Ned Thomas on Welsh Writing 1960-1985

Welsh Writing 1960-1985
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To understand contemporary writing in Wales requires a complex cultural map. We have to deal with two languages that are used in varying degrees across the whole country. An outsider might think that what is written in the more generally accessible language of the two, English, offers a way into the hidden world of the Welsh language, but that is seldom the case.
Many Welsh writers in English have little knowledge of Welsh history, language, or tradition; others are steeped in them, but even they cannot be regarded as simple interpreters of Welsh-language culture, for languages and literary traditions are themselves important shaping elements, irrespective of the way individuals may use them for their own literary purposes.

To this may be added the difficulty of defining a Welsh literature in English. Writing in Welsh defines itself by the medium used - a novel may be set in Prague or Italy and be no less Welsh in that sense; but what makes a novel written in English 'Welsh'? Usually the fact that it deals with Wales.

But there are writers born in Wales, or living there, whose work makes no claim by its language or subject-matter to be Welsh, and who can easily be subsumed into English literature proper. And whereas for literature in Welsh there is a 'great tradition' that can be argued with and reacted against, the study of Welsh writing in English has a very precarious academic presence, which is another reason why the border between English and Anglo-Welsh
writing is so fluid. For reasons of space as much as ideology, I shall here adopt a narrow definition, and concentrate on those writers and works in which identification with the Welsh context is strong.


Those who began to publish in Welsh in the 1960s and 1970s did so in the shadow of the great generation of writers born around the turn of the century: of Saunders Lewis and Kate Roberts, R. Williams-Parry, D. J. Williams, Waldo Wiliams, Euros Bowen, John Gwilym Jones, Thomas Parry- Williams, and Gwenallt. Many of these originated from a working-class culture that was monoglot Welsh, or very nearly so. But they were also among the first to have a higher education that made it possible for them to study the early and medieval literature of their country and to connect their own work with these earlier great periods of Welsh literature. Some were active politically in the Welsh Nationalist Party (later Plaid Cymru), and almost all became part of a wider nationalist movement, which by the 1970s had established a broad hegemony within Welsh-language culture.

The younger writers of the time inherited a standpoint and a rhetoric that were confirmed by the worsening demographic statistics for the Welsh language and the perceived retreat of the medium in which they worked. Saunders Lewis's 1962 radio lecture Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), which foresaw the demise of Welsh early in the 21st century if revolutionary methods were not adopted, led to the founding of Cymdeithas yr iaith Gymraeg, or Welsh Language Society, whose direct- action campaigns were to secure the support of many writers and absorb their energies.

In the short term, this was not particularly productive for literature, though there were some memorable propagandistic texts. Islwyn Ffowc Elis's Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd (A Year in the Wales of the Future, 1957) had set the scene for the protests of the 1 960s with its frightening vision of what Wales could become if current trends continued. Singers such as Huw Jones and Dafydd Iwan, later to be important figures in the Welsh media, sang songs to their guitars that were by turns humorous, satirical, and passionate. And in the pages of Barn (Opinion), a Welsh-language monthly, Alwyn D. Rees (1911-74) brought the sharpest of academic minds to the defence of the language in editorials whose intellectual power effectively erased the arguments put forward by the Welsh Office or the Lord Chancellor in London.

The Secret Room (1975), the first of several historical novels by Marion Eames (b. 1921), dealt with the persecution of the Quakers in seventeenth-century Meirionnydd, but few of her readers at the time the book was first published can have failed to draw a parallel with those other criminals of conscience who in their own time and own small towns were being taken to court for what were termed 'Welsh language offences'. Dafydd Rowlands's (b. 1931) novel Mae Theomemphus yn hen (Theomemphus is Old, 1977) stood outside most of the conventions of the time in its individualistic concerns and its prose-poetry form.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, not many Welsh writers dealt with contemporary life in the realist mode. Among those who did, Eigra Lewis Roberts (b. 1939) particularly deserves attention. In novels, short stories, and plays, she looks honestly at the lives of the much-mythologized gwerin (ordinary folk), addressing such topics as wife-beating and abortion before it became generally acceptable to do so. Though less inward and profound, and less of a stylist than the great short-story writer Kate Roberts, she works on territory that Roberts opened up. This is true also of Jane Edwards (b. 1938) in her treatment of childhood and adolescence, and in her use of dialect. Kate Roberts certainly cast a long shadow, which women writers who came after her could find oppressive. Yet having a woman as one of the half-dozen undisputed great figures at the heart of Welsh twentieth-century literature gave women an important role model and a sense of self-confidence, particularly in relation to the writing of prose.

