Rhydyfelin Festival of Literature and Laughs

On the 31st of May last year Rhydyfelin Library closed its doors for what appeared to be the last time. The village Library, which had been at the heart of the community for over 50 years, was one of 14 being shut down throughout the length and breadth of Rhondda Cynon Taf, sacrificed, along with sure-start centres, swimming pools and municipal theatres by a timid Council all too ready to inflict savage tory austerity on some of the poorest areas in Wales rather than take a principled stand against a Government of right-wing ideologues minded to dismantle the welfare state.

Despite a radical campaign of civil disobedience designed to shame the Council into re-thinking its scandalous closure programme, the residents were unable to stop the Library doors from being slammed shut on that fateful, spring afternoon. Although, some of the borrowers, even then, refused to go gentle into that good night, chaining themselves to the bookshelves in one final act of defiance.

And that’s where the story ends, at least for the forgotten Libraries of Treherbert, Ton-Pentre, Penygraig, Ynyshir, Cwmbach, Penrhiwceiber, Ynysybwl, Cilfynydd, Tonyrefail, Nantgarw, Beddau and Maerdy. Buildings that once echoed with the laughter of children and the voices of poets and storytellers, that dished out local knowledge and life-long learning at the drop of a hat, that organised coffee mornings once a month for Macmillan and the gathering of the clans for knitting, keep-fit and, of course, book club every single day of the week were lost forever. The successful implementation of RCT’s Library closure programme – or book burning on an industrial scale, as I prefer to call it, was now the law of the land.

You will have spotted, I’m sure, the sole Library missing from the heinous hit-list above. The Rhydyfelin Library Support Group, formed in the heat of battle, had recruited a dedicated army of members who would not countenance defeat. They were playing a long game – the small matter of the Library being boarded up wasn’t going to deter those who knew that Albert Einstein was at his wisest when proclaiming “The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.”

A judicial review was sought and won amid scenes of jubilant celebration at Newport Crown Court, a decision respected by new Council Leader Andrew Morgan, who brought a more enlightened approach to negotiations with RLSG than previous incumbents of his office. Throughout the struggle, as befits a movement to save Public Libraries, language was central to the success of the campaign – whether in the moving testimonies of borrowers who wrote with sadness and fury to the Pontypridd Observer or in the poetry of local school children inspired, no doubt, by the unimpeachable example of Mike Church (one of the ‘felin four’ who had chained themselves beneath the Mills and Boon). It was Church who gave voice to the anger and defiance of a community trying to save itself from the scrapheap with his poem “Upper Cuts” which fast became the “anthem” of the campaign.

It was Church, too, who helped mastermind and curate the inaugural Rhydyfelin Library Festival of Literature and Laughs last October and last night’s even more successful follow up.

Rhydyfelin Community Centre (the Library’s temporary home) was packed to the rafters for a joyous celebration of poetry, comedy and song compared by Mike Church himself. Saxophonist Hannah Morris accompanied the audience to their seats before local favourite Paul Rosser (of Watermelons fame) kicked off proceedings with a fiery set of folk-rock, the highlights of which were his heart-wrenching cover of Steve Earle’s “The Mountain” and a memorable composition of his own “Walking on Thin Ice”. Church filled in the gaps between performances with readings from his latest collection Free Running with Words. His opening poem “Migration Blues” sees the poet take a self-deprecating swipe at himself as a ‘legal alien – an Englishman in Nantgarw… unwelcome in the rucks and mauls’, whilst making a wider point about adopting a more humane approach to the plight of asylum seekers. “Love Poem” and “Know All” got laughs in all the right places too and, of course, “Upper Cuts” was bound to receive the biggest cheer of the night.

Fellow poet Clare Potter, winner of the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry, delivered an innovative, alternative group of poems that took the audience outside of their comfort zone, before bilingual singer/songwriter Aled Rheon sang a beautiful sequence of songs, the pick of which were “Wrap up Warm” and one of my favourite songs of 2015, or any other year for that matter, the wistful ballad “September”. Rheon is currently touring with the prestigious BBC Horizons project and has a new album ready for release which, on tonight’s evidence, should be an essential purchase. Madcap ukulele player Jeff Japers brought the first half to a close and nearly brought the house down in the process with a brace of riotously funny songs. If his tour de force “I Love Lemonade” had been around at the time of prohibition America would still be teetotal today!

The second half began with Hannah Morris switching to the flute for a rapturously received selection of songs from musical theatre, including “Music of the Night” and “On My Own”. Matthew Frederick pianist and vocalist with one of Wales’ most critically admired bands, Pontypridd’s Climbing Trees, then took centre stage to play a handful of tracks taken from his successful solo album Live at Long Row. The standout song, for me, was the yearning ballard “Venus and Mars”, still my favourite Frederick number, although the bluesy workouts “My Woman” and “Parking Ticket Blues” went over particularly well on the night too. With a second Climbing Trees album all but done and dusted and a clutch of classic ballads written with gifted singer/songwriter Jodie Marie under his belt, there’s every indication that 2016 could prove to be a very significant year indeed for the multi-talented musician. Jeff Japers returned to prolonged applause to bring a wonderful, feel-good evening to an uproarious close with two more screwball songs “Tigers and Bees” and “Bonfire Night”.

When the definitive history of Rhydyfelin is written there will undoubtedly be a chapter devoted to the Save The Library campaign that put this little village on the front pages of the South Wales Echo and at the top of news bulletins in the Principality throughout 2014, and perhaps there will be a chapter, too, on the success of the Festival of Literature and Laughs and of those ordinary citizens who linked arms in defence of their culture and their community. The residents of Rhydyfelin owe them all a great debt.

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