Showing posts with label Welsh culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Welsh culture. Show all posts

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ronald Hutton's "Blood & Mistletoe": Book Review

As the leading social historian of pagan movements today, Professor Hutton explores how the Druids, from the scant literary accounts left by their foes and by the few material traces left by themselves, have been interpreted over 2,000 years. He focuses upon their appropriation as cultural symbols, for better or worse, by the English, Welsh, and Scots. They have presented these ancient practitioners of wisdom and magic as demonic, romantic, proto-Protestant, anti-Catholic, death-obsessed, and/or socialist.

This broad array of categories demonstrates both the scope of the research necessary to uncover such traces in the British imagination, and the skill with which Dr. Hutton applies his understanding of historical bias and wish fulfillment to all who seek to claim or condemn the Druids as ancestors of the island’s three major nations.

Frequently, Professor Hutton notes how he had to condense an already massive study. This expands his popular 2007 study, and the endnotes, small print, and the elevated tone (leavened by humor as with his other books) do not detract from its readability for an audience committed to the advanced degree of both sympathy and distance which the author brings to his project.

He has gained in past work the cooperation of those who, as neo-Pagans, his own research has helped to challenge in terms of their own “origin myths.” Professor Hutton should earn again the respect of those open minds within the pagan community for his honesty, acumen, and fairness.

Blood & Mistletoe reminds us of the manner in which historians carry into the past their own present preoccupations. As a case study in the reconstruction of a barely-glimpsed group for whom linguistic or archeological evidence remains notoriously perplexing, the way in which scholars as well as seekers have labored to recreate the Druids in the images of their own ages and mentalities serves as its own testament to history’s inherent bias.

As soon as the Druids were introduced by such as Julius Caesar and Tacitus to their Roman audience, the priest(esse)s were caricatured as wise magicians (mistletoe) or barbarian butchers (blood). As with the Scottish highlanders or Native Americans cleared off their lands only then to be celebrated by their colonial conquerors, so, Professor Hutton demonstrates, the Druids were romanticized by the Romans after they had been castigated as savages. The evidence for an Iron Age Druid as selected from surviving later Celtic texts combined with archeological data, Dr. Hutton asserts, becomes warped by “the instincts, attitudes, context, and loyalties” of the interpreter.

Tracking the next 16 centuries, Dr. Hutton surveys the building of the legend. Historians, he explains, tend to follow a “hard” approach that favors a bold intervention by a person who shakes up the world, or a “soft” one that follows the cultural, political, and social shifts whose dramatic results may be delayed until the right person comes along. For this tale, William Stukeley follows the latter definition. His attempts to interpret the stone circles and monuments that puzzled the British ensured his popularity. He began by claiming a less Christian framework for their construction, but his increasing piety then led him to shift his argument. Either way, his influence persists even today among certain—if decidedly “alternative”—adepts.

Iolo Morganwg, the name assumed by Edward Williams later in the 18th century, follows Stukeley. The chapter on his checkered career as a “wayward genius” as determined to forge a future for the Welsh who resisted Anglicization and British imperial control shimmer with insight. It displays Professor Hutton’s command of complexity, for Iolo’s mission confounded a nation. Morganwg tainted the medieval Welsh-language sources he claimed to discover and edit. He ensured that the culturally threatened Welsh people would be trapped in their recovery of their own history as one in which truth and falsehood had been intermingled by him over decades, in ways so intricate that it took many years and considerable scholarship by experts to correct for some of the forgeries he crafted as claims of archaic Welsh rituals, legends, and occult practices.

However, from his entry into the historical record, Morganwg also inspired his fellow men and women to reclaim the practices of the Druids as they imagined them to have been carried out long ago. The traditions, albeit invented ones, have energized Welsh-language culture ever since. These also influenced the Georgian and Romantic poets and scholars who across Western Europe as well as in Scotland and England struggled to build frameworks based on Celtic and Scandinavian myth, the classic texts, and the Bible “in which to contain the early European past.”

When science emerged with Darwin to undermine biblical models of progress, antiquarians and then archeologists rushed in. By their own cultural assumptions via “explanatory models” stamped by their own time and place, they intruded heavily upon the same limited, fragile, evidence.

For nearly a century and a half, English figures of white-clad Druids (assembled as spiritual practitioners and as mutual support societies) have concocted their own ceremonies, fashions, and origins, based on Stukeley, Morganwg, and the nearly as challenging countercultural characters from long before the hippie era, first the formidably eccentric William Price and later the Universal Bond as headed by the intransigent George Watson MacGregor Reid. Price and Reid intriguingly shared a determination to legalize cremation, one of the many byways that this book reveals as it delves into the underbrush of British popular culture and social change from progressive and dissident forces. From the 1920s onward, the spiritualist and then New Age movements also overlapped with those who called themselves Druids, harbingers of change.

The familiar processions chanting around Stonehenge and similar Stone Age sites, as Dr. Hutton shows in English Victorian and early 20th century commemorations, have become less the radical, secular, or early countercultural protests they appeared to traditional Christians and more, by the advent of the rock-and-roll era, a sign of British tradition against modernity.

Full of anachronism, nevertheless these Druids came to stand for an enduring summer solstice tradition of their own. This modern invention on June 21st has persisted, on if often off, since the 1860s.

Even as the Bible was discredited and Darwin deified by many who shared the leftist mindsets of many Druid adherents, problems persisted among those who claimed to correct earlier misinterpretations. Popular perceptions a hundred years ago settled upon a romantic, Celtic visualization; secular scientists looked not to the Bible itself but to the same Middle Eastern roots for a civilization that dispersed its lore across the world, all the way to pre-Roman Britain. Professor Hutton incorporates his own knowledge of recent scholarship and his schooling with some leading scholars who proclaimed this model of diffusion from a far-off land of knowledge.

This section bogged down with intricate debates among archeologists, but even at its densest, the range of sources and energy brought to this project displays the professor’s sharp mind and generous spirit. The novelty of the Druids whose archives he scours appears to have lessened, despite the charges kept alive by a few reactionary Christians of their murderous sacrifices of babies, prisoners, and criminals.

I admit with surprise that recent film treatments such as The Wicker Man were not analyzed, and as the professor admits, nearly nothing seems oddly to remain extant of memoirs or accounts by the common folks who joined the Druid organizations in the past few centuries. However, this is already a substantial, long, and very detailed book.

Finally, Professor Hutton shows the mingling of those who speak for and then as the Druids—Stukeley, Morganwg, Reid foremost—as also those who make up its rogues’ gallery. Mingled deceit and honesty persists in this clever trio. They all provoked controversy and then shunned the limelight once public opinion fanned by prejudice or ridicule turned against them. Later, it edged toward them, attesting to their own adroit manipulation of a certain kind of media magic.

Secrecy endures as the ultimate legacy of this mysterious movement, then as now. Professor Hutton has uncovered and shared with us all he is able to in a book of 500 learned but accessible pages. It should remain the definitive source, not on the Druids about whom we know so few facts, but on those who claim in their homelands to remain true to their enigmatic but compelling spirit, thousands of years later. (Featured May 10, 2011 at the New York Journal of Books)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Aneurin Gareth Thomas' "Luggage from Elsewhere": Book Review

This coming-of-age story spans 1966-82, narrated by a Welsh lad embittered by poverty, colonialism, nuclear threats, sex, drugs, overdoses, murder, and rain. While familiar ingredients in a standard recipe, Thomas does add sobering, poetic observations that enrich the tale. For readers interested in Wales in the "nuclear age", the hippie and punk movements, Thatcherism, and activism, this may prove a worthwhile selection.

