Friday 14 June 2013

Location North Wales

I am a man of mixed loyalties when it comes to nationality. I live in Wales and love living here. My Grandmother spent most of my life living here and we came to visit her. I played rugby here and drank my first beer in the pub under age with great friends. My wife is Irish and I was born and grew up in Liverpool. I have travelled all over the world and for a time lived in the Far East. The place I have always missed and come back to is the beautiful Ynys Mon, the Island of Anglesey connected by two bridges to the North Wales Coast.
In an effort to survive living in North Wales, where there are very few jobs I bought a hotel business in Wales’ most northern village and expected an “idyllic” life. I had been a dynamic high living sales director and now I was going to be a successful hotelier. We did win awards and grew the business but in the end I was ground down by the hard slog of the constant worry about so many woes. Guests, chefs, local eejits, tripadvisor reviews, uncertainty over the local economy and record breakingly bad summers. By my fourth and final summer at the hotel all the enjoyment of my location had been leeched out of me.

That is until a regular guest, who visited the local nuclear power plant and kept telling me about how great Cornwall, said he had never seen further than the hotel bar and the inside of the plant. The gauntlet had been thrown down and I spent a pleasant evening escaping from my chores and driving this guy around Anglesey and showing him the best bits. He was shocked and impressed at the stunning beauty and the quality and location of the restaurant (The Ship Inn in Red Wharf Bay) I took him to. There were still comparisons with Cornwall but for that evening I played the proud host showing off my home.  It was then that I realised how much I loved this beautiful area.

Early on in the hotel I made the mistake of becoming involved in the bigger picture. An American friend told me on my travels that “if you don’t like the world you live in then change it!” So I became involved in projects that I thought would change the world I lived in. I had great business experience, I had made money and at my first tourism meeting I argued with a guy who tried to tell me how he should run my website. My company had run seven websites but he insisted he knew better than me and was messianic about his own project. At the end of the heated discussion another hotelier told me that he had agreed with me, as did others. I had brought a confrontational perhaps arrogant style to my new supposedly more laid back life. With other like-minded incomers who had invested in Tourism businesses we were going to shake up the cosy world of manana, rural indolence and self satisfied smugness that we had walked into.

I became a Director and then Vice Chairman of the Anglesey Tourism Association. I sat as an adviser on a body for social economic development and was Chairman of the local town community enterprise. Yet in all the bustle to develop my business I had lost sight of the very reason that I wanted to live here. It is a beautiful life-enhancing place and I wasn’t enjoying it.

A young customer in my pub, just 18, said when he first met me asked “why have you come here its shit?” and full of gusto I replied that “When you’ve travelled around the  World as much as I have then you appreciate a place like this.” He didn’t believe me then and as I watched him grow up with few prospects and some stupid friends who dragged him back to their level he perhaps never will realise that. He was going to join the army as his way out, get training, self discipline, self respect and a paid job. Then he punched a wall in a drunken rage one night and had a metal plate implanted into his wrist, which was the end of his army hopes. The fantasy author Terry Pratchett used an analogy in his novel “Unseen Academicals” about the crab bucket and how a bucket full of crabs doesn’t need a lid because if one tries to climb the side then another one will pull it back down. Living in a small town where one of the only local products is Crab and Lobster there is a certain truth about the crab bucket.
I was told that shellfish grow bigger close to the warm water outlet from the Nuclear Power plants but I never saw any that glowed in the dark or had three Claws, but they wouldn’t be caught I suppose, but that is another analogy to dwell on.

There is huge hope for North Wales. In my role with the Tourism Association I was asked to support a business seminar at Holyhead Comprehensive for fourteen and fifteen year olds. One Friday morning I went into the gym hall and the organiser thanked me for coming and introduced me as a local businessman to the eighty or so young adults in the hall. You have never seen such a bunch of uninterested students in your life. The aim of the day was to give the ten groups of eight pupils a couple of hours to come up with a Tourism business idea. The lady teacher organising it was explaining the project and kept saying “be quiet children!” which they were largely ignoring, as I would probably have done myself.

