On Monday evening last week (6th October 2017), about half way through my residency with Culture Action Llandudno (CALL), I was invited to address the Friends of the West Shore. The West Shore has been nominated numerous times by a wide range of people - from tourists to homeless to well heeled residents - in Llandudno, as their centre of the town. I was interested to find out more about this place, and how it worked. Is it one of those spaces where key issues are played out, in microcosm?
And so it turned out to be. This is a long blog, but I hope you'll stick with it, because for me, it started to bring everything together. This was the People's Map of Llandudno in action.
When the Victorian version of Llandudno was built, the decision to make it face the North Shore, rather than the West (which 'provided far superior views') was due to the fact that the tide goes out an 'impractically' long way here, leaving stretches of 'treacherous sand and mud'. This decision has opened up the West Shore as (relatively) free of the commercial focus that is at the heart of the North Shore/Llandudno town. So there is more room here for manoevre. The Victorian poet, Matthew Arnold does a beautiful description of the juxtaposition of the West Shore to the rest of Llandudno - it's well worth a read because it sets the scene...
200 years later, this Monday evening was stormy. The famous Llandudno wind was doing its stuff and kite surfers were making the most of the wind and the enormous stretches of sand. Brilliant shafts of light picked out their lollipop coloured sails against the dark storm clouds. I managed not to take any photos of it. Photos not taken are interesting: Moments missed? Or more salient because of it?
Having an hour or so before the meeting started at 6pm, I took a wander around the local area, going inland to escape the wind (as I'd heard people do) and found a space used by young people (well, young men - noone female around), playing football on what i found out later is called the Oval Cricket ground.
There I met Mike, in his early 20s, walking his sister's dog, Warburton. Warburton had a rock in his mouth to calm him down, but Mike was concerned in case I had a dog. I reassured him I didn't, and explained why I was wondering around.
"Lovely area isn’t it?" he says. "I really enjoy it. I’ve lived round here most of my life. When I moved to Manchester I just missed the place. My family, friends and.. yeah. I went out there for my brother in law, he had a business – window cleaning - but he got attacked by a group of lads in Oldham. Lost his right eye. I went out there for a year to help him out with the business. I enjoyed what I was doing, I was helping the family out, and I liked Manchester, it’s probably my favourite city. But I'm not a city person. I like the Orme. I love the sea. He’s not mine [Warburton], he’s my sisters. Whenever I’m looking after him I go everywhere – the Little orme, Great orme, the beaches. I like getting out."
I ask him if he thinks there’s much here for young people to do? "No, not really, no. But I play, I like playing computers, I’ve got a PC, I play with my brother. I’ve got a big family to be honest, so that keeps me busy. It does help to have things to do. I think kids are getting too much into computers and not spending enough time with people. Going out like superbowl , cinema, that’s what kids should be doing. Some are, but not mahy. cineball… there’s a different generation now."
I ask him how he'd describe Llandudno to someone who didn't know it.
"It’s a very picturesque, beautiful seaside town where I've lived most of my life. Over the last 15 years it become a much more well known town and it's still growing. It’s not a bad place. Don’t get me wrong – it used to be – it probably still is - nicknamed ‘Heavens Doorway’, there’s so many old people here. They all come on coach trips to the hotels on the front.
"But it's not all like that. You’ve got certain places you can go but some people might be uncomfortable, like walking down dark alley ways in the dark by themselves. My brother’s girlfriend has had a few people following here, not to the extent where it’s had to go to the police or anything. But you know, blokes are blokes. You get idiots everywhere you go. The same minorities everywhere. You can’t just single out a place and go 'this is beautiful and there’s no crime here. It’s both, isn’t it?
"I enjoy my life I’m quite happy. Like anyone who is happy now, has been to bad places. I’ve been depressed in the past, I’ve walked the streets, not having anywhere to live. I’ve come out on the bright side, and I think I’d prefer to be the way I am now. I’m not swimming in money, not got a big house, I haven’t got a car, but I’m happy.
"There’s so many people that stay on the Orme in caves and.. it's not nice, I hate seeing it all the time. It’s not just in this country, its everywhere. Just yesterday I said to my sister, 'There’s 35,000 people say in Llandudno. If every one person gave one item, anything, how much that’d do for a society of people who haven't got anything'.
