It's the new book and coming - ever so slowly - before Christmas from Seren. The Real technique applied to the whole country. Real Wales. Full of Finch photos and Finch humour. Here's an extract, described by John Osmond, Director of the IWA, as quirky. That's what I do.
So what is this place? Grey crags and green miasma in the western British mists. A place like poetry, where nothing happens. A place of sheep and hairy men. Where is this land? Most of the world do not know. And if they do then they can rarely point us out. Wales, I never heard of that place[i]. Wales, the invisible, the lost. Wales, the real Cantre’r Gwaelod. A small island in the Hebrides. A rock off the west coast of Ireland. A hummock out there in the stormy ocean. Wales, Grassholm writ just that little bit larger. A floating land, full of birds.
The great historian Gwyn Alf Williams said the people of this place had “for a millennium and a half lived in the two western peninsulas of Britain as a Welsh people, (and) are now nothing but naked under an acid rain.” The tourist trade sells us as a place of endless singing, long yellow beaches, rugby rugby and folk in stovepipe hats. Business promotion says we are a global centre, a land of opportunity, a place to relocate to, perfect transport, weather like Bermuda. The government says we have the highest incidence of heart disease in Europe. We smoke too much. We don’t climb enough of our hills. Wales, a fake place made by Woolworth, cellotaped to the west of the midlands, useful for car rallies, and as a butt of English jokes. You are a country. You can’t mean that.
Everyone looks for Wales and so many do not find it. Either like R S Thomas they search for a Wales which does not exist, moving ever westward, in hope. Or like the academics find a new Wales right in front of them, constructed from the past’s framework, a place that changes and doesn’t simultaneously. A land of magic. Wave your divining rod. Follow your ley.
Defining Wales is rather like defining verse. For every rule someone comes up with there will be an exception which breaks it. Ultimately poems become what they are because the poet says so. Wales is like this. The bit you think of as real probably is. The Feathers in Llanystumdwy. The Greyhound on High Street in Newport. Barafundle. The power station at Connah’s Quay. Splott. The Millennium Coastal Park at Llanelli. The Spar at Flint. The writers gathered at the Vulcan in Adamsdown. The street of subscribers to Taliesin in Pwllheli. The coach spotters at Swansea bus station. Brecon Cathedral. The cairn at the far end of Golden Road. The Urdd Welsh classes for adults. The sewage works at Aberystwyth. The place up near Dyfi Junction where there’s no platform but the trains still stop. Pete Davis’ Chicken Shed at Brynamman. The left bank of the river Lugg near Bleddfa. The Codfather of Sole chipshop on Barry Island seafront. The place where Dafydd Elis Thomas parks his car near the Senedd. The steps of the National Museum and the pillars behind which John Tripp once hid his bicycle clips. The jetty at Mostyn from where the Airbus wings set sail. The bridge over the lost Roath Rail branch on Penylan Hill. All as real as each other.
In a country the size of ours it should be possible to visit everywhere – some claim to have – but there are still towns and villages appearing on the nightly BBC Wales weather maps that I have never been through. And on occasions there is one of which I’ve never heard.
Some people never bother. Cardiffians – and some of them can be the worst – live and die inside the capital. The Wales beyond is an alien land. Full of workless pits and mountains. No Asda. No Lidl. I am not going there. Why should I? What would I get out of it? I have also met a well-known north Wales novelist who claimed never to have visited Pembrokeshire. The south. Not Welsh enough. Non-compliance as a political act. For him there are three countries: Y Fro Cymraeg, Welsh Wales, an arc of land in the western reaches; Wales that might as well be England, including the capital and the north east and the southern coasts; and Y Fro Efallai where desire and actuality mix, where reality comes in like a short wave signal – Myddfai, Banwen, Merthyr, Pontcanna, Aber out of term time. Trefdraeth when the sun shines. Who is to say that his Wales is any better than mine? Or that mine is more real?
This book is about this country. A place where some imagine that no one has raised a sword in anger since Glyndŵr’s rebellion went down in 1409 and the Welsh were banned from ever owning anything outside their borders. A place where others know, for certain, that the real Wales is waiting, just round the political corner, and a new day will come. Minorities rise. Nation states fragment. It’s the post-modern way.
The real Wales may well be a place of people, a land of human intervention, of despoliation in the search for minerals, of pipelines and power grids, and roads that mesh the green like fishnet, but it is not an urban country. The city life of disenfranchisement, dislocation and alienation is not ours. Wales, land of communities, where decisions reach the surface through compromise and conciliation. Wales where power frightens and underdogs are prized. Wales where time slows and life is longer. Wales where the past actually is important and historians are honoured. Wales where highrise is feared and there is no navy. The real Wales is where people always talk about who they are, strive after roots, want fields rather than mansions, although generally have neither. The real Wales is the one I’ve gone looking for. Not sure I’ve found it all yet.
When I wrote Real Cardiff, back in 2002, I determined to write about the land as I saw it. No considered history nor topographical guide, no socio-economic handbook, nor fictional prose. As I observed it the world kept changing. The past slid from me. Those guarding it seemed to want to usher it away. What we were went underground to stay hidden or to be dug up by the disinterested and burned. Few seemed to care. The land also seemed to be secret. Full of self-contained, excluding epi-centres, places where you could only gain access if you had a key. The Cardiff of Geraint Jarman’s Welsh reggae, of Philip Dunleavy’s Castle, of Callaghan’s slum clearance, the Cardiff of Geoffrey Inkin’s Barrage and Bay. These innovations were making us a completely new Welsh city, a post-industrial capital for an incoming millennium, something out there was happening. It had to be tracked and written down.
Real Wales adopts the same approach for the whole country. The Real Cardiff books (volumes one and two already best sellers and a third out there in the hazy, not-yet-completed wings) spawned a series. Real Swansea. Real Merthyr. Real Newport. Real Wrexham. Real Aberystwyth. And more. Written by experts to the Real formula. Series edited by Peter Finch. The present volume is my look at my country. Didn’t know it was mine until I grew and went out there to see. There are many like me. Lights go on. We need to find out just who we really are.
I’ve used classic Real Cardiff techniques here. Visited places by accident, simply because they sounded interesting, or because I found myself nearby. Places determined by their importance to Wales. Places that had to be rediscovered. Places where things existed. Places where, apparently, they did not. I went on tour, doing poetry readings. I visited alone, with my partner, in the company of local experts, literateurs, odd balls, historians, novelists. I used old maps and new ones. I read local histories and national overviews. I travelled by car and train and on foot. Much of the distance on foot, for often there were only unpaved tracks.
I discovered a lot. The sheep are many. The rain is often. The light is brilliant. The skies can be huge. The past can be picked up because it is often so near the surface. The past can also never be found again because of what we have done to it. Broken it, built on it, lost it, thrown it away. And there is also the matter of the mysteries, that stuff of Wales which makes things happen, or seem to happen, of which I’ve found no evidence anywhere else. Kings sleeping below rocks. Blood in trees. Wonder in the grass. Future in the air.
[i] conversation between the author and some picnicking black Americans on the coast of South Carolina.
Where can you get your copy? In the shops at £9.99 pretty soon.