It was my stupid auntie that showed me it. Once a year, an old coal port town in South Wales called Porthcawl hosts a very special event. They run an Elvis Convention. And this isn't any Elvis Convention; it's the biggest god damn Elvis Convention in Europe, bringing the true king of Las Vegas and all that city's sights and sounds to Britain's grey beaches. For one long weekend, Elvis impersonators flock from all corners of Wales and West England to sing, drink, eat and shit like the King. Viva Las Porthcawl, indeed.
Now, I know what you're thinking: Why do I give a toss? Let me explain. When I was about 19 years old, someone gave me some poppers and a sock and told me to watch Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas on DVD, starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Niro on a roadtrip to the entertainment capital of the world, Sin City. I did, alone. And, dear reader, ever since that day I have yearned to be like Hunter S Thompson. The American Dream! The drugs! The bright lights of Las Vegas! The Hawaiian shirts! The drugs! The pursuit of great content! I'll admit, I haven't read the book, but I imagine it's just as good as the film.
Of course, the opportunity for me to pursue my dream of being a Real Writer like Hunter has never really presented itself in Peckham. I've tried being 'gonzo', but it's hard to incorporate it into your writing when most of your commissions are 50-word blurbs for Wowcher. I tried going to Blackpool for inspiration once, the so called Las Vegas of the North, but all I found was malnourished donkeys and sadness. And it's not like I could ever afford a flight to the real Las Vegas on my income. Then I heard about Porthcawl…
So I mailed my editor and pitched my own dream: Fear and Loathing at the Porthcawl Elvis convention – a savage journey to the heart of the (Welsh) American dream. Somehow, the pompous tit agreed to it. He wired me £125 for the weekend, on the principle that I should send him back any cash that goes unused. Yeah, right! So, I rumbled through my wardrobe to find something suitable to wear. I knew just the outfit.
I had to get to Wales somehow. So, the next step was getting my hands on a motor, the kind that Thompson spent page after page fantasising about. Joe's Van & Car Hire on Brixton Hill had exactly the thing for me: a beautiful red sports saloon.
There she was: sat right on the forecourt. And boy, was it a beauty? The kind of thing that could make a grown man cry. I walked inside into the office, clutching £50 and praising the skies… but our Lord saviour had something else in mind.
The man on the desk laughed in my face. Unnecessarily so. I could already tell this £125 budget wasn't going to get me far. After much awkward silence and nodding, he agreed to give me a VW polo instead. As for drugs, this cash wasn't gonna work. But I needed something to get me through the drive and consequent weekend; to blur the edges of reality and make the walls sing. I marched up town and acquired some of high street retail's finest contraband.
I've been getting glitzed for long enough to know you can find a buzz anywhere.
We were somewhere just past Quedgeley when the stomach cramps began to set in. I'd already knocked back three cans of Budget, two Pro Plus and a Lucozade tab, and I was paralysed on the cusp of oblivion, staring into some kind of taurine-induced abyss. And three long hours driving this car meant it was about time that my attorney took the wheel.
You see, I'd picked him up barely 30 minutes ago. I'd agreed to provide transit from Grimsby, and I'd spared no expense. Meeting me at the MegaBus drop-off just off the M4, he was silent. After a minute in the car, he sliced through the quiet with his sharp, brash tone. "So, where are the drugs?" He asked, so I replied. "Give me a hit of cake, and I'll show you."
I pulled over into a layby, and took him round to the trunk. He wasn't happy, but he never is. He took a glug of Calpol and shut the fuck up. I didn't invite him after all. When he heard about this trip he essentially demanded he come along. And he was right. It would be invaluable to have a legal mind on my side this weekend. He had, after all, done a music law conversion at Southampton Solent University back in 2006.
Within minutes, he'd guzzled the other three cans of Budget – I'd never seen anything like it. Boy, did he give those hills of Tythegston gas from there on in. Within twenty minutes, we could see its fuzzy hew warming the horizon: Porthcawl was ahead of us.
I could see the neon lights gleaming like red dwarfs through the windy Welsh haze: the Spar, the Wimpy, the Esso, the Coney Beach pleasure park, the Grand Pavilion – a cluster of rectangles rising from the concrete and sand.
Emerging on its widening streets, I realised I'd made a mistake: we weren't headed on a holiday – no, not at all - we were finally home.
This was a town from some other era, burned out and lost from our neo-liberal, pseudo-intellectual kale eating consciousness. And somewhere within the Comic Sans font of 'Breeze' nightclub sticking out on the corner of the Eastern Promenade and the distant lights of The Rock Inn, I knew that I would taste truth like I never had before. It may be the colon-twisting, bitter blow of a Brains Lager, but it would be truth.