I myself want to look into how to set up something, whether through the church or council. In order to help these kids. I’ve not been in many of their situations, and I can’t put myself in their experience, but I’ve been to places, in my head, that are very dark. So I know how it can be. And it really isn’t nice. I want to help, you know".
What a nice man. I told him of the Hope Restored initiative, supporting homeless people in Llandudno, run by Brenda, from a church on the West Shore. Perhaps he could start there?
I ran to the meeting at the Lilly on the West Shore, arriving just in time. Blowing in through the West-facing doors.
I'd expected maybe 6, 10 people. There was already at least 20 there, and more chairs were being brought in. By the end, I think there must have been more than 30. Including a community liaison Officer, Chris Perkins. Gerry Sweeney, who had been described to me as 'at the heart of everything' in Llandudno was chairing the meeting in the absence of the usual chair, Louise, who'd had to go to Cardiff on council business.
To get a flavour of what the group does, take a look at their facebook page.
I was given the opportunity to introduce my People's Map of Llandudno project. More people had heard of what an 'artist in residence' was (about 6 people) than what Culture Action Llandudno was ( about 4 people). They seemed interested, and gve me about 20 recommendations for their personal centres of Llandudno. Gerry had put me on first, but the meeting got so interesting, I stayed to the end.
The main agenda item was to go through what they'd found on a 'walkabout' of the area. I like that: Embodied knowledge in action.
The thing that struck me was just how connected they were - their solutions to the 'issues' they'd found on the walkabout involved things like the community support officer getting aglass manufacturer in the area to replace a broken window in a shelter. And sharing their knowledge of how the memorial bench system works to solve the unmaintained benches by working with the council to get them replaced at the same time as raising money for the council. They also talked of the recently restored (and in my mind one of the most beautiful buildings in Llandudno) Tram Shelter, and looking for someone to start using it. I suggested they get in touch with CALL (or maybe Helfa Gelf) - what an amazing creative space it could be.
The 'spider walk' they had arranged in Haulfre gardens was cancelled because Jenny (who I'd met on my walk with Francesca) was busy protecting the baby seal on the beach.
Two conversations I found tricky: One was about the West Shore Logo (another white rabbit - aargh) and the other was about replacing the glass in the Shelters on the shore. It was known as a 'controversial issue' and in the name of 'democracy', it went to a vote. But, (and this is the result of 25 years of facilitating discussions like this, so I appreciate others don't look at it this way!) I felt this was done before all the issues had been discussed. The vote went against it, but the woman next to me lent over and said 'well, there's no point, it's just a waste of money, it'll get broken again'. It was a classic opportunity to get below the 'positions' (opinion for or against replacement) into the area of 'interests and needs' (ie what underpins those positions) and so finding a way forward that addresses concerns.
This incredibly energetic and empowered - and inspiring - group is doing important stuff about infrastructure. But it struck me too that it was, in a way, limited to issues of appearance, benches falling into disrepair, picnic tables being sited too near toilets, rusty this and that. What about the big, systemic issues? I asked about flooding: "Oh no, we are not worried about that here - it's never flooded. Or only once, but that was to do with problems with the pipe". I asked about the homeless. "Don't talk about them here". Quite a contrast to the view expressed by Mike at the Oval.
After the meeting finished, and the the group was leaving, Chris Perkins, the community liaison officer at the meeting (who, it turns out, had both gone to school in Manchester with, and policed in Moss Side with, my brother in law - how strong are the links to NW England stilL!), told me stories that illustrated some of the attitude towards the homeless. [Yesterday, Chris took me in the police van to visit the Hope Restored initiative during one of their open mornings at the church - more of that another time!]
Chris is well respected among the homeless people I've met on this residency. "Oh yeah, he's alright" they say. He told me the closure of the caves was due to 'health and safety concerns' because the caves were' full of human excrament and used needles' and would be a danger to [non-homeless] people who went in there (later I heard it was because of butterlies and bats).
But of course, no-one who is not homeless would be going in there. All that happens is that homeless people have to sleep on the street. Chris then told me of a knife attack and rape on one homeless lad a few nights before. Awfully, it turns out it was probably Ley, who I'd met on my first day of the residency. Ley had said how unsafe he felt in his sleeping bag, and that 'at least in the caves you felt safe'. So here, a real danger, a danger in fact realised is deemed less of a danger than a very unlikely danger to a non-homeless (homeful?) person.
