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gwallterSteel mountainHow to be an MPThe Londonification of CardiffThree paintings in ViennaWalking with windmillsUp the Ely riverAbaty Cymer, abaty dirgelCatullus in the Kingsway‘Y tu mewn’ T.H. Parry-Williams a blog and more from Swansea by Andrew Green / blogfan a mwy o Abertawe gan Andrew Green Sat, 04 May 2019 19:38:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Sat, 04 May 2019 19:38:18 +0000

For an early May walk the three of us are back here in Port Talbot, a town much in the news lately.  First things first: coffee and serious cakes in a popular café, Selections, as fuel for a steep ascent.   As always in Port Talbot, smiles and friendliness greet us. Then we wander across the town and under the M4, where a learned graffitist, maybe inspired by Banksy’s brief visit here, has left us three fiery messages on the underpass wall:

‘Hell is other people’ (Jean-Paul Sartre, from Huis clos, 1944)

‘Time is the school in which we learn / Time is the fire in which we burn’ (Delmore Schwartz, from ‘Calmly we walk through this April’s day’, 1937)

‘Eternity!  Thou pleasing, dreadful thought’ (from Joseph Addison’s play Cato, 1713).

As soon as we’re across the dangerous slip road off the motorway we join the path that leads up Mynydd Dinas (846 feet).  Like the town, the path is in no mood to compromise.  It doesn’t do zig-zag tacking, as a concession to wonky knees or unfit lungs; instead, it attacks the mountain head on.  Steep, timber-retained steps take us straight up the slope, via Mountain Road and Mountain Side.  Each of us disguises an urgent need to take breath as a chance to stop and admire the view.  And the view’s certainly worth the struggle.

Below us to the left is the western end of the steelworks – the original part of the Margam site, with its older, rebuilt blast furnaces.  Steam, gases and fumes rise from all parts and drift towards the north-east, darkening a dark sky.  To the west is a huge mound of coal – steelmaking uses large quantities of coal – possibly from Poland, another building we’re not sure about (limestone or sand preparation?), and the docks and their cranes.  Steel production methods have changed enormously over the years, but we suspect the photos we capture on our cameras wouldn’t look, at first sight, very different from similar views in the 1960s.

north-west, we can see the town centre, the Neath Port Talbot Hospital, St
Joseph’s School, the big Sandfields estate, with Aberafan beach beyond, and
then Baglan Bay and its gas-fired power station.  Visibility’s poor today, but we can just make
out Mumbles in the far west. The motorway thunders along at the foot the
mountain, its roar never far away on this walk. 
We reflect that in deindustrialised Britain there are very few views that
can match this: a reminder of a world that most people imagined would last, but
which elsewhere has almost entirely vanished.

Our talk turns to climate change.  What we’re looking at is as far as you can imagine from ‘carbon-neutral’.  The steel plant is a pollutant on a grand scale, especially since it’s so coal-dependent.  The power station is another big offender.  And the M4 traffic pumps dioxides, monoxides and particulates into the air day and night. What would it take to turn all this into a carbon-free landscape?  Nothing less than a revolution.  And what would become of Port Talbot, and its people?  It takes quite a leap of thought to imagine the workers all turned into climate-friendly financial sector workers.  Daunted, we start to think what each of us should be doing at home.  Scrap the gas boiler, never fly again, get rid of the car, or get an electric one?  Whatever the answers are to any of these questions, revolution is no exaggeration as the key to answering them.

the last house on the hill two dogs come bounding down towards us, barking
loudly.  With difficulty their owner
retrieves them and gates them while we pass. 
J. reveals that one of his two dogs has recently died, and we rehearse an
old conversation about how much animals know about death.  Is the surviving Dog 2 aware that ailing Dog
1 has disappeared for ever?  Or maybe she’s
must moved next door?  Or maybe the
memory of her is soon erased?

At last the fierce slope eases and we’re on the top of Mynydd Dinas.  It’s a surprise to find ourselves on a plateau, or what was once a plateau before rivers gouged great ravines across it.  We’ve moved back in time from the Anthropocene to the last ice age: this was the last frontier of the glaciers.  The path’s flat now, and moves north into a forest.  It takes us ten minutes to realise that we’ve missed the turning and are heading inland to Cwmafan.  The (right) path descends, passing an abandoned early seventeenth century farm, Blaen Baglan, which C. tells us was once used in season by Sioni Wynwns (Onion Jonnies) visiting from Brittany.  We pass a large shed, its metal walls rusting happily into the landscape.  It looks like an artist’s installation, and reminds J. and me – we’ve both been in Vienna recently – of Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz.

Now we’re in Baglan, C.’s childhood home.  But the bit we’ve hit on is ‘Baglan Heights’, a new housing estate built on what were fields and woods in which C. had played as a child: he has to consult the map to avoid us getting lost again.  The primary school (motto: ‘Aiming at excellence together’) has a banner proclaiming its fiftieth birthday: this too was a field when C. was growing up.  Lower down he’s on firmer ground, though visibly pained to find that this fish and chip shop or that telephone box has disappeared.  Baglan Library is still open, just.  We visit the house C. lived in with his parents, and walk through familiar streets.  One of them, Keir Hardie, was where ‘problem families’ were housed, and C. recollects hurrying down it to avoid its hard-faced, sharp-toed Teddy boys.  Then we climb again, past the large green oval where C. and his mates would play football and cricket, disruptively enough for Mr E. to appear, in vest and pants, in an upstairs room of his house, to rain foul-mouthed curses on their heads.

