NWR Issue 99

Swinging Our Beads on Caroline Street

Wales is a very violent place with a binge drinking culture. I say choose your friends and choose your family very carefully. In Wales you are more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than anywhere else ­­­­in the UK.

So says Barbara Wilding, ex-Chief Constable of Wales, quoted by Zoë Brigley in the epigraph of ‘Rugby Club Love’. This is the opening poem of her word-and-image essay with photographer Nathan Roach, ‘Beyond the Barren Lands, Bridgend’s “Suicide Spate”’. There were reportedly twenty-five, mostly teenage, suicides in the Bridgend area between January 2007 and February 2009, mostly by hanging. Claims were made for a copy-cat cult, fuelled by social networks and mass media coverage. Brigley’s poem, ‘Rugby Club Love’, deliberately exaggerates this death cult theory in lines such as ‘We ride our despair / like a troublesome horse; Mari Llwyd, the star-horse, horse of frost, / white horse of the sea, its skull stripped to pearly bone.’ But Roach’s photos tell a different story where death-on-a-rope isn’t the only alternative to living in the pub. Some may be of drunken crowds, but they are dancing joyously to local young bands. These lads, whether the skater boy on our cover or the chirpy members of band Your Local Hero, look to have a happy future and plans for what to do there.

Another tale of binge drinking and media frenzy is to be found on page 72. Kaite O’Reilly assesses the photos of St Mary Street and capital nightlife by Maciej Dakowicz which in September 2011 sparked the Daily Mail headline ‘Shaming Images that Turned Britain into a Laughing Stock’. The images had already become a viral rash of the type you get when… oh, never mind. O’Reilly’s review of Cardiff After Dark concludes, ‘It’s Gin Lane with fewer clothes, more jokes, and no proselytising, for Dakowicz is no Hogarth…. But… there are those who resent Cardiff being reduced to two streets and the activities of a partying, predominantly Caucasian minority. Cardiff was Britain’s first truly multicultural society, yet the breadth and richness of the city is not here. This is a Cardiff after dark, not the real, full Cardiff. Now that would be a worthy canvas for Dakowicz’s talents.’

They are mainly young, those ‘swinging their beads on Caroline Street’, to circulate O’Reilly’s Grangetown neighbour’s phrase. To borrow Brigley’s, they are not yet riding the horse of despair. Nor are they likely, in that of the ex-Chief Constable, to assault anyone other than themselves, although heeding her advice about ‘choos[ing] your friends’ might have led them to shun Dakowicz’s camera (in the cases where he sought permission). But it’s certainly not a rosy view of Wales’ youth. Novelist Tristan Hughes’ general take on childhood is similarly jaundiced. His Ontario-set story, ‘Shapes and Pieces’, is a response to Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica. It features young Cory on the day he shot his first pheasant. He has just seen his father kill a man, but his thoughts are more selfish than traumatised; more along the lines of: Dad will hog the limelight. In his opener, Tristan Hughes, an anti-sentimentalist, describes how in the classic novel, a high wind threatens the ‘edifices of civilisation... mirroring Richard Hughes’ deconstruction of the sentimental Victorian cult of childhood. Our glimpse into the minds of the Bas–Thornton children reveals a world almost entirely removed from adult notions of morality, conduct and perception. What we discover is a realm of instinct – feral, adaptive, capricious, and, in the final reckoning, disturbingly alien… as inscrutable and inaccessible as an owl’s eye.’

Catherine Fisher returns us to Wales, via Middle Earth. In ‘The Other Wales’, her review-essay on Welsh mythology and folktale in popular culture, she values the ‘warped and wonderful’ image of Fantasy Wales. She is most interested in where reality touches down: Wentwood, near the Usk, for Arthur Macken writing The Great God Pan; the Welsh language on a Birmingham train plaque for the boy Tolkien who would later invent ‘the Elvish language’. Unlike Hughes, however, Fisher finds a place for sentimentality:

For those of us who inhabit the real Wales… there is a danger of losing sight of this mirror-Wales, of dismissing it as twee or irrelevant or even the result of well-meaning outsiders sentimentalizing a whole culture. I think that would be a mistake. We have to understand that we have something – intangible, unmeasurable, fugitive. It is this that has contributed enormously to recent literature in certain fields and different media, and also – like it or not – to the way Wales is perceived by a significant demographic. We have a mirror-image. And it reflects us and our culture, however warped and wonderful we may look in it.

While I respect Fisher’s views, there are greater dangers in this ‘warped’, outsider reflection than she acknowledges. The ‘significant demographic’ that associates Wales with wizards may grow up to couple Bridgend with suicide and link Cardiff to bared bums (though, for once, we may thank the Mail for counting Cardiff’s sins as British). The problem lies as much in the distorted image as the mirror’s size, how shiny it is, who’s holding it, which way it’s facing, and why we just keep looking in it. These are big questions that New Welsh Review is addressing. Funders and paying readers, we are proud of you: let’s swing some beads!


previous editorial: Baron Samedi and Other Vital Illusions
next editorial: Boing The Gong, We're 100!


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