Among the poets, Bobi Jones (b. 1929) confirmed that it was possible to become a poet in one's second language. As critic and activist, Bobi Jones has made strong commitments, but his earlier and more successful poetry propagandizes in an indirect way. In it, the discovery of new experience - falling in love, the birth of a child - runs parallel with the discovery of a whole new world in Welsh, leading to a double sense of intoxication. His Selected Poems, translated into English by Joseph Clancy, appeared in 1987. Gwyn Thomas (b. 1936), like Bobi Jones an academic, has also won a wide reputation with poetry that has become increasingly accessible, having a delightful freshness of tone that verges sometimes on the faux-naïf.

Meanwhile, poetry in cynghanedd - strict metre - experienced a revival in the 1970s. The movement was the creation of one man in particular, Alan Llwyd (b. 1948), perhaps the most accomplished living poet in Welsh, and an indefatigable publisher. As an editor, he took up a defensive position which cast those who disagreed with him into outer darkness. For a while it seemed as if subscribing to the formal tradition of cynghanedd also involved embracing traditional Christianity and forswearing various contemporary critical theories.

The period immediately following 1979 is a watershed in both Welsh and Anglo-Welsh writing, though in rather different ways. The referendum held on St David's Day 1979 saw the comprehensive defeat of the Labour government's proposal for the devolution of power to a Welsh assembly. With the election of Mrs Thatcher two months later, and mass redundancies in the steel industry, Wales seemed to be reeling from a succession of blows; but when the government reneged on its manifesto pledge to establish a separate Welsh-language television channel, the level of outrage and pro test reached unprecedented levels. The government thereupon performed a U-turn and honoured its pledge.

A Welsh-language media industry now came into being, creating as many as 3,000 skilled and relatively well-paid jobs. It became possible for a number of people to make a full-time living by writing in Welsh, scripting television dramas and soap operas.

Welsh literature as hitherto defined could no longer feel it was central to a national movement, nor to the social issues of the time. It had lost its innocence, come to doubt itself, become part of a modern pluralist world, and, at the same time, had discovered its own internal tensions and divisions. The signs were already there before 1979, but that year crystallized the change. In so far as cultural and political nationalism was challenged in English, this period seemed simply like a repeat of earlier hostilities between what was perceived as an urban, English-speaking, and a rural, Welsh-speaking, Wales. But in so far as the debate was now happening within Welsh, the culture was growing, and outgrowing some of its redundant myths. The urban-rural dichotomy no longer held water. Welsh was becoming weaker in the countryside and gaining strength in towns and suburbs, particularly in and around Cardiff.

One trend noticeable in writing of the 1980s and 1990s is the growing strength of the novel relative to poetry, which has traditionally been preeminent in Welsh. Within the Welsh novel the city comes into its own, reflecting the increasing pull of Cardiff for young Welsh-speakers who move to work in the various national institutions where in previous generations they might have gone to London and been lost to Wales. From Goronwy Jones's Dyddiadur dyn dwad (Diary of an Outsider, 1978) and Siôn Eirian's Bob yn y Ddinas (Bob in the City, 1979) to Mihangel Morgan's Dirgel Ddyn (The Secret Person, 1993), life in the city offers possibilities very different from those of the rooted communities dear to so much Welsh literature: anonymity, picaresque adventure, sex, the contrast between Wales as you were taught to think of it in literature with the Wales you find all around you. However, these are urban novels in the rather special sense that they see the city through the eyes of those who have come from elsewhere, and who experience it, at least in part, as release. We still await the novels of the truly urban Welsh-speakers, those who have grown up in Welsh in the city and received their education in its Welsh schools.

More ambitious in their different ways are Robat Grufydd's Y Llosgi (The Burning, 1986) and William Owen Roberts's Y Pla (1987, later published in a somewhat different English version as Pestilence in 1991, a subsequent German translation of which acquired something of a cult following. The hero of Y Llosgi, a language activist in his youth, works in public relations with the Welsh Development Council, selling Wales to foreign investors and negotiating European funding. What starts as a thriller, when the hero finds his car burnt out, turns into a quest for authenticity, for a definition of Wales that will ring true and not prove just another image for manipulation. Satirical and surreal scenes - in the 'Welsh Publishing Corporation' or in a Berlin transvestite club - remain within a realist framework. The hero finally re-centres his life around something he can believe in, but only by withdrawing to the local and particular from the complex world of power relations which the novel has succeeded in mapping.

