Victorian toilets

There’s a set of Victorian underground public toilets in the middle of Cardiff. They can be a bit smelly and you probably wouldn’t want to linger in there too long.  But the steep stairs, posh antique ceramics and faint aroma mean there are very few places in Britain with such character to relieve yourself.

Picture reproduced from http://www.flickr.com/photos/auntiep/52545766/ under the Creative Commons licence (non-commercial use).

The local authority plans to close it down. They’ve got no cash and don’t want to raise council tax. It’s a thankless task running a council – whatever choices you make, there’s someone who will object.  And while I don’t have any suggestions for other ways to save the £92,000 the Victorian ‘public conveniences’ in the Hayes apparently costs a year, closing them just isn’t a good idea.

I don’t say this as a historian who objects to the destruction of all historic monuments. Not everything needs preserving. Sometimes you have to move on. The Victorians understood that. They believed in progress.  But this isn’t about progress. The toilets are not going to be replaced with anything, modern or otherwise.

The Victorians also believed in civic pride and building public infrastructure like these toilets was not just about providing facilities; it was about building a community to be proud of.

Modern cities aren’t always big on character. Central shopping areas rather lack in the eccentric or anything much which makes them different from their commercial rivals. However, the Hayes toilets are part of what makes Cardiff memorable. They are much as a part of its city centre as the castle and the statue of Nye Bevan. For visitors they’re something to remember and for locals they’re something to cherish and be proud of.  Few other cities can boast facilities that make people remember taking a pee.

Cardiff is increasingly marketing itself as a distinctive city. It’s been quite successful as a venue for weekends away. Of course, the visitors are tempted by sport, shopping, drinking and Dr Who, not the prospect of a visit to a Victorian toilet. But still, closing one of the things that makes the city distinctive seems shortsighted.

So much of the character of Cardiff was built by Victorians proud of where they lived. They created a modern city.  The city’s council has done much in the last 30 years to build on and take forward that Victorian civic pride. Cardiff has reinvented itself into a modern city but what has enabled that reinvention to be successful is the way it has utilised the city’s past to make the Welsh capital distinctive.

The Hayes toilets are part of the city’s heritage.  They are not being closed in the name of progress but in the name of saving money. Yet sometimes heritage has an immeasurable economic value in itself, even when it sometimes smells a bit.

You can sign the petition to save the Hayes toilets here: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/cardiff-council-to-save-the-hayes-victorian-toilets

There are some photos here http://www.flickr.com/photos/roath_park_mark/sets/72057594052332359/

Christmas in Wales 1900

The Victorians reinvented the idea of Christmas. Although they were drawing upon and reinvigorating older traditions of festivity and generosity, by the late nineteenth century Christmas had become a celebration focused on home and family and its now-familiar trappings – cards, trees, turkey, and Father Christmas – were all well established. Indeed, sending Christmas cards was so popular by 1900 that there were repeated deliveries of mail by hardworking postal staff in Cardiff throughout Christmas Day.

Taking note of the moral of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843), the Victorians were determined to make merry. This was as true of Wales as of England.  Although the Boer War, the price of coal and wet weather were all causing concern, the Western Mail felt able to proclaim that Christmas 1900 would be as ‘if one great wave of joy were sweeping over the face of the land, invigorating our emotions, tickling us into smiles, making our limbs dance and our whole being thrill in an epidemic of gladness.’

Central to such joy was the establishment of Christmas as a time for family.  This was not always straightforward.  The migration of men to the coalfields of south Wales and girls to towns for domestic service and shopwork meant that families were not always living in the same place.  Christmas was thus a time for reuniting families, something helped by the provision of a fairly comprehensive rail service on Christmas Day itself.  There were, however, complaints that limited Christmas services to rural west Wales were preventing some young men and women from returning home for the festivities.

At the heart of family gatherings was Christmas lunch.  Roasted turkey, goose or beef, accompanied by vegetables and followed by plum pudding had become the expected Christmas meal but this was beyond the means of all.  There were even claims in London that some Welsh people ate mutton at Christmas but pretended it was beef and supplemented it with roasted blackbird.  This was angrily denied by the Western Mail but poverty was very real.  State pensions were nine years away and some old people relied on local donations of Christmas food.  Many poor children’s only proper festive meal came courtesy of a charitable dinner at their school on Christmas Day itself.

That local dignitaries and churches funded such events was clear evidence that the religious and charitable ethos of Christmas was strong.  Llandaff Cathedral held Christmas services at 7am, 10am, 11am and midday. Churches were adorned with greenery for the day but chapels were more puritan.  Not only were they not decorated, some did not even hold Christmas Day services.

