Writing against stereotypes of Wales in the New Welsh Review

The new issue of the New Welsh Review features a project titled “Beyond the Barren Lands” which combines my poems with photographs by Nathan Roach.

NWR featuring Nathan Roach's "Skate Kid" on the cover
NWR featuring Nathan Roach’s “Skate Kid” on the cover

An English friend of mine asked me a question about the Valleys recently. He had just completed the annual Dragon Ride, a cycle route that ranges around the Ogmore, Rhondda, and Llynfi Valleys, and he asked me: “Why would anybody want to live there?” Many think of the coaltowns in South Wales as a dormitory area for people working in Port Talbot, Swansea or Cardiff, an area characterized by poverty, unemployment, teen suicides, and binge drinking. To some extent, this is all true, but it so much more complex than that. There is still joy, laughter and life in the Llynfi, which is what my cousin, photographer Nathan Roach, and I have set out to prove.

For us, the Llynfi is more than tabloid stereotypes. Our great-grandparents grew up in Maesteg, as did our grandparents and our parents. Consequently, we set out to tell the stories of the Llynfi and to show why people still want to live there – not only want to live there, but love living there. We set out not to ignore the Valley’s tragedies – like the recent teen suicides – but also to represent its rowdy joys. We wanted to embrace its ugliness and beauty, whilst recording tales of an older generation who knew the place in its heyday. Altogether, we represent the boomtown of the past, the losses of the present, and the possibility of another, more hopeful future.

I wrote the poems far away in a snow-covered part of the United States: Pennsylvania, the state where most of the Welsh immigrants came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thinking back to the Llynfi and the people who live there, I am amused to read a letter dated December 30th 1851, from Welsh shoemaker John Gordon Jones to the preacher Iorthryn Gwynedd. Gwynedd was travelling round Pennsylvania at the time, and Jones asks him: “Why did you leave Wales to go to this barren country?”