How black was my valley, and the valley of them that are gone.
A Brief History of globalisation
It is impossible to write the history of globalisation without speaking about the history of the peoples of the former coal mining valleys of South Wales. Communities that once powered the British empire, were also the very first to ignite those modern revolutionary fires as the red flag for socialism was flow in its towns for the very first time. Theirs was a history of toil and fight, struggle and defiance, as the thunderous cries raging from the darkened abyss below managed to catch a poetic breeze, as choirs of passion sung the hymns of community and fellowship across the mountains of this once proud and industrious land.
Yet, if its people were once assured their own place in history, what marks them today is irreversible decline and abandonment. The valleys have literally fallen off the map. Thus, for many, what remains for those who dwell is an “unbearable sadness,” as the declining congregations of the male voice choirs sing out the tragic tale of Myfanwy, no longer do we think of the impossible dreams of love, but instead of a people condemned to live among the neglectful ruins of the post-industrial rot.
But might there be another story to tell? One that needs us to venture further into the blackness?
My story of the valleys begins with a journey. It will take the reader up into the Rhondda valley where I was born and raised, which is to also take us on a journey through a fated history of globalisation. For a brief moment in time, we can be shown what happens to a people once the winds of history turn against them and their politics and dignity is denied.
Black is an ecology in the valleys of South Wales.
Black is the colour of the story of our lives. It marked us more than any other identity. When we grew up, most of us lived in the shadow of the tips. Rained upon streets were still often filled with darkened waters. And the slag heaped mountains continued to cast a long and tragic dawn.
We were communities of the coal, which still left its mark even as the pits closed. Very few migrated to the valleys during this time. Most of us were descendants of miners, now obsolete in a world that no longer had any desire to extract our energies.
But that was the ecology we knew, it was the ecology - the blackness - we felt most at home in. Slowly over time the black was covered over and a greening returned. But might this all just be an illusion? After-all, it only takes a storm to reveal back to us the truth thats been concealed.
When we speak of colonisation today, we seldom speak of the peoples of South Wales. Yet not only was Wales Englands first colony - a land in which many of its colonial policies were tested out before being exported overseas, as coloniality was tied to the logics of resource and human extraction, so the valleys of South Wales become sites of oppression and exploitation within a framework we might call "the coal colony."
As elsewhere, this logic for power often worked by dividing and ruling over local populations, while resorting to internal military force when necessary to quell the rebellious masses. The Tonypandy riots of 1911, for example, are one example of this, instigated by then Home Secretary Winston Churchill.
But where there was oppression there was solidarity and resistance. Paul Robeson towers large over this landscape, even if his shadow is fading from memory. But we cannot let this be another chapter in our neglect. There is an important history of resistance to be retold, which continually brought people together in the fight against external domination.
One hundred years of depression
The first signs of the great depression appeared in the valleys of South Wales in the summer of 1924. Its cause can in part be attributed to the settlement agreed at the Treaty of Versailles, which not only punished the German peoples, but sent the economy of valleys into free fall.
Ever since that moment a century ago, the economic misfortunes of valleys have jumped from crisis to crisis. Indeed, the only momentary respite in the 100 Years of Depression was during World War II as the demand for coal once again made the valleys of key strategic importance. How the disposable of history find their salvation through the punishment of others who so often endure the same conditions elsewhere?
Today the valleys appear at the bottom of most social indicators for concern. But as we also know, there is more than meets the eye when conditions of impoverishment are concerned. That the valleys of South Wales are blighted by chronic levels of addiction, including to anti-depressants and face an epidemic of young male suicide is not incidental. They are outcomes of economic hopelessness and the denial of better futures.
Haunted then by both the past and the future, where we meet on the pages of life must concern this time of the tragic.
For as long as I can remember, it was drummed into us that success meant escape from the valley. This often took two forms - education or the military.
For reasons such as this the valleys have a long and complex relationship to war and militarism. They have a proud history of standing up to forces of oppression wherever that may occur; notably sending some of the largest brigades to fight alongside the likes of George Orwell against the fascists in Spain. The fight against Hitler and the Nazi's was also seldom questioned, even if most men in the valleys carried out their service by digging tunnels at home deep beneath the ground.
But the people of South Wales know a war can take many different forms. We can also write of the "War at Home". They also know that the fallouts from destruction can often take longer to appear, especially when an unspoken kind of civil war takes hold and is being waged upon a people in more pernicious, ideologically assured, and divisive everyday ways.
Still the boys and now girls of the valleys continue to replenish the military machine. I nearly joined them, but for a momentary twist of fate. How might I look upon my own military self today? Would they even still be alive? Would their understanding of violence be so different from the ones I hold? And why do we still feel this need and desire to escape?
Like the post-industrial wastelands across this island, zones of abandonment like the valleys were prime spots for militarism.
Friday, 21 October
"Aberfan was not a place any of us needed to visit. The community which lost its children wasn’t simply a location on a map, even though we knew it was just over the mountain from us. Aberfan was a tragedy we all learned to share in classrooms built just like those upon which discarded black rocks of no value fell upon disposable children with such indiscriminate abandon. Aberfan still haunts the collective memory of the valleys, its history, its suffering, its fascination with the reality of death, its political neglect".
What happens to a place when its people start to lose faith in every kind of project? What becomes of hope when belief is cast aside? What is there to believe in when every preacher seems to demand only piety?
The landscape of the valleys today is marked by empty ruins that are monuments to its abandoned Gods. Dereliction is rife in the valleys of South Wales, as chapels, working mens institutes, libraries and all places for social congregation provide clear testament to the slow catastrophe that symbolise another daily reminder of the blackening of lost time.
My fear in staying was I would be another nobody. And my fear of returning was that nobody would care
A BOY FROM
ONCE We were welcoming communities marked with pride. The only stigmata carried today is assumed prejudice.
THERE IS A SICKNESS OUT THERE. DEATH SURROUNDS US. AND IT IS LEADING TOO MANY TO A PREMATURE END.
The valleys of South Wales have always witnessed chronic ill-health in its wards of depravation. But the look of the sickness today has changed. Emaciation replaced by obesity. And the black lung, now replaced by the ailing heart.