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Opinion

Flags, bones and Old Smokey

07 May 2023 3 minute read
The Tylorstown landslip in 2020 Photo RCT CBC

Ben Wildsmith

Driving up the valley to Lidl in Tylorstown on the night before the Coronation, the rain intensifies, drumming on the windscreen like a warning.

It’s further to go than the one in Porth but my family lived up there once and supermarket shopping is less tedious if you’re being haunted.

Nobody’s on the streets. Bank Holiday weekend you’d expect a few out on Friday night, even in this weather. Everyone’s indoors, making their own worlds.

A group of kids is sat on top of the trolleys, not causing any trouble nor serving any purpose. Lidl is somewhere to go, I suppose.

Underneath them, in 1896, 57 miners died along with 80 horses.

Empires are built on bones that outlast them.

When I was little, my grandfather, who grew up here, would speak of royalty with a searing contempt that made it memorable. It wasn’t the affectionate pisstaking of my Brummie relatives, but serious, controlled rage that such a thing could exist.

Carrying shrapnel from El Alamein, and chalk dust from 50 years in a Birmingham classroom, he wasn’t having any of it.

‘Useless parasites.’

Collective trauma

A man comes out cradling 12 tins of Lidl’s own lager in his arms. Another week over.

It’s becoming harder to be a ray of light these days, don’t you think?

Emerging from the collective trauma of the Pandemic, there were some who spoke of ‘building back better’ as if it had been a salutary curse from above, sent to bring us to our senses.

Instead, we’ve rolled and tumbled down a scree slope of boarded-up pubs and nuclear threats with bent politicians and global tyrants at our backs.

A few extra tins seems more sensible than it used to.

I shouldn’t drink nowadays, but I want a bit of something nice this evening. I’ve spent all week searching round Cardiff for one of the homeless people we support at work.

He walked out of a secure ward without his medication and the police were very busy this week. We found him in the end, it was a worry, though.

The king prawns are marked down by 30% and I love prawns, but discounted seafood never seems like a good idea.

There are only three of us in here shopping under the painfully bright lights. The checkout staff are unpacking stock in the aisles, waiting to go home.

Old Smokey

Driving back, the light’s dimming further and the rain is just spitting, more of a complaint now. A solitary house displays Union Flag bunting across its railings. Dwarfing its neighbours, the house stares over the valley to Old Smokey ‒ the coal tip.

Last week there were engineers up there prodding at it to see if there was any danger of another slippage. The last one careened down the mountain into the river, leaving a black tongue draped behind it on the slope.

If Old Smokey itself came down though, well, that would be different.

It sits up there like it owns the place, covered in greenery. It’s not real though, just playing at being a natural feature.

It has no foundations. It’s a lie.

You can find the more of Ben’s writing on Nation.Cymru by following his links on this map


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Chris Hale
Chris Hale
9 months ago

Nice piece of writing. Clever and thought provoking

TBLM1957
TBLM1957
9 months ago

Nicely reflective, Ben. Each family has its own wise wizard or “one of nature’s gentlemen” (how my maternal grandfather was often described) a queenly granny or great aunt, and its own rebellious Prince Hal youths. We are influenced far more by those who share our lives than those put in place to reign or inspire. BHs are family time, or a chance to get some extra jobs done, or drink more than is strictly good for us, only a minority of civil society (not the Armed Forces, not the Anglican Church) devote the time and effort to patriotic parties. They… Read more »

Ben Wildsmith
Ben Wildsmith
9 months ago
Reply to  TBLM1957

Beautifully put.

Alan Jones
Alan Jones
9 months ago
Reply to  Ben Wildsmith

Reading this shook a few memories for me in regards to my maternal Nain, a no nonsense Pont y pwl girl & fervent anti royalist to the core, long gone now though of course. Two of my cousins still around confirm the telling of the time she took them to the “Pavi” cinema in Pontnewenydd. As was the common custom of the day at the end of the film the English national anthem would be played. Some of the more agile would head for the door while others would feel obliged to stand till the dirge ended, my two cousins… Read more »

Gwyn Evans
Gwyn Evans
9 months ago

Please, not careened?

David C
David C
9 months ago

Well said that man. Diolch

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