Jan Morris

The Alluring Shape and Substance of Wales

In the latest contribution to our series of essays on Welsh Identity that has come to be known as ‘The Eternal Conversation’, Wales Arts Review is extremely proud to bring you the first in a four-part series of articles from the Institute of Welsh Affairs‘ Click On Wales, by one of our nation’s greatest living writers, author of over thirty books, Jan Morris

When it comes to the matter of Wales, I am myself at heart a whole-hog old-school romantic, not nostalgic for any imperial past, but romantic in a more visceral sense. I am in thrall to the idea of Wales, and the complex legend of it. I am half Welsh, half English – Anglo-Welsh, or as I would prefer it, Welsh-Anglo. I’m a half-breed.

I write in the English language, I admire much about England, too, and I’ve spent much of my life writing about England’s seminal place in the world. But like many another in my condition, long years ago I found myself prouder of the Welsh in me. My youngest son Twm, a poet who was born and bred to Welshness, loves the country just as much as I do, but I suspect his patriotism is rather more profound than mine, founded more absolutely in the Welsh language, which is his first language. His feeling for the place is more rooted, perhaps, than my affection, and less subject to, well, to sentimental emotions.

Jan Morris

The Welsh tongue, which alas can never really be my own, nevertheless comes very high in the roster of my patriotic fervours. I believe an ancient language, like Welsh, to be one of the greatest of human heritages. When it’s as rich as Welsh is, with so splendid a literature, and has survived for centuries against all odds, cheek-by-jowl with the most powerful of all languages, English – when such a lovely thing is still with us, still creative in the 21st century, surely only a dullard can scoff.

Of course I know that only a third of the inhabitants of Wales speak Cymraeg, but I believe it to be intrinsic to the fascination, the beauty and the self-esteem of this nation. I love to hear it spoken in streets and playgrounds, and spoken habitually by my grandchildren. I love to use it myself, however inadequately, and it thrills me always – brings the tears to my foolish old eyes – to hear its words bawled out in the Welsh national anthem, Hen wlad fy nhadau, ‘Land of my Fathers’, at the start of an international rugby match.

Never mind that most of the bawlers don’t understand the words. They understand the spirit of them all right; and mind you, the tears spring to my eyes just as readily, perhaps more so, if Wales goes on, as it occasionally does, to lose the game.

By the nature of things the age of this place contributes to my infatuation. It is so very old a country. It is immensely old geologically – the mountains of Wales, when I look at them from my home in the north-west, especially on a misty day, give me the feeling that they’ve been there since time itself began. And Wales is almost inconceivably old in human terms, too – scholars say there were people of some kind living in this particular corner of the British archipelago as long ago as – oh, you know, you may as well make up the date – a very, very long time ago anyway. I feel I know some of them still!

Then there’s the Welsh sea – that’s been around a long time, too. They call it the Irish Sea in atlases, but I think it should really be called the Celtic Sea. It has been the highway by which the ancient Celtic peoples of western Europe shared their traditions, their beliefs, their languages, their skills and their ideas before nation-States existed, and Wales lay at the centre of their traffic. I respond to the whole miasma of myth, imagination and debatable history which for me drifts always over those waters, infused with an age-old Christian faith and excited by an ancient pagan folk-lore that really is one of the glories of Wales.

There’s something majestic and saga-like to the spectacle, handed down to us by the imagination of ancient story-tellers, of the giant whose mighty stride spanned the seas between Wales and Ireland; and no less exciting are the genuinely historical voyages of the monks who sailed these waters in the infancy of Christianity, taking the faith in their flimsy coracles from one settlement to another throughout the Celtic countries.

Wales, of course, is a peninsula, three-quarters of an island. Its coastline is very long, and seafaring memories are ingrained in most of its coastal towns and villages. I read somewhere that the little fishing and trading port of Nefyn, on the northern coast, was second only in the British Isles to Appledore in Devon, in the proportion of its population devoted to the callings of the sea. Even now a ship provides the presiding weathervane of its church.

But paradoxically, if the coast of Wales is so profoundly coastal, so to speak, its interior often seems to my sensibility almost landlocked. In reality I am never far from the ocean in this small country, but if I stand somewhere in the middle of it, in some idyllic pastoral enclave that Constable might have painted, or in the mostly empty swathe of country they call the Welsh desert – if I stand in the heart of Wales I feel I might be a thousand miles from salt water. And, of course, much of the romance of Wales hangs about its highlands, whether in the moorlands of the centre and south or the clumped wild mountains of the north-west.

They are hardly mountains really by international standards, but they punch, one might say, far above their weight. Especially on the Welshest kind of day, when the sun is only fitfully gleaming through cloud and rain, they do seem immense, fateful, proud, grand as any Alp. I was once in Eryri – that’s Snowdonia – in the company of the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two people ever to climb Mount Everest. He was a man familiar with mountains all his life, and I was interested to note that he greatly over-estimated the heights and distances of the hills around us. Such is the hallucinatory presence of these highlands, and I’m sure the writer Hilaire Belloc was not exaggerating when he wrote that he knew of nowhere in Europe that so moved him ‘with the awe and majesty of great things.’

