Everything Must Change: Regenerating National Identity in Post-Devolution Anglophone Welsh Writing

In 1997, almost twenty years after they had first rejected the concept, the Welsh electorate voted in favour of a measure of political autonomy for Wales. Following a lengthy struggle Wales was now in possession of a tangible political symbol of its national identity. Yet the results of the 1997 referendum revealed a complex picture, showing that the ‘Yes’ campaign was victorious by a narrow margin of less than one per-cent.[i]The complexity of Welsh response to the proposals for devolution seem to suggest that, while a shift in perceptions of Wales may have been to some extent confirmed by the vote in favour of devolution, the nature of Welsh identity still remained a contentious issue. Writing in his seminal work When was Wales? in 1985, Gwyn Alf Williams famously declared that ‘the Welsh as a people have lived by making and remaking themselves in generation after generation, usually against the odds, usually within a British context’.[ii] Almost thirty years later, and with a decade and a half of devolution behind us, it seems pertinent to revisit Williams’ assertion and consider the way in which fiction from Wales has responded to such a radical change in its political structure. In particular, this essay focuses on the way in which Anglophone Welsh fiction writers depicted Wales in the early years of devolution, contributing to what can be regarded as a process of political and cultural redefinition. I consider, briefly, how writers balance explorations of this redefinition with the sense of a history which Williams also suggests ‘has been central’ (p. 304) to the process of remaking Welsh identity in the past.

Writing in 2007, Katie Gramich argued that ‘The “Yes” vote in the Devolution Referendum of 1997 and the subsequent creation of the Welsh Assembly, have undoubtedly changed both the concept and the reality of “Wales” as a political and, arguably, a cultural and social place’.[iii]  It could be argued that these changes were perhaps most significant for Cardiff, the city eventually chosen to house the new Welsh Assembly. This essay will therefore address the way in which Wales, in particular South Wales, is presented as a place in transition, in post-devolution Anglophone Welsh fiction. As part of this discussion I will consider the way in which post-devolution Anglophone Welsh writing contributes to the establishment of a new sense of Welsh identity in the twenty-first century. By exploring examples from contemporary writing, I will address the way in which post-devolution Anglophone Welsh writing marks a period of reconciliation between Wales’ complex political, cultural and linguistic past and its aspirations for a future which reflects the new political meaning ascribed to the country.


Making the Transition


In the years immediately following the 1997 referendum, a number of texts emerged within the field of Anglophone Welsh fiction which explored what can be seen as a process of transition from pre- to post-devolution Wales. The problems of pre-devolution Wales are addressed at regional level by Rhondda-born writer, Rachel Trezise, in her novel In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl. Although published in 2000, shortly after the official opening of the Welsh Assembly, the novel is largely set against the backdrop of early 1990s post-industrial Wales, making it an interesting platform for comparison between pre-devolution and post-devolution regional and national identity. For the most part, the teenage protagonist, Rebecca, appears bored by her life in the Rhondda valley. She is not alone in this attitude; Rebecca reflects on the hopelessness of this period at a crucial moment in the novel, claiming that ‘my generation, the products of unemployed parents, divorce and downright poverty, tried desperately to find satisfaction in joyriding and class B drugs (which were barely affordable), cider drinking in lanes and underage sex’.[iv] The novel presents a bleak picture made all the more sobering by the fact that it contains numerous autobiographical elements.  The absence of hope depicted by the novel supports figures released following the 2001 census, which indicated that over 40% of inhabitants aged between sixteen and seventy-four in the Rhondda area lacked any formal qualifications.[v] Thus, while devolution is never mentioned directly in the text, the urgent need for change in this area of Wales cries out loudly from within the narrative.

While the need for change may echo strongly throughout In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, its characters seem to possess a very fragile sense of identity. For the most part, Rebecca seems lost; memories from her early childhood are few and far between, concentrating mainly on ‘snapshots’ of what was once a relatively secure life. As Rebecca ages, her descriptions mature into a bleak depiction of reality, from which she seems unable to escape, even with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol and drugs. The town still remains a place made up of ‘rotting green wood’ (p. 9) fences and ‘a dirty brown river’, while school is an enforced process in which Rebecca participates only sporadically. At this stage, any regional identity associated with Rebecca’s place is undeniably one of lost hope mirrored in a landscape scarred by the past. As the mines which once dominated the valley slowly shut down, the novel shows unemployment and insecurity taking hold of the town and its inhabitants. Even the rare moments of happiness in the novel are not enough to shatter the uneasy feeling that this is a valley and a place in decay.

