Merthyr moments

My partner has cancer. He has been so brave.

We had to go to Merthyr for the next bout of chemotherapy. I had not set foot in Merthyr Tudful for at least 30 years.

I dropped him off at the hospital up on the Gurnos estate. The sprawling monstrosity, opened in 1978, is of course named after an English royal – in this case, bewildered billionaire marmalade manufacturer and over-the-hill vaginophiliac Prince Charles. For some peculiar reason it’s obligatory for hospitals in Wales to honour those who personify the precise opposite of what the NHS represents. Me no comprendo.

I had four hours to kill. It was a pleasant early-summer day of mellow air, cotton-wool clouds and translucent light in the high hills of Morgannwg. This was a probably unrepeatable chance for me to explore mysterious Merthyr. I parked near the High Street, and had barely walked a few yards before some bloke who happened to be passing greeted me with genuine warmth and enthusiasm and struck up a conversation!

Contrary to the self-congratulatory delusion spouted by middle-class students from England who have spent a couple of years in Cardiff getting pissed and partying with other middle-class students from England and only have the icy enmity of the typical English city to compare it with, Cardiff is actually a very unfriendly place. How could a city built on epic levels of violence, theft, exploitation, lies and corruption be otherwise? We’re distant, suspicious, defensive and passive-aggressive – because that’s the way to survive in a callous snake-pit of greed and duplicity. I’m a Cardiffian to my fingertips. I’m accustomed to and comfortable with Cardiff’s prevailing atmosphere of anonymity and indifference. So this Merthyr man’s amiable and open-hearted engagement was a complete culture shock. An approach from a random person who isn’t a beggar, a mugger, a prostitute, flogging something or distributing flyers? Good gracious me, whatever is the world coming to!

This was just the start. As I meandered down High Street, through the St Tydfil shopping precinct and around the side streets, over and over again I was greeted, smiled at, chatted to or even hugged once or twice by just about everybody I encountered. It was overwhelming. Merthyr may be only 23 miles from Cardiff but I could have been on a different planet. All seemed to know at a glance that I was a stranger in town, and all instinctively responded to that awareness by making me welcome. There could be no ulterior motives behind this friendliness: I’m no city slicker, I’m not eye-candy and I’ve got more or less nothing to offer. I’m a scruffy, grubby, unhappy, poverty-stricken, skeletal slaphead with zero appeal. Do you know who I see when I look in the mirror? Give in? I’ll tell you: Wilfred Brambell (1912-1985). No, this was something else, something different, something presumed long extinct: good old-fashioned Welsh hospitality.

Welsh accents were everywhere – and not the modulated mincing Welsh accent of the BBC Wales presenter or the mongrel mockery Welsh accent of the coastal lowlands, but the rollicking, rolling, lyrical, lipsmacking Welsh accent of the valleys and mountains, the authentic voice of the gwerin. For someone used to either the Glamorgan+Somerset+Connemara+Bronx amalgam that larges it in working-class Cardiff, or the More-English-Than-The-English watery apology prevalent in middle-class Cardiff, it was sheer pleasure to wallow in unmistakeable, undiluted Welshness, here in Wales. However, this feeling was not to last. Every silver lining has a cloud.

I had noticed a couple of British Army recruiters earlier, strolling up the High Street in full uniform. Now I saw another pair, talking to a group of young men. And then, at what passes for Merthyr’s railway system these days (a single track leading to one tiny platform and a buffer), I saw yet another pair of strutting Brit advocates of violence. These pressgangs were blatantly on the hunt for gormless cannon-fodder. This must be exceptionally fertile territory for the Royal Welsh regiment, I pondered, as I entered the giant Tesco situated where the magnificent 1853 Merthyr Tydfil Station of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) once stood. I rarely enter any supermarket if I can help it (I needed some carbonated water – drinking it flat makes me feel like I’m drowning), and I expected the usual soulless shed of commercial transactions where robotic Stepford Wives load their trolleys with vile Food Industry concoctions in a desperate displacement activity to compensate for their empty, loveless lives. Yet Merthyr’s Tesco Extra was nothing like that; it was like a corner shop! Everybody knew everybody, people stood around gossiping and mingling, nobody seemed to be doing much shopping. Tesco, of all places; Tesco, the very symbol of remote, characterless corporate autocracy, is treated like a community centre in Merthyr! Then a realisation struck me. I had been in Merthyr an hour and had yet to see a black face.

