Tag Archives: cwmorthin

A Small Time at Home

March has almost gone and since the last blog we’ve had a fantastic launch for Scan by John Fraser Williams (with a great supporting reading from Rhys Trimble) at the wonderful Palas Print bookshop in Bangor and a week long writing course at Ty’n y Coed Farm near Rowen in Conwy. The course was a superb week – not only did we have gorgeous sunshine in this very special place, but also a group of writers who were committed to pushing themselves – some were just starting out, others much more experienced, but all had the right combination of doubt and determination to challenge themselves and the result was a final night listening to a range of work that marked authentic creative journeys.

It was lovely to meet new people who were taking courageous steps  – the metaphor of the week was a blanket that was being crocheted by one participant that gradually appeared less and less and not at all at the end of the week as writing pushed out the crochet hook. It was also lovely to see people we’d worked with on earlier courses and a treat to meet up with Mavis Gulliver who, like me, is writing about slate – Mavis working on a long sequence about the Scottish slate islands as I work away at Cwmorthin. The resonances between the pieces, even the forms that the material suggests to each of us are remarkable and it’s probably the first time I’ve done any of my own writing while away teaching a course – snatched little bits, but with a sense of urgency as Mavis and I bounced ideas off each other.

As well as having a gifted poet to share the tuition (and cooking) with this week – Pete Marshall, author of AGOG, we also had a guest author to entertain us with poetry and prose – Professor Ian Gregson, from Bangor, whose latest book, the novel Not Tonight Neil, is funny and dark and poignant.

It’s been a rewarding and stimulating week, but I am looking forward to my own bed tonight – before going off early tomorrow morning to Glamorgan University for an evening event – Taste of Cinnamon – I’ve got an hour to talk to students about independent publishing, a session hosted by Professor Philip Gross, and then there is an open reading when Philip and I will be joined by Cinnamon poet, Kevin Mills and Cinnamon fiction writer, Shelagh Weeks.

So much packed into a small space of time – and very good indeed to have a small time at home in the midst of it.

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The Future’s Archeology

On the train back from seeing my daughter’s new home last week I read an introduction to psychogeography, thinking about Cwmorthin and the impact of that place on local emotion and behaviour from the social to the personal. Defoe, writing A Journal Of the Plague Year, sixty of seventy years after the event, spoke of the “sense of haunted geography” and of how familiar places were transformed beyond recognition by the ravages of plague.

Slate mining had a similar effect. Tiny communities of farmers and small-scale non commercial slate mining were overlaid by an industrial machine. The valley must soon have been unrecognisable and farming homesteads that had been in one place for centuries were often obliterated in the name of progress, a subject I’ve touched on in a prose poem fragment that’s part of the first section of the sequence:

iii. Home Improvements

On the only map of Cwmorthin before the slate-rush, two homes — Tai’r Muriau, named for hut circles that stood before memory, Clyttiau, which never made a census, though in 1841 two homesteads, Tai’r Muriau and Dyffryn Dubach stood. By 1861, Cwmorthin Slate Company had made great improvements to the cwm; Tai’r Muriau buried beneath its waste.

The process of transformation came again in less than a hundred years with the decline of the slate industry. Now Cwmorthin is home to neither farming nor industry, it’s inhabited; a place with a few ruins and a vast abandoned labyrinth of tunnels and chambers beneath the surface. Yet it is a place of haunted geography with a strong imaginative pull.

Most psychogeography centres on the city, especially London and Paris, and often psychogeography that is sensitive to the history of place tends also to be conservative–political commitment is sacrificed to historical tradition, to past resonances replayed. There is a similar tension in the psychogeography of Cwmorthin, the tendency to hark back to a time of full employment, strong community, flourishing cabans where men debated politics and religion in the language in which they also dreamt, can become deeply conservative. It can overlook the brutal working conditions, the deaths, the subservient relationships to mine owners and the narrow roles for women in an overwhelmingly male world. Ironically such harking back and romanticisation is in deep contradiction to the spirit of debate and radical politics of the cabans themselves.

