Adam Somerset reviews Richard King’s new book Brittle with Relics, an oral history of the politics and culture of Wales in the second half of the twentieth century by some of the people that helped shape it.
Brittle with Relics follows three crucial decades for Wales from the last century, 1962-1997, in a unique form. Richard King, in a vaultingly different book from his last, The Lark Ascending from 2019, has performed a huge task, capturing and threading together oral testimony from one hundred voices. The voices are familiar from the politics and public life of Wales. Many too have featured in Wales Arts Review over the last ten years of its life. Nicky Wire, Rachel Trezise, Iwan Bala, David Hurn, Cian Ciarán, Menna Elfyn, Dafydd Iwan are among the frequently heard figures from the arts.
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.
Good history is first a reminder of another age. Dewi Prysor recounts 14 months spent in jail before the charges against him were dropped. A 13-year-old Neil Kinnock is in the Tredegar Workingmen’s Hall to see opera stars who were paid the same to sing as they received at Covent Garden. Richard King’s voices have a freshness to them. A feisty Edwina Hart in the Assembly challenges a Minister who says of opera “we don’t want to bother with that, ordinary people aren’t interested”. Her response: “I know miners who know more about bloody opera than anyone in this room.”
Oral history comes with a particular vividness. Helen Prosser is in court in Aberaeron and is taken to the nearest prison for women outside Bristol. She notes a bath without taps – a precaution against suicide. In 1971, Dafydd Iwan in Cardiff Prison receives a visit from the Archbishop of Wales. In Aberavon the General Secretary of the TUC addresses a rally while a noose quietly descends from a gantry overhead to enclose his neck.
Much has changed. Women, prominent in the Senedd from its first days, were not common in public life. It is not mentioned in this book but the custom of women not attending funerals was widespread. Rosemary Butler here gets to serve on Newport Council and wonders about reimbursement. “You had nothing, absolutely nothing. I remember making a claim for 50p for a babysitter. There were huge debates as to whether I should have it”.
Richard King got to John Barnard Jenkins before his death in 2020. His politics are laid bare: “all actions are acceptable when performed in the national interest.” King captures the extraordinary quality of his quasi-Nietzschian language: “I was completely transformed, my blood was thrilled and singing, and I was possessed by a compelling ecstasy which was pure love for my country and people.”
Lighter episodes mingle. Among the alternative life-stylers a son of Elizabeth Taylor is to be seen at a market stall selling joss sticks and patschouli. Julian Orbach was at Cresswell Quay with Dance Camp Wales. “Nudity was the big thing, and that’s what excited the locals.” A young Rhys Ifans recalls being locked in a Denbighshire schoolroom by his head master. The occasion, in the 1980s, was a visit by the Prime Minister to view a suite of new computers. Psychedelic drugs and mushrooms flourish in the Fro. Dewi “Mav” Bowen says of his recreational habits: “it’s a different kind of nationalism; it’s a different kind of pride, because Wales has a lot more mythological roots than England.”
King himself is a subsidiary voice, providing introduction and epilogue and brief elegant passages of linking explanation. His greater presence is imminent. He is the selector of the voices and editor of the thematic chapter narratives. Brittle with Relics has a subtitle “A History of Wales 1962-1997″. That “a history” is correct. Agriculture does not feature. The EU’s milk quotas are mentioned, their impact not followed up. The uplands feature little beyond sheep on the Rhinogydd Mountains being unsellable after rainfall brought radiation from Chernobyl. Sport in this telling is not there.
Geographically the author’s own Radnorshire hardly features; so too there is little of Ceredigion, Brecknock, Flintshire, Monmouthshire, Pembrokeshire, Montgomeryshire. These are the old Liberal heartlands and Conservative Wales. The book tilts towards an axis of Fro to urban South. All history is contemporary history. In 2022, Sian Gwenllian in the Senedd has a weighty title “Lead Designated Member for the Co-operation Agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government”. Brittle with Relics tells a tale of a time that was once so different.
The book has a surface vivacity but a teleological momentum runs beneath. Early on Carl Iwan Clowes cites “cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon”, translated as “a nation without a language is a nation without a heart.” Ffred Ffransis recalls the Brewer Spinks episode where an investor banned the speaking of Welsh inside his Blaenau Ffestiniog factory. The arc of language activism begins with Saunders Lewis and reaches a part-fruition in the Welsh Language Act of 1993. In 2022, the two languages flow freely across the floor of the Siambr.
The spikiest commentary in the book comes from Labour front-benchers present and past. Although not in the book there were attempts, disclosed in Arcade Magazine in the early 80s, by Plaid Cymru to seek common ground with Labour’s Bennites. But the language that Richard King has elicited is harsh. Tecwyn Vaughan Jones: “Cardiff didn’t like the Welsh community in Whitchurch and Rhiwbina”. Eluned Morgan: “it was very difficult to be a Welsh-speaker and to be Labour at that time.” Neil Kinnock: “nationalists hate everybody else’s country.”
Meinir Francis speaks in riposte to Kinnock: “He said that the princes of Wales were no more than bandits and this type of thing, there’s no pride at all in his Welshness, and he seemed to be ashamed of it.” Peter Hain: “The hatred, the antagonism, the sectarianism towards Plaid was very great.” Andrew Davies: “So you had people like George Thomas – I’m not sure where that visceral hatred of the Welsh language came from.”
Andrew Davies has emerged as an insightful critic of Cardiff Bay and is a strong presence. When the second devolution referendum is mooted “Ron [Davies] could see,” says Andrew Davies, “that, unless you had a form of PR, it would be full of superannuated Labour councillors from the valleys; it would be very conservative with a small c… proportional representation in the Labour group was hated, absolutely hated”.
Pungent language too is expressed on the quality of government. Andrew Davies again: “Local government corruption was quite endemic.” Rosemary Butler remembers: “It was an era when people who you wouldn’t have automatically assumed to be of the highest ability emerged as head teachers at local schools and then, lo and behold, they were members of the Labour Party.” Kim Howells: “all those Valleys Initiatives were rubbish, bloody rubbish.”
Brittle with Relics is a big, bustling, enlivening compendium that deserves wide reading.
Brittle with Relics by Richard King is available via Faber.
Adam Somerset is an essayist and a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.