Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Wales Is Our Concern": 2 books on Welsh Nationalism

I examine two titles about 20th century efforts, one by a prominent novelist, the other by a shadowy faction, to rouse English-speaking Welsh citizens to fight, by mostly peaceful but sometimes violent means in the latter case, for their cultural, linguistic, and territorial survival. Originally, this was composed in 2009 for the journal Epona: A Journal of Ancient and Modern Celtic Studies, but as that publication appears in hiatus, I preserve my critique here in the meantime.

(Diane Green, Emyr Humphreys: A Postcolonial Novelist?
Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009.
290 pp. 978-0-7083-2217-8. £19/€20/$25.
John Humphries, Freedom Fighters?: Wales's Forgotten “War”, 1963-1993.
Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008.
228 pp. 978-0-7083-2177-5. £20/€21/$25)


Can one "speak Welsh in English?" Embattled cultural and linguistic identities from Wales conveyed through our dominant language capture this novelist's struggle for articulation. Diane Green, basing this on her doctoral thesis on "narrative patterning," stops in 1998, but five decades out of the six that still see him writing provide plenty, given his steady output for a man born in 1919, for her study.

Its postcolonial contexts comprise the theoretical foundations for Green's explanations of how myth-- not only Celtic but Etruscan, set in Wales but also in Tuscany and Benin-- combines with history, often filtered via discontented intellectual males caught between a secularized homeland and relentless anglicization. How can one live in Wales as Welsh? His breakthrough novel, A Toy Epic, (1958) contrasts the rural, impoverished religious pacifist Iorwerth with Albie the ambitious, assimilating, Marxist emigrant, and Michael as uprooted intellectual.

Humphreys given his own status as a teacher and BBC producer may represent a combination of Michael's social mobility with Iorwerth's organic and linguistic allegiances. Learning Welsh as a young man, inspired as a teenager by the Penyberth burning of the bombing station by three Welsh activists in 1936, Humphreys chose to write in English to educate and appropriate the best of what Welsh identity could transmit to a wider audience. Green emphasizes the difficulty of using the "language of the oppressor" (15) to proclaim the "language of the tribe" (12). Fiction offers, citing Humphreys, a "supranatural language which is detached from the cultural problem" as "one of the escape routes" (27). The tension between "his political ideals and his creative talents" energized his long series of novels in which he delved into the same conflicts within his Welsh characters.

This entry in the Writing Wales in English series expects close familiarity with a body of work not well known even within Britain. His books from 1946 to 1991 were printed in London. However, as the 1990s progress his new novels get published only in Wales, and his older ones depend on reissues by the University of Wales Press. Humphreys may have sensed this fall-off in broader support when in 1987 he wrote an essay "The third difficulty."

He explains how he chose the role of "People's Remembrancer." He gives his readers the feeling of Welsh through English. He uses the novel, already feared as giving way to other mass media, as his method of proclamation. He figures that Welsh culture within British society for him can best be transmitted by fiction. Still, confronted with a formidable series of interlinked novels demanding considerable grounding in mythic archetypes, the result of a small-press minimal audience for his works may not be surprising.

Bonds of Attachment (1991) includes episodes from the controversy over the investiture of Charles Windsor in 1969. This novel offers rich material for investigation, but Green prefers to pursue the mythic and historiographic aspects. She largely limits her study to postcolonial theory. Given this book presumably represents a revision of her dissertation and not a reproduction of it, this narrowed focus may not satisfy a reader seeking cultural relevance as well as critical theory.

Green elides a more pressing and less academic application. This analysis lacks attention to the political contexts in Wales at this time when the Penyberth impact, however long delayed, threatened to burst into renewed protests. These continued what Saunders Lewis, at Penyberth in 1936, called upon his countrymen to continue, and they broke his heart when none rose up. This episode was fictionalized in Humphreys' début The Little Kingdom (1946).

