| Art

The Time of the Book

Meditations on time, place and the history of oneself

Brad Evans Photography

What is the time of the story of a book? How should we count its moment of arrival? Can it possibly carry the weight of its own recorded history? Is its truth dependent upon the timing of its publication? At what point in the life of an author, the life of the mind, does the writing of it properly begin?

When does its idea first come to light? Can it be dated? Can we ever be certain of its beginnings and its ends? And what of the time that awaits it? Might the text have arrived too soon? Should its prose have been given the time to breathe and find those uncharted pathways now forever sealed as the final chapter closes? And what of the time within? What is truly contained in those spaces in-between the first word and the last? What exists in the empty page before and that which is placed just after it is all written? The unspeakable perhaps? The never to be spoken? Or merely just the unsaid, which gives praise to the secrets never that shall be revealed? Might the book have even arrived too late? That it is no longer speaking to the truth of the times? Does truth need to be timely? Fashionably so? Or will its greatest strength be to sit in silence on those shelves for lost words, until its untimeliness arrives and the words it utters finally freed from behind the parchment, whose delicate cuts suggest they were always just there, biding their eventual time?

While I have believed it impossible to say with any degree of certainty when any intellectual project began, as I dwell on the authorship of my latest book, How Black was my Valley, I am forced to revise my thinking and a number of underwriting propositions. For this book can be dated to an exact moment in time. I know this to be true because I have two digitally time stamped photographs to verify my claim. Of course, what it speaks of reaches much farther back into the history of a people. And no doubt, it would take a number of subsequent moments that were just as informative so that I would eventually have the confidence to confront the darkness that needed to be written. Or at least, as I see it, I now appreciate there are defining moments in the life of an author when they are not just sensitised to something of importance; but the gravity of its final reckoning weighs so much it becomes impossible to do otherwise. If the truth of a book is inseparable from what we might call “a life” and if this life we are so quick to question truly is a journey marked by the profound moments and happenings which shape us, then while we may not always know the destination, we can trace when an abstract idea becomes one with the naked ambition to get close to the truth of a time that now so preoccupies our very sense of being in the world.

Many authors are simply compelled to write, even if the reason why is never certain. Why do we turn ourselves into writing machines, knowing many of the sentences we write will languish? Will these words even be read? Maybe we do just write for ourselves so that we can make sense of the nonsensical? To expel from within something, anything, which makes us feel that there must be some kind or a kindly something to it all? But even if that were true, being compelled to write surely is not enough? There needs to be the intention and commitment. That’s the challenging part, which often makes mockery of the notion “everybody can write a book”. The truth is that most people can’t, just ask those who labour for decades without being able to complete a manuscript or indeed find any publishing house willing to take the endlessly reworked draft. This is not to heroize or revere the author. But we shouldn’t diminish the efforts either. Writing, as the songwriter and poet Nick Cave rightly pointed out, is a “blood and guts” affair. Writing at its best is also a creative process. That much, to honour Cave, I know to be true. Writing is perilous, dangerous, painful, and doesn’t promise anything in return. That is the contract. Failure is the default. The overwhelming possibility of never being read, never seeing the light of its time the likeliest outcome. Writing also requires asking of one’s past – a ghostly or haunted time that now exists unto itself, in ways that doesn’t gloss over the complexities, nor shy away from seeking to undo everything which one holds to be true. Writing in this way is a kind of self-immolation. It brings a creative destruction to time as much as its call to the future can be beautifully married to a reimagined past. This doesn’t mean the purpose or role of the author is solely to produce what the world may deem to be the “new” and the “original”. To write is to ignite a much deeper sentiment in the lowliest cortex of the troubled soul. Such an appreciation, I believe, points to the humanness of writing.

Back to the ticking Gregorian hands. My Black Valley. I found myself living back in the deprived former mining valleys of South Wales. This was never part of the plan. Had I not escaped this place that only assessed my body by the weight of its deficits? What did it mean to return to these towns, which marked my corpus with the guilt of poverty and the shame of feeling like a nobody? Yet here I was, again, walking beneath melancholic skies that perpetually rained down upon these carbon littered hamlets I once called “home”. The Rhondda valley is a curious place marked by so many contradictions. I know I embodied them, and I know many of them will never be resolved. Childhood memories of fun and laughter were always shadowed by the sense of alienation and despair.  Love and death, existence and fatalism, twinned in a doubled valley, whose topography conspired and whose real trauma was to create untold divisions within the doubting self.