In a society where females have only two choices: girl or mother, the narrator's maudlin Mam takes until menopause to become a woman. Her husband, a militantly and comically atheistic womanizer, with his mates down the pub "talked about the future as if there wasn't going to be one." (41) Welsh men later will earn pithy definition: machines converting beer into sperm.

The chapters of the tale told by the nameless narrator unfold out of order. Throughout, it's nearly always dreary. "Greyness wasn't only a colour in those days but a transparent substance that wafted day and night around our streets, a Passover curse that came calling through the keyhole, wandered about the house looking for grey matter, and on entering the brain, turned thoughts and feelings grey." (231)

Nature offers scant escape. One must conjure up one's dreams out of the daily grind. "Below an oil tanker stationed in the distance looked like a castle on a flat blue horizon. Seaweed washed up and dried under the sun as snakeskins. Foam met the grey-green of the sea. I walked along the shore among the sea's bones, passing boys my age playing at being younger with a plastic beach ball carried over the heads of a young family. A woman alone hoping for a lifeguard to stroke oil over her back, whisk her glasses and scarf away and take her back to when she was twenty. Men playing cards and holding in their stomachs, thinking if only the scarf would ask." (138)

The narrator thunders against complacency, the resignation of his people. As a teenager, he's threatened by English gentry for poaching trout in the river of a nation where he thought he could walk freely. As a young adult, he wanders to a hippie camp, but there he finds lassitude as the campers wait for mushrooms to grow under the torrential clouds. Idealism inspires him, desperately. "Our first act was to write on a wall next to the bank on High Street Gorseinon the slogan 'Nid Yw Cymru Ar Werth'. Wales Is Not For Sale." (189) However, they "only got as far as writing NID YW CYMRU before being interrupted and we ran off." The partial slogan stands a few months as testimony to their bravery: it's rendered in English as "WALES IS NOT."

Wales under Thatcher drives the narrator and three friends to lash out. As Bore Coch ("Red Morning"), they issue a manifesto written in English, laboriously translated into Welsh, and back to English. "The last thing we wanted was to sound like an amateurish group that represented nobody and faked the Welsh, which was precisely what we were." (202-3) Nobody prints it.

Later, he will try another slogan which will wind him up in jail. He reflects there on his town, and the Welsh promise of his youth: "Where the children played, the next generation numbed the brain with pinpricks before the comedown of bus shelters covered in porn." (286) While the narrative for my tastes closed far too suddenly, perhaps the new novel by Thomas, titled "Excess Baggage," will continue the story.
(Posted to Amazon U.S. and Britain 9-25-09)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Grahame Davies' "Everything Must Change": Book Review

"She was sick of living like a character in a morality play." Simone Weil's story of her strange self-martyrdom for her mystical ideal of a community she felt exiled from by her very existence, during WWII, has been often told. Grahame Davies expands his Welsh novel, based on his study of Weil, to dramatize her own abnegation alongside that of Meinwen Jones, a contemporary Welsh-language activist, who like Weil feels the tug of rootedness and the agony as one of "Capitalism's sulky runaway children." (214)

Novels of ideas that engage you with convincing characters, realistic events, and a touch of sharp satire along with humanist compassion: very rare. Davies never loses grasp of his complicated narrative juggling as he shows you with wit and insight the costs of sacrificing your life for an ideal. This book flows: every sentence fits.

Neither preachy nor pat, Davies brings a vividly rendered eye and a sharp ear to how we delude ourselves as we compromise youthful ideals so as to survive. As Meinwen's told late on, charm can better challenge, and promotion can triumph where protest may fail. She's let in on this by a Tory politician-- who gains as fair a treatment as does she-- similarly a Fascist student and a German cabbie who voted for Hitler emerge as human as a Dominican priest and a right-wing Christian leader will for Simone. Davies even-handedly observes among a cast of compellingly drawn characters the tensions between giving in and holding out that-- to a limit-- Simone and Meinwen share, while as a storyteller he filters their own strong convictions through those around them who cannot sacrifice themselves for a rarified ideology.

Simone works at a Renault factory but sees it more as if her laboring guide's a Virgil to her Dante; on a farm she marvels at a Van Gogh-like Provencal landscape that her hosts certainly have never seen in any museum. She's always at a remove from her world. She loves it, but she feels the scenes she savors would be fresher if removed from her taint, her sight, her presence. The same dissatisfaction with the body-mind problem, the surrender to the ordinary, the duty to be sensible drives Meinwen to political resistance. Her deep unhappiness stems from the same idealism, but she lacks Simone's curiously unorthodox Catholic vision. As the daughter of two Jews who rejected their faith, her father an atheist and her mother a Catholic convert, Simone's labeled as one of a "race" she tries to reject. Yet, she cannot enter the Church. She stands apart from all she admires. Fittingly, she will be buried on the border of a cemetery, between the Christian and Jewish sections.

Meinwen once hung with other activists in the Welsh Language Movement; for a while in the '80s they tried to separate and live against capitalism by supporting local businesses. Yet, flyblown shops run by old women vanish; inferior products in village stores lure customers to slick global chains; few can afford to live off the land as real estate skyrockets and only the English can buy up the family farms.

An activist's car sums up the hopes of a Celtic, leftist, anarchic Welsh scheme. "The only thing holding it up seemed to be the stickers: Kernow; Breizh; Nuclear Energy? No Thanks; Stop the War; Not in My Name. Words like 'No', 'Not', 'Stop' and 'Never' were prominent on these fading signs of adherence, recording, as they did, a series of attempts, most of them failed, to prevent things from happening. The back of Mei's car was a social history of Welsh radicalism." (204)

The larger tale of how Wales under siege by anglicization is a long one; what's new now is the rate of deracination of the Welsh-speaking heartlands as English home-buyers flood in to pay as the highest bidders for affordable rural splendor. Farms wither, locals emigrate to towns, and their children leave for cities. New Age Celts, patronizing settlers, and Celt-aping crusties fill the valleys. Meinwen lives in the old manse next to a closed chapel, which is bought by spiritual healers from Cheshire playing a didgeridoo. They erase, literally, the signs of the old Nonconformist church's communal and ancestral markers.

Cardiff grows in Welsh speakers, yet without a rural base for culture, can urbane Cymru replace what closed chapels, resentful natives, and displaced incomers call the rest of Wales as it turns a weekend retreat, a bedroom suburb of Merseyside or Bristol? Around an affluent Welsh-speaking cafe, the old landscapes hang as pictures. The customers thrive on media ties, grant money, and investment schemes meant to rescue Wales, but how much success the ordinary people gain's rather suspect. The yuppies boast of Thai holidays, pitches, goods, money. The abandoned vistas of their grandparents hang silently: "All safely preserved under glass."

