Little Empires III: Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes
This is the third 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
The furies are at home
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the clearest water,
if deep enough can drown.
Never think to surprise them.
Your face approaching ever
so friendly is the white flag
they ignore. There is no truce
with the furies. A mirror’s temperature
is always at zero. Its camera
is an X-ray. It is a chalice
held out to you in
silent communion, where gaspingly
you partake of a shifting
identity never your own.
– ‘Reflections’, R S Thomas
Most people see me as a rake, womanizer, boozer and purchaser of large baubles. I`m all those things depending on the prism and the light. But mostly I’m a reader.
– Richard Burton
Besides the drowning of Tryweryn, Ready for Drowning also snags the idea of drowning one’s sorrows, referencing the alleged propensity of the Welsh for – what shall we call it? – a steady, a committed, a co-dependent relationship with drink. The association of Wales with a certain kind of romanticised and spectacular inclination to alcoholism – not so much in reality as in legend – still persists. Ready for Drowning compares the flooding of Tryweryn with how, according to Wire: ‘a ceaseless chain of Welsh people seek to adjust to their circumstances by drowning their synapses in alcohol. …‘it’s half Richey, half Welsh identity – about how many of our icons either drink themselves to death or run away’.
The form in which this psychological submergence might most readily come to mind is the glamorous dissipation of those – Burton, Thomas, Parkin, Hopkins – who made it out. Film stars, rock stars and poets, and those who, regardless of their day job, drank like rock stars, film stars, or poets. The obverse of this coin is less romantic if just as compulsive: the prosaic, everyday pursuit of escape through obliteration; the stereotype which allows the Welsh – young Welsh women, in particular – to be castigated in prurient and sensationalist front-page splashes on city-centre binge-drinking; to say nothing of liver disease, lost weekends, lost memories, lost potential, injury, derangement, early death. (And, as the saying goes, I’m sure it’s also got its downside.) Never mind where we’re going; how did we get here?
Across Wales, life expectancy has been increasing for two decades. But deaths from alcohol are three-and-a-half times higher in the most deprived areas for men and more than twice as high for women.
Of all the countries participating in the HBSC survey, Wales has the highest proportion of 15 year olds that reported drinking on a weekly basis (over 50 per cent of girls and almost 60 per cent of boys).
‘...Drink has played a massive part in the people we are and where we come from. There’s such a level of enjoyment in it, as well: in being blasted. James is so happy sometimes when I catch him at three in the morning, completely wrecked. He’s just really pleased.’
The cheapest pub in Tredegar is, or at least used to be, a Wetherspoons built on the site of a carpet showroom. This carpet showroom had arisen on the site of the local cinema, the only one in town, which opened in 1913 and closed in the late 1970s. The original building, raised in 1811, had been a market hall or town hall paid for by the town’s paternalist benefactor, Samuel Homfray. This Wetherspoons was initially to be named the Aneurin Bevan, after the town’s most celebrated son, a proposal defeated by local opposition on the grounds that it might be in dubious taste to associate the founder of the NHS with a civic building converted for the purposes of letting the working class drink themselves to death. There is now, however, a Wetherspoons on the outskirts of Cardiff which has been named after Bevan, so the victory, typically, is largely hollow, as the avaricious dismembering of the NHS appears unstoppable.
In Merthyr Tydfil, a town which like Tredegar has historically punched above its weight – one of industrialisation’s iconic forcing-houses, home in the 1950s to one of the biggest council housing projects in Europe, and now with one in five of its working-age population unemployed – is yet another Wetherspoons. This one is named Y Dic Penderyn after the martyr of the 1831 Merthyr Rising, an armed revolt by industrial workers over unemployment, debt and low pay, which involved, reputedly for the first time in European protest, the raising of a red flag. The town lasted about a week under popular control, during which time workers forced a general strike, drove the military out of the district, destroyed a debtors’ court and redistributed pawned property. The insurrection was eventually put down by force, its putative leader transported and, on the Prime Minister’s orders, the twenty-three year old participant Dic Penderyn hanged pour encourager les autres. The myth and iconography of 1831 endures; in 2008 the crowd which marked the final shift worked at nearby Tower Colliery, the last deep mine in South Wales, run since 1995 as a workers’ cooperative, included the appearance of a red flag on which was written ‘1831’.
The historian Gwyn A Williams located the Merthyr Rising at the end of the ‘primitive’ stage of Welsh working-class protest and the beginning of its organisational turn. Subsequent Welsh labour history has often been marshalled into a respectable teleology of union lodge-forming, marching and petitioning, with workers earning concessions by proving their ability to fit within the sober, constitutional pale. While one can indeed make out this narrative, far messier, more recalcitrant and less modern forms of protest persisted across Wales throughout the 19th century: anti-tithe, anti-landlord and anti-enclosure clashes; community disruptions of evictions and distraint sales; the quasi-Luddite Scotch Cattle in the south-east iron belt; the multitudinous mass resistance of Rebeccaism. These movements, entwined with pre-industrial popular culture and social attitudes, incorporated petty crime; casual violence; spontaneous and individual obstruction, sabotage and non-co operation; anonymous letters, handbills and graffiti; and they retained symbolic throwbacks like effigies, animal masks and male cross-dressing (the latter, an over-simplified emblem of the Rebecca riots, finding an almost certainly unrelated but suitably daft echo in Nicky Wire’s insouciant Housewife Superstar drag).
