Non-Fiction | Gwalia Patagonia by Jon Gower

Gomer, 240 pp

Jon GowerGwalia Patagonia opens with a picture taken by the author himself. A lonely, tiny chapel against background of windblown trees and giant sky, it is perfect emblem for book and subject. A line on the adjacent page states that the book’s royalties are for donation to Ysgol y Cwm, Esquel. The single paragraph on the same page is indicator that this is more than a piece of commemorative year publishing tie-in. Jon Gower is a wordsmith. His book is ‘a visit to the site, in South America, of the most enduring overseas venture ever sustained by the Welsh.’

The choice of words is careful and precise. The nineteenth century emigrants who poured, principally out of Cardiganshire, in truth sailed in their numbers in all directions. At the Hay Festival on Spring Bank Holiday one event stood out for attendance by men in suits and ties. A new initiative was under launch that the Wales of the twenty-first century might link with its expatriate communities across the world. It had worked to the benefit of Ireland, said the First Minister. If the communities of Welsh origin lacked the same high profile it was precisely because they had been so adept at assimilation.

Patagonia has that dimension of allure that Portage County, Ohio lacks. In part it is the location. ‘On the map of the world,’ writes Gower, ‘this is where the great continent of South America begins to narrow and fracture, its coastline jagged, crimped and crenellated before land contracts and diminishes to end as a gnarly, rocky finger, a finisterre in Tierra del Fuego, arthritically pointing the way to the South Pole.’ But the now province of Chubut is also a mirror of the destiny of Argentina. Had Simon Bolivar’s concept of a United States of the Southern Americas, to mirror the giant polity to the north, come about the region would be very different. Argentina has forfeited its status of a hundred years of being one of the globe’s ten richest nations.

That the outcomes of history hang by threads of chance and circumstance is echoed in the destinations mooted by founder-mover Michael T Jones. The first chapter of Gwalia Patagonia traces the steady impetus to find a destination for an emigration for cultural persistence at threat by industrial upheaval at home. Hugh Hughes: ‘Our desire is to have a country where we can govern our internal affairs entirely, without interference in matters worldly and religious by another nation.’

Skilled writing of history melds narrative to close-up detail. The network of canals emanating from the Chubut makes today for images of tranquillity. Gower takes the reader into their first making; fifty men, women, entire families, digging out eleven kilometres of trench, three metres deep, four metres wide, with no implements beyond shovel and rake. Gower is an author of history not heritage. From the USA, he notes Y Drych ‘constantly raged fiercely against all matters Patagonian.’ The edginess of relationship with the state began with the appointment of Governor Tello who decreed military drill on the Sabbath. In January 1899, Welshmen pleading the cause of secession to the Foreign Office in London brought accusations of high treason back home. The Generals and Admirals who controlled Argentina until their fall in 1983 rendered illegal the naming of children with Welsh forenames.

The practitioners of the travel genre are many, but its masters are few. A first advantage is to be a writer. Gower spins sentences of originality wherever he goes. Patagonia is renowned for the relentlessness of its winds. Gower uses metaphor familiar to the first arrivals. ‘Here, the wind was all scythes and sickles, cutting through to the chill bone marrow, cutting to the quick.’ He sketches the Puerto Madryn of today as the most unlikely of beach resorts.

Gwalia Patagonia moves from history to encounters of his own. He comes across the dentist, once of Japan, who has learned the language and plays ‘sospan fach’ on his guitar. A masterly chapter of nine pages entitled ‘The Welsh in Chatwinland’ starts with a critical observation by W.G. Sebald. Gower is acute on Bruce Chatwin. He cites Martha Gellhorn who sees a correspondence with her husband. ‘They are not conscious liars… They believe everything they say.’ ‘But that still didn’t mean they didn’t lie,’ adds Gower.

Good travel writing also roams in a manner that is firm in judgement but unweighted by dogma. Richard Llewellyn took his hero-protagonist Huw Morgan Huw from How Green Was My Valley to Patagonia for the sequel Up into the Singing Mountain. Gower deflates the writer’s claims to a Welsh authenticity. Vivian Lloyd was born in Hendon, admittedly to a father who was a Welsh publican, with a first job washing dishes in Claridges.

On the other hand Patagonia had a transformative effect on Kyffin Williams. Gower the bird-watcher knows the yellow of the flitting urraca and benteveo. But the hues of rock colour, the particular blue-black of evening, ‘the searing reds of the Chilean flame trees’ all combined to change the artistic direction. Paul Joyner likens Y Wladfa to Williams ‘as Morocco was to Delacroix, or Venice to Turner. Each artist found something which deeply resonated with the spirit and introduced a fresh use of colour alongside beautifully crafted images.’

Gower, the once-walker with R S Thomas, can be expected to turn his eye to the skies. The mighty condor turns out to be member of the vulture family. Its wings are ‘two enormous palm fronds fingering the sky’. Gower seeks out the knowledge of Dr Emily Shepard of Swansea to grasp the bird’s sophisticated and economical use of thermals in its flying. At the other end of the spectrum of size he notes the little siǒl fach goch, the little red shawl, and the bird with black plumage, gweddw fach, the little widow. Back on the ground the reader learns that the authentic poncho of guanaco wool is of a toughness to resist a puma’s claws. Gower adds that a puma attack on a human is rare.

Gower’s acknowledgements cover three pages and embrace both the personal and the literary. ‘I thank all concerned’ is his last sentence. He acknowledges too that many a volume on Patagonia has preceded his own. This is a fine, full and worthy addition to the commemorations of this summer. The fact of despatch of the royalties to Esquel should be additional spur to the wide readership that Gwalia Patagonia deserves.