The popular image of the valleys is powerful. A mythical land of slag heaps and singing miners, Gren-cartooned terraces and Labour majorities measured by the pound rather than the dozen. The metropolitan caricature shows the valleys another way. We’re portrayed as a community without hope, decimated by cruel cuts to our heavy industry and now reeling from the loss of many of the factory jobs that followed in pale imitation. Teenage pregnancies, deprivation tables, educational attainment, all figure. Sophisticates of Pontcannic wine bars chuckle that our height of teenaged automotive ambition is the souped-up Corsa, that Strongbow is the sophisticated valleys’ tipple of choice. The brushstrokes of collective wisdom paint the valleys as a place where the people are short, life is shorter, and the only slim thing is the chance of getting a job.
Folklore has it that young professional people with a degree leave the valleys as soon as they can. My wife and I did the opposite. You see the prejudice flash across faces when we say that we live in the valleys. Why would you, they ask, if you had the choice?
I love the valleys. If this sounds sentimental, good. It is unashamedly romantic. I love the way that it’s a coat colder at every train stop on the way home. I love the way I can sit in my GP’s waiting room and ten minutes later people have told me the details of every complaint they’ve ever had. What price patient confidentiality in a valleys surgery? We are proud of our immaculately coiffed ladies’ committees, choirs, credit unions, fantastic scenery, and implausibly sloped rugby grounds. Best of all, my neighbours genuinely mean it when they say “all right?”
Valleys communities are backward, people say. How? Our head teachers, doctors and of course the MP are still expected to wear a jacket and tie. Quite quite right too. Serious jobs require serious people, and being tidy is a sign of respect for the community they serve, the vocation they pursue, and the people they represent.
Economically dead? We’re not Detroit. When America’s car industry collapsed, mass flight from the city centre left The Motor City a hollow shell, its once-superb buildings in the throes of decay, valued only by the voyeuristic urban photographers. Despite decades of taking every knock that can be thrown at them, our valleys are thriving, close communities. It’s an article for another day, but we have our economic success stories. Try parking in Talbot Green retail park on a Saturday. Look at what Tower Colliery did. Look at the high-tech companies now making the valleys their home. Look at the butchers, bookstalls, bakers, that make Pontypridd market special.
They say we not so well educated in the valleys. The stats pontificate that “educational attainment in the Valleys is low, with a large proportion of people possessing few or no qualifications.” That’s a fact. But that’s not a symptom of some ingrained ignorance or lack of raw ability in our kids. It’s a dual product of generations of under-investment in our schools and the bleak sense of “why bother” that comes from a century of working people being exploited when often the dole is the only end for their efforts. We may have a poverty of aspiration, but there’s no poverty of talent here. There’s actually a huge respect for learning in our valleys culture. It found itself last century in the reading rooms and libraries of the institutes, and it continues in the quiet pride of families in their young people who go to university.
On my first day working in a valleys constituency office a veteran councillor asked me what I’d done before. I mumbled, slightly self-consciously, that I’d gone to Oxford University and studied politics. “Good lad, a scholar,” was the nodding response. Pause. “Think you can manage the kettle?” It’s approbation with a needle attached, and it stops you getting inflated.
Another myth is that people in the valleys are apathetic and losing interest in politics. Don’t believe that for a second. The values of the valleys and the labour movement are one and the same. The mighty NHS grew from Tredegar’s Medical Aid Society. The world’s most powerful democracy still struggles to provide civilised healthcare, but our valleys have already showed them the way it can be done. The Co-Operative movement grew from the ordinary desire of people to have security in times of unemployment and the means to buy their own house. That’s never been more relevant, by the way, now that the banking collapse has held up the inherent flaws in banking solely for the short-term benefit of shareholders. It’s a story that’s told again and again in our credit unions, institutes, community councils, clubs and societies. It’s self help by communities and it’s thriving here. It was the passion to improve their lives that led working people to organise, to fight and send their representatives to Parliament.
That passion is there still, it’s powerful and we’re proud of it. Forget advising ministers: like other “bright young things” I’ve done my stint in Westminster. The red boxes and cars and deferential officials and big offices eventually come and go. By far the proudest thing I’ve ever done in politics is to chair my constituency party. That’s real politics: talking to a miner’s widow about the compensation she’s finally receiving after a lifetime of her husband’s pain, or sitting in a factory canteen with the union reps after the receivers arrive and the workers cope with the news.
Valleys politics is about our people: our women’s forum, the campaigners who deliver leaflets (sagely giving comparative youngsters like us the houses with the most steps), the community councillors who hold impromptu surgeries holding a pint of milk in the queue at the Co-Op.
In the age of the slick professional politician, valleys people have a healthy scepticism of anybody who is too polished. They’re fiercely egalitarian and they’re truly democratic. The members of my local party quiz our representatives on a Friday night on everything from the great affairs of state, to the dirty state of the beams at Pontypridd Bus Station. Woe betide any speaker who doesn’t have a good answer.
In the valleys, we don’t do things as big as the major cities. We don’t have John Lewis or Jamie Oliver’s chain Italian, those pinnacles of urban sophistication.
But we have our own special places.
If you need an example, here’s my suggestion as a fully-confessed art deco addict. The Prince’s café in Pontypridd is as glorious in its way as any great skyscraper of the 1920s: perhaps all the more because it’s in the democratic style of our own grandparents rather than a temple of commerce. It was built to serve hard working ordinary people rather than show the millions of a Wall Street magnate. That makes it just as valuable.
So why love the valleys?
The scenery’s breathtaking. The people are unique. Everyone who’s ever stepped onto a valleys rugby field with a whistle knows one thing, whether coaching the kids or refereeing their parents. There are no more helpful people in the world when if you need advice on your shortcomings. Where else could you hear: “Ref, you’re like a lighthouse in the desert: brilliant and completely useless?”
The valleys may have problems, but it’s home.
And in our defence, we had the latte in Ponty long before Islington. We just called it something else.