Review: History Grounded builds a Welsh ‘Red Wall’ out of the bricks of the past
Ifan Morgan Jones
I do wonder sometimes if there’s any correlation between the writing of history books and uncertain political times.
After all, history anchors us and provides some certainty about who we are and what we’re doing here. But writing national histories is inevitably also part of the process of nation-building and nation-rebuilding – as we change, so do the stories we choose to tell about ourselves.
This book by Dr. Elin Jones, , available bilingually as History Grounded and Hanes yn y Tir, aims to tell a thorough history of Wales from start to finish – from cromlech to Senedd.
It was of particular interest to me given that I had tried to do something similar with 10 Stories From Welsh History that Everyone Should Know, which is to ensure that Wales’ children know their own national history.
Given that she begins this volume by noting that she has always been interested in Welsh history but learned little of it in school, it would be fair to guess that Ein Jones was motivated by similar considerations.
Unlike my own book which was aimed at pre-teens, however, this book is aimed at a more advanced audience, is much longer and more detailed, and I’m sure that almost anyone could find out about parts of our history that they knew nothing about.
The first thing that strikes a reader is that this is an extremely attractive volume. The hardback cover is particularly striking, but the pages are also full of pictures, maps and infographics.
My favourite is a cross-section showing how a medieval toilet worked which doesn’t skimp on the detail – both hairy bottom and pile of poo are included.
In terms of its content, the book both takes the long view and zooms in on individual interesting stories that tell us something about the time in which they took place.
The combination of an engaging, bite-size narrative, a variety of content, and a variety of ways of communicating content ensures that despite weighing in at 222 pages this book is always engaging and never dry.
The author’s own voice also comes through very strongly. She makes the important point that even primary evidence gives us a skewed version of history. Peaceful people tend to leave almost no trace behind them, while warlike people and ‘people who move fast and break things’ in current Silicon Valley parlance leave the bulk of the history that we tend to remember.
This book also makes the point that history tends to be written by those who could write and had the time to do so – i.e. often comfortably well-off men.
The author has clearly made a conscious effort to push against that tendency within historical writing and a large number of the narratives she focuses on are those of women.
From the cover, which includes a Black Lives Matter flag, I had expected a little more focus on the histories of Wales’ ethnic communities, although the story of Wales links with slavery and Betty Campbell are included here.
But as the book’s final page emphasises, we’re all part of Wales’ ‘Red Wall’. If the history and histories we choose to tell indicates something about us as a nation, then this volume would hopefully suggest that we’re developing a much more civic, diverse sense of what Welsh nationhood is all about.
If teachers across Wales are looking for a teaching aid for the new open-ended national curriculum due to be introduced next year, they could do much worse than using this book as a key text.