This is the fourth in an overlong and overthinking-it series of posts on Wales, history, identity and the Manic Street Preachers, as filtered through the song ‘Ready for Drowning’. Stay tuned with suitably low expectations.
To be Welsh is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky…
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcass of an old song.
– ‘Welsh Landscape’, R S Thomas
To be born Welsh is to be born privileged
Not with a silver spoon in your mouth
But music in your blood and poetry in your soul
– from ‘In Passing’, Brian Harris
While living in London I had that second quote on a keyring for several years; if you’re Welsh, you might have done so too – or you might have had it on a mug, a teatowel, an embroidered sampler. The 1967 poem from which it is (mis)taken contains far bleaker Thomas-esque currents (‘ugliness that scars the spirit / as the earth’, ‘rivers of mingled blood and sweat’), but this opening snippet has become both tourist branding, found everywhere it can be sold, and a kind of faux-folk fetish for the Welsh themselves. With its elevation of ‘natural’ cultural creativity over material advantage making a virtue of necessity, it is our Keep Calm and Carry On – a comforter, a pacifier.
Meanwhile, back in the 1960s, the obliteration of Capel Celyn in the face of almost unanimous Welsh political opposition spurred an unsurprising increase in support for the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, and encouraged the appeal of direct action. In 1962 two Plaid members attempted to sabotage the building of the Tryweryn dam. The following year, part of the dam construction site was blown up by Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, one of a handful of militant nationalist groups sporadically engaged in guerrilla action over issues – the paying of taxes to an ‘English’ government, the purchasing of holiday homes displacing and pricing out the local population, the lavish investiture of Prince Charles – which still needle today.
In 1969 we had no idea what to expect… We were on the whole, relatively poor working class people – many unemployed when the Dinorwig Quarry closed down. People were selling up and moving out. There was no work to keep people in our little villages. The empty and derelict older houses were being purchased by the “wealthy” English for “weekenders” and this created quite an anti-English swell, with Plaid Cymru gathering a lot of support. On the bus to school we passed houses, and particularly the Penisarwaun Club, which were frequently blown up by the Free Wales Army in protest. The spectacle of the Investiture was unbelievable and on such a scale not even the build-up to it could prepare us for what we were about to see – hundreds upon hundreds of horses, guards, military, police, helicopters, cavalcades, motorcades, the splendour of the uniforms, the colours, the Royals and the noise of thousands of spectators. A couple of days later our visiting aunt convinced us Australia was the place to be. Within four months we had packed up and emigrated and have lived here ever since.
The activities of the various miniscule paramilitary movements for a Welsh republic were, beyond local police reaction, treated by the national media with relative levity, particularly in comparison to their Irish counterparts. Official insistence upon seeing Wales as placid and quiescent foil to a persistently turbulent Ireland, regardless of the reality, stretches back at least as far as attempts to present the Rebecca riots as a bizarre anomaly, reading more like ‘an account of passionate Ireland [than] of quiet, peaceful Wales’.
Constitutional efforts to redress the evident imbalance of Welsh political influence led to the creation of a Welsh Office and Secretary of State for Wales, but a concerted attempt at devolution only came about in 1997. Unlike the parliament being voted for in Scotland, it was offered with no primary law-making powers and no ability to raise taxes. A similar referendum held in 1979 had seen only 12% of the Welsh electorate vote in favour of a devolved assembly, and in 1997 it was backed by the narrowest of margins: 50.3% for and 49.7% against.
In truth, in the context of his home environment, Nicky’s heartfelt attachment to Welshness is something of an anomaly. Unlike those in North and West Wales, most residents of the Valleys are indifferent to any such notion: few speak Welsh, fewer still feel any need for absolute home rule… “Well, me and James do have big arguments about this. Sometimes I’ll feel very guilty about not knowing any Welsh, not delving back more into non-industrial history, but James is quite adamant that we’re creating something new, so I go along with him on that. The Valleys Welshness is very new: it’s like we’re creating our own language.”
The disparity in demand for self-determination in part reflects the fact that, despite Plaid Cymru’s founding in 1925 and its subsequent growth spurts, twentieth-century Welsh politics were dominated at first by Welsh Liberalism and then by the growth of the Labour Party, both of which provided a vehicle for several local stars in the national parliamentary firmament. Commitment to Labour, even if it entailed a preference for centralism and ‘Britishness’, did not preclude support for Welsh cultural and linguistic preservation. There was also room in Wales for socialist and syndicalist currents further to the left – the Rhondda valley was one of Britain’s several Little Moscows, and as late as 1979 elected a Communist mayor. But these perspectives were based more on the fostering of internationalist solidarity than on purely Welsh autonomy:
“If you were a Rhondda boy, you were politically minded and most of all you were a natural anti-fascist – so that was me and that’s why I went to Spain”.
Even before This is my Truth, the Manics’ creeping flag-fetishism was problematised in a waspish 1997 interview with their fellow Welshman Simon Price:
“They’re not scum, Simes! There were a couple of fucking Soul Crew boys in the early Eighties, wearing Pringle, caged up in terrible grounds… I’m not into tribalism, I’m into oneness. We’re too small in Wales to divide any more. There’s three times as many people in London as the whole of Wales.”
