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Letter from Llanelli

27 Jan 2024 5 minute read
Millennium Coastal Path Llanelli. (Wikicommons licence)

Joshua Jones

I know now what I knew then,

But I didn’t know then what I know now.

Isaac Brock from the band Modest Mouse yelped these words at me through my headphones as a teenager growing up in Llanelli. My headphones were self-prescribed solitary confinement, a means of protection.

I didn’t know what I needed to be protected from, but music was a balm to maintaining a mask in a neurotypical environment.

I wasn’t a shy child, far from it, but I knew I wasn’t a subscriber to the traditional set of masculinities on offer. I wasn’t straight, I wasn’t a rugby player. I wasn’t ‘one of the lads.’

Upper Lliedi Reservoir, Swiss Valley Wikicommons licence

On the beach I hopped rocks along the breakers and sat there smoking cigarettes with friends until the tide came in. We broke into the abandoned docking warehouse and scared each other with fictions of it being populated by killers and addicts.

I hopped rocks along the coast, I still do, following the ghosts of past me’s trails from one end of the beach to the other. At the Swiss Valley reservoir I found stories in footprints and etched into wooden posts. So-and-so was here – well, me too.

I picked blackberries at Box Park cemetery, where family members are buried, and camped in Llanerch field.

I never had the courage to wade into the part of the Afon Lliedi where it narrows to a stream, behind the Fire Station, but its mud is in my bloodstream. My heart, the rear-ended shopping trolleys on its bank.

Bigger world

The town has given, and I have taken. My headphones, my teenage armour, were also a barrier. I grew up on a diet of punk rock, grunge and cheesy 2000s nu-metal.

I day-dreamed of boys in makeup while listening to Placebo, spent whole afternoons in the skatepark with the Smashing Pumpkins, while friends rolled cigarettes and pretended to not look around, to see if girls were watching them skate.

I needed music to feel connected to a world bigger than what I saw, and felt, but I sacrificed the hissing of swans, the hurtling of trains along the coast to Pwll and Burry Port, the rain. I wasn’t listening, but I am now.

Llanelli. Photo by National Assembly For Wales

I listened to the wisdom gleaned from under the half-pipe, and men’s restrooms, and when waiting for a drink at The Masons, where I drank and played pool for years before I turned eighteen.

Stebonheath Park, home of Llanelli Town FC, that I can see from the garden of my childhood home, and the floodlights lit up the kitchen at night, the footballers’ hoots, and half-empty stands.

Cigarette talk from the car park travels up the hill bank to my garden.

Llanelli Town Hall. Photo Roger Pagram marked  CC by SA 2.0

Maternity

No one is from Llanelli, not really. Prince Phillip Hospital, in the Dafen/Bryngwyn Mawr area of Llanelli doesn’t have a maternity ward. There hasn’t been a maternity ward in the town since 1975, when Glasfryn on Felinfoel Road was closed. For almost fifty years Llanelli residents are born in Gwangilli hospital in Carmarthen, where my brother and I were born, or Morriston, Swansea.

No one is born in Llanelli anymore (not counting home births), and I can’t help but wonder if this creates a divide between older generations that were born in the town, before 1975, and those that came later. What does this all mean, anyway? What does it mean to be from a place?

My dad has lived on the same street since he was born, has worked the same job since he was an apprentice at the age of seventeen.

My gran’s house is across the street, and dad played parish football at the church at the end of the road, which is now privately owned by a photographer from London.

Dad played rugby for the Llanelli team, and I was dragged into playing rugby for the school, Coedcae, where my parents and their siblings went to school (and where my grandfather taught). The town is in my family’s blood – but are we from there?

Primavera Wellness Space, Llanelli

Flowers bloom

I write this letter from the desk in my room in Canton, Cardiff. I have been far removed from Llanelli for many years, living in Southampton, Bristol, Devon and Cardiff, but every time I go home, I discover new ways to appreciate the place I am from.

I felt alone, othered, and needing to escape into music and books growing up. Now, there are organisations like Primavera Wellness Space providing an inclusive safe space for their LGBTQ+ communities to receive massage and holistic treatments, or just hang out with friends over a coffee, and People Speak Up deliver therapeutic art and writing workshops for queer, neurodivergent, disabled and socially isolated communities.

I refuse to believe news articles that say Llanelli, and all the other Welsh towns like it, are doomed. Flowers bloom through cracks in the concrete.

I didn’t know if there were safe spaces and communities such as these for me to access when I was growing up, maybe I should have listened more. But I didn’t know then what I know now.

Local Fires by Joshua Jones is published by Parthian. It is available from all good bookshops.


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Diana Powell
Diana Powell
1 month ago

You can have been born in Llanelli if you are over a certain age!

Another Richard
Another Richard
1 month ago
Reply to  Diana Powell

Indeed, though I am in my sixties and was born in Glanamman because there was no room at Glasfryn. There are some parallels between Joshua’s teenage years and mine. My gang too used to drink in the Masons which in the seventies was a very old-fashioned pub which did after-hours late into the night. My parents had been regulars there in the early 50s and kept in touch with the landlady, Lavine Morris, for many years.
I bought Joshua’s book at Siop y Pentan yesterday and look forward to reading it.

Annibendod
Annibendod
1 month ago

The Masons was a special place in its day. If you weren’t part of the mainstream it was something of a refuge. Changed a bit now. Time moves on as have many of the characters that made it so special. The number of bands that formed in that pub was quite something. Many happy memories there.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

I was born on the tide-line ‘ar lan y mor’, three times the sea spat me out…

Thoughtful piece…

Steffan ap Huw
Steffan ap Huw
1 month ago

When can a town be considered ‘doomed’? When no one lives there any more? Or when it becomes a net loss on the economy? Llanelli has been the latter for a while, I expect – ever since the steel works closed down. Certainly, it’s a shadow of its former self, and there are many still alive who remember it in its heyday. I was born too late for that, but early enough to be literally from Llanelli (Glasfryn). Online shopping threatens to do to the Trostre retail parks what they did to Stepney St and Vaughan St. It is the… Read more »

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