Two truths are told, as alternative prologues to the action of modern Wales. The first draws on the continuity of Welsh language and literature: from the sixth century, it is said, and thus perhaps the oldest surviving poetic tradition in Europe. The second draws on the turbulent experience of industrial South Wales, over the last two centuries, and its powerful political and communal formations.
It would be possible, within an English perspective, to see these truths as of different kinds, literary and political: one or other to be emphasised or reduced to background. Yet the distinctive Welsh character of each offered truth is that it is simultaneously political and cultural. This is a mode of argument, but perhaps even more of assumption, which has often seemed alien and unacceptable east of Offa’s Dyke, though its relevance to the English experience can be shown to be just as direct. Within Wales, the two truths, or those versions of them which are reciprocally dismissed as inadequate, are matters of intense and often bitter controversy. Indeed perhaps the least known fact, by others, about contemporary Welsh culture and politics is that there are harsh and persistent quarrels within a dimension which is seen from outside as unusually singular. The nearest analogy I can find is with what is known in England, more properly in London, as the Hard Left, where a confidently named sector, marked off from all others, is often riven by controversies more bitter than anything in a more established politics.
Yet there is, after all, a distinguishable Hard Left, and in the same sense a distinguishable Welsh culture. Each can be tracked in its general affiliations, but the more profound community is its area of discourse: the very specific issues which it selects for argument. For myself, when I say ‘two truths’, it is not from some sense of detachment or balance but because, seeing the matter in my own living conditions from both inside and outside, I am especially aware of the common elements of authenticity in each apparently alternative case.
The argument for an essential cultural continuity, informing a people long threatened by suppression, is well made in Emyr Humphreys’s The Taliesin Tradition. At one level the book can be usefully read as a history of Welsh literature, by one of the finest of modern Welsh writers. Indeed I am tempted to a review which would simply insist that English students of literature should read it, since it remains a scandal that a body of writing of this substance, composed on this island, should be so largely unknown to readers of strict literary interests. A general impression from Matthew Arnold will not do. The major verse of Dafydd ap Gwilym and the romances of Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (in English the Mabinogion) are evident classics in the writing of this island. Moreover the interest of several Welsh verse forms is considerable. Even polemically, one must wonder at the students of Hopkins who do not know cynghanedd (a set of techniques still practised).
Fy ing enfawr, fy ngwynfyd – fy mhryder
Fy mhradwys hyfryd;
Ei charu’r wyf yn chwerw hefyd
A’i chasau’n serchus o hyd.
This englyn, as so often, is dependent on particular Welsh assonances, but in at least some cases, and certainly in Dafydd ap Gwilym and the Mabinogi, the achievements are accessible in translation. Consider only this brief extract from the technique of a rapid sequence of metaphors and comparisons, the dyfalu, in Dafydd’s poem on the seagull as love messenger: ‘a piece of the sun, a steel glove at sea, and yet swift and proud and light on the wave, fish fed, foam footed, lily of the sea, contemplative of the wave, like a written page, speak for me.’
Yet Emyr Humphreys has written much more than a literary history. He argues that the continuous poetic tradition, named from the first Taliesin, the sixth-century poet of the British kingdom of Rheged (now south-west Scotland), has ‘contrived to be a major factor in the maintenance, stability and continuity of the Welsh identity and the fragile concept of Welsh nationhood’. The difficulties attending this argument are almost too obvious. The land now known as Wales, the people now known as Welsh, have experienced over those long centuries so many major changes of use and condition that continuity, except in the language, and even there in eventual decline, seems a merely mythical construct. Indeed, in an earlier phase of what appears to be the same argument, in a dominant tendency within a revived Welsh nationalism between the wars, the construct was plainly ideological. Against all the modern political experience of Wales, this tendency was on the cultural Right then influential throughout Europe. Wales was offered by some as the last noble fragment of a classical and catholic world. Welshness had the function of ‘Englishness’ in Leavis or of ‘timeless’ in Eliot: a stand of old values against a destructive industrial civilisation. Its most memorable expression was a poem ‘The Deluge’, by the nationalist leader Saunders Lewis, which began:
The tramway climbs from Merthyr to Dowlais,
Slime of a snail on a heap of slag.
That industrial landscape or wasteland was accurately observed, but the sting was the judgment: ‘here once was Wales.’ It is then unsurprising that the inhabitants of that landscape, now the great majority of the Welsh, and with English as their main or only language, rejected a sense of Wales and of Welshness which seemed designed to exclude them.
