Little Empires: on Wales, history, identity, and the Manic Street Preachers

‘I’ve never written about Welsh identity before: these days, I’ve got to search for things to write about, whereas in the past everything would be driven by anger and all the rest of it. Now I’ve got to delve more… Ready For Drowning is the most complete song I’ve ever written, I think…’

Nicky Wire, 1998

One: All Surface No Feeling

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Capel_Celyn_exposed_tree_stumps.jpg

Tree stumps exposed by low water levels of the Llyn Celyn reservoir. Its construction in the early 1960s involved the flooding of the Tryweryn valley and the drowning of the village of Capel Celyn.

The submerged land of Cardigan Bay is called Cantre’r Gwaelod (‘the lowland hundred’). It was defended from the sea by an embankment and sluices. Seithennin was keeper of the sluices, and one evening when there was a great banquet he became drunk and left the sluices open. The water rushed in and drowned the inhabitants. The poet Taliesin was the only one to escape alive.

“When man first came to live on the coast of Wales (sometime between the Neolithic and the Iron Age), the sea level was still rising between Wales and Ireland, separating the two countries further and further, and the legend relating to the drowning of the Lowland Hundred probably developed as a result of folk-memory of a sudden coastal flooding many centuries ago. The remains of peat and tree trunks which are visible on the beaches when the tide is far out further captured man’s imagination. Similar traditions are connected with certain Welsh lakes [and] with other parts of the Welsh coast… The moralistic and onomastic elements in all these traditions are very obvious.”

- Robyn Gwyndaf, Welsh Folk Tales (1989)

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish?

- from The Wasteland, T S Eliot (1922)

Lately I’ve been revisiting both the land of my birth and upbringing and mid-period Manic Street Preachers. The latter was a moderately painful process which has, incidentally, left me staggered all over again that ‘Tomorrow Steve Ovett has injured his calf’ was considered to pass muster as a lyric. I don’t generally subscribe to the idea that everything good about the band vanished along with Richey; I think Design for Life is, while maybe not the best thing they’ve accomplished, at least the most valedictory, the thing I remain most proud of them for doing. But yeah, they should perhaps have called a halt to things shortly after that.

After Everything Must Go, I consider This is my Truth Tell me Yours the best album of a mediocre bunch – even with its overblown and airless moments, even with Wire’s retreat behind domestic lines and po-faced earnestness replacing their early half-articulate, all-encompassing ire. I consider Ready for Drowning perhaps not the best but the most interesting song on the album: its rippling chapel-service introduction; Bradfield’s precisely rendered Valleys diction on the line ‘Said ‘e’d y’eard it in a tacsi’; the second verse’s disappointing touch of that chronic Nineties disease whereby ‘proving you care’ feels like more of an imperative than actually caring; and the climactic sample, amidst the song’s drunk-sounding central lurch, of Richard Burton’s misanthropic telekinesis master in The Medusa Touch. (The Manics had an okay ear for samples, possibly a residual trace of their early Public Enemy obsession, and a facet as infrequently noted as their unexpected range as a covers band).

As the early Manics were and remain a band only a teenager could properly love, so this, their first album produced entirely post-Richey, is inescapably the product of a band forced to grow up, but unsure what to grow into – a state reflective of, among other things, the post-industrial stasis and stagnation still affecting much of their homeland. Released in 1998, This is my Truth is a deeply Welsh production. Its cover photo was taken on Black Rock Sands in Gwynedd, a tourist-friendly beach which in the cover shot manages nevertheless to look as desolate and featureless as an abandoned slate quarry or the surface of the moon. The album quotes, references or eulogises my homeboy Aneurin Bevan; the impressively irascible North Wales poet and Anglican priest R S Thomas; and the Welsh who left to fight fascism in 1930s Spain.

In 1998, of course, at the end of a decade marked by the pushing of confected ideas of ‘Britishness’, ‘Welshness’ was also getting big (everything’s relative). The previous year’s general election had seen the country’s deliverance from eighteen years of Conservative rule, with barely a Welsh Conservative retaining their seat. The few illusions under which New Labour were voted in were soon dispelled, but of greater immediate import was the fact that the Tories were finally out. If you can’t understand this perspective, rooted not in any naïve belief in Blairite snake-oil, but in awareness of the practical and symbolic damage done to Wales under successive Conservative governments and the almost fanatical oppositional response it engendered, then you may as well give up here.

As explored in Wales Off Message, Patrick Hannan’s occasionally amusing compendium of devolutionary culture and its cock-ups, the taking root of specifically Welsh political institutions gave rise to broader debates on how national identity was to be characterised and defined. The Welsh Assembly’s establishment took place alongside a very Nineties shift of focus from economic issues to the nation’s performance on various cultural stages: for Wales, this meant a cathartic concentration on the national team’s improvement on the rugby pitch and the consolidation of a dubious ‘New Welsh Cool’, based around the sudden commercial success of the Manics and the emergence in their slipstream of other Welsh bands of varying quality and longevity.

“There was kind of a stigma attached to Wales, culturally, that we didn’t produce anything except for rugby, male-voice choirs, coal and Tom Jones… All this subconscious racism from an English press, ‘No way, no good bands come out of Wales. You come from Wales, you must be shit.’ And like, for five years we were the only band to come out of Wales that was successful at all. And then a lot of bands started coming out too — like Catatonia, Stereophonics, Super Furry Animals. And so when I see these pieces about, you know, ‘New Welsh Cool’ or whatever, it doesn’t bother me at all.”

James Dean Bradfield, 1999

Around the time of this album the Manics, never having previously appeared to endorse flags as anything other than combustible material, began draping their amplifiers and themselves in the red dragon. But, just as 1994’s The Holy Bible had been a refusenik splinter in the side of Britpop, so in Wales, when everything surrounding This Is My Truth seemed to indicate a post-Thatcher, post-imperial, post-devolution sigh of forward-looking relief, the Welsh album of the year was steeped in backwards-looking pessimism, quietly if resentfully resigned to despair, and old before its time. Well, of course it was. It’s Welsh.

* This is the first in an overlong series of posts; stay tuned with suitably low expectations.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Little Empires V: Coming Up For Air « Velvet Coalmine
  2. RNA Drops

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