The houses give out and now we’re on the Ladies’ Walk, a path that, after a short steep scramble, climbs slowly around the edge of a forest.  It’s mainly beech, and the leaves are in their full adolescent greenness, but there are sections of oak too, their trunks much more gnarled and distorted.  Drifts of bluebells fill some of the hollows.  Finally the track descends to the end of Jersey Park, according to the Royal Commission ‘an exceptionally well preserved urban public park’, opened in 1925.  We follow its long course into Briton Ferry (the entrance is easily missed, but marked by a monkey puzzle tree).

Today Briton Ferry looks a depressed town, full of closed-up shops and banks, and it’s easy to pass through it with no awareness of its past.  In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries the Ferry was a place of beauty and a honeypot for picturesque tourists and artists, including Paul Sandby, Turner, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, Philip James De Loutherbourg and Penry Williams.  Much later its steel and tinplate workers gained a reputation for radicalism.  The town became a stronghold of the Independent Labour Party (one in twenty residents were said to be members), and Aled Eurig’s recent research has shown it was a centre of conscientious objection during the First World War, and was called ‘Little Germany’ by pro-war parties.  In 1916 Bertrand Russell came to the town to speak for the No Conscription Fellowship, and reported ‘a really wonderful meeting – the hall was packed, they were all in highest point of enthusiasm’.  Big political crowds were common: in 1917, Charles Ammon, a prominent London ILPer, ‘visited here on Sunday last, June 24th, and for an hour spoke to a magnificent audience’.

Whatever it may have lost, Briton
Ferry still has an excellent bus service, and within a few minutes we’re being
whisked back to Port Talbot on the X4 bus, at the end of a fine day’s walking.
]]> 0 Sun, 28 Apr 2019 21:10:20 +0000

The news of Paul Flynn’s death in February 2019 met with widespread dismay.  Surveys tells us regularly that MPs rank lower in public estimation than almost any other group in society, with the exception of bankers, but here was an exception: a man of integrity who was true to his principles and his constituents, and devoted to Wales and to democracy.  He held government office only briefly.  That gave him the freedom to probe and interrogate the holders of power, and he never sought to use his parliamentary status as a springboard to enrich or magnify himself. 

He was already 52 years old when he was first elected to Parliament for Newport West in 1987: unlike many MPs today he’d already worked for years in the ‘real world’, in industry and broadcasting, and it seemed that he should have stayed an MP for much longer.  His special causes were well-known and included the legalisation of cannabis, republicanism, and opposition to nuclear weapons and the Iraq war.  He spoke Welsh fluently, having learned the language as a young man, and he prided himself on his mastery of new technology (his early blog was always worth reading).  His energy was phenomenal, despite (or because of) the bad health he’d suffered since youth.

A couple of weeks after his death I found by chance a second-hand copy of Paul Flynn’s book How to be an MP (2012).  Originally published by Poetry Wales Press as Commons knowledge in 1997, it’s said to be required reading for newly elected MPs.  But it’s a good read for non-MPs too.  That’s because, as well as offering detailed advice on how to make a success of the job, it’s written in a lapidary and facetious style that makes it a pleasure to read – especially when you reflect that Flynn’s cynical, almost Tacitean tone is at odds with his distinctly uncynical political beliefs.

The advice begins right at the beginning, with taking the oath.  As soon as possible, is the recommendation.  ‘This is not the time to show good manners’ – because the rule is ‘no oath: no pay’, but also because if you have an eye on being ‘Father of the House’ in later life, time is critical:

Bernard Braine owes his spell as Father of the House in 1987 to his industry in 1950.  He organised his way to the pole position in the queue ahead of courteous, gentlemanly Ted Heath, who was of equal seniority.  Braine swore the oath at 5.45 p.m.; Ted at 6.50 p.m.  From 1987 to 1992 Heath smouldered as Father-in-waiting.  He would have used the weapon of prime seniority to add weight to the bludgeon he used to repeatedly thump Thatcher.

The oath is a problem for republicans like Flynn himself, but he suggests work-arounds, like Dennis Skinner’s formula, loyalty to ‘a tax-paying monarch’, and Tony Benn’s more laborious ‘as a convinced republican and under protest …’.  Flynn summarises oath-taking with these words:

This is the first taste of Parliament’s infantilisation before royalty.  Instead of standing tall as proud elected citizens, MPs abase themselves as humble subjects.  Worse is to come.

More preliminaries follow: how to find a London home, how to appoint staff (‘cautiously’) and how to vote: harder than it seems, since it’s often difficult, it seems, to make out what you’re voting for or against.  Then there’s the question of which role you’re going to play as a backbencher.  Flynn works through a long list of possibilities, including Sleaze Buster, International Statesperson, Select Committee Loyalist, Euro-Crusader (hmm), Single Issue Eccentric, Media Tart, Procedure Buff and Comedian.  He doesn’t succeed in making any of them particularly attractive.

The heart sinks when
reading the first words of a long chapter on Questions:

Parliamentary questions only rarely seek information.  Oral Questions never do.  It is usually a mark of incompetence to ask an oral question except in the certain knowledge that the answer will be damaging to opponents and helpful to allies.

