Day 92: Machynlleth to Aberystwyth

* Readers: I apologise for the now fortnight backlog in updates. I’m still alive and travelling, but have had little time, electricity, and internet connection. Fortunately there’s been some extraordinary adventures and encounters – some really magical people and experiences. In the meantime, please bear with me.

‘People have stopped going to the blockbusters…’ – Nia, Aber.

I awake in Machnylleth, a sleepy town on the mid-Wales coast with dormant dreams of a green revolution. I’ve slept the night in a lovely house in the town, eating and talking with a group of housemates who I’d like to count as another collection of friends made on this journey. Travelling by the day, one meets so many inspiring and curious characters, and it’s been a delightful treat to gorge each day on anecdotes, ideas and opinions. I believe that every person possesses inside them a small universe, their own unique imaginative internalisation of the world around them. Connecting with people can, at its rare best, feel like an electric connection, charged and powerful, transforming both interlocutors in the flow of ideas. Or, on a less mystical note, just damn interesting. There’s a lot of damn interesting people on these islands. Keep faith in one’s fellow companion. That stranger is a friend not yet made. I’ve held close to that dictum, and so immensely profited from every encounter.

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I’m leaving sunny Mach to its neighbouring town to the south, Aber, or Aberystwyth. Even the locals avoid attempting these polysyllabic tongue-twisters. It’s no long journey by any stretch, but I have a friend there to stay with, and I will not hurry such beautiful landscapes under any conditions. The morning’s ride is pleasant, a cool jaunt besides green fields and valium scenery. I take a stop at the Dyfi furnace, a preserved image of the area’ industrial past, lending the name ‘furnace’ to the nearby village. What makes us feel so at peace around obsolete technologies?

The road to Aber is largely steep and up hill, crossing from Powys into the county of Ceridigion. The final push into the town is exhausting, but the reward is well worth it: a rapid descent into a small, isolated but utterly lovely little seaside town-cum-university city. Good morning Aberystwyth.

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And what is this lovely and yet so isolated place? I speed past the national library of Wales, an imposing Edwardian creation built in solemn grey stones, though with sufficiently large ornate windows to allow some light to its toiling scholars. I find it strange that such a seemingly important building would be established in this remote town, but then Aber’s university has an established history and importance, and indeed, why must everything important be in major towns or capital cities? Today it looms over the small town with a kind of haughty imperiousness, surrounded by a complex of mostly Sixties-looking modernist university blocks that sit about it like keen disciples. I later discover that its staff are planning a strike over low pay.

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I race down into Aber’s small town centre, offering a mixture of gift shops, coffee shops, cafes (there are an awful lot of these) and general stores in a tight web of Victorian streets. Turn a corner and one will spot a small non-conformist chapel – they’re everywhere here, and once outnumbered even pubs. During the sixties as chapels began to close, a scheme was set up where all pubs were closed on Sundays to boost attendance at church. Thankfully, that failed and was abandoned by the late 1980s. The remains of these chapels are quite special, self-important in their facades and columns but demotic in spirit.

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I wander round, through a depopulated covered market hall, through the ruins of an old castle that overlooks the Irish Sea. People play crazy golf of a kind but with little success. The Tourist Office is helpful enough, and there’s a wonderful old cinema one can creep into and peek up at the old stalls, still preserved, in which the town’s otherwise dull museum is housed in. The old university building nearby casts a strong impression in its sandstone, cathedral-like pretentions. I’m told that Aber has the most students per head of population in the UK. It’s a friendly small town, and seems awash with characters and stories. One could easily pass the time here as a visitor. But would its small size feel claustrophobic or insular after two and a half years of study?

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I’m looking for a library to work in. The town’s main library looks boarded up, and I see another impressive municipal building on the northern edge of its promenade boarded up for sale. Fortunately the Ceridigion county archives are open and provide a good place to work. It’s mostly Welsh spoken inside here, a flowing language that sounds much unlike English to the untrained ear. It’s a pleasure to hear.

