OPINION Kieron Smith

NWR Issue r35

Swansea Automatic

how does a colour become a symbolic colour? how does a place become a symbolic place? Why is this book about SWANSEA and not ABERYSTWYTH or LONDON?

In 1835, in a civic-minded effort to raise the town’s intellectual high-water mark, a group of Swansea industrialists, intellectuals and amateur scientists established the ‘Swansea Philosophical and Literary Institution’. The endeavour was a considerable success; by 1838, they had received a Royal Charter, an accolade to which they dutifully responded by renaming themselves the ‘Royal Institution of South Wales’, and in 1841 they built themselves a headquarters. This building, known today as Swansea Museum, may appear a preposterously kitsch throwback, a faux-Classical piece of historical jetsam adrift at the end of Wind Street, but in its heyday, it was a centre and symbol of civic maturity, urbanity and sophistication: a physical projection of the town’s lofty ambitions, and an image of the city Swansea aspired to be.

The Royal Institution served as a proto-university, with exhibition galleries, a lecture theatre, a laboratory, and a library. Its librarian for nearly fifty years was a man named George Grant Francis (1814–82). Francis was a high-minded civic leader. The library he established was Swansea’s first, and, by 1876, it had accumulated some 10,000 volumes. Many of these were drawn from the Royal Institution’s Book Club. After two years’ use by members, book club volumes would be presented to the main Institution library. Francis’ specialism was history, and, of course, like many other Gradgrindian men, he had a fetish for facts. His interests extended to the hard sciences, physical geography, and law, but rarely to the frivolous literary arts; indeed, his Book Club excluded the purchase of novels. This influenced the composition of the Royal Institution Library, which contained a wide range of books across the sciences, history, geography, and jurisprudence, but offered little in the way of what the catalogue described as ‘Polite Literature’.

Pre-Freud, and pre-Ernest Jones – Freud’s dedicated friend and collaborator born in Gowerton in 1879 – the Victorian intellectuals who comprised the Royal Institution of South Wales could not have dreamed of the idea of Swansea’s unconscious. And so, they must have been baffled when, despite their best efforts to pin down and taxonomise the town, to organise and instruct it into dignified and upstanding cultivation, Swansea proved to be a resistant subject. It refused to be moulded into the desired shape. Swansea is, after all, a littoral town. With a preposterously high tidal range, it sits uncertainly at the edge of ever-shifting waters. It is a liminal town, occupying the periphery, forever on the cusp of town and city, city and country, land and sea.

Being always on the edge, always in-between, pulsing with a relentless ebb and flow, Swansea tends to introspection. It oscillates between polarities of mood and mode: at high tide, in a certain light, the town glows with the serenity and poise of a Mediterranean coastal resort. Yet the rapidly outflowing ebb uncovers a murky subterranean underside: flotsam, jetsam, psychic detritus. Its history echoes these peaks and troughs, with its successive swells of glory and depravity, prosperity and despair. Fixatedly smelting ore to the ferrous and non-ferrous – iron, copper, tin, nickel, arsenic, zinc – it became rich, but this left its scars: puking out smoke, blackening the Tawe, poisoning the aber and its environs. By the time the Swansea was reduced to rubble in February 1941, it was already hollowed out, exhausted. Today, lacklustre swells of capital bequeath new shoreline debris: tin-shed supermarkets, mediocre civic regeneration projects, half-empty apartment blocks, unfinished plastic towers of ‘Purpose Built Student Accommodation’. How could the orderly Victorian methodologies – science, geography, history – make meaningful sense of this?

What might George Grant Francis have made of Rhys Trimble’s Swansea Automatic, relaunched this year, in this new era of inflowing effluvia? Would he have put it on his reading list, or condemned it as ‘polite literature’, never to find a place on the institution’s shelves? In places, Swansea Automatic appears closer to a scientific textbook than a poem, novel, or novella, so much so that perhaps the readers of the Royal Institution book club, in their quest for firmly graspable knowledge, might have approved:

SWANSEA The macromolecule consists of a number of subunits–Morriston, Sketty, Mumbles–these subunits have specific interaction sites with urbanised ligands such as Landore, Townhill, Cwmbwrla, Uplands &c––a second detachable set of subunits focussed on tertiary superstructure of subunits defined by Gowerton, Gorseinon and Llwchwr. The active site of SWANSEA designated SA1 contains long-chain amino acids to bind inorganic molecules such as meridian quay tower, turning over 106 pounds. I stayed at a region of a helices wound socioeconomically to form the coiled-coil ‘sandfields’ featuring long range pebbledash interactions and stabilised by ionic interactions with acidified His residues.