The relevance of Christian pacifism, the difficulty of protecting land values while allowing for a free market, the longing for roots, and the yearning for fulfillment: these in tangential and direct ways join Simone's campaigns with Meinwen's. Simone's words are recalled by Meinwen: "Whoever is uprooted uproots others. Whoever is rooted himself does not uproot others." (196) Davies does not overdo their many parallels. He frees his plot from a slavish capitulation of one woman's determination as yoked to the other. This eases the heady quality of much of this readable and engrossing presentation of two women's prickly, combative, yet appealingly lofty and admirably noble mindsets. They may be crackpots in the eyes of society, but from such visionaries, legacies endure that may better those who follow. Or, they may warp and crush their weakened standard bearers.

Weil late on left a message worth hearing. Her brilliance confused her confidantes. It shows her mix of earnest evangelism and otherworldly concern. She sought a French-Hellenic-Christian purging of capitalism. Influenced by anarcho-syndicalism, Simone envisioned an intellectual's utopia where ennobled workers could share wisdom, not merely to be worn out by fatigue into foolish drinking or brainless games. This goal may reflect her worldly detachment, but she did try in her adult life to care for, as well as identify, with those less fortunate. Speaking eight languages, she could have been a professor. She chose rather a single woman's mission, in the service of an organic yet ethereal philosophy reified as a tireless if enigmatic vocation.

Here's a typical expression of Simone's mature thought. "No human being should be deprived of what the Greeks named the metaxu, things seen as bridges between the temporal world and the timeless: those relative and mixed blessings, such as home, nation, traditions, culture, which provide warmth and nourishment for the soul and without which, unless one is a saint, human life is impossible..." (250) Simone did strive for sainthood, outside a Christian baptism, estranged from her attenuated Judaism. Meinwen searches daily to recover a Welsh-speaking culture that will sustain her native land and enrich those who live in it, by a language older than English.

The deftness with which Davies evokes the clash of high motives with mundane demands makes the novel lighter, for Simone can be abrupt, abrasive, and lacking in nearly all social graces; Meinwen wonders if she can learn to temper her own isolated devotion. Whether or not she can ease up, or whether she will eerily follow Simone's own self-starvation in a confused attempt to become more saintly in her purified commitment remains for you to discover. (Posted 9-24-09 to British and U.S. Amazon, speaking of global chains...) [Author's website]

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

John Davies' "A History of Wales": Book Review


Just over seven-hundred pages in paperback, this updated narrative spans it all, from prehistory to devolution. Its bulk belies its often remarkable readability. Translated in 1993 by the author from the 1990 Welsh-language edition, with an eleventh chapter added to the 2007 revision, Davies' coverage keeps energy and verve despite an inevitable recital of lots of names, dates, statistics, and data.

This makes it a challenge, naturally, to read straight through-- if with many breaks! Still, as a reference, my copy's filled with notations now. While the lack of footnotes or a bibliography (due to the length of the body of the text already) may discourage researchers slightly, the value of a one-volume, thorough, and accessible work remains inestimable to scholars and a wider audience both.

Davies keeps a winningly low-key presence. As a skilled interpreter, he presents heaps of evidence through which he's sifted the wheat from the chaff. The labor must have been immense. He gives you material, and then steps back to sum it up in a striking phrase now and then, as an experienced lecturer may do. "The nation of the Welsh was conceived on the death-bed of the Roman Empire; it was born in the excitement of the 'Age of Saints' but its infancy was meagre and lonely. Yet, as shall be seen, it would have an exhilarating adolescence." (77) So ends the chapter on the early medieval period-- one of the most difficult to explain based on the least evidence, but a section I found captivating.

Although Davies never explains this directly, he organizes each chapter around the rhetorical device of a triad-- commonly used in old Welsh as a memory aid for bards. While this remains rather subtle, it's a clever nod to the past legacy that sustains the present exploration of what it means to be Welsh, always defined as both the oldest British and, as the terms warp, a "foreigner" in one's own homeland. This challenge remains. The last chapter looks at incomers and how they've transformed "y Gymru Gymraeg"-- the formerly Welsh-speaking heartland. "Pont," a "bridge" program aimed at newcomers to teach them about local culture, rests on a shaky metaphor: "the essence of a bridge is that the piers on either side are of equal strength; that was hardly true of the pier of Englishness and the pier of Welshness." (689)

Speaking of architecture, many tourists today, along with the "heritage industry," romanticize old fortifications. Davies, typically, balances his judgment.
"The castles can be considered to be shameful memorials to the subjugation of the Welsh-- 'the magnificent badges of our subjection' as Thomas Pennant put it. Yet, when it is considered that the medieval military architect's science and art at the height of their development were necessary to ensure that subjection, the castles may be seen as a tribute to the tenacity of the resistance of the Welsh, as eloquent testimony to the immensity of the task of uprooting from Wales the rule of the Welsh." (167)

This exemplifies the depth of this study. Davies cites a telling phrase from a venerable scholar two hundred years previous to him. He acknowledges its truth, while circling around it for a fresh perspective that confirms its necessity while directing our attention to its opposite, or complimentary in more peaceful times, corollary. And, he strives for fair-mindedness rather than jingoism or revisionism.

For such legends and identities last long in Wales. Treating a period of tranquility within an often fractious later medieval period of increasingly English-inflicted domination, Davies notes how myths played a dual role in exacerbating wrath and reconciling defeat. Myths "were a cry against the extinction of identity and against the tyranny of fact." (180)

Later, Davies relates the gradual capitulation to imperial rule, and the often enthusiastic participation by the Welsh in the colonial enterprises at home and abroad. Imbued with Non-Conformist and even pacifist Christian tendencies, the Welsh proved rather an anomaly in more recent centuries. Their literacy rates soared as the Bible was translated into the people's native tongue, and this education prepared them better than other Celts, perhaps, to face the assaults of modernity and industrialization that kept many Welsh at home rather than forcing them to emigrate. So many that at one point about half of all the workers in Wales directly or indirectly depended on King Coal. He sums up the change: "In Merthyr, even a labourer owned a watch." (340)

The century of mining domination is introduced by a particularly masterful seventh chapter that ties together dozens of threads into a rich tapestry of rebellion, technology, language, worship, and politics in the early 1800s. While I found myself a bit glazed by the subsequent treatment of Gladstone and Liberals-- the book here as in sections closer to our times does get heavily weighed down by parliamentarian election results and inter-party contentions-- I was roused by the chapter on the early 20th century. Davies seems to revive and his pace quickens.

Radicalism and Christian values contended and co-existed in complex fashions in modern times. Conservatism influenced the nature of the language movement, as advocates sometimes argued that Cymraeg shielded its speakers from harmful foreign ideas. Others urged anglicization as a remedy for poverty and a charm for wealth. Unlike Ireland, the factions for independence by violent means were few, and generally the Welsh have accepted their position, Davies charts, within a kingdom as a principality, rather than as a polity demanding separation by language or ideology. Here, Davies seems to align with Gwyn A. Williams, whose "When Was Wales?" (1983; reviewed by me here and on Amazon US last month) sets out a similar understanding.

