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A Reliquary of Modern Wales

Richard King’s oral history of post-war, pre-devolution Wales centres on the tensions between socialism and nationalism, and how each responded to the destruction of Wales’ industrial modernity.

Porth Wen, a long-abandoned brick factory located on the Anglesey Coast Path in North Wales. (Pete Rowbottom / Getty Images)

Though barely a mile apart, every village is represented by a rugby club and is home to a significant number of chapels and churches.

—Richard King

In 1960 a new historical journal was launched, The Welsh History Review. The editorial introduction for the first issue explained that regardless of the fact there were already several various publications devoted to Welsh history, the new journal was necessary. Its area of academic interest was supposed to be Wales as a whole, historically and geographically, while the publications which already existed at that time were either local or focused more on the ancient and medieval period. In other words, the foundation of The Welsh History Review intended to mark a key point in academic reflection of the history of this region as a history of a modern, not bygone country.

This sort of understanding of modern Wales was of priceless importance, given that typically the country had been considered as something ancient, ultra-traditional, populated by poets, magicians, kings arthurs, shepherds, amateur singers, and militant princes endlessly fighting each other and with English conquerors. The book I’m reviewing here has the title Brittle with Relics. The main problem which is questioned in it—probably unintentionally—is the nature of these ‘relics’, of what historical matter they are made of. Medieval stuff—ruins of castles, ‘Brut Y Tywysogion’, Dafydd ap Gwylim’s poems? Or abandoned coalmines, closed railroads, faded newspapers telling the heart-breaking story of the Aberfan disaster? As we can deduct from its subtitle, A History of Wales, 1962-1997, this book is about ‘modern relics’, but the ancient ones exist in it as invisible background which is present through its apparent absence.

Richard King, who recorded, collected and edited dozens of interviews with various people from Wales, and then compiled them into this incredible volume, prefers 1962, not 1960 as a beginning of this history of Wales. Fair enough, because this is not a fruit of academic historiography—this is a sort of ‘people’s historiography’, though one executed with austere academic objectiveness and thoroughness. King’s history of Wales starts from one radio lecture recorded and broadcasted by BBC: ‘This history of Wales begins in 1962, with a radio speech delivered as a warning that Cymraeg, and the identity and way of life it represented, faced extinction. Titled ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ (‘The Fate of the Language’), the speech was given in the form of a radio broadcast by its author, Saunders Lewis, the former leader of Plaid Cymru. The impact and influence of the speech have long been debated; what is certain is that Lewis’ polemic contributed to a renewed sense of purpose among those resistant to the language’s increasing marginalisation.’

It is symbolic that a book of ‘oral history’ begins from a political and cultural statement delivered in the oral genre, as a radio broadcast. The very medium speaks volumes about what kind of modernity is mostly discussed in it—the modernity of radio and public TV, of smokestack industry, of Keynesian economic and social policy. It is about the fate of High Modernity in a specific part of Britain. The book chronologically ends in 1997 with the victory of the movement for Welsh devolution which in some sense had overshadowed the previous triumph of the Welsh Language Act (1993).

At first thought 1993 would have suited better as the terminus of King’s collection: what starts from a proclamation of a campaign against marginalisation of the local language ends up with a legislative act making this language equal with the UK’s official language. But the internal logic of Welsh history demonstrates how regional political and social agenda were switching from ‘language’ to ‘autonomy’. After 35 years of economic and social changes, crises and campaigning, Wales in 1997 found itself as a very different country than it was when Saunders Lewis urged to save the Welsh language from extinction.

Brittle with Relics is a collective story of this historical period told by almost 100 voices, from the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and a former leader of the Labour Party to Welsh language campaigners, record producers, schoolteachers, firemen, and poets. There are 16 milestones/chapters on the way from 1962 to 1997; every chapter can be read as a distinct story. The compiler-author of the book is a music writer and journalist. The fact that King was born into a bilingual family in South Wales and for the last twenty years has lived in the rural county of Powys explains a lot about his personal intention. He made a book on the history of his country which formed him as he is.

So, it began from Action Française-style struggle for the survival of Welsh language announced by an elitist traditionalist Saunders Lewis. It was followed by a mild version of the nationalist activism which had been confronted by Welsh Labour. The relationship between nationalist movement and the local branch of the national party of the working class is the most interesting ideological and historical plot of Brittle with Relics. This plot still proves its actuality today in many countries around the world.

The beginning of this relationship is rooted in the histories of the Welsh national movement and English socialism. One of the most striking points in ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ is the connection built by Lewis between Welsh language, Welsh identity, and Nonconformism. Many pages in the first part of the book are given to the voices who tell the story of Nonconformism as the special ‘Welsh Church’. King writes: ‘The presence of Nonconformity in many communities made palpable the ancient idea of Wales as ‘y werin bobl’, a classless, cultured, respectable society of ‘folk people’’. Moreover, there is a link between Methodism and a specific ‘Welsh socialism’. Rowan Williams stresses this point: ‘It’s such a cliché when people say that socialism in Wales owes more to Methodism than Marxism.’