Y Pla likewise has the merit of setting Wales in a wide context - that of fourteenth-century Europe at the time of the Great Plague. This is not the historical novel that readers had been used to in Welsh - an illuminated, distant world of national wholeness - but something much closer to Umberto Eco: a self-conscious fiction constructed in an energetic language that enacts a scene of perpetual change, a world where the weak go to the wall and poets hymn the powerful. There is a Marxist sense of history turning on its hinges like a door, to usher in a new age and a new confusion as wage labour takes over from serfdom; but this is Marxist historicism without the hope of an inevitable progression to an ultimate resolution. Therein, no doubt, lies the novel's contemporary resonance.

Angharad Tomos was one of the Welsh Language Society's leading activists, imprisoned on several occasions for her part in direct-action language campaigns. The chief protagonist of Yma o Hyd (Still Here, 1985), a novel in diary form, not only records the detail of prison life but has time to wonder about the nature of those respectable supporters at home who hail her as a saviour of Welsh culture and yet will do absolutely nothing to make her action unnecessary. While she is in prison, she hears of the arrival of the nuclear warheads at Greenham Common, and feels an overwhelming sense of defeat.

Something of this same mixture of feminism with language activism and compassion for others can be found in the raw and tender poetry of Menna Elfyn (b. 1951), a selection of whose work can be found with English translation in Eucalyptus (1995). Her themes arise, not from ideology, but from the events of a woman's life in Wales - as when a miscarriage precipitates a sense of multiple loss; when her husband, also a language activist, is taken off to prison; or when the house next door becomes an English holiday home. If the personal has become increasingly political in her work, the political is always realized in very personal terms.

I have discussed writing in Welsh here largely in terms of cultural history, partly because of the difficulty of assessing the literature in question through translations, but also because the period in question lends itself to this treatment. It was not a time of outstanding individual figures but rather of interesting new trends. With writing in English, to which I now turn, the reverse is true.


The poetry of the period is dominated by R. S. Thomas (b. 1913), and Emyr Humphreys (b. 1919) occupies a central position in the novel. Raymond Williams (1921-88) made his name as a cultural critic without paying any attention to his Welsh origins; but his novels are profoundly concerned with the society that formed him. Welsh writing in English in the immediate pre- and post-war years had been dominated by a talented school of writers who included Glyn Jones and Gwyn Thomas, Jack Jones, Lewis Jones, and Gwyn Jones. They issued from, and celebrated, the industrial culture of the mining valleys: a Welshness that had no difficulty in defining itself within the British framework as urban, proletarian, and articulate in a way that favoured word-play and eloquence. In this last respect, Dylan Thomas can be assimilated to the group.

Emyr Humphreys is a novelist who cannot be effectively quoted because structure, and the careful counterposing of different times and places, are fundamental to his books. An early novel, A Toy Epic (1958), for example, consists of the intercut voices of three boys, schoolfriends, who occupy different positions on the interrelated scales of language and social class. At the end of the novel it is clear that all three are headed in different directions and will inhabit different conceptual worlds within what is conventionally called Wales. Interestingly, the Welsh version of this novel, published as Y Tri Llais (The Three Voices, 1958), adds an opening sequence in which the narrator, echoing the opening of an early eighteenth-century Welsh visionary poem, hears the voices of the three boys in a dream. This device seems to suggest that a continuity in the literary tradition does indeed hold Wales and its otherwise disintegrating society in a single perspective.

This, indeed, can be seen as Humphreys's general position - an organizing intelligence places itself in the continuous tradition of the Welsh language, and from that vantage-point uses English to make a meaningful shape out of the internal tensions and divisions of a society which has in large measure forgotten what it is to be a nation, and consoles itself with sentimental platitudes.

Humphreys's novels are set in the years between the First World War and the time of writing, often covering more than one generation's experience in the same novel. The scene moves between North and South Wales, and the characters include passionate young nationalists, Marxist materialists, pacifist idealists grown old in their powerlessness, and self- serving pragmatists.

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