Rhian E Jones’ five part long-form essay Little Empires: on Wales, history, identity, and Manic Street Preachers is a refreshing addition to the Welsh tradition of mordant self-analysis.
Taking as its starting point a critical reading of the Manics song ‘Ready For Drowning’, Little Empires is a necessary counterweight to the terminal boosterism of much current Welsh media. Jones’ narrative, full of careful honesty, is an enlightening read in the face of the stuck record aspirationalism that persists among the Cardiff quangocracy. If there is a hiraeth at work in Little Empires it is eerie, uncertain and stuttering. And wholly unsentimental.
The following is the full transcript between Studio Hiraeth and Rhian E Jones
1. You write ‘the early Manics were and remain a band only a teenager could properly love’. What do you think about the idea of the Valleys as a locus in permanent adolescence? We’re told the area was once mountains and pasture, that went through a difficult over-heated period of industry for roughly a hundred years, but for the last four decades no one has known what to do with them?
I think that’s very much the case. A large factor in the current kind of post-industrial stasis I often write about, and in which a lot of mid-period Manics is steeped, has to do with being aware of what were previously very strong social and cultural traditions and expectations, having them suddenly cut off, and being left with no mature form of identity to aspire to – no way of ‘growing up’ into the roles you previously saw enacted and with which you were brought up, so you’re stuck with a sort of socio-cultural arrested development. The cessation of those expectations can also be relieving and liberating, of course, but not if you’re also left without sufficient economic resources to rebuild or start afresh, and without any replacement for the qualified but undeniable certainties and securities that were offered by a life down the pits, as bad as that way of life was too. Part of why I connected so strongly with the Manics as a teenager was down to how well they managed to express that sense of being nihilistic and resentful simply because of how at a loss you were to find any function you could satisfactorily or meaningfully fulfil. Every teenager feels like that, to the point of cliché, but in post-industrial communities that stage of listless boredom, short-termism, and lack of any real faith in the future almost seems to have become a way of life. Drinking fits into this very well too, of course. There’s also that sulky teenage refusal to take pleasure or pride in one’s heritage or surroundings – I mean, why should one, faced with contemporary conditions?
Interestingly, the historiography of Welsh economic and cultural development has seen a deliberate turn away from presenting industrialization as a catastrophic falling-off – something that a pure, green and arable country tried to resist, couldn’t, and was then corrupted and crushed by, leaving memories and myths of an ancient Arcadia and a modern condemned land. Which is an absurd way to have to conceive of yourself and your surroundings if you just happen to have been born in the coalfield, into what feels like a peculiar variant of original sin. The alternative view of industrialisation sees it as progress, as opportunity, as a catalyst which gave rise to great things in the way of working-class organization, self-education, art, politics and culture – the NHS may not have taken the form it did, for example, had Bevan not been able to draw on his experience of the Tredegar Medical Aid Society. I hope, with extreme and probably naïve optimism, that the end of heavy industry in Wales might also come to be seen as giving rise to positives as well as negatives, acting as a spur to the development of a different way of life, but as to how we might get there I haven’t a clue. As ‘Ready for Drowning’ expresses very well, there seems to be no clear path ahead, only a lot of dead-ends and states of suspension.
2. ‘If drinking in industrial Wales was relief and respite from harsh conditions, so, in an altered socioeconomic landscape with some of the UK’s highest unemployment figures and bleakest prospects, it remains.’ In some of their lyrics and their relationship with their audience the Manics display an affinity with the female version of binge drinking. Growing up did you sense that they reached outside the Welsh male booze archetype of Thomas, Burton, and Hopkins?
This feels like quite a counter-intuitive thing to say, given that I regard the experience of growing up as a Manics fan and growing up as a feminist as pretty intertwined, but I think the band’s gender politics have always had their deeply problematic aspects. For all their early Solanos-ite sloganeering and their uses of confrontational glam ambiguity – following in the footsteps of people like Adrian Street, whose self-presentation is equally fascinating – I think there was also an under-acknowledged residue of basic Valleys chauvinism, mixed up with indulgent rockstar clichés. There was one particular article by Barbara Ellen from their tour of Thailand, involving evenings spent in strip-clubs etc, which I remember finding not shocking but just exasperating in how predictable it was, how much it cleaved to a certain tedious archetype that I’d hoped I could expect them to be better than – although not one that’s unique to Welshmen by any means, and of course one which was depressingly endemic in the 90s.
Richey Edwards, especially, became a point of identification for female fans partly through combining alcoholism with more traditionally female-associated methods of self-harm (anorexia, cutting) and through the confessional nature of his later material. That particular use of alcohol formed part of a feminised take on the trope of heroic self-destruction – even down to the choice of neat vodka rather than ‘manly’ beer or whiskey – and it seemed to transcend the distinction between glorified male drinking and sordid/disrespectable female drinking. But even then, when that tendency reaches its apotheosis in The Holy Bible, there’s a discernible tension between depicting feminized suffering as a point of solidarity between artist and audience, and ending up simply making a fetish of it. ‘She is Suffering’, for instance, is a bloody horrible song which I will cross the room to switch off; it says nothing to me about my life, and never did.
Then, from the ridiculous to the sublime, you’ve got Nicky Wire playing stadia in a floral frock and headscarf, declaring the affirmative power of vacuum cleaning. By the time ‘Design for Life’ emerges out of all that, who knows? That song manages to be a near-perfect elegy and critique of the place of drink in a particular class and community, and of all that can go along with that. One memory that’s stuck with me is of the intellectually underrated James Dean Bradfield introducing ‘Design for Life’ at a Newport Centre gig with a beautifully sharp line which went something like: ‘This song is dedicated to the guys that broke my jaw in Newport about ten years ago – but it’s alright, I /understand/ them now’.