I’m staying with a friend of my partner’s, Nia, and I’m looking forward to meeting her. She’s been a student at Aber for many years and is about to finish a PhD in the area of film adaptations. She also runs the Abertoir horror film festival with her friend Gaz, who set it up back in 2006. And, she also works in the box office and bookshop of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. An ideal guide to the cultural and social life of the town!

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We meet at the arts centre. I’ve just nearly had a heart attack climbing back up the huge hill that separates the cerebral university from the lowly town. We share a coffee in the café, and begin to talk about university. Although she’s at the end of finishing an immense and impressive piece of work, she’s not planning to enter into academia just yet. ‘I just really like watching films, and thinking about films’. It’s a fair point: it’s easy to lose track of the original enthusiasms and motivations that draw one into any line of work. Watching horror films is one of her loves, yet ironically the intensive process of writing up her PhD has meant she’s hardly done this in the last year. Nor is she alone. ‘I’m here a lot, and I very rarely see a film lecturer come in to see a film’.

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She’s unsure about the pressure to publish or teach subjects that she has no interest in, ‘I’m too lazy and selfish’ she jokes apologetically, but it strikes me as a stance with integrity, not to disserve students in an attempt to get higher-paid and more prestigious work. We share our concerns about the pressures to increase productivity in academia, which as I’ve tried to argue is just one area of a logic operating in other aspects of the civil professions. Employers demand more qualifications to get a job; managers demand more productivity at work; workers must therefore be more well-trained and efficient in order to gain a wage, whilst at the same time their contractual hours are shredded and pay is frozen. Work and low pay are two key problems.

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Nia takes a real pleasure in the enhanced experience of the cinema over computers and television. Through running the Abertoir film festival, she ends up watching ‘tons’ of short films in her spare time in order to produce a competition shortlist. It sounds gruelling, all this work! But I wonder about the cinema, especially when it seems that so many of us are downloading all our music, films, TV and news without paying anyone. The Arts Centre is the second largest venue of its kind in the country but is struggling to draw in numbers. Blockbuster films aren’t drawing in large audiences. Some complain about having to pay £26 for a theatre show on at the moment: we’ve become so used to everything being free. The one kind of film which has brought increasing numbers are live opera or theatre productions shown on the big screen. There could be a future here in delivering experiences beyond even the hyper-sophisticated smart televisions of the modern British sitting room.

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We’re talking for hours, and the Barbican-lite concrete space is a superb venue to pass the time and talk film and cultural matters. She lives down the hill in an old school building. One local gent walked Nia home one night, primarily in order to have a peek into the building. It was his old school, and the lounge where I later sleep was once the headmaster’s office. Chills down the spine of another kind.

Speaking as a Londoner, or more broadly as a southern Englander, I certainly took it for granted the extent to which the British islands are filled with different languages and cultures. In the course of my trip I’ve focused more on those with a particular historical relevance to the landscape, like Scots and Manx Gaelic, and now Welsh, but I’m beginning to feel that I need to return to find out about more recent languages, like Urdu or Gujarati among the minarets of Lancashire, or Polish among the agricultural workers of eastern England. It seems more relevant than translating Viking Runes or old English.

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Nia tells me that only eighteen percent of the Welsh population actually speak the language, something I find surprising given how frequently I’ve heard it, but it’s much more prominent in the north than the south. From what I gather, though south Wales holds a hegemonic grip on ‘Welshness’: its dialect is that used by BBC Wales in Cardiff, and its traditions of rugby, choral singing and its accent are often associated with Welshness by strangers – north Wales has had its identity less compromised by English settlement (say in Pembrokeshire, or Monmouthshire) or English employers censuring speaking Welsh (as in the mining areas of the Valleys). The north Welsh dialect is more complex and grammatically significant than the south, yet fewer speak it.

