A Summer’s Reading
18th April 2020: Since today is an online rally for Welsh independence, in place of the march that was cancelled due to the lockdown, I would like to talk about some of the books and music which I love, or which have shaped my view of Welsh nationhood and culture:
The short stories of Kate Roberts and John Gwilym Jones. Kate Roberts is unknown to the world, perhaps in part because she wrote in Welsh, in part because she excelled more as a short-story writer than as a novelist, but there is nothing I have written which is not inspired by her example, as much as I am inspired by Raymond Carver or Anton Chekhov. As an observer of people, and as a stylist, she is easily the equal of either Katherine Mansfield or Ernest Hemingway. John Gwilym Jones’s stories are quiet, ruminative, so inward in their focus that the first time I read them, as an MA student still dazzled by Hemingway, they went utterly over my head, yet one of them especially, reflecting on upbringing, heritage, education and belonging, has profoundly affected my recent work.
Histories of Wales by Gwynfor Evans and J. E. Lloyd. Gwynfor Evans, the first MP elected for Plaid Cymru, writing in the early 1970s, explores the history of Welsh nationalism as a history of resistance to English territorial expansionism and cultural assimilation which for him echoes Europe's wider struggles against fascism and its groping towards peace and cooperation within the EU. His predecessor as a historian, J. E. Lloyd, explores the writers, churchmen, and warrior kings of Welsh history, in books describing the years prior to 1282 and the years of the Glyndŵr revolt: a complete history of the independence of Wales.
Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Writing in the first case from the perspective of Central Europe, and in the second with a knowledge of Asian history (the study of nationalism is an internationalist pursuit), both writers explore nationalism as humanism’s response to colonialism and extractive industrialisation. Between them, they utterly discredit the notion that the nationalism of stateless nations reflects any weakness of mind or failure of conscience, or that it is in any way related to fascism. For a voice from 1940s Germany making precisely the same distinction with evident hatred and scorn for the Nazis, read Sebastian Haffner’s Germany: Jekyll or Hyde.
Montserrat Guiberneau, Nations without States, and Ronald Beiber, Theorising Nationalism. Guiberneau predicts the increasing importance of stateless nations in influencing the future development of the European Union, while the essays edited by Beiber contain, among others, Bernard Yack and Will Kamlycka carefully undermining the moral and logical distinction between the state-sponsored nationalisms which are accepted in the liberal West, and the stateless nationalisms whose adherents are abused and vilified.
A Toy Epic and Outside the House of Baal, novels by Emyr Humphreys. A Toy Epic describes three boys from different backgrounds arriving at manhood, and seeks ways to think of rural, industrial and intellectual Wales as a whole. Outside the House of Baal explores, among other things, the conflict between pacifist nationalism and Britain’s involvement in Europe’s two great wars.
D. J. Williams, Hen Dŷ Ffarm, and Angharad Price, O! Tyn y Gorchudd. D. J. Williams’s memoir of childhood in the farming of Carmarthenshire seems a deliberate antithesis of Thoreau’s Walden Pond, concerned and deeply connected with the rural community and landscape, with neighbours, animals, heritage and family. Angharad Price’s novel, describing the harshness of life on a turn-of-the-century hill farm, nevertheless gives the gift of a long and richly imagined life to a relative of hers who died in infancy.
Gwynfor Evans replied to a letter of mine making a scholarly enquiry when I was writing my first novel, gave me his time, and a little of his unassuming passion for Wales. The composer Daniel Jones also replied, with great courtesy, good humour, patience, and wit, to a letter from an inquisitive schoolboy doing a project about Welsh composers. His string quartets are pensive, astringent, and unendingly consoling, and I listen to them time and again.