Of course, whereas Williams concluded in the first term of Thatcher, Davies continues the saga through the collapse of mining, the rise to nearly half (as of 2003) of all births being out of wedlock, and the increasing visibility of Welsh-language media and English-language usage. He contrasts in the last chapter many ramifications of the narrow decision to accept in 1997 a degree of limited self-rule that was trounced in 1979. He leaves us with a survey of a more diverse, less Welsh-Wales-centered constituency in this region. One where the areas nearest the borders hold most of its people, often in defiance of stereotypes peddled by the Welsh themselves, it's an intriguingly perplexing realm. It's the oldest remaining bastion of Britishness, one marginalized, determined, and always, it seems, somehow declining while reviving.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Niall Griffiths interview at AmeriCymru


Celebrating daffodils on St. David's Day, national holiday for Wales, here's a discussion with one of my favorite authors, a Liverpudlian novelist of half-Welsh, half-Irish parentage. Known more for the former than the latter genetic inheritance, at least as concentrated in his nervy, funny, and harrowing fiction that often explores the tension between incomer and native, his often hapless, yet still rather heroic, children of the rave and lager, disco and drugs scenes instigate a new series of incursions. These disaffected youths wander in rattling sub-compacts, hitching rides or waiting by dismal petrol stations. Loaded on cans of beer and packets of crisps, fingers greasy with chips, hands stained by nicotine, fumbling across not the Marches so much as down the road past Wrexham that separates Cymry Cymraeg, Welsh-speaking heartlands, from English-dominant everywhere else.

I've enjoyed his début, the massive and as I guessed vaguely (as all first novels seem to be) semi-autobiographical "Grits." This 2000 text delved into the human detritus left by hedonism in the backwash, geologically and morally, of the Thatcher era. The strip-mall, mercury-lit, beach resort grime sinks into this narrative, and the squalor of squatters on the dole contrasted with the ecstasy on E energizes and dissipates. It's probably one of the best recent attempts I've read (not that I've found many) to explore the highs and lows of the psychedelic experience, at least as I imagine in my innocence how such could be!

He followed with a novel that earned him a comparison that's dogged him, however well intended, with Scots contemporary Irvine Welsh, with "Sheepshagger" (2001). Without spoiling the plot, the inclusion of molestation, which to me seems too often an easy plot contrivance, only slightly lessens the power of this work, perhaps his most renowned. It's a savage and poetic tale, fitting the mountains where its battles unfold. Allegorical without losing touch with the everyday, it's a work I recommend. Griffiths began as a poet, and like Gerard Donovan, the Irish novelist from a similar start, his craft benefits from this apprenticeship.

"Kelly + Victor" (2002) shifts to a gentrifying Liverpool and the S&M relationship of a young pair of lovers who try to make a living amidst the yuppie boom, marginalized from the prosperity of the millennium's turn. While intriguing, it's quite relentlessly clinical. Told in the first half from one side and then the other, the fictional diptych fits together as snugly as the couple, at least on a good night. Technically a bit more daring, it may satisfy those wanting more psychological tension; while I prefer his other works, "K + V" marks his mature determination to apply the panoramic eye to Liverpool as he already has for Wales.

His hometown's half-criminal element also features in the next pair of novels, "Stump" (2003) & "Wreckage" (2005), which make a wonderful tag-team, as they track a couple of clueless amateurs in the aftermath of a roadside heist that leads them into the chemical underground, so to say, of big-city cartels. The conclusion of "Stump" reminds me of a comedy about crooks that ends perfectly. The fact that it doesn't for those involved spawns the rare sequel that equals its predecessor. There's marvelously related fights, conversations that rival Beckett, and the balance between humor and pathos Griffiths handles with increasing ease.

In the interview, Griffiths tells about "Runt" (2006), not seen yet by me. His novels don't get widely published abroad, and invariably I hear about them long after they're out! It's told from a young girl's perspective in her words, so this marks a departure from the voice that often relies on a indirect free and omniscient p-o-v. Griffiths deserves acclaim, and I've championed all of his previous works on Amazon US. He's also prepared books on "Real Aberystwyth"--where he lives now-- and "Real Liverpool." Another book (I reckon a novel?), "Ten Pound Pom," from its title sounds promising, being slated for print this year.

He seems, so far from my five lengthy encounters, to be improving and streamlining his style. It's his intelligent, inquiring analysis that seeks to burrow into the mind and consciousness of those less intelligent, less inquiring who manage to blurt out their stories to you: a difficult feat to pull off convincingly. His enthusiasm for writing-- as you glimpse in this interview-- should inspire you to seek out his enlightening yet entertaining books.

Link: "Interview with Niall Griffiths". Photo: Instead of the one publicity shot that's ubiquitous and that I already used when reviewing "Wreckage" here earlier, I found this of a Finnish translation. Can't tell what, but 2008's mentioned in the blurb. It best captures his typical character's louche (second time that adjective came in handy this week) aplomb. P.S. Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus! Happy St. David's Day.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dafydd Jenkins' "A Nation on Trial: Penyberth 1936": Book Review

Does a moral law overrule that of the State? What happens if you reject violent protest, but you still fight back practically? Can military installations turn legitimate targets for anti-war activists? Symbolically, would a small act of damage to an RAF bombing school turn a nation away from craven submission or economic capitulation to its dominant, ruling neighbor?

These questions, posed by later radicals such as the Catonsville Five, have been debated for centuries by theologians, judges, citizens, and especially among members of an oppressed minority faction. Schoolteacher D. J. Williams, Baptist preacher Lewis Valentine, and university lecturer Saunders Lewis directed their rage, only after eloquent and learned appeals to the Crown. The English-- who previously had saved a similar site in England for the preservation of swans-- determined to go on. As usual, the Welsh had been ignored, patronized, or ridiculed.

The English, preparing for another world war, built a bombing range and training school on the Welsh-speaking bastion, pilgrimage-hallowed trails, and natural beauty spot of the Llŷn peninsula in Caernarfon, beyond Pwllheli. While some locals welcomed the jobs this project would bring during the Depression, most Welsh people who were polled opposed this intrusion into an ecologically fragile and linguistically sensitive region. I reckon this may have been one of the first instances in a Celtic country when these two causes were explicitly linked.

Jenkins wrote this account originally in 1937 (in Welsh "Tân yn Llŷn" or "The Fire at Lleyn") six months after the trial for arson of what came to be known as "the Three" at what must have been a very young age, for he offers sixty years later an updated forward to this 1998 edition. Williams, Valentine, and Lewis were tried first by a Welsh court in Caernarfon and then, under great publicity for the refusal of the men to testify in English but only in Welsh, as moved to the Old Bailey in London. As with perhaps in more tense circumstances the arrests and executions of the Irish rebels after the 1916 Rising met at first with disdain or indifference among many of their countrymen and women who soon would rally to the Cause-- many Welsh people appear to have back then regarded "the Three" as cranks or crooks. They failed to ignite a national rebellion. Yet, their stance inspired those who had relegated the tiny Nationalist party Plaid Cymru to the far margins; from 1936 on, the momentum steadily grew, if slowly, for a revival of the language and a maturity in what would control the direction of Welsh nationalism.

Their decision to not only do damage to the military base, however minor, but to turn themselves in immediately so as to demand their right to be heard by a jury of their linguistic peers in a Welsh court, so as to make their case known to a wide audience in an honest and principled fashion, certainly speaks highly for their daring P.R. ploy. Jenkins offers a carefully presented depiction of the background, the arson, the two trials, and the stirring testimony of Valentine and Lewis.

