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Review: Brittle With Relics – A History of Wales by Richard King

05 Mar 2022 7 minute read
Brittle with Relics – A History of Wales 1962-1997 published by Faber

Jon Gower

The Oral History Center at the University of California in Berkeley suggests one should ‘not use the interview to show off your knowledge, vocabulary, charm, or other abilities. Good interviewers do not shine; only their interviews do.’

In assembling this array of memories Richard King offers discrete evidence of his being able to balance the skills of astute questioner with attentive listener, thus letting articulate interviewees such as Siân James, Leanne Wood, Neil Kinnock, Rowan Williams and Michael Sheen shine.

Throughout this compelling, energetic and revealing book we hear the grain of the interviewees’ voices as they share recollections of recent times, such the influence of Saunders Lewis’ radio lecture Tynged yr Iaith and the terrible landslip at Aberfan – that darkly defining moment in the post-industrial history of Wales which still hurts to read about.

There is the drowning of the community at Capel Celyn and we revisit the socially seismic events of the South Wales Miners’ Strike as Margaret Thatcher sought to break the NUM and a chronicle of the still ongoing process of devolution, with one of its principal architects, Ron Davies duly recognised as such by many contributors.

They also describe the political calculations and calibrations which led to the slim majority in the referendum which bookends this volume, and Davies’s ‘very good morning’ in Wales after the clinching Carmarthenshire and Powys voting results came in just ahead of the dawn. Or maybe a new dawn.

There are many neat little stories woven into the book’s tapestry of recollections. Through these we get the timbre of the times, often by dint of small and telling details or incidents. We have, say, the recollection of Dewi ‘Mav’ Bowen – who went to the Investiture in Caernarfon whilst tripping on LSD – who was somewhat relieved that the Special Branch member who stop-searched him was looking for weapons rather than drugs.

Another vignette that stands out concerns a police constable who was in the market for an expensive house on Cardiff’s Cyncoed Road, courtesy of all his overtime pay during the miners’ strike which contrasts so very starkly with the desperate sacrifices of the miners, their families and communities at the same time.

Nuance and complexity

There are some constant themes weaving though these personal, and often very personal narratives. One of these is the Welsh language as King interviews activists who daubed signs or staged sit ins and sometimes went to prison as they protested on behalf of Cymraeg. Central to this story is Cymdeithas yr Iaith, with its careful embrace of peaceful protest, not that everyone approved.

Welsh-speaking Labour members in Blaenau Ffestiniog for instance ‘hated everything about Cymdeithas and anything that promoted the Welsh language, even though some of these people couldn’t speak English very well. The North Wales Quarrymen’s Union only operated in Welsh – all their literature and minutes were in Welsh…’

This seeming paradox is easily explained by the conflation of Plaid Cymru with the language, a confusion, sometimes deliberate, which veteran Plaid MP Cynog Dafis admits didn’t always serve the party well.

That’s one of the advantages of a big book like this: you can have the nuance and complexity, the fine detail rather than just the broad-brush approach. You see people’s views change or being changed. It’s a history that’s still going on.

The term ‘nationalist’ is examined: seen by some as a term of opprobrium while others see it as a badge of pride. And there’s an interesting ticker-tape parade of phrases used by various interviewees which seems to evoke or variously sum up the times.

The fears that the National Assembly would be a superannuated council or ‘mid Glamorgan on stilts,’ offering little more than ‘jobs for the boys’ – even though some of its fiercest opponents were happy to go and eventually work there. Or Paul Flynn, megaphone in hand, welcoming the women walking to Greenham to a ‘nuclear free Gwent.’

Then there was the drive for inward investment, spearheaded by the Welsh Development Agency which was described by some as ‘renting jobs from the Japanese’ and of course the end of such bodies in the ‘bonfire of the quangos,’ that great conflagration of filing cabinets. Another phrase that stubbornly lodges in the mind describes the psychology of declining confidence abroad in Wales after the referendum result of 1979, being ‘learned helplessness.’

Antithesis of boring

Then there’s the pantomimic ‘Operation Tân,’ being the police dragnet in the in the middle of the Meibion Glyndŵr arson campaign, a period of history where documentation is obviously scant and an abiding mystery at its heart.

King has both chosen and marshalled his cast of voices very well, often meeting those at the very heart of events, fortuitously often folk with trenchant views to boot, from Greenham campaigner Ann Pettitt through former property consultant Bob Croydon to the late anti-apartheid campaigner Hanif Bhanjee. He arranges his material deftly, one historical witness statement often melding perfectly with the next.

Language campaigner Angharad Tomos recalls asking her parents about such things as Dafydd Iwan’s songs and the fire at Penyberth (where an RAF training establishment was set on fire by Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams) and being excited to realize that their explanation constituted somehow an ‘undercover,’ unofficial history so different from the boring history she was being taught in school – which ‘was about the Methodist revival – there was nothing current.’

Brittle With Relics is the very antithesis of boring history. It’s unofficial, lively, animated, opinion-charged stuff. There’s the crushing view, for instance of town planner Adrian Jones that all the ‘money spent on Cardiff Bay resulted in an inferior version of Mumbles.’

It’s certainly not objective history but then again King doesn’t hide his intentions. Indeed, his introduction concludes with the hope that ‘Wales will one day thrive on its own terms.’ It’s as if he’s looking for lessons in our recent past to help us chart a better future.

This is history with an agenda. There’s a lot about bridge-building and depoliticising Cymraeg, making the language less of a football and even though it charts some dreadful and difficult times the book’s tenor is ultimately hopeful.

Orchestrated chorus

As the book takes its title from a phrase of R. S. Thomas’ poem Welsh Landscape it follows that it includes various takes on Welsh life. Record producer David Wrench recalls how the band Datblygu changed ‘how I thought about the language…someone’s actually speaking about what it’s like to live in Wales. What it’s like to deal with all the fucking harp-playing stiffs.’

King, being a man who cut his historian’s teeth by chronicling the Bristol indie record shop Revolver, has naturally interviewed a lot of musicians for this book such as the members of Super Furry Animals and Manic Street Preachers: there’s a lovely little moment when the respective lead singers Gruff Rhys and James Dean Bradfield bond over a mutual love of Swansea’s Badfinger.

Indeed, the book sets a sort of soundtrack running in the reader’s head. Dafydd Iwan’s anthemic Yma o Hyd. Datblygu’s Can i Gymru. Manic Street Preacher’s hugely successful Brit award winning Design for Life, described by the band’s hyper-articulate bassist Nicky Wire as ‘the sound of marching unions.’

It’s testament to this orchestrated chorus of voices that you can “listen” to them all in a single sitting – which is really going some for a tome of 500 pages – and get so much out of the experience.

Brittle with Relics is a highly readable and engaging book, an organised, historical mash-up if you like, with brisk and clear context pieces by King interpolating the illuminating oral accounts and thus offering necessary info.

This isn’t the desiccated history of official document, sifted record, film footage and newsprint but rather of vivid recall and recollection.

These are the times through which many of us have lived brought to pulsing life so that we can better understand our own. It’s like eavesdropping on the past.

Brittle with Relics is published by Faber and can be purchased here or from good bookshops

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