Little Empires II: Fear Death By Water

This is the second in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.

Part One: All Surface No Feeling

Part Two

In the Bible, God made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. That’s a pretty good summer for Wales. That’s a hosepipe ban waiting to happen… I was eight before I realised you could take a cagoule off.

- Rhod Gilbert

O where are our fathers, O brothers of mine?

By the graves of their fathers, awaiting a sign…

The slopes of slag and cinder

Are sulking in the rain

And in derelict valleys

 The hope of youth is slain.

- from Gwalia Deserta, Idris Davies (1938)

Idris Davies, the coalfield’s ‘bitter dreamer’, lost a finger in a mining accident and was first radicalised and then disaffected by his participation in the 1926 General Strike. Subsequently unemployed, and having been introduced to the work of Shelley by a fellow miner, he began four years of what he called ‘the long and lonely self-tuition game’. In his poetry, as fanboyed by T S Eliot, he is notably attached to the word ‘derelict’, especially as a description of the south Welsh valleys, desolate and desecrated by industry. (They’ve only grown more apt as a pairing.) Davies has little of R S Thomas’ brutally bleak, at-bay snarling; his jeremiads are, like the landscape and land he describes, just ‘sulking in the rain’, sad and sullenly resigned.

Meanwhile, the central allusion of Ready for Drowning is to the displacement and destruction of the tiny Welsh community at Capel Celyn, far from Davies’ and the Manics’ heathen, heterogeneous south. Wikipedia’s entry for the incident is enough to make the point:

Capel Celyn was a rural community to the north west of Bala in Gwynedd, north Wales, in the Afon Tryweryn valley. The village and other parts of the valley were flooded to create a reservoir, Llyn Celyn, in order to supply Liverpool and The Wirral with water for industry. In 1956, a private bill sponsored by Liverpool City Council was brought before Parliament to develop a water reservoir from the Tryweryn Valley. The development would include the flooding of Capel Celyn. By obtaining authority via an Act of Parliament, Liverpool City Council would not require planning consent from the relevant Welsh local authorities. This, together with the fact that the village was one of the last Welsh-only speaking communities, ensured that the proposals became deeply controversial. Thirty-five out of thirty-six Welsh Members of Parliament (MPs) opposed the bill (the other did not vote), but in 1957 it was passed. The members of the community waged an eight-year effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to prevent the destruction of their homes. When the valley was flooded in 1965, the village and its buildings, including the post office, the school, and a chapel with cemetery, were all lost. Twelve houses and farms were submerged, and 48 people of the 67 who lived in the valley lost their homes. Families who had relatives buried in the cemetery were given the option of either moving them to another cemetery, or leaving them. Consequently, eight bodies were disinterred, and the remainder left. All headstones were removed, and the cemetery was then covered in a layer of gravel, then concrete.

In the 1880s the village of Llanwyddyn had been dispersed and flooded in a similar manner. In the late 1970s, the building of the Kielder Water reservoir in Northumbria drowned 58 homes and displaced 130 people. In the annals of technological progress, and of industrial capitalism’s disregard for place, custom and community, Tryweryn is a drop in the ocean. Why should its particular echo have been picked up in Ready for Drowning?

In nineteenth and twentieth-century Wales, the fundamental reason behind the country’s population shifts has been the promise or lack of work. In common with the rest of Britain, Wales experienced sustained population growth from the eighteenth century well into the 1850s. Consequent pressure on the rural Welsh economy led to large-scale relocation by thousands of Welsh-speaking rural workers to other fast-industrializing areas of the country, notably the south-east, where the manufacture of iron, coal, tinplate and steel would make the region one of the most productive in the world. An early description of pre-industrial Tredegar, the town which would later produce Neil Kinnock and Aneurin Bevan, describes it as ‘a rude and unprofitable spot populated by only a few poor cottagers’, and records the original inhabitants’ resentment at the appearance of the first ironmasters and the heated disputes over boundaries and rights of way which followed. Industrialization combined with economic migration to swell Tredegar’s population from a few hundred in 1801 to almost 10,000 forty years later.

Once industrialised, such towns developed discernible social stratification. Industrialists, primarily Anglican and of English origin, formed a distinct elite, tending to buy or rent land and build conspicuous mansions in the vicinity of their works, with a slowly-developing middle class and an intermediate layer of skilled craftsmen and tradesmen below them. Among their rapidly expanding workforce were growing English and Irish sections, but the predominant line of class division was strengthened by divisions of language (Welsh vs English) and religion (Nonconformism and Dissent vs Anglicanism). Workers in the mines and ironworks were further distinguished by their status as a ‘society of debtors’, living in dread of incurring sudden expense through illness, accident or the death of a wage-earner, and subject to insecurity over frequent slumps and stoppages in the coal trade, since the level of their wages rose and fell with fluctuations in price. The influence exerted by the iron and coal companies was evident not only in their status as primary employers but also in the dominance of the company shop, company bakeries (in which the widows of men killed in the companies’ employ were often given work as compensation) and company housing, put up quickly and cheaply, row upon row as more employees were needed, and built small in order to avoid parish rates. Redundancy for a worker would therefore also entail the loss of their home. Debts under the truck system were almost unavoidable, leading Monmouthshire magistrates in 1830 to petition Parliament, with little success, for the abolition of company shops.

‘South Wales gives perhaps the most complete picture of the worst features of the Industrial Revolution. There the economic man was not a mere nightmare of the textbooks, he was an omnipotent force in a world existing for a single purpose… In Manchester the Industrial Revolution was a more powerful force on the life and habits of the town, but Manchester had a history before the revolution… In South Wales, on the other hand, conditions were more like those of a newly-discovered gold-field…’

- J L and Barbara Hammond, The Rise of Modern Industry

 Where South Wales in particular was once defined by its heavy industry, the area is now defined by its loss of the same:

Today the valleys show little signs of the industry that once dominated the whole area. The old mine shafts have been filled and capped and the colliery buildings cleared. The land they once occupied is now the home to such as Super- Markets, Playing fields and small industrial parks, employing mostly ex-miners or their descendants. Nearly all of the waste or “slag” heaps have been levelled or landscaped, some just grassed over looking like green pyramids on the sides and tops of the hills.

In what I may as well call Welsh folk-memory, industrial and capitalist imperatives are felt with Biblical force, having both created and destroyed much of the country. The history of Wales can feel as though it’s full of drownings, burials, overwhelmings, displacements and dislocations, subsumings and subsidings and the social and individual injuries stemming from the profit motive, from Aberfan to Gleision Colliery. In all of which, of course, it’s hardly unique in Britain, Europe, or the world. The Manics had already nailed this in the 1996 class requiem Design for Life, but whereas that song hinged almost entirely, and triumphantly, on its embittered industrial edge, Ready for Drowning seems to aim at something broader, albeit with less ultimate success.

Why did, and does, something like Tryweryn resonate? Such instances are particularly blatant symbols of what tends to go unspoken but acknowledged: the fact that ‘we’, the little people, are subject to social and economic forces over which we can only ever struggle to exert control, and that Wales is a nation of little people. We know, as Tryweryn made obvious, that we simply, shockingly, transparently, do not figure. We understand ourselves and our environment as assets to be stripped, resources to be mined, occasional trouble to be put down, and we find ideas of retribution and redress, so repeatedly defeated or denied that they now seem scarcely plausible, dammed into reservoirs of resentment.

Cofiwch_Tryweryn

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