I was listening to an interview, with a woman in her early sixties perhaps, who dwells in Merthyr Tydfil, a largish town in the famous South Wales Valleys; situated at the head of a valley; and served by a main highway known here locally as The Heads of The Valleys Road.
The interview was broadcast on BBC Wales televison; but first I want to offer you some background to Merthyr Tydfil, The Valleys, and their history; which will be all very germane to my continuing story.
The South Wales Valleys is one of those parts of the world distignuished by being a place where in the late 18th early 19th century what was to become known as The Industrial Revolution took root and took off.
In these valleys there was to be found to be mined coal and iron ore – in vast amounts. Over a course of say fifty years, from 1800 to 1850 these ‘green and pleasant lands’ in Wales transformed into what some slightly horrified commentators would use diabolical imagery to try to express.
Mining for coal and iron ore overtook everyone and everywhere hereabouts, so that by 1850 there were fires burning 24/7 and lighting up the night skies in huge high flames as ore was being smelted; and the coal and its slack covered the land in blackness and dirt. Huge manmade fissures and clefts and scars and lacerations had been made into mountainside after mountainside and the spoils removed and the wastes left strewn across the land.
The landscape indeed looked diabolic and Pandemonium itself rang not so loud into the nights and days with iron being wrought and worked and coal being hewn and loaded.
In these days it was the landowners who enjoyed most of the benefits of the wealth generated from this incessant infernal activity. One such landowner, local to where I now dwell was The Morgan Family; of whose ancestry came the infamous Captain Morgan of rum and piracy. The Morgans charged the locomotive companies hauling coal in interminable strings of trucks across Morgan land just one British penny per ton; and soon, with perhaps in excess of 250 million tons of coal crossing their lands every year for over a century, The Morgans were living in a stately home (still standing and where are tours of the house given yet from the UK National Trust by which one is able to see the Morgans still in all their past glories) and the Morgans had soon accquired vast parklands and estates. Theirs it was to live in style; whilst the miner and the smelter workmen came home after 12 hour shifts to a meal of staple items like potatoes, and bread products, little meat, little variation.
(It is said reliably in histories of this time that the Irish navvies who built the railroads of the UK in these years had on occasion fled Ireland because of a spate of famines in that land. The worst of these famines, those of the 1840s were said to be so severe that there were grown young Irish men and women who had been raised by their parents on little more than a potato diet. These young people had often grown up malformed and sickly and of stunted growth)
The miner and the iron worker were sometimes, not infrequently, paid not in coin of the realm but in tokens issued by an employer as pay to them; and these tokens were redeemable only at shops provided by the same employer. These shops were sometimes known as Tommy Shops. Abuse of their labour in this way was rife where this setup for miners prevailed.
Thus at the time of the outbreak of the First World War, the working people of Britain as a whole, and many of these were from the Welsh Valleys, who volunteered to fight in France were found to the tune of about 20 or 30 percent of them to be unfit for the frontline because malnourished or deformed or suffering from congenitial and deprivation-related illnesses. This is the actual history; the price our working ancestors paid for the life we have today. Our lives here and now today are largely lacking in certain essentials today; which lack is the subject of this article; but materially and physical-health-wise we are a kings and queens in comparison to our forefathers and mothers.
Miners and iron workers in The Valleys naturally and almost of a course formed tight knit and rock-solid communities of bonds and solidarities which unified them and thus aided their survival and enhanced their abilities to make ends meet. These communities became world famous in their heydays; and sentimental movies and songs were recorded and played on the daily lives of their peoples. In some of these Valley areas a Communist Party candidate was returned to the UK Parliament regularly during the 1920s and 1930s. The Valleys politics were always far left. Their close communities had proven to them that co-operation and unity were the ways which worked for them.
All this Valleys way of life more or less halted overnight during the 1980s. For years coal had been dwindling in its importance as the backbone of British industry; and oil had replaced much, most of coal’s work and value. Iron and steel too were beginning to be made far more cheaply in India and in China. The Valleys were in business still but their necessity to the nation, and to the world, was failing evermore year on year.
I won’t go into the bitter politics of it but in 1984 a National Miners Strike was called by the nation’s miners; in response to a decision by the UK government of the day to close more or less all the coal pits in Britain.
(I need to add here something I have inadvertently omitted which you need to know. The Coal Industry and the Steel Industry of Great Britain since the early years after the First World War had been in the ownership, technically, of the British people; but in fact but owned, run and managed from day to day by successive UK governments. Thus we said in those days that Iron and Coal were ‘Nationalised Industries’. Hence the government had power to kill off these industries; as they succeeded in doing)
After nearly a year long strike, which took the UK government to the very brink of collapse and the nation to the very brink of a workers’ revolution; more by good luck than by design the government won out and the miners caved. There had been seen on TV during this year massed police in pitch battles with striking miners. The nation was divided between the secure and the insecure the haves and have-nots. I have heard on national media a claim stated and corroborated that certain individuals and some of these high up in the UK’s armed forces at this time, were putting in place contingency plans to stage a military coup here were the miners to have been able to have claimed the victory.
