Saturday, January 12, 2008

Peter Sager's "Pallas Wales" Book Review

Very well-written, considering that this German critic (I see that he's also prepared Pallas guides to Southwest England, East Anglia, and the West Country as well as Oxford & Cambridge and, in German, "Schotsland.") has David Henry Wilson's solid (or transparent?) translation to filter his own personality and perspective through. Pallas Guides apparently are British, so this is the first one I've seen. They're tinged with the Blue Guides cultural sophistication, but with less local color re: the natural resources, architecture, and the historical nuts-and-bolts of the edifices. Instead, this book's laid out going from the southeastern border at Monmouth to go up the coast along Cardiff and Swansea with byways into the mining valleys, industrial archeology, fortified and later eccentric castles (Cardiff again!) and Roman ruins. Sager then follows the coast up to "Little England" at the tip of the peninsula, ending the half-loop around Fishguard.

Then, he circles within Mid-Wales and the Marches before starting again at the border to re-enter Wales along the Northern coast, gradually and thoughtfully considering the debate over jobs vs. scenery in Snowdonia, admiring the Menai bridge, explaining carefully the controversy over holiday homes vs. waiting lists for council homes in such former Welsh-speaking enclaves as Anglesey and Llŷn, and then concluding powerfully with R.S. Thomas' poem "Reservoirs" and the last fight against the tide of anglicization and tourism in the mountains.

Throughout, Sager knows well the contradictions as a German travel writer celebrating this compromised Principality (and he tells us precisely why the English designated it as such-- a fact I as an American had never understood before) within a kingdom. He fairly presents the demands of those wanting increased autonomy: economist Leopold Kohr, folksinger Dafydd Iwan, and Hay-on-Wye's bookseller Richard Booth among them. He also counters with an understanding of the appeal of rural Wales for incomers and visitors. He highlights in self-contained essays on such topics as the language debate, slate mining, Lord Bute and William Burgess' medievalism, the Romantic vogue for the picturesque, the Ladies of Llangollen, the demise of the chapels, Aberfan's disaster, and "The Manor House of Servants" at Erddig Park many lesser-known subjects (compared to most tour guides) deserving attention. Blaenau and Ffestiniog are treated as two daughters, one grey, one golden, competing for a suitor's eye. Paintings and décor gain as much scrutiny, if not more, than Eryri and Cader Idris.

One example of his scope: he considers "yr ien iaith," the ancient language, deftly. Sager suggests that the "problem has solidified into a kind of national monument: for some it is an ancient pedestal without a statue, and for others a statue looking for a base." (66) He wryly notes but three pages into his text that the dragon's tongue stands as the emblem of the Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg). "The amputated tongue is as much a symbol of amputation as it is of language." (12) Sager's rather pessimistic about the viability of the tongue, and his own guidebook, as he well knows, contributes to the tension of Welsh heritage. It brings tourism, it creates jobs, it lures incomers. A few come to Nant Gwrtheyrn on Llŷn to learn Welsh; but they learn it in a village that lost all of its original, Welsh-speaking, families after the last granite quarry closed in the 1950s. Many more flood since then into the Llŷn peninsula for brief or permanent escape from English cities. (Added "sign" of anglicization: I could not enter that Welsh vowel mark circumflexion into the Amazon review format.)

Somehow, Sager manages to move you along the Welsh itinerary steadily while pausing to share interviews and contexts without making it all sound like potted history or rambling erudition. Dylan Thomas, Saunders Lewis, the painter Richard Wilson, John Cowper Powys, Adelina Patti, Robert Owen, William Morgan, Gwen John, Mary Elizabeth Thompson, Eric Gill, Gwynfor Evans, George Borrow, and Arthur Clough all come alive in these pages. You may not know them all beforehand, but you will be interested in each one after you read his short but inviting introductions. He integrates further material into his the first sixty pages, taking on such icons as the Eisteddfod, the proliferation of castles, and rugby to illustrate deftly his own knowledge of how such items enrich our understanding of Welsh culture.

With Sager, you travel from your armchair. His simple but appropriate photo inserts enhance the presentation, and a supplement (I refer to the 3rd ed. 1998 rather than the latest 4th ed. 2002) specifies holidays, gives a short reading list, a small excursus on various tourist topics, and a small list of places to shop, sleep, drink, and sightsee. I do note no other than the two general road maps. This is one drawback; the visitor will need a much more detailed map, as the text like the maps remains largely "general" about exactly how to get to most of the places mentioned. This guide might best be employed in preliminary planning for a trip, researching a place, or using it as I have, simply to get the sense of Wales-- albeit from afar.

I close with an example (p. 75) of how efficiently yet skillfully constructed are his entries. This is the very first town Sager describes. He combines the necessary detail with a narrative command of his subject, combined with a personal touch that expresses his interest in whatever he shows you. "Like an inverted funnel Monnow Street leads uphill from the bridge to the town centre: broad and roomy down below, where the markets were always held, but increasingly narrow as it climbs upward to where St Stephen's Gate used to stand. It's a perfectly normal street, with its old houses, shops and pubs, and all the usual small-town bustle-- but then suddenly it broadens out into an unexpected square that echoes with a distant heroism: Agincourt Square. And her our little town takes on a new and unforeseen greatness. A cue for the entrance of Harry Monmouth."

1 comment:

Bo said...

Thgings are very fragile but looking more hopeful for welsh. much more so than Irish. For a start, the number of speakers went up at the last census, to 21% of the population. Thus roughly 600,000 people speak welsh; further, it must be remembered that fully one third of the population of wales were not born there, and are thus unlikely to speak the language. So really it's more like a third of native welsh-born welsh people who speak the language. if we manage to get to half, it will be a great achievement.

Almost all the welsh speakers I know are under 25!