then so we’re walking, we’re following the bald guy. He takes us down into the field, and to the bungalow, which actually when closer turns out to be a caravan. He invites us in, all convivial and welcoming, and I tell him my shoes are muddy, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

We go inside and in the kitchen his wife is sitting there, at the table, having a cup of tea with an elderly man, who’s small, with grey hair. The bald guy introduces as two blokes interested in the pollution. He introduces his wife, Jane, and the elderly guy, Stan. Stan sees my jumper, Bristol Bears, sees the bear logo, and asks me if I’m a bear.

I laugh and say, “No, it’s just a rugby shirt.”

“You know what a bear is, don’t you?”

“It’s, uh . . .”

“Are you a bear?”

“You mean a large hairy gay man?”

Stan laughs, and then the bald man leaves, to where, we’re not sure, and so it’s just us, Jane, and Stan. They ask us where we’re from, what we do, we tell them. They offer us a cup of tea.

Then we get talking to them and it turns out Stan and is an octogenarian drag queen visiting from Australia.

“I used to play in all the clubs. I was on TV, many times. I knew them all. Cilla Black, Petula Clark.”

Both Jane and Stan assume these two names are before our time, unfamiliar to us, but I remember Cilla Black being on TV, and I know who Petula Clark is because of the song Downtown, which I know because of its appearance in the film Twin Town, set in Swansea.

Stan tells us he’s still very active and does eighty star jumps a day. I suddenly think we should spend the whole afternoon talking to Stan about his life and forget the pollution.

It turns out he’s here because he was born around here and is here visiting because he’s going to be interviewed by the BBC about his long life in showbusiness. He gives us his business card and tells us to look him up.

Later, when we get back, we will, and we will find he’s lived quite a life. He was born around here, but after being bullied for pretty much all his childhood, migrated to Australia in the 60s, where he made his name. He performed with big names, Tommy Cooper, the Andrews Sisters, and toured all over the place. Now he’s back here in what he believes will be his final goodbye to the valleys. He’s hoping to publish a biography later this year.

The happenstance that led to us meeting him feels wild, but rewarding. We came for PCBs but got Stan. That’s a good deal.

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