The following morning was fairer. The sun poured in through the curtains, and I got up to look out. But I wasn’t happy with what I saw. For miles and miles in every direction there was nothing but roofs and chimneys, with huge blocks of flats rising from among them, and beyond them all the cranes of the docks rising in the sunshine like fiery spiders’ webs.
After shaving with Professor Richards’ razor, and eating breakfast, he and I set off to catch the atomic bus on the street corner. All around us on the bus sat passengers with vacant expressions, even more so than in my own time. I heard one of them arguing with the conductor, and threatening to hit him.
“Don’t take any notice, Ifan,” said the professor quietly, “in case one of them turns on you. This sort of violence happens on public transport every day.”
Why? I asked myself. But I couldn’t think of an answer. The professor and I got off the bus beside a huge bus station. We went in. The professor stood by a small window in the wall and asked for two bus tickets to Bangor. The official looked at us suspiciously. I’d never seen an official stare so suspiciously as that before.
“What route?” he asked.
The professor suggested that we’d like to go through Neath and Carmarthen and Lampeter…
“Can’t go that way. It’s forbidden, you ought to know that. It’s forestry land.”
“Oh. Yes, I see.”
“You must either follow the coast by road express, or take a helicopter from Neath.”
The professor chose the helicopter.
“Identity card, please.”
The professor showed his identity card to the official.
“And yours?” said the official to me.
The professor explained that I didn’t have one, because I’d come from the past. The official cut across him and told him not to play that sort of game with him. I remembered suddenly about Spencer in the University. After Professor Richards had pleaded with him for a long time, the official promised to speak on the videophone – though I can’t remember what he called it in English – to Spencer. He told us to go to the waiting room.
We were in that waiting room for three hours. Every half an hour Richards went through to ask if anything had come through. When we were on the point of giving up and going back home, a boy in uniform came to us and said that the travel officer wished to see us. He had at last spoken to Spencer and had verified that my story was true. But before I could have a ticket I must go to the Registry Office in the city centre to be given a temporary identity card.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon when Professor Richards and I arrived back in the bus station. The officials in the Registry Office had refused in the first place to give me a temporary identity card. They said I had to give three days’ notice. But after much argument, with Professor Richards arguing more cleverly than they, they eventually agreed that, because the circumstances were unusual, I could have a card – but their faces were full of resentment. At half past three, the professor and I were standing in a queue, with tickets in our hands, waiting for a bus to Neath.
As we stood in the queue, I asked the professor why we needed identity cards and why travelling was so difficult. One of the men in front of us turned to look at us. Once he had turned away, the professor told me under his breath not to ask until we were on our own and not to speak in Welsh, since anyone who spoke a foreign language was under suspicion. Then, he spoke loudly in English about the weather and the interesting things about the journey ahead of us and all sorts of inconsequential things. I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.
We couldn’t get a seat on the first bus, so we had to wait for another hour. The road was good and the bus was comfortable, but the views around us were dreadful. This Cardiff had grown hugely; it was miles bigger in every direction that anything I remembered (even though last night it had been only a ‘small provincial town’ to Spencer). The professor told me how people had flowed into Cardiff from the countryside since the corporations and commissions had seized large tracts of it for one purpose or another. And people were still coming in from England. Though he didn’t say “from England” but “from the Midlands”.
I asked him whether the Welsh Government did anything to prevent this crowding into the city. He looked at me like I was out of my mind. Then, his eyes lit up with understanding, and he turned his face away with a sigh.
“The government’s in London,” he said quietly, in Welsh.
In the Vale of Glamorgan there were huge factories. They had been planned, and each one had been placed in the middle of an area of greenery. And there was no smoke around them. But that was all that could be said in their favour. I asked whether having all these factories in the midst of all this population was unhealthy. He spread out his hands, and said quietly that all the industry in the part of the country that had once been called ‘Wales’ had been concentrated in Glamorgan and in the southern parts of Carmarthenshire and Brecknockshire.
“Just like before,” I said.
“But more so. Much more.”
“You said,” I asked him, “’the part of the country that had once been called Wales’. Isn’t that still its name?”
“No. Wales is all ‘Western England’ nowadays. The name ‘Wales’ was abolished around the end of the last century. The name was politically dangerous. Don’t ask any more for now. I’m afraid that one or two on the bus may be listening.”