These are complicated issues, and I don't want to try to over simplify them, but I'd just read an article by George Monbiot, "Don't let the rich get even richer on the assets we all share" which I think starts to get to some of the underlying issues.
In the article, Monbiot argues that the central debate over whether state intervention should be minimised (and the markets given free-reign) or that state ownership and regulation should be expanded is based on a mistaken premise. "In fact", he argues, "there are four major economic sectors: the market, the state, the household and the commons. The neglect of the last two by both neoliberals and social democrats has created many of the monstrosities of our times..."
What he says next really chimed with me in terms of all i'd found out about Llandudno - the incredible 'fiefdom' (as many people have described it) of the Mostyn Estate, which still owns the vast majority of the land in and around Llandudno, secured mostly after Enclosure Act that they themselves pushed through Parliament, and the role of groups like Friends of the West Shore, and Hope Restored:
"... another great subsidy, which all of us have granted [is] the vast wealth the economic elite has accumulated at our expense, through its seizure of the fourth sector of the economy: the commons.
"That it is necessary to explain the commons testifies to their neglect (despite the best efforts of political scientists such as the late Elinor Ostrom). A commons is neither state nor market. It has three main elements. First a resource, such as land, water, minerals, scientific research, hardware or software. Second a community of people who have shared and equal rights to this resource, and organise themselves to manage it. Third the rules, systems and negotiations they develop to sustain it and allocate the benefits.
"A true commons is managed not for the accumulation of capital or profit, but for the steady production of prosperity or wellbeing. It belongs to a particular group, who might live in or beside it, or who created and sustain it. It is inalienable, which means that it should not be sold or given away. Where it is based on a living resource, such as a forest or a coral reef, the commoners have an interest in its long-term protection, rather than the short-term gain that could be made from its destruction.
The commons have been attacked by both state power and capitalism for centuries. Resources that no one invented or created, or that a large number of people created together, are stolen by those who sniff an opportunity for profit. The saying, attributed to Balzac, that “behind every great fortune lies a great crime” is generally true. “Business acumen” often amounts to discovering novel ways of grabbing other people’s work and assets.
The theft of value by people or companies who did not create it is called enclosure. Originally, it meant the seizure – supported by violence – of common land. The current model was pioneered in England, spread to Scotland, then to Ireland and the other colonies, and from there to the rest of the world. It is still happening, through the great global land grab.
Enclosure creates inequality. It produces a rentier economy: those who capture essential resources force everyone else to pay for access. It shatters communities and alienates people from their labour and their surroundings. The ecosystems commoners sustained are liquidated for cash. Inequality, rent, atomisation, alienation, environmental destruction: the loss of the commons has caused or exacerbated many of the afflictions of our age...."
"I’m not proposing we abandon either market or state, but that we balance them by defending and expanding the two neglected sectors. I believe there should be wages for carers, through which the state and private enterprise repay part of the subsidy they receive. And communities should be allowed to take back control of resources on which their prosperity depends. For example, anyone who owns valuable land should pay a local community land contribution (a form of land value tax): compensation for the wealth created by others. Part of this can be harvested by local and national government, to pay for services and to distribute money from richer communities to poorer ones. But the residue should belong to a commons trust formed by the local community. One use to which this money might be put it is to buy back land, creating a genuine commons and regaining and sharing the revenue.
A commons, unlike state spending, obliges people to work together, to sustain their resources and decide how the income should be used. It gives community life a clear focus. It depends on democracy in its truest form. It destroys inequality. It provides an incentive to protect the living world. It creates, in sum, a politics of belonging."
I don't think I've had a single conversation where the Mostyn Estate has not come up in some way or other. People feel that this 'beautiful/clean/preserved' character of Llandudno is largely down to them, and appreciate that. But they also see it as sometimes being a hidden force, perhaps going too far (eg colours of houses), sometimes keeping it 'stuck in the past', demanding too much rent, not being accountable and so on. What struck me about this meeting with the FOWS is that community initiatives like this were part of the commons, and illustrate ways in which this vast estate could perhaps start to let go some of its grip... and to pay back some of what it has taken?