Wednesday, 6 April 2016
Surf and Turf
Following on from the previous post, I'm always very conscious that, despite having visited the Welsh Borders for nearly 40 years, we're still just fleeting visitors there, with no real stake in the area. Like any holidaymakers returning again and again to the same spot for an annual week or two of escape, we see a very different place to that experienced by the year-round residents. You can't help but notice the economic and social changes, but have played no part in bringing them about, or had to live with their consequences.
And changes there have been, over those four decades. Sadly, these have not generally been for the better. In many ways, this is a depressed area, trying to cope with the decline in hill-farming as a way of life, a steady loss of population and employment prospects, and a disappointing inflow of income from tourism. Beautiful it may be, but the region lacks obvious points of attraction and opportunities for lucrative "outdoor leisure pursuits"; Radnor will never rival the Lake District.
It's clear that very few locals who are not engaged in farming ever venture into these hills. Indeed, many, if not most of the "locals" are not local at all: they are retirees from the Midlands, local government employees, New Agers, artists, and allied trades, and, increasingly, youngsters from other parts of Wales surviving on benefits in the surplus hotel accommodation in faded Edwardian spa towns like Llandrindod Wells. Bizarrely, there also seems to be a small but significant population of Latin American immigrants, a sort of inversion of the fabled Welsh-speaking community that settled in Patagonia. I have often wondered what it must be like to grow up surrounded by all this this useless beauty, with little prospect of a job, and to long for the bright lights, diversions and opportunities of city life. There isn't even a bus or train service worth the name.
It is a justified criticism of most landscape photography that it idealises its subject matter, superimposing suburban notions of "unspoiled beauty" onto complex landscapes – which are often as man-made and as multi-faceted as any city street – like the ideological equivalent of a graduated tobacco filter. Although I do try to avoid this idealising tendency I would not exempt myself from the criticism, and it's one reason I have never tried to exhibit my Welsh photographs or compile them into a book. Powys is no more my turf than Portugal or the Pyrenees, and I have no real answer for why I have so few photographs of the valleys – where most economic and social activity is centred, in village shops, industrial estates and edge-of-town hypermarkets – and so many photographs of these lovely, deserted hills. There's a great project there for somebody, but it's not mine.
So, hello, I'm just here for the week. Yes, I live in Southampton. No, I'm not a dock-worker or a merchant seaman. They're a bit scarce, these days. Yes, I suppose it is nice living near to the sea, but as it happens I very rarely get down to the coast, and have absolutely no interest in sailing. And, yes, my daughter tells me the city-centre clubbing scene is great, but I'd rather go for a wander up in your hills any day. Don't get up there much yourself? What, never?