Brighton Fringe 2015
When I came out of ‘Hard Graft’, another audience member asked me what I thought about it. "I wish I’d gone to see my mother more often", I replied, sadly
"Me, too" he sighed, and as we left The Marlborough to go our separate ways there was a shared regret that seemed to act like a faint but tangible connection between us.
Something in common – a sense that we were both part of families, both a part of something bigger than just ourselves. A web of ancestors stretching back generations, giving us our roots – our identity.
That’s what David Sheppeard’s show is about. David is one of the people running The Marlborough Theatre – he’s an artist living and working in the sophisticated metropolitan environment of Brighton and London. He’s a gay man of thirty, involved in theatre in general but with a particular interest in putting on LGBT themed work. The Marlborough itself is just round the corner from KempTown, Brighton’s gay quarter. As David said at one point, he lives in a ‘queer-bubble’.
He’s impeccably middle class, too. Not necessarily well-off (who is; in fringe theatre?), but he’s university-educated, he’s cultured and well-read and he’s his own boss, working on his own creative and artistic projects.
But that’s the present moment. That’s like the single snapshot as opposed to the ten minute video. One gives us a single instant of existence, while the other hopefully provides relevant information and context. David wants to know more about his background, his ancestry, his roots. And like many men, right back to the time of Homer, with Telemachus the son wanting news of the absent Odysseus, David wants to know more about his father.
It seems that David has trouble communicating with his father – the man is in his early seventies now, and not given to opening up emotionally to his son. Like many retired men, though, he’s been researching his family tree on Google, and he’s passed on the facts to David. He’d been brought up in a small mining village in the Welsh valleys, and David told us that when his father learned of David’s interest in the whole South Wales connection, he’d assumed that David wanted to do a production – "about coal-mining from a gay perspective"
A lot of laughter at that line. Sheppeard can be very funny when he wants to be, and there were outbursts of hilarity from the audience throughout the performance. He’s quite tall, and he did the one-man show almost as a stand-up routine; on his feet at the front of the stage while he talked, or sitting on the front edge, and occasionally making use of a spotlit microphone at the side. Apart from that, the black stage at The Marlborough was empty – except for a pair of railway seats, the two mounted side by side like in a carriage, at the rear of the space.
That’s the train that David took to get to South Wales. Sitting in his seat, over a soft background sound of train noise, he told us that on the journey he kept Grindr open on his phone, checking out the profiles of gay men nearby. Nearby, but not on the train. Men in the anonymous towns and villages that the train flashed through as it sped its way to Cardiff.
A striking image of alienation, but not as alienating as when David got to Ynysybwl, the little village north of Pontypridd, which is north of Cardiff. Here, many of the locals are fat, and a lot of the men have facial tattoos. They’re very definitely working-class, except that many of them aren’t working because the mine closed years ago, and the industry and the jobs have left the village for good. He’d had to get there by bus because the Taff Vale railway closed in the 1980s, along with the pit. David told us that he felt a very long way from the safety of his comfortable middle-class metropolitan ‘queer-bubble’.
But he’s searching for his roots. The first Sheppeards arrived in the valley in the 1880s, illiterate farmers from Devon looking for work in the booming coal industry, specifically in the newly opened Lady Windsor colliery at Ynysybwl. David told us that because they couldn’t write, their name was recorded in various spellings and Sheppeard is how the mix finally turned out. His great-grandfather William (David said "my father’s father’s father" – which conveyed the time span much better) worked underground in the pit, in charge of the explosives used for blasting open the coal seams.
I lied earlier – (I was trying to set the scene for David’s train journey). The stage wasn’t completely empty, there was a large sheet of white paper with concentric curving lines drawn on it. It appeared to be a contour map of the Rhondda Valley, with the river running through the middle and the hills rising on either side. Lying flat on the stage, but with a video image projected onto the back wall where we could see it easily. When he told us of his ancestors arriving in the valley, David laid his forearm on the paper, drawing the outline of his hand over the contour lines. "We were here" – I was reminded of the hand prints of Australian Aborigines, painted on rock, often in outline like this. "We were here".
William’s son, David’s grandfather, also worked at the Lady Windsor pit; but above ground, and later in the mine offices – "wearing a shirt and a tie". Eventually he was in charge of the miners’ pay. Moving up the social scale by virtue of his intelligence.
His son William, David’s father, was born in 1943. He took the eleven plus examination and got into the local Grammar School in Pontypridd. William never worked at the pit – his father forbade him, and after school he left Ynysybwl, along with his siblings, and never went back.
David Sheppeard added things to the contour map, using it rather like the Chorus in a Greek play, commenting on the action. While describing the closing of the mines, and the demise of the South Wales steel industry in the 1990s, he’d placed an arrangement of rusting metal slabs and bolts on it, to form the shape of a hand. It looked like the hand of a robot, dumped on a rubbish tip – and when you remember that the word ‘robot’ actually means ‘worker’ in Czech … Karel Čapek used it in his play ‘RUR’ (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the image is incredibly apt. Thousands upon thousands of industrial workers thrown on to the scrapheap and left to rot.
David’s father escaped from the mining valleys – but as David asks himself – "My dad comes from working-class people like this. How does he look at me?" As an artist, hopefully, but also as a gay man who probably won’t have children. Like the Taff Vale Railway serving the colliery before it was closed – the line ends here.
Sheppeard added more objects to the map, to illustrate these facts. Their symbolism brought a lump to my throat, which turned to misty eyes as the soundtrack brought up the Welsh National Anthem, beautifully sung by Shirley Bassey – who was of course born in Cardiff. Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau … Land Of My Fathers
Fathers and sons. ‘Land Of My Fathers’ was composed in 1865 by Evan James and his son James James, who lived … in Pontypridd, a couple of miles south of Ynysybwl.
‘Hard Graft’ is a beautifully conceived production – very funny in parts, but with an underlying sadness for things lost that can never be regained. Families move up the social scale, ‘escaping’ their working-class origins – David told us that he is ‘native’ middle class – and yet they lose that solidarity and sense of community that once underpinned the industrial heartlands.
That’s the story of Britain as a whole. When the Lady Windsor mine was operating at its peak around the beginning of the last century it was providing high-grade steam coal to power the battleships of the Royal Navy, and the great transatlantic liners of the Cunard company. That’s all passed now – along with the enormous amounts of exploitation and injustice necessary to sustain the British Empire, certainly – but somehow we’ve been left with … nothing. No direction.
David told us that the Thatcher government in the Eighties not only closed the pits, they wanted to take down the surface towers and winding gear too, so that there would be no symbol left of what had gone before. The working class in Pontypridd today can look forward only to a zero-hours contract somewhere.
Interesting that David Sheppeard’s show is presented at the same year as an election largely influenced by a UKIP agenda. Though probably not a coincidence – Sheppeard has the artistic antennae to sense the zeitgeist. My feeing is that that what UKIP supporters want most is to go back to that comfortable time when Britain was all-powerful, all-important, and ‘the sun never set on the Empire’. They can sense that they’ve lost their identity – that special feeling of being ’British’ – and they want to regain it somehow. They are seeking that nursery dream of childhood.
They are looking for their lost fathers.