To use another politician’s phrase ‘at a stroke’ the mines died; the miners became unemployed; the pits got shut down and were allowed to flood and their maintenance way left to deteriorate; so that the likelihood of them ever being able to be opened up again for working is extremely low. They never have been.
This sudden closure of the mines meant that ‘at a stroke’ the miners communities were also destroyed economically; and thus the South Wales Valleys became no longer an inferno of diabolical sights and sounds happening all day and night; they were now destitute and demoralised and the history of coalmining here was over.
The 1980s were lean years for many British working people; for the working people of South Wales they were some of the leanest. Their communities lost over time gradually their strong bonds and co-operative social unities; and they have been left to live with the grossly unsightly messes of slagheaps, of mountainsides of scars and black dirts, dug out holes, and rusting redundant haulage, plant, and pit machineries. Like a bad hangover the communities suffered utter loss and humiliation.
Since that demise and over a course of nearly forty years since; The Valleys have recovered in a limited degree. The consumer economy has brought shopping and service facilities into these areas, the very same type of economy which drives the engines of Britain across this nation today. The Valleys’ infernal wilderness has been exchanged for a commercial wilderness; where life is samey and diversified only by a change of local shopping venue for inhabitants from time to time.
This then is the backdrop to the woman in her late sixties who was interviewed at Merthyr and seen on TV a few days ago.
Now far from the Welsh Valleys having voted for Britain to remain in the European Union; I say far from because these Welsh Valleys owed much of their economic regeneration – such as it is – after the pits closed – to EU funding and projects which helped deprived Member communities. Instead of a vote to remain in the EU the people of The Valleys almost across the board voted for Britain to leave the European Union. It is well established that the question in people’s minds here in The Valleys, as was the case across Britain generally, was not stay in or come out of the EU; but first and foremost: ‘How else can we stop immigrants coming into Britain?’
The Referendum offered to our people ostensibly on a basis of whether we should stay in or leave the European Union was won by those politicians who would leave the Union simply because the voters of the UK, a majority, saw a NO vote to be an answer to their supposed problem of ‘too many immigrants’ coming to Britain.
Now I have written elsewhere how our people were fed this line and approach – to see the Referendum question solely in terms of the immigration question – by their leaders; as it were encouraged by politicians to see that a NO vote would be a curb immigration. The politicians wanted different ends to the ordinary people; they wanted to stage a ‘silent coup’ or rather, as they phrased it ‘to reclaim back our nationhood’. In fact it was a power grab they wanted – sheer raw power – and they could not brook the fact that persons in Brussels – in another country – were trumping their domestic wishes and rules and laws and ideas.
Like the persons who voted against immigration, these politicians too held a close-to-racist premise according to which they cast their votes to leave the EU. Dislike of foreigners basically.
Now this woman in Merthyr – she had voted to leave the EU – and she lives in an area of Wales which in reality has received very few, scarcely any, immigrants from other nations. Yet her sole and prime reason for voting to leave she openly confessed was to stop immigrants coming into Britain. (This is a commonplace phenomenon here; that persons/regions least in contact with ‘foreigners’ voted to turf them out, and bear the most prejudice)
Her tesimony went something like this; I hope I have the main points here;
“I voted for us to leave because of the immigrants. I know it sounds racist but I hope I’m not a racist? There’s too many of them. I want our country for the British, even though many called British are now allsorts. I want to go back to a time when Britain was British – even though perhaps it never was like that – even though I know I can’t go back – that that is all gone forever. I just don’t feel at home anymore.’
That is basically it, as far as I can recall, to reproduce what her drift was.
It struck me that this outlook of hers and the arguments she uses and the qualifications she makes are pretty commonplace ones; are a set of feelings felt by many many people who voted NO and so for us to leave the EU, and who have spoken out about their motives in the press and media. Overwhelmingly so, the working people of the UK, especially those of lower social standing and of moderate education and of lesser privilege shared, continue to share, this mindset of views.
Because it is a commonplace set, I do not mean to deride it or make light of it. In fact I want to look at it as a package deal and attempt to unearth what is as far as I can see actually behind such an outlook?
(In a fortnightly magazine my wife takes which castigates and ridicules the follies of our times and of our rulers, there was recently a cartoon joke. An old lady is at a rail station ticket kiosk. Handing over her money she asks the ticket person: ‘I’d like a return to simpler times, please?’. This joke has some bearing on where I am heading to)
Over half the population of Britain is above 60 years of age. Most of this half, – 90 plus percent – are retired from work and living on pensions and other assets they have accumulated. The Merthyr lady no doubt was one such.
In Britain there is a massive commercial industry based solely upon nostalgia. There are day after day new products and new services being added, being offered in this vein to supply and to fuel a desire for ‘a return to simpler times’. We have it seems as many tribute music bands making good livings offering secondhand nostalgia trips; as there are young person’s bands and artistes and celebrities around.