I went back to the car and drove the short distance to Cyfarthfa Castle. Up on the grassy slopes of Cyfarthfa Park, under the warm June sun, I looked down across Merthyr and ate my cheese & tomato roll. Once the Crawshay ironmasters would have had the same view from the supremely vulgar mock-tudor mansion they erected here in 1824; but they would have been looking at the fire-belching pandemonium of their 1765 Cyfarthfa Ironworks (the biggest in the world by 1803, closed in 1919), as well the other massive installations of their rivals: the Guests’ Dowlais Ironworks (1759-1930), the Homfrays’ Penydarren Ironworks (1784-1859) and the Hills’ Plymouth Ironworks (1763-1882). I, on the other hand, merely saw an almighty mess. The rapaciously greedy and ruthlessly cruel ironmasters imposed an unplanned town on this highland basin where the Taff collects a batch of tumbling tributaries on its journey to the Severn. The chaotic jumble of speculative industry, housing and railways that emerged paid no regard to the welfare or interests of its inhabitants as the population soared. A completely rural village of just 40 homes in 1760 grew into the world’s ironopolis within a couple of decades and by 1801 it was the largest town in Wales and a byword for poverty, squalor, overcrowding, disease, danger and death. Being in the advanced guard of the Industrial Revolution did Merthyr no favours, because the profit motive that drives capitalism makes it inhumane, fickle and fleeting by definition. It remained Wales’ biggest town until 1871, when the population had reached 70,000. It was still majority Welsh-speaking and had become a ferment of politics, radicalism, uprisings and rebellion, fuelled by the staggering contrast between unimaginable wealth and desperate poverty that the castellated luxury of Cyfarthfa Castle symbolised perfectly. The decline was as extreme and as sudden as Merthyr’s rise, with no heed to the consequences and the suffering again. Merthyr experienced ‘post-industrial’ long before anywhere else in Wales, and indeed the world, and at a time when there were no safety nets of any description. Over the next century it was essentially abandoned. The fantastic industrial heritage and amazing transport infrastructure was smashed to pieces, the vast tracts of contaminated wastelands were crammed with any old fly-by-night stopgap development and cheap’n’nasty incoherent infill housing, and Merthyr depopulated so severely that just 30,000 live in the town today.

There are not many places anywhere which have halved in population in the last 150 years, a period during which the population of Wales has more than doubled and the planet’s population has quadrupled. It is a decline of spectacular proportions. Apart from a couple of thousand Poles, who came here during those fondly remembered halcyon days of free movement way back in the noughties, nobody has voluntarily moved to Merthyr for a century. Those who remained, and their descendants, have been left alone to get on with it, and that lack of outside influences and new blood allowed Merthyr to reclaim its natural remoteness and evolve its own uniquely intimate vibe. Far enough from Cardiff to avoid becoming one more bland valleys dormitory town, much too ugly, despoiled and shabby to become another holiday playground or tourist honeypot, and stripped of its resources, amenities and very raison d’être, Merthyr would scarcely have an economy at all without decades of emergency aid from the EU and an endless sequence of makeshift Welsh government ‘regeneration’ schemes. You know a place is in trouble when the imminent arrival of bottom-of-the-barrel Cornish discount store Trago Mills is being hailed by the local authority as the dawn of an exciting new era. Cor, 50 shelf-stacking jobs are up for grabs…never mind that Trago’s economies of scale will probably wipe out all the multitude of other crappy pound stores in the town centre in the process.