The residual tendency towards volatility and fracturing of ‘respectable’ protest was evident in the idiosyncratic development in South Wales of the Chartist movement for popular democracy and parliamentary reform. Towards the English border, in Newport, is John Frost Square, named after a leader of the 1839 Chartist march on Newport from the iron and coal towns. After its fractious overnight progress down the valleys, the march’s debouch into a strategically disastrous stand-off with the military outside the square’s Westgate Hotel resulted in the death, injury, and transportation of participants – the transportation being a commuted sentence, a reprieve, after three of them, including Frost, became the last men in Britain sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
My pre-GCSE History lessons covered the Scotch Cattle, Chartism and the Rebecca riots, which in retrospect seems extraordinary, and which I’d attribute to to some Nineties entryist conspiracy within the Welsh Joint Education Committee if it weren’t for the fact that such things have been, through civic remembrance and popular art, drama and literature – as well as popular memory and the names of various pubs – incorporated into a version of ‘the national story’. It’s worth questioning whether official willingness to commemorate Welsh Chartism in particular comes from the ability to emphasise the movement’s constitutional and reformist demands, almost all of which were eventually met by successive governments. Rebeccaism – the term ‘Rebecca riots’, while evocative enough, is a slight misnomer for what was a drawn-out period of varying resistance to social and economic transformation – tends similarly to be remembered as a narrow and region-specific opposition to road tolls, a colourful cut-and-dried success, rather than the complex and collaborative losing game it actually was. The Scotch Cattle, with their grim hypermasculinity and their uncompromising, ‘terrorist’ guerrilla tactics, are offered as a bit of an anomalous embarrassment. Local mythology states that the Westgate Hotel still stands with bullet-holes from 1839 in its facade, even though you’d need to be a forensic archaeologist to spot them.
‘The condition of the miners is desperate. Over 100,000 are starving, or on the verge of it; a whole province lies waste, so far as productive labour and the means of life are concerned.’
– Keir Hardie on the south Wales coalfield, 1898
Do you remember 1926?
The great dream and the swift disaster,
The fanatic and the traitor, and more than all,
The bravery of the simple, faithful folk?
‘Ay, ay, we remember 1926,’ said Dai and Shinkin,
As they stood on the kerb in Charing Cross Road,
‘And we shall remember 1926 until our blood is dry.’
– from Gwalia Deserta, Idris Davies
“[The 1984-5 miners’ strike] created in many places a very resilient and tough resistance movement. The network of women and mixed support groups had given rise to an alternative, community-based system of food, clothing, financial and morale distribution which has sustained about half a million people for nearly a year. The social and political skills of organisation and communication were akin to the experiences of people during a social revolution.”
“We also discovered something else: that we are part of a real nation which extends northwards beyond the coalfield, into the mountains of Powys, Dyfed and Gwynedd. For the first time since the industrial revolution in Wales, the two halves of the nation came together in mutual support… old differences of attitude and accent withered.”
There is a peculiar indignation and contempt which miners in particular seem to inspire in their political opponents, through their disposability, their status as a physically and culturally isolated ‘people apart’, and their persistent consciousness and organisation, their uppity insistence on behaving as agents rather than resources. It stretches further back than Churchill’s dispatching of troops to the Rhondda in 1910 and further abroad than the pitched battles with police at Orgreave in 1984. After the past two decades’ accelerated erasure of heavy industry, Wales’ economy is now reliant on the public sector, service jobs, and tourism. (And of course the pit-head baths is a supermarket now.)
Again, the high incidence of addictions of all kinds in the aftermath of economic trauma is hardly unique to Wales. Historically, in industrial Wales at least, drinking was inextricably linked with work and with the escape from it. Men at work in the mines and furnaces of the 1830s and 40s frequently took off for drinking ‘sprees’ which could last days, holing up in taverns and having to be dragged bodily back to work or driven back by force of law. What might an alternative to death by drinking have been? Industrial diseases, dust in the lungs, a death not by water but by slow suffocation, by explosion, by molten metal. With the loss of mining as a way of life, it becomes easy to romanticise it, to forget its grind, its grime, its precarious and volatile relationship with safety.
If drinking in industrial Wales was relief and respite from harsh conditions, so, in an altered socioeconomic landscape with some of the UK’s highest unemployment figures and bleakest prospects, it remains. Working and not working abound in reasons to be driven to drink. I sometimes think part of why romantic ideals figure so highly in the Welsh psyche is because everything else can seem so grimy and gloomy and, just below the surface, terrifying. History in Wales is not so much submerged as sedimentary, with most of it seeming to commemorate only struggle, failure, loss, defeat, and things which might have been. Things are buried very close to the surface, in a land of wounds which never quite heal and aching historical hangovers.