Brad Evans Photography

Sunday. February 18, 2018. It’s cold outside. For the past 20 minutes I had been walking up the sloping expanse, which marked entry into Maindy forest at the edge of the village of Ton-Pentre. Once an ancient woodland that had been cut down more than a century ago to provide the strident props which would hold up the tunnels deep beneath this black earth, the woodland was replaced by rows of compact non-native conifers as part of a wider effort to regreen the scarred mountains of South Wales. This effort was about time as much as it was about place; the returning of the valleys back to an idyllic setting before the ravages of the coal, which offered a veritable reversal of Richard Llewellyn’s proposition (How Green was my Valley) that begins by picturing a pastured Eden, populated by good shepherds and children who can be cured as they learn to walk amongst lush meadows and learn to appreciate seasons of abundance. 

Mystics of all persuasions have preached of how woodlands speak a more ancient language, which has borne witness to the transformation of the earth. The Druids of Wales who once freely roamed across these lands and recited their oral histories have been no exception. For they too share commonality with the ancient peoples from the plateaus of Northern Europe to Asia and the deep forests of the Americas who have revered their presence in equal measure. They are the watchers and the keepers. They are the winds of change and the rooted constancy, which allows the planet to breathe. And they are places of unknown mystery and vital retreat, which can be a totem to alternative readings of history. What are trees if not recorders of time, but one which demands a more sensitive and prolonged appreciation of the temporal conditions of our short and fleeting existence?

Brad Evans Photography

I was already disorientated. I was in the company of the girl who I knew was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. In the past, if I wanted to impress anybody, I never mentioned this place. Why would I? There was literally nothing to speak about. Besides, poverty hardly sells. Yet here we were, together, as our fates collided. Despite never feeling I belonged in the valley; I found strange comfort in the company of these defiant immigrant saplings. It was within these forestlands where I found my youthful solitude. It was here where I learned the importance of being alone with my thoughts. And it was following the road that cut through the trees and led up to the top of the mountain, the very same road we were walking upon on this frosty winters morning, where I would most often run when the world below was closing in and I needed to at least dream of occupying “elsewhere”. We were after-all under no illusions. We lived in a nowhere place, whose only lasting claim belonged to another time, and which was marked for my generation by the absence of any grand historical narrative and purpose.

Brad Evans Photography

Our travels were slow as I told of curated tales I thought would be of interest to a Mexican in foreign lands. But her concerns lay elsewhere. The place she wanted to venture was the mysterious land known as the past? What did it really mean to escape this time? My body, my town, my life, my history, my people, my nation, my abiding truth? And why the black? What was this shame I carried? What was the dereliction within? Why the black? It was the colour that intrigued her the most. Artists! The conversation on the colour of the valley began with the trees. Why were they painted that way? It was as if they were caught between life and death, blackened by history and cremated in advance of their funereal state. Were these tall conifers now extracting the blackness from earth to live and then die? What was their sole purpose? To extract the last breath of a time? Are they living to accompany a change? Or merely there, until they are gone to ash? The exposed roots gave the impression that they too also wished to give flight. Of trees trying to uproot themselves and pull away from a toxified earth, which continued to omit a rusty hue so familiar to textures of post-industrial decline. A powerful observer of the signs, Chantal however also noted how the black was defining; and it was the land which I feared the most. Black as time. A colour she reminded which was the sum of everything. A colour she sensed had worn me more far than I had worn it. A colour that was always shadowed beyond in these landscapes of neglect. 

Chantal was slowly walking ahead. 09.47am. She knew I needed a moment to reflect upon her searching in the dark to extract a deeper essence to things. Nietzsche once claimed all great thoughts were conceived while walking. He also had a notable affection for mountains of the mind. What he should have added however was the company of somebody who was capable of guiding you into that unknown you knew so well. Dante was right on that score. We need the poets of history to show us the way into the beckoning void. To reveal back to us within the nothing you intimately befriended, that’s where everything resided. As the immensity of the questions I had never been forced to answer dawned, so my pace slowed, and a thousand archived memories returned as I was forced to try and tame a delirium of stowaway images that were now awakened. How the mind can so quickly become the vortex of a wandering soul. Why so many obscure thoughts? Why such select pictures of malnourished and dishevelled children laughing in terror while sat in the cold on disregarded tombstones? Why had I found myself in this moment in time, more lovingly wounded than I ever felt before? Was that the real meaning of a rupture? To create a crack in the history of oneself? To see in the tender eyes of another the illusion you had become?