Flynn’s recommended formula, if you ever find yourself in the position of asking a question (the probability of asking an initial Prime Minister’s Question is once every six years), is this: (1) Seize the attention of the House, (2) Make a powerful new point, (3) Pose an unanswerable question.

Committees are where backbenchers can make a name for themselves.  A future, third edition of the book will probably want to expunge the section headed ‘How to sparkle on Euro-committees’, but select committees are always worth cultivating (‘blissful oases of intelligence and calm’).  There’s advice on how to cope with witnesses who’ve been coached on how to appear in a good light, or who have advance warning of questions, or who try to be obstructive.

Richard Branson thought the Transport Committee had been hard on him because he wore a jogging outfit to address the committee.  Wrong.  Their irritation was roused by his ignorance of railways.  When asked in a programme connected with the inquiry what he was going to do to improve the running of his privatised service, Branson said he would urge his drivers to drive faster.  ‘To overtake the train in front, presumably’, was the mocking, whispered response by a committee member.

The next chapters tackle office and constituency work.  Letters and emails are a particular burden.  Flynn offers some model replies: to a crazed enquirer, ‘Thank you for your communication, which I placed in my insane letters file’; to an ill-intentioned lobbyist, ‘I know of no good reason why I should co-operate with your enquiry.  Lobbying organisations such as yours are an ugly, anti-democratic and corrupting succubus that haunts the body politic.’  He’s enthusiastic about the Commons Library (‘a life-support system, an archive, an inspiration and a place to rest and snooze’), and cautious about eating and drinking in the House:

Members’ Smoking Room.  Mélange of gentleman’s club and geriatric residential home.   Refuge for alcohol addicts.  Whisky-stained air.  Someone could die in the plush chairs and not be noticed for days.  In spite of the name, smoking is not allowed.

There’s a section on Parliamentary
toilets, and the unfortunate signs on their doors, ‘Male Members Only’ and ‘Peers
only’, and others on blogging and tweeting, whips and the media.  Rules on dress are bizarrely formal, but the
results can vary:

My spouse questions my qualifications for advising on how to dress.  She was once involved in a homeless charity that distributed clothes to rough sleepers.  Most of them were looted from my wardrobe.  She kindly informed me there was no danger of the rough sleepers being mistaken for an MP.  The reverse remains a real possibility.

The last chapter is ‘Final steps’, and tells the tyro MP how, in due course, to be ennobled (‘the House of Lords is the ideal rest home for the tired, disillusioned or clapped out’), how to resign, how not to revolve (into the arms of ‘Mega-greed plc’) and how to die (apparently you aren’t allowed to expire within the Palace of Westminster).  And that’s it, except for a wistful short section on ‘how to restore trust’.  Flynn doesn’t attempt a summary or conclusion, and it’s not hard to understand why.  He’s deeply split in his view of Parliament.  On the one hand, his commentary and advice, sceptical at best and cynical at worst, reveal the place as deeply dysfunctional: antiquated in its traditions, inefficient and ineffective in its procedures, and aggressively tribal in its culture.  On the other hand, he’s a glowing example of an MP who’s become skilled in overcoming those barriers in order to help his constituents, promote his causes and hold power to account.

Those of us who’ve never been MPs may see things in a different, less nuanced light.  Especially when compared with newer legislatures, like the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales, the House of Commons seems as if it’s barely emerged from the nineteenth, let alone the twentieth century.  From its absurd voting system to the puerile circus of Prime Minister’s Questions, it surely needs a comprehensive rethink.   At some time both Houses are due to move out of the Palace of Westminster so that the building can be restored and modernised.  An ideal opportunity, you would think, to carry out a complete reform of our creaking Parliament.   It won’t happen, of course.
]]> 0 Sun, 21 Apr 2019 14:44:37 +0000

It’s a commonplace that the UK has the least well-balanced economy in Western Europe.  While London and its region, dominated by financial and allied services, continue to grow and thrive, the rest of the country is bogged in post-industrial depression, suffering still from the effects of George Osborne’s planned ‘austerity’ (still very much with us, of course) and Brexit blight.  London can almost be regarded as a separate city-state.  Its economy shares little in common with the rest of the UK.  To add insult to injury, it swallows the lion’s share of large-scale public investment, with projects like Crossrail, the third Heathrow runway and HS2, and it sucks in many of the most skilled of our young people.

Swansea city centre

What’s less remarked on, but increasingly obvious, is a similar split in Wales.  Even the most fleeting of visits to the centre of Cardiff is enough to show that the city and its region seems very different, these days, from the rest of the country.  Smart shops fill the streets – shops you’ll find nowhere else in Wales.  Its economy looks much more like that of thriving cities in England than other centres in Wales.  The private service sector – insurers, lawyers, finance and media firms, and the like – dominate employment and output; only 9% work in manufacturing.  Most Wales-wide bodies have their headquarters in the capital, which is also the site of most ‘national’ attractions and sports venues.  Cardiff is the home of the biggest and strongest of Wales’s universities, and in general the city attracts talented young people from elsewhere in Wales, drawn by well-paid jobs and social opportunity – so depriving their home towns of much needed energy and enterprise.

Contrast Swansea, where
the centre now begins to resemble that of a third world city, with its air of
neglect, dozens of closed shops, and half-completed roadworks, abandoned by their
bankrupt contractors.  And while a few
towns, like Narberth, Cardigan and Llandeilo, have succeeded in building small
pockets of prosperity, many Welsh towns look depressed and purposeless (unless
as dormitories for Cardiff).