The Thursday night I had been working behind the bar at a Karaoke night, stopped a fight in the car park and had not had much sleep, plus I have never been very good with teachers so I was becoming frustrated. When it came to my turn then I decided to try something different and pulled out a £20 note out of my pocket. “Business should be fun and it should be rewarding” I said. “The group that gives the best presentation will get this money” This focussed the hall’s attention and I was quite pleased with myself. In the next hour I went round the different tables as they discussed their project. One table of boys were not really interested and I asked them what they liked to do that would interest them “Eat Kebabs” came back one reply. “Well open up a kebab shop then”. “Can I do Chilli sauce kebabs”. “You can if you like, its your business, sell what you want.” This started a discussion of gut exploding concoctions for the kebab aficionados. Another boy said “why should I bother, I will never get a job” and another said “why should I bother all my stuff will be nicked” which I found indescribably sad from such young lads who had given up on life already. It humbled me to be in such a privileged position to own my own business and be healthy and happily married.

The groups had access to computers and the internet and at the end of the two hours we were given presentations. Creating any entrepreneurial business idea is not easy and the groups coped well enough. A kebab van with lots of Chilli sauce on the menu by a beach was one idea. The reopening of the town’s fruit and veg market as a youth centre was another fabulous concept. The winners of my £20 were a group of girls who did a full powerpoint presentation with financial project and a marketing plan for an eco-friendly holiday village to attract tourists and well paid jobs for the locals. It was a stunning idea and I should have shouted praises about their intelligence, enthusiasm and creativity from the highest rooftop to all that would listen in the council and local media. To my shame and regret I went back to my hotel and was bogged down in the day to day running of the place and by the time I thought more about it the relevance had passed. It would have taken me just half an hour to write a public relations piece to send to the papers but I probably poured a pint for a thirsty fisherman, or plumber, or nuclear power station worker. Out of all the money I lost in my lifestyle choice adventure not congratulating those kids in the papers was perhaps my biggest mistake.

So I escaped the hotel and lost money. Pretty much every idea I had on Anglesey lost money and between ourselves, my wife and I call a bad financial idea an “Anglesey Investment”. In the end it was perhaps a good job that I didn’t go ahead with my grand plans of opening a second or third venue. Or for that matter the seaweed baths that I had seen in County Sligo and thought would be great for a tourism attraction on Anglesey. I spoke to the Bangor University people who knew about seaweed and I learned a lot about thalassotherapy. In a meeting a Welsh Government affiliated business adviser thought it was a good idea but would perhaps be better located nearer to the bridge. I looked at him twice and wanted to scream but said calmly that “that maybe so, but I have a hotel that I want to attract visitors to”. Admittedly to be fair (Chwara Teg) that hotel was as far from the bridge as it is possible to be on the island so perhaps he had a point.

Now I have time to enjoy the beaches and cliff walks and my Anglesey born dog moans if he doesn’t have a run a couple of times a day. I was told that although I was experienced and talented I was probably unemployable, which was true. Soon after leaving the hotel a job came up for a business and tourism development officer for Anglesey council. For a whole thirty minutes I considered applying just for the hell of it. But although I am trying to learn, I didn’t speak fluent Welsh and I would probably get into trouble with my bosses and so I let the job go unapplied for.  Or did I chicken out and not put my money where my mouth is. Perhaps the struggling council would have been open to my brand of marketing and promotion. Could I have done as good a job as a paid official? Would I have tried to understand the constraints of official responsibility rather than being a mouthy maverick answerable to nobody but myself? Now there is an uncomfortable introspection.

Instead of a sensible mature, properly well paid job I went back on the doors as a bouncer and the part time job has allowed me to write and given me great material as a writer. When I check ages for people coming into the nightclub I know, which villages and towns have feuds and don’t get along. It often comes down to cousins and who treated whose cousin badly. Welsh families have a lot of cousins. Many years ago in a much earlier incarnation as a bouncer I stopped a fight in a Welsh nightclub. It was a young farmer’s night and it turned out the brawl had been over which village’s bull had won that year’s top prize at the Anglesey Show. There was bound to be a cousin involved somewhere.