It was not just religious bodies that held public appeals for the poor and ill.  In Swansea, for example, the Cambrian newspaper organized the distribution of 2,000 toys to children in charitable institutions in the town. Even the inmates of the workhouses were given special dinners courtesy of the Poor Law Guardians and other donors.  In Cardiff, this consisted of roast beef, plum pudding and a pint of beer for the men and half a pint for the women.  There were, however, limits to Christmas charity.  In Denbigh, there were Christmas complaints that poor relief had been given to people brought up like hooligans and who lived liked fighting cocks.

Christmas had also begun to develop its commercial overtones thanks to the growing tradition of gift giving. Shops were brightly decorated and busy advertising presents for children and adults.  To increase sales after Christmas advertisements began to talk of New Year’s gifts.  The most common presents were fancy goods and toys, clothes and bedding, and food and drink.  But for the better off there was photographic equipment, bronze work, cutlery and clocks.  A store in Swansea was even advertising ‘Useful and Artistic Furniture suitable for Christmas presents’.

Christmas Day was also a time for entertainment and people traveled to towns to take part.  Most shops were shut and the pubs had short hours but eisteddfodau were held across Wales and senior football and rugby matches were played.

In theatres and music halls, there were few performances on Christmas Day itself but Boxing Day in Cardiff held plenty of treats from Aladdin at the Theatre Royal (which promised ‘pretty music, pretty dresses, pretty dances, pretty songs, and pretty girls’) to the Dowlais Male Voice Party at the Park Hall. At the Philharmonic Hall on St Mary Street, there was a pantomime called ‘The Christmas Dream’.  An advertisement described it as an elaborate production in twenty scenes portraying a Christmas of ‘Ye Goode Olden Tymes’. If that was not enough, the theatre also had roller-skating and a waxwork exhibition.

There was less cheer in the Rhondda where local magistrates rejected an application for the pubs to stay open to 11.45pm rather than 11pm on Christmas Eve.  In the same area, a 73-year-old partially-crippled peddler was arrested on Christmas morning after his wife was discovered having been beaten to death.  They had apparently argued over his drinking.  In Cardiff, however, police and magistrates reported a quiet and sober Christmas week, with not a single case of cutting and wounding or violent assault.  Yet the fact that this was a matter for comment at all shows the danger of imagining that all Christmases past were simply a matter of peace and goodwill to all men.

Mountains, Welsh Culture and a bit of Science Fiction

I recently finished a 1977 novel called Survivors: Genesis of a Hero. It’s a tale of Britain a few years after a catastrophe that has wiped out of most of the human race. A violent and oppressive government has sprung up to govern what’s left of England.

Wales, however, holds out against this new militaristic regime.  Communities there realize that the English revolution is based on using the guns, food and technology of a civilization that is now over. Instead, they try and build a (Welsh-speaking) society that is not only fairer but more sustainable and self-sufficient. What enables them to do that, and hold off the advances of the English revolution, is retreating to the mountains and fighting a guerrilla war. It’s a military tactic that was familiar to medieval Welsh princes.

The geography of Wales has shaped its history.  Indeed, the opening line of Owen M. Edwards’ influential 1901 history of the nation was ‘Wales is a land of mountains’. The mountains divided north and south, undermining a sense of national unity. But they also kept out not only invaders but migrants too. Only slowly did tourists, industrialists and railways open up north Wales to Anglicizing influences. Mountains were key to why Wales survived into the modern world.

But modern technology and wealth undermined that, as people by the 1950s were only too aware.  In 1961, the nationalist writer Iswlyn Ffowc Elis complained (in Welsh):

Wales is no longer a haven beyond the mountains, but an open playground for hordes of motorists and cyclists and hikers, and an experimental field for the Government’s technology.  The teeth of her defensive mountains have been drawn, her valleys drowned by the English, and the innards of her rural society ripped out.  She now stands naked before the world.

Ironically, mountains are now seen as important to the future of Wales precisely because they bring in the spending power of tourists.

That’s surely a good thing. Wanting to close our border and deny outside influences can only harm Wales, both economically and culturally. Welsh identity survived in the post-war period because it embraced the modern world rather than rejected it. Once ‘the teeth of the defensive mountains’ were drawn, Wales reinvented itself as nation built on the present rather than the past.  Thus while a few opposed the building of the Severn Bridge in the 1960s because it would open Wales up to the world, far more embraced it for exactly the same reason.  Wales was a redefined from a land of hymns and pubs that were shut on a Sunday to one of pop music and personal freedom.

