Thursday, 31 December 2020
Friday, 27 November 2020
There are many things wrong with Britain. Brexit. The Tories. James Corden. But the thing that annoys me most, the streak that runs through this country like a poisoned vein, the thing that is in its own way responsible for a lot of the other ills, is nostalgia. Nostalgia for the past, nostalgia for your own personal past, nostalgia for a time that existed only in the imagination.
Look, I get it: Britain is old. And we've got a lot of history. Every now and then someone on Twitter will post a really interesting story with "why didn't we learn this in history class?!?!" and my answer is, where do you fit it in? I did History until I was 14 (I dropped it for Geography at GCSE, got an A, don't mind me) and I know full well that I have massive gaps in my knowledge of this country. Everything between William the Conqueror and the Hundred Years War. Most of my knowledge of the Georgian period I get from The Madness of King George and Blackadder III. Teaching concentrates on the big hitters - the Romans, Magna Carta, the feudal system (those damn crop rotations) and the Peasant's Revolt, the Tudors and Stuarts and the English Civil War, the Victorians, the Second World War. You've got to somehow cram two thousand years of history into the heads of bored children - go for the interesting stuff; they can learn about William IV or the Anglo-Dutch War in their own time if they're that bothered.
It's World War II: Electric Boogaloo that's got its greatest grip on the country's brain, probably because Churchill came up with Our Finest Hour and gave it a natty tagline. I stepped out of my hotel in Blaenau Ffestiniog and found a town square made up to look like the 1940s. There were sandbags and tape on the windows. There was jitterbug music playing. There were people who were far too young to have been in the war - far too young to have been in the Falklands War - wearing khaki and with their hair in rollers and dancing around.
Yes, it was a great period for this country, in terms of us helping to save the continent from Fascism. Absolutely. But it was also bloody miserable. People who lived through the war had rationing and doodlebugs and relatives being killed and blackouts and way too much Gracie Fields. It wasn't a six year party. And here they were turning it into a theme park, a fun morning for all the family, get yourself a genuine wartime cake from the stall on the right (not actually genuine because it wasn't made with powdered eggs and you didn't have to save up three months of coupons to be able to make it but anyway).
I wasn't in the mood. I wasn't in the mood to ride the nostalgia pony. I'm sure everyone on the town council thought it was just a bit of fun, and the tourists probably loved it, but I found it annoying and wanted to get away from it. I wandered round the town itself. The brief impression I'd got the night before - that this was a town at the end of the world - felt even more true on a Sunday morning. The narrow streets were deserted. The shops were closed. Above us, raw, grey rock loomed, making every view sinister.
I'd pretty much done the whole village in half an hour, so I wound my way back to the station square, where (unsurprisingly) Vera Lynn was playing, and bought a ticket for the Ffestiniog Railway. It shares its location with the National Rail station, the two tracks laying alongside one another. But while the Conwy Valley Line platform is perfunctory and ordinary, the Ffestiniog Railway is full on nostalgia. Red and cream paint and wooden overhangs, ironwork and men in starched uniforms. I sighed deeply and plunged in.
Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Here's another instalment in my journey down the Conwy Valley Line. A quick reminder that this all happened in July 2016, so no lockdowns were broken. It also means that some of what's below might no longer be accurate. Blaenau Ffestiniog may have burnt to the ground in the intervening four years; I'm afraid I have no idea.
Now I don't want to imply that Wales is a little... let's be generous and say, retro, shall we? But there was a phone box on the platform at Roman Bridge. With a green Cardphone logo. BT stopped issuing Phonecards in 2002, so somehow this branded call box had managed to cling on for decades more. It looked like it had been adapted for credit card use as well, so technically the logo was still accurate, but it still gave me a nostalgic rush. It flashed me back to queuing by the phone box at my hall of residence to call my mum on a Sunday morning, a queue that started out quite lengthy in September, and had basically vanished by November as all the students found better things to do than reassure their parents that they were safe and well. Sleep, mainly.
Roman Bridge wasn't the next station along the line from Pont-y-Pant; that was Dolwyddelan. The difference was that Roman Bridge was request only so I'd taken advantage of being the only person to board at Pont-y-Pant to ask them to stop. I was now going to go back up the line.