Sophia Gardens

Since the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999 Cardiff’s dominance has increased, as the city has attracted disproportionately more investment and tourism.  Its GDP per capita stood at €33,000 in 2016, far ahead of any other county (Anglesey’s was a mere €18,600).  There have been very few attempts to counter the process.  Edwina Hart devolved some Welsh Government jobs (though not senior posts) to other parts of Wales (Merthyr, Aberystwyth and Llandudno), but otherwise movement has been centripetal rather than centrifugal.  A telling case is Glamorgan County Cricket Club, which since the development of Sophia Gardens has all but abandoned its other grounds around Wales.  Likewise, when the BBC decided to move from its central Llandaf site it apparently gave no thought to the possibility of moving out of Cardiff, which would have had a powerful effect on media and economy alike.  (To its credit, S4C has moved part of itself to Carmarthen.)

There used to be a strategy and a mechanism for trying to mitigate increasing economic centralisation in Britain.  It was called regional policy.  But UK regional policy was effectively abandoned by Margaret Thatcher, and ‘devolved upwards’ to the European Union.  For many years Wales has benefitted, if that’s the word, from successive programmes of regional assistance.  In the current round, from 2014 to 2020, £2.1 billion will have arrived from Brussels in the form of structural funds, mainly for West Wales and the Valleys, an EU area identified as earning 75% (or less) of average GDP per capita.  In addition Wales has received funds through other streams, especially the Common Agricultural Policy.

It’s arguable that without these funds Wales outside the Cardiff region would have fared even worse than it has.  Swansea University’s new Bay campus, for example, would not have happened without them.  (Though public perception of their benefits has hardly been obvious, since all but five Welsh counties voted in favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum.)   The effect could have been stronger if central UK capital funding had supported Welsh schemes.  But its recent record has been woeful, as decision after decision has gone against Wales, including the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, railway electrification beyond Cardiff and – if you regard it as a good thing – the Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station.  Cynics might suspect that the current Secretary of State for Wales is actively working against Welsh interests rather than on their behalf.

True, other packages are on the way.  There are two mixed (public-private) ‘City Deals’ intended to boost jobs and GDP: £1.2 billion for Cardiff over 20 years, and £2.3 billion for Swansea over 15 years.  But the former will exacerbate the ‘Londonisation’ effect, while the second is mired in controversy, and both have been criticised in advance for failing to distribute benefits widely enough in Welsh society, or even geographically.  And then there’s the infamous plan to build the M4 extension, which, if it goes ahead, will again privilege the south-east fringe of Wales at the expense of other parts of Wales.

New BBC building, Cardiff

Brexit, if we ever reach it, will abolish all the EU funds.  The UK government plans to establish a ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ in the place of the EU structural funds.  In theory, it could provide an opportunity, shorn of the Byzantine complexity of the EU’s schemes.  But the details of how it will work are completely unclear.  For Wales there are two critical questions about it.  First, how much money will flow from it to Wales?  The EU structural funds were assigned on the basis of need, but need is a consideration that rarely bothers the current UK government.  Second, who will distribute the funds?  It’s not clear that the Welsh Government will have that role, or whether the UK government will keep all control.  But a secondary question is whether new ‘prosperity funds’ will be used to rebalance the Welsh economy towards those areas, outside the Cardiff region, that have most need of it.  In other words, what will be the criteria for use of the replacement money?

Luckily, Cardiff isn’t yet
a Welsh London.  It doesn’t have Russian plutocrats
lounging in basement swimming pools.  There
are no Walkie-Talkies, Cheese-Graters or Shards.  Few multinationals have their HQs there, and
large-scale research and development is thin on the ground.  It’s also true that Cardiff’s affluence masks
plenty of poverty, thanks to the chronic UK addiction to economic and social

But there is a Cardiff problem, and it’s likely to worsen.  Unless governments, both the Welsh and UK governments, wake up to it, more and more wealth – money and people – will gravitate to the city and its region, and the economic gap with the rest of Wales will grow.
]]> 6 Sun, 14 Apr 2019 16:09:35 +0000

Three paintings in Vienna

In the Leopold Museum in Vienna, a long wall is covered with small panels that show photographs and short lives of dozens of cultural figures who were active in the city at the start of the twentieth century: Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Musil, Wedekind, Klimt and many others – almost all of them well-known today.  Only Paris could match Vienna for the title of the birthplace of modernism before the First World War.

In the visual arts the revolution was more sudden in Vienna than in Paris – in part because the challenge to the stifling academic status quo came much later, in the form of the Secession of 1897.  But Klimt and his fellow Secessionists were tame compared with the figures like Egon Schiele who succeeded them.  These were artists who rejected the old guard and the new, and aimed to forge a new kind of art that got to grips with the contemporary crisis of the individual and society.

Most of the new artists were male – but not all.  Though women were excluded from the artists’ associations, traditional and reformed, many were very determined: they refused to retreat into amateurism, and insisted on becoming trained, working in studios and exhibiting their work.  The Belvedere Museum is currently showing an exhibition of the women artists of Vienna, entitled Stadt der Frauen.

Bronia Keller-Pinell, Frühmarkt / Early market (1907)

One of the most interesting painters represented is Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863-1934), whose family came to Vienna from Poland.  She shook off the remnants of Klimt’s decorative style and painted striking pictures, including some showing her daughter Sylvia.  Her Frühmarkt / Early market of 1907 is similar to some of Schiele’s later urban scenes: its market stalls are packed with detail but held within a firm linear composition.  She was completely forgotten during the Nazi period, and, like so many of the women artists, has been rediscovered only recently.