In Survivors the new Welsh society is welcoming of refugees from oppression in England. Those refugees have to agree to live by the ways of the new society but it’s also recognized that the incomers can bring new ideas and news ways of doing things. The best way to protect a culture is to ensure it does not stand still.

Survivors: Genesis of a Hero is out of print but there are pirated pdfs online.  There’s a review of the book here.

Random Swansea scenes from the 1937 Coronation

The South Wales Evening Post noted most of the celebrations were unofficial and reported that ‘the mass of people has been aflame with enthusiasm, and the results in the small streets and tiny hamlets have been half comic, but touching in their exuberance. “Eat, drink and be merry” is the national watchword tomorrow.’

One Swansea woman noted in her diary, ‘As we passed small public house [that afternoon] I heard about 4 or 5 men inside singing God Save the King very emotionally and raucously – they sounded half-intoxicated.’

At an unemployed men’s club in the town, the coronation concert began at 3pm with God Save the King and ended with Hen Wlad fy Nhadau and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. In-between was a comedian, old music hall songs and some Welsh hymns. It was followed by a bus trip to the Gower.

A 62-year-old charwoman noted how her Swansea street was decorated with streamers and Christmas festoons. The children had tea at the street party at 3.30pm (Blanc Mange Jelly, Cream Slices and Pastry). The women had theirs at 4pm (Ham and tongue, pickles, pastries and cake). The men ate next. She listened to the King’s Speech too, saying it was ‘very nice’ and that he did ‘very well’. She noted that he did not stutter but did stop periodically: ‘you’d think he’d finished and then he’d go on again’.

That night there was dancing in neighbouring streets with the music coming from radios in open windows. There was no ‘rowdyism’ and it was all very friendly. The charwoman did, however, break a tooth on a bread roll which led her to later tell her employer ‘So I shall remember the Coronation’.

Taken from the Mass Observation May the Twelfth day survey, 1937

First words in Welsh history (or openings from some random books)

Tonight a new ‘landmark’ series begins on BBC Wales about the history of Wales. I don’t know how far back it will begin but it’s prompted to me to dig out some schoolbooks on the history of Wales and see how they start.

Here are the results of this random exercise:

” History tells us of the deeds of the men of olden time, and their manner of life. These men were our ancestors, and therefore we resemble them, as children resemble their parents: nevertheless, no age is exactly like the one before it; for new things are constantly being discovered, and so the world progresses. Thus, though ancestors of ours have for many centuries lived among the hills of Wales, we should not recognize one of them, if he were to come to life again, but should certainly believe him to be some wild savage.”  J. E. Lloyd, Llyfr Cyntaf Hanes (1893).

“The story of England and Wales is a very long and a very famous one. It is full of deeds of brave and wise men, each of whom loved his own country, and did his utmost for it.” John Finnemore, The Story of England and Wales (1924).

“Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice, fifty-five and fifty-four years before the birth of Christ. He wrote a book about his invasion, but he never came to Wales so his story does not belong to Welsh history.” Mary McCririck, Stories of Wales (1957).

“During the early years of the Second World War, Britain was threatened with invasion from the east across the North Sea, and from the south across the English Channel. Thousands of people left their homes in eastern and southern England, and came to Wales to find refuge from possible occupation by the enemy. It has always been like that. Through the Christian era, and through far longer prehistoric ages, in the face of invasion the people of lowlands have pressed westward into Wales, and the invaders of one age have become the refugees of the next.”  David Frasers, The Invaders (1962).

“Imagine living in a country where the trees drip with human blood.”  Terry Deary, Horrible Histories: Wales (2008)

There are lots of different ways to tell the story of Wales and lots different places it might start. But however and wherever history is started says more about the teller than the subject.

On publishing an academic book

My new book is out. When I say out I mean there are a pile of them sitting in my office next to other piles of stuff. The official publication date is the start of March, although Amazon says it’s out in May for some reason. Academic books tend to creep out rather than get released in a blaze of glory.

Publishing an academic book is a strange experience. You think about the book for a long time before starting it. You do some research and then you write.  You mess around with the structure. You work and rework individual sentences.  You move bits of text around. You delete things and then put them back, sometimes in the exact place where you first had them. You think about it at night, in the shower, in the middle of films.

Somewhere along the line you find a publisher, which may or may not be straightforward. Eventually, some years later, you finish the book.  You’re still not quite happy with it but you send it off.

Months and months later you get the proofs which you read and wish you’d done things differently. But, even though it isn’t quite what you thought it might be, you’re still quite proud. You send them back. You wait a long time. You get some more proofs. You do an index or you pay someone to do one.

