Magazine article The Spectator

Wales

Magazine article The Spectator

Wales

Article excerpt

FOUR years ago, in a pub in Canary Wharf, I discovered that it was OK to hate the Welsh. It was my first week at work, and I was excited to be making friends with real journalists. It wasn't as difficult as I had feared - just a matter of staring morosely into one's pint and occasionally disturbing the silence with a despairing sigh. About half an hour into this routine, the agriculture and fisheries correspondent remarked that he had been sent to cover a story in Wales. The mood changed in an instant. `It'll be hell,' said the deputy comment editor, suddenly animated and beaming from behind his beer, `rain-sodden, dwarfs everywhere, mining obsessively.'

`You could always treat it as a mission of mercy,' said a senior columnist, forgetting to look haunted by integrated transport policy, `and run over a few children in Cardiff.' After ten minutes, even the glummest leader writers were eagerly detailing all the different ways in which the Welsh are grim.

It took about six months and a visit to Wales before I found an excuse to join in the fun without feeling guilty. Keen to seem spontaneous and youthful, a group of friends and I drove for four hours down the M4, across the Severn Bridge and up into the Black Mountains for an annual rave called the Dragon. It was a baffling and miserable experience. For two days and one night I squelched up and down a narrow gravel path, tripping over mongrel dogs, numbed by 1,000-decibel drum and bass, in the middle of a Forestry Commission pine plantation in the rain. It was entirely my own fault, but I blamed Wales.

The weekend before last, after three-and-ahalf happy years of unreconstructed racism, I returned for a second visit. If I was going to write about Wales, it seemed unfair, even to me, not to get a glimpse of something more of it than a few wet trees. I took a friend who knows the word for `petrol station' in Welsh, and set off with the vague idea of seeing both picturesque landscapes and industrial areas. After four hours on the M4 from London to South Wales, we arrived at Felin Fach Griffin Inn, just west of the Black Mountains. Thank God, I thought, when we arrived, I need never move from here: huge leather sofas, open fires, four-poster beds, food, drink and a spaniel.

Forcing ourselves to leave the Griffin the next day, we drove away from the famous beauty spots and headed for the valleys. After 20 minutes, my friend was winning 'I spy a colliery' by 15 points to two. We stopped at Resolven in the Neath and Port Talbot district, a group of low, modern concrete houses surrounding an older village lying along the A465. On the high street, an old lady had ground to a halt walking up a hill. She stood still for as long as we watched, staring at her feet. Other hunched-over octogenarians wandered past, ignoring a vast and incongruously cheery banner advertising Holy Trinity Brompton's Alpha Courses `for those who have questions about the meaning of life'. At the edge of the town we followed a woodland path, secretly suspecting it would lead to a cesspit. Instead, we found Afan Forest park and a deserted waterfall, 40 foot high, thundering on to the rocks and forming pools below.

Later, as we headed for Neatly I was beginning to enjoy the incongruous mix of ugliness and beauty: bleak buildings, bulky skies, and weak sunlight shining through the clouds on to dramatic countryside scarred by the coal industry. …

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