Review: Eutopia is peppered with fascinating vignettes of Welsh Europeans
Eutopia: Studies in Cultural Euro-Welshness, 1850-1980, is an attempt to ‘put paid, once and for all, to the tired, clichéd view of Welsh culture as insular and parochial.’ It does so by exploring a veritable genealogy of writers and thinkers who spent time in Europe or were variously inspired by aspects of its culture.
Wales can understand Europe, because she is one of the family, suggested the writer and critic Saunders Lewis in 1937, then expanding the sentiment by suggesting that ‘The Welsh are the only nation in Britain who have been part of the Roman Empire.’
Sixty years later Jan Morris echoed the sentiment when she said ‘I found myself in Welshness and came to realize that I had also been an European all the time.’ So, two very different kinds of writers saw themselves as Welsh Europeans, which for some also happened to be an effective way of not being English.
The fiery polemicist Emrys Ap Iwan, for instance, bristled at what he described as Saesaddoliaeth, or English worship, which he diagnosed as the national disease. The highly influential critic Raymond Williams, meanwhile came to see himself as a ‘Welsh European’ who wanted the ‘Welsh people – still a radical and cultured people – to defeat, override or bypass bourgeois England; the alternatives follow from the intricacies. That connects, for me, with the sense in my work that I am now necessarily European…’
The book is peppered with fascinating vignettes of Welsh Europeans of different ilk. One of those is of D. J. Davies, a professional boxer who had once been a hobo in America, had an audience with the Pope and who established a folk school on the Danish model in Gilwern. Or the ‘patron saint’ of Welsh journalism Gareth Jones, who managed to get close up to Hitler and alerted the world to the famine in Ukraine which left three million dead. Jones himself died in mysterious circumstances in Mongolia. Other figures appear much further back in history, such as Gruffydd Robert, canon of Milan Cathedral and fervent Welsh patriot, who produced the first great grammar of the Welsh language and published it in Italy in the mid 16th century.
At times, Wales as a small nation looked to other small nations for inspiration, such as the tiny kingdom of Belgium, home to several different nationalities and languages. This was one of the ‘five-foot-five nations’ along with Serbia and his beloved Wales whose rights needed protection as David Lloyd George famously argued when he addressed a huge crowd in the Queen’s Hall in London in September 1914.
Many writers were inspired by travelling through Europe, from the short story writer Nigel Heseltine who adventured in Albania through Geraint Dyfnallt Owen – who kept a fascinating diary of his wartime travels as an Intelligence Officer in countries such as Romania – to the founder of Planet magazine Ned Thomas, who lived in a traumatised Germany just after the Second World War as well as Salamanca.
Study was key for others, such as the poet and essayist T. H. Parry Williams who studied at Freiburg and at the Sorbonne where he attended brilliant, freewheeling lectures by the philosopher Henri Bergson. It was often two-way traffic, in person. Some, such as the writer and eminent Egyptologist Kate Bosse-Griffiths fled Nazi persecution and settled in Wales while the novelist and poet Emyr Humphreys worked in an Italian camp for displaced people in Florence, an experience which was to influence him for decades thereafter.
European writing was sometimes, simply the touchstone and M. Wynn Thomas lists many such instances, such as the poet T. Gwynn Jones’ discovery of the European masters after coming across a copy of Don Quixote in a collection of books his father had bought from the library of a long-dead Welsh squire. And, of course friendships played a germinal part for many. The tragically short-lived writer Dorothy Edwards visited Europe as an aspirant opera singer but her visit to Vienna was stifled by her mother playing chaperone. This was the antithesis of the experience of poet Eluned Phillips who joined the racy bohemian life of the Parisian Left Bank where she became close friends with Edith Piaf while the sublimely talented artist Gwen John became Auguste Rodin’s lover.
Eutopia also charts the influence of ideas such as Symbolism and Surrealism on writers such as Glyn Jones and other Valleys writers. With his usual brio M. Wynn Thomas suggests that some aspects of Surrealism would have been completely familiar because ‘their own native environment was itself outrageously bizarre, replete with incongruous juxtapositions and insanely mixed elements. Above the grime of the dark Valleys rose the green sunlit uplands of the bald hills with their exaltation of skylarks; the tangled bric-a-brac of the pithead machinery could have been sculptures devised by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp or Hans Arp; carnival time brought in its wake marchers dressed as Moroccan soldiers complete with fez and blaring bazookas…’
Some European ideas were transplanted in physical form. Iorwerth Peate saw the importance of Scandinavian folk museums such as Skansen in Sweden in preserving the rural past and decided to create one on the western edge of Cardiff, now the St Fagans National Museum of History and the most popular tourist attraction in Wales to boot.
One of the most striking images in the book comes in an account of Saunders Lewis’s translation of Dante’s Inferno in which ‘the would-be redeemer of Wales who had supposedly reappeared in ghostly form to the abbot of the monastery of Glyn y Groes, only to be sadly told that his return had been premature, as Wales was not ready to follow him.’
Then near Glyn y Groes
A second Tiresias in the dawn of Berwyn gave
The verdict of fate’s oracle, and there was as end.
His shade melted in the mist that covered him.
It’s a rich and complex image as befits this monumental and magisterial account of the interchange of ideas and European inspiration in so many fields, from theatre to children’s literature and the rights of linguistic minorities.
As the book suggests towards its close, the relationship with Europe has gradually changed with the advent of mass travel and the growth of English as the ‘lingua franca’ of the whole continent and as the Welsh became ‘more insularly anglo-phone, culturally Anglo-American, and accordingly indifferent to, and ignorant of, inherited markers of cultural difference, including those of Wales itself.’ Or, to give the idea a spin in another direction, as Emyr Humphreys pithily cautions, in an epigraph to the book, ‘To be European, we need first to be more Welsh.’
Eutopia: Studies in Cultural Euro-Welshness, 1850-1980 is published by University of Wales Press and can be purchased here.