Brittle With Relics by Richard King; Welsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales – reviews | History books


“In Wales, we are doing things differently,” explains the Welsh government on its website, 25 years after devolution gave it control over matters such as public health, housing, education and the economy.

Covid-19 has upped the ante. In February, Wales became the first home nation to make vaccines available to five-to-11-year-olds, then launched a trial for a universal basic income. It also promoted the idea of a four-day working week (in line with its Well-being of Future Generations Act, the only legislation of its type in the world).

The government also promotes the Welsh language, sparking criticism. In the February issue of the Critic, Jonathan Meades railed against the “totalitarian project” to get a million people speaking Welsh by 2050 (the current official total stands at 883,000, up by more than 150,000 from 2010). The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen also explored the topic in his Radio 4 series Being Welsh, complaining that the drive “to spread the language risks devaluing the identities of Welsh people like me”. You wonder why people choose not to celebrate a tongue that has survived centuries of suppression, but to fear it.

It didn’t pass me by that both men do not live in Wales, but I do; over the past 20 years, I have watched young people becoming the lifeblood of the language. This is clear from the rising popularity of Welsh-language schools and in cross-party, non-nationalist independence campaigns such as YesCymru, which is dominated by younger voices, speaking in English and Welsh.

Richard King talks about a “renewed sense of purpose” – a confidence the country seems to have gained in its separate identity – in the epilogue of Brittle With Relics: A History of Wales, 1962-1997. But the chapters that precede it reveal how tough to tread the early years were. Beginning with a famous speech in 1962 on the possible extinction of the Welsh language by Saunders Lewis, co-founder of independence party Plaid Cymru, King’s book proceeds through the horrors of the Aberfan disaster, the flooding of a village, Capel Celyn, in the Afon Tryweryn valley in 1965 to create a reservoir to provide water for Liverpool, and the South Wales miners’ strike, as well as previous failed attempts at devolution.

Many rousing stories shine through this gloom: of the first march to Greenham Common from Cardiff, led by Ann Pettitt and Karmen Thomas, and the tales of Super Furry Animals and Gwenno, artists who have given the Welsh language a fresh edge. Brittle With Relics, however, is not a romantic book. Its construction as an oral history allows the story of Wales to appear less varnished, more nuanced, full of grit. Academics, activists, politicians and disaster survivors stand alongside the actor and now campaigner Michael Sheen, who has moved back to Port Talbot, Swansea’s former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Tredegar’s Neil Kinnock.

The latter’s youthful recollections are particularly fascinating – he grew up around the Welsh valleys town of Tredegar, home to the Workmen’s Medical Aid Society, which inspired Aneurin Bevan to found the NHS. Here, locals also contributed a penny a week to fund a huge local library, snooker hall and 2,000-capacity concert hall, where Kinnock watched many famous opera singers perform.

He also recounts his time as a young teacher at the Aberfan Workers’ Education Association in 1966, and the day he arrived at the village shortly after the slurry slip that killed 116 schoolchildren. “We realised after an hour or so that there was nothing we could do,” he says.

We hear, too, about the 14-year-old James Dean Bradfield, later the frontman of Manic Street Preachers, buying Kinnock his tobacco on the day of the 1983 general election on the orders of his dad. Grammy-nominated producer David Wrench (Caribou, Sampha, FKA twigs) remembers raves he attended in caves, while BBC 6 Music DJ Huw Stephens also talks about his late father, Meic, who was responsible for the famous graffiti saying “Cofiwch Dryweryn” (Remember Tryweryn) just before the village was drowned.

Welsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales offers a collection of younger, more racially diverse voices, alongside establishment figures such as Niall Griffiths and the Wales Arts’ Review’s Gary Raymond. The editors include Swansea’s Darren Chetty, whose essay Whatever Happened to the Black Boy of Killay?, about a pub near his childhood home (and mine), hit me hard. Written from the perspective of a local with Welsh Indian and South African Dutch ancestry, it examines the removal of the pub sign and the stubbornness of the people who held on to its name, subtly underlining the racism endemic there, then and now.

The stunning writing of Kandace Siobhan Walker (who explores the Brecon Beacons, Blackness and a lack of belonging) and a brutal attack documented by Shaheen Sutton also stress that Wales is no utopia. Reading these voices under the label of Welshness is an energising experience, nevertheless, reminding us of how far the country has come and, also, how far it has to go.

Brittle With Relics: A History of Wales, 1962-1997 by Richard King is published by Faber (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

Welsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales, edited by Darren Chetty, Grug Muse, Hanan Issa and Iestyn Tyne, is published by Repeater (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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