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Sun, si and Estelladas: The grassroots campaign for Catalonia

After staging their third million-plus national day demonstration in as many years in Barcelona on Thursday, the Catalan people are gaining a reputation as the masters of spectacular political gestures. 

Waving Welsh flags with friends among a crowd equal to a quarter of the country’s population it was impossible to sense the full scale of the event. 

Only afterwards was it clear that people who formed a huge ‘V for vote’ in the colours of the Catalan flag had created history with one of Europe’s largest ever demonstrations. 

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National day demonstration: Photo from Assemblea.cat 

Witnessing the grassroots revolution in the build up was even more impressive. 

The politics of independence (and its art) is inescapable. 

It’s daubed on walls, flying from balconies and printed on t-shirts, scarfs and stickers. 

After arriving in Barcelona’s bustling Raval district a few days before the demo, we set off to find food. 

But before finding anywhere offering the staple “bravas amb Estrella” we had stumbled across a shop with a queue out the door and a Saltire in the window. 

Catalonia is not a country of queuers. So I asked one man with his son what they were waiting impatiently to get their hands on. “T-shirts for the demonstration,” he replied. 

That queue remained steady right up until the big day. 

Julia was among enthusiastic young volunteers at the shop helping to meet the insatiable demand for merchandise bearing the Estellada independence flag design. 

Her motivation for spending the last days of summer behind the till were: “Political and emotional too - for the language and the culture.”

Interview with Julia

She told me people of all ages passed through as September 11 approached - including a 90-year-old man determined to play his part. 

“He couldn’t go to the demonstration with a lot of people but wanted to have a t-shirt and help the campaign,” she said. 

There was barely enough locals in town to form a queue when we arrived in Berga during the midday sun a couple of days later on our way to Andorra for the Wales football match. 

Instead the clamour for a Catalan state is made clear by huge murals that welcome visitors escaping from the endless and expensive toll roads. 

Proclaiming the causes of socialism and feminism alongside independence, the message is at odds with the politics of the town’s centre-right nationalist mayor and reflect the broad nature of the movement. 

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Mural in Berga

Our stay in Andorra was supposed to provide a break from the politics. 

But even there we were confronted with a 400-strong demonstration for Catalan independence on our short walk across the micro-states’s capital to its new football stadium. 

As it turned out, that wasn’t the biggest surprise of the night. Thank god for Gareth Bale. 

I stopped being surprised at the sporadic declarations of statehood when, taking a break from the drive back to Barcelona, we got lost among Manresa’s winding streets and emerged into a town square covered in Catalanist flags and placards.

We ate at the cafe in the square and watched preparations being made for a midnight march - one of half a dozen being held to see in the national day. 

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Outside Manresa town hall

Every town we drove through and past on our radical road trip was awash with the same red, yellow and blue banner. 

By the end of our trip, the most notable thing about the political landscape was the lack of visible support to stay within Spain. 

With the Madrid government refusing to recognise the referendum scheduled for November 9, the unionist campaign’s most effective weapon appears to be their apathy for the vote.

Supporters believe the biggest statement they can make is to put up no placards, fly no flags and abstain altogether on polling day.

But there may not even be a ballot if Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy uses his powers to deny Catalonia democracy. 

And that’s why millions of people will keep painting murals, keep shunning to sun to volunteer in shops and keep holding huge demonstrations.

A man’s summer in Wales

I’m not gonna lie, I did not plan to spend the first week of August in Wales.

My holiday at home was the result of what I’m calling “unforseen circumstances”.

But with a week’s leave to burn, I set off determined to discover what I had been missing out on since moving to London and I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s the five things I re-discovered about Wales…

Cardiff is once again home to the shell suit

After wasting dozens of Sunday afternoons wandering around Spitalfields, heading straight to Cardiff’s own pop-up market was perhaps least imaginative first step on my journey of cultural rediscovery I could have taken.

Although the Welsh incarnation was smaller - if London has a fully hipster beard, Cardiff has a slug of top lip stubble - all the visual indicators needed to furnish the life of a socially aspirant youth could be found for sale.

Battered XXL Barbour jacket. Check. Moth-eaten cold war issue shell suit. Check. Luminous orange string crop top. Check.

I dodged a gang of hola-hooping children and beat a retreat down Womanby Street for a more traditional stroll through Bute Park.

One does not just get a bus in Wales

With my sights now set on Wales’s natural beauty spots, I set off for a family day out to Southerndown with my sis and cousin.

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We declined the offer of a lift. “It’ll be nice to take in the countryside on the way,” we agreed.

An hour’s wait at the bus stop and a panicked phone call to the company later and we’re on the way.

On the way, until that is, drive declares he’ll be late for the reverse journey unless he turns around now. Faced with the prospect of being abandoned at a hut-come-bus-stop in a remote village, a pensioners revolt ensued.

Good manners soon gave way to middle class heckling. “We’ll never get to M&S at this rate,” crowed one retired radical.

After facilitating negotiations between drive and his bosses (his phone had no signal and I had their direct line from earlier) we finally arrived at sunny Southerdown almost two hours later than planned.

But you can get a tan

We stomped grumpily down the slope to discover the tide had swallowed up the beach long before our belated arrival.

