NWR Issue r19

Meanings and Values

’We are concerned with meanings and values that are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs.’
Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature

Wales is the land of song. Its reputation as such began with the Methodist revival of the eighteenth century. It was firmly established by the nineteenth, through Nonconformist choral singing and the eisteddfodau. Some of the best known hymns in the world – ‘Guide me o thou great Redeemer’, ‘Aberystwyth’, ‘Calon Lân’ – are Welsh. They are sung heartily at rugby matches across the country, and fill the eaves of vast numbers of churches on a Sunday. In Wales’ industrial past, miners would form male voice choirs to compete in eisteddfodau, and some have survived to this day. Wales’ reputation as the land of song is firmly rooted in its religious and industrial history. Which seems an odd place, perhaps, to begin a discussion of the politics of utopia and dystopia.

Wales has a distinctive history as an industrial nation. During the Industrial Revolution, it was best known for producing raw materials – steel, slate, copper – and exporting these around the world. By 1851, Wales was the second leading industrial power in the world (following closely behind England).

Echoing Chris Moss’ essay for the last issue of New Welsh Reader (#115, summer 2017), Wales has long been considered a country of the sublime, of landscapes which leave their viewer in awe, breath-taken. It is in great contrast to this immense physical beauty that poverty is rife in certain post-industrial areas of Wales, especially in the Valleys: Abertillery, Blaina, Brynmawr, Tredegar, among others. The Valleys contain, too, some of the most depressed places in the country.

A number of Welsh artists have recently attempted to respond to this reality, often through photography. ‘Diffusion’, Cardiff’s International Festival of Photography (curated by Ffotogallery), took revolution as its theme this year. A number of exhibitions – Sebastian Bruno’s The Dynamic; Robert Smith’s The Human Fabric; Walter Waygood’s Photomontage Works – dealt with post-industrialism in Wales. Each one was melancholic and hopeful in its own way.

An earlier exhibition at Ffotogallery – David Barnes’ in solution – sought to revive the question of community in the post-industrial area of Treorchy. It asked how a community might define, or view, itself once its source of identity (and very reason for existing) has disappeared. There’s a particularly enigmatic image from Barnes’ exhibition. In this image a woman sits in an otherwise empty office; cardboard boxes surround her on each side. Some are sellotaped shut, others spill their contents like water from an overboiling pot. We wonder whether she is setting up for business, or dismantling one. We hope the former, but suspect the latter.

This image represents the reality for much of Wales – economically and otherwise. It is a country on the cusp. It is a part of the UK and yet many would rather see it independent. It is heavily funded by the EU, a relationship which is soon to end (at the behest, it must be said, of many Welsh people). It used to be a country of heavy industry. Wales is now certainly post-industrial. The threatened closure of the Port Talbot steelworks in 2015 was a symbolic nail in the coffin of Welsh industry, a threat which formed a chronological backdrop for the EU vote. The news was a shock. Sixty-nine per cent of Welsh steel exports are sold to the EU market. Wales receives around £680 million in EU funds each year. In other words, Wales gets much more than it gives.

It is still, for all that, the land of song. Why? Here are some lines from one of Wales’ best-loved hymns:

Guide me O thou great Redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land

These words, written in 1905, even at the height of industry (and of Welsh Revival), speak of feeling lost in some sense. It speaks to the nomadism of the Jewish people travelling through the wilderness, escaping from Egyptian slavery. It speaks of God’s promise of provision, especially at the darkest time. I wonder if, today, that same hymn cries out for a renewal of Wales’ industrial past. It cries out for Wales to become the land of milk and honey (again).

To hope today, it seems, is a dark art. Those who can conjure it out of nothingness are magicians – not to be trusted. In Wales especially, it rears its head precisely in the religious – the never-ending faith that God will continue to feed us, in the desert, as it were. Even there, though, the picture is not hopeful. Church and chapel attendance are down the Valleys, as elsewhere; many are closing their doors. Most have given up on the promise of divine provision.

The Welsh cultural theorist Raymond Williams coined the term ‘structures of feeling’ to describe the problem of thinking of a certain mode of thought as ‘total’. Williams points out that critics often have the bad habit of referring to culture and society as though they were a homogenous and unchanging thing. In fact, of course, they are always changing and adapting to new ideas, peoples and times. They are fluid, funny things. Williams remarks that within existing modes of thought there is always an ‘inner dynamic’ allowing the production of something new. Thus, the idea of ‘community’ is not located in any particular time or place or idea. We can’t point to it and say, ‘This is it’. Rather, it is happening as we speak. Community is a matter of ‘feeling out’ a sense of the social. Williams suggests that community can come together for any length of time, and that it can be dissolved just as quickly. Community is an event: it happens in the encounter with another.
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There is something else, there, too. It’s what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls ‘fabulation’. To fabulate is to draw on a history and bring it into the present. What does this mean? It is something to do with storytelling – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. As an example, Deleuze takes the Québequois, islanders who in the past would erect weir barriers on the St Lawrence river to catch white dolphins. The filmmaker Pierre Perrault, documenting this community, suggested that they resurrect this long-abandoned practice. The islanders agreed, though they had no need for this practice anymore. In doing so, they ‘must revive distant memories and ancestral lore.’ Why? In reviving this practice, the Québequois take stock of their past; they converse with their ancestors, remember with their hands what the Québequois before them have done. They bring their cultural memory into the present. They begin to tell a story about themselves.