Richard Gerstl, The Fey sisters (1905)

The first expressionist in Vienna was not Schiele but Richard Gerstl, who had a brief but fertile career as a painter before his death by suicide in 1908 at the age of 25.  He was a restless and tortured soul, who easily fell out with his teachers and never exhibited his work.  He soon rejected Klimt and went through a succession of styles, including pointillism, before arriving at a highly charged expressionism.  His series of self-portraits, at once aggressively assertive and vulnerable, culminate in an anguished full-length nude, painted weeks before his death.  The Fey sisters is an earlier work, from 1905, but it’s just as striking: against a dark brown background the two women are completed imprisoned in their huge, ghostly white dresses; their faces gaze out at us like surprised puppets.

Freidl Dicker-Brandeis, Interrogation I (1934)

Another woman painter represented in the Stadt der Frauen show is Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.  She’s a remarkable artist, and a remarkable person.  Born and trained in Vienna, she joined the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919 and taught printmaking, bookbinding, textiles and typography; her main inspiration was Paul Klee.  In 1942 she and her husband were deported to the ‘model’ concentration camp of Terezin (Theresienstadt), where she organised art classes for children; she was later murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  In 1934 she painted two pictures called Interrogation, after she had been arrested and imprisoned for her left-wing activities.  Both are chilling accounts of torture, all the more so because of the modernist treatment of their theme.
]]> 0 Sun, 07 Apr 2019 09:54:18 +0000

Walking with windmills

The Heart of Wales line train leaves me at the station in Ammanford.  It’s still, sunny, and warm, the second day of summer time, with an extra hour of daylight walking.  My plan is to cross Mynydd y Betws and Mynydd y Gwair and drop down the Lliw valley to Gowerton, completing the Gower Way.  I started the Way many years ago and it’s still unfinished, mainly because the northern end, Penlle’r Castell, is inaccessible by public transport.  The whole route covers around twenty miles – more, if you include the unplanned deviations when I’ll get lost.  It’s a decent rehearsal for Offa’s Dyke next month.

Ammanford’s an likeable place, though it’s hard to find many young people on the streets.  I have a coffee in the Coalhouse – all the customers are pensioners – and cross the Amman bridge to Betws, older than Ammanford and the site of three, long closed collieries.  On the left there’s a park, bright with daffodils and primroses.  A stone memorial commemorates those who died in war and in mine accidents, and information panels remind us of Betws notables, including the politician Jim Griffiths, his brother David, the poet ‘Amanwy’, and the singer Donald Peers, now mostly forgotten but hugely popular as a crooner after the Second World War.

The road winds up the mountain to the south.  It’s called Ffordd y Cyrnol, named, it seems, after Lieutenant Colonel David Morris (1843-1919) of Brynffin, a pioneer of Indian railway building.  It’s a steady climb, and soon gives long views of the Loughor and Amman valleys and the Beacons. beyond  Past Maesquarre Hall and the Scotch Pine pub workable land gives out and I’m on open moorland.  This is where the windmills begin.  At first, just a few of them, but soon more and more appear.  They belong to the Betws Wind Farm, which started producing electricity in 2013.  The masts are tall, around 70 metres high, and carry three blades, each about 40 metres long.  Raw access tracks have been cut through the grassland from the road to each one, but there’s no denying the white grace of the turbines.  There’s nothing else up here, just the windmills, turning slowly in the gentle breeze and stretching across the tops, from Mynydd y Betws south to Mynydd y Gwair.  Standing and staring at them can put you into a strange mental state.  No wonder Werner Herzog found the forest of windmills on the Lasithi Plateau in Crete irresistible when making the dream sequence for his early film Signs of life (seeing them contributes to the madness of the film’s main character).  Herzog later wrote

I walked round the mountains of Crete where I came across a valley.  I had to sit down because I was sure I had gone insane.  Before me lay 10,000 windmills – it was like a field of flowers gone mad – turning and turning with these tiny squeaking noises.

The Betws mills are
silent, today at least, but their giant, ghostly presence, alone in this bare
land, fix themselves on the inner eye, and the unceasing synchronous swing of
their arms sets up a hypnotic rhythm in the mind.  Wherever you walk on this upland plateau the
turbines follow you, and even when you descend their arms lift themselves
spookily over the horizon.

Further on, close to the fork where the road splits, is Penlle’r Castell, a fort enclosed by an earth bank and ditch, with big views in all directions, including south to the steelworks of Port Talbot.  I’m now in the county of Swansea, and this is its highest point.  The authorities agree that Penlle’r Castell was built before 1252 by William de Braose (Breos) II, a member of the infamous Norman family who took control of Gower in the twelfth century, to keep a close eye on Welsh lands to the north.  In 1252 it was captured and burnt by Rhys Fychan ap Rhys Mechyll, lord of Dinefwr and Is Cennen.  It’s hard to make much sense today of the complicated earthworks and fragments of stone.

