The Blue Pearl
Photograph Credit: The Blue Pearl by Byron Edwards
Sometimes moments of clarity appear in the unlikeliest of places. The last time I was back in Wales, I spent as much time as I could with my grandparents in Maesteg. My grandparents have lived in the old coal town all their lives. My grandfather was the safety officer at the local mine, and my grandmother ran the sweet stall for many years in Maesteg Market. Their jobs tell you all you need to know. (My grandfather is the most careful and cautious man I have ever met, and my grandmother is all about the sweet indulgences of life, especially food – she used to be nicknamed Norma “Two Sweets” – sweet here meaning dessert.)
A great deal has been said in the tabloids about the Maesteg and Bridgend area, mainly because of the spate of teenage suicides that have occurred here in recent years. Many wild theories were touted to explain why this kept happening, but the truth is that when the mines closed in the 1980s, the livelihood of the coal towns disappeared and opportunities for young people have closed down considerably.
What the British media cannot understand, however, is the real communities at the heart of these towns. Yes, there is unemployment. Yes, there is desperation. Yes, the towns can be run down. But there is still a very strong community there.
Take for example, Bryony Gordon’s article for The Telegraph:
Under a sky that is an unappealing mix of muddy brown, tinged with grey, an old man treads carefully past the charity shops along Nolton Street, in the centre of Bridgend. A couple of gloomy-faced teenagers, in Reebok Classics and hooded tops, hang out in front of the cut-price fashion stores, but otherwise the place is deserted. It is 9am and a thick mist swathes parts of this small town on the edge of the South Wales valleys, reducing visibility to a few feet. It is a ghost town in more ways than you could imagine.
This is such overblown writing, and it paints a ridiculous picture of Bridgend. I have been to Bridgend hundreds of time, and while it is not a heaving metropolis, I have managed to avoid encountering the dangers of “smackheads” or “being knifed” as described by Gordon. It’s the same old story – people coming in from London and writing about Wales through the tint of their snobbery and incomprehension.
When I read Gordon’s article, I immediately thought of a beautiful moment of clarity had during my visit to Maesteg last September. Battling the rain on Maesteg high street, I suddenly came upon the Blue Pearl fish and chip shop, pouring out light onto the grey street. At that moment, it looked almost heavenly and I laughed to myself at how such a mundane moment could be so beautiful. The Blue Pearl has hardly changed at all in the many years that it’s been here. It’s seen the mines come and go, and it watches now as we drift into recession again.