We also have television channels which offer persons of some age means to relive their past years through old movies, old newsreels, histories, and through consciously retro style shows and performances. We have here advertised frequently, collections – always on disk – always a ‘box set’ – of songs and movies popular in the 1950s, 1960s 1970s – always pitched at grandma and grandad – for them to lose themselves – to get away from the present – in a haze of yesterdays.
Besides this there is a great industry in older person’s dating and social clubs, on and offline, there are the ubiquitous sea cruises and elderly-person’s specialised holidays; and a great number of other niche ventures for ‘seniors’ which together make up a considerable discrete part of the UK national economy.
It is in large part accepted and acceptable here that when a British person reaches a certain age, s/he should jettison life in the present, at least in part, sometimes utterly, and prefer legitimately to relive at secondhand a past part of their lives. This outlook is encouraged, socially and commercially (it is difficult to separate these two aspects in our nation); and enjoyed; and widespread.
Now I myself am now 67. I have felt also like many of my age that ‘the times they are a changing’ to a point that I seem to have ‘lived to long’ and so I seem sometimes to be ‘exiting’ the world slowly by way of a perceived redundancy of usefulness and a lack of general public interest in me. One gets sidelined very quickly here once one gets older.
The Welshman Dylan Thomas springs to mind here. He wrote as one of his more famous pieces a verse titled ‘Do not go gently into that goodnight’ – which title I think explains itself in our context here right now. I do believe provision is being made by commerce, by government, by social life as a whole here, for many of us elderly to ‘go gently into that goodnight’ as comfortably and as prematurely as the market will bear.
How many ‘oldie’ movies are coming out in these latter years. Those ‘On Golden Ponds’ and ‘The Bucket List’ and ‘RED’ and ‘Driving Miss Daisys’ and so forth. Yes, age is a time for recapitulation; for a reassessment and a making atonement and provision; but no-one has the right to ‘give up on’ life and ‘like a crab I go backwards’. Life as adventure still rules. Not as an exploration, part of the general economically-driven, depredation of the planet; scudding here and there and absorbing everything, collecting views and thrills and ‘experiences’ as part of one’s happy-shopper consumerist consumption; to the Far East; South America; Antarctica; etc before the night falls in which no man or woman can tour.
The great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote a famous popular book he titled ‘Adventures of Ideas’ – the word ‘adventures’ being ambiguous here – meaning both ‘adventuring into ideas’ and ‘putting forth suggestions of ideas’.
If/when we give up such a burning passion to keep going forwards, of course guided by the light of our pasts, but yet pressing on, attempting to make whatever we chose as our personal passion for life to be ever more of a reality in the world; from the humble carpenter to the highbrow physicist or the impassioned composer, to the man who collects matchbox labels and the woman who studies archaeology; whatever it is which we chose, we go ever forward never resting on laurels or calling it a day. For what we chose is, has become, whom we are; it is one’s character. Indeed ‘Do not go gently into that goodnight’.
The lady from Merthyr knew she was ‘living a dream’ – she admitted at least twice in her confessional that she knew her vision for the future of Britain was based on a wistful reverie of sunny, imaginary yesterdays – which never were and never can be – yet she voted on their strength in her silly heart. A protest? A surrender? A loss of distinction between fact and fiction? A throwaway whimsical wish? All of these and all done at least half-consciously. What does this say to us – about her and about that 50% of Britain who nearly all I fear are in much the same nevernever land of fantasies?
It says that their hardheadedness is melted and gone; and alas they do not care that it has gone. The younger British have sidelined the Merthyr woman and her like, she is allowing herself to be ‘on the way out’ gently, and is almost serenely acceptant of the fact; so she seems to have believed her vote was of no moment, of no power – but not in the real world – but in the world she is making for herself in her head. “It just doesn’t matter, I’m only on the sidelines.”
This is the triumph of daydream over hope – and over going forwards, for hope is only possible to retain by going forwards; a retreat is a surrender of hope to something nebulous like destiny, fate, whatever.
And what is one able to do with such a people of this mind? They are no longer amenable to reasoned argument; not prepared any longer to face the fact of the world as it presently is; and to act in it as the marriage service has it – ‘for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, from this day forth…’.
There’s an old saying; ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’, and this is our situation of today -it is certainly no Golden Age. Yet rather than retreat from its brashness and helterskelter mad rush and grab; its sterile marketing and loathsome terms and conditions, reservations, qualifications, impositions and derelictions; instead of conceding a defeat and a failure; stay with it and believe – that Truth will conquer at the last – but not by means f constraints, or by oppressions, not by violence and aggression, nor in any way but in The Way of Love; so that the battle is ever for recovery of that Land of Lost Contentment; but not as pure myth and reverie, nor as daydream or as a wistful deliberate self-deception; but by means of one’s outward actions in due regard towards the next person, whomsoever that next person might be, a person for whom one is able, one is privileged, to serve and care for in God’s Name.