But there are also avant-garde and radical impulses within psychogeography, characterised by writers like Blake, who saw that rebuilding requires destruction and whose images are as transformative as they are apocalyptic, or other writers who celebrate forgotten corners and landscapes. I’m interested in these notions of transformation, defamiliarisation and reclamation made by the wanderer and poet; a collision of the political and the aesthetic alongside the collision of psychology and geography.

I finished my journey last week reading a selected edition of poetry by Philip Gross. In the poem ‘In Another Part of the Wood’ (written about Aldermaston) he writes,

a world ends, where a swathe of moonlight
silvers a ten-foot wire. The shadow-
cratered heath beyond is bright
as frost. A few slim birches tiptoe
in among cowled pipes, squat tumuli
with concrete cladding, grilles that hum.
It’s here, the future’s archeology.

Cwmorthin is not archeology yet — the ruins have not yet become hidden under the life of new epochs, we can still unearth its stories, still narrativise and connect, still imagine before we, along with the Victorian slate miners, become the future’s archeology.

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Aporia, Narrative and Saying Goodbye to the Old Co-op

This has been an extraordinarily fruitful week for immersing myself in writing of my own. Part of the magic was timing, I was longing to get going again, but also this place. I always love coming to Hebden Bridge, but I only left the apartment once this week and then wanted to be back and writing again, so in a sense I could have been anywhere, but a steep sided valley is always good and this little apartment is perfect. The welcome was lovely, including freshly baked lemon cakes, and the place, the ground floor beneath the owners’ home, is beautifully set up and was once the Industrial Co-operative Society’s building so it has good ghosts, even though I don’t believe in ghosts.

For my last day I’ve been working on a couple of poems that connect more personal material with the physical location of Cwmorthin and its history. I’ve got one good draft and one ropy skeleton that needs a lot of work or putting out of its misery– we’ll see. I’ve also got lots of notes from Paul Ricoeur, exploring doubt further. Doubt is clearly an important through line in both the process of writing and the material, I’m discovering. Ricoeur says:

The poetics of narrativity corresponds to the aporetics of temporarily

.

In other words when we are at a loss in the face of time the human response is to narrativise, to tell stories, to construct poetry.

Ondaatje, whose work I love, says something similar in In the Skin of a Lion, about how art orders ‘the chaotic tumble of events’. Ricoeur also talks about how narrative is restorative – it validates the humanity of those written about, the writer and those reading, he considers. I like that. We tell stories to reconcile ourselves to time – to the huge events of cosmology, the big and the mo hidden events of history and to our personal journeys. As Ricoeur so brilliantly puts it:

The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative.

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A Deliberate Life

I often visit Cwmorthin – a ruined slate mining village in a valley just above Tanygrisiau. I’m working on a poetry sequence on this place, examining links between landscape, architecture and emotion and it is a place that continually draws me back.

When I reach the top of the hill, I turn and look down over the ruins dotted around the lake. It is hard to imagine this place vibrating with the sounds of iron being hammered; trucks thudding along tracks; men shouting orders in the fast, guttural consonants of an endangered language; men coughing, each dust-filled heave tearing at their lungs; mules braying; the rhythmic chip and clink of slate being hewn or rived; the spray and hiss of water hosing down slate or churning in wheels; the occasional muffled boom of an explosion somewhere inside a tunnel. It is hard to imagine the smells: the sulphur and tar tang of coal burning, the gritty alkaline of dust and slate particles choking the air. It is hard to imagine the swell of activity in this place that was a little taste of hell, now transformed to a place of wild tranquillity: uncompromising, but beautiful.