The complexities of a peaceful Christian ethos that may have led to the relative marginalization of Welsh republicanism as opposed to its physical-force Irish variety surely must have factored into Humphreys' fiction more than Green's work establishes in a few asides, mostly very early on. While the slow disintegration of non-conformist religious conventions surrounds Outside the House of Baal (1965), the pacifism and Christian idealism Humphreys shared with Lewis and other nationalists appears very muted in Green's critique. For study in literary criticism, her book fills a need. But it may leave an inquirer still wondering about Humphreys' semi-imaginary plots in relationship to the real-life Welsh predicaments faced by his neighbors and colleagues and readers since Penyberth. Three decades of frustration erupted into protests in 1969.

Bombings, jailings, censorship, arson against holiday and second-homes, marches demanding rebellion, calls against terrorism: these rocked Wales if on a small scale the past few decades. This is where the force of myth, after all, lands heaviest. History as lived and not only dramatized must run through Humphreys' work, determined as it is to convey Welsh implicated in postcolonial society. The subject of Green's work deserved more attention as a chronicler of these decades.  The Taliesin Tradition (1989) delves into the place of Welsh nationality within culture and language; Green understandably concentrates on the novels rather than this elegant study, but if she had expanded its role as a summation of Humphreys' ideological evolution, it would have enriched her theoretical and literary bases.

How did Humphreys invest his energy-- not only as mythologized, historically framed, or channeled overseas-- within his fictional inquiries about his native land under such pressures? Did Humphreys weary of protest and step aside into fiction as an escape? Did this "supranational language" succeed or fail him over half a century's output? How did his Welsh colleagues and English critics react to his efforts over these changing decades? What growth or retraction did his readership show? Her book elides such questions; it leaves one wondering the worth of some installments in a long series of demanding novels for an apparently small audience. 

Perhaps more immediacy comes not in novels, but what the news reports, or does not report, as John Humphries' Freedom Fighters?: Wales's Forgotten “War”, 1963-1993 narrates, starting with his walk-on role as a Cardiff Western Mail night-desk editor who took a call one night in 1966 that explosives were set at Clywedog reservoir. These detonations signalled that the spirit of Saunders Lewis would lead to the practical action and symbolic resistance begun at Penyberth. Thirty years on, protests against the British presence would reignite.

Nationalism revived in the early 1960s; postcolonialism proved more than theory. Underdeveloped, made redundant by mine closures, exploited, ignored, Welsh natives resented the English thirst for water. So close to Liverpool, the reservoir at Tryweryn inundated the village of Capel Celyn near Bala. In 1963, three men gathered to detonate the transformers. They represented Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, the Movement for the Defence of Wales (MAC).

MAC2, for Clywedog slightly reformed after its original members went to ground, continued what the Free Wales Army (FWA) then propagandized as a counterpart to Breton and especially Irish republicans. One of the bombers, Welsh-speaking farmer Owen Williams, had to flee during the mid-1960s to Ireland, to evade police capture. There, the FWA made contacts with Irish republicans. 

This episode has given rise to legendary tales that the Marxist-directed IRA sold off its arms to the Welsh, leaving the Irish ill-prepared to fight back when “the Troubles” returned three years later. Yet, Humphries downplays the actual exchanges of weaponry or explosives. Denis Coslett attracted too much attention to the FWA. He boasted of killer Alsatians ready for suicide missions, and he courted John Summers, a journalist inveigled in the fight for funds for the victims of the Aberfan coal-tip disaster in 1966. Summers appears to have finagled himself on behalf of the FWA to demand redress for the Aberfan claimants. Curiously, Humphries—who reveals Summers informed the authorities about his Welsh activist contacts-- ignores Summers’ 1970 paperback, The Disaster -- slightly revising his 1969 potboiler The Edge of Violence -- which dramatizes Summers’ involvement in Aberfan and sensationalizes the potential of FWA rebellion. 

The media, quick to leap on connections claimed (if satirized by such as Summers) between Fenians and Welsh hotheads, brought the Special Branch, founded to fight against Irish republicans a century earlier, to arrest and jail many innocent nationalists. Both the activists and the authorities stoked the fires that threatened, as the investiture of Charles Windsor as “prince of Wales” loomed in 1969, to kindle militarism in Wales similar to the Irish resurgence.

Humphries cites John Jenkins that Seán MacStiofáin, in 1968 soon to be “the founder of the breakaway Provisionals,” took from Jenkins the concept of a cellular structure for the PIRA. The conversion of the Provos to this non-hierarchical organisation took place nearly ten years later, after MacStiofáin had stepped down from his leadership role. Whatever impact Jenkins’ model had on the Irish campaign appears indirect and at considerable remove. 

