We are proud to publish an exclusive Valleys Are Here essay from award winning valleys author, Rachel Trezise. This is a great contribution from a true talent and we are delighted to welcome Rachel to the campaign.
This is her take on valleys life and its conflicted reputation along with a clear message to MTV bosses.
HOW GREEN IS MTV?
‘Tale of rural despair wins £60,000,’ went the headline in the Independent the day after my short story collection won the Dylan Thomas Prize six years ago. This frankly ridiculous description of my work has stayed with me until present day, a constant reminder of the misconceptions that we who live or who grew up in the south Wales valleys are confronted with on a daily basis. More recently MTV’s press release for their latest reality show The Valleys which promises to ‘pluck [young people] from the tranquillity of valley life [and give them] the opportunity to leave their hamlet towns and change their lives in the city of Cardiff’ has ruffled a few feathers, and with good reason. If you don’t know the valleys you’d be forgiven for accepting MTV’s ideology. But there is nothing remotely ‘rural’, ‘tranquil’ or hamlet-esque about the valleys. In fact MTV’s choice to use those words will strike anyone who has spent any time in the Rhondda as utterly inept.
Equally disturbing is their notion that in order to change their lives inhabitants of the valleys must leave immediately and run to the nearest city for cover. Of course this attitude can be found in other parts of Wales as easily as in London or the rest of the world. During a television interview last month I noted ITV Wales political pundit Adrian Masters question valleys-based leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, about why she’d never felt the need to venture any further out into the world. What would have been the reaction, I wondered, if he’d asked the same question of a Cardiff-based politician? The valleys are only fifteen miles away from the city, a thirty minute train journey; in terms of ‘the world’ they may as well be the same place. To me at least, the question is so old it’s become trite. Rhondda-based actress Shelley Rees and I often joke about it. ‘Haven’t they heard of the train? Haven’t they heard of emails, the internet?’ No, apparently, since in every interview I’ve participated in throughout my thirteen-year writing career, ‘Why do you still live in the Rhondda?’ is the only question that’s ever been guaranteed.
Okay, the valleys aren’t strictly metropolitan. There aren’t any skyscrapers, sporting stadiums or cathedrals in sight. But they’re certainly not bucolic either. Instead they are a bizarre mixture of both, a wholly unique geographical situation. Above and around us, luscious green mountains – since the slagheaps have grown over, at least – are dotted with hill farms and sheep dips, while the bowl of the valleys are some of Wales’ most densely populated areas. Per square kilometre there are two hundred or so more people packed into Cardiff, though the Rhondda Cynon Taff area remains equal to Swansea city. Our snaky rows of terraced housing means that we live within very close, sometimes oppressive proximity to our neighbours. I’m not sure why the image of them, iconic the world over, has not expelled the ‘rural’ myth. Perhaps people think that these mostly two-up, two-down structures expand magically when one enters, as the terraced house in John Ford’s 1941 Twentieth Century Fox picture How Green Was My Valley seemed to do.
If you’re still having trouble imagining the valleys as anything other than sedate I want to tell you that in 1998, during a stint of work experience at The Rhondda Leader and whilst eating my lunch on a bench in YnysangharadPark, I caught a teenage pickpocket trying to lift my purse. Three years later, at a literature festival in New York, I fell asleep near the strawberry fields area in Central Park, my camera and handbag left at my feet. When I woke four hours later they were still there. Like New Yorkers, we in the valleys are immigrant stock, descendants of the Poles, Italians, English, Scottish, European Jews, Irish and Welsh who came here in the early 1800’s to mine coal and after a few riots and scuffles, learned to live amicably with one another. You could say we were the original melting pot; our society fashioned from many cultures and traditions. The valleys then were a cosmopolitan jigsaw of synagogues, Catholic churches, Welsh chapels, Italian ice cream parlours, Jewish pack traders, Chinese laundries, French onion sellers. Urbane if not quite urban. Though the buildings have gone – all but a few of the original Italian bracchi’s have become Greek or Turkish kebab houses and Indian takeaways – the ‘big town mentality’ clings. Traditionally we have been polyphonic, outward looking, taking our cultural cue from our New World cousins. (Here, I mean cousins quite literally; as my great great great grandfather was leaving Cornwall to come here his brother was heading for Pennsylvania, his other brother to the Gold Coast.)