There is no odour of industry, the air is cool and clean; the sharp iron tang of snow in the winter, the soft pungency of damp grasses for most of the year. The lake is quiet, an occasional lap of water on stone, but from here it gives back only silence. The sounds now are of an occasional bird calling, my own feet scrunching across the dry, springy heather, and the wind, which waxes and wanes in a fast repeating cycle; howling, keening, whistling before it suddenly falls away, exhausted and still. In those moments the hush spreads a blanket over the ruins: the barracks and lakeside workshop, roofless and fast becoming grim, eroded shapes of decay; the chapel, known as the sheepfold, with its roof newly disappeared, its walls still reaching towards heaven in one last push; the little cottage, the only intact building which I have a constant longing to save, mourning as the first roof tile falls away, knowing that inside the damp is winning, the stairs are already rotten, that no-one will ever sit on the step in a moment of sunshine, watch the water play with stones on the shore, gaze up into the oddly out of place, but pleasing monkey-puzzle tree and think, this is where I live. 

What has been lost? Hell has given way to a fiercely exquisite landscape.  The air is fresh and good. What was once a Blakeian inferno is now a Thoreau-idyll. He writes:

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depths of his own nature. (Walden)

Cwmorthin now is such a place; a haven where nature has won, where walkers can sit by a calm lake surrounded by the imposing grandeur of the Moelwyns and measure their own existence.

There is some truth in this, but it is also a fiction; a narrative we weave to give meaning to loss or progress or the mixture of the two. There are no cabans now; the ‘private groups’ where men met at lunchtime in the mine to debate politics and life and practice hymns The area was depopulated in the late 1970s and has never recovered; jobs are scarce, skills scarcer, economic depression commonplace. But, of course, it was never a fair trade – political engagement and skill should not have such a high price – men coughing their lungs to destruction, frequently dying in their early forties, children fetching and carrying in mines at ten, working full-time by the age of twelve, women carrying unbearable domestic and emotional loads, often with the need to make extra money as well.

That something is lost and gone does not mean it should be hallowed and sanctified. The mine at Cwmorthin was known as the ‘Slaughterhouse’ – hardly a place or way of life to feel romantic longing for. But harsh conditions invariably wake the human spirit to acts of resistance. ‘Resistance,’ Alice Walker tells us in her remarkable novel about, among other things, the horrors of female genital mutilation, ‘is the secret of joy.’ What we should be nostalgic for is not the hard, grinding labour or stink of toxic industry, but a quality of engagement with life that Cwmorthin threw up in the face of overwhelmingly harsh conditions; a quality that other times and places might nurture and cultivate in other circumstances, even sitting by a tranquil lake meditating on the depths of existence.

Blake certainly thinks that community is a corollary of rural, rather industrial, areas, but he had no experience of harsh, but relatively small industries folded into a wild mountain landscape. Thoreau maintains that he knows ‘of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.’ This ability has not been lost. The cabans have gone, but in Tanygrisiau, the tiny strip of village tucked under the valley in which Cwmorthin sits and which provided the Slaughterhouse and other slate mines with many workers, there are seeds still of resistance, of political engagement, of community, that I have not experienced in cities or small towns. It is far from uniformly idyllic – it is an area with social and economic problems, yet I remain impressed by the quality of neighbourliness and goodwill here and by the number of people trying to live innovative lifestyles. At the beginning of Walden Thoreau says:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Chapter 2

A great deal has been lost in this wild, beautiful place, but there are people here who are trying to live deliberately, who do not have economic wealth, but front the essential facts of life – it is part of what makes this small place so dear and an ideal place for a small press.

This is the title piece from the first section of the sequence, a prose-poetry section:

iv: Tŷ Schrödinger

The one remaining house is closed: windows boarded, padlocks guard the doors. Inside, unseen inhabitants, their lives already past, are yet alive and dead—until the seal gives way to break the spell. We know that they are gone, the dead, not smeared into some living-dying-life-inside-the-box; not caught between—but do not know the how or when the murk of maybes became death.

And in our box we wait until the measurement is made.

Cwmorthin by Cottia Fortune-Wood

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