Unfortunately my hometown of Carmarthen has been in the press for all the wrong reasons recently. If you missed it, a couple of weeks ago a story surfaced of how the Waterstones store in the town hadn’t sold a single set of Welsh Scrabble in two years. My first reaction on reading the awful article in the Guardian was, ‘Since when did they have Welsh Scrabble??’. I know I’d been living abroad for a good few years, but since returning home in July I’d been in to Waterstones a few times, and I always popped in when I was home visiting my family.
To sum up (because since that weekend the issue’s been discussed from all the different points of view) several articles in English-language London-based newspapers surfaced, all claiming that the Welsh language was dying or already dead and buried. Oh yes, here my rampant nationalism (!) comes out – give some people like the ones who wrote these ‘articles’ half a chance to ridicule a minority language and they’ll run with it for days. The Welsh speaking community in and around Carmarthen (and Wales in general) knew better however, nobody would ever have thought to even look in Waterstones for anything in Welsh. There are specialist Welsh-language shops that cater especially for that kind of thing, including Shop y Pentan which was named several times by the local community in reply to the ignorance of the press. It was like claiming that fresh meat sales were down in the town, after having only asked vegetarian shops about their sales.
The last few days has seen an environmental disaster, which I haven’t seen reported in the wider British press. Kerosene has leaked from a pipe underneath a busy dual carriageway – one side of which is currently closed for maintenance work – into a river just outside the town. At the moment 100,000 litres are estimated to have leaked, killing fish and releasing dangerous gasses. Local residents have been advised to keep their windows closed, and a clean-up operation is underway.
It’s awkward when stories like this come out of my hometown, it puts an uncomfortable spotlight on a fairly anonymous market town in rural west Wales. When Scrabblegate emerged I felt the need to defend my town, as well as my language; but also condemning Waterstones (and their flippant ‘apology’ on Facebook) for the treatment of the Welsh language, and for not understanding the Welsh speaking community in the town and surrounding area.
Strictly speaking, I grew up in what I affectionately call ‘the arse-end of nowhere’ – deepest darkest west Wales, 10 miles from the town of Carmarthen. The town has a rich history, there are actual Roman ruins on the outskirts – an amphitheatre – from when the town was known as Maridunum. However its’ claim to fame are the links with the wizard Merlin. The town’s Welsh name is Caerfyrddin, which translates as the ‘fort of Merlin’. A local legend narrates that the wizard is still sleeping in a hill outside the town, waiting for the day when he’s needed again. There’s also the prophecy which relates to the felling of a certain tree in the town which would have caused the city to flood (ironically, the tree no longer exists, and it’s an area outside the town that’s always been worst hit by flooding). Of course when the Merlin TV series started the town enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon (who can blame them, eh?), naming a small shopping centre (where I used to work!) Merlin’s Walk, and erecting a wooden statue of the man itself along it. Unfortunately I missed all the hype, but the statue remains!
It’s taken me coming back home to realise how much this place means to me. In Italy most people didn’t know that Wales existed, it was all ‘Inghilterra’ (England) to them; and certainly nobody had heard of my little hometown. Maybe it’s still the novelty of being back that hasn’t worn off yet, growing up I never thought of it as being a very exciting or interesting place. But it’s my home. It may not be particularly pretty, or big, but I’m proud to call it my hometown.