3. You explore Augusta Hall’s impact on the Welsh sense of heritage: the Gorsedd, national costumes, prizes and exhibitions and their effect on tourism. In a sense this is a form of Welsh Victorianism, a set of signifiers introduced into society to give the middle class a structure to work with. What do you think it’s equivalent is today post-devolution?
Good question, which my lack of interaction with the Welsh middle classes makes me woefully under-equipped to answer – I’ve never been at the Celtic Manor, even. I think that particular concept of cultural heritage has definitely persisted after devolution, but now takes quite different forms – the increased cultural capital that now accrues to being Welsh-speaking, for instance, has been remarkable to observe, or even the manner in which Wales’ industrial years have been incorporated into the heritage industry, in representations which seem to play up the hardness of material reality rather than the social, cultural and political resources and strategies which industrial communities evolved in order to cope with that.
I think we may be seeing greater visibility of Wales in the national cultural mainstream, too, albeit in forms which consolidate a view of the country that’s not particularly insightful. It’s been interesting to see the varied reception of stuff like Gavin & Stacey, or Stella, which seemed to be received pretty uncritically outside Wales but have been criticized from within as tamed, sentimental confections reliant on quaintness and caricature. Not that these programmes aren’t well-intentioned, cosy, heartwarming, comforting and all the rest of it, and Ruth Jones can do very little wrong in my book, but in some ways such presentations are as much a form of fancy-dress as Augusta Hall’s creations. Mind you, I still have fond memories of Satellite City, so perhaps my artistic and comedic judgment is hardly to be trusted.
4. The description you use of Cardiff, a ‘coolly cosmopolitan capital, at its worst a kind of Torchwood theme park’ gets to the heart of the city’s atmosphere of artifice. Sometimes the Bay feels to me like a badly understood attempt at Richard Florida, there are plenty of over-designed government buildings but no actual ‘creative industries’ apart from the BBC-Torchwood-Complex (but plenty of creative industries officers and administrators.) Have you noticed that there are hardly any pubs left in central Cardiff?
This is a habitual complaint of my dad’s, along with the disappearance of local accents in pubs and the encroaching of ‘plastic types’. I was actually in the Rummer Tavern on Duke Street, having the inevitable Manics-related conversation, when I first got the idea for the ‘Little Empires’ posts. That place is highly unpretentious and still bills itself as a ‘traditional city centre pub’, but other than that and a few other last outposts of sanity, it does seem increasingly hard to find places to drink that aren’t chain-pubs or microbreweries.
I left Wales just over ten years ago, and my return visits are always via Cardiff. On each successive return throughout the 2000s I found it very noticeable how the area was being gradually cleaned up, gutted and gastro-pubbed. This was to be welcomed in several ways, as there’s no point in perpetuating the idea that an area’s character/authenticity/interest is directly proportional to how neglected and run-down it is, but there are obviously valid criticisms of gentrification – local populations being priced out of redeveloped areas, the risk of any given city becoming a generic pretentious metropolis – and not being a local I’m unsure of the extent to which Cardiff has avoided that. I still find it noticeably cheap, at least, and a good student city, or for people priced out of London or even Bristol. The Bay is particularly weird – I only visited it relatively recently, and even in comparison with central Cardiff it felt remarkably hollow and artificial, like a theme park.
As for the ever-expanding area of sculpture etc outside the train station – again, it’s all enormously well-intentioned, but highly superficial and somewhat top-down. The idea of Cardiff as a gateway to Wales falls down a bit if you’re expecting everything beyond it to be equally madly over-designed and high-concept. Over the past ten years or so, set against the sprucing-up of Cardiff you’ve had the ongoing decline of the Valley towns. Maybe I’d feel more optimistic about it if I lived there permanently, but every time I go back it feels a bit more like paying your last respects to the place: streets full of boarded-up shops, pubs on their last legs, offers of work which are basically insults. The railway links down the Valleys have made Cardiff more easily accessible, allowing the spread of that cultural wealth, but perhaps at the cost of sucking even more life out of the towns at the other end. (Although I thought this, from Tredegar Young Filmmakers, was pretty endearing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hasWZ1odxM)
5. ‘After all this, I mean, I still feel Welsh, and I still call myself it. ‘Welsh’ for me can be a residual, reserve identity, buried or submerged, but still enduring; something to cling to when adrift, rightly or wrongly; something to anchor me. What the identity consists of, though, I’ve never been sure. It’s not a national identity but a local one.’ Being Welsh is often described as being an emotion (and being emotional). I wonder in the face of Westminster’s programme of virulent inequality if ‘chwarae teg’ might be an exemplar of Welsh identity, or is that too sentimental? Has that local sense of commonality and fellowship been eroded too?
Re. ‘chwarae teg’, I’d certainly like to think so – sentimentality in these matters being another significant part of the Welsh psychological makeup. Attachment to the NHS in my part of Wales is a perfect example of how and why political sensibility becomes tangled up with local or community sentiment, which from the outside may look like a knee-jerk and tribalist response but which in fact is entirely explicable and valid. I’ve been heartened – if that’s the appropriate word – to hear Welsh politicians using words like ‘atrocity’ to describe current welfare reforms, particularly in contrast to the vacillating and equivocating we’re seeing from the Labour leadership nationally. As the acceleration of inequality rolls on, I can’t see anyone in the Valleys having much truck with the kind of smug austerity-chic that’s about to be pushed as a keep-calm-and-carry-on style response to the prospect of increasing impoverishment. A sense of fellowship and solidarity does still exist, I think, although the overriding attitude I encounter is, understandably, one of defeatism and fatalism, spiked with the usual dark humour.