Had MTV been making reality TV intended to pluck young people out of ataraxia two hundred years ago, surely they’d send some Cardiff youth up to the valleys. Cardiff wasn’t a city then. It wasn’t anything. After the 1794 opening of the GlamorganshireCanal, constructed to float iron and coal from the valleys to the nearest coast, (which happened to be Cardiff), international trade encouraged a dock and then a dockland to spring up around the canal’s mouth. Without it we’d find ourselves in a very different Wales: the valleys town of Merthyr Tydfil its capital and Cardiff a mere ‘hamlet’.
Of course that’s not the Wales we live in, and of course the valleys have issues. Some of them stem from our unique situation. The coal mines and the manufacturing industry have gone and left a gaping economic hole. Politically, we’re slightly confused. The early Anglicisation of the valleys has caused a linguistic schizophrenia at a time when the rest of Wales is developing a strong national identity. We voted yes for the referendum on further assembly powers but Rhondda Cynon Taff received the most applications for Diamond Jubilee street parties in the whole country. As commuting to other parts of Wales for work becomes the norm, our narrow terraced streets struggle to accommodate two and three car families – our infrastructure has become weakened by our own geography – though electrification of the Valley Lines route will be completed in 2017. Troubling perhaps, but not insurmountable. As immigrants we’ve learned to adapt once, and we’ll learn to adapt again and again. Other issues are not so site specific. We suffer the same anti-social problems as other urban places; drugs, poverty, crime. Often I’ve been criticised for depicting these topics in my work. I’m not sure why. I guess that like MTV, and the sub editor who wrote the Independent headline I mentioned, some people would like to imagine that the valleys are still full of miners who sing chorales on their way to work, naive children and teenagers who still go to chapel on Sunday evenings and have never watched television, or looked at internet porn. A few years ago I was discussing gay literature with a fairly educated fellow writer. ‘Do you know any though?’ he asked me. ‘What? Gay people?’ I said, ‘I’ve a very good friend who’s gay.’ ‘You mean lesbian, don’t you?’ he said. ‘No, I mean gay.’ ‘In the valleys?’ he gasped, ‘And he’s out?’ I nodded. ‘Bloody hell! I don’t envy him.’
Why? The valleys aren’t Llandewi Brefi. That’s in mid Wales, somewhere. And what would’ve been the difference if my friend had been a lesbian? If nostalgia is the natural enemy of contemporary fiction maybe it’s an enemy of common sense too. I still blame How Green Was My Valley; that book has a lot to answer for.
Given the difficulties outlined above, is it really surprising that I get asked why I never moved out? Yes, and for the simple reason that you never hear anyone ask why a Harlemite never moved out of Harlem or why a Neapolitan never moved out of Naples. Actually I almost did move away from the Rhondda. During my studies in the Republic of Ireland I quickly discovered that travel is the best form of education, and I wanted to continue this education in as many different places as I possibly could. Then came a publishing contract. My life as a writer has been blessed with much foreign travel, balm to my wanderlust. As for moving permanently away from the valleys I had the means to do it once and I discussed it with my husband. We considered a few of our favourite places. But it turned out we’ve been spoiled by this strange Arcadian/suburban mixture that’s exclusive to the valleys. Had we gone to Cardiff we’d have missed the mountains. Had we gone to the Brecon hinterlands we’d have missed the bustle and coffee shops. The only thing I really long for is a good theatre, à la Chapter. The miners scrimped tirelessly to build places like the Miner’s Institute and the Parc and Dare to educate and entertain themselves. The buildings are still here but are maintained by a skeleton staff and hardly ever used. Not because people are any less interested in the arts. Sadly it’s simply because Cardiff is only fifteen miles away.
Rachel Trezise was born in the Rhondda valley and still lives there. She’s a novelist, short-story writer, dramatist and screenwriter. Her debut novel In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl won the Orange Futures Prize. Her collection of short stories Fresh Apples won the 2006 Dylan Thomas Prize. Her current novel is Sixteen Shades of Crazy. A second collection of stories, Cosmic Latte will be published in 2013. In her spare time she plays roller derby for www.valleysrollerdolls.co.uk