The minister proclaimed his allegiance: "It was my responsibility for the Kingdom of God in Wales which led me to strike a blow for Wales in this act, since there is a higher law than the law of the English state-- our allegiance to Christianity is higher--"(at this point the judge interrupts; 74) Valentine defends their destruction as a means to alert people to the threat that war, ammunition, and imperialism represent for a nation that never invaded another land, and for a people who asked to be left in peace, free from the carpet bombing and mass murder that would soon overcome Europe again.

Comparisons between "the Three" to Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama may or may not have been made before, but they'd be intriguing ones. Do you go limp before the fire hoses? The later president of Plaid, Gwynfor Evans, twice to my knowledge went on hunger strikes: do these offer a sensible offensive? How far can totally non-destructive protest go? Can there be, as some argued in Irish republicanism, legitimate economic targets that can be hit, with no risk for loss of life? Could this provide strategies for an alternative radicalism? Or, especially post 9/11, must we expect only "state-sponsored terrorism" to be met by state-sponsored aggression in an endless if sanctioned war on terror levied from us all?

For Lewis, his intellectual rationale overlaps with Valentine's Christian antinomianism, but this critic of Welsh literature tends to assert a subtly structured, yet boldly stated, rationale. He regards the arson as another lesson to prove his studies relevant, to assert a Welsh Wales. As president of Plaid Cymru, he had and has often been denigrated as a highbrow out of touch with popular instincts. Yet he roused a few (under Evans) who led the party into a resurgence. Their rearguard stance in retrospect may have saved much of what remnants remained of Cymraeg or Cymry Cymraeg from annihilation under cultural colonial carpet bombings.

I cite at length from Lewis' defense, for his statement deserves consideration in the wake of what has happened among many liberation movements and freedom fighters before-- and since.
"I have repeatedly and publicly declared that the Welsh nation must gain its political freedom without resort to violence or physical force. It is a point I wish to affirm today. And I submit to you that our action in burning the Penrhos aerodrome proves the sincerity of this affirmation. Had we wished to follow the methods of violence with which national minority movements are sometimes taunted, and into which they often are driven, nothing could have been easier than for us to ask some of the generous and spirited young men of the Welsh Nationalist Party to set fire to the aerodrome and get away undiscovered."


The strategy had been deployed to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the Union in 1536. The marches and petitions had not worked. The Welsh needed, Lewis and his colleagues reasoned, an event to rally around. He continues that "the Three" had "determined to prevent any such development" as a regression into mob rule or assaults by vigilantes and fires set under darkness. Instead, they vowed to take responsibility for their crime, and then in court to aver it was no crime at all.

"When all democratic and peaceful means of persuasion had failed to obtain even a hearing for our case against the bombing range, and when we saw clearly the whole future of Welsh tradition threatened as never before in history, we determined that even then we would invoke only the process of law, and that a jury from the Welsh people should pronounce on the right and wrong of our behaviour." (77)


This savvy ploy earned them a degree of attention, if less than might have been expected. John Davies in his forward examines the mixed legacy of Penyberth's burning, for it meant Plaid members expected their leaders to suffer trials and incarceration on behalf of those at large, afforded "delightful political thrills." (xi) Ann Corkett's translator's note cautions that the tactical side of Lewis may have been obscured by his rhetorical stand. Yet, as she agrees, our knowledge in hindsight of what Jenkins may not have known in 1937 regarding legal countermoves by the defence does not diminish the real risk "the Three" took. The maximum sentence of penal servitude for life may not likely have been employed, but it remained an option for this trio of mild, kindly, and sensitive men who faced the possibility of prison.

This book originally appeared while they still served their terms. A brief appendix sums up the main players, an afterword recaps the reasons why Penyberth had been so highly regarded by lovers of Welsh culture, and a bibliography in both languages steers readers further along a fascinating episode in Welsh history, as well as a precursor for other such principled reactions to power and war later last century. One wonders if a Tibetan, Cuban, Palestinian, or Chinese reader might learn about Penyberth today, in some half-forgotten library. While not an easy book to procure even in its reprinted editions, it remains a thoughtful and valuable account of how ordinary folks can stand up to tyranny, however benignly or inevitably masked.

(Posted today to the half-forgotten listings of Amazon in US & Britain.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Essentially Welsh Pop Music?

Here's my latest contribution to the AmeriCymru discussion forum about Welsh Rock Music, or its lack. Dave Martin posted lamenting how derivative Welsh bands sound. I earlier commented asking if there's any way ultimately to make a Celtic-language sung pop-rock music true to its cultural roots, if so many groups parrot the latest sounds from Anglo-American centers of production.

Dave Martin, I know what you mean, even sober as I am (now!). What Sarah Hill in her book [ "Blerwytirhwng:" See my review on Amazon and this blog] struggles with and to me does not articulate fully is how you take reggae, post-punk, folk rock, or psychedelia and infuse them with an undeniably Welsh essence. That exists (I'd suggest tentatively as an outsider looking in hearing the music but without intimate connection with Cymru I confess-- that's why I am here to listen and learn) in snatches here and there when I hear in what's sung in Cymraeg a whiff of a deeper link to the land and mythos and hiraeth. But, I too am trapped as a faraway fan, like those art schoolers who founded folk rock bands in Britain in the later 60s; I am trying to romanticize gwerin from my urban perch.

Ireland has, if I may compare, a solid trad scene, of course, but they have failed to produce any musicians able to jump from the trad to the pop or rock while sticking to a Celtic language. I have a new wave record in Irish that's dreck. I think it was the only one of its genre ever made.

Horslips in the 70s went back and forth between electric folk, trad, and hard-rock but they emulated in the end the slick West Coast El Lay studio sound and their success foundered as they tried to match Jethro Tull's arena anthems. Liam Ó Maonlaí on "Rian" (Hothouse Flowers), Iarla Ó Líonaird (on Peter Gabriel's label, tellingly), and Peadar Ó Riada on his two records in the mid-90s to my limited knowledge came closest to integrating a complex world-music inspired approach into their trad, blended with an indie-label rockish eclecticism. This seemed the most promising direction, but this also can dissolve seductively into meaningful moans above mushy synths and flutes stacked atop didgeridoos and tribal drums. (See: Peter Gabriel.)

Sorry to sound like the wannabee rock critic, but I concur with Dave's complaint here: there's a persistent difficulty in locating a tangible substance in music from Wales as truly different. You can't stick lyrics in another language atop the same old pop or folk or rock groove from Anglo-American conventions, and claim some triumph for Celtic reclamation of culture. This remains the problem with asserting there's some essential (that adjective again) difference in Welsh-language music that follows London or LA-based trends. Not sure if this will ever happen for anybody in the Celtic lands making music in the wake of the domination of the international pop conglomerate that shapes and segregates and reproduces our market-tested tunes.

