On the train back from seeing my daughter’s new home last week I read an introduction to psychogeography, thinking about Cwmorthin and the impact of that place on local emotion and behaviour from the social to the personal. Defoe, writing A Journal Of the Plague Year, sixty of seventy years after the event, spoke of the “sense of haunted geography” and of how familiar places were transformed beyond recognition by the ravages of plague.
Slate mining had a similar effect. Tiny communities of farmers and small-scale non commercial slate mining were overlaid by an industrial machine. The valley must soon have been unrecognisable and farming homesteads that had been in one place for centuries were often obliterated in the name of progress, a subject I’ve touched on in a prose poem fragment that’s part of the first section of the sequence:
iii. Home Improvements
On the only map of Cwmorthin before the slate-rush, two homes — Tai’r Muriau, named for hut circles that stood before memory, Clyttiau, which never made a census, though in 1841 two homesteads, Tai’r Muriau and Dyffryn Dubach stood. By 1861, Cwmorthin Slate Company had made great improvements to the cwm; Tai’r Muriau buried beneath its waste.
The process of transformation came again in less than a hundred years with the decline of the slate industry. Now Cwmorthin is home to neither farming nor industry, it’s inhabited; a place with a few ruins and a vast abandoned labyrinth of tunnels and chambers beneath the surface. Yet it is a place of haunted geography with a strong imaginative pull.
Most psychogeography centres on the city, especially London and Paris, and often psychogeography that is sensitive to the history of place tends also to be conservative–political commitment is sacrificed to historical tradition, to past resonances replayed. There is a similar tension in the psychogeography of Cwmorthin, the tendency to hark back to a time of full employment, strong community, flourishing cabans where men debated politics and religion in the language in which they also dreamt, can become deeply conservative. It can overlook the brutal working conditions, the deaths, the subservient relationships to mine owners and the narrow roles for women in an overwhelmingly male world. Ironically such harking back and romanticisation is in deep contradiction to the spirit of debate and radical politics of the cabans themselves.
But there are also avant-garde and radical impulses within psychogeography, characterised by writers like Blake, who saw that rebuilding requires destruction and whose images are as transformative as they are apocalyptic, or other writers who celebrate forgotten corners and landscapes. I’m interested in these notions of transformation, defamiliarisation and reclamation made by the wanderer and poet; a collision of the political and the aesthetic alongside the collision of psychology and geography.
I finished my journey last week reading a selected edition of poetry by Philip Gross. In the poem ‘In Another Part of the Wood’ (written about Aldermaston) he writes,
a world ends, where a swathe of moonlight
silvers a ten-foot wire. The shadow-
cratered heath beyond is bright
as frost. A few slim birches tiptoe
in among cowled pipes, squat tumuli
with concrete cladding, grilles that hum.
It’s here, the future’s archeology.
Cwmorthin is not archeology yet — the ruins have not yet become hidden under the life of new epochs, we can still unearth its stories, still narrativise and connect, still imagine before we, along with the Victorian slate miners, become the future’s archeology.