Jill, my wife, wanted to go back to Llanelli on the west coast of Wales to see where her great grandfather came from. She just wanted to know what the place was like. Bloody cold, that’s what it was like. Those wind-swept streets with handfuls of sleet blown against the brick walls of the council flats are not easily forgotten. Those black and bleak escarpments on the edges of the town won’t escape memory either.
Still, after our epic train trip, the bleakest of towns would have been welcome. We got almost to the west coast of Wales, traveling in a straight line across the UK when the train came to a stop because of an obstruction on the line. We had to change trains, carting our luggage up a steep flight of stairs and across the overhead bridge. Our new train took us in an arc through northern Wales and down most of the west coast until we made Llanelli, eight hours late.
Llanelli is a former mining town and a former steel-making town like Newcastle, Australia. The histories of the two places are remarkably similar. Both places have been victims of economic rationalization: cuts in production, cuts in wages and cuts in employment, reducing the coal and steel industries until they have pretty well folded. The destruction of local protective barriers ensured the demise of work, placed pressure upon family bonds and structures.
We left the train to check into our bed-and-breakfast upstairs in the pub opposite the station. I couldn’t help but notice the three pubs and one club clustered at the intersection. Just like Newcastle, I thought, especially Newcastle in the nineteenth century when every block had at least one pub to slake the thirst of miners and, later, dusty-throated steel makers.
As I lugged our suitcases across the road, I noted the two long lines of traffic on either side of the rail gates, the bell ding dinging until the train finally left, allowing the vehicles to move off. Very much like Newcastle, I thought, especially when some of the drivers rolled down their windows and let forth streams of choice language for the benefit of the station master who, big-bellied, stood at the end of the platform. Not that it particularly worried him as he raised his hat and two fingers to the offending drivers of the vanishing vehicles.
After checking into our bed-and-breakfast, we decided to explore the town even though we were deadbeat from the rail journey from Brussels to Waterloo then onto Wales all in one day. As Jill and I walked towards the main shopping area, we saw a repeat of what we’d seen in London and what we’d see again, a week later in Dunfermline, in Scotland: groups of young people on the streets obviously unemployed with nothing to do except chat, ride their bicycles, or duck into one of the many pubs or clubs.
And the young girls all wore the same ‘uniform’ we’d seen in Paris, London, Brussels, and Newcastle, Australia, before we left: tight jeans with short tops showing a mile of belly and a plunging neckline. A boobs-and-belly fashion that enslaved the young women, who shivered horribly in the teeth of the icy Welsh wind which rolled off the cleared heathland surrounding the town.
The sameness wasn’t confined to fashion. As we walked along the main street, we saw the same fast food joints, the same banks and building societies, the same travel agencies, the same newspapers plied their trades, all identical in thousands other cities and towns around the world.
Where were the monuments to the men of Jill’s great grandfather’s generation of miners? Where were the museums containing the relics of steel-making? Where were the libraries with shelves packed with local histories and anecdotes of past deeds done in Llanelli? Where were the quaint cottages that might have defined a difference in these people from all the others around the globe?
Only the language, the accent of these people, seemed to place them apart or make them unique and that had to be something positive. But the overwhelming force of globalization was a tidal wave as steep as some of the hills surrounding the town. It could not be escaped. When Jill and I returned to our room, we turned on the television only to find CNN plying its monopolistic trade in news. Not that CNN really gave us news so much as skeletal headlines, summaries of events without analysis, the rest of the program devoted to stock market reports. A corporatization of information served up to viewers like bite-size, deep-fried, cholesterol-choked chicken chunks.
After two days in Llanelli, I was fighting to find something that made the trip seem worthwhile. It was easy to find fault, to criticize the bleakness, the sleaziness of a place. I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to find something positive about the town even though Jill said that she could see why her great grandfather left. And that comment came only an hour after we’d set foot in the place.
We met an old lady the second day we were there. She was lovely, coming up to us as we waited for the traffic lights to change, and chatting to us as though she’d know us all her life. This warmth, this friendliness, only made the hand-to-mouth existence of many of the citizens seem even sadder. Such warm and hospitable people deserved more than unemployment, dislocation from their way of life, and the mind mush fed to them by the media.
Sitting in our room, the last afternoon before we left, I noticed two lines of men marching up the street. There were fifty or sixty in two lines and they marched into the club opposite to our hotel. I was taken aback by the sight of two lines of grown men marching to their club. It took a while, but I figured it out when I thought of Newcastle.
Years ago I’d read a history of Lambton, one of the mining towns of Newcastle. In the book there is a description of how the miners in the nineteenth century, when they had a claim for better pay and conditions, would march up the main street to the colliery owner’s house, all to the accompaniment of the miners’ brass band. No individual was appointed as a representative of the men to approach the mine owner. It was all or nothing with all the miners in two lines marching on the house of the owner to demand their rights.
That’s what I saw in Llanelli, the same thing: a solidarity even when these men were merely going to their club for a drink. The mines and steel mills may have almost gone, but the spirit of unionism and comradeship was still there. The same as Newcastle, I thought once more, and remembered the day the gates of the BHP closed. The workers, men and women, all marched out the front gate, not the side gates, to the accompaniment of the Steel Choir.
When we left Llanelli on another epic train journey, I breathed a sigh of relief. We’d only been there a few days, but I’d become almost convinced that if we stayed one more day then we’d be trapped. It was the same feeling I had when living in Newcastle; a feeling that I’d never escape the unrelenting poverty of unemployment, violence and ugliness.
But as the train pulled out, I saw the local café owner standing on the platform. He waved to us. The day before, Jill and I had gone across the road from our pub to buy some deep fried quick food from the cafe. The owner insisted we have a free cup of tea each while we waited for the food to cook. He chatted to us about Oz, and brought us up to date on where the television series, The Bill, was up to. The UK was eighteen months in front of Australia in episodes of the British cop drama. A small benefit of globalization for tourists?
The café owner was warm and friendly just like many of the small shop owners back in Newcastle, Australia.
As Llanelli slipped away, the train gathered speed and moved through the hard winter sunshine. The hills and the abandoned mines and steel mills loomed over us, casting shadows, making a landscape of light and dark.
Greg Bogaerts is a writer who lives in Cooranbong, Australia. He has had many short stories published in journals, anthologies, and newspapers in Australia and America. He is married to Jill and has a cat called Whisper.