Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gwyn A. Williams' "When Was Wales?": Book Review

Arguing that Welsh identity's about to vanish, and that the one-fifth who speak Welsh out of the two-and-a-half million in the Principality (as of twenty-five years ago) hold the English-speakers in contempt as "di-Gymraeg" or "Welsh-less," Professor Williams ends his densely compiled, if relatively brief, Penguin paperback history dramatically. It's a leftist, populist, and straightforward response to romantics and traditionalists. Williams relates a series, from its formation, of rearguard if clever Welsh reactions largely to external, increasingly English, actions.

He criticizes those venerating the "hen wlad fy nhadau," the "old land of my fathers." Williams suspects any "Welsh Wales" set apart from the increasingly polyglot, multicultural, majority who leans in their suburbs and cities towards American even more than English culture. Concluding around the time of the miners' strike during Thatcher's term, the 1985 book circles back to its earlier contention: there never may have existed a separate polity. Wales, as soon as it was defined, had to place itself in relation to England.

As its own nation, "only one king in Welsh history is called good." (54) Medieval boasts of bards and kings gain Williams' cold scrutiny. Trapped by complicated "kindred" demands to share power and wealth among relatives, feudal Welsh rulers competed among each other and against the always encroaching Saxons-- their longest if not their only foes. No romanticization here: serfs and slaves remain silent, barely noticed among the chronicles, and Williams reminds us of their erasure.

The Welsh heartlands early on began to contract against the Saxons and their Welsh collaborators. The "gwerin" chose allegiance to their language, folk tradition, and soon the Welsh Bible. Their loyalty to Nonconformism and Dissent, and later the Liberal Party and then Labour, marked the separation of Cymry Cymraeg from the Marches, and the borderlands and coasts that the English began to populate and then industrialize. Those areas, especially in the south-east, turned into cities and factories, sharing only regional boundaries with the mountain people, and the north.

The re-definition of Great Britain, by the time of the union with England in 1536, strongarmed Wales as a "junior partner" in what Williams characterizes as a proto-mafia controlled by colonial capital and the imperial Crown. Wales never stood a chance against Westminster, but often weakened early on due to its own disloyal fifth column. The rivalries within medieval Welsh inheritance lured many nobles into offers they could not refuse with the Saxon mobs.

This intricate narrative moves slowly. While a mass market title, this could be used in the classroom effectively; John Davies' subsequent "Hanes Cymru"/ "A History of Wales" became a decade later Penguin's first Welsh-language title, and the standard reference in both tongues. Yet, Williams may provide a shorter, if no less rich, guide for readers wanting a history of Wales in half the pages. He also appends maps and a short reading lists for those needing direction; there are no footnotes outside of a few clarifications. Compact yet scholarly, its three hundred closely printed and carefully arranged pages demand steady attention-- if considerable familiarity with British history, Welsh culture, and English politics.

I was alerted to a minor slip when citing Williams. He may have erred in crediting John Dee for taking credit for the term "British Empire" in the 1580s. Dee along with Peckham and Hakluyt popularized this coinage in the later 1500s to propagandize for the Madoc legend revived by Humphrey Llwyd around 1559. This tale could justify British, via the Welsh, pre-Colombian settlement of the Americas, to strengthen Elizabethan anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic claims. This also co-opted Welsh intellectuals, explorers, and leaders into serving their new Queen.

Williams tells such episodes from a typical tale, of Welsh pride mingled with frequent subservience, with mixed detachment and energy. When he discusses highlights such as Glyn Dŵr's rebellion, the Rebecca Riots, the "China" red-light section of Merthyr, the 1926 strike, or the determination to revolt against the Means Tests of the Depression, the tone lightens and quickens. The six pages describing "Imperial Wales" and the Liberal ascendancy under Lloyd George splendidly sum up a the dazzling facets of a confident period for a newly diverse nation.

Williams tends to distance himself from Welsh Wales, even as he knows it well. His sympathies, if well explained, side with the much-maligned majority that for him represents 80% of contemporary Wales. They made the modern nation prosper:
"Industrial capitalism came hard and it was fought hard. People were trying to build community in the teeth of it. To those problems, no tradition offered any answer; they had to find their own. They had to walk naked." (191)

Yet, much as he defends their interests, he honestly must face the imminent inclusion of Wales within an Anglo-American hegemony. Under Thatcher, facing nuclear threats and pollution from the sky, Williams characterizes his people with natural sympathy and millennial despair. After fifteen hundred years, their chronicler of his kinfolk wonders if now they're "nothing but a naked people under an acid rain." (305)

(Review posted to Amazon US 1/26/09. I worked on it while watching the Miss America Pageant. Miss Indiana won.)

No comments: