Joshua Jones reflects on changes in the town of Llanelli, asking what “home” really means and whether nostalgia must always be melancholic.
Both mourning and melancholia are about loss. Haunting, then, can be construed as a failed mourning[i]. I mourn for my hometown, continue to feel haunted by its spectre, a particular kind of grieving not unknown to anyone whose left home for education and opportunity, who have felt failed by the lack of funding and opportunities, and the feeling of abandonment under Britain’s Conservative state. How are you supposed to feel ‘seen’ by a government considered (or expected) to be all-seeing, that doesn’t see you? Every time it blinks a person falls through the cracks in the pavement.
Home for me, or least one of the definitions of home, is Llanelli. The largest town in Carmarthenshire and just ten miles from the nearest city, Swansea, it was once a thriving trading port, and later known for its tinplate industry — and churches, of which there are over 40, at least, and many of them in various stages of disintegration.
“…though formerly described as a small and insignificant place, inhabited chiefly by sailors and persons employed in the adjacent coal-mines, has, from the convenience of its situation on a navigable river, and from the richness of the mineral productions of its vicinity in iron, coal, and limestone, risen into manufacturing and commercial importance, and is still rising rapidly in population and extent…”
Now, Llanelli is known for having the slowest economic growth of any town in Wales in the past decade and has a bad reputation for organised drug-related crime, and ‘county line’ gangs. Llanelli, like The Valleys and many towns in the Western areas of Wales, are some of the poorest regions in Europe. What the future of Llanelli is, and what that future looks like, is yet to be decided. How do you treat a town with such a serious case of identity crisis? There are many regeneration plans, some of them relying on demolishing old buildings, such as the old Altalia building, and the YMCA. Demolition in order to make room for flats, and retail units that’ll remain empty, next to the retail units that have already been uninhabited for years, due to private landlords, high rents, economic crisis after another. Does regeneration imply a burial, to make way for a facsimile of a town?
I left home at the age of 18 to receive a degree in English & Media Studies at Solent University. I moved to Southampton for the famed music culture and its proximity to other cities, such as London, Brighton and Portsmouth. It felt far enough away from home my family wouldn’t have the means to visit regularly, and therefore I would have considerable independence; yet close enough I could take the train home every few months. I wanted to live somewhere that wasn’t empty. But also, I couldn’t love nor write about Llanelli, or Wales for that matter, without leaving it. “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight”[ii] — I had read and studied Joyce throughout college. He had written barely a word about Dublin until he left Ireland for the bohemia of Europe, and I romanticised the idea of (self-imposed) exile.
The opportunity of mobility, and the choice to mobilise, is a privilege I am constantly aware of. I was able to leave, in part because of the funding available to young university students, but also the desire and dedication of my family that allowed me to leave. They worked hard and saved money, pushed me to do well in school so I could go to university. At the same time, I didn’t want to find myself in the same familiar trappings. My dad has lived on the same street for 45 years, has worked the same job since he was 17 years old. My parents are relatively happy and comfortable in their surroundings, but the monotony of the reoccurring present was a net I was conscious to cut through, even if I didn’t have the language for it then, while remaining aware (and sometimes, guilty) that my parents’ hard work paved the way for my future.
Throughout my time living first in Southampton, and later Bristol and Devon, I developed my understanding of my Welshness as I came to see it, and how others perceived it. My accent was often cause for mimicry, sometimes bordering on the offensive, following rounds of butchered pronunciations of ‘Llanelli’. I was consistently expected to be from some Valley, as if the topography of Wales is all multitudes of valleys, and not mountains, hills, plains, and bustling urban centres. I capitalise ‘Valley’, to pay consideration to the melancholic object as portrayed in mainstream media. ‘The Valleys’, as perpetuated by populist media such as Gavin and Stacey, Stella (Ruth Jones has a lot to answer for) — and MTV’s The Valleys which aired 2012-2014. It was still a recent memory in the minds of my peers when I started university in 2015, and they asked if Wales was really ‘like that’. When I – rarely – met someone who not just knew where it was, had been there — I physically cringed, made jokes about how much of a ‘shithole’ the town is. But when I met people who had grown up there, we felt an awareness, without acknowledging it, that we shared a familiar trauma.
On my semi-frequent returns home, I walked the streets for hours, seeing myself as a melancholic flaneur; haunted by memory, past conceptions of the town, and my continually developing ideas of how I perceived the town personally, and its place within a wider, Welsh context.
The pollution of a Welsh town is psychic, more so than physical. Streets littered with half-remembered memories, where the feeling of past pains is more tangible than the people within the memories. Pubs that used to be packed, now empty. D2 Jeans, where I bought my first pair of DC trainers (the big, bulky skateboarding shows that were popular in my early teens, when most of my friends had long fringes), has been an empty shell for over a decade. No other shop or business has occupied the space, as is repeated across the town’s many empty buildings and retail units, in various points of decay. Ghostly vanguards of the town’s past. Copied and pasted across the country.
I see variations of myself in every window, every puddle. The nightclub, ‘Mayhem’, where I tried cocaine for the first time, pressed into the only toilet cubicle with someone I barely knew but went to the same school as me, trying to be quick because someone is banging on the door, desperate for a shit. There’s the old Theatre Elli, closed and fenced off since I was a kid with numb buttocks on the dusty, creaking cinema seats, with a big box of popcorn that cost a fraction of today’s cinema snacks. Opposite, the Vista Lounge, once a bar and hotel, currently in use as a shelter for the homeless. The skate park has finally been renovated, after calls and petitions for years, and it’s somehow still as miserable as it was when I was growing up. Gone is the halfpipe under which we crouched away from the rain, and I smoked my first makeshift bong made from a plastic bottle. Everything is either gone or going.
“To haunt does not be mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept.”[iii]
The concept of a hometown is haunted right through to its construction. How do you begin to exorcise this particular haunting, that of my hometown upon me, when the town it choking on its own ghost? I have wrestled with my guilt; the feeling that I have abandoned my family, my class, my Welshness, to pursue something ‘better’. Better education, better opportunities, a better way of living. Even though I now live in Wales again, in Cardiff, and learning to find love and comfort in my Welshness, I still feel like some sort of traitor, for abandoning Llanelli and the more ‘Welsh’ West, for the Anglicised, wealthier East.
Fisher states that, through the lens of Derrida’s theory of hauntology, that nothing enjoys a purely positive existence.[iv] All memory is tainted, nostalgia is inherently melancholic. I am grateful for my family home, everything my parents have done for me. I love them and my brother very dearly. But that gratitude and love is tainted by my feelings towards the town I grew up in. The two cannot exist without the other, all I can do is write about it.
[i] Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. UK: Zero Books, pp.1–30.
[ii] Joyce, J. (2000). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. UK: Penguin Modern Classics.
[iii] Derrida, J. (1994). Specters of Marx : the State of the debt, the Work of mourning, and the New International. New York: Routledge, p.202.
[iv] Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. UK: Zero Books, pp.1–30.