Yet, one last comment. Hill notes how long the Welsh-pop evolution took; there was not a professional rock-pop band able to survive on their music alone until well into the 70s, and as long for a full LP! The whole pop music scene took much longer to evolve in Wales, whether folk and pop in the 60s, rock in the 70s, or punk and reggae in the 80s. The organic sound of The Band that Dave admires itself took patience, years of roadhouse gigs, and smart guys' exposure to lots of earlier, diverse, obscure music before it melded at Big Pink. So, perhaps the blend we're denying may take longer still to percolate into a "truly" Welsh medium of expression?


This poster by Ankst head honcho Emyr Glyn Williams I found at the Ankst homepage, Cardiff's epicenter for Welsh-language indie rock. John Cale'd love this! Andy needs no intro. His rival Saunders Lewis may be regarded by lefties as a Catholic Action Française Plaid Cymru Cymraeg Don Quixote, but the more I read of/about him, the more I admire his principles. More on him? See my post a year back about his Penyberth 1936 protest with D.J. Williams & Lewis Valentine. (If I ever get that pending ILL loan for Dafydd Jenkins' "A Nation on Trial," I'll be able to tell you more about Lewis, especially his leading role in the real-life courtroom case after Tân yn Llŷn.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Madoc: A Legendary Prince's Mythical Power.

This is my initial post to the Madoc discussion at the Welsh-American Internet Network. It's the story of a Welsh prince (Madoc or Madog) who claimed to guide in the 1170s a band of settlers who later became absorbed into the Mandan natives, argued variously but usually around the mid-South (or the far Dakotas) among its mound-builders. This proto-colonial tale became propagandized during Elizabeth's reign to bolster British expansion and Welsh cooperation.

Talk about coincidence. The morning-- speaking of mythologizing on Inauguration Day-- after I read about this by chance, I get an invite to join. I copy this diplomatic missive for wider audience attention (such as it is on this little blog!)

I'm a newbie to this network, so I will try to tread firmly but politely. I confess quite a few years of research, for academic and personal aims, of Irish investigations but a semi-dormant concurrent interest in Welsh cultural, nationalist, and linguistic connections to Ireland. Now, I am trying to learn more about the Cymric side. Please be tolerant!

My interests also include medieval British literature and medievalism, thus my curiosity in how Celtic tales get revamped by later storytellers. Madoc's been on the back burner although I've yet to read my copy of Gwyn A. Williams' study; I am halfway through his "When Was Wales," however.

By the way, I've reviewed a couple of titles that are germane. In passing, Emyr Humphreys' "The Taliesin Tradition" brings up Madoc in the American context as a rallying point for Welsh colonization. I posted about TTT on my own blog (see link to my review on my blog URL at my profile) only ten days or so back, and on Amazon US. Humphreys accepts the power of the legend but remains skeptical. If I may say so as a medievalist, a great-grandson of a man killed for his Land League activism for the Fenians-- found drowned in London over a century ago-- and as someone aware of how we moderns make sense or nonsense out of a presumed or real Celtic past, I'd caution romanticists about taking distant rumors and inflating them into what people centuries later want to wish. That's the appeal and the danger of Celtic revivals.

While I remain sympathetic to Ken Lonewolf's claims, I am also sure that he and anybody involved in serious searching of this vexed question about Madoc wants to follow truth and not conjecture. The Mandan-Welsh similarities rumored may be a treacherous foundation, for this tenuous and often coincidental tallying up of soundalikes reminds me of British Israelites who argued that Brit="covenant" and Ish="man" in Hebrew, so voila-- British had a Hebrew origin. Linguists to my recollection deny Mandan-Cymraeg cognates; seekers of alternate paths to wisdom denied by scholars may believe otherwise. As a Celt myself, whatever that revived term means thousands of years on, I acknowledge both a tug of my soul and the restraint of my mind.

Madoc has a tangled context. Iolo Morganwg's involvement in the publicizing of John Williams' account in 1791 should be noted. He did not always rely on facts, to say the least. Madoc was told to bolster Welsh emigration, it was promoted to counter Catholic colonists and Spanish threats, and it was popularized earlier by John Dee, who coined [see blog comments for correction by Rodger Cunningham and my reply] the term "British Empire," in his support of Welsh backing and co-option of that people and that polity within Elizabethan imperialism. Madoc was used to extend royal power.

I reviewed a few years ago the Irish poet Paul Muldoon's 1990 "Madoc" book-length sequence on Amazon US-- it's as formidable, erudite, and enigmatic as his other verse, I warn you, very loosely based on Robert Southey's 1805 epic. And, just last night, with no idea about this group yet, I was browsing Meic Stephens' "The New Companion to the Literature of Wales" (2nd ed. 1998). I found its entry on "Madoc." Here's the final three sentences, after it relates Madoc's 1858 debunking by Thomas Stephens. This entry seems to strike the right balance between skepticism and possibility; I admit I was surprised by its open-minded tone.

"It was probably a legend concocted in the sixteenth century to counter Spanish claims to the New World and to stress Elizabeth I's rights as heir to the Welsh princes. Yet, bearing in mind the strong Viking connections of the rulers of Gwynedd and the fact that Viking voyages across the Atlantic are accepted as germane, the Madoc story is not wholly incredible. There is no serious navigational argument against it and references in Welsh poetry, the account of William the Minstrel and early Spanish maps can be interpreted to give it credence." (s.v. 476)

P.S. Forgive me for a first post that may repeat earlier comments, but as I happened to find this only last night, I figured I'd leap into the friendly fray. Thanks for your comments in return, and I hope I can learn from this discussion. Hwyl pob ichi.


Illustration: Note Margaret Jones' cover for Y Lolfa's publication. Gwyn Thomas has authored earlier children's books with medieval storyteller/ compiler Kevin Crossley-Holland. "The First White Americans" proves a provocative subtitle. Image from "Bad Archeology: Leave Your Common Sense Behind." Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews offers to me a fair-minded evaluation of the evidence, or its lack, as he surveys recent claims to debunk it.

I'd be eager to see how Ken Lonewolf, chief of the "Shawnee-Welsh Madoc Native Americans," responds-- given his counter-claims of DNA linking him to the historical Owain Gruffydd, alleged as Prince Madoc's grandfather. The whole tale sparked by the earnest Elizabethans concocting a "capital" myth that'd resonate two centuries later for Romantic poets and post-colonial landgrabbers within a newly independent America doggedly seeking to oust Spain's Catholics from the Louisiana Territories-- with pioneers passing along hearsay about marvelous sightings of "white Indians" speaking attenuated Welsh among their fortified mounds.

Líonra Soisealta Breatnaigh-Meiricéanaigh

Cheangail mé an líonra soisealta Breatneach agus Meiricéanach faoi deireanach. Tá sé ar an idirlion anseo. Bhí mian agamsa a foghlaim faoi línte comhchumrachaí idir Breatnais agus Gaeilge.

Fuair mé amach faoi an ionad nuair go raibh ag cuardach le tuairiscí le bogearra (nó earraí boga) le "Rosetta Stone." D'iarr mé ag léamh léirmheasannaí le úsáideoirí Breatnaise. Bhuel, d'fhoglaim mé mír i dtaobh sé leis gasra fhoglaimeoiri ann.

Tá rud eile de suíomh seo ann. D'aimstrigh mé faisnéis mar gheall ar eolas a chur ar gníomharthaí cultúir Breatnaigh ina Stáit Aontaithe Mheiriceá. Ní raibh fhios agamsa féin ar chor ar bith fúthu. Anois, insíonn agaibh beagán faoi an áit sin.

