NWR Issue r12

People of Shitplace Dug Our Own Hole

Anyone who has been depressed will know how hard it is then to open up. Horizons shrivel; your own fringe feels like the furthest you might peep out. Your mind and body are under threat, and you curl up accordingly with your face to the wall. The Britain suggested by the EU referendum result is also one of people fearing threat. Put aside for a moment the main causal factor of such feelings (the lies and engineered paranoia of the tabloid press) and there is a vestigial truth. This is that the economic demography of Britain is vastly distorted. An Inequality Briefing infograph from 2014, (‘The poorest regions in the UK are the poorest in Northern Europe’) shows how Inner London sits in first place as that region’s richest areas and is the UK’s only entry among the ten wealthiest northern European places. West Wales, meanwhile, sits at the head (being worst off) of the ten poorest areas, and all except one of the nine remaining places are also in the UK.

We’ll skip over further complications (by now commonplace) that majority Leave constituencies often had in residence far fewer ‘migrants’ than the city-based Remain strongholds and again refer your explanation to the tabloids’ myth-making. And that migrants are attracted to areas with jobs, making them a badge of success, witness Inner London (again, see tabloid lies about job stealing and pressure on welfare).

The wider world must have a strong impression of British people who have turned away from change and difference, in work, culture and, perhaps especially, in language. It is dangerous to tell people what they should and shouldn’t be afraid of, but really, there are greater threats out there. To environmental diversity, to vulnerable and minority cultures, to mental health, to the Welsh language. Harm to the latter, however, comes not from globalisation, since it has readily adapted to technology, first with television, now on the twittersphere. Two delightful points were made in Parch, Fflur Dafydd’s drama on S4C (series 2 reviewed in our November e-edition, subscriber package), through Oksana, a Russian migrant to the Carmarthenshire village of its setting. One is her disarming assumption that Welsh will be the medium of her UK ‘citizenship test’; the second, that the Welsh-speaking family and community she marries into accepts and absorbs her differences of language and culture. Apparently Anglophone communities (including those in Welsh-speaking areas of Wales), despite being dominant in most scenarios, struggle to accept in this way. (This is the point that Mike Parker was trying to make in his 2001 Planet article whose distortion of which by the local paper had a detrimental effect on his Westminster campaign, according to his recent book for Y Lolfa, The Greasy Poll: Diary of a Controversial Election.)

The uninitiated may not easily class Ceredigion farmers as belonging to a cultural and linguistic minority (and here I unashamedly point my finger at certain English environmentalists and nature writers). But, as Caryl Lewis’ speech this summer as winner of the Welsh-language category of Wales Book of the Year (with her novel, Y Bwthyn) made clear, that is what they are. Protectors of language and dialects, food culture, flora and fauna, of landscape and a way of life, who in turn should be championed. Lewis’ speech, and indeed her fiction, deals with conservation. The subtleties of her address, given in Welsh, must have been lost on the English category’s judge Caroline Sanderson (of The Bookseller), who in her speech noted the cosmopolitanism of the English entries, and the winner, Thomas Morris’ We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, in particular. This is not a situation in which WBOY’s Welsh category winner is a ‘Leave’ novel bemoaning change and fearing loss, while the English winning novel takes us on Dublin stag parties and alternative worlds. But the referendum result, announced only a few weeks previously, coloured my reception of the prize. It colours everything.

In spirit post-Brexit pieces abound in our forthcoming print edition (winter 16, publishing on 1 December), especially Liz Jones’ memoir of how Merthyr Tudful waned in her affections amid tales of two-faced bullying of immigrants. Meanwhile Kirsty Sedgman’s essay analysing audience responses to National Theatre Wales productions, The Persians and For Mountain, Sand & Sea, shows how issues of universality and national or local relevance contrasted wildly across Wales, with Barmouth audiences scoring high on relevance while those within the theatre-going catchment area of Sennybridge put more weight on artistic quality. I judge these arguments to make a Brexit-voter type distinction, with ‘universal’ standing in for ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘artistic quality’ for ‘educated’, while ‘local relevance’ represents a tentative patriotism. Finally, surely the inspiration for Jane Houston’s biting, satirical ‘“Heartland”’ must be Leave-land, Swansea or Lincoln variety? ‘In this once-proud-now-shit / place no-one speaks a real language and people / live in dog years, girls popping out kids, / kids dripping off us all our lives. // People of shitplace dug our own hole, / revel in the muck of it and ready for worse. / If we vote it is with eyes on the sky, / spotting flotillas passing like dark clouds.’

In further news, this e-edition publishes an interview by environmentalist Robert Minhinnick with the poet and author John Barnie (including a new poem, ‘Unusual’), on the eve of the launch of his latest poetry collection, Wind Playing with a Man’s Hat (3 November). The same date sees the publication of Cynan Jones’ latest novella, Cove, reviewed here alongside a short memoir by Cynan describing the squall that inspired the book’s opening. This weekend saw the premiere of Series 3 of Y Gwyll/Hinterland, p/reviewed here by Huw Owen, along with his preview of Parch (Series 2), which moved to iPlayer last week as the series’ current S4C showing ended. Finally, back to borders: Ashley Owen find that Nicholas Murray’s treatment of the theme, in his new nonfiction book, on the whole lacks political nuance and a vital touch of humanity:

Murray is obviously neither ignorant of nor unsympathetic to the current global migration crisis. His essay, ‘The Toxicity of Borders’, explores the fear and hypocrisy surrounding the debate in the UK and the rest of Europe over the fate of asylum seekers, of economic migrants, of those who simply want to take advantage of the free movement of peoples. Yet here again, migrants are likened to the fruit flies or green snails that cannot cross borders for fear of crop contamination. They are emblems of the tricky problem of borders. In a collection so concerned with the border’s ability to alienate as well as preserve, one might wish Murray’s language in these instances were itself less alienating.

A version of this piece will be the editorial of New Welsh Reader 113, winter 2016, publishing on 1 December. Don’t miss our Christmas gift subscription offer of a discounted print copy (only £5, making a saving of £2.99 plus postage) of Eluned Gramich’s Woman Who Brings the Rain: A Memoir of Hokkaido, Japan. Palm sized and weighing in at under 70 pages, it’s the perfect stocking filler. Offer ends 31 December.


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