In my job standing on doors I speak enough Welsh and understand a bit more to pass inspection. If England are playing Wales at the rugby then I play on my wife’s Irish accent and denounce my English heritage. It is normally good natured banter but many years ago I saw the St George’s cross burnt and it is a sad fact that the arrogance of the ignorant is everywhere. At the hotel two drunken and aggressive Scousers from my own city wanted to come into the bar and I refused them entrance. They called me for everything but I barred their way. Some of the local lads took great offence and became protective of me. The scousers called us all “sheep shaggers” and “Welsh bastards”. They threatened and provoked violence. It was returned by one of the best flying punches I have ever seen and they were taken away by the police in tears. I knew that they wouldn’t understand the irony that these proud Welsh lads would not go into the middle of Cantrill Farm, Kirby or Toxteth and shout “Come on you Scouse bastards!” As I said there is ignorance everywhere, sometimes the wider view needs to be appreciated. Outside a pub where I was working the door a stupid little Welsh lad called me a “Sais C***”, which I didn’t react to. When he then spat at me for the third time I put him on his backside and notified the police of his disgusting habit being a physical assault rather than his ignorant racism. It would have been the same if I were a Liverpudlian Bouncer in Manchester or a Protestant one in a Catholic area of Glasgow. Ignorance is everywhere. 

The Welsh are a proud literary nation and I am writer living in Wales rather than a Welsh writer. One of these days I will go on a proper course to learn the language and be able to hold a full conversation. For the moment I get by on “Dwyn Dysgu Cymraeg” (that I am learning Welsh), which is universally replied to with an appreciative “Di’Iawn” (that’s great!). Lets face the facts, its not all that great. I have been coming here all my life and a handful of words in the native language of good friends who speak Welsh fluently is rather ignorant.

An Irish friend of my wife came to visit recently and remarked how lovely it was to hear Welsh used in normal daily conversation. Both girls were taught As Gaelige at school in Dublin and are rusty in their own native language. My wife only uses words like Gombeen or Omadon to me when I am doing something uncommonly thick (like buying a hotel in Wales). Yet the Irish are more self assured in their independence and nationhood. Wales has just as proud a history going back to the days of Llewellyn the Great and Queen Siwan and hold the true heritage of Ancient Britain. Ynys Mon was the base for resistance against the invading Roman Legions. How cool is that? With politicians, writers, actors and singers this country has long fought above its weight in terms of international influence.

These are hugely interesting times ahead for Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England, the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. It is a great time to be a writer with so many themes to explore. An independent Wales anybody? My only comment is to be careful what you wish for? Politicians of all Nationalities want power and I am wary of their reasons. I fear the smugness of the politicians as much as the process itself.
The hero of my Facts of Life books Dan Richards was conceived in Wales of proud Welsh ancestry, but born and raised in a nameless English city. He fought in the British Armed Forces and saw action around the World. When he was wounded he returned to the land of his grandfather and become part of a rural coastal community where he has found a Croeso Cynnes Cymraeg (a warm welsh welcome). In his story he is shown the best of family life and sees the worst of peoples’ characters either in North Wales or in a hot war zone. His relationship with his Welsh girlfriend is passionate, rewarding and fiery.

Dan Richards journey of adventure reflects my own love of Wales and the characters, places and attitudes that I have come across. There is provincial small mindedness and ignorance but there is also warmth, generosity, humour and intelligence. Apart from the rugged beauty of her mountains, coast and countryside, Wales has much to be proud of in its people. I just wish sometimes they would believe in themselves some more. 

Cymru Am Byth! 
Iechyd’da (Cheers)

JR Sheridan (18/04/2012)
By the way, now that I have no money left to “invest” on Anglesey, I live and write in Gwynedd. Its closer to the shops.

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