He and I sat quietly for the rest of the journey to Neath. I only saw a little open countryside. We were in a totally industrial belt, and on the grey walls alongside the road there were huge posters telling the inhabitants to drink this drink or that, to save up to buy a phone, or a car, or a ‘home cinema’, to work harder, or to go on holiday in one of the national parks. Just as Richards said, the same as before, only more so.
We got off the bus in Neath. A huge, grey town, with workers flowing in from their workplaces in all directions, some on bikes, some on motorbikes, but mainly on foot. There were sour expressions on the faces of most of them, the look of having given up all hope. On a small red platform close to the bus park there was a man speaking as though addressing a crowd, or preaching, and a big group of girls in front of him with songbooks in their hands.
“Protestants,” said Richards.
“I’d expect so. Wales is a Protestant country, isn’t it?”
“No, not at all. It’s a Catholic country. The Welsh chapels died out with the language at the end of the last century, and without their support the English chapels died as well. Catholicism came in with the huge influx of English people. There are still Protestants, of course, like that little group over there. But not many people listen to them, as you can see. But we mustn’t stand here. We need to go to the airport to catch the helicopter.
As we crossed the street, a car rushed past us, and another car came after it shooting at it from a gun mounted on its bonnet. Everybody scattered from the street, and sought shelter in the shop doorways and offices. The cars screeched out of sight up one of the smaller streets, the second still shooting at the first.
“Good grief!” I said. “What was that?”
“The platoons,” said Richards, mopping his forehead with his pocket handkerchief.
“What are they?”
“They were called ‘gangs’ in your day. Groups of low-lifes continually at war with one another. They’re enough of a problem over in Cardiff, but in Neath they’re a plague.”
“But things like that didn’t happen in my day,” I said.
“No, I don’t suppose so. But that’s the effect of the terrible overpopulation of these areas, overpopulation and over-industrialisation which has been going on for two centuries. The Welsh here people have lost their background – they’re no longer Welsh, but they haven’t succeeded to become English. And wave after wave of people from England and from other countries have come flooding in, so the population is one rootless, characterless, purposeless multitude. On top of that, it’s terrible, boring work by the machines every day, and half the workers are out of work for half the time. Many who’ve had enough of it break free from it all and join the platoons. That’s the only adventure left in life for these crowds.”
“That’s terrible,” I said. “But can’t the police do anything to stop these gangs?”
Richards shrugged his shoulders.
“The police are completely powerless. Sometimes, when things become completely intolerable, the London government declares martial law and send the army in. But that just drives the low-lifes underground for a little while. No, the economic system that you saw in your lovely dream about a Free Wales would have stopped this – spreading the population across the face of the country and having them live in little communities. But what can the government of a big country do? This huge population is beyond anything that good government could do for them. Good heavens, the helicopter will be setting off in a few minutes. Come.”
I jumped after the professor onto a bus that was just about to depart, and that made its way down endless streets until it came to a more open piece of land. It came to stop shortly afterwards at the entrance to a huge field with aeroplanes in it. Two officials came in and asked each of us for our identity cards. One of them stared at my card and showed it to the other. He asked me,
“Why are you going to Bangor?”
I turned to the professor, and he explained to the office that we were going on a trip around Western England.
“I know that,” said the official. “I asked you why. The holiday period hasn’t started yet. Have you got your political certificate?”
The professor pulled a slip of paper out of his wallet, and showed it. The official looked it up and down closely.
“This seems all right,” he said. “Very well. You can enter the aircraft on one condition. That you report to the Security Bureau when you get to Bangor. That clear?”
“Perfectly,” said the professor with a small groan.
The officials got off, and the bus went through into the airport. It was the best building I’d seen so far, its large windows catching the afternoon sun. We needed to go in there again, show our identity cards and answer questions. Then an official brought a dozen or more of us out along a concrete path towards the helicopter.
“I’d have thought that helicopters would have long gone out of fashion,” I said.
“Everywhere except here,” said the professor.
At the top of the ladder that led into the aircraft, there was yet another official. He too wanted to see our identity cards. After looking at mine, he turned to me.
“You were passed at the entrance?” he said.