Níl sé furasta a cuardaigh ann. Dhearc mé nascannaí go leor ar dtús. Ba mhaith liom amharc de dheas dom a fháil air. Tá blogannái ann; tá seomra cainte fós; tá nuacht freisin. Tá siadsan féin go bhfuil óstachaigh de "Eisteddfod ar chois an taobh clé"!. Tá stiúrthórí i gcónaí ina Stát Bhéabhar (=Oregon).

Tá líonra iontrálachaí líonmharaí a chur ina idirlíon a bhreacadh acu ann. Coinnigh scór siad an cuntas seo. Tá duine den lucht soisealta: 828; tá grianghrafaí: 3606; tá amhráin: 153; físeanaí: 198; comhráite: 227; imeachtaí: 248; agus altannaí bhlogannaí (leis alt nua agamsa) anois. Tá dream acusan féin bídeach go cuí ag caint faoi an finscéal Mhadoc! Scríobhfaidh mé faoi seo amarach as Béarla.

Welsh-American Social Network.

I joined a social network of Welsh and Americans recently. It's on the internet here. I had a need to learn about concurrent ties between Welsh and Irish (languages).

I found out about the location when I was looking for accounts of software by "Rosetta Stone." I wanted to read reviews by users of Welsh. Well, I learned a bit concerning it from a group of learners there.

There's another thing about this site. I discovered information regarding data out about Welsh cultural activity in the United States. Now, I tell you all a little about that site.

It's not easy to search there. I observed many links at the start. I'd like to get a closer view of it. There's blogs there; there's a chat room also; there's news too. They themselves are hosts of a "Left Coast Eisteddfod"! The directors are living in the Beaver State (=Oregon).

Their network has entered numerous entries put on the internet to post. Today, they tally ("=keep score") this count. There's 828 members; 3606 photos; 153 songs; 198 videos; 227 discussions; 248 events; and 330 blog posts (with a new one from me) there now. They even have a tiny group fittingly chatting about the legend of Madoc! I will write about this tomorrow in English.

Íomhá: "Do you have power to speak Welsh?"/ "An bhfuil cumhacht ag rá Gaeilge agaibh?"

Saturday, January 17, 2009

AmeriCymru: Welsh-American Social Network & Language Learners' Group

An American Welsh Social Network - Rhwydwaith Cymdeithasol i Gymry America. "AmeriCymru.com and Americymru.ning.com are an online social network for Welsh people and people of Welsh descent and a place online to find Wales and all things Welsh." Neither Welsh nor as far as I know of descent, I still liked this contingent, so I joined their friendly fray.

Since I needed to seek out those in the know, I thought this'd be a sensible place for my diasporic speculation about a language studied by me in isolation. Not needing to speak it really, I'm intrigued by seeing it. I asked my quixotic or misguided question about ties between Gaeilge & Cymraeg. Perhaps (despite "Bo's" erudite pair of rejoinders), I may find another deluded seeker scrabbling out a few pan-Celtic traces, however dim or palimpsestic fifteen hundred years hence.

I found AmeriCymru when tapping in a search for reviews of the pricy, enigmatic, but flashy and hypermarketed (for lack of alternatives for such as Tagalog and Farsi?) Rosetta Stone software for Irish and Welsh. You cannot even get it used; the company determines you purchase the license, not the product! Contradicting the right we have as buyers of a product to dispose of it as we wish! Seems discouraging. Not that I can afford it, but I am curious, yellow.

There's spirited, if combative and diffused, discussions by real RS Irish users at forums on Daltaí na Gaeilge, as opposed to ubiquitous blurbs, but I had trouble uncovering any for RS Welsh. Then, I substituted "Cymraeg," as even the yellow RS software box has that label. I figured I'd get more serious cross-over potential. And, up popped somebody's comments. That listing led me to wander around the rest of AmeriCymru. The learners gather at: Grŵp Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Group)

This AmeriCymru-hosted (its sequestered guests can be hard to track down on the main site) Grŵp links to: Learn Welsh Podcast. I referred to this on January 8th. Thanks to all on the Net, who as I ranted to my MBA-aspiring son today, eschew commercial gain as they enter the web to promote the joy of knowledge rather than the accumulation of profit by garishly "sponsored" blogs and busily hectoring, Flash-animated, ad-riddled URLs.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Welsh Rugby, Papal Death, Coca-Cola Douches.

Now, that's a great trifecta of search terms. BMJ reports on the first two paired; the third-place finisher, to your probable surprise, stands on its own two legs, so to speak. Among other current BMJ tidbits: headbanging rockers can suffer repetitive head-and-neck injuries, Oliver Twist's diet would have proven impractical to keep even workhouse inmates employed, and sugar doesn't make kids hyper. As for the supposedly spermicidal powers of shake-and-spray cola application, watch out for that bottle cap in the dark. "Contraception doesn't go better with Coca-Cola."

Should the Pope be worried that Wales won the rugby Grand Slam this year?


"Research paper: Rugby (the religion of Wales) and its influence on the Catholic Church: should Pope Benedict XVI be worried?"

Doctors in the Christmas issue published on bmj.com today are urging the Vatican's medical team to keep a special watch over the Pope this Christmas, after their research investigating the link between papal deaths and Welsh rugby performance suggests that he has about a 45% chance of dying by the end of 2008.

Dr Gareth Payne and his team from Cardiff found no evidence to support the urban legend that "every time Wales win the rugby Grand Slam, a Pope dies," but they did find limited data linking Welsh rugby performance and papal deaths. Worryingly for Pope Benedict XVI, Wales won the Grand Slam in 2008.

The researchers charted all northern hemisphere rugby championships since 1883, but discarded the years 1885, 1888-9, 1897-8 and 1972 because not all the scheduled matches were played. For the purposes of their research, a Grand Slam was defined as one nation beating all other competing teams.

Since 1883, eight Pontiffs have died, five in Grand Slam years - three deaths happened when Wales completed the sweep, and two others occurred when Wales won the tournament but not the Grand Slam.

Interestingly, say the authors, although the deaths did not always coincide with a Welsh Grand Slam win, they did correspond with a victory of a predominantly Protestant nation (England, Scotland or Wales), rather than a Roman Catholic nation (France, Ireland, or Italy).

The authors comment that the link between Popes and Grand Slams "is nothing more than an urban myth ... This comes as something of a relief as we are at a loss to see how the events could be linked, especially given the continuing rapprochement between Catholic and Protestant churches."

However, given that the research suggests a link between the success of the Welsh rugby union team and papal deaths, the authors believe that the Vatican medical staff "can't fully relax until the new year arrives."

Illustration: No, I couldn't find one to match all three terms either. But, a great image from Paine Proffitt's paintings! "All Welsh Rugby Players Go To Heaven, 2005 - "This was the first time I used a dreamlike, surreal, narrative approach, inspired by Chagall" - PP." See #2, inspired by a medieval triptych, too. Visit: BBC: Rugby in the Frame

Friday, December 5, 2008

Blodewedd, Bean Bláthannái & Ulchabáin.