However, for me, it was refreshing to find somewhere without a trace of dog-eat-dog competition, sink-or-swim isolation, self-obsessed atomisation, hollow consumerism, status-seeking oneupmanship and hyped-up trumpeting. Unlike Cardiff, and hosts of other places in the UK, Merthyr has long since given up on running around in ever-decreasing circles whoring itself to capitalism. Other ways to live have had to be invented, based on collectivism, community and the chain of links that make a house a home. In this sense Merthyr has huge potential, as a blank sheet of paper unsullied by filthy lucre upon which any future might be painted.

I am not being romantic: I know remorseless deprivation isn’t noble and pure, but degrading and crushing. A people with no aim beyond surviving another day will usually be too enfeebled and defenceless to resist being putty in the hands of the round-the-clock propaganda machine of the powerful, and in Merthyr the outcomes of oppression are abundantly apparent: false consciousness, dumbing-down, de-culturalisation, de-Cymrufication, Britification and class betrayal; pathetic satisfaction with the miniscule consolations of the betting shop, the tanning clinic, the tattoo parlour, the drug deal and the gym; obedient patsies moulded into ludicrous loyalty to the venal agendas of the London gutter press; and widespread ignorance about virtually every sphere of accrued human knowledge. Where once flew the Red Flag of defiance now flops the wet white towel of surrender. Recent examples in Merthyr include the shameful increase in the racist and xenophobic UKIP vote in both the 2015 UK election and 2016 Welsh election, the lemming-like stupidity of 56% support for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, the pig-headed refusal of Merthyr Town football club to participate in the Welsh pyramid, and the perpetual sheepish delivery of both the Westminster and the Senedd consituency to the entirely undeserving and very British ‘Welsh’ Labour party that has done nothing for Merthyr since the town’s magnificent Marxist MP and fervent Welsh republican S.O. Davies (1889-1972) died in the saddle (the current incumbents are Gerald Jones MP and Dawn Bowden AM; no, I hadn’t heard of them either).

But if all that damage can be done to Merthyr’s people by malign mediocrities over all those years, then it follows that it can all be undone. And given the fact that Merthyr is an ignored, self-contained world of its own, with a deep, indestructible Welsh wellspring that can always rise to surface and a parallel residue of socialism that re-echoes from its cradle of hills, there are reasons to hope Merthyr Tudful’s extraordinary story is only just beginning. Insurrection only ever takes a dreamer, a word, a connection, a spark…

Sparkling Brecon Carreg imbibed, I snapped out of my reverie and went up into the museum in Cyfarthfa Castle. This is how all museums used to be before they got ‘curated’ into gimmicky, low-brow, family-friendly, hands-on hell-holes by condescending, ahistorical populists from the Heritage Industry sector. It was dusty, damp, creaky, labyrinthine, eccentric, erratic, disorganised, naff, naïve and virtually deserted: I loved it! An hour or more must have passed as I moved through the Crawshay’s warren of rooms, detained by every fascinating exhibit. There was a section dealing with English travellers’ impressions of Merthyr and the surrounding area when it was on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution that I found quite upsetting. “The common people were indeed poor enough, but they seemed contented with their lot, and were always willing to answer our enquiries, without the least expectation of reward; they never asked for it; and when we sometimes gave the half-clothed wretch a shilling, they received it with an awkward surprise, and were so astonished that they could only express their thanks in tears of gratitude,” wrote Whig MP for Wiltshire Henry Penruddocke Wyndham (1736-1819) in 1781, and in 1804 antiquarian and scholar Benjamin Heath Malkin (1769-1842) commented “the pleasure of the tour is tinged with melancholy, on observing the honest and amiable manners of its inhabitants, to find so many appearances of a fallen country.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, I ruminated (or would have done, were I able to think in French). This much I now knew: Merthyr endures. It was time to get back to the hospital. It won’t be 30 years before my next Merthyr mooch.

The Welsh NHS has been brilliant every step of the way. Thank fuck for devolution. Despite being handicapped by the limited room to manoeuvre and chickenfeed budget determined by London, it is far superior in every way to the monetised, semi-privatised scandal of the NHS in Tory England. In England Malcolm would still be on a waiting list. Politics, as the poor people in Grenfell Tower discovered last week, and the poor people in Merthyr need to rediscover urgently, has always been a matter of life and death.