It is here that the significance of the surroundings chosen as the setting for the novel becomes most apparent as the effects of industrial decline are revealed through Rebecca’s reflections on Hendrefadog, the small town in which she lives. One description seems to reject the idea of working-class solidarity and the existence of a close-knit community within former industrial areas in the Rhondda.  Rebecca describes the inhabitants of Hendrefadog as being ‘misled into believing they had a reputation for being very friendly, welcoming people’ (p. 78). Yet, having spent a short amount of time in England, Rebecca is struck by the realisation that her home town is made up of what she describes as ‘inbreeding hypocrites who were spouting bullshit about living in the best place in the world’ (p. 78) without having travelled to other places for comparison. Her words suggest a working class area which has become inward-looking in the wake of industrial decline. Summarising the problem, Rebecca concludes that ‘the thing with the Rhondda was the constant lack of choice’ (p. 84), citing its unclear location as ‘neither city nor country’ (p. 84) as a major factor and indicating that following the closure of the mines the area has lost its sense of identity. The need for regeneration is clear, but the desire to remake and rebuild their sense of identity is notably absent among the characters presented by Tresize.

To return for a moment to Gwyn Alf Williams’ assertion that Welsh making and remaking of identity usually occurs ‘within a British context’ (p. 304), it is interesting to note that the characters of In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl seem to lack a clear sense of awareness of other places beyond Wales. Although the characters lack an overriding sense of regional identity, neither do they appear to possess any overarching feeling of identification with the rest of Wales or, more broadly, Britain. On one occasion Rebecca attempts to escape her hometown, fleeing not to another part of Wales, but to England, only to be returned home again by police when her circumstances take yet another sinister turn.

For the characters of In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, their sense of both regional and national identity in the pre-devolution years seems to be defined primarily by what they are not. The place which they occupy is not a busy city, neither is it what it once was, an industrial heartland. Instead, it is caught between the two, trapped somewhere between the metropolitan and the provincial, and unable to find any new sense of identity. The circumstances depicted are simultaneously of significance to that specific area of Wales and reminiscent of changes underway across Wales in the wake of industrial decline. It is this very problem which the new Welsh Assembly was forced to address following its creation, when it was faced with a country which, particularly in the once-industrial South, was torn between an irrecoverable past and an uncertain future. It would be difficult to argue that this uncertainty is completely dispelled by the introduction of a Welsh Assembly for Wales, but a sense of change can increasingly be noted in Anglophone Welsh fiction with a post-devolution setting.

The beginnings of such a change are in evidence even in the closing stages of In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl. In a final tragic twist, Rebecca’s maternal grandmother, Rose, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Rebecca finds herself caring for a woman who is slowly ‘losing her mind’ (p. 145). At first the reality of this situation overwhelms her, resulting in a briefly recounted suicide attempt. Yet, as she awakes to a frustrated family, Rebecca seems to find a new hope in the future she has struggled to believe in. Finally overcoming the fears and abuse which have plagued her throughout her life, Rebecca’s mind is ‘filled with possibilities’ (p. 147), including university and driving lessons. When Rose dies, Rebecca attributes her change in attitude to her grandmother, explaining that ‘she equipped me with everything I would need to begin a new forceful life of my own making. The strongest woman I have ever known handed out to me her gift-wrapped strength’ (p. 147). Their relationship is symbolic of the dramatic changes which were already underway in Wales in the period. As Rebecca turns towards the future, gaining strength from her grandmother, Wales also faces the task of moving into a future full of hope and uncertainty, drawing its strength from the past. It is poignant that Rebecca’s new-found sense of independence comes at the start of 1997, the year in which her country would finally gain a measure of independence. The significance of this date seems to draw regional and national events together, connecting Rebecca’s life in the Rhondda valley to events taking place across Wales.

The relationship between Rebecca and her grandmother can also be read as a rewriting of Welsh history which dispels romanticised myths regarding the gender roles of the past. The sexual and emotional abuse Rebecca endures in the novel is inflicted by her stepfather, a former coalminer who rapes her on numerous occasions throughout her childhood and yet manages to escape conviction. Significantly, the process of psychological recovery from these events appears to stem from the time Rebecca spends with her dying grandmother in the closing stages of the novel. Here, a quiet and unassuming female figure is presented as the only person able to help her granddaughter recover from the trauma inflicted by a former collier.

The strength which Rebecca draws from her grandmother may be taken as indicative of the increased role occupied by women within Anglophone Welsh writing in the post-devolution years. In the closing pages of the novel, Rebecca describes herself as a ‘survivor’ (p. 151), accepting that while the rape and abuse she has suffered can never be forgotten, she is able to look towards a more positive future. Significantly, Rebecca makes the decision to become a writer, hoping to share her thoughts and experiences with others. This important decision is further indicative of a desire to achieve autonomy and regain control of her own life, a move which echoes the introduction of devolution in Wales. In this respect Rebecca’s name can be read as symbolic, recalling the infamous ‘Rebecca Rioters’ of the nineteenth century, who protested violently against the imposition of tolls on the roads of Wales. Rebecca’s resilience and her decision to become a writer herself is described by Stephen Knight as symbolic of a nation which, in spite of a lengthy struggle to secure devolution, is ‘not yet defeated’.[vi] Her story sets the tone for Anglophone Welsh writing at the start of the post-devolution era, indicating a shift away from the difficulties of the past and towards what Rebecca hopes will be a more prosperous future.