Emyr Humphreys’s argument is different, or partly different (he quotes the Saunders Lewis poem with apparent approval, or at least without dissent). He sees the myth-making that is at work in any construction of a ‘timeless identity’, but then argues: ‘The manufacture and proliferation of myth must always be a major creative activity among a people with unnaturally high expectations reduced by historic necessity, or at least history, forced into what is often described as a marginal condition. In fact this marginal condition is now the essence of the human condition, with or without material security: we can bear even less than a little reality when it hovers over our heads in the shape of a nuclear missile.’ Part of this connects with an argument which I have used myself: that the long Welsh experience of a precarious and threatened identity has informed Welsh thought with problems now coming through to once dominant and assertive peoples: most evidently, in our own time, the English. Yet the argument can then move in several ways. The most common, as in much Modernist writing and very strongly in serious North American culture, is an attachment to the dynamics of mobility. Old and dissolving identities are at best raw material for an exchange of new and deliberately provisional universals, in which settled identity is the past from which there must be escape to the precarious and invigorating excitement of the new. In Wales, among otherwise different tendencies, the argument has not gone this way. This is what makes its writers and thinkers – traditionally based in a social status and obligation wholly different from the idea of the isolated artist or intellectual – a centre of opposition to the dominant literary and intellectual modes of Western Europe and North America. For the major Welsh response to the dissolutions of community and identity, which have been so repeatedly and directly experienced, has been to make, or try to remake, communities and identities which will hold.
Emyr Humphreys finds these in a cultural tradition. Dai Smith, as a vigorous exponent of the second truth, finds them in the communal struggles and loyalties of a Welsh industrial proletariat. Yet even within this contrast there are shared assumptions. In a recent radio report on the people of the mining valleys during the present bitter coal strike, Dai Smith said that the three words he kept hearing were ‘culture’, ‘community’ and ‘jobs’. The first two are not the classical words of an industrial proletariat, as universally theorised. Indeed they are words which I have been so whacked for using in England, as if they were my private inventions or deviations, that this reminder of a genuine area of shared discourse was especially welcome. Among some English Marxists this strain has been tagged as ‘culturalist’. It is to be hoped that some of them at least will notice that this is the language of what has been, in the worst days so far of the strike, the most solid working class of the British coalfields.
Dai Smith, in Wales! Wales? a book based on his recent television series, attacks Emyr Humphreys’s argument directly. He accuses him of confusing ‘the functional role of myths’ with a ‘deliberate mythologising’. The risk is undoubtedly there. To accommodate the evident changes in Welsh life, which as one of its most distinguished modern recorders Emyr Humphreys knows very well, there is a shift within the concept of continuity. This is expressed with reference to one of the themes of the literature: Taliesin the shape-shifter. At a simple level this is merely suggestive, but it is potentially indicative of an observable historical process: at its weakest, the endless fantasies of a subjected people, magnifying past greatness or present uniqueness as forms of disguise not only from others but from hard-pressed selves; at its strongest, however, a capacity for active and flexible survival, in which powers of a certain kind – hope, fidelity, eloquence – are repeatedly distilled from defeat. The test of the strongest sense would then be the welcoming admission of the latest shift: not as the abandonment of ‘Welshness’, in some singular and unitary form, but as the positive creation of a still distinctively Welsh, English-speaking working-class culture.
It is here, on the ground, that the schools and parties divide, though in adversity they are now speaking with each other in some new ways. An economic analyst said recently that there is no Welsh economy: there are two city regions, Cardiff and Swansea; there is upland pastoral Wales; and there is Greater Liverpool. This is a familiar type of identification of ‘regions’ within what we call the Yookay. What has then to be asked, though, is why there is such pressure, from many different positions, to hold to some version of a unifying identity, within and across some of the most radical differences of condition that can be found anywhere in Europe. Whether any of its processes are ‘functional myths’ or ‘deliberate mythologising’ is being very sharply tested, all the time, in practice. The recent tentative emergence of a new kind of National Left is the most significant current attempt, but then its mood is decidedly not mythical, in either sense. The shift-shape it is attempting is material to the core: the remaking of a land and a people.
One of the most striking facts about the second truth, in industrial South Wales, is that the remarkable school of modern historians of which Gwyn A. Williams is the leading member and to which Dai Smith is a vigorous contributor, had no sooner got their work into print, in what was consciously described as a restoration of memory, than events as dramatic as they had described, and in some cases uncannily of the same kind, began to occur in the very valleys which they had recorded and mapped. The months from spring 1984 have been in many ways like a fast re-run of what was being researched and studied as labour history. In one sense, the repetitions are dislocating, since so much has so clearly changed; the miners themselves, for example, have been pressed back over the years, in apparently endless pit closures, to a small minority. Yet there is another, primary sense of an affirmed location. I have stood with easy and friendly men and women, organising communally donated food for the two hundred babies born in Gwent mining families during the strike, packing their thousand plastic bags a day of basic adult food, and heard the precise words of the histories: the closeness with each other, the intense determination and anger against those who are now so clearly and exultantly their enemies. As so often in Welsh history, there is a special strength in the situation of having been driven down so far that there is at once everything and nothing to lose, and in which all that can be found and affirmed is each other.