More months pass and then a box suddenly and usually unexpectedly arrives. It’s your book with your name on the front. You show your mum, your wife and your kids. They’re quite proud but none of them will ever read it.

Then not much happens. It takes months for reviews to arrive.  If they’re nice you tell people about them; if they’re not  nice it’s because the reviewer hasn’t properly read or understood the book.

You check it on Amazon every now and then (i.e. every day initially) and you get excited when you see it’s climbed 200,000 places in the bestseller list. Then you realize this just means you sold a single copy.

You might see it in a shop.  This is also quite exciting and you may move it to the front of the shelf, cover facing out so the world can see.

Some people do buy the book, some of them even read it, but you have no idea what most people think of it.

In today’s world of instant interaction this lack of interaction is a bit frustrating and a bit odd. But it’s no different to publishing in an academic journal where the feedback is even less and the readership can sometimes be counted on not many hands. Moreover, most blogs don’t, I imagine, have very high readerships either. Publishing on an interactive forum does not guarantee interaction.

Perhaps this new book will be different. It is reasonably priced (only £15.64 at Amazon) and it has a very broad topic. I’m plugging it where I can and various media have promised some coverage.  It will be in a few newspapers and on the radio. Some people may tell me what they think of the argument rather than the cover.

Doing this self-publicity (like this blog) feels a little odd to academics who spent their time buried in an introspective world of teaching, research and paperwork. It certainly draws some sniggering.

For academics, finishing writing is too often seen as the end of a project rather than a stage in the whole research experience.  If we don’t  want people to read our work, why write it at all? Why go through all that frustration and agonizing? Surely not just so we have another publication for our CV?

Perhaps most academics’ reluctance to engage too closely with publicizing their work is down to a knowledge of just how few people are interested.

In case you missed the subtle link above, you can buy Wales since 1939 from Amazon here. Other online booksellers are available too.  If you live in Wales you might even see it in a shop.

The above is not a literal description of publishing an academic book. There are other parts to the process, not least the publisher’s peer reviewing. There you do get told what others think of either the idea of the book or the book itself. They are not always right.

Sleeper and me

Some thoughts on autobiography and the history of popular music

When I was a student someone bought me Sleeper’s first album for Christmas.  I don’t remember who it was or whether I had asked for it. It’s getting frightening how I can’t remember details of my student days. I don’t recall at all where I got Sleeper’s second album from. I have it my head that I borrowed it from someone but never gave it back. But perhaps I imagined that.

Listening to Sleeper now vaguely reminds me of dancing around a room I had in a shared house and of fancying the lead singer, Louise Wener. She embodied the kind of cool girls who smoked, were recklessly romantic and wore jeans and trainers, girls who were out of my league.

Music is a good jogger of the memory. It’s hardly original to point out that hearing a song can remind you of certain people, places and emotions. But when you repeatedly listen to a song or album its associations get confused.  I liked Sleeper a lot but their records now prompt a jumbled mix of half-remembered associations that are mixed up with other bands from a period when I spent too much time at indie nights. I can’t even remember for sure whether I ever saw Sleeper live.

I am prompted into self-indulgent nostlagia by having just finished Louise Wener’s autobiography.  Its second half, recollections of being a sex symbol in one of Britpop’s key bands, is funny and self-effacing but it’s the first half, the story of being a geeky, music-obsessed teenager in a small town, that makes the book stand out.

Her stories of how music helped her cope with self-doubt, social awkwardness and the ruthlessness of teenagers brought all sorts of things flooding back that I haven’t thought about in a long time. But they also illustrate the power of popular music. Songs are the trigger of memories because they are more than sounds and melodies to have fun to. At its best, music isn’t something in the background of our life events, it’s something that twists and shapes what’s happening in the foreground. It can make us who we are. Wener calls David Bowie ‘the sticking plaster I apply to my teenage awkwardness’. Maybe such power fades as we get older and subsumed by work, family and money, but it’s always there if we want it.

That’s why the history of popular music matters and that’s what historians who write about music should be interested in.  Understanding the form, the fashion and the lyrics only makes sense if we look at how they were received.  Historians of popular culture should concentrate on the audiences rather than bands.

That’s easier said that done because audiences’ memories of music shift and blur.  Some of Wener’s descriptions of seminal moments in her musical life are remarkably detailed and it’s hard not to think that occasionally they are an older, wiser woman looking back on what her younger self probably felt. Indeed, she finishes the book saying she hasn’t made any of it up: ‘It’s all exactly the way I remember it’. Presumably, the implication is that other people might remember it differently.