Published in 2000, shortly after the official opening of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, John Williams’ novel Cardiff Dead also depicts a capital city in transition and explores the difficulties faced by the inhabitants of the city chosen to house the National Assembly. The city in Williams’ novel is one of two halves, caught between the challenges of the past, and regeneration and hope for the future. While its outward image may be one of unity and modernity, Cardiff Dead suggests that the inauguration of the new Welsh Assembly is a performance rather than an accurate representation of Welsh culture and identity. Commenting on the opening ceremony for the new Welsh Assembly, Mazz describes the ceremony as ‘an absurdist panoply of Welsh cultural life’ (p. 268), unrepresentative of contemporary Wales. Watching the concert taking place, Mazz points out that the scene seems to have been engineered to suit narrow perceptions of Welsh identity. For Mazz, the finale, featuring popular Welsh singers and male voice choirs, is particularly ironic. Commenting to his friend, Lawrence, Mazz states that it is ‘great to know what you’ve got a culture boils down to one famous play, two sixties cabaret stars, a male voice choir and a twelve-year old opera singer’ (p. 269). While perhaps representative of some perceptions of Welsh identity, the scene certainly does little to extend the image of Welsh identity beyond that often the subject of clichéd images of Welsh nationality.

Regardless of the image projected by the ceremony, Cardiff Dead seems to suggest that the day of the Welsh Assembly official opening marks a turning point. The ceremony coincides with the funeral of Charlie Unger, a Cardiff musician whose death leads to the gathering of many characters from Cardiff and beyond. Charlie seems to epitomise Cardiff’s past, especially that of Tiger Bay. Certainly, the fact that Charlie’s funeral coincides with the official opening of the National Assembly indicates a moment of change from past to future in the cultural and political history of Wales. At the funeral, Charlie’s daughter, Tyra, sobs throughout the service, realising that she is ‘crying for herself, crying for Charlie, crying for Tiger Bay, crying for all the places and people who were lost and gone’ (p. 258). Her distress is indicative of the emotional impact of the physical changes which are underway in Cardiff, suggesting that the process of regeneration is not without its difficulties for the residents of Wales’ capital city. Evident here, again, is the centrality of history in this process, particularly noticeable in Tyra’s apparent concern that the spatial and political changes afforded by devolution will leave her isolated.

Similar concerns are also evident in fiction which has been translated in the post-devolution era, such as Grahame Davies’s 2005 novel Rhaid i Bopeth Newid, which was translated into English in 2007 under the title Everything Must Change. The novel’s exploration of the effects of devolution on Wales and its culture caught the attention of Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, who described the book as ‘the first post-national novel’ to appear in Wales. Elis-Thomas’ description implies that Wales has entered a new period since the introduction of devolution, which no longer places such significance on the centrality of national identity. Yet the novel can, in fact, be seen to challenge this view. For Meinwen, the introduction of the Welsh Assembly has not provided sufficient opportunities for regeneration, initially appearing to offer only limited support for her cause. A committee established to consider the role of the Welsh language in Wales is rapidly renamed the ‘Languages of Wales Committee’ in order to reflect ethnic diversity within Wales, a move Meinwen regards as an attempt to ‘put Welsh in its place’.[vii] Meinwen’s perception of the new Welsh Assembly is frequently challenged by other characters in the novel, such as fictional First Minister, Haydn Davies, a former activist who has taken the decision that he is able to ‘have more influence inside the system than shouting from the margins’ (p. 128). As such, Meinwen’s own refusal to utilise the system as part of her campaign work appears to be a rejection of the political system in place in Wales.

Meinwen’s reluctance to broaden the field of her debate is one of the ongoing themes of the novel. Reflecting on her role within the Welsh language movement to date, Meinwen decides that ‘she and Dewi represented the Movement’s core values’ (p. 111), refusing to consider the possibility of what she regards as the ‘more sophisticated […] terminology and tactics’ (p. 111) used by younger members. This refusal to move forward in her method of protest and political lobbying is portrayed as a hindrance to the effectiveness of Meinwen’s campaigning. Veiled threats of ‘direct action’ (p. 129) during important meetings do little to further her cause, and often appear to counteract her efforts.  More troubling still is the extent to which Meinwen chooses to isolate herself from others, adopting a dislike of physical contact which mirrors that seen in the portrayal of Simone Weil.[viii] Meinwen’s character differs from Weil’s, however, in her determination to remain isolated from all but her most trusted friends. While Weil was renowned for her efforts to work alongside members of the working class, including taking jobs as a factory worker and a farm labourer, Meinwen chooses to engage only with those who share her political beliefs. Like Weil, however, Meinwen develops a disturbing tendency for self-denial, refusing food in the same manner as Weil. As a result, Meinwen’s refusal to embrace a new style of politics in Wales becomes a barrier to her attempts to protect the Welsh language.