While the flag and the football, hockey or rugby strip are convenient national umbrellas under which to shelter, a perhaps surprising, certainly dispiriting number of images of ‘Welsh identity’ were originally imposed or confected by external rather than organic forces. Before the early 1800s the stereotypical cartoon Welshman, as drawn by outside observers, was thick, poor, hot-tempered, irrational, comic, drunken, light-fingered, illiterate, obsessed with recounting his ancestry, obliged by poverty to use a goat rather than a horse as a method of transport, sexually promiscuous and given to excessive indulgence in toasted cheese and singing. In the early nineteenth century these less than flattering depictions gave way under the upsurge of Romantic interest in idealised popular culture, costume and customs among the Celtic nations. Travelogues of journeys through Wales, which had previously mocked or lamented the country’s inhospitable landscape and incomprehensible natives, began instead to eulogise the untouched and dramatic nature of the Welsh scenery and the quaint appearance, behaviour and living conditions of its inhabitants. Within Wales itself, this period saw the promotion by a literary and artistic elite of reinvented images of the Welsh ancient past and present. As resistance to and resentment at the country’s transformation by industrial capitalism spread across Wales, devices such as Iolo Morgannwg’s revival of the Gorsedd of Bards, and the design and promotion of standardised Welsh national costume by the Welsh heiress and arts patron Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover, formed a mutually beneficial relationship with the emerging Welsh tourist industry.
Hall was instrumental in the promotion throughout the 1830s of the idea of a national dress, and in the shift of the dominant symbolic image of Wales from male to female. The outfits in her 1834 Book of Welsh Costumes, based on the more archaic elements of female rural and occupational dress, were not necessarily representative, authentic or popular but were adopted and promoted by Hall’s landowning and artistic circle, foisted upon their female servants and exhibited at balls, dinners and Eisteddfods. The effects of the cementing of symbolic Welsh identity as a woman in national dress have been criticised by the historian Deirdre Beddoe for the implicit passivity of the images thereby produced. She notes how the donning of national dress objectified the wearer through its ornamental and impractical nature, rendering her fit only for the passive demonstration of nationhood despite the costume’s basis in the dress of a worker.
The boom in mass tourism occasioned by the nineteenth-century expansion of the railway network into Wales reinforced the idea of particular costume as a conscious expression of authentic Welshness, as artists and publishers mass-produced lithographs and prints showing ‘typical’ Welsh scenes which invariably included women in Welsh dress. The early nineteenth century consequently saw the promotion of images of Wales which may have borne little or no relation to the realities of contemporary Welsh life but which contained instantly and widely recognised visual symbols: the mountainous landscape, the harp, the leek, the spinning-wheel, the market-day or Eisteddfod scene, and above all the female figure in ‘traditional’ Welsh dress. This image was by default female, and by further specifications was elderly and rural. As the latter, it represented an ‘old’ Wales felt to harbour the kind of ‘authentic’ folk beliefs and traditional popular culture which, according to the Romantic ideal, were being eroded in the rapidly-modernising south by the forces of industrialisation, urbanisation and Anglicization.
Every St David’s Day at my primary school, female pupils dressed up in tall black hats, aprons and shawls with varying degrees of interest, willingness and care; male pupils, lacking an equivalent outfit, invariably ended up dressed as miners, usually employing their grandfathers’ flat cap and davy lamp, all of us in costumes then, as now, consigned to history. There’s no denying that the components of Hall’s national dress, like the flag, the leek, the daffodil and the rugby shirt, have attained a deep-seated place as symbols of contemporary Welsh identity, abstracted from their manufactured and exclusionary origin. Nevertheless, the fantasy of an ‘ancient’, ‘pure’, ‘authentic’ Wales can unhelpfully inform perspectives like the one expressed in this Paris Review article. In it, from the standpoint of a self-confessed outsider, who yearns for her obsequious ‘sense of identification’ to render her an insider, Wales’s existence is reduced to a green and pleasant utopia, objectified and sentimentalised to within an inch of its life: a nation based on ethnicity rather than citizenship, defined by its language and legends, oppressed, helpless and awaiting salvation by Arthur or Glyndŵr. This is another aspect of the country’s post-industrial stasis, but a sinister one, covering its eyes in horror at modernity, awaiting revelatory rescue rather than working for one based on individual emancipation and empowerment, and denying history in favour of faith in an implausible romantic ideal.
Historically, Wales has been more international and internationalist than its insular stereotypes suggest. The Welsh have emigrated to Europe, North America and Australia in relatively small numbers – in proportion to population, Irish emigration to the US was around 26 times greater than Welsh. In 1852 about 100 Welsh settled in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil and 1865 saw the founding of Y Wladfa in Patagonia. The turn of the 20th century in Wales saw a continued influx of industrial workers from outside Wales and outside Britain, a trend which then reversed from around 1910 as these industries declined and the Welsh themselves moved outwards in search of work. Rosemary Scadden’s study of Welsh girls seeking domestic service work in England between the wars – another economically-induced form of uprooting and shift – empirically grounds a folk-memory that ran throughout the women of my family. In 1928, against the same background of mass unemployment and outward migration and protest, an initial meeting of minds took place between the US attorney, performer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, in London for a West End production of Show Boat, and a group of South Welsh miners who had walked to the capital to draw attention to the hardship occasioned by unemployment back home. Before his McCarthyite blacklisting (which the Manics addressed in 2001), Robeson visited South Wales several times. At the 1938 Welsh International Brigades Memorial at Mountain Ash to commemorate the Spanish Civil War dead, he told his audience ‘I am here because I know that these fellows fought not only for me but for the whole world’.
In Cardiff’s docklands, Tiger Bay, Wales’ oldest multi-ethnic community, gathered its population from over fifty countries, retaining a distinct identity despite repeated displacement and disruption from the 1960s onwards. The ongoing gentrification of Cardiff – at its best a coolly cosmopolitan capital, at its worst a kind of Torchwood theme park – has seen the transformation of the docklands into Cardiff Bay, ‘Europe’s largest waterfront development’, a Nineties-tastic renaissance which rebranded the area as a leisure and business haven and, since 2006, the seat of the Welsh Assembly. A central part of the regeneration project was the much-contested Cardiff Bay Barrage, which saw a new age of aesthetic and commercial viability heralded by that old elemental magic, the redirection and channeling of water.