I saw two things in Aberystwyth that made me sorry from the bottom of my heart that I’d gone there that night. The professor took me down some of the back-streets of the town. And ‘back’ was the word; three of four streets that I had never seen in my own time, which were nothing but steel-and-concrete flats, pubs, chip shops, saloons, dance halls and gambling dens. As we passed one of the saloons, a group of men nearly ran into us. They’d just come out of the saloon and they were drunk. One of them knocked the professor’s hat off his head, and the rest laughed and moved on.
I bent over to pick up the old man’s hat, and gave it to him.
“Forestry workers,” he said, “who’ve come down from the forest to spend Sunday, by the look of it. They live in the forest for weeks, and then run riot. I don’t blame them. They liuve an unnatural life up in the forest. Men without an eye for nature and no taste for solitude; the descendants of English town-dwellers. It’s no wonder they behave like this when they’re let loose. That explains all the saloons and pubs and chip shops and gambling and dance halls that you see here. The backstreets of Aberystwyth live off the foresters.”
“Are you saying that you can gamble openly in these halls?”
“Of course. Perhaps you remember the ‘Premium Bonds’ that the London government started in your time.”
“Well, the next thing that came after them was the legalisation of betting everywhere and all the time, and then they established the National Lottery. After that, when the big forests and really big reservoirs came, and men from the towns were made to live in remote townships in the depths of the countryside, the Government itself started building halls where they could gamble openly as well as dance, to keep them quiet…”
“Can we do anything for you, dearies?”
It was a girl’s voice asking this, and the professor and I raised our heads to see two heavily made-up girls standing across from us in the doorway of a saloon. The professor raised his hat to them, and said cheerfully,
“Not tonight, thank you. Some other time we should be very pleased.”
The girls giggled as we walked away.
“I had to say that, Ifan. If we’d walked past without answering they’d have screamed across the street and two of three of their male friends would have rushed out and made mincemeat of us.”
This in Aberystwyth, of all places, I said to myself. The town I was so fond of, which had formerly been so pure, so bright…
“I don’t understand, Professor.”
“Why didn’t the Town Council or the County Council or someone, years ago, foresee all this and stop it happening?”
“Oh, the local councils did fight it. But they were too late. They should have read the signs of the times in 1950. When the battle was fought in 1980 and 1990, the Government had completed the plans and had the upper hand. And the English who’d come here were numerous enough to outvote the few Welsh people on the councils. But come, I want you to see another Aberystwyth.”
I dearly hope that one’s better, I said to myself. The professor pointed towards the hills surrounding the town. There were splendid houses there, their windows lit up red by the remains of the sun setting over the sea.
“Those are the houses of the heads of the Civil Service,” he said. “They, of course, earn enormous salaries and come here from London to spend the summer months in their houses up there. Many of them probably have houses in Morecambe and Torbay as well.”
“Is that the other Aberystwyth?”
We went along Great Darkgate Street and turned towards the sea. Then came out onto the prom. It was a terrible sight.
The prom was nothing but a huge funfair. Ferris wheels and helter-skelters and dodgems and entertainment huts of every shape and size. Everything was painted yellow and blue and birght red. The vanity fair climbed up the slopes of Constitution Hill, and that whole lovely hill was covered in hideous buildings of every kind. But none of these things was working at the time, and I asked the professor why.
“Oh, the ‘holiday period’, that the official in Neath was talking about, hasn’t started yet. No workers in the towns are allowed to leave their factories or their offices until the middle of June. Then, the corporations organise workers’ holidays, and let them go a million at a time for a fortnight’s holiday. It’s estimated that about half a million people come in and out of Aberystwyth every week from June to September. The chalets and caravans provided by the Town Council stretcha long the coast as far as Llanrhystud to the south and Borth to the north. It’s a memorable sight from the air – like four or five rows of herrings drying in the sun for five miles either side of the town.”
I couldn’t stop myself, and burst into tears.
“Ifan, what’s the matter? Have I said something that’s upset you?”
“No. Forgive me. This place is too much for me, that’s all. It used to be such a lovely town…”
“Oh well, never mind. We’ll go and find a hotel. You’ll feel better once you’ve been able to wash and tidy up a bit.”
There was a girl in uniform by the counter in the first hotel we came to. She asked us first, of course, for our identity cards.
“Tourist or business,” she said.
“Tourist,” said the professor.
“But the holiday period hasn’t begun. Have you an Early Tourist Permit?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“I see. May I see your political certificate?”
