Eisteddfod wahanol throbs to ancient rhythms

John Osmond describes being amongst just part of this week’s festival in Ebbw Vale

Every Eisteddfod creates its own ambience, history, myths and memories but the one this week in Ebbw Vale is likely to stick in the mind more than most. “Creoso,” hailed the Eisteddfod’s chief executive Elfed Roberts, as I first entered the Maes a week ago. “Eisteddfod wahanol!” And it is, indeed, a different Eisteddfod.

In the first place the big pink tent and its surrounding encampment sits on top of what was once Ebbw Vale’s steelworks. Underfoot is a mixture of gravel, compressed coke and concrete, a dustbowl inheritance from the first industrial revolution. Visit National Museum Wales’s stand and you’ll see a large aerial photograph of what this place once looked like, a vast elongated mass of towers and sheds spewing flame, steam and smoke, a veritable Dante’s inferno.

Today there is a flattened plain, raised high above the Valley floor, close to the tops of the mountains that close in on either side. Across it the wind pushes clouds and intermittent rain and sunshine. The rare level space, still known as The Works awaits re-development, with a new Tertiary College to be known as the Learning Zone, a leisure centre, and energy conscious housing.

But in place of the steelworks this week sits a gentle billowing cornucopia of all that is gentle and good about Welsh culture, arts and the creative industries, a kind of metaphor for modern Wales. Marx once described society’s cultural expression and output as being little more than steam coming off the back of a galloping horse. Sitting amidst the small Eisteddfoddic town and the throngs of people milling this way and that, it feels more like being in a steam bath, but without any sense of the power source that’s generating it. It’s like listening to the ticking of a grandfather clock that was wound up more than a week ago. What will happen when it needs winding again?

This Eisteddfod is especially poignant for me since more than 40 years ago I worked in the steelworks here, in the 1960s. I was a student and it was a lucrative holiday job. I used to come over the hill from Abergavenny in a bus as dawn broke over Blorenge Mountain, to work double shifts on the blast furnaces. I was only making up the numbers, I hasten to add, for the men who were on holiday. But it was a formative experience, a glimpse of what living through the 19th Century industrial revolution might have been like. It was also long before today’s health and safety awareness. I must have been a danger to myself and the men around me. Rarely did anyone wear a helmet, though we donned steel-plated clogs and heavy flash-proof green jackets and trousers that made the sweat run hot and cold through the noise-numbing heat-filled rancid air that turned the eyes red.

My shift was led by Ron Evans, Michael Foot’s agent, and a gentle giant of a man. I can see him now, expertly holding the thirty foot rod that burnt open the base of the furnace when it was being tapped. He advanced at walking pace, only stopping as the molten metal and slag gushed down the sand-banked channels we had painfully built, into giant vats. These were then transported by a giant overhead crane further down the plant to be poured into moulds, ready for rolling. The vats would swing as they travelled and occasionally the molten metal would slop over the edge and fall onto the floor below. It was an old steelworks ready for closure, and there was little maintenance. The roof let in the rain which formed puddles below the rapidly moving vats. When the molten metal fell on them the enclosed water turned instantly to vapour, causing explosions and shrapnel that hit the sides of the shed.

I chewed over these memories with Tredegar born Chris Meredith, now a lecturer at the University of Glamorgan who also worked in the steelworks and produced a novel about the experience, called Shifts, a contemporary Welsh classic published in 1988. He also recalled the casual attitude to the lives and limbs of the men who worked in the cauldron.

I spoke, too, with the artist Osi Rhys Osmond who remembers arriving by train in Ebbw Vale when the steelworks was still open. “You passed through a cloud of steam and sparks before arriving in the station,” he recalled. Looking around the Maes he said he felt a terrible, painful energy in the concrete beneath our feet, a kind of gasping and groaning of a different, suppressed culture straining against the lightness of what was being created upon it.  “There’s a bit of psycho-geography going on here,” he observed, a typical mischievous glint in his eye.

The Ebbw Vale Eisteddfod will also be remembered for the home grown television soap opera that is surrounding S4C this week. It has all the characteristics of a Jilly Cooper bonk buster, which would be hilarious if it was not so tragic. In the wake of Iona Jones’s dismissal as chief executive last week rumours are flooding the Maes amongst the media folk. The satirical magazine Lol is full of it, though it was put together before the main event so to speak.  Nonetheless, its contents, accurate or not, fill the vacuum. S4C Authority members stalk the field, tight-lipped and sworn to  secrecy. They’ve made  a pact to keep a lid on things. But its unsustainable. S4C is like an overflowing damn whose waters are about to burst. ClickonWales will have more to say about this next week.

But the Ebbw Vale Eisteddfod will be mainly remembered for the people of the town. They flooded the Maes last Sunday, clutching some of the 20,000 free tickets that had been distributed by the Eisteddfod authorities. It was a commendable initiative that should be emulated wherever the festival goes in future, starting with Wrexham next year.

Although largely non-Welsh speaking Ebbw Vale strikes me as one of the most distinctively Welsh parts of our country. Its partly to do with the isolation. Going up the Eastern Valley you pass Aberbeeg and there’s still six miles to go. In the discussion that followed the IWA’s Eisteddfod lecture on Aneurin Bevan and Paul Robeson on Tuesday, Gwyn Bowyer, an IWA member from Carmarthen, recalled attending the last 1958 Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale where the great men sang and spoke. He was a student and with a friend hitch-hiked down from college in Bangor. Approaching the town they asked some local people for directions. In return they were asked where they were from. “Duw,” said one neighbour to another.” Look how far these boys have come to our Eisteddfod”.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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