Storytelling is an act free from the constraints of ‘truth’. The recent controversies regarding fake news and alternative facts demonstrates that ‘truth’ is always on the side of the powerful, and of the coloniser. ‘Facts’ can be manipulated to serve those in charge. To be able to tell stories is to give power to what Deleuze terms the ‘false’. Storytelling happens in reaction to an ‘official’ version of events: it belongs to the realm of invention, of memory. In this way, Wales cannot rest on its history. It cannot rely on people’s (often romanticised) notions of what it is. It will not always be the Land of Song. That’s not to say the past counts for nothing: we can fabulate, we can tell stories.

The question of political utopia or dystopia rests on pure invention. These inventive politics are played out particularly in culture. Literature, perhaps especially, has a wonderful potential for trying out a different politics. It goes beyond this, though – in a sense, our culture is these politics themselves.

New Welsh Reader’s latest issue contains Welsh autobiographical writing which takes us just around the corner (Liz Jones’ ‘On Shifting Sands’), a few hours away by car (Catherine Haines’ ‘My Oxford’), to a Cold-War era Eastern Europe (Adam Somerset’s ‘People, Places and Things: A Life with the Cold War’), and across the Atlantic (Maria Apichella’s ‘The Red Circle’). Interesting that a study of self should take us so far.

Let’s focus here on Liz Jones’ work, for its examination of identity (specifically Welsh identity) and its relation to community. In this piece, Jones reminisces about visiting her Nain when she was younger. It’s a concurrent history of person (ie her memoir) and place (Newborough).
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The piece begins with a history of Newborough:

The borough was created by Edward I for an uprooted people, who had been forced to set up new, precarious lives on the edges of a wind-blasted, sand-drenched land.

The history of the place begins with a people in exile (a pilgrimage through a barren land), and a shared experience of hardship. If the Welsh relate to the experience of exile and nomadism it is because they have been continuously uprooted, placed in precarious conditions.

Jones continues:

What happens to those pieces of ourselves that we leave behind? Where do they go, those particles of skin that we shed every day, every minute, every second? Are there still fragments of us lying in the soil, under layers of skin and detritus? I wonder if some of me is still here, in Newborough, beneath the dunes of Newborough Warren.

Person and place begin to inhabit one another. The places we live profoundly affect who we are. But Jones makes an interesting point here: the idea that we affect place as much as place affects us. That fragments of us lie in soil is physically inevitable: when we die our bodies or ashes will end up there one way or another. This is not profound, but Jones is saying something else here. She points out that this place (here, Newborough, but it could be any place with which we identify) is me, and I this place. There is something here which goes beyond mere biology; it’s much more imprecise than that. It’s a (structure of) feeling. That feeling has a concrete, actual effect on identity, both personal and national. It creates community around shared, imprecise memories. Storytelling.

When Jones wonders about fragments of herself lying in the soil, it speaks to her wanting to be known by the soil. Not just be known, but known infinitely. In this sense, she is not talking about the soil but about that far more fertile ground: memory. My memories are not her’s, and yet I am able to inhabit them: they become a place I can visit, stay a while, or leave….

This is not to say that there is not a concrete, actual Wales. It is to say that the actual Wales is made up of memory and story, concretely. The potential for a new politics lies in our desire for it to happen: our ability to imagine it. The idea, of course, is not to hit the nail of Welshness on the head but to have fun with the hammer. To play with the idea of Welshness, through memory or culture, is to play politics, a game which cannot be subsumed under a petty two-party system, referendums or devolution. Inventing is perhaps our new industry. It’s about conjuring something new, something which draws on the past. Taking it into the future. No need to worry about the bottom line: we will continue to be fed, now and evermore.

Jack Pugh recently completed an MA at Cardiff University.

The archive gallery of Diffusion Festival 2017, which ran throughout May this year, is still available to view. Pictured: ‘Deep Navigation Closing’ (exhibited in Photomontage Works) by Walter Waywood, courtesy of Diffusion/Ffotogallery.


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