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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Top 10 books about Welsh identity | Wales

In 1997 Wales voted in favour of devolution by a margin of 50.3%, one of the narrowest victories in British electoral history. Two areas in the country that carried the yes vote were Carmarthenshire and the south Wales valleys, both locations with their own recognisable identities. Carmarthen was the first constituency in Wales to elect a Plaid Cymru MP, the party’s leader Gwynfor Evans, in 1966. Many of the county’s inhabitants regarded Carmarthenshire as part of Y Fro Cymraeg, the Welsh-speaking heartland. The valleys, with its historical tradition of workers’ institutes and mutualism was no less a heartland, one where English was spoken more frequently than the Welsh language, Cymraeg. In each instance a place strongly associated with a distinct form of Welshness voted in favour of devolution.

My history of Wales, Brittle With Relics, concludes with the vote in favour of devolution and begins 35 years earlier, with a radio speech that warned Cymraeg would become extinct unless some form of radical, extra-parliamentary action was undertaken. It examines the tensions and arguments within Wales over what constituted Welsh identity during the period and the manner in which these arguments were buffeted by economic and political forces beyond the country’s control.

Today in Wales we are again engaged in an involved conversation about our future. It is a conversation we are finally having on something approaching our own terms. The following books helped me understand how we might distinguish a Welsh form of self-determination. They would all generously oil the wheels of our current national debate.

1. Poems by Lynette Roberts (1944)
Of Welsh descent, Roberts was born in Argentina and settled in the village of Llanybri at the age of 30. The years spent away from the country enabled Roberts to write poems steeped in Wales’s language and landscape, while imagining a new form of Welsh identity. Poem from Llanbryni was written in the style of the Welsh invitational poem to her fellow poet Alun Lewis, then serving and shortly to die in Burma. It describes the meal she will cook for Lewis using ingredients taken from the hedgerow and her garden:

“At noon-day
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl
Served with a ‘lover’s’ spoon and a chopped spray
Of leeks or savori fach, not used now”

Later in the poem, Roberts suggests she and Lewis should conclude their day by raising “our heritage”. It is a heritage composed equally of simple food and a national character that, Roberts implies, is hers and Lewis’s to determine.

RS Thomas in 1964.
Flint-eyed … RS Thomas in 1964. Photograph: Jane Bown/the Observer

2. An Acre of Land by RS Thomas (1952)
The title of Brittle With Relics is taken from Thomas’s Welsh Landscape, which begins with the much-quoted lines:

“To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky.”

Thomas’s greatest gift to Wales was this flint-eyed rejection of the self-deprecation with which the Welsh are still caricatured, in favour of an austere stoicism. As he writes in Welsh History:

“We were a people, and are so yet.
When we have finished quarrelling for crumbs
Under the table, or gnawing the bones
Of a dead culture, we will arise
And greet each other in a new dawn.”

3. The Small Mine by Menna Gallie (1962)
The Welsh Industrial Novel is frequently the Welsh Industrial Accident Novel. The plot of The Small Mine revolves around the death of a young man working in a private colliery in what was, in 1962, an otherwise nationalised industry. With little sentimentality, Gallie examines the effect of the tragedy on the valleys mining community of the fictitious village of Cilhendre, particularly on the lives and rigorously determined roles of the village’s women. Their resilience and survival skills anticipate the response of the support groups formed during the miners’ strike, two decades later.

4. Between Worlds: A Queer Boy from the Valleys by Jeffrey Weeks (2021)
The south Wales valleys are also a location in Weeks’ memoir. As a child during the 1950s and 60s, he admires the supportive neighbourliness and tradition of radicalism in his native Rhondda. Weeks is also aware that his sexuality – “a deadly secret” – would inevitably render him an outcast and produce feelings of shame in himself and his family. Like many of his generation, his departure from Wales was facilitated by higher education: “I left the Rhondda just before my 19th birthday … as a queer boy from the Rhondda I had to flee its intense embrace in order to become myself.”

By addressing the psychological boundaries placed around close-knit communities, Weeks made it less likely that young people would feel the necessity to leave areas such as the valleys due to their sexuality.

5. The Welsh Extremist by Ned Thomas (1971)
Written in English, The Welsh Extremist examines the social energy animating the Cymraeg-speaking areas of Wales during the late 1960s and early 1970s that coalesced into a dynamic and committed protest movement. In 1971, Ned Thomas surveyed “a society that is drained of its own best talent (and) begins to resent every incursion … the land bought for the sake of the trout stream by the fishing syndicate from the Midland city, the buyers of holiday cottages who price the local young couples out.” Half a century later, Wales remains blighted by similar conditions, ill-informed opinions about Cymraeg and ever more powerful market forces.

6. When Was Wales? by Gwyn Alf Williams (1985)
In Williams’ memorable phrase, Wales has “survived in crisis”. When Was Wales? detects in the nation a form of amnesia: “Half-memories, folklore … fantasy are rampant. We are a people with plenty of traditions but no historical memory.” Energetic, charismatic and popular, Williams died in 1995 and did not live to witness devolution. Should his doubtless sparkling-eyed ghost attend a Wales football match today, Williams would be greatly enamoured of the bilingual, socially progressive community that constitutes many contemporary Welsh football supporter networks.

ITV’s 1969 adaptation of The Owl Service.
Hallucinatory … ITV’s 1969 adaptation of The Owl Service. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

7. The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967)
Garner stayed in a holiday home belonging to friends of his wife to research this magical and eerie book for young adults. The Owl Service is a reworking of the last episode of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Math fab Mathonwy, the story of Blodeuwedd – a girl made from flowers, condemned to participate in a love triangle, before undergoing transformation into an owl. Published coincidentally in the psychedelic summer of 1967, The Owl Service is a vivid and hallucinatory story, loyal to its roots among the darkness of Welsh mythology.

8. Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams (2002)
In this memoir named after the two materials mined by the families of her Guyanese (father) and Welsh-speaking, Gwynedd (mother’s) heritage, Charlotte Williams examines her experience of being Black and Welsh. With great dexterity she also invites the reader to consider several of the received ideas about Wales’s role in colonialism, along with the tendency for Wales to be regarded as one of England’s first colonies. The result is a book that speaks to how a contemporary, multicultural Wales addresses its history.

9. I’r Gad edited by Arwel Vittle (2013)
Named after a song by the protest singer and politician Dafydd Iwan, I’r Gad, is a collection of photographs that document the civil disobedience, initiated from the 1960s to the 1990s, to ensure the survival of Cymraeg and lives lived through Cymraeg in Wales. For the non-Welsh speaker, this book is the perfect introduction to the Welsh language movement. Much of the activity it captures was the work of Cymdeithas yr laith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society), whose successful campaigns for a Welsh television channel and a Welsh Language Act, among many others, secured and enriched the culture of Wales.

10. The Matter of Wales by Jan Morris (1984)
Until her death in 2020, Morris was one of Wales’s greatest literary ambassadors. In this centuries-spanning overview of Welsh history, she is clear-sighted in her analysis – locating recurring faults in the country’s administration and a malevolent energy in the Black Mountains – but it is her boundless love for this small nation that illuminates the text. And Wales loved this generous, remarkable woman in return.

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