Nearby is no. 50, the final inscribed stone of the Gower Way.  From here the path follows the hill’s contour across the moor, the sky alive with skylarks, towards the end of the long wood that marks the top of the Lliw valley.  Soon the path loses height and nears the shore of the Upper Lliw Reservoir.  My watch battery’s given out and I’ve no idea what time it is, but the stomach tells me it’s time to open the sandwich box.  Here I come across the first walkers since I set out.  Legs dangling over the reservoir dam wall, I eat my rolls and look out over the still water.  The far end of the reservoir is still dominated by the southernmost windmills.

From the far end of the dam at the Lower Lliw Reservoir a delightful grassy path, lined with trees and gorse bushes, keeps high about the Lliw stream and leads to the small village of Felindre, ‘a hamlet in a deep fold in the hills, almost as if in Devon’, according to Pevsner.  On the left is Ysgol Gymraeg Felindre, which Swansea Council, a local authority not famous for its support of the Welsh language, has recently condemned to closure.  The road towards Pontlliw passes through Tyn-y-cwm, where again almost all the houses have Welsh names: this was once a thoroughly Welsh speaking area; only a few miles from Swansea, but very different in character.

The guide to the Gower Way assumes you’re moving south-north: reading its instructions ‘backwards’ is almost impossible.  So I get hopelessly lost in woods and fields between Felindre and Pontlliw, and do a fair amount of trespassing on farmland belonging to Gwenlais-fach.  Then under the M4 and south towards Gorseinon, first across Mynydd Lliw Common, slowly regenerating from industrial despoliation, and then along the cycle track that follows the extinct Lliw valley railway.  Another old railway path crosses the Lliw river and leads south from Gorseinon, but there’s no alternative to approaching Gowerton than by the main road, choked with poisonous traffic crawling at rush hour.  I feel virtuous going home by train and bus, as the daylight fades.
]]> 0 Fri, 29 Mar 2019 08:30:24 +0000

Up the Ely river

Where we start happens to be in south Cardiff, but could be anywhere in the world in 2019.  Apartments are stacked in Duplo’d piles, each block with a ‘concierge’ and a primary colour.  Sheds, with metal roofs shaped in shallow arcs, are home to companies that shelter behind opaque titles, usually including the word ‘global’.  What they get up to is uncertain, and probably they’d rather we didn’t know.  There are bigger buildings, like the international swimming pool, built with public money but run by a remote, non-public outfit called Legacy Leisure, ‘in partnership with your local authority’, they say, as if they can’t quite remember which one it is.  Nearby there’s a white water centre.  But this is an atomised, privatised landscape, devoid of ordinary public facilities like pubs, shops, libraries and community centres.  We pass a street named Empire Way: it’s a cul-de-sac.

Cardiff International Pool

Close by, but ignored by all this new build, is an older, darker creature – the river Ely, known in earlier times as Afon Elai.  It rises on the slopes of Mynydd Penygraig and flows through Tonrefail, Pontyclun and the Vale of Glamorgan before reaching Cardiff.   It has few friends today, beyond a handful of environmental groups.  Sulkily it ladles its grey soup of debris, chemicals and sewage along Cardiff’s western edge, towards the stagnant pool of Cardiff Bay.  A survey for Cardiff Council in 2017 showed that its water quality was ‘poor’ or ‘bad’, according to Natural Resources Wales, and that the river suffers at the hands of multiple abusers: casual litterers, cynical fly-tippers, untreated sewage outflows unknown to Dŵr Cymru, chemical run-off from farmland, and invasive plant species.  Fish are few, and wildlife impoverished.

Leckwith bridge

We’re following a footpath and cycle track called the Ely Trail, but it follows the river only intermittently, as if too embarrassed to show us the river’s shame.  At least we see some of its course at the start.  Miraculously, the steep-sided west bank of the river is still undeveloped and heavily wooded.  On our side a few boats are moored on pontoons; nearby, boats for sale are racked in three tiers, like bikes in Amsterdam.  We pass a slate commemorating the official opening by Councillor Brian Griffiths in 2009 of a picnic area.  Deposited neatly beside the plaque, like a libation to the gods, is a small green bag of dogshit.  It’s an unappealing place for a picnic in any case: a few metres to our right heavy traffic thunders along the A4232 Grangetown Link Road.  The Trail passes under more than one major road carried on massive concrete columns covered with graffiti.  At Leckwith there’s an incongruous medieval or early modern survival, an old three-arch bridge, with triangular cutwaters and refuges for pedestrians.  On Penarth Road we admire more contemporary marvels, the Hangar ‘human performance centre’, Elephant Beds, and Drum Depot (‘selling rhythm all day long’).

But then we escape into a quite different place: a long string of small industrial yards and units.  Here are one-man metal-bashers, gyms and martial arts centres, sign-writers, balustrade makers and many more.  A few men are at work, or at rest beside a van, condemned by the Council as derelict, that now acts as a waste skip.  Some of these tiny businesses are on Paper Mill Road.  The name is the only indication of what was once one of west Cardiff’s main industries.  From the 1870s the famous Wiggins Teape factory made paper for the world (Wales once had many paper mills).  Nothing remains of it today.  So while the big industrial employers have mainly gone, the smaller firms are left to make some sort of living in these edgelands.

By now we’ve left the river and crossed Sanitorium Park.  The Trail turns into a street walk, over Cowbridge Road and Western Avenue and into Fairwater.  We can trace the subtle social gradations of suburban living in the different ways the Edwardian houses are sized, grouped and ornamented.  It’s mostly quiet, but in Bwlch Road a man sits in front of his house, stripped to the waist (it’s now sunny and warm), a guitar propped on the house wall, and Dolly Parton singing out behind him.  At last the city gives up in exhaustion, at Landwade Close, and we’re suddenly in the country, in a grassy glade, the road to St Fagans up to our right, and the railway and river behind a metal screen on our left.