Is Blodewedd, nó Blodeuwedd/ Blodeuedd, bean finscéalach í. D'inis seanscéal Breatnaise ina 'Mabinogi' fúithi. Tá scéal aici seo ag scríofa ina ceathrú roinnt, 'Math'.

Rinne Math agus Gwydion Blodewedd. Bhain siad sísean de bláthannaí doire, giolcachaí sleibhte, agus airgid luachra. Is ciall mar 'aghaidh bláth' as Breatnais. Is bri é a ainm.

Blodeuwedd a tugadh uirthi seo níos deanaí, mar sin féin! Cén fáth? Ar dtús, bhí sí bean Lhleu mac Arianrhod. Bhí sí is áille aice féin, ár ndóigh, ban uile ar fud an domhan.

Ní raibh Lleu ábalta beann bhásmhar a phósadh. Thóg sé bean chéile ag déanta bláthannaí. Ach, tharraing sísean féin ar fear eile. Fuair Gronw Pebr sí. Rugadh sí é ar ais go raibh ag dul san fiach fia fireann air.

Thugadar grá da chéile oíche céann sin. Iarr beirt a dúnmharú Lleu. Ní bheadh go furasta. Bhí cumhachta draíochta air.

Scéal mór fada eachtrúil áta ann. Ní dhearna an lánúin dana ag fáil saoirse. D'fhoglaim sí rún mortlaíochta do fír chéile aice. Mhairaigh Gronw Lleu.

Bhuail Lleu Gronw. Fuair Gronw bás. D'athraigh Gwydion mar ulchabáin sí. Chaill an h-ainm 'Blodeuedd', mar sin 'bláthannaí'. Anois, faigheann ainm 'Blodeuwedd', no 'aghaidh blátha' amháin. Is cosuil ulchabáin í go deo.

Chonaic mé le deanaí léaráid seo. Chuir Gethin ab Iestyn sí ar a bhlog. Tá 'Ríochtaí Ceiltigh' anseo. Déanann sí íomhá di leis gréas stílithe mar críochnochta. Níl fhios agam an cúis. Cad chuige? Is cuimhne liom seo faoi an dealbh bhansagairt (nó bhandia?) Mhinoa ag coinnaigh suas dhá nathair.

Blodewedd, Lady of Flowers & Owls.

Blodewedd, or Blodeuwedd/ Blodeuedd, is a legendary lady. The Welsh legend in "The Mabinogi" tells about her. There's her story written in the fourth section, "Math."

Math and Gwydion made Blodewedd. They brought her out of the flowers of oak, broom of the mountain, and silvery rushes (=meadowsweet). The derivation of "face of flowers" is from the Welsh. It's her name's meaning.

Blodeuwedd was named this later, however! What happened? In the beginning, she was the wife of Lleu son of Arianrhod. She herself was the loveliest, of course, of all women over all the world.

Lleu was unable to marry a mortal woman. He took a wife made of flowers. But, she herself drew towards another man. Gronw Pebr found her. She caught him after he was going hunting for a stag.

They were lovers that same night. The couple wished to murder Lleu. This would not be easy. He had powers of magic.

It's a long, adventurous, story. She learns the secret of her husband's mortality. Gronw kills Lleu. The bold lovers don't find freedom.

Lleu beats Gronw. Death finds Gronw. Gwydion changed her into an owl. She loses the name "Blodeuedd," that is "flowers." Now, she gets a name "Blodeuwedd," or "flower-face" only. She resembles an owl, forever.

I saw this illustration recently. Gethin ab Iestyn put it up on his blog. It's "Celtic Realms" here. She's depicted by conventional style as bare-breasted. I don't know the cause. What's the reason? This brings into my mind the figurine of a Minoan priestess (or goddess?) holding up two snakes.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


St Beuno & the Saxon's Charge.

Speaking of bibliomancy (see my "Book Meme" entry yesterday), I picked up off the shelf next to my desk where I type this one of my rather randomly (thanks to a remodelling done when I was off in the Celtic Fringe meself) arranged Irish-related books. I chose one I'd been meaning to root around in. Oliver Davies' anthology for the Paulist Press series, "Celtic Spirituality," opened to this (for me) haunting passage when I parted the pages by chance:

"One day, when Beuno was walking around his corn, near the river Severn, he heard from the other side of the river the cry of an Englishman, who was encouraging his dog in pursuit of a hare. At the top of his voice the Englishman shouted: 'Charge, charge.' These were words of encouragement to his dog in his own language. When Beuno heard the shout of the Englishman, he immediately turned and went straight back to his disciples, saying to them: 'Put on your clothes, my sons, and your shoes, and let us leave this place. The people of the man of foreign speech whom I heard calling to his dogs across the river shall invade this place. It shall be theirs, and they shall keep it in their possession.'" (214-15)


Davies tells us that this hagiography exists only in one Middle Welsh version circa the fourteenth century, but it may come from an earlier Latin source. It seemed as I transcribed the abbot's quoted warning very Latinate in its cadence and balance; I am sure Cymraeg possesses too this elegance, to be sure, but neither my fingers nor my wit cannot coax out such magic hiding there in these ironic, yes, anglicisms, given my woeful lack of Welsh. While Davies emphasizes in his brief comments on this short text its primitive and to him structural qualities (hail Levi-Strauss at his centenary!) which repeat decapitations and threaten deflorations, I wondered about this text as an historical marker of the coming of the Saesnag.

Darrell Wolcott helps out slightly here. Composite Lives of St Beuno at Ancient Wales Studies explains the typical medieval conflation, or confusion, of two Beunos. The saint at Holywell may have lived between 515/520-590 at the latest. The other, an abbot at Clynnog Fawr, flourished the following century. The healing of Beuno's niece, Winifred, accounts apparently for the fame of both saints; he raised her from the dead after one of those Celtically symbolic decapitations after lustily attempted deflorations.

At Early British Kingdoms, David Nash Ford, incorporating Baring-Gould's 1907 entry, informs us that the site of St Beuno Gasulsych's (545-640) preaching's known as Maen Beuno; the standing stone's at Berriew near Welshpool. Around here, therefore, the sight of the Saxon and his sounds first appeared.

But, if we know where, what about when? I spent a quarter-hour leafing through indices of Welsh histories on my shelf, after an on-line search turned up nothing. Thanks for old-fashioned scholarship! In the best place rather than the last I should have looked, John Davies, on pg. 62 of his revised Penguin "History of Wales," answers my query. He estimates "about 610" for when Beuno heard "the language of paganism" across the banks that caused him to flee for Gwynedd. There, today, Welsh still survives.

Photo: Formerly Jesuit seminary, now retreat center, St Beuno's in North Wales carries on the Christian apostolate of over 1600 years in that nation. It seems so long ago that the Welsh tamed the Saxon, leading those who hailed hounds into Christian mores and Catholic customs. Even though beheadings and ravishings may have continued if less abated. The site near St Asaph's known to the literati today, perhaps, as Gerard Manley Hopkins studied theology there in the mid-1870s while "writing a third of his mature poetry," according to the website. I thought this image of two men from the center making the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises at Snowdon Lake captured well the power of the water, the human, and the natural that the saint(s) heard in various languages, sixteen centuries ago. No dogs "charge," at least in visual range. I wonder, peering: is there a third man on the far side of the lake?