When better than St. David’s Day to announce that our Book of the Month is Richard King’s ‘Brittle With Relics: A History of Wales 1962 — 1997’, just-published by Faber. Reading it is much like keeping the company of Wales’s most interesting, erudite people, writes Pamela Petro.
Imagine you’re locked inside a building with 16 rooms behind 16 closed doors. You’re in the corridor in between. Now, in each room imagine around 15 or so of the most interesting, erudite people in Wales — people intimate with Wales’ recent history; no, scratch that, people who’ve made Wales’ recent history — talking with wit and passion from personal experience and conjecture, one after the other, each grabbing bits of the national story and spinning it in their own direction. And imagine that this is going on behind every door in the building, and you’re the only listener. You can’t get out, but you don’t want to get out, even though you’re exhausted and your head is buzzing and it’s impossible to remember what everybody said.
This is exactly what it’s like to read Richard King’s fascinating, deeply important, episodic and discursive oral history of Wales from 1962-97, called, after R.S. Thomas’ poetic jab at his country’s seeming inertia, Brittle With Relics. A curious title, I have to say, as the last thing I felt reading this book was stasis. If nothing else these voices prove that Wales has been in nothing but flux this past half century or so.
Behind King’s doors are 16 chapters anchored by an iconic event or theme, arranged chronologically. He kicks off with ‘The Welsh Language’ and Saunders Lewis’ prediction of the demise of Welsh in 1962, followed by topics ranging from ‘Remember Tryweryn,’ about the Tryweryn valley becoming a reservoir for Liverpool, to chapters on protest campaigns, the Aberfan mining disaster, the first, unsuccessful devolution referendum in 1979, Greenham Common, the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath, the building of Cardiff Bay, and more. Each one is discussed by a cast of those intimately involved with the topic. (Actually, it’s not a discussion — King appears to have interviewed people individually — but he’s assembled their comments in an organic, free-flowing manner. Helpfully, participants are identified at the beginning of the book, almost like characters in an historical novel.) King doesn’t include the questions he asked of his subjects, though we’re privy to a wide range of their answers. For instance, in the chapter on ‘Mewnfudwyr’ — ‘Incomers’ — King speaks to both iconic Welsh figures like the folk singer and language and political activist Dafydd Iwan, as well as Ann Pettit, who moved from London to Wales, where she founded Women for Life on Earth.
As I read I held two questions in my mind: What’s the benefit of an oral history — as opposed to a traditional one, like John Davies’ A History of Wales — and what’s the downside? The benefit, I think, is that it problematises everything you thought you knew. Such a plethora of opinions, stories and insights crosshatched subjects on which I thought I had settled opinions. The contradictions of the 1979 Assembly Referendum, for example, took me by surprise. As Andrew Davies put it, ‘the Labour government legislated for a referendum but the campaign against it was [in Wales] to a large extent led by Neil Kinnock.’ Such complexities fascinated me.
The downside — that isn’t the right word; the difficulty — stems from the fact that even though King introduces each topic and occasionally steps in to further the narrative, his intention is to lead readers into the forest where they wander among countless trees. It’s up to readers to step back, consider all that’s been said, and try to piece together the outline of the forest. The fact that you’re not told what the forest looks like is a very good thing; it also puts the hard work on you.
King’s own sentiments are made manifest through the interlocking subjects he’s chosen to cover. To my mind, he’s made an extraordinary selection, putting his finger on real pivot points in recent Welsh history. The Tryweryn chapter, for instance, highlights divisions between Cymdeithas yr Iaith and Plaid Cymru, which come to the fore in the next chapter, ‘Direct Action’. Necessarily in a work of this scope, some things are left out. Toward the end, King focuses on the transformative music scene in the 1990s, at the expense, say, of Welsh and English language poetry. The poet and activist Menna Elfyn appears in several chapters, but we don’t have a chance to consider her ground-breaking work. This omission isn’t a criticism, though: you can’t include everything, and King has done a magnificent job in corralling his interviewees and shaping their incisive and contradictory comments into a cohesive narrative. What a feat!
I came away from Brittle with Relics thinking that Wales has had a hell of a hard time during the 35-year period King examined, and yet, as he acknowledges at the end, the country has far more potential now than it did in the early Sixties, thanks to people like the ones who talk — and talk and talk — throughout this wondrous book.
‘Brittle With Relics’ is out now and available here (£25.00).
Pamela Petro is the author of ‘The Long Field’, a memoir rooted deep in the Welsh countryside. Read an extract here.