Brad Evans Photography

Chantal was further up the pass walking into the cold mist calmly floating through the gaps in the peering woods. She turns back and I record her glance before she slowly starts to vanish into the distance. The loose stones underfoot suddenly felt as precarious as they had always been. 09.53am. The time I felt the earth open beneath and an abyss appeared before me. 6 minutes for my eternal present to make itself known. For the first time in this life I came face to face with the book I had been running away from all my life. Epiphany? Possibly. Though I like to see it as a moment whose time had finally arrived. I believe in contingency. Yet I know it couldn’t have been any other way. Believe me when I say this again: I am a walking contradiction. So as I stood at this midway point in the journey of my life, I realised there was no turning back. My betrayal was not in leaving. But it was in turning away. A spiritual journey then? Perhaps. But one that would require me to come face to face with the ghosts of history, including the ghost of myself, which I had left behind. Hence, as my body was seeking elevation, my mind had already stepped over that edge and began falling into the blackness, which I had fought so long to keep at bay and whose memories I had wished away.

Brad Evans Photography

Some ancient bard would no doubt remind us that none of what this retold was in any way incidental. We can seldom venture into the emptiness alone and hope to come out the other side unscathed. That was the curse which consumed Nietzsche, Paul Celan, and many others. Indeed, it would take somebody deeply sensitised to the poetic fire within to encourage me to make that necessary leap into the ancestral depths of the black valley, so that I may once again look up and see promising skies. I needed the assured hand of an artist to help me feel the past with different eyes. And I needed the accompaniment of somebody I unequivocally trusted to remind me it is alright to recover forgotten traces of a broken down world, whose memory we have been told it is important to forget. I had intuited this before. Yet didn’t have the aesthetic language to navigate through the blackness of its time. Maybe the trees were always trying to tell me of the need for this journey, but I just couldn’t read the signs? After all, in the woods you can always get lost, there is a solitude and there is a company, the company of these tall haunted spires. I’m out of the valley, I’m above, I’m alone. I can see what I’m leaving behind, but these trees are there to remind me as they exhale a grey mist which is there for me to breathe, to never let me forget the black is still with me.

The valleys of South Wales are marked by their inversions. It is a topsy-turvy land, where the truth is so obvious it is hard to see. We were born from a poorly defiant people who literally turned the world inside out as black as day. The appearance of mountainside cemeteries often means that death looks down upon life. And for many who worked underground, it was the appearance of daytime and the light, which meant things were about to get worse. It has been said we live within ecologies of the mind. What was it about these woods that gave brief feelings of freedom? Were the precariously situated neatly grown strips of conifers not after all a mere resemblance of the terraced streets down below? Valley homesteads are tightly knitted together, like a brotherhood, a socialism of dwelling, whose symmetries confer similitude. Despite the windows, valley homes are also deprived of light. You can barely see into them as the internal darkness holds and peering out only sees the mirror of what’s looking back. Everything feels like it is closing in. Although stripped of its Gods, even the streets suggest they have been temporarily parted and it’s only a matter of time before the waters come crashing in. Walls surround. The houses, the streets, the towering hills, were the place you wanted to escape for the lowly dwelling was always dusted with insecurity. 

The trees could appear the same. They were as regimented and uniform as any militant occupation. And there was a density to the darkness that seemed to rise from within. But they could also lift you. They were the givers of air which led up to the peak of a mountain whose perspective permitted me to imagine a way out. It allowed me to search for a vision, to empty myself and be able to breathe as I pulled away from the suffocations of dead time. This is real history. Of unseen seconds and the over determinations of rotating hands, which turns the past into a season of lament and the present into a numbing happenstance. Doing justice to these conjunctures between the past, present and future I knew was the real task if I was to meaningfully write a story of this place. That is to say, it wasn’t just about writing history from the perspective of those who literally lived down below. It was to rage further against the dying of the poetic light.

The years in-between were spent trying to make sense of the time of the valleys as I returned to the events and stories of lives, which have shaped its fates and misfortunes. How I laughed in drunken merriment in the spirited company of Richard Burton. And how Myfanwy returned, over and over, to remind of a need to believe just as much in the fable as the tragic. But I couldn’t turn away from the reality too – the reality of lives lived with hardship. Of families beaten by the memory of the past. Of children whose futures were mercilessly denied. My Rhondda. Was it a place lost in its own time? A time perhaps which the mapmakers of the world had now chosen to forget? When did its troubles truly begin? Had we not endured 100 years of depression? And what of that murderous day in 1966 when the clock stopped ticking? Maybe it has never properly chimed since? Aberfan. The death of a future which many had foretold. How the valley still cries her name. Furthermore, what of that year of my birth? 1974. A decade before Orwell. Our Dystopian present but with nobody watching because nobody really cared. The year when it was officially declared the valleys of South Wales were “dying” and its chances of recovery deadly thin. What does it mean to be born into an exorcism without faith? Not of a ghost town emptied of its people. But where everything is a haunting, and the reality of death an ever present condition.