We'd have to ignore the temptress that was the Porthcawl strip, for now - it was time to check-in to the finest accommodation we could find. I didn't have a reservation and things weren't looking good. My attorney wasn't helping. The sugar had gone to his head, and he was refusing to stop honking the horn to the tune of "Spanish Flea" in the carpark. I screamed over the noise for the receptionist to hear me. Be quiet and be calm, I thought. Name, rank, press affiliation. That's it.
"Do you have a reservation?"
"Yes, is there a room for a Mr… Presley?"
A two-man tent eight and a half miles out of Porthcawl wasn't going to stop us. We set up and shared out the Pro Plus. It fizzled down our gullets. After 45 minutes waiting, we unzipped the door to find our taxi driver just a few metres away with his head out of the window, yelling. Lord knows how long he'd been there. Too much Pro Plus can mute the ears.
This man seemed to exist outside of time, beyond the reaches of relativity; throughout the journey he seemed to be talking, but I was unaware how long for. I tuned in to hear him chatting with my attorney, handing out something that seemed like a warning.
"Lots of guys from the Valleys come down for the festival, and they'll eat up softies like you." He stared, eyes aflame, in the rear-view mirror. "Watch your backs… And whatever you do, don't go to the car park." These were words we'd have to heed, but I didn't like them.
Strolling up the wooden promenade, past the proms of penny drop machines and grown men dressed in leotards howling "Hound Dog" at the top of their lungs, I tried to stay alert, but my mind was already playing tricks on me. It wouldn't be hard to keep my eyes off the locals, for sure, what with all these spiders around. My Attorney was too busy flushing his wallet on penny machines to realise they were all over his trousers, crawling up toward his stomach. Poor bastard would see them soon enough.
I stumbled up to a street vendor and asked him if he sold American flags, "No, sorry mate." He replied. "Well what about the Welsh flag?" I shot back. "Them neither, Ryan over the dip does them. I've only got these ones; they're all anybody wants."
I shrieked with repulsion, and felt a hand on my shoulder. "As your Attorney, I advise that you don't touch one of those flags." This is why I'd brought him along. We veered hard right into the nearest pub doors.
These were local pubs for local bastards. Queues worked on some sort of unearthly logic, more quantum than classical. I seemed to be forever being pushed backwards into a sea of bodies. "Two Carlings!" I screamed over the masses. A long telescopic arm penetrated the crowd and slammed two glasses in my hands. I tossed the money forwards, turned and pushed against the tide. "Must drink these before they evaporate," I bellowed at my Attorney. He furrowed his brow. We were on different levels; me in the midst of draft Carling wrestling the grapple of the phenylalanine rush, and my attorney buzzing on the edge of a sneeze, Lucozade dust spilling from his naval passages whenever he talked. I tried to level him out.
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"Mate, what on earth are you wearing?" He breathed heavily into my ear. Was this guy for real? "You can talk!" I shot back, gesturing toward the flowers around his neck. "I dress like this once a year mate, with the lads. But you look like a right fucking wanker!" His friends cackled, pointing at my shirt. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I looked around and my attorney was nowhere to be seen – how long had I been here? Where had he gone? I typed his digits; it rang in short blasts, before becoming engaged. Clearly, he'd been abducted.
Panic. It slithered around my neck as reality began to dawn on me: I was here, alone, in Porthcawl. The Budget energy drink, Calpol and Pro Plus had created a vicious cocktail that rushed through my veins like a micro-tsunami. I had become more caffeine than blood. Everywhere I looked I saw either spiders or Elvis. Had I entered an alternate reality?
A reality of only arachnids and 50s rock stars? What would I call this reality? If I was to be here forever, it should have a name. Elvisula? Tarantuvis?
And how in hell would I protect myself from these monsters? There's no way of explaining the terror I felt. Holy Jesus… Did I say all that, or just think it? Was I talking? Did they hear me?
The Elvis's were everywhere. Drunk Elvis slapped me hard on the back.
Socialist Elvis tried to engage me in a discussion about Chartism.
Army Elvis towered above, wooing the ladies and hopping between cocktail tables, like an Adonis.
Proud, statuesque, terrifying.
Until he removed his hat, revealing a barren combover. Such a shame when a man is struck-
Jesus fucking Christ, there's even a God damn Spiderman Elvis. AND HE'S COMING RIGHT AT ME!
After much negotiation and leg kicking, Spiderman Elvis agreed to put me down. A group of women dressed as air stewardesses swallowed me whole and then spat me out, smeared in lipstick. I was drowning in this room. People cackled right up in my face. I looked around in desperation and locked eyes with a man. An Elvis, unlike any other I'd seen.
I lost myself in his eyes, wondering whether his infatuation with the King is as deep the twilight glow of his blue iris.
"If you had to sacrifice a member of your family for Elvis to have ever existed, would you?" I shouted. He looked at me: "What? I can't say that!" Then grinned, "But then again, I don't know all of my second cousins…"
His mind started drifting, and he smirked, which really haunted me: the man doesn't know me either - who knew what he was plotting? Murder? Certainly. But how? I rattled off into the smoking area to figure it out. In the grip of a serious fear, I dug into my pockets, pulled out a bottle of Calpol and began chugging it down. "Do you mind not doing that?"
