History Notes from Hay | Welsh Legends… Or Are They Myths?

Adam Somerset reports from the discussions of Welsh history at this year’s Hay Festival.

The whole world comes to Hay-on-Wye. Over the Festival’s thirty years it has seen Nobel Prize Laureates, political leaders and business grandees grace its marquees and tramp its boardwalks. I have in prior years reported for Wales Arts Review on a range of visitors: Britain’s youngest ever Foreign Secretary one year, a tech billionaire another, the head of CERN on the subject of the Higgs-Boson particle another. When Rowan Williams met Simon Russell Beale to talk Shakespeare the result was a thrill of intellectual fireworks.

For all its glorious heterogeneity the Festival has a few strands of regularity and continuity. One of them is the presence on platform of the historians of Wales. They are reliably lively on a podium. They are manifestly good lecturers one and all. They have an enthusiasm for Wales that is tempered by a preference for historical truth over cultural self-congratulation. Every ship that made the Middle Passage, reported Chris Evans, had its hull protected from weevil by the copper of Wales. Every gram of sugar produced from plantation cane did so in stills made from the metal of Wales. As Madeleine Gray in a former year put it: “We want history to be a comfort blanket but it’s there to make us ask the questions.”

This strand of Hay persists in 2017. The former grandees of Welsh history have been followed by a new generation. The grand narratives – the work of John Davies, Dai Smith and Kenneth O Morgan – have been established and the areas of research are different. But the concerns are the same. Huw Bowen led a panel a few years back that declared the great innovators of the industrial age were ignored in favour of class warfare. It was not so long ago that Peter Stead declared on a Hay Platform that a central national issue was still the failure to establish a post-extractive industry sense of cultural identity. Stead served for a while on the board of the new National Theatre which did great things. In 2017 it looks backwards to steel and the health service. Nostalgia and the values of the Tourist Board cast a shadow that has no like in Scotland and England.

The vivacious hour-long session by a new generation of historians from Swansea University has been prompted by a tourist board campaign. It is called “Welcome to the Year of Legends.” In truth as advertising copy it is not bad. It mentions the Wales Coastal Path. As a footnote to the funeral this week the path was the work of Rhodri Morgan. A letter from an environmentalist said that it all began with a conversation ten years ago between First Minister and Jane Davidson.

Martin Johnes takes the role of chair and has called the session “Welsh Legends…Or Are They Myths?” The result is energetic, refreshing and thoroughly debunking. Matthew Stevens pitches first into the campaigns of Glyndwr. Medieval Wales was a people but it is debatable whether the contesting territories of Deheubarth, Powys, Gwynedd and all were a nation. They were certainly not a state in any sense and the scenario of being over-run by the neighbour to the east is weak. Certainly historical orthodoxy has it that Glyndwr was a calamity in economic terms setting the country back a hundred years. Stevens cites a contemporary on how he “brought all things to waste.” He ends with a nice spark. The wish that Cardiff host a statue is a rare instance of making honour to a man who contribution was to set the city alight and burn it down.

Louise Miskell‘s purpose is not to debunk the importance of coal but to depose its centrality. It is true that it was massive, peaking in 1920 with a workforce of 270,000. At its high-point Wales accounted for one-third of world coal output. The bedrock of Empire was Britain’s mastery of the oceans worldwide. Before the Royal Navy’s conversion to oil in 1912 Wales was the enabler of the world’s imperial hegemon. But Miskell’s argument is that Wales was more than coal. The Labour narrative of history has dominated but there were many other facets of a diverse industrial and social past. In one respect coal contributes to a stark discrimination of class. There were workers and owners and that was it. The history of steel, the industry of the modern post-war age, is, says Miskell, more complex and nuanced in its make-up and ownership.

Sam Blaxland starts his contribution with an unusual disclaimer. He is not a member of the Conservative Party, but he is an academic whose subject has been the party in Wales. The presence of a sizeable bloc of patriotic, conservatively-minded citizens in Wales is passed over by the state-funded cultural organs. Jon Gower for one has recorded that the street parties for the Silver Jubilee in 1977 were far larger in the Valleys than in the shires of England.

The advisers and minders of Mrs Thatcher, Blaxland reminds us, did not dare let their leader visit the Valleys. Nonetheless, the regime under Nicholas Edwards put £500 million into the development of Cardiff Bay. S4C was founded under her watch. At the time there was so much else on the agenda that it was too small an issue to fight. Good generals choose just a few battles. In the 1983 election the party of Mrs Thatcher received 400,000 votes from Wales.

Blaxland is a historian from a good university and his approach is rigorous and even-handed. Nonetheless a voice from the crowd denounces him. With a general election a week away his short summary is, she declares, thoroughly partisan. Of course a doughty Hay audience is not going to be turned Conservative as a result of a fifteen minute talk by a young lecturer about events that took place thirty years ago. The querulous voice seems to embody Blaxland’s theme. Any narrative that deviates from the mainstream story of collectivist virtue has to be rebutted. Conservatism appeals and investigation into it is an entirely legitimate intellectual enquiry. But the commissars of culture have never been enthusiastic. They have limited interest in the diversity of the nation. The most-read article after June 23rd included the line “it is not just the news media: dramatic portrayals of Welsh life remain largely invisible in film, music and literature…that contributes to an extremely weak sense of national identity in Wales.” But then as Madeleine Gray again said on a Hay platform of a previous year: “We don’t like things that make us uncomfortable”.