It is Christmas 2023 and I have returned to the Rhondda valleys of South Wales. I still have many conflicted feelings anticipating the book’s publication in the coming months. I know it will cause some anguish. The truth always does. I am seduced by the symbolism, which is why I tried to time its arrival to coincide with my 50th birthday in the month of March. A month which also coincidentally marks the 40th anniversary of the miners strikes and the Centenary of the first signs of the Great Depression in these parts, which hit these communities sooner and harder than anybody anywhere. So here I am, again, it’s typically inclement and I typically feel suffocated on the valley floor.

10am. Boxing Day. December 26. I have returned to the foot of the mountain where the forest that marked the years of my youth reside. But all is not as expected. These valleys are marked by vanishings. Growing up, we were witnesses to the slow erasure of community life that disintegrated before our very eyes. Today I am witness to another disappearance. The forests have been decimated as large areas of coniferous woodland have been felled with their mulched debris making the old stone road largely impassable. I recall pictures of devastated ecologies after a catastrophic event, which look eerily the same. There is such violence in the massacre of trees, and everything contained within. Walking over the shattered fallout of this now barren expanse, I feel the truant weight of so many memories being trampled beneath the detritus remnants of the rotting bark. Strangely I feel out of breath, as if the earth no longer vibrates, the sirens are gone.  

I am traumatised by seeing what is no longer there. Part of the reason for the felling of the woodlands was the presence of a disease, which needed to be managed to prevent it spreading. In truth, those who knew these woods will tell of the way the soil always seemed corroded. The reds that seeped up from the belly of the earth and into the creeping roots would often bleed out when the bark was cut as the open wound that is the valley showed its visceral pain. It was as if the toxified earth was making sure the extractive labours of man wouldn’t be forgotten and the violence of the coal colony still yet to pay its time. I fully recognise that the history of the pollution of a land, whose traces are still so evident the moment heavy rains return and the earth begins to fall. Yet I am traumatised by seeing what is no longer there. I felt the same after they removed the two “mountains” of discarded coal waste which towered over the street I used to live in. The adults looked upon them with fear and trepidation. But to us, they were Everest and Kilimanjaro in one, as monumental and fiery as any majestic climb.  

Chantal, who is now my wife, is back in Mexico spending the festive period with her family. It is exactly as it was back in December 2017. Slightly earlier in the month of that year, I took to the forests as the valleys were blanketed in the bitter joys of winter as the snows began to fall. Winter was always a mixed blessing, full of festive cheer and poverty’s calling. I only shared with her a number of photographs, which were taken on the forest and mountain expanse. I don’t know why I documented these trees, maybe I could hear them after all? The first was of the woodland covered in snow. I thought at the time it was a picture of beauty. Yet looking at it today, I see how it emphasises a deep sadness, a melancholia of stasis, as if the trees were rendered motionless. While the smiting winds of change promised more of the same in the seasons ahead, they fell into silence as the world carried on regardless of the outcome. They stand before all, resigned to a fate which awaits, darkly present, oblivious to care, having lost the will to even ask “why”?  

Brad Evans Photography

The second picture sent was of my favourite trail, where I was once inexplicably touched by the overwhelming presence of my late grandmother in a moment when my back was really against the wall. There is something about running through forests that makes you feel connected to unknown forces whose locations cannot be mapped. And it was certainly the case that within these woods you sense the presence of something always close to your innermost sense of being, always looking at you through the darkness.

Brad Evans Photography

I continue my walk up to the top of the mountain and reach the point where an identifiable strip of trees neatly sits close to the summit and in proximity to the remains of an Iron Age hill fort. Maybe things don’t disappear, and they will always find a way to return even in the most barren wilderness of doubts? As I gather my thoughts, I see the sun trying its hardest to break through the stubborn grey clouds. I am forced to consider the forests of us that are gone. And I am also forced to confront the time that remains. Within that time, as black as it is, the romantic within me is reborn and I feel heartened by the fabled idea of felled trees being turned into pages upon which the story of the valleys and the story of my life are soon to be printed. In that moment, I realise the time of the book is far greater than anything we may care to impress with just words and ink. 

How Black was my Valley: Poverty & Abandonment in a Post-Industrial Heartland by Brad Evans. Out now.
Paperback $24.95. Apr 09, 2024 | ISBN 9781913462840

Photography by Brad Evans. All rights reserved.


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