"I was doing nothing, officer." I shot back, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head – this buck was onto me. "Look, just don't drink anything in the pub that wasn't bought here, alright?" I replied: "Are you accusing me of possessing something illegal? Because I have an Attorney with me." My attorney suddenly reappeared to observe the spectacle, but it was too late. Another man had followed me towards the back door and before I knew it, his foot was one with me.
"Watch out for the car park!" someone yelled as I flew through the doorway. The threats, the judgement, the spiders; I was terrified of this town. It was no promised land, it was as oppressive as the world I'd left behind. I needed to take refuge. I found my attorney, sat on the lap of a local and desperately stressed that we needed to get the nearest transit to Aberdovey. But as the words left my mouth I felt numbness in my lips, and he smiled at me knowingly.
Calpol is Damien's drug: making grown men flap about, like demented geese. There was only place in a town like Porthcawl that would have us in this state, and that was The Coney Beach Pleasure Park. We were exactly what they wanted. They welcomed us in with open arms: fresh meat.
I stood staring at the whizzing carts, flashing lights and giggling teenagers enjoying their first and final White Blossom Hill of the night, then my Attorney whispered into my ear "Nobody is going to fuck with us here." People grabbed hold of us trying to sell hot dogs, candy floss and teddy bears, but it was that revolving beauty that I wanted a go around.
We'd been orbiting the solar statue of a horse for a while when my attorney started grappling his stomach, "I'm not feeling good," he winced. "The sickness is starting to set in." I was furious. "Nonsense!" I clutched hold of his George by Asda suit. "We came here to chase the (Welsh) American Dream; in search of truth. Now we're in the middle of its vortex you want to throw the towel in? Do you have the fear?" He began profusely sweating, "It's all the beer, Calpol and Carling, you prick. Stop the spinning!"
I wanted to burn Porthcawl down; to feel the flames singe my nostril hairs as I backed away from Maesteg Terrace. And there was one last battleground for me to do it: The Car Park. It was where they'd tossed the gauntlet, the only place it could be settled. I made my way toward the sound of Breeze nightclub booming "Viva Las Vegas". With the sand dunes towering high above me, I lit a cigarette: I was going to need more than just a Lucky Stripe for what lay in front of me. So I smoked that one, and lit another. I was ready. I climbed to the top of the dunes, ready for the crash of the front lines. Then, all of a sudden, I realised the music wasn't coming from Breeze at all. No, this was something else.
A caravan door swung open, releasing a valve and the swoons of the King's lyrics – "BRIGHT LIGHT CITY GONNA SET MY SOUL, GONNA SET MY SOUL ON FIRE!" The words echoed around me like a prison of sound. An elderly couple poked their heads out. "Are you alright there?" The chap asked. I stood, twisting my face in shock. They looked me up and down, laughing. "Nice hat!" She said. "Come on in."
She clasped my cheeks with a maternal grip. "You feel cold." So she sat me down. "Do you want a hot drink?" Without a prompt, the guy cracked open two beers – the company of a late night drinker always relaxes me.
He asked how I ended up here and, before I could even focus my pupils, launched into telling me about how they'd embarked from Warrington four days earlier on a road trip. His wife clutched the hat from my head and asked whether I have been enjoying myself.
"S-s-strange." I slurred.
"What do you mean?" She shot back. "You know there are 2,600 impersonators coming, and some of them have travelled from Australia. Which Elvis are you, m'lad? Holiday Elvis? I love him."
"No, I'm not Elvis."
"Make that 2,599 then!" She laughed. "So if you're not Elvis, what are you doing here?"
"Well, chasing a dream."
"You're in the right place for that! This is the only place that reminds me of the world that I grew up in. Of my mother, my son – you see: I've wanted to go to Graceland since I was a little girl, but I've never been able to afford it. And as I'm getting on," she said with dewy eyes. "This is my Graceland."
Realisation. It swathed over my damp, cold mind like a dry blanket. Is it possible I see horror, they see an Elvis movie? That I see Hunter S Thompson, they see Holiday Elvis? That I see Porthcawl, they see Graceland? It was truly her promised land – her dream – and I'd brought bad blood into it. I got it now. I'd been treated like an outsider because I had gone in as an outsider. You see, while some Elvis's were here to exactly embody the King's flesh, blood and principles, others were simply trying to escape from the monotony of life; to embrace one another's company. This was their dream – and who was I to get in the way of that? I walked out of the caravan and took deep breaths of the sea air, making my final footsteps along the deserted promenade – I finally saw it. The stars and stripes, in the land of which they belong. The home of the (Welsh) American dream: Porthcawl Elvis Convention.
(All photography by Chris Bethell)