Dylan Moore explores the iconographic image that represents the electrification of the Valley lines
The primary case for a South East Wales Metro is born of simple economic and infrastructural necessity – over 100,000 people commute daily into Cardiff by car Yet it is the iconographic image of the proposed transport system that could solve the gulf between Cardiff and ‘its’ Valleys in the minds of the region’s inhabitants. For the connectivity it promises could overcome not only the separate worlds but completely different types of world of the city and its hinterland.
Since 1794, when the Glamorganshire canal link was opened between Merthyr Tydfil and Cardiff Docks, transport has inextricably linked the communities of south east Wales, economically and socially. Much of the canal now lies beneath the A470, a road that has itself become symbol and shorthand for an imagined Welsh geographical integrity.
Between canal and road, chronologically, came the railways. And it is this pre-existent network of steel across the coalfield that will form the beginning of the real-world manifestation of an idea that will redefine the south-easterly corner of the nation where half of the population– 1.49 million people – live, work and play.
The Metro, largely implementing Mark Barry’s ambitious report (here), is being designed to facilitate the flow of people. In the past it was people who were used to facilitate the flow of ‘goods’. Consequently the Metro come to reshape not only our landscape but our communal self-perception. In any case both have been bound up in each other immemorially. Wales is and has always been defined by the shape of its coastline, being west of Offa’s Dyke, its mountains and valleys, its rivers, roads and railways.
Roland Barthes’ Mythologies
In this article, the first of a series he is contributing to the Wales Arts Review, Dylan Moore applies Roland Barthes’ methodology in a bid to demystify aspects of modern Wales. Between 1954 and 1956, the French linguist, philosopher and literary theorist Roland Barthes contributed a series of short essays to the magazine Les Letters Nouvelles. Each piece sought to deconstruct what Barthes called the ‘myth’ behind modern cultural phenomena as diverse as ‘Steak and Chips’, ‘Striptease’ and ‘The New Citroen’. Collected as the book Mythologies, first published in English in 1972, the essays went on to become a key text in semiology – the study of the signs, symbols, messages and metaphors through which mass culture is coded.
But in other cities where an urban transport system has attained iconicity, it is the map not the metro that makes the mythology. Prefiguring projections of the economic development and regional regeneration the Metro is likely to herald, the reports and recommendations are full of words like ‘infrastructure’, ‘electrification’, ‘timetables’ and ‘ticketing’. But in the minds of those who will make this dream a reality, it is the map that matters most.
Although the London Underground has existed for 150 years, it was not until 1931 that Harry Beck’s first schematic diagrams emerged, ignoring geographical reality to create an entirely new vision of the city. Beck’s now ubiquitous maps imposed a strange kind of democracy on London’s burgeoning branch lines. Outlying suburbs now shared a simple circle (originally a diamond) with major stations and landmarks. Each route was designated a distinct bold colour coding. Mundane place-names were rendered poetic by sheer virtue of amassed human experience.
The historical relationship of cartography and power hardly needs pointing out. One confirmation of the tube map’s mythological status has been the sheer number of pastiches attempted, from Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear through maps depicting the relationships between Shakespeare characters to the ultimate post-post-modern spectacle of ‘The End of the Line’, a tube map consisting entirely of tube maps.
There have been many mock-ups of a mythical Cardiff Underground over the years, from an official redesign of the Cardiff Bus map that strongly leant on Beck’s bold lines, to the efforts of popular local parodists I Loves The Diff. The latter’s tagline ‘If Only It Existed’ now seems remarkably prescient, albeit that the South East Wales Metro is unlikely to have a station called Chippy Alley or a line called Cwtch.
It is, however, undoubtedly through graphic design – the eventually ubiquitous logo, the satisfyingly coherent coloured lines and the stops that will forever assume semi-mythical status simply from having been put, quite literally, on the map through inclusion in the network – that we will begin to come together, still with our own individualised, hyper-local identities, but also with a new sense of interconnectedness.