“There are only three things you move for: women, work, and witness protection!” These were the sage words of one of my patients some time back, when I asked him how someone with a similar accent to mine ended up as a Welsh hill farmer. Like me he’d made the move from his native South East England, although my journey took in many more stops along the way. Of the three W’s, two led me to a fourth … Wales! So now I’m English Dai.
I ended up here in my late forties after 22 years in Bristol, diluting my largely London-centric ways. I’m an Englishman abroad, if you like, but I’ve always had an awareness of Welshness. My mother left her home in Surrey in the early 1960s to train as a nurse in Cardiff. She absorbed a lot of the language that her friends used. I grew up potching, being told I was doolally tap, or hearing ach y fi when I made a mess, as I frequently did.
Away and back
The economic depression and relentless grey of early 1970s Berkhamsted, and my father’s job as a journalist, took us to New Zealand. I was probably the only kid in the Southern Hemisphere, barring perhaps parts of Patagonia, who could pronounce Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. My mother took great delight in teaching me, syllable by syllable, as she had been taught by her friends and colleagues.
In October 1966, pregnant with me, my mother was staying with a friend in Tredegar when the horrendous Aberfan tragedy struck. Her friend’s cousin was one of the teachers killed. My father, then a twenty-three-year-old journalist on a Surrey newspaper, had driven her down and was one of the first press on the scene. Two years ago, on a bleak day, I took them to the cemetery for the first time; an incredibly moving experience.
By 2017 I was working in a major hospital in Bristol. My partner lived in Abergavenny, and I spent most of my free time on this side of the bridge. I was soon to be 50 and needed a new direction in life. My two children were old enough to be happy with me moving to an area they had become used to from frequent visits. I quit my job and took up a position at a smaller hospital, downgraded my pay banding, and decided to concentrate on another aspect of my life: that of being a photographer.
As an Englishman, I have a very uneasy relationship with nationalism. Years ago I was talking to an English friend who lived in Amsterdam about the proliferation of the St George’s Cross flag during football tournaments. During matches in the Netherlands, the nation goes crazy, the world turns orange. Nobody bats an eyelid if you pull on a pair of orange Y-fronts in the morning to celebrate the team. In England, such displays of national pride always seem tainted with something darker. The rise of xenophobia across society, but particularly on the right, is an ugly infringement into English culture.
In Wales, nationalism feels more like a celebration of a culture, a way of life. A pride in history, but not at the expense of someone else’s. I see a lot of people with Welsh dragon tattoos, and it’s not alarming. A St George’s cross tattoo can be a very different beast.
When I started work here, I was made to feel like a member of a team, a family. Someone quickly nicknamed me English Dai. It felt like I’d been invited in, and my nationality wasn’t being weaponised. I’m not naïve of course; there will always be an animosity from some towards the English. But that is largely built upon the history between the two countries, and not just upon difference.
My decision to concentrate on photography paid off. I quickly integrated into Abergavenny, documenting local life and the market. When Covid struck in early 2020, my ability to document what was happening inside the hospital, and show the staff as normal people rather than eulogised and politicised ‘NHS Heroes’, raised my profile. Not just on a local level, but national and international too. Nevill Hall hospital had three pages of coverage in the Guardian, including the front page, and my work was showcased in magazines around the world. I won the Royal Photographic Society’s Documentary Photographer of the Year in 2021. My new life in Wales changed my life.
I live in a landscape photographer’s paradise. Babbling brooks, impressive rivers, ancient oak forests, and deserted uplands dotted with stone ruins are all on my doorstep. It’s bucolic splendour and it’s beautiful. There’s another South Wales, not too far from me, but entirely different. It too is famous for its Valleys, but its beauty is of an entirely darker and more challenging nature. This is the South Wales once known for its industry, predominantly coal mining and steel production and, further back, large scale quarrying and iron ore extraction. Famous for rugby and male voice choirs, its long ribbon villages clinging to vertiginous valley sides, its hard way of living, and hard but welcoming people.
Peaks and Valleys
If anything informs the outsider of the Welsh way of life, it’s probably the Valleys more than anything else. I don’t feel I belong in the Valleys, but work with many people who do. The sense of community is second to none. I often joke with friends and patients that the Welsh stay in the same street as their family, but the English like to put a cushion of a few counties between ours. I’m drawn to the landscape and history there. It’s easy to romanticise a hard way of life, particularly as an outsider looking in, but that’s often what photographers do. It’s also easy to romanticise the decline in a hard way of life.
Industry in the Valleys was destroyed by a vengeful government, communities torn apart. Poverty is rife in many areas, as traditional work and educational support networks vanished along with the mines and foundries. Since 2016, the EU funding so vital for regenerative schemes has also gone.
My mother says that when she moved to Wales as a young woman from a very working class background, she was amazed at the educational opportunities being pushed on girls and young women that just weren’t an option in Surrey. Industry and unions, as well as community, sought personal advances for those who lived and worked in the area. Education and cultural awareness breeds strength, success, and social awareness in a population. Society would benefit if that ethos was as strong today.
Despite being so close to major cities, the ground in some areas is bleak. The wind and rain in winter cuts through you. It’s often an inhospitable landscape, littered with the rotting remains of industry and, in many places, burned out vehicles and fly-tipping, dumped for a plethora of reasons. The climate takes no prisoners, eating away at the roads, the buildings, and the people and animals that live on the high ground. It’s a beautiful landscape.
As a photographer I’m drawn to the bleak. It lends itself to grainy black and white film, my chosen medium. The rich textures and tones bring out an eerie, otherworldly beauty. I’m far more interested in capturing the scars and activities of man’s interventions into a landscape than I am capturing nature at its prettiest. Romanticising? Perhaps, yes. Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic. Maybe I’m the worst kind of tourist, revelling in a hardship I can walk away from, a lifestyle I could never lead. Cultural appropriation? I truly hope not.
My partner’s family built many of the bigger houses in Abergavenny in Victorian and Edwardian times, and the oldest solicitor’s office in the town still bears the family name on her mother’s side. There’s a direct blood line from Owain Glyndwr, whose daughter married into the Scudamore family, my partner’s ancestors. Her adult children are fluent Welsh speakers.
I’ll never be Welsh and I’d never try to be. I don’t feel the need to appropriate a national identity based on the rock I live on. I’m privileged that I can say that, I realise. Many aren’t so lucky. Conversely, I don’t feel particularly English when I look at what is happening to the country I was born in. I live here, I’ve made this beautiful country my home. I’m English Dai. In the five years I’ve been here it’s given me so much, and because of that I try to give back to Wales and the people who have made me feel I belong here, in any small way that I can. Diolch Cymru. Diolch yn fawr!
This is a revised version of an article originally published in the National Wales. The Found Gallery in Brecon will mount an exhibition of a collaboration between the author and ceramicist Agnieszka Pohl from 26 April to 20 May 2023.
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