Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Llandilo by any other name...

Last weekend I went to a place completely new and yet familiar to me. It was a town I grew up in, and yet I had never been there before. All of the houses and the shops and the signs filled me with nostalgia, yet the memories they brought back were based somewhere entirely different. Confused? Let me wash away the incredible shroud of mystery that is certainly encircling your mind after these Sherlock-stumping sentences and tell you: I visited Llandeilo in South Wales, and I grew up in Llandilo, New South Wales.

Much as I love unique tongue-twistery Australian towns like Woolloomooloo, Coonabarabran and Murwillumbah, I spent the first 20 odd years of my life in a tiny Welsh-named suburb best known for being on the way to somewhere else. People in neighbouring Penrith and Windsor, perhaps with a whiff of English derision, claim never to have heard of the place. I guess you’d call it a ‘one horse town’, but for the fact that horses probably outnumber people in Llandilo.

All we have is a fruit and vegetable shop, a post office, a school, a volunteer fire brigade, a fish and chip shop and a Christmas tree farm. There’s also a little church and a little hall which you can rent for your next square dance (call Maud on 7774 3287 to book (but not at 4 o’clock because she’ll be out feeding the horses then)). This sounds like rather a lot, but when you consider that footpaths in Llandilo are rarer than caterpillars wearing gumboots, and that the entire population of Llandilo can probably fit into the hall and still have room to practice their latest hula-hooping routines, that should give you a clearer indication of its size.

It’s hard to say whether it’s because Llandilo is so ‘inconsequential’ that I found this trip so thrilling, or whether I would have been excited even if my hometown was a bustling metropolis, but when I made it to Llandeilo I was grinning like a Cheshire cat who had just discovered a bowl full of mice doused in double-cream. Of course I’ve made comparisons between places I’ve visited before, but nothing like this. Absolutely everything my eyes fell upon sparkled with twin-citied enchantment: the flowers on the street became flowers I was seeing in Llandeilo, the car parked on the side of the road became a car parked in Llandeilo, the delicious wild blackberry I ate off of a bush carried far more meaning that it would have anywhere else: ‘I am eating a blackberry that grew in Llandeilo!’

Before arriving, I had already learned that, just as ‘Wales’ is pronounced differently by Welsh people (they give it two sing-songy syllables so it comes out as ‘Way-yels’), ‘Llandeilo’ is not the smooth-sounding Aussie-fied ‘Landilo’, but is pronounced with a generous injection of phlegm: ‘phllllegm-andilo’. Llandeilo in Wales is still semi-rural, but it actually has far more to its name than its Australian offspring. This meant that apart from smiling at the flowers, cars and blackberries, I could delight myself even further by noticing: Llandeilo has a bank! Llandeilo has cafés! Llandeilo has a town hall! And, bizarrely, Llandeilo has a luxurious boutique hotel?

I’m never usually one for touristy knick-knackery, but here I wanted to buy anything and everything with ‘Llandeilo’ emblazoned onto it. We went into a cookwares store (Llandeilo has a cookwares store!) and explained to the shopkeepers that I was looking for something ‘made in Llandeilo’ because I’d come all the way from the other Llandilo in New South Wales, Australia. And, would you believe it, not only had the two shopkeepers been to Llandilo in NSW, they actually got engaged there. They were British, but lived for a time in Richmond, which is just up the road from Llandilo. Unfortunately they didn’t have anything made in Llandeilo, but they did give me a bag with ‘Llandeilo’ written on it, which I filled with postcards (Llandeilo has postcards! Alright, alright. I’ll stop that now) and some other mystery gifts which will be weaving their way home very soon.

It’s a well-known fact that when British settlers arrived in Australia they deemed the place ‘terra nullius’ (empty land). They then pulled out their giant cattle-branders and stamped the newly conquered landscape with names from home: Newcastle, Liverpool, Cardiff, Blackheath, Stanmore, Ipswich, Salisbury, Stratford, Warwick, Sheffield, Penrith, Swansea, Lland(e)ilo. I’m not sure whether they chose the names because they saw an actual resemblance to the equivalent town back home, or whether it was just to quash homesickness by surrounding themselves with familiar words*. Maybe it was a mixture of both. If we take the ‘familiar words’ angle, though, I can see from my trip to Llandeilo that there is some comfort to be derived from seeing a word that you know embedded deeply into a patch of land that is not home. The view may be different, the weather may be different, there may be hotels instead of Christmas tree farms, but there is still this glorious name touching everything, and you feel strangely possessive of it and tied to it whether it is really ‘yours’ or not.

I wonder if the early settlers ever thought about the full-circle impact this ‘naming’ would have on future generations. To them, they’d always know the original town first, and its dryer, browner, less-densely-populated equivalent second. To us, the children who grew up in the dry, brown, empty namesakes, it could only ever be the other way around. Looking at the map of Australia in comparison to the map of Britain, we might even wonder why on Earth they decided to stick Swansea just down the road a bit from Newcastle…

I left Llandeilo with a little bag of stuff and enough photos to fill a bathtub. The next stop will have to be Penrith, which is where I tell everyone I’m from since no one ever knows Llandilo. I’m pretty sure the Penrith in Cumbria will have some stark differences to the Penrith in Western Sydney. When you tell someone in England you’re from Penrith they beam at you, angling to score an invite to your quaint little cottage near the Lakes District. When you tell someone from Australia you’re from Penrith, their face drops and they make all sorts of unfair assumptions about you. All those from The Riff, am I right?

*Although the politics behind this process of renaming a so-called ‘empty’ land is something that makes my heart hurt, writing about it would be another blog in itself, so I will leave it be. I will, however, remind everyone that the original inhabitants of the Australian region that became Llandilo were the Dharug people.