St Fagans Castle

Finally, as we climb the hill into St Fagans village we enter yet another landscape, of aristocratic privilege mutated into heritage industry.  The Earls of Plymouth once ruled this place: the big pseudo-Jacobean Plymouth Arms serves food in its back garden, and a long, tall wall protects St Fagans Castle, the Earl’s Elizabethan home, since 1946 in the care of Amgueddfa Cymru National Museums Wales.  We approach the house by the short formal garden, leave it by the nineteenth-century water landscape, and visit the main building, with its new history and archaeology gallery.  Coachloads of schoolchildren have arrived, to visit the re-erected buildings and re-packaged history.
]]> 0 Sun, 24 Mar 2019 18:44:21 +0000

Abaty Cymer, abaty dirgel

Faint o weithiau dych chi’n gyrru’n gyflym ar hyd yr A470 o Lanelltud tua Dolgellau, gan anwybyddu’r lôn fach i’r chwith, yn syth ar ôl croesi afon Mawddach, sy’n arwain at Abaty Cymer?  

Y dydd o’r blaen ymwelais â’r Abaty am y tro cyntaf.  O’r maes parcio, tro bach yw e lawr i’r afon, a’r hen bont, Pont Llanelltud, sy’n mynd ar ei draws.  Wedi’r glaw diweddar roedd y dŵr yn llifo’n rymus rhwng y pum bwa o’r bont osgeiddig, sydd ar gau i gerbydau’r dyddiau hyn.  Mae ganddi dorddwr trionglog ar bob bwa, sy’n rhoi golwg bwrpasol iddi.  Yn ôl y Comisiwn Brenhinol mae’n dyddio o’r ail chwarter o’r ddeunawfed ganrif, ond yn amlwg bu pont gynharaf unwaith, i gysylltu’r Abaty â’r pentref.

Wedyn, ar hyd lôn fferm, gan gerdded yn ôl mewn hanes, tuag at adfeilion yr Abaty.  Ychydig sydd ar ôl o’i adeiladau: rhannau o’r eglwys, seiliau’r clawstr a dim llawer mwy.  Ond abaty bach a llwm fuodd hwn erioed, meddan nhw.  Fe’i sefydlwyd yn 1198 neu 1199 fel cangen o Abaty Sistersaidd Cwm-hir, diolch i Maredudd ap Cynan ab Owain Gwynedd, arglwydd Eifionydd, rhan o Ardudwy a Meirionydd, a’i frawd Gruffudd ap Cynan (eu cefnder oedd Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Llywelyn Fawr).  Yn ôl yr arfer, roedd perthynas agos yn y gorllewin rhwng y Sistersiaid a’r tywysogion Cymreig.  Ond o’r dechrau roedd adnoddau’r Abaty’n brin: mor brin fel bod dim transeptau, dim côr, dim seintwar a dim tŵr canolog i’r eglwys.

Does dim syndod efallai.  Er bod y safle mewn ardal ddiarffordd ac yn agos i gyflenwad o ddŵr (‘Cymer’ = dwy afon, Mawddach a Wnion, yn ymuno), yn ôl dewis arferol y mynachod, doedd dim llawer o dir âr.  Mae’r mynyddoedd yn codi’n syth o’r dyffryn, a dibynnai economi’r Abaty ar ddefaid, da a cheffylau: byddai’r mynachod yn cyflenwi ceffylau i Llywelyn ei hun.  Bu difrod mawr i’r adeiladau yn ystod y rhyfel rhwng Llywelyn ap Gruffudd ac Edward I: roedd yr adeiladau yn filed i filwyr y ddau yn eu tro.  Ei incwm yn 1291 oedd £28 8s 3c yn unig, ac erbyn 1388 dim ond pum mynach oedd yn byw yna.  Yn 1535, ar drothwy ei ddiddymu, derbyniodd yr Abaty incwm blynyddol o ychydig dros £51.

Ar ben y lôn cyrhaeddais i’r ffermdy, a gyferbyn, ar draws cae, daeth yr abaty i’r fei: y clawstr, a ffrwd o ddŵr yn pasio heibio iddo, a waliau’r eglwys, yn ddiaddurn ac eithrio i arcêd o dri bwa.  Cadw sy’n cynnal y safle, felly dyma ichi waith cerrig twt, lawntydd bras, yn wlyb iawn ar ôl y glaw, a chennin Pedr ar ymyl yr adeilad.  Doedd neb arall yma, ond am ddau ddyn o’r fferm oedd yn paratoi carafanau ar gyfer ymwelwyr yr haf.  Dyma fi’n sefyll wrth yr unig arwydd o gywreinrwydd yma, colofn â chapan addurnedig, a myfyrio am fywyd y mynachod.