It needs only a small shift of position, beyond the crowded closeness of the valleys, to see this communal spiritual energy as tragic. But then this is another paradox of the second prologue. The story of Welsh labour is shot through with suffering, and militant formations are repeatedly on the record. Yet a major strain of the culture of the valleys, well brought out by Dai Smith, is a high-spirited, mocking, even brash style: best exemplified, perhaps, in a literary sense, in the development of that remarkable novelist Gwyn Thomas. His first, unpublished novel was Sorrow for thy sons, bitter and angry in the suffering of 1935. By the 1950s he was producing those hilarious novels and stories, the most agonisingly funny writing in English in his time, which were not only his but a quite general response to a devastation which had forced many into a hopeless and ironic laughter. The tone is very far from the grave voices of the major Welsh tradition; the alternatives of the prologues are stark in this. Yet his late work is consonant with a quite different kind of energy, in which the industrial Welsh were bypassing the muted tones of English culture for their version of the brash expansiveness of North Americans. Something like this happened also, more generally, in the English working class, as they used cinema and then television, but until recently there was this difference: that these popular and studied-popular styles extended, without break of connection, to some of the most gifted writers and poets. From Welsh-language Wales this was often seen, as earlier in the case of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, as a vulgar, Anglicised betrayal of ‘Welshness’. Yet Anglicised, at least, it was not. The work of the English-language writers of industrial South Wales is unmistakably indigenous; its English in tone and rhythm is not an English literary style. There seems good justification, in these writers and in the everyday speech of the valleys, for the recent significant assertion, from within what has been the ‘nationalist’ tendency, that English is a Welsh language. A distinctive culture is using that diverse and flexible language for its own unmistakably native writing and speech.
There remain problems inside both truths. There are moments in Dai Smith’s engagingly exuberant presentation when the gesture towards North America, the intellectually and emotionally sophisticated movement outwards from the confines of a narrow inherited tradition, sits uneasily beside the simple and heartfelt proletarian continuities. This is especially so at a time when many of the same external forces are directly allied, in their presentation of a desirable social world, with the forces which are working to break up not only a restricted working-class culture but all the values which have gathered, under long pressure, around both class and place. Yet again, in the other kind of account, there is the problem of relating Emyr Humphreys’s new novel Jones to the thesis of The Taliesin Tradition. At one level, the smart, empty, fashionable Jones – the Welsh émigré on the make – is precisely caught. It takes one back, though more explicitly, to the experiences of his very fine early novel, Hear and forgive, where the structures of dislocated mobility are more deeply explored than in that later run of English novels of the Fifties which made the theme fashionable. Yet back where Jones came from, in that hill farm which is so often seen as the homeland of Welshness, there is shown so deep a native failure that quite new questions are raised. Is this, after all, an old way of life which not only from outside pressures but from something in itself could not shape and hold and inform its own people? It is the last bitter question about Wales: the nature of the Welsh who have turned their backs on it, within and outside the country, or who have settled for some portable, export-style facsimile.
It is probable, taking it all in all, that we can as yet engage few English readers in the intricate internal culture and politics of Wales, though its themes, so intensively explored, are close and coming closer to the English condition. It is possible to strike out on a quite different path, as Jan Morris has done in The Matter of Wales. The book is engagingly inward with Welsh landscape and history, though whenever it came very close (as in my case on the Black Mountains) I heard a different, informed and sympathetic but observing, voice. In its presentation, however, it is outward: a long open journey through the diversity of Wales, more accessible and I would expect more persuasive than those internal voices of which the interested reader from elsewhere must always wish that he or she had come in at the beginning, to get the shape of the discourse and to understand all the references back. Here, for a certainty, is a book to make other readers want to see and know more of Wales: that interest which has in fact been growing so strongly in England but which in parts of Wales, in ways that can eventually be explained, is treated as a sort of final insult.
This then may be the paradox. The English reader who wants to be better-informed about Wales itself can go to Jan Morris. The same reader who wants to know what, locked in with themselves, the Welsh have contributed and are contributing to European politics and letters can go to Emyr Humphreys and Dai Smith and that whole vigorous school of contemporary Welsh writers and historians.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.