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Brittle with Relics: A History of Wales, 1962–97 ('Oral history at its revelatory best' DAVID KYNASTON)

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Faber’s publicists have secured an endorsement from a heavy hitter from outside Wales. David Kynaston calls this book: “oral history at its revelatory best; containing multitudes.” Its climax, the referendum of 1997, has a thrill to it with its cross-cutting narrative, even when the outcome is known. For a new reader on Wales’ recent history it makes for a roller-coaster of vivid evocation. For this 30-year-plus resident it is known history with a wealth of reinforcing detail and insight. Formally Brittle with Relics is made of 18 chapters, that start with the language campaigns and end with New Labour’s victory and its rapid legislation for devolution. The route between takes in, among other subjects, Tryweryn, the making of Cardiff Bay, Aberfan, and the Sons of Glyndẁr. In 1997 Wales voted in favour of devolution by a margin of 50.3%, one of the narrowest victories in British electoral history. Two areas in the country that carried the yes vote were Carmarthenshire and the south Wales valleys, both locations with their own recognisable identities. Carmarthen was the first constituency in Wales to elect a Plaid Cymru MP, the party’s leader Gwynfor Evans, in 1966. Many of the county’s inhabitants regarded Carmarthenshire as part of Y Fro Cymraeg, the Welsh-speaking heartland. The valleys, with its historical tradition of workers’ institutes and mutualism was no less a heartland, one where English was spoken more frequently than the Welsh language, Cymraeg. In each instance a place strongly associated with a distinct form of Welshness voted in favour of devolution. A] compelling, energetic and revealing book… King has both chosen and marshalled his cast of voices very well, often meeting those at the very heart of events… unofficial, lively, animated, opinion-charged stuff… These are the times through which many of us have lived brought to pulsing life so that we can better understand our own. It’s like eavesdropping on the past.’ ― The National The interplay between industrialisation and Welsh identity is not so plain as it seems. Obviously in the first half of the twentieth century nationalists considered industrialisation as a threat to Welsh language and identity. Modernity kills Tradition. Ironically the situation after the 1980s partly renewed this old-fashioned idea. Thatcher’s deindustrialisation, while impoverishing the large part of the country, paved the way to strengthening the position of the Welsh language. On the other hand, the Welsh Language Act 1993 in some sense ‘closed’ the problem in general to the extent of the marginalisation of the very language problem in Welsh social and political agenda: ‘I think by ’97, the Welsh language had been depoliticised to some extent, so Wyn Roberts, a Tory Secretary of State, had made Welsh compulsory in school, I don’t think a lot of people registered this’, remembers Siôn Jobbins.

Written in English, The Welsh Extremist examines the social energy animating the Cymraeg-speaking areas of Wales during the late 1960s and early 1970s that coalesced into a dynamic and committed protest movement. In 1971, Ned Thomas surveyed “a society that is drained of its own best talent (and) begins to resent every incursion … the land bought for the sake of the trout stream by the fishing syndicate from the Midland city, the buyers of holiday cottages who price the local young couples out.” Half a century later, Wales remains blighted by similar conditions, ill-informed opinions about Cymraeg and ever more powerful market forces. In each of the anthracite mining villages the neat terraces built to house the labour force remain. Other buildings also provide an echo of the ethos of these communities in their industrial heyday. Though barely a mile apart, every village is represented by a rugby club and is home to a significant number of chapels and churches. But the buildings most laden with history are the now largely deserted miners’ institutes and workmen’s halls. “Hall Y Cwm”, Workingmen’s Hall Garnant by aderixon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0Richard King is acutely attuned to the importance of voice and being heard. This is a strikingly determined amplification of voice by means of oral history.’ Angela Graham ― Irish Times On the whole, however, King’s Wales was never mine. He dwells, as commentators always do, on the dourness, chapel graveyards, abandoned collieries, struggle, gloomy stuff about job losses and outside lavatories. But the principality is much more than teetotalism and damnation. As Richard Burton’s sister Hilda once said to Ringo Starr: “You know the Welsh. We’re good at singing, we’re good at parties, and we don’t feel shy.” In the West Wales Chapel tradition Sul y Blodau, ‘flowering Sunday’, falls on the day more popularly known as Palm Sunday and is the occasion relatives dedicate to tidying the ground and foliage around the gravestones of the departed, before supplying the monuments with fresh flowers. Language campaigner Angharad Tomos recalls asking her parents about such things as Dafydd Iwan’s songs and the fire at Penyberth (where an RAF training establishment was set on fire by Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams) and being excited to realize that their explanation constituted somehow an ‘undercover,’ unofficial history so different from the boring history she was being taught in school – which ‘was about the Methodist revival – there was nothing current.’

This history of Wales begins in 1962, with a radio speech delivered as a warning that Cymraeg, and the identity and way of life it represented, faced extinction. Titled ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ (‘The Fate of the Language’), the speech was given in the form of a radio broadcast by its author, Saunders Lewis, the former leader of Plaid Cymru.

Brittle with Relics is a landmark history of the people of Wales during a period of great national change. Wales felt the effect of the international revolutionary fervour of the late 1960s. In 1969 the investiture at Caernarfon of Queen Elizabeth’s eldest son Charles as Prince of Wales was seen by some as a humiliating display of colonialism. Two members of the Free Wales Army were killed by their own device a day ahead of the investiture; on the day itself a child lost a leg to a bomb in Caernarfon. Another device targeted the royal yacht Britannia.

These proud spaces were the physical manifestation of the urge for communal self-improvement and the egalitarian spirit of working towards the shared purpose of better conditions and livelihoods characteristic of the mining industry. This impetus thrived until the middle of the twentieth century and endured still, in the decades that followed.Throughout this compelling, energetic and revealing book we hear the grain of the interviewees’ voices as they share recollections of recent times, such the influence of Saunders Lewis’ radio lecture Tynged yr Iaith and the terrible landslip at Aberfan – that darkly defining moment in the post-industrial history of Wales which still hurts to read about. The history of the relationship between Cymru and Cymraeg, between Wales and its language, has most usually been told in the mother tongue. To present the history of the Welsh language during the period covered in this book in English is an act of faith: it is one not entered into lightly. By Christ – or Iesu Grist! – this isn’t how things stand today, the principality having become, since I left for university and for good in 1978, a foreign country, its language as comprehensible to outsiders as Igbo or Bulgarian. That Monmouthshire and most of Glamorganshire persist in being English-speaking, despite Welsh being a compulsory subject in schools since 1990, is something that makes for “a schizophrenia”, as one of King’s witnesses terms it. Brittle With Relics is nuanced, passionate and reflective, conveying a very Welsh blend of fatalism and hope.’ Rhian E. Jones, History Today Brittle with Relics is a landmark history of the people of Wales during a period of great national change

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