In this sense, Swansea Automatic can be read as a lecture on a universe in which the laws of physics have collapsed and logic has been disabled. It flickers and fluctuates between styles, modes, epistemic planes. It is a work of local history in which temporal syntax has been spun into a squirming morass of morphemes, phonemes, graphemes, colours, runic energies that elude continua, ad infinitum. It is a city guidebook in which all the place-names have been changed and the maps crumpled into lewd origami. It is a self-help text in which the prose is a stream of consciousness reactively debunked by its own neurotic psychiatrist:

‘pure autonomic… pure autonomic… pure autonomic [forgets] [identification with sadness] make a text out of a pattern of repetitions pure psychic autonomism, pure psychic autonomism––pure voice––thinking wing-fast, thinking sky, thinking your pains, thinking your internal landscape simultaneously––sensations which become kinds-of thoughts really––thoughts––of being tired of being yourself––pure psychic autonomism––everything becomes poetry––if you can get it out of yourself––all your emotions do circuits of yourself––like a synchrotron––only a couple of tiny particles get to the surface where they can escape [thinking of physics phenomena here – forgets] –– checked just not balanced––I’m happy to attack people in a sly way––but I don’t like being attacked back––especially not by stupid fucking old men! ––the first world war was fought as an elimination of youth’

Anyway it’s all getting a bit dark?

BS Johnson haunts the corridors of this book’s laboratories. Johnson’s own 1966 novel, Trawl, employed the image of the fishing trawler as a symbol and device to scoop up the truth of his past and himself. Swansea Automatic embarks on a similar journey, but under Bernadette Meyer’s supervision, it wields the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets’ experiments as its trawling device, re-forging them into a psychosocial metal detector to seek out and dredge up Swansea’s metallurgical rejectamenta. It smelts alchemical badinage from the ore of the town’s perverse, sedimented unconscious. It forges these found substances into a radial, location-based dating tool, a novellic Tinder to sniff out Swansea’s collective subsexual profile. However, where Tinder itself is a sanitised format, sterilised by the dry haptic of the swipe, Swansea Automatic smears a greasy finger across the real, swiping right to everything in its vicinity. It captures the accumulative dating profile of Swansea, a collective bio primed for some post-apocalyptic eventuality in which cities compete with one another in a desperate effort to attract feral residents to rut and repopulate its barren streets. Swansea Automatic would be Swansea’s Tinder profile if it had gone on a binge and was no longer sure what it wanted: a fuck, a fling, or to settle down in a semi in Sketty.

When the Royal Institution of South Wales was established, it dedicated itself to ‘the cultivation and advancement of the various branches of natural history, as well as the local history of the town… [and] the extension and encouragement of the fine arts and the general diffusion of knowledge.’ Swansea Automatic finds and forges a language to extend, encourage, and diffuse the various branches of Swansea’s unknown knowledge and unnatural history, as well as uncover and take selfies of parts of itself it didn’t know it had. If the town ever does hook up for the last time and finally settles down, Swansea Automatic should be both its best man speech and its wedding vows. After the honeymoon, it should sit on the mantel of the semi in Sketty next to the white china dogs and the hand-carved trinkets etched with twee Tinder philosophies: ‘live laugh love’; ‘live your best life’; ‘love the life you live, live the life you love’; ‘no dramas’; ‘no fuckboys’; ‘there’s no one new around you’.

Kieron Smith is the author of John Ormond’s Organic Mosaic: Poetry, Documentary, Nation, published last year in the Writing Wales in English series by University of Wales Press.


previous opinion: Writing Democracies: Locating DK Fields
next opinion: Your Chance to Secure New Welsh Review's Future


A brief note on copyright:all authors have given permission for their work to appear online on New Welsh Review's website. Copyright remains with the author. If you wish to reproduce part or all of any article then the permission of the author must be sought, and the author and New Welsh Review credited accordingly.

Contact us:Registered Office PO Box 170, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 1WZ - Telephone 00 (44) 1970 628410 admin@newwelshreview.com
© New Welsh Review Ltd, all rights reserved - Registered in England and Wales - Registered number: 02493828
Website design: mach2media and mopublications      Website development: Technoleg Taliesin Cyf.