Britain Before Brexit: a portrait of Wales and its people
The Independent’s photographer Richard Morgan is examining his own country in the midst of Brexit’s chaos, scrutinising the contrasts of contemporary Britain and the ambivalence of modern Britishness. This week: Wales
Britain is divided, by twelve regions, a statistical arrangement designed to help governments see the life of the population in graphs, charts and tables. I’m looking at Britain through these regions too, but not statistically, not through numbers that ignore the brilliant details of everyday life, but through the lens of my camera, on the ground, up close.
From a pedestrian bridge connecting two car parks I see the standout feature of Swansea’s skyline: “MORE POETRY IS NEEDED,” painted white on a huge black wall. I close my eyes and think of Doncaster, the first town I visited on this journey around modern urban Britain, where shoppers are welcomed to the Frenchgate Centre by a strikingly similar statement: “WE NEED MORE POETRY IN OUR LIVES.”
I consider the overlaps between these two locally organised, non-profit art projects that connect – unintentionally – such far away places: both loom over places of commerce (a shopping centre, a shopping car park), vying for the attention of consumers in search of what they think they need to buy; both highlight a contemporary crisis of the human experience in British towns and cities, pointing out that we desperately require, but are worryingly lacking, in poetry; and both, like a scream to the streets, are trying to be heard above the monotonous drone of commerciality, and in so doing remind us of what would make our lives richer, of what might save us, of what could fill the deficit. I walk around the city for a while, through a pop-up Christmas fair, past a gigantic plastic snowflake in the centre, alongside prison walls with signs prohibiting drones, across the brown sand in the bay, and then I fancy skipping town.
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I take the bus eastward to Port Talbot, having been impressed by the look of it on yesterday’s drive into Swansea. I arrive and immediately head in the direction of the town’s steelworks, its chimneys and tall mechanical structures silhouetting in the early sunset. It dominates the horizon, steam and smoke turning purple and black, looking like a permanent feature of the coastal landscape.
The pavement runs out, but I keep on walking, towards the factory, now by the side of the motorway, going against the grain of the M4 corridor, the grass littered with rubbish slung from the windows of a million passing cars. And then I reach a point of equidistance and stop, caught between the hills behind and the factory ahead, between nature and artifice, between God and man, each telling their stories, tales of a pre-industrial and industrial Wales, of agriculture and mining, of plant and metal, of ploughs and the furnace. I don’t go any further. It’s dark and I’ve gone far enough.
I’m on Queen Street in Cardiff on Black Friday. People are buying disposable Christmas tat – wrapping paper, tinsel, baubles, crackers – probably made in factories in China. Most of it will end up in landfill or in the oceans. Some people are lying on the street, others are propped up against walls and shop windows. People are begging under cash machines. A charity stall seeks donations for dogs. Lovers walk hand in hand. Children are carried by adults. There are tents pitched on concrete. A fake log cabin hosts drinkers of mulled wine. Smoke and vape drift. The Christmas soundtrack is on repeat. This is a postcard from Black Friday Britain, kaleidoscopic and confused, disorientating, in flux.
I don’t know why – I’m not taking pictures – but I am accosted in Wrexham. A man slams into my shoulder and says “watch where the f*** you’re going” in what sounds to me like a Liverpudlian accent. When a witness tells me in the same accent not to take it personally, that the guy’s a drunk and has had a lot of kickings lately, I wonder what’s going on, what’s happened to the Welsh accent. Later in the Bowling Green, keeping an eye on the development of a dominoes grudge match, I’m told by a home team player that there is, in fact, a similarity between the two accents, and it might be due to the large number of children evacuated from Liverpool to Wrexham during WWII, creating influences that stuck, leaving traces still audible. I’m not convinced, but in any case I stick around to watch the dominoes unfold, a game matching beginnings with ends and ends with beginnings in one long unbroken sequence. I think about the Wrexham accent and promise myself never to talk of “the Welsh accent” ever again. Generalise Britain at your peril, I note.
I learn from a Second World War memorial by the ruins of Aberystwyth Castle that “a man hath no greater love” than that for his country. It’s funny, because I could swear I’ve loved human beings far more than I could ever love England or Britain. And what does a country consist of anyway, if not its people? To be honest, I’m falling in love with Aberystwyth Bay right now, eating curry and chips in the twilight. After dinner I skim stones into the sea, take the bus to the Arts Centre, cry my eyes out watching Bohemian Rhapsody, and walk back into the drunk student buzz of the town centre.
In a nightclub I witness GEOGSOC (Geography society) destroy HISTSOC (History society) in a drinking competition. The rafters are lined with Hogwarts wannabes cheering on the pint-downing gladiators below, and in the competitive tribalism and youthful loyalty I do notice a resemblance to the Harry Potter vibe, only with a bucket load of beer and vodka thrown into the mix. Indeed, shots of vodka are going for 60p in this place, because it’s Vodka Tuesday. A couple of locals in the corner describe a love-hate relationship with the town’s student population: “They do bring a lot of trade and vibrancy to the place, but last week after Vodka Tuesday the gutters were lined with vomit.”
Merthyr Tydfil makes sense when seen from Cyfarthfa Castle, standing on a hillside on the edge of the town. It was from there for most of the 19th century that the Crawshay family, industrial capitalists from Yorkshire, living like kings in lavish extravagance, liked to watch their profits grow in the ironworks below, in the rows of shanty terraces, in the overcrowding and crime, in the poverty and hunger, in the epidemics and filth and death of the valley.
The Crawshays had 15,000 bottles of booze in the cellar; their workers in the town had no clean water. It was in this way that Merthyr Tydfil was forged; how it was cast. And yet, nowadays, with the industry and the factories and the jobs long gone, there remains a nostalgia for this recent history, for the purpose and structure and stability it gave the town and its people, no matter the price. And, as I learned in the former mining towns of Yorkshire, this nostalgia springs from the experience of the current generation, whose identity is lost, whose purpose is unclear, and whose pride is wounded. It is necessary to use Orwellian “double think” to grasp this post-industrial paradox: if before, Merthyr Tydfil’s hard times were explained by the presence of industry, now they are explained by its absence.