The professor offered his paper to her, and explained to her why I didn’t have one. The girl took a long time to understand, and looked very doubtful about me. After looking at the professor’s paper, she said,”
“I’m sorry. This hotel’s reserved for State Socialists. You’ll find the English Democrat Hotel across the road.”
We went to the hotel that she referred to across the road, and after a long time spent answering questions and showing papers and signing forms, we were given a double room on the fourth floor. The girl said that the porter wasn’t available at the moment and the lift wasn’t working, so we’d have to climb the stairs. By the time we reached the room, Professor Richards was close to expiring.
“But never mind, Ifan,” he said, once he’d gone in and closed the door. “We’re high enough here to have peace and quiet. We can speak in Welsh without anyone hearing us. So long as there’s no…”
He went around the room, tapping the walls with his fingers, looking inside the furniture and moving some of it around.
“What on earth are you doing, Professor?”
“The first thing to do in a hotel in England – Britain – today,” he said, “is to look carefully for hidden microphones in your room. The secret police are so suspicious. But they’re not very skilled at hiding microphones, and I was a radio ham for years. I’d be sure to have found it if there’d been one here.”
“Who… who are the secret police?” I said, with shivers going don my spine.
“Don’t look so frightened, Ifan. They’re private detectives, in the Government’s service. Their job is to keep their eyes and ears open for any movements or conspiracies that could cause trouble for the Government. That’s why I wanted us not to speak Welsh within earshot of our fellow travellers. The Government isn’t afraid of the Welsh language, of course – it died out years ago. But every foreign language creates suspicion, and I didn’t want to have two or three secret policemen ‘shadowing’ us throughout our journey.”
“No, no, that makes sense.”
“Now then, what about having a wash?”
After washing, I felt fresher. The professor switched on the electric lights and pulled the curtains across the window. Then, he tiptoed to the door, opened it and looked up and down the corridor.
“No-one’s listening, Ifan,” he said. “Very good.”
He stuffed a small ball of paper into the keyhole and laid his overcoat at the base of the door.
“I’m sure this all looks childish to you, Ifan. But we don’t want anyone to see or hear us. Ah! There we are.”
He eased himself into a chair, and pulled his pipe and tobacco from his pocket. I lit a cigarette. I looked around. The room was bare, but for the moment I had the impression that it was safe. We were on our own, my friend and me, out of sight and out of earshot. And I could start asking questions.
“I’m beginning to come to terms,” I said, “ – although it’s hard – with the idea that the Welsh language has died out and the Government is still in London. But I can’t for the life of me cope with all this bureaucracy – the identity cards and political certificates and all the questions we’ve had to answer.”
“Well,” said the professor, still filling his pipe, “it’s all new and frightening for you, but I and everyone else are long familiar with it. Britain – or ‘England’ as all of it is called nowadays – is a big country to govern, even though of course it’s only a speck compared to Russia and the US and India and China. On top of that, its population has been piled into the cities and the industrial belts. It’s hard to keep control or to keep an eye on every group and every individual in these great big ants’ nests. The only way to keep control is to give an identity card to everybody.
“There’s another reason to do that. Because the population has all been corralled together, and all healthy social life has disappeared, and there have been so many disputes in the factories and so many people are out of work, there’s immeasurable discontent among the people, as you can probably imagine…”
“I easily can.”
“That discontent breaks out in various ways. The platoons are one – you saw an example of those gangs in Neath today. Also, there’s all sorts of underground activity – political and semi-political – clubs for immorality which is beyond your imagination, destructive scientific devices being hatched in underground dens and back streets. And so, in order to try to keep some sort of control, the Government forces everyone to carry an identity card and a political certificate.”
“Can I see your political certificate, Professor?”
“You can, of course.”
The professor pulled his certificate from his wallet and gave it to me. I read the blue paper:
This is to certify that Professor Owen Rupert Richards of … is a Member of the English Democrat Party, and as such is entitled to all privileges open to Ordinary Members of the said Party (see Notes on Back of Certificate)…
“There are two big parties,” said the professor, “in line with English tradition. The English Democrats and the State Socialists. There’s no significant difference between them; indeed, you could almost say that they’re both the same party. There’s a general election every five years, and one party goes out and the other comes in as regular as clockwork.”