Originally socialism in England owes a lot to Christianity in its Protestant forms as well, but Welsh socialism’s coexistence with Welsh nationalism meant it had to explicitly oppose a local vision of justice and equality with a universal one. It’d be unwise to overestimate this historical divide, but here lies one of the roots of a long-standing mutual enmity between the Welsh national movement and a Labour party which insisted on the global—or at least, pan-British—class agenda. On the other hand, Plaid Cymru and Labour were, and in some ways despite their current co-operation in the Senedd, main competitors: as Dafydd Iwan tells King, the ‘Labour Party became very entrenched in its power base and jealous of any threat and saw Plaid Cymru and the growth of Welsh nationalism as a threat, and therefore they became an anti-Welsh-language party’.

For a long time the national movement (especially direct action groups fighting for Welsh language) and local Labour were moving in different directions. Saunders Lewis himself looked like some continental right-wing political activist from 1930s: ‘His image of Plaid Cymru had been of Action Française in Wales, but the uncomfortable fascist resonances of those early days had been, I think, very successfully buried by the sixties’, says Rowan Williams. Lewis’ followers remember themselves in the 1960s as fervent old-school nationalists: ‘I knew beyond doubt at that moment, the terrible power of the love which had motivated our fighting ancestors such as Caradoc, Buddug, Arthur, Glyndŵr, Llywelyn; my blood was singing to me of a long race memory of dungeons and death for the cause, and I was so submerged in the compelling ecstasy of sacrifice that I would have welcomed pain with joy’, says John Barnard Jenkins.

Eventually, in the first half of the 1970s, these sorts of political aspirations reached their very logical apotheosis. The idea of a “clean Welsh ethnos’ inhabiting the ‘real’, ‘pure’ Wales (mostly its rural part) was born: ‘(…) the establishment of a putative Cymraeg colony in the nation’s interior, a settlement for true Welsh people. Emyr Llywelyn, a leading member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (…) explored the opportunity of transforming Y Fro Gymraeg from an abstract ideal of place to a defined hinterland for a separate, monoglot region of Welsh-speakers, a singular interpretation of utopia.’

It sounds like a modern reimagining of the medieval division of Wales into the so-called the ‘March of Wales’ (conquered and colonised by Anglo-Norman lords) and the Native Wales, Pura Wallia, still unconquered, ruled by Welsh princes; a kind of retrospective utopia where old-fashioned xenophobic nationalism met the senseless hippie slogan ‘Back to the roots!’ A sort of the reversed ‘ethnic/language/cultural cleansing’ disguised as a hippie utopia. The archaeologist, writer, and broadcaster Rhys Mwyn provides the reader with historical context: ‘It’s really idealism: it’s the remnants of sixties idealism before the reality and the absolute shit and horror of the seventies.’

The Welsh national movement of 1960-70s was not so homogenous, however. As Rhys Mwyn points out, ‘within Welsh nationalism, it’s a spectrum that goes from hard-core Communist/nationalist, working classes in the South Wales Valleys right through to the Saunders Lewis kind of vibe, ‘Let’s breed more Welsh-speakers’.’ But apparently for those who sided with Labour everything was crystal clear: ‘at this rally they all toasted Owain Glyndŵr, and I didn’t, and I remember saying to Glyn, ‘I don’t do Glyndŵr.’ For me, if it was class war, he’s landed gentry, and I would always joke with him: ‘What’s the Marxist view of Glyndŵr?’ and he’d never have an answer, I would always throw that in. ‘What would Aneurin Bevan make of Glyndŵr?’ You can see the nationalists stumble, because it’s too easy a narrative: Glyndŵr, national hero, but what if it’s class war? And they’re stuck’, remembers Rhys Mwyn.

In this situation Welsh Labour had a very good chance to become the Agent of Progress by visibly separating itself from both Westminster rulers and local traditionalists. They took this chance in 1960s, but almost lost in in 1970s. Dissatisfaction with Labour was common around Britain, and the reasons were mostly the same with some local dashes everywhere. Here is how it was happening in Wales: according to Andrew Davies, ‘the 1974–79 Labour government, which was headed by Wilson and then by Callaghan, was uninspiring, and obviously they were dealing with huge challenges, such as the aftermath of the 1973 OPEC-induced global inflationary crisis; there was a huge amount of turmoil—industrial, economic and social. For a lot of young people on the left the Labour government was a deeply unattractive proposition. More locally in Swansea, which is where I was living, as elsewhere in the UK, such as Newcastle with the T. Dan Smith and John Poulson scandal, local government corruption was quite endemic. Swansea was archetypal, in that the Labour leader, Gerald Murphy, was sent down for corruption and then Labour lost control of the council to the Independent Rate-Payers Party, and then not long afterwards, the leader of the Rate-Payers Party was sent down for corruption as well.’