O you old visionaries, I hear you exclaim! It’s all awe and majesty to you! What about those coal Valleys, then? Look what you’ve done with them! Oh yes, of course, I know a good deal of gush surrounds their reputation, the allure of How Green was My Valley and all that. I know how cruel were the hardships of those communities in their heyday, and how real are their hardships now. But never mind, I am still moved by the legend of it all, too, and excited to find, whenever I am in those parts, that so much of it still seems to be true. The Welsh coal industry is more or less dead, and the pit-wheels no longer turn in the Rhondda, but the fabled spirit of community seems to defy the ravages of unemployment, and the humour of the valleys certainly still bubbles.

Who can fail to be stirred by the power and pride of one of the great male voice choirs of the Valleys, singing to us still out of the heroic past: and who could fail to sense the particular Welsh poignancy of the event, when even in the 21st century, with the industry so nearly extinct, yet another human life is lost in a pit down there…?

For me, anyway, the very shape and substance of Wales is alluring. It is only 40 miles from east to west, at its narrowest point, only about 130 miles from north to south, and for my tastes nothing goes on for too long. It is the very opposite of America. It is like a world in miniature. You can pass from seashore to mountain, from industrial region to rural idyll, almost in a matter of moments; and yes, since the climate of Wales is so changeable too, for myself I can pass from despondency to exhilaration just as quickly. There are times when, looking out of my window at the grey dank drizzly scene outside, where the very sheep look despondent – there are times when even I feel like giving up on Wales; but then quite suddenly the clouds stir, the sun comes out, the birds sing and the sheep one and all perk up, and then I feel once more, sucker that I am, that I stand on the brink of paradise.

And, captivated as I am by the varied presence of Wales, I’m always aware too of this small country’s truly epic history. There is hardly a corner of the land that does not possess high memories, of great men and mysteries, of holy legend and of tragedy, of poetry and music. Many of these memories concern the age-long resistance of the Welsh people to the dominance of the Normans, and later the English, invading from over their eastern borders. It was a long, long fight in defence of their language and their identity which culminated in 16th Century English laws of incorporation – Acts of Union, in effect. It was those that put paid to tangled inherited dreams of a unified Welsh sovereign State, and really did make Wales the first of England’s colonies.

The old struggle is still being fought, though, politically and instinctively, and of course I respond to it. Misty kings and princes of the old Wales still haunt the country for me, and actually they are still generally and vividly remembered. The greatest of all the Welsh champions, the medieval rebel patriot Owain Glyndŵr, can almost said to be alive to this day, since his death remains a tantalizing conundrum, still debated, and as everyone knows, his followers still armed and wakeful in a cave somewhere, awaiting the call to patriotic action.

Do people really believe that? Do I? Hardly, but everywhere in Wales I can certainly encounter for myself remarkable Welshmen of the past, still almost alive in the places they frequented. Did Taliesin, the great poet of antiquity, really live and write in a hamlet with a petrol station outside Aberystwyth? Perhaps not, but there is a still a hamlet there that bears his name, and that’s good enough for me.

I can easily summon the shade of Dylan Thomas in his boathouse at Laugharne, if I can never make it to his own invented village of Llanreggub (that’s Buggerall backwards). I can feast in my imagination with Glyndŵr, dining on carp from his fishponds at his castle of Sycharth, and I can rub shoulders with Lloyd George any day of the year when I take my exercise on the seafront at Criccieth. With luck, when I call upon Richard Burton at Port Talbot, Elizabeth Taylor may be there too! A dozen signatories of the American Declaration of Independence will be around to greet me, if I care to tour their family properties, and if even in my fancy I cannot meet Abraham Lincoln on Welsh soil, I can at least make the pilgrimage to Ysbyty Ifan, high and remote in the hills of Meirionnyth, where kind Welsh people will welcome me to the land his forebears – his great, great grandfather – farmed.

Anyway, pervading everything in Wales, to my impressionable mind, is the drifting abstraction called in Welsh hiraeth. The dictionary meaning of the word is simply longing, or nostalgia, but it has long been hijacked by people like me, slushy poets and such, and given a still mistier meaning. In my own mind it represents a specific sensation that I feel endemic to the very air of Wales. It’s not just nostalgia for the lost past, or longing for a more rewarding future, but something yet more transcendental: a yearning for something I know nothing of. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know what I want it to be, I can’t even imagine it, but there’s a sweet sadness to it, like a melody without a tune, or a happy desire without an object.

Oh yes, there’s a lot to be said for the susceptible view of things, and especially perhaps for the susceptible view of Wales, absurd though it can sometimes be: because even the dullest of realists, the most begrudging of sceptics, the least generous of visitors, the most disillusioned of the Welsh themselves – even the worst enemy of Wales – must surely admit that this ancient and peculiar country does possess romance.

Illustration by Dean Lewis