It's Picking Up Here

Carnifal Book Introduction, Spring 2022


You know there’s something interesting going on when you see a bearded Welshman, wearing a traditional Welsh ladies’ costume of hat, apron and shawl, walking down a village street while live-streaming a commentary about the passing procession, occasionally pausing to chat with excited onlookers. Flanked by a couple more present-day ‘Rebeccas’, the man begins his narration: “So, we’re in the Tumble Carnival – it’s picking up here!”

Dressing up for the public, particularly a carnival, is always special, as it offers opportunities for transformation and transgression. It is both street theatre and drama, where the strangely familiar characters offer – for a short while at least – a chance for everyone to transcend everyday life. The group of women who have organised the Tumble carnival attended the same school as our live-streaming Rebecca. Their generation shared the experience of growing up in the Gwendraeth Valley under the increasing influence of an American culture that was being delivered to them via comics, television and cinema. In many ways, they are now part of a local movement that is encouraging their community to reclaim its own cultural place in the world.

It is perhaps no surprise to find that the carnival procession features cinematic characters such as Zombies, Roman Legionnaires, Flintstones, various Spidermen, the occasional Pocahontas, along with a smattering of Mermaids and Pirates. These are countered by the carnival’s Welsh dimension – Twm Sio^n Cati, Rebecca Rioters, Sali Mali – and a cohort of Spaniards in sombreros. Spanish people have long been taken into Welsh hearts following the hardships they endured during the time of Spanish civil war. A very Welsh thing to do, of course – express solidarity. The signifying Spanish headdresses visible in the carnival, however, are more likely to have been handed down to the present generation by those Gwendraeth grandparents who holidayed on the Costa del Sol in the 1970s and 1980s, rather than by those who volunteered to fight against the fascists in Spain as part of the International Brigade.

The Gwendraeth Valley was once a busy industrial area in the southern part of Carmarthenshire, a county some have called ‘Little Wales’. This is something of a play on the moniker given to neighbouring Pembrokeshire, often called ‘Little England’, which is an acknowledged haven for tourists and incoming second-homeowners. Little Wales comprises many of the key elements of the nation at large; beautiful countryside, lakes, hills, a glorious coast, important urban conurbations, historic architecture and discrete industrial areas. It also retains a deeply Welsh character and, as part of Y Fro Gymraeg (Wales’s Welsh language area), a large proportion of its population speak Welsh on a daily basis. It has been suggested that since the nearby M4 motorway and its A48 extension were enhanced to improve access to and from south-west Wales (including Little England), the day-to-day use of the language has started to decline in the Valley. However, activity such as the carnival suggests that its communities have agency when facing new challenges, and are engaged in reshaping their own futures in their own way.

Photography in the twentieth century did much to shape the perception of industrial Wales. International photographers such as Eugene Smith, Robert Capa and Robert Frank were attracted to the visual characteristics of the densely packed valleys of south-east Wales, with their steep-sided hills, banked rows of terraces, slag heaps and ubiquitous pitheads. The blackened face of the miner was a regular feature of their photographs taken at valley locations such as the Rhondda, Rhymney and Taff. Perhaps the visual characteristics of the Gwendraeth Valley were more ambiguous, being situated in a rural area with rolling hills? Maybe it was a little more difficult to convey the boom and bust of industrial society, and the dynamics of deprivation, adjacent to farms and green fields? It didn’t seem to matter to outsiders that there are records of anthracite coal being mined in the Gwendraeth Valley as early as the 1530s, and that its coal became popular for fuelling the earliest steam-powered engines in London. The mining of coal there had also supported the development of internationally significant metal industries in the region – not least, there had been pioneering transport infrastructure built to support coal extraction, including canals and railway systems, and what would be one of the world’s very earliest iron railway bridges.

A strange kind of image/narrative echo chamber evolved out of the cinematic and photographic representations of industrial Wales during the twentieth century that disallowed regional nuance. Selected elements of the story of Wales’s industrial experience were told, repeated, and then repeated again, ad infinitum. It seems that the story of the Gwendraeth Valley was too complicated to be told simply – and, of course, it still is. However, in the twenty-first century we have new, innovative and inclusive ways of telling.
If mid-twentieth century photographers were showing audiences what a place looked like, the novelists of that time offered the opportunity to understand what it felt like to be there. In 1957, Victor Gollancz published Gazooka by Gwyn Thomas, a tale that focuses on the emergence of carnivals in south Wales in the 1920s. Set in the time of pit lockouts, it is a story that in many ways runs parallel with our present experiences. Of the impact of the pit closures on the people and place, he writes:

"The parade of nailed boots on the pavements at dawn fell silent. Day after glorious day came up over the hills that had been restored by quirk of social conflict to the calm they lost a hundred years before... And then, out of the quietness and the golden light, partly to ease their fret, a new excitement was born. The carnivals and the jazz bands..."

The story goes on to outline the trials and tribulations of taking part in a carnival – organising costumes and musical instruments, the logistics and the training, along with the excitement and competitiveness that builds until the day itself. For all the rivalry, however, it is a coming together as well – a sharing of experiences and making of new friends. There is also something profound in those moments after the carnival is finally over: the coming down. Towards the end of Gwyn Thomas’s story, we learn that the jazz band we have followed throughout his tale has lost the big carnival competition:

"We had lost. As we watched the weird disguises, the strange yet utterly familiar faces of Britannias, Matadors and Africans, shuffle past, we knew that the bubble of frivolity, blown with such pathetic care, had burst forever and that new and colder winds of danger would come from all the world’s corners to find us on the morrow. But for that moment we were touched by the moon and the magic of longing. We sensed some friendliness and forgiveness in the loved and loving earth we walked on".

The photographer/artists of our present are doing something that is very difficult, in that they are not only showing us what the carnival looks like, but also what it feels like to be there and to participate. They offer us multiple views and differing perspectives – some from within (such as our live-streaming Rebecca, who comes from Tumble), some from the broader Gwendraeth Valley area, some who have moved from other continents to make Wales their home. Their work is not a straight documentation of some local event; rather, it is communal expression – they are part of the celebration.

It is not just the documenting capacity of photography at work here either – there is magic realism too. Carmarthenshire has a strong presence in the earliest of Welsh storytelling which was subsequently collected into important texts, such as the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Mabinogion, early manuscripts created around the thirteenth century. The stories would often relate to mystery and legend featuring figures such as the wizard Merlin, King Arthur and Macsen Wledig (the Roman Emperor who became king of the Britons).

The capacity to imagine, dream and succeed remains with us to this day – the carnival is evidence of that. Today’s photographer/artists, along with the carnival organisers and participants, are activists. They are not unlike the Rebecca Rioters of the early 1840s, who attacked turnpike toll gates in Carmarthenshire in a challenge to the restraints imposed by external forces. Carnifal provides a clear indication that the defiant message emerging from those from and living in the Gwendraeth Valley, is that they are hard at work building a future that reflects the unique experiences of a people and their place. It seems that things certainly are picking up in the Gwendraeth Valley.

© Paul Cabuts

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