From Procol Harum to Patagonia via Ambridge

I first started thinking deeply about concepts of place when I was in my 20s; Gwyn Alf Williams’ ‘When Was Wales’ was a catalytic intellectual shock, but I think I probably missed some of the subtleties of his question. After all, I’d grown up in Wales hadn’t I? So it existed, for me, throughout the latter quarter of the last century, and presumably before that.

Williams was asking the right question, though, because our understanding of places very much has time as a central concept; Linda Colley’s ‘Britons’ arguably did for the UK what Gwyn Alf had done for Wales, providing a sense in place and time of the shaping and re-invention of an identity rooted in notions of place far more than in locations. To put it another way, both Gwyn Alf and Colley were far more interested in the battlefields of the mind than in the fields where battles were fought between armies..

In 2003 I was working for the Labour Party as a spin nurse; talking to party members and the public about the government, its achievements and what they saw as its failings. Onto my radar came a song by Procol Harum, who were still working despite their days of stardom being behind them.

The song was ‘An Old English Dream’. It resonated with me as soon as I heard it. Not least because I recognised the poem its lyric was in part lifted from; Auden’s Refugee Blues. I’ve always been surprised that An Old English Dream hasn’t excited more comment; it is to me an explicitly political song, but not necessarily in a progressive way. In place of Auden’s refugees, displaced by politics and ideology, and unwelcome upon arrival, the narrator of ‘Dream’ seems to be in internal exile from his home with its old churchyards, shoved aside by sweeping highways and rivers full of cars.

As Mary Wellesley recounts here, there’s a long and deeply embedded tradition of dream poems being associated with ideas of grief, loss and consolation. In 2003 the politics of grievance, and its associated assumption of grief as an emotion underpinning the national debate, was the dominant form in the political discourse, and in the national mindscape. Delving into whether New Labour was, by disavowing the national dream that Old Labour created of the NHS, the welfare state and a Britain at peace with itself, replacing it with a new dream of marketization, continued privatization and the neo colonialism of the Afghan and Gulf wars, cannibalizing its own supporter base, is a job for a different blog, but it was definitely part of the intellectual context in which I tried to parse An Old English Dream.

Eventually, I put it aside as a song, despite the fact that I love the guitar work and the overall feel of the song. I do that sometimes with songs that make me feel uncomfortable lyrically. A case of never mind the melody, I’m afraid.

Anyway, as luck would have it, while working on the remarks I made to the Academic Archers conference recently at the University of Felpersham, that song came back onto my radar. It did so because I was talking on the theme of imaginary places, and I wanted to think through the idea that was niggling me, that the past is not only different, but that our imaginings of it are different too. On one level that seems perfectly obvious, but on another, it’s an intensely political idea.

One of the ways I tried to understand those conceptions of past places was by looking at how people had fared when, via the device of voluntary migration, they’ve tried to re-invent places. New England for instance. New Zealand too, although the abundance of transplanted Scottish place names gives a strong guide to the place whose mythical self was being recreated. The clue is in the name. The new societies, founded on occupied land, were named and shaped by their founders’ conception of the place they wished they had previously lived in, which was more ideal, and idealized, than the place they had left.

Sometimes, those new communities flourished. Sometimes, too, they failed; arguably the Welsh community in Patagonia is an example of that. There’s a strong sense in my mind that time is everything in the process of colonization; the time to colonize the south of the Americas had passed by the time the Welsh colonists arrived in arid Patagonia, just as the Scottish settlers who set off to Darien found that all the good land and opportunities had been annexed before they got there, and that the existing occupants could have told them all that and more besides

Achille Mbembe argues that colonization was both a technique, and an application of technology for regulating migration. The more I think about that, the more I want to think about both the soft colonisations of the 18th and 19th century, like the Welsh settlers who set sail for Patagonia, and the colonization of the mind by ideas of the ideal society. Part of my thoughts about Patagonia, too, are that if the idea of it had not already existed it would have had to have been invented as a mechanism for regulating the pressure from below, in rural Wales, to preserve a rural lifestyle that was increasingly at odd with new relations of production.

Patagonia is a difficult subject in Wales. The Welsh settlement is seen as emblematic of a resistance to change, to industrialization and its consequent migrations, and to the dilution of Welshness. The Welsh migrants referred to their new settlements as the colony, and to themselves as colonists. The warmth with which Patagonia is regarded may reflect a certain sympathy for the privations experienced by the colonists, and their subsequent repression by the Argentinian government once their utility had worn off, (the colonists were a useful tool in resolving an awkward border dispute) but it’s also an endorsement of the idea that colonization is a good thing.

What’s not open to discussion in the same way is whether the attempted colonization of Patagonia would have happened but for the experience of previous acts of resistance to the injustices of change that failed, like the Rebecca Riots, the Scotch Cattle or Chartist Risings of 1839. The roots of those events were in rural natural justice movements, but their consequence was a belief that migration was the only alternative when the shifting relations of production left no space to just be.

Move on a generation or two from the Patagonia migration, and migration out of Wales was a thing. Sometimes it was commercialized; I have distinct and clear memories of neighbours and friends migrating to Australia. Sometimes, as in Idris Davies’s ‘Gwalia Deserta VIII’ the migration of men like Dai and Shinkin was more out of necessity than desire, but again, the memory, of that idealized world of jazzbands and speeches, is both a fiction and a nostalgic device.

Ambridge comes back to mind again. The role of serial dramas, like The Archers, or Coronation Street, is, in part, to colonize our minds with ideas of ideal communities. Sometimes, as with Ambridge, or Wetherfield, they are rooted in nostalgia; just like the dream of Patagonia, they reflect one vision of how society was, and how it could have been but for external intrusions into the peaceful stability. The family dramas, the comic incidents and the criminal outbursts play the same role as the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, an interlude that punctuates the peace before the routine of calmness resumes.

For dramatic reasons it could be argued that the homogenizing impact of geriatrification on places cannot become the dominant theme of The Archers, even if the reality is that both geriatrification and gentrification would have been the dominant forces in a place so close to a conurbation. I would acknowledge that, but also argue that the failure to engage with these issues may just as easily be seen as a hegemonic act as an accidental oversight. The outcome though is that these dramatized places of hiraeth are fictionalized in a way that serves purposes external to the programme.

The problem that these places of hiraeth exemplify though is that they are a colonization of the past and of the present. Just as Grace Archer was pushed out of The Archers for her support for trades union principles like equal pay, the notion that rural places like Ambridge could be places of conflict and change is having to be written back into Ambridge’s history and narrative by the listeners and by guerilla academics. To build the world I want to live in we all have to have these conversations about our past myths and dreams, about the times when we have been the migrants, the colonists, the people in motion who sometimes without even knowing change the patterns of life and movement around us.

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Gareth Davies

I’m a governance professional, and coach. This place is for writing about issues around coaching, place management, leadership development and, politics.