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Nia tells me all this with some expertise, as she undertook Celtic Studies for two years at degree level. She grew up with Welsh and learnt many subjects in it. At university she learnt old Welsh, Bretagne and Irish Gaelic, but gave up after realising that she didn’t want to work in these tongues. ‘I just like watching films, but I felt under pressure to go and do a proper course. It was silly. What I’m doing is that, it’s important, but at the time…’

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What captures this unusual tongue? Nia shows me a book she prizes, written in this rich and poetic north Welsh: Un Nos Ola Leuad, or in English ‘One Moonlit Night’, written by Caradog Prichard. It’s a a lyrical and somewhat experimental novel about a son’s relationship with the outer world, particularly with his mother, in a north Wales quarrying village much like that where Prichard grew up. His father died in a quarrying accident when he was five, and his mother struggled with mental illness. It’s worth comparing it for a moment with the small but animated output of Irish modernists like Flann O’Brien and, yes, James Joyce, keen to capture vernacular voices; but a worthier comparison is with the angry and ironic prose of northern English writers, like Walter Greenwood, Shelagh Delaney or Stan Bristow. Each refuses a neat but worthy caricature. Religiously devout, politically sound, good, hard-working, sober and dead honest working-class people, modestly putting up with their station? No, not here. The pub is the centre of village life, and the novel is replete with suicides, ghostly apparitions, transsexuals and strange superstitions. Everyone, including the narrator, is teetering on a kind of madness that seems explicable in its election.

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Already I’m being confronted in many different ways with the distinctiveness and richness of Welsh identity. But would it want political independence? Devolution has provided a taste of it. Nia tells me that many in Wales are watching the slow drive towards Scottish independence closely. There’s not much appetite for total political independence, yet. But as Sylvie said yesterday back in Machynlleth, at first she’d never have considered supporting a nationalist party like Plaid Cymru, suspicious of what nationalism or patriotism might lead to, typically xenophobia and paranoia in England. Actually, as their supporters have presented to me, the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru have developed political agendas that are liberal and progressive. Plaid Cymru particularly have a sophisticated and ecologically sound green policy. ‘Not just a bunch of rugby fans drinking beer and demanding Welsh independence!’, as Sylvia joked. What’s becoming desired isn’t total independence, but more devolutionary powers. It seems like a realistic desire. The Scots will probably vote to remain with the UK on the narrowest of knife-edges, with devolutionary powers promised. The Welsh also deserve a share; so does every self-recognising region on these islands.

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These Aber conversations are rich and stimulating. We drink tea and eat, and I get out my sewing set and piece together my torn jacket and trousers. Dusk is becoming night, and we head out to a boozer via Aber’s delightful prom. We pass large-looking yet sober three-storey Victorian houses. Just marvel at how this small place impressively combines the seaside and the university.

We wander up to the northern edge of the prom, by buildings still devastated by a recent flood. There’s a camera van parked outside one from Aber’s own TV crime drama Hinterland. There’s a local tradition here of ‘kicking the bar’ at the edge, just below Constitution Hill and the camera obscura atop. I gaze at distant sea lights briefly illuminating Cardigan Bay before disappearing again like a misheard whisper. Further down there’s a bandstand where a local choir are singing ‘Songs that won the war’ in old military costume. There’s always something bittersweet about hearing these eulogies to a barbaric and preventable slaughter.

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There’s a good attendance, and we watch a while, before wandering further up the prom and into the Ship and Castle pub, where we drink with Laura and Steph, colleagues in her department. Talk is mainly on film, and often cult film, and most of it goes over my head. I miss the references, and so can’t summarise much of it, but it’s a nice and enjoyable night of enthusiastic cultural conversation, of a kind I’ve been away from for some time. It feels quite remote from the problems that’ve been on my mind, and it’s hard to talk about impressions or opinions without them requiring some kind of action or direction, or demanding some kind of weight. It’s a kind of relief. An erratic phone signal also disconnects me from normalcy: no texts, emails, anything like that.

We stroll back around midnight, the streets strangely deserted, no drunks or bored teens, no graffiti, no noise of airplane flight-paths, no noise at all. Not even stars, but so cloudy of late, hard to determine anything. It’s another moment of ambivalence, of being situated in between people, places and ideas, between decisions, in between pockets of time. And here, such a suitable place to do that, feel this, be here, not quite anywhere I expected to be.

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