This episode of Irish-Welsh contacts remains little investigated in Humphries’ book, perhaps due to reticence from those involved, perhaps out of a legend inflated out of a few casual contacts. This topic merited more attention. The pan-Celtic and Welsh countercultural milieus in which pop and folk musicians along with language activists revived political radicalism likewise gain scant coverage here. 

Any pan-Celtic contentions in Humphries' account stint on the details of what such alliances sought. He barely quotes from Roy Clews' To Dream of Freedom (1980 ed. cited; but rev. 2001). Humphries  glosses over Keith Griffiths (Gethin ap [ab?]Iestyn)  in his roles as propagandist for the Patriotic Front and Cofiwn. (Not to mention his role, recalling Emyr Humphries’ commemorative stance, via Gethin’s spirited website and republican-related archives at Welsh Remembrancer.) 

Such scarcity of firsthand testimony may also reflect a largely more self-effacing Welsh movement determined to avoid infiltration and informers, which had repeatedly weakened their Irish counterparts. The Welsh campaign’s two spokesmen tended towards grandiosity, while its operatives kept hidden. Griffiths, Jenkins, and a few others, perhaps no more than twenty-five identified members of the FWA, fronted a silent majority of grassroots sympathisers. Detectives were clueless about many who fought back. The authorities fumbled and followed many false trails. 

The FWA was “living on a legend of newspaper cuttings,” Griffiths admitted to its “commandant” Cayo Evans. (qtd. 98) Humphries compares their outbursts to a flailing by “a drowning man.” He lashes out in desperation to alert those long assimilated, too long complacent to danger from constant English in-migration and Welsh abandonment of its heritage. (65) 

This small band of Welshmen, some far more anglicized than Welsh-speaking, also split along political vs. linguistic necessities for their strategy to revive their embattled land’s culture. Luckily, a visit from “Red” Rudi Dutschke with MAC2 was aborted; British surveillance expelled him before links between German revolutionaries could be forged. Coslett and Evans, the self-proclaimed leaders, by their love of the limelight brought Griffiths to warn them of their antics. “There is nothing substantial behind us at all,” he warned in a letter found in a police raid at Evans’ farmhouse. (qtd. 98) 

Did these “freedom fighters” valiantly sustain the example of Penyberth’s fire-setting trio against the British bomber station on venerated Welsh land? Or, did they perpetuate the futile gestures of desperate cultural nationalists driven to protest the only way they could for attention, faced with an indifferent audience of those who had surrendered to the English incursion and the Welsh erosion? 

Early on Humphries pins blame. “But while the campaign of violent direct action had its genesis in nationalist virtues and goals, it was the failure of the patriotic foot soldiers to articulate their cause that allowed government to marginalize Welsh extremism as the action of crazed fanatics.” (15-16)

Two activists blew themselves up the night before the investiture ceremony; the bomb went off near the tracks that would carry the royal train to Caernarfon Castle, icon of imperial domination over the Crown’s first colony.  Charles was crowned; as crowds of his countrymen cheered, “MAC2’s chief bomb-maker, Sgt. John Jenkins, providing dental care for the troops on ceremonial duty, “ was the perfect mole, “at other times wandering around Caernarfon and being abused by locals on account of his uniform.” (127)

The next day, July 2, 1969, nine of Jenkins’ FWA comrades were sentenced. Griffiths alone refused what Evans and Coslett promised the court: to distance themselves from militant activity. They kept their word. A year later, Jenkins was captured and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He refused to name his accomplices. 

Faced with these men’s actions, Humphries examines if they were terrorists. He admits that “for all its eccentricities and blurred message,” their restrained response constituted the “only authentic Welsh uprising since Owain Glyndŵr.” (146) However, the caricaturing of Welsh republicans as “mad dogs,” Alsatians aside, contributed to the media’s defeat of nationalist-fueled radicalism. The language issue was left to Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, and many who fought for Welsh freedom lacked fluency in a language foreign to their upbringing. The political base, furthermore, never was allowed to emerge, unlike Sinn Féin’s role for the IRA. Republican traditions emerged more from the southern valleys as opposed to Y Fro Gymraeg, the Welsh-speaking northern and western heartlands under cultural assault. 