Events are all about perception. Historians can’t ‘tell it how it was’, because it was always different for different people. The trick is trying to come to generalizations that work, without losing sight of the variations of experience within them.

For some of the groupies in the book, Sleeper were life. For other people, they were just another example of how pretentious Britpop was. For me, they were some great tunes, sang by the kind of unattainable cool woman that I was too nervous to talk to in a dingy Cardiff indie club. Music can be everything and nothing.

British social and cultural history is still lacking a definitive book that looks at the impact of pop music on everyday life. When someone gets round to writing it, Wener’s autobiography will be an excellent source.  It might not be typical of the impact of Haircut 100 or David Bowie on every teenager. It might not even be quite right on Wener herself. After all, all autobiography involves reconstructing incomplete memories and some degree of image management, conscious or otherwise. But in this second element, it’s no different to deciding what music you are into.  Popular music has never just been about the tunes.

Sleeper on Top of the Pops in 1995, a show that is central to the cultural history of post-war Britain.

There’s decentralisation for you!

London is more get-at-able than Cardiff for us in North Wales. It is, therefore, with interest that we read of the new Secretary of State for Wales, Mr. James Griffiths, establishing himself a Welsh Office in Whitehall.

Half a dozen civil servants have already gone up from the Old Office at Cardiff (there’s decentralisation for you!) and reinforcements are expected at Paddington hourly.

Will Wales, North or South, benefit as a result? Certainly the experience of Scotland under the Scottish Office would not lead one to think so. In Cabinet, Scottish business always tended to be taken after the affairs of England and Wales were disposed of.

This was even though the Secretary of State for Scotland had statutory powers which Mr. Griffiths does not possess. Mr. Griffiths, in fact, has neither the power nor, now, the backing of a substantial Department, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. He is a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best.

Editorial in the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald and North Wales Observer, 23 October 1964

Sport in the Heritage of Wales

A short piece I wrote for Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service

Sport is a central part of the history and heritage of Wales. It has played an important role in the lives of individuals, communities and the nation.  Indeed, in a country lacking the more conventional markers and apparatus of nationhood, it could be argued that sport is one of the reasons why a strong sense of Welshness has survived in the modern era.

For many individuals sport was an important part of the routine of their lives.  It offered a physical and emotional escape from the drudgery and harsh realities of work and urban life.  Whether through watching rugby at the local stadium, playing football in a park, racing pigeons from an allotment or even just talking over the latest betting odds, sport offered people excitement, companionship and physical and intellectual stimulation. It also accorded people a sense of self-worth and importance, whether through their reputation as performers or through their ability to pass judgement on the performances of others.  Such rewards and pleasures could make life more tolerable and more meaningful.  They embedded sport in people’s routines and made it more than something people just did.

The importance individuals accorded sport combined to make sport a significant part of community life too.  Sporting grounds and facilities were important parts of local landscapes, places where people came together, turning collections of individuals into communities.  Locals assembled there, often in their thousands or even tens of thousands.  Even pub and park games could attract large crowds, as people came in search of free entertainment and to watch their friends and families represent their neighbourhoods.  Being part of those crowds enabled people to assert their local and civic pride.  Moreover, the larger sports grounds helped define the towns in which they stood.  They hosted clubs named after those towns and were known far beyond the immediate communities.  They were as much a civic space and physical symbol of those communities as any town hall, church or pub.

The strength and diversity of these communities contributed to Wales and Welshness having a plethora of different meanings.  Yet, however, Wales was defined, it would be difficult to deny sport’s place in the inventing, maintaining and projecting of the idea of a Welsh national identity in and outside of Wales’s blurred borders, even if the Wales that sport has projected has varied according to time, place and context.  Although the Welsh language, music and Nonconformity have also played their part, few other cultural forms are as well equipped as sport to express national identity.  Its emotions, national colours, emblems, songs and contests all make it a perfect vehicle through which collective ideas of nationhood can be expressed.  Rugby and football internationals in particular have mobilizedWales’s collective identities and passions.  They gloss over the different meanings that the people of  Wales attach to their nationality, enabling them to assert their Welshness in the face of internal division and the political, social and cultural shadow of England.  This put national sporting grounds at the heart of the nation.

Sport needs places to be played and its sites, ranging from national stadiums to pub bowling alleys, are part of the historic environment.  Many may not be unique or architecturally impressive but they mattered to the people who used and lived around them. Some have helped define the nation itself. All are part of our collective heritage.

Aerial shot of The Vetch Field, Swansea, 1959. A football ground clearly rooted in the surrounding community. 

Photograph copyright of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales