Review: Welsh (Plural) – Essays on the Future of Wales
There’s an awful lot to commend about this eminently readable and energetic collection, from the selection of writers to the various ways in which they have each decided to marshal and present their material and stances.
Assembling a representative cross-section of Welsh society is well nigh an impossible task, of course, as a selection is always just that: one is reminded of what the playwright Ed Thomas once said, that Wales is three million stories.
Owing to constrictions of space the four editors have had to stick to just nineteen contributors who were asked to rise to the challenge of imagining a Wales both distinct and inclusive. But it’s a fascinating selection, no doubt about it.
Their approaches are various and varied and satifyingly so, from music journalist Andy Welch’s account of responses to his Rhyl accent and, indeed to Rhyl itself, through Darren Chetty’s musings on the problematic pub sign which used to hang outside the Black Boy pub in Killay to poet and essayist Morgan Owen’s meditation on the history and perception of the Welsh language in his hometown of Merthyr.
Owen is just one member of a talented generation of writers who have made their stamp, pardon the pun, courtesy of indie publishing outfit Cyhoeddiadau’r Stamp.
Another is Grug Muse who ponders the meaning of the words “datganoli/devolution” through the filter of her life-travels, as she returns to Dyffryn Nantlle after seven years away as well as Iestyn Tyne who predicts a difficult hardscrabble future for the Welsh hill farmer.
Meanwhile Shaheen Sutton powerfully charts her particular herstory, her otherness and racialised identity from being called ‘Taffy, not Toffee’ at the age of nine through periods when she had to be constantly defensive because other people were so offensive, including being physically attacked along with her brother who was hospitalised just one month before Stephen Lawrence was killed in London.
Some of the writing elegantly relates to nature and the land such as Durre Shahwar’s examination of why fewer people of colour access and enjoy wildlife and landscape in Wales while Kandace Siobhan Walker lists various key loci in her life, from a bungalow on the edge of farmed land in the Brecon Beacons to Greenwich and then back again, expressing the view along the way that ‘The Welsh rural, as much as the road, provides a generative space for an articulation of Blackness’ while suggesting in her own case she is no longer interested in categorisation or simplification.’ Here is a complex, nuanced and textured essay with so much in it to ponder and absorb.
In a complementary manner poet Hanan Issa explores the Muslim respect for nature and links her Iraqi heritage in the marshes of Mesopotamia with the river Taff suggesting that ‘connections between one loyalty and another flow as easily for me as one body of water running into another.’
As with so many of the essays herein there are fascinating confluences, such as Cerys Hafana’r mapping of new and traditional folk music as an expression of Welsh identity or Dan Evans’ account of duelling narratives in the creation of a sense of “Welshness.”
If this collection was a record then you’d be tempted to put one of your strongest tracks at the beginning and Martin Johnes’ musings on ‘Embracing and Escaping History’ is certainly that.
‘In Wales,’ he encourages,’ we need to move beyond a fixation with wrongs endured, both real and imagined. Everyone needs to think about how we can do things better.’ Provocatively, he reminds us of ways in which Wales has benefitted from its relationship with England – ‘through trade, the welfare state, fiscal transfers or international security’ which, Johnes avers might help expunge Brexit-style xenophobia and consequently be to the benefit of any campaign for Welsh independence.
There are some exceedingly powerful pieces of writing herein, not least poet Marvin Thompson’s ‘On Writing a Modern Welsh Horror’ which is arranged as a sort of close reading of some of his own poetry, some of it angered into being by a blue plaque erected in Brecon to local seafarer Captain Thomas Phillips, who amassed a tainted fortune from slavery.
Verbal snakes and ladders
There’s much telling writing about race and racism and the double entendre in the title of Charlotte Williams’ essay ‘Knowing Our Place’ sets up a pellucid account of the challenges of representing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic experiences in the National Curriculum which could be, Williams suggests ‘a bold foundation for a more plural Wales.’
Mike Parker, meanwhile, delivers a trenchant plea for the Wales he wants, being a ‘deeply ordinary country,’ not one jockeying for position or slathering itself in superlatives whilst warning that ‘exceptionalism, rampant nostalgia and fake history’ are fascism’s handmaidens. Along the way he suggests that the Wales he wants is very much akin to and redolent of the one the late Jan Morris wanted, as depicted in her A Machynlleth Triad.
There’s a smart, savvy and archly satirical contribution from Wales Arts Review editor Gary Raymond about the pleasures and pitfalls of writing Welsh novels, with wry observations about such matters as the Londoncentricity of publishing and the comparative merits and demerits of the literary scenes in the Big Leagues, Scotland and Ireland.
Arranged as a sort of verbal snakes and ladders game, the reader can “land’ on various game instructions such as ‘Move to Scotland and see if you can’t get some of that crime fiction magic dust’ with plenty of one-step-forward two-steps-back manoeuvuring.
Raymond certainly adds perceptive humour to the mix, as does fellow novelist Joe Dunthorne’s lively account of the chimerical nature of Welshness as it manifests itself at times when he watched football at the Vetch or rugby in the London Welsh Centre.
And while we’re on the subject of novelists Niall Griffiths proves that his raging fire is far from guttering with an impassioned tour of ‘a small almost-country reaching for self-determination and release from an arrogant, self-entitled and deeply unrepresentative polity.’
The essay-cum-road trip takes us from Penisarwaun through the slopes of Hyddgen to all night raves as well as a bit of a detour to the West Coast Eisteddfod in Oregon. It’s a mixture of Griffiths’ personal journey into Wales and a strident megaphone blast of prose, railing against the state of things whilst also underlining the stubborn ‘Yma o Hyd’ defiance of the Welsh.
The collection concludes with visual artist Rabab Ghazoul’s apology for not being able to write an essay because of ADD, a suggestion seemingly countermanded by the rich veins and stories she explores.
Ghazoul places important words such as ‘healing’ very centrally at the heart of things, rounding off a series of essays that is rich with nuance and provocation, bright ideas and radical plans.
The sloganistic notion that there is something here for everyone very much applies.
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