“But there are other parties?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. There are some small parties: the Soviet Socialists, the Regionalists, the Protestant League and Catholic Action. And one or two others. But their members are not allowed to sit in the parliament. If one of them happened to win a seat – which is almost impossible – there’s have to be a second election in that constituency, with the small party’s successful candidate having to fight the second election with a handicap of thousands of votes as a punishment for abuse of propaganda in the first election. But there’s no hope of one of the small parties winning a seat, as a rule. They’re not allowed to use the radio, or television, or newspapers. The only media allowed to them is the publication of pamphlets – no more than five thousand copies – and public meetings – no more than two hundred in the audience. The truth is, of course, that there’s a long-standing agreement between the two big parties to keep every other party out. And elections are just a farce nowadays, an excuse for democracy, since to all intents and purposes the English Democrats and State Socialists are the same party.”
“But why are you a member of the English Democrats?”
“Because I don’t have any political conviction And I, like many others, have joined one of the two big parties – it makes no difference which – for the privileges. I can roam around the country reasonably freely – except for the forbidden regions, and at the forbidden times – and stay in my party’s hotels. If I had a political certificate on red paper, with the name of the one of the smaller parties on it and the words, ‘Minority Party’, in big black letters at the top of the page, then I’d need a special permit before leaving Cardiff.
“Heaven help us,” I said. “It’s like a police state.”
“Oh, not at all. The trick is that everyone has a shadow of freedom. The English tradition of government still persists. Everyone is free to vote as they wish – it’s just that it never makes any difference. Everyone is free to criticise the government – so long as they only do so verbally. The government still believes in giving people apparent freedom, letting everyone moan and have their say within limits, and letting people think that their politics has a purpose to it. And everyone swallows the deceit, everyone at least except a few intellectuals and rebels. And the parliament protects itself against them, by law.
I shook my head slowly.
“I’d have thought,” I said, “that Wales, at least, would be safe from a situation like this. In my time, Welsh was still very much alive, Welsh life was active even if it was a bit committee-bound, and I was sure that this little nation would never disappear from under us.”
“Well, disappear it did. It was sucked up little by little. You remember the damage that was done through the education system in the early 20th Century, when everything was taught through the medium of English to every child in Wales. Then came the English daily papers and Sunday papers, English radio and English cinema, all taking advantage of Welsh people’s knowledge of that language. The next blow was the movement of half a million people from Wales to England between 1920 and 1940. Then, between 1960 and 1990, over a million English people moved into Wales – to Anglesey, Arfon, Meirionnydd and Ceredigion. On top of that, the Welsh countryside was scheduled for growing trees and holding water and developing rockets – three things that forced the Welsh who still lived in the countryside to move away from there.”
“But,” I said, “why did the Welsh not see it, and stop it from happening.”
“The old Welsh weakness,” he said. “Splintering, arguing among themselves, and hesitating. And deceiving themselves that the old saying ‘Cymru am byth’ was true. The country’s last hope came in 1925. The national movement. If the Welsh had realised that, and had flowed to that movement in time, they could have saved themselves. But they preferred to stay in the their fools’ paradise, with their little prejudices and low aspirations. And while they hesitated and argued, the English flooded in, the forests were planted, and the valleys drowned. The last of the Welsh woke up too late. Their land and language and nation were gone.”
“But I still don’t see,” I said then, “why the Welsh weren’t wiser.”
“How wise were you?” asked the professor. “Were you a supporter of the national movement?”
“Me..? Well… no…” I said lamely. “To be honest, I opposed it. But if I’d known where that would lead…”
“Exactly. ‘If you knew then what you know now,’ as ever. Well, we’re all wise after the event. We need to use our heads and read the signs of the times. Because your generation failed to do that, Wales disappeared from the map of the world. Sad, isn’t it?”
We went to bed soon after that. I didn’t want to talk any more. It’s s if I was standing at the end of the world. And it was the end – of my world.
But there was one thing I still hoped for. That I would still find Mair, somewhere. Although the language and life and politics and everything else were different, surely the same people existed. And they must be around somewhere if only one knew where to look for them. I thought about the noble, likeable characters of that other Wales. Professor and Mrs. Llywarch, Charles Emrys the Home Secretary, Corporal Bowen, the generous farmer Pugh and his wife. I was willing to suffer a great deal of disappointment if I could only find them. And Mair.
A lovely idea struck me. Maybe this was all a bad dream, that I was in a nightmare, or I’d landed on the dark side of the future. Tomorrow, perhaps, the future would have righted itself, and I would once again be a free man in a happy Wales, and with… well, with one of my friends from that Wales. Was it possible? Somehow, as I clung to that hope, and with my mind lightened just a little, I went to sleep.