Welsh saboteurs lacked the popular if again reticent support afforded those a decade later. After the momentous defeat of devolution in 1979, shadowy guerrillas, as Meibion Glyndŵr, rallied under cover of darkness. For a third time this century, a few Welsh asserted themselves. Their linguistic heartland faded. Wealthier English bought its quaint dwellings, “Sons of” this leader (who resisted Westminster for fifteen years after declaring himself in 1400 Prince of Wales), decided to fight back with fire.  

Contrasted with those who took the fall for the pipeline bombings and attacks on buildings in the 1960s, why were any arsonists undetected for another ten years? They had clandestine backing, Humphries reasons, from the people. Folk heroes rather than incendiaries, they were not feared-- as were the 1960s bombers-- for importing leftist revolution.  Invented for Northern Ireland, the Prevention of Terrorism Act brought down its force upon Welsh suspects; again many were taken in without cause. The perpetrators eluded the law. Over two hundred holiday and second homes (often turned permanent residences, thus undermining Welsh culture even more) were burned over twelve years. 

Dignity despite destruction permeates this story. Imagine protests during the 1960s elsewhere with such polite signs as Capel Cefyn’s residents carried to Liverpool in vain: “Your homes are safe. Save ours. Do not drown our homes.” Or, “Please Liverpool, be a great city not a big bully.” (17) After the first attacks on homes in 1979, a note written in ballpoint pen was found:

“The houses were burnt with great sadness. We are not ferocious men. It was an act of despair. The rural areas are being destroyed all over these islands. Wales is our concern. These homes are out of reach of local people because of the economic situation. We call upon individuals of goodwill to take action before these sorry steps take place.” (qtd. 163) 

Emyr Humphreys sought to escape by fiction his homeland’s strife but his mythic models revived within his novels’ depictions of his neighbors and colleagues, caught in an anglicizing land that meant the author himself had to use “the language of the oppressor” to speak on behalf of his Celtic tribe. For a second author with nearly the same surname, also raised in an assimilated Welsh home and working for London’s mouthpiece, the “paper of record” in the Welsh capital, a similar journey back to the heartland occurs. Humphries does wander, during the 1980s, into his own entertaining but digressive stints abroad as a foreign correspondent, but he comes back to his homeland in 1988 aware that swerves away from the anglicized complacency of the Anglo-Welsh establishment may represent renewal. Under Margaret Thatcher’s closing of the mines and privatization of steel, the Welsh workers capitulated, as despair fueled reaction vs. resignation. One-third of North Walians are English-born.  Cohesive communities-- to where Lewis and Humphreys as young men had left their cities to learn Welsh-- have dispersed. 

Humphries closes his study integrating his own reflections. His own transformation from editor for a pro-British, anti-Walian Cardiff newspaper into a critic of Westminster demonstrates a telling shift. He supports Welsh autonomy and welcomes his grandson, raised speaking Cymraeg. He critiques the pacifism of Plaid Cymru’s Gwynfor Evans as “fundamentally incompatible with Welsh freedom.” (191) Whereas Emyr Humphries shared with Evans and Lewis the traditional non-conformist avowal of a Christian socialism (an aspect deserving here as with Green more than a cursory nod) refusing to countenance rebellion by armed means, Humphreys allies himself with those tired of Plaid’s careful retreat into quietism. He backs (if for awhile) Cymru Annibynnol/ Independent Wales Party and its refusal to support the 2001 census which denied Welsh their ability to tick a box for their identity. 

This editor, now retired from the fray, ends with a recapitulation of flashpoints for Welsh resistance. In-migration from England, the concomitant reduction of the Welsh-speaking heartlands, and the recurring water demands from its larger, thirstier neighbor add up. They summarize grim assurances that the seven million sterling spent to crush a few dozen rebels in the 1960s may pale before the costs accrued by those complicit in cultural, linguistic, political, and ecological destruction of a long-exploited nation.

Slightly revised and altered for Amazon US 8-14-12:Freedom Fighters and  Emyr Humphries

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