I remember the moment quite well; I was about 12, asleep in my parent’s house in West Kirby, on the Wirral. If I leaned out of my bedroom window and looked left, I could see, over the Dee estuary, Wales. Land of (some of my) fathers.
The house awoken by a bang, a loud bang. In the morning there was mention of a firework or backfiring car, but walking to school I saw the yellow crime-scene tape around the estate agent’s, the police, the glass on the pavement, the scorching on the bricks.
At school there was talk of Welsh nationalist bombing campaigns. Arson. Mr Thomas told us something of the problem of second home ownership in Wales, the destruction of culture, the outpricing of local people. It was the only time I ever listened to him.
So that was more than one kind of awakening. I was aware of anti-colonialist attitudes and angers, given my relatives, in both Ireland and Wales, but this was a specificisation of such; this was one particular issue around which those angers could coalesce.
That country I could see from my bedroom window, so close, it was being invisibly destroyed; its uniqueness was being steadily erased. And for what?
To indulge the whimsy of the wealthy. To extend their playground. To consolidate their power. I’d been told about Tryweryn; I’d been told about Bloody Sunday. Such events were not in the past.
BBC Wales’s two-part Firebombers, produced and directed by James Hale, examines the circumstances and happenings that would lead to the 12 year old me being awoken by, and with, an explosion.
It is a superb piece of television; expertly paced, scripted, with a sensitive and judicious use of archive and contemporaneous reference and interview. I watched it agog.
It opens with a quote from Sion Aubrey Roberts, the only person to have ever been convicted of being a member of Meibion Glyndŵr which was, for a time, a proscribed terrorist organisation: “we were just shadows”, he says: “you have to be a certain breed. It’s like the devil’s inside you”.
In part 2 he mentions Bobby Sands’s concept of “the undauntable thought”; that is, the complete conviction of rightness.
Usually I’m with Yeats here, that “the worst are full of passionate intensity”, but context is all; neither the IRA nor Meibion Glyndŵr were bent on world conquest. Sion talks about his Irish Republican family, and how he had pictures of the hunger strikers on his wall, when other boys of his age had football players and singers. And you listen, when he talks; his delivery, when speaking Cymraeg, is machine-gun fast; he spits the words out like bullets. Language is evidently a defensive weapon to him.
The film begins – after the obligatory shots of majestic and rain-swept mountains – with an appraisal of the growth of the Welsh tourism industry, and it’s concomitant infrastructure.
Elfyn Llwyd, ex Plaid MP, outlines the differences between sustainable tourism and the buying of holiday homes which result in ghost villages, the expiration of community life, the closure of post office and pubs and other social hubs and the consequent exodus from places of generational significance so as to make room for incomers of “little or no cultural sensitivity”.
We cut from Elfyn to a retired military type, a 2nd home owner, straight out of Central casting with his gammony complexion and knotted tie and air of perpetual grievance: “it’s divisive”, he says, “the shop assistant talks to me in English and to the locals in Welsh. It’s divisive”.
And it was at this point, I confess, that the somewhat puckish and mischievous critic inside me was silenced. This was not a film, and a subject, which I could approach breezily or sardonically and all rage rose; the sheer entitlement of that man, the staggering arrogance…in his shrivelled sense of grievance, his desiccated and aggrieved approach to anything that did not conform to his idea of what he demanded the world should be, were distilled the entire bedevilment of humanity.
My disgust at this man was even further deepened when he made way for the erudition and intelligence of Emyr Llewellyn Jones, who quotes Heidegger: “language is the house of being…a structure of knowledge, belief, values, ideals, passes down through generations…centuries of experience”. It was for people like the bigot that people like Emry were being told to step aside and make room for.
And then we see Sion, from behind. Some portentous music as the camera pans up his broad back to his becapped head. We hear about his willingness to join MG and become another shadow in an army of shadows and, indeed, the ethereality of MG is a recurring theme; no names have ever been given, no members unequivocally recognised.
It is a spectral organisation, born after the Tryweryn flooding, which became a kind of Year Zero for modern Welsh nationalism. Entreaty, appeal, reason, these do not register with the corporate and powerful; the institutions and emanations of the British state look after each other with extraordinary ferocity. They always have done and they always will.
And Thatcher came to power. In the 1979 referendum, Wales voted massively against devolution. The Cymraeg TV channel that Thatcher had promised? Well, she reneged on that, and it took monkey-wrenching and the threat of hunger strike to change, again, whatever howling waste she had for a mind.
Sion says: “it was the Thatcher effect that created people like me”. The torching began.
The programme becomes urgent and stricken. One 2nd homer, next to the charred ruins, says “to me, this is an extension of England”. “Grossly unfair”, says a policeman: “rather cowardly, burning people’s property while they’re not there”, which begs the question: would it have been a brave action had the house been occupied?
And indeed, much is made of the arsonists’ endeavours not to harm people, only property, but the film does look at the letterbombs. Lots of letterbombs. Also explosive devices delivered to the houses of MPs.
It is an honest and stark piece of film-making. Much consideration is given, for example, to the notion of the agent provocateur; that many of the attacks were carried out by MI5 and ancillary groups to discredit the whole idea of Welsh independence. What happened to the singer Bryn Fôn is entirely risible in its inept desperation.
An episode of Crimewatch was broadcast bilingually for the first and only time. In 1993, in Caernarfon Crown Court, the trial that lasted 40 days (at the end of which Sion received a twelve year sentence whilst two of his ‘accomplices’ were acquitted), the headphones supplied to aid translation between Welsh and English added, according to the journalist Richard Norton-Taylor, “an exotic atmosphere” to the proceedings. “Exotic”: such a loaded word, here.
An American TV station referred to the arson attacks, bizarrely, “as cruel and vicious as the actions of the Ku Klux Klan”. I don’t know quite where to begin with that, except to say that it does fascinatingly attach itself to the first warning letters from the nascent MG which read ‘English White Settlers Leave Now’.
Deeply intriguing. And which would take a piece much, much longer than this one to even begin to unpack.
Firebombers left me with admiration at its technical artistry and fury at its subject. What was the bombing campaign good for?
What did it achieve? It opened a valve for the expression of anger, yes, and it articulated the disgust at entitlement, colonialism, and the solipsism inherent in neoliberalism; of course its catalyst was particularly Welsh, but like the Brigade Rosso and the Minutemen and other such organisations, it widened to encapsulate more general grievances.
Yet the communities continue to decay. Towns and villages remain, in many places, unlit and unlived in for 9 months of every year. Abersoch, parts of Pembrokeshire, areas of the west coast…count the jetskis, count the Chelsea tractors, squeeze yourself into the hedgerows to make room for them to pass.
Because pass you they will.
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