Short of work, but not of wine bars

The old Rhondda culture of pit, pub, choir and chapel is being swept away with astonishing speed, a new study shows. Roger Dobson reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's a world that Richard Llewellyn would be hard put to recognise: the author of How Green Was My Valley was unacquainted with wine bars and leisure centres and women who were the family breadwinner.

But the cultural transformation that has overtaken the South Wales valleys he celebrated, in the 10 years since their heavy industry disappeared, is now all too evident, and it has been documented in detail for the first time by academics at the University of Glamorgan.

Their report, Continuity and Change, shows vividly how the elements that made valleys culture so distinctive - pitheads, terraces, chapels, rugby, male-voice choirs - are vanishing as the homogeneous way of life of Nineties Britain creeps up theslopes.

Gone already is the image of the valleys Welshman who works while his wife stays at home and then drinks and sings with his friends in the evening after cleaning out the pigeon loft and tidying the allotment. Meanwhile, Welsh women have broken free of the Welsh "Mam" stereotype, the matriarch figure and pivot of domestic life.

Leisure centres are now more popular than male-voice choirs, pigeons have been displaced by videos, night-clubs are as frequented as chapels, soccer has almost overtaken rugby in popularity, and modern semis challenge the monopoly of two-up, two-down terrace houses with back alleys and hooks in the yard walls for the tin baths.

The report centres on interviews with 600 people in communities that once made up a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, but now have high unemployment, low incomes, and the worst rates of long-term illness in Britain.

The researchers found that only 4 per cent of people sing in choirs, compared with 41 per cent who regularly use leisure centres; the average age of the singers is 52, while that of the leisure centre users is 38.

They also found that 10 per cent regularly visit wine bars, and 21 per cent go to night-clubs: the same proportion as go to chapel. The chapelgoers' average age is 55, the night-clubbers' 27.

Cultural change, the report makes clear, is following economic and social change. Thousands of men who used to bring home big pay packets from the mining and steel industries are now unemployed. Many of the new jobs that have been brought in have gone to women, and the region, population 400,000, has one of the highest rates of single parents in Britain.

Valley women have been transformed; not only do they work and increasingly shun marriage, they are keen leisure users too: "It is women who dominate in their usage of more recent leisure developments, especially night-clubs and leisure centres," says the report.

David Adamson, its co-author, commented: "Most of these changes have been in the past 10 years and in terms of cultural and social change that is a very short period for such a dramatic effect. It is one of the fastest transformations of a social and cultural environment we have ever seen in Britain."

He emphasises its economic basis. "These are communities which in the Fifties and Sixties were characterised by high levels of employment and high wages ... almost an industrial aristocracy. They have gone from a position of high economic and political power to some of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. The leisure world used to be very much a man's world because of links to work."

He says the high rates of lone parenthood were found to relate directly to unemployment levels among young men. "A stereotype among men from the poor, marginalised sector of the valleys might be a young man still living at home, not able to afford to venture into a marriage or a relationship, benefit-dependant, and probably moving through serial relationships, some of which produce children.

"That compares to the traditional transmission to manhood which would have involved a male getting a job at 16, courting at 19, marriage at 20 or 21. But if the job doesn't exist the rest becomes impossible."

Attendance at male-voice choirs, working-men's clubs and chapels are all down. "The strong relationships between working men that extended into leisure activities in communities have gone with the jobs."

Professor Christie Davies, Swansea-born professor of sociology at Reading University, says the future of the valleys may be as a commuter area for the M4 corridor, for Cardiff, Swansea, Bridgend and Newport where most of the new jobs have gone. He also sees good points.

"There are parts of some cities where I would not venture at night, but there is no part of the valleys I would not be happy to go. The valleys are not threatening, just sad," he says.

Some things about them may never change. The Bracche, for instance, cafes run by families of Italian stock can be found in every town. The work ethic is still there too, as strong as ever despite two decades of unemployment. "Contrary to what some commentators say, we have found that people in the valleys remain committed to working for a living, despite living in communities where that has not been possible since the late 1970s," Dr Adamson said.

The comedian Owen Money, who has spent years caricaturing valleys life, is optimistic. "There is no doubt it is changing, and changing for the better, certainly visually. People already commute from the area. The price of homes is so much cheaper, you see; where else but in places like Abercynon can you buy a dream house for pounds 30,000?"

Alexander Cordell, author of Rape of the Fair Country, and now 82, is also optimistic. "The valleys will never die. I believe that fervently and with all my heart. It is appalling the way the people of the valleys have been treated, but they will probably start to recover when we get rid of this bloody government."