I grew up in Cwmbran, and somehow managed not to notice what a weird place it was until I left.
A New Town designated in 1949, Cwmbran has a startling artificiality, a visible constructedness. It’s not just the rows of near-identical houses, but the way each area has its designated block of local shops and family-friendly pub; the roads, so clearly designed for single-car households; and the blocky regularity and concrete murals of the town centre, an example of sixties architecture so perfect students are still sent to examine it today.
We writers love to think of cities and towns as living things, reading an illusion of organic growth into the accreted layers of their material history—but a New Town makes no pretence of being natural. It’s a created habitat for humans. When I was a kid, Cwmbran’s town centre turned abruptly to an echoing ghost town on the dot of five thirty, and a trip to the local cinema after dark involved a disconcerting walk down empty, echoing walkways between darkened shopfronts. If you wanted to see a band or a play, go to a club, look at some art, or even browse an independent shop, you hopped on a bus to Newport or Cardiff, because a New Town left no room for the rebellious, culture-driving parts of a society to grow through its cracks.
But there was an artist in the shopping centre. I don’t remember what the artist looked like, or even what gender they were, but I remember being childishly fascinated by the animals and portraits they drew and the chalk colours that seemed to glow with otherworldly light. Their drawings were a bright, brilliant incongruity in the New Town’s concrete heart.
So, years later, when I decided to write a story about art as rebellion made flesh, it was those vibrant chalks that came to mind. “We Speak in Tongues of Flame” is about a lot of other things, of course—language and identity, and the things you do to survive—but it’s also about those strange and beautiful images, in the middle of a town that wasn’t built for them.
JL George lives in Cardiff, Wales and writes weird and speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in Constellary Tales, New Welsh Reader, Electric Spec, and various anthologies. Her novelette ‘The Word’ was a winner of the New Welsh Writing Awards in 2019 and will be published by New Welsh Rarebyte later this year. In her other lives, she’s a library-monkey and an academic interested in literature and science and the Gothic. You can find her on Twitter at @jlgeorgewrites.
You can read JL George’s story, We Speak in Tongues of Flame, in our first issue.