Mae’n ddigon hawdd eu gweld yn eich dychymyg, yn crafu bywoliaeth denau yn yr ardal foel yma, yn rhy brysur gyda’u gwaith amaeth i ymroi i’r math o ddiwylliant oedd yn gyffredin mewn mynachlogydd Sistersaidd mwy, fel Hendy-gwyn neu Ystrad Fflur.  Ond allai’r stori hon o dlodi di-ben-draw fod yn gamddarlun?  Yn 1890, yng Nghwm-mynach o dan y Rhinogydd, cafwyd hyd i gwpan cymun arian a phlât cymundeb o ansawdd uchel iawn, (maen nhw ar fenthyg bellach i Amgueddfa Cymru).  Fe’u gwnaed yn Lloegr rhwng 1230 a 1250.  Roeddent yn perthyn, mae’n debyg, i Abaty Cymer, ac fe’u cuddiwyd gan un o’r mynachod ar adeg diddymiad yr Abaty yn 1537.  Disgrifir fel ‘among the largest and finest surviving English medieval chalices’ ac ‘a very rare survival of medieval sacred metalwork in the British Isles’.  Doedd yr Abaty ddim yn gwbl brin o drysorau felly.

Ychydig iawn iawn o dystiolaeth sy’n bod am gyfraniad yr Abaty i lenyddiaeth ac ysgolheictod, ond priodolir tri englyn yn Llawysgrif Hendregadredd i fynach o Gymer.  Fyddai hi ddim yn amhosibl meddwl am y mynachod wrthi’n ysgrifennu llawysgrifau, yn yr un ffordd ag yr oedd eu cyd-Sistersiaid yn ei wneud yn Ystrad Fflur, ffynhonnell Llawysgrif Hendregadredd.   Ac mae’n werth nodi bod Robert Vaughan wrthi’n adeiladu ei lyfrgell o lawysgrifau Cymraeg canoloesol (gan gynnwys Hendregadredd) yn ei gartref, Hengwrt, dim ond hanner milltir i ffwrdd o safle Abaty Cymer – ac ar dir fu’n eiddo’r Abaty.  Roedd e’n casglu tua chanrif ar ôl i’r mynachlogydd ddiflannu.  Tybed o Abaty Cymer yr hanodd rhai o’r llawysgrifau yn ei feddiant?

Cerddais i nôl lawr y lôn, tu heibio i garafanau’r fferm, tua’r maes parcio a’r bont.  Teimlais yn falch o wyro yn fympwyol o’r prif ffordd i weld yr Abaty.  Am dros 300 mlynedd bu’r lle hwn yn gartref i gymuned Gymraeg heddychlon oedd yn ymdrechu i ennill bywoliaeth mewn cytgord â gwlad brydferth ond caled.  Faint o bobl sy wedi clywed am Gymer?  Ychydig, siŵr o fod – dyw Gwyddoniadur Cymru ddim yn meddwl ei fod yn haeddu cofnod.  Gallai David H. Williams gwmpasu’r dystiolaeth amdano mewn erthygl unigol.  Ond peth pwysig yw aros am ychydig, talu teyrnged, a gwneud rhywbeth bach i rwystro’r cof amdano rhag ‘llithro i’r llonyddwch mawr yn ôl’.
]]> 0 Sat, 16 Mar 2019 13:49:02 +0000

Catullus in the Kingsway

Here comes Tommo the Teeth
Mr White, the dentist’s dream.
Flashes ‘em at every man jack,

In the courtroom he sits,
An intern for the defence team.
While Counsel jerks the jurors’ tears,
he just grins.

In the crem up at Morriston,
a mum weeps for her dear boy,
her one and only.
But he just grins.

Whatever he’s up to,
he grins.

It’s a disease.  But not, my lad,
a cool one, not a City look.
So, Mr Tommo, let me give you
a Word of Advice.

If you were a Cardiff boy,
blown in from Brecon or Nantyglo,
capel-reared in Carmarthen,
or fattened up on Cowbridge pies,
a Cwm Tawe hick, sunburnt and goofy,
or like me a Sais from over the Severn,
or, to be honest,
anyone using water to wash their teeth,
I’d still prefer it if you didn’t flash.
There’s nothing dumber than a witless grin.

But the truth of it is
you come from up Blaen-y-parc.
In Blaen-y-parc they rise at dawn
and piss.  And with that pee
they wash their teeth and their raw-red gums.
So, Mr Tommo, we can do the sums.

The brighter the shine on your dentures, you punk
The more of your piss we can tell you’ve drunk.

C Egnatius Maximus

Catullus, poem XXXIX

Egnatius, quod candidos habet dentes,
renidet usquequaque. Si ad rei ventum est
subsellium, cum orator excitat fletum,
renidet ille; si ad pii rogum fili
lugetur, orba cum flet unicum mater,
renidet ille. Quidquid est, ubicumque est,
quodcumque agit, renidet.  Hanc habet morbum,
neque elegantem, ut arbitror, neque urbanum.
Quare monendum est te mihi, bone Egnati.
Si urbanus esses aut Sabinus aut Tiburs
aut parcus Umber aut obesus Etruscus
aut Lanuvinus ater atque dentatus
aut Transpadanus, ut meos quoque attingam,
aut quilubet qui puriter lavit dentes,
tamen renidere usquequaque te nollem,
nam risu inepto res ineptior nulla est.
Nunc Celtiber es: Celtiberia in terra,
quod quisque minxit, hoc sibi solet mane
dentem atque russam defricare gingivam,
ut quo iste vester expolitior dens est,
hoc te amplius bibisse praedicet loti.

‘Say farewell, Catullus’ (Cy Twombly)

]]> 0 Sat, 09 Mar 2019 12:01:56 +0000

‘Y tu mewn’ T.H. Parry-Williams