And then the real gamechanger came in. Of course, the deindustrialisation of Wales started long before Margaret Thatcher came to power, but that was more the ‘transformation of industry’ rather than the total extinction of industry. Even the process of ‘restoration’ and ‘reclamation’ of the former industrial sites and lands started as early as in 1960s. Bob Croydon: ‘but you had excellent things (…) like the re-landscaping and the re-greening of the Valleys. (…) Aberfan was a trigger in that. Part of the response to Aberfan was the re-landscaping and the reclamation of the landscape, which was funded by the government. Gwyn once gave me a slide that I used to use. It showed two little kids proudly planting a tree next to which a sign read ‘Old Arsenic Works, Keep Out’. The Swansea Valley was full of heavy metals, it really was contaminated.’ But what happened to Wales after 1979 didn’t ‘continue’ these trends. The 1980s completely changed the economic and social landscape of the country. The consequences of this dramatic shift were crucial for local communities—and for the Welsh identity.

The interplay between industrialisation and Welsh identity is not so plain as it seems. Obviously in the first half of the twentieth century nationalists considered industrialisation as a threat to Welsh language and identity. Modernity kills Tradition. Ironically the situation after the 1980s partly renewed this old-fashioned idea. Thatcher’s deindustrialisation, while impoverishing the large part of the country, paved the way to strengthening the position of the Welsh language. On the other hand, the Welsh Language Act 1993 in some sense ‘closed’ the problem in general to the extent of the marginalisation of the very language problem in Welsh social and political agenda: ‘I think by ’97, the Welsh language had been depoliticised to some extent, so Wyn Roberts, a Tory Secretary of State, had made Welsh compulsory in school, I don’t think a lot of people registered this’, remembers Siôn Jobbins.

But the most important thing about the problem of ‘industrialisation versus Welsh identity’ is that the latter in its 1960s—1970s form had been defined by the former. ‘In these close-knit communities, employment was ingrained with identity, an attribute that grew in significance during the increasing secularisation of Wales that had gained momentum by the 1960s.’ So when industrial employment was eliminated by neoliberal reforms of 1980s, it meant that local Welsh identity had suffered a sledgehammer blow as a result. Communities tried to resist of course, and their resistance afforded ground for a previously impossible coalition of Welsh nationalists and Welsh Labour (and not only them): as King explains, ‘several hitherto unlikely alliances had been formed by the conclusion of the Miners’ Strike. Cymdeithas yr Iaith, which had organised food parcels, holidays and other supportive measures in solidarity with mining communities during the strike, continued to be a spirited campaigning presence. In tandem with their Cymraeg-centred activities the society was active in the women’s, Nicaragua and LGBT movements, and was also on occasion in dialogue with Sinn Féin throughout the 1980s, the decade in which the society elected its first female chairperson.’

The largest part of Brittle with Relics is dedicated to the miners’ strike of 1984-85. It is not just because it was the most dramatic event in Welsh post-war history. Aggressive Thatcherism posed an existential risk to working class communities around Wales, and to the whole of Wales itself. As Arfon Evans puts it, ‘you close a pit and you kill a community.’ Old High Modernity broke into pieces; these pieces became relics quickly, and Wales became brittle with a new type of relics.

The title of the book is borrowed from R. S. Thomas’ poem ‘Welsh Landscape’:

There is no present in Wales,

And no future;

There is only the past,

Brittle with relics.

R. S. Thomas, like many prominent literary figures of the twentieth century, was a fierce reactionary, a Welsh nationalist obsessed with the past. As a public figure and an Anglican priest, he was famous for his harsh criticism of a ‘machine civilisation’. R. S. Thomas’ son recalls his father’s sermons in which he fulminated against the evil of refrigerators, washing machines, television, and other modern things. The poet was thinking about himself as belonging to the ‘previous times’, a pre-industrial era. But in reality, he lived in his time—the time of High Modernity—and belonged to it even if he hated modern life. So Richard King rethinks the poetic line which became the title of his book. The relics which Wales is brittle with are not fragments of some fabled bygone days, they are the relics of modernity. And we recognise them as something which is intertwined into the social texture of today’s life.

About the Author

Kirill Kobrin is a writer and historian. He is the author of thirty books, including on the political history of medieval Wales, and numerous publications in the Russian, British, Latvian, Lithuanian, and German press. He lives between Riga and Prague.