“And at the reception desk?”
“All right. Get in.”
Richards and I sat in a double seat in the middle of the aircraft. Richards looked very tired. Fair play, I thought to myself, it had been quite a hard day for a 70-year old. Soon, the engines fired up and the aircraft rose from its berth into the air.
“This goes no further than Aberystwyth,” said the professor. “We must take another helicopter from there, or a bus along the coast. Perhaps staying in Aberystwyth will be best for us tonight. I’m rather tired.”
I soon saw that we had left the industrial region behind, and were heading for open countryside. The land was very wooded. As we were flying fairly low, I could see that the trees were pine and fir.
“Yes,” said the professor. “We’ve just gone over the Swansea Valley and we’re approaching the Black Mountain. This is where the forest starts, and it goes on almost until we reach Aberystwyth.”
“Yes, sure. The Forestry Land. Almost two million acres of Wales are forested – almost half the total area.”
“What about the rest?”
“The rest of Wales? Oh, airfields, military camps, reservoirs, national parks, and agricultural zones – particularly in the lower reaches of the Tywi, Teifi, Dyfi, Conwy and Clwyd valleys. That’s where the big government farms are. There are no individual farms any more.”
‘Who can bear living in a country like this?’ I thought to myself. I looked out through the aircraft window. Beneath us, as far as the eye could see in every direction, there was nothing but trees, trees, trees. And the occasional lonely lake shining here and there.
“Do you mean to say,” I said to the professor, “that no-one lives in this huge forest?”
“Oh, yes. The foresters live in it, and their families. Some of the old villages are still on their feet, though most of them have vanished. The workers of the Forestry Corporation live in them, or in some of the new towns that the Government has built from time to time. There’s one over there.”
I looked through the window in the direction where his finger was pointing.
“That’s where Llanwrda was years ago. There’s nothing left of the village now apart from some ruins in among the trees; just like the villages around it. But if you look where I’m pointing now you’ll see a number of shiny roofs…”
“Yes, I see them…”
“They’re the aluminium roofs of the settlement. There are about a hundred forestry workers living there with their families. And there’s a shop or two, and a dancing and gambling hall. The priest comes over from Lampeter every Sunday to say Mass in the hall.”
I was feeling sick, but not because of the movement of the aircraft. Here I was over Carmarthenshire, the county of the greatest Welsh hymn-writers. And there was nothing left except a huge forest, and in the middle of the forest the occasional cluster of aluminium sheds where groups of men without any nationality danced and gambled and rotted. I might as well have been flying over one of the forests of Brazil.
It wasn’t long before Tregaron came into view. Tregaron was still there, a grey and white pattern in amongst the endless forest, with narrow roads like cotton threads leading out from it in three or four directions.
“Yes,” said the professor, “the towns have lasted better than the villages, simpkly because they’re bigger. But you wouldn’t recognise Tregaron, I expect. Tregaron’s not it’s name any more. ‘Old Woodville’, they call it now. There’s a ‘New Woodville’ just beyond it – another cluster of aluminium sheds.”
“In the direction of Strata Florida, then?”
“New Woodville is Strata Florida. Of course, there’s nothing of Strata Florida left. The Professor of History in Cardiff University told me that the middle of the dance hall in New Woodville is build right on top of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s grave. It was a great joke as far as he was concerned.”
“I’m sure it was.”
I was glad to see the forest thinning out, and Cardigan Bay coming into view, and Aberystwyth in the distance at the edge of the sea. I could recognise it, at least. The helicopter descended slowly but surely, and soon it stood at the landing site above the town. The door opened, and we filed out one by one.
Richards and I went into the airport building to get a meal. I was starving. There was plenty of food, but it was terribly cooked. The plates weren’t clean, and the girl who put them before us was surly and rude. But it was food, at least, and I ate like a horse. Richards lit his pipe after we’d finished, and threw a packet of cigarettes over to me. We stayed there for a while, smoking quietly, whilst quiet travellers and noisy travellers flowed through the tables around us. Soon, Richards emptied his pipe into the ashtray and gestured towards me.
“We’ll go and look for somewhere to stay the night, Ifan,’ he whispered in Welsh. “And if we can find a reasonably private room, we can talk.”
I got up and followed him out of the airport.