‘More than anything,’ said a former steelworker standing next to me out the back of the General Offices in Ebbw Vale, ‘it’s the men I miss.’
Talk to any Welsh miner about working underground and they will talk to you about the camaraderie, about the spirit of brotherhood forged in a workplace like no other. The steel industry, which took as brutal a pasting in South Wales in the last quarter of the 20th century, does not tend to inspire the same level of romance, at least in the public eye. As part of the iconography of Wales, its workers take second place to images of men in orange work clothes with faces smeared in black dust.
Just for a week, however, Adain Avion has been changing that. A large wingless hulk of a disused DC-9 has been ferried over from Spain by the installation artist Marc Rees and his collaborator Sian Thomas and, as Wales’s big show-me-the-money contribution to the London 2012 Festival, is touring the country. Everywhere it goes its hollowed-out innards are playing host to a series of cultural events.
First stop was Swansea, where the plane was lugged through the streets by brawny local sportsman, and next it’s off to Llandudno, before it heads to the National Eisteddfod in August. The journey will come to an end when a black box featuring a 10-minute video of Adain Avion’s travels through Wales will be installed at the St Fagans, the open-air National History Museum in Cardiff.
Ebbw Vale is the middle pitstop of a journey Rees has promised will be ‘a cultural cross section of what it means to be Welsh today’. And the theme has been steel, the industry that once defined the town and gave employment to the lion’s share of its workers. Adain Avion is of course a misnomer. Adain = wing. This Avion has had its wings clipped so that it can, for example, pull through the tunnel in Ebbw Vale which formed part of its route when it arrived on Sunday night.
Rees has commissioned collaborators to work with him along Adain Avion’s journey, and for this section of the trip he asked artist Stefhan Caddick to recreate a sad event which took place ten years ago when the steel works were closed for good and a march to the old industry’s offices commemorated the moment. Its title? Ghost Parade.
The plane was given a drizzly Valleys welcome as a local band serenaded it in front of a lively crowd of all ages. Guiding it along the route, a fresh generation of younger marchers carried blank placards, whose function became clear when the procession paused in a tunnel to find flickering images projected onto both placards and the concave walls. The film evoked memories not just of burning furnaces but also of the protests that greeted the then Minister for Industry, Michael Foot, as he delivered the news of the works’ closure to his own constituents in 1973.
The march proceeded to the General Offices, a sturdy building which is a considerable local symbol, now needless to say a museum of steel. Ebbw Valley Brass played a freshly composed tune by Welsh composer John Hardy, as the placards were assembled piecemeal into an outdoor cinema screen on to which was projected a history of the steel industry, and the town and people it supported. There was no suggestion of polemical intent, no sloganeering. The theme was collective memory, the summary mass of bygone lives.
Former steelworkers who had come along for old times’ sake watched the industry’s infrastructure detonated all over again, this time with smiles of recognition. I watched alongside two delightful men who fondly remembered the friendships and the way in which the industry bonded the community. But they were also frank about the hellish working conditions which only slowly improved in time for the steelworks’ closure. Deaths were frequent, and with barely concealed relish they spoke of men sucked into molten steel and severed feet and other calamitous accidents, all from long long ago when this valley knew all-but-full employment.
Down the valley the lights of the town’s regeneration project twinkled in the gloaming. Meanwhile, as the rain spattered on, the band tripped into Monty Python’s jaunty theme tune. No polemic, but also no black weeds.