Last weekend’s pandemic-panic awayday was inevitable – but so was the visceral response
So, the weekend is upon us again. You’ve probably not noticed, as for those of us whose work is non-essential (and seeming ever more ephemeral by the hour), the days are starting to melt into one another like a four-cheese fondue. Do you remember fondues? Even in the 1980s, the idea of sitting around with a bunch of people and poking bits of meat or veg into a gloopy lava seemed like a health and safety nightmare, and that was before anyone had even heard of health or safety. Right now, a fondue party would be nothing short of cheesy Russian roulette.
Even if distinct days of the week and fondues are a blank, do you remember last weekend? You should. It will go down in Welsh history, I suspect, and become as iconic as Carlo’s investiture or the Belgium game: the utterly surreal weekend when legions of Brummies and Scousers hot-footed it out of town on a mass pandemic-panic awayday to a locked-down Wales. Parked cars clogged the Llanberis pass. Snowdon thrummed like Oxford Street in the sales. St David’s cathedral was so overwhelmed it had to lock its doors (“If you wish us to pray for you specifically, please e-mail us through the website,” squeaked a spokesman).
It was mad, but nigh-on inevitable. Official messages at the time were hopelessly muddled: you can’t go to the pub, but you must get fresh air and exercise. Less populated areas the world over were seeing the same thing. To people who have been so distanced from their own countryside, and who have been told to trust only the places that the brown signs and Trip Advisor point them towards, where did they therefore go? To our over-sweetened honeypots, of course. Twenty-five years ago, living in suburban Birmingham with an insatiable itch for Wales, I’d have doubtless done the same.
If that was understandable, so too was the visceral response it provoked here in rural Wales. The tourist invasion that we gear ourselves up for at this time every year came turbocharged, all at once, but stressed and scared rather than hopeful or happy, and laced with a terrifying danger. Out came the paint pots and the bedsheets, daubed with exhortations for the hordes to return home.
When I lecture about cartography, I often overlay different maps of Wales to show how geology and topography, the intrinsic factors, are mirrored so precisely in human geography, things like dialect or voting patterns. There’s a new map to be made, one of the regional variations in the kind of language that was used to tell the visitors to scram.
In Bala, its lake crusted all weekend by camper vans and smouldering under a carpet of barbeque smoke like some post-apocalyptic Glastonbury, feelings ran predictably fierce. GO HOME IDIOTS screamed one banner; GO HOME RATS another. Here in Machynlleth, decades of hippydom and voting Liberal boiled over in the most genteel fury: CORONA TOURISTS, PLEASE GO HOME – DIOLCH! read the banner under the clock tower. In Porthcawl, there was PLEASE TURN AROUND (put there I reckon by Bonnie Tyler, as a subliminal brainwash to get us all to download – again – Total Eclipse of the Heart).
Inevitably, another agenda cracked through the surface. GO HOME SAIS shouted fresh graffiti in Rhosneigr, where fisticuffs also broke out as tensions climbed. This crisis is making everyone act like exaggerated versions of themselves, and that, unfortunately, includes idiots. I was saddened, but not surprised, to see a Twitter poll at the beginning of the week, asking “should the Welsh government close the border?” 94.7% of 526 people demanded that yes, they should. So, no more patients to Shrewsbury, nor food deliveries from Bristol then?
The Wales-England border is 260km long, and crossed by 244 roads, nine railways and innumerable rivers and streams. It runs across parks, bogs, fields and woods; passes through houses, farms, villages, towns, a pub and a National League football stadium. I don’t think even the brave Twitter 500 will be enough to enforce its closure, not even if they wrap themselves, as they invariably do, in y ddraig goch. Perhaps it’s the only way to make them realise that a polyester flag doesn’t convey magic powers. It’s not a Harry Potter invisibility cloak – especially against a killer that is itself invisible.