Only sandwiches, squash and a long lie down could now save our once idylic day out.

With no sand in sight, I splayed myself like a seal on the flattest rock I could find and drifted off to the sound of waves.

The result - less tan, more minor burns - only became clear to me later at the pub, where I spent the evening covering my face like a blushing geisha.

The Eisteddfod is a national fresher’s fayre

It may look like a cultural festival if you’re watching on S4C from an arm chair but it’s pretty difficult to distinguish from a raucous uni fresher’s fayre if you’re down on the Maes.

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Dozens of stalls staffed by people hoping to slap a sticker on you, ply you with booze and, if possible, take a few quid off you. It’s enough to make you snog a stranger.

The free tipple on this occasion came courtesy of the Chubut Government…and with the kick of a wild Patagonian horse.

That and few more cwrws brought some of the Welsh I learned before disappearing over the border flooding back.

The evening ended, in true Welsh student style, with a tuneless rendition of Mae Hen Gwlad Fy Nhadau on the way to find a taxi in the rain.

Omlettes are a Welsh delicacy…

“Would you like an omlette?”

The offer famously fired at Nessa by Gwen in Gavin and Stacey is the very same my nan made to me most lunchtimes. I suspect me and Nessa are not the only ones.

Yes is always the answer. They are “immense.”

Newspaper offices are embassies and there will be consequences for abandoning them

Whenever I arrive home - and I mean proper home in Wales - I’m welcomed with two things.

First, my nan hands me a cuppa (I ask for milk, no sugar but a sprinkling has been known to sneak in) and then our local newspaper, the Penarth Times.

This weekend was no different.

After too many weeks stuck in London by awkward shift patterns, a flick through the paper is a crash course in local gossip. 

Useful if you want to avoid being told: “You’ve changed.”

Who’s done good, who’s furious about what and who, as was revealed in this week’s edition, has been crowbarring the tops off picnic tables.

But my interest in the paper is also personal.

It was at the Penarth Times that I first learned to write an intro…and make tea. 

Back in 2007, I spent the summer decoding and then typing-up handwritten letters, community notices or bowls reports as an editorial assistant. 

It doesn’t sound much but just being in our small but busy newsroom gave me a buzz and when I was sent out to write my own stories, I learned a lot by seeing them hacked apart and put back together. 

So I was pleased to read this week’s gripping splash about a dramatic sea rescue, speeding through the article before turing to page 2 where I was met with this headline: “Penarth Times office on the move.”

A brief article informed me that both the Penarth Times and its sister paper the Barry and District News - covering Wales’s largest town - will now be produced in Newport.

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Photo by Ben Salter

"We hope our readers and advertisers will understand the reason for our move, which in these hard economic times, will not come as a surprise to those in business across the Vale of Glamorgan," it read.

I’ve actually never seen Penarth business doing better after a period when the high street seemed capable only of sustaining charity shops.

Penarth and Barry are not though the only communities being shortchanged to ensure Newsquest’s US-based parent company, Gannett, can stuff the pockets of its shareholders.

“Local” papers serving England’s midlands and south west are already produced in Newport.

Now, in the most geographically mind boggling move yet, Bradford, York and Darlington titles will be designed and edited in the “little hub of horrors.”

Despite the best efforts of dedicated journalists, any paper run to squeeze maximum profit from minimum input will leak readers as a result of fewer scoops and more mistakes made through a lack of local nous. 

Community newspaper offices are like embassies and abandoning them will have diplomatic consequences.

A steady stream of people would flow through the doors of the Penarth Times to alert us to stories, offer their own articles and handover much needed advertising cash during my few months there. 

And yes, we had regular visits from local characters who the receptionist would entertain for a while before ushering back through the doors.

She was the face of the paper to many people and just as important as the reporters in keeping it at the heart of the town.

Those personal relationships helped the Penarth Times not only survive but thrive as the digital age dawned, registering an 8 per cent circulation spike between 1999 and 2007.

That didn’t stop Newsquest shutting the paper’s office in 2009 and shunting reporters and receptionists alike to Barry.

Five years later and that community base is too much for the company’s bottom line to bare.

What’s being done about this?

Too much hand-wringing, according to Welsh political reporter and National Union of Journalists (NUJ) rep Martin Shipton.

There are already a few examples of journalists taking action and establishing alternative local media with varying results.

I contributed a couple of articles to the Port Talbot MagNet during my time as a student in Swansea. 

The MagNet was set up as a community co-operative by NUJ members when the town’s weekly newspaper was closed in 2009. 

Their dedication has seen it grow steadily into a dependable online news service rooted in its readers’ interests, which also now appears in a monthly print edition. 

In London, aided by thousands more potential readers and advertisers, punchy independent papers like the Camden New Journal are usurping company owned titles by putting quality above profit.

Most journalists remain on the frontline in the fight to save their jobs at threatened local newspapers - needed now more than ever as people suffer cuts out of sight and out of mind of the Westminster bubble.

All of them need support.

From fellow journalists and MPs on the picket lines, yes, but crucially from readers.

Whether they’re in Bradford, Gloucester, Newport or Penarth, only when readers join journalists in demanding better from newspaper bosses or backing alternatives will they get the local media they deserve. 

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