Meinwen’s sense of forced isolation also extends beyond her social circle to the wider Welsh nation. Her character becomes increasingly isolated, trapped as she is within her own narrow sphere, and unable to see beyond her personal beliefs. Indeed, this political isolation is mirrored by Meinwen’s home, the huge Yr Hafan house which stands on a hill and had previously been a base for activists. Meinwen notes that the house now feels ‘like a monument to a vanished world’ (p. 84); as such, it aptly represents the dated approaches employed by Meinwen as part of her campaigning. Her vision for Wales seems to be one of similar isolation, which may leave Wales unable to operate effectively on a global platform. This problem is highlighted by the character of Mallwyd, Meinwen’s former university lecturer and a keen Welsh language activist. Mallwyd’s desire to preserve the Welsh language at times threatens to undermine his ability to communicate his other ideas to a wider audience. Addressing a crowd of protesters at a meeting to oppose the creation of an American security equipment factory in Haverfordwest, Mallwyd chooses to deliver his speech in the Welsh language, in spite of the fact that only ‘ten per cent of the audience could understand’ (p. 212) the language. His decision to do so undoubtedly limits the effectiveness of his argument, reducing the potential impact he is able to make with his speech.

It is this determination to maintain separation between the Welsh and English languages and cultures which ultimately leads Meinwen to an act of violent protest. Infuriated by the Welsh Assembly’s refusal to introduce a property act which would protect affordable housing for Welsh people, Meinwen resorts to smashing the windows of the estate agents in Caernarfon in protest. Running parallel to this process is the story of journalist John Sayle who delights in branding the beliefs of Meinwen and her fellow campaigners as ‘racist’ (p. 26). Sayle’s character acts as a further barrier to political progress and communication between Welsh and English language factions in Wales. Branding the Welsh language campaigners the ‘Taffyban’ (p. 46), Sayle heightens existing divisions in his bid to manipulate political processes. The full extent of Sayle’s manipulation is finally revealed in an email in which he complains of ‘bloody cultural diversity’ (p. 279) and ‘ragheads and sheepshaggers’ (p. 279). Such dangerously racist attitudes are thus depicted not only as a threat to Welsh language campaigners, but also to the cultural diversity of Wales as a nation. Significantly, through exposing Sayle’s true attitude, Meinwen draws together those maligned by the journalist and simultaneously demonstrates an understanding of the diversity which exists within post-devolution Wales. The moment seems to empower her, leaving her with the knowledge that she could survive, and so could her culture. Sometimes it might take agreement, sometimes it might take aggression, sometimes diplomacy, sometimes daring; sometimes rashness, sometimes restraint. But whatever it took, she would do it, and through engagement now, not isolation (p. 282).

The close of Everything Must Change then suggests that the only way forward in post-devolution Wales is by acknowledgement of the diversity in existence and the embracing of the new political processes established as a result of the National Assembly. The realisation that regeneration and change are necessary features of the introduction of devolution characterises Anglophone fiction from the first decade of devolution in Wales. The introduction of a Welsh Assembly for Wales can be regarded as a turning point in the presentation of Welsh identity in this fiction, requiring authors to reconcile their sense of history with their perception of Wales as a newly devolved nation. In so doing, writers were able to contribute to the process of remaking Welsh identity, reflecting a new sense of cultural independence which echoed the political changes underway in the country at the start of the twenty-first century.


[i] ‘Results of Devolution Referendums (1979 and 1997)’, Research Paper No. 97/113, House of Commons Library, available at: www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/RP97-113.pdf[Accessed 18/02/13], p. 17.

[ii] Gwyn Alf Williams, When was Wales? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p. 304.

[iii] Katie Gramich, Twentieth-Century Welsh Women’s Writing: Land, Gender, Belonging (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007), p. 183.

[iv] Rachel Trezise, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl (Cardiff: Parthian Books, 2000), p. 78.

[v] Census 2001: Key Statistics for Local Authorities, a report compiled by the Office for National Statistics in 2003, p. 239. Available to download at: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/hub/release-calendar/index.html?newquery=*&newoffset=10&theme=%22%22&source-agency=%22%22&uday=0&umonth=0&uyear=0&lday=&lmonth=&lyear=&coverage=%22%22&designation=&geographic-breakdown=%22%22&title=Census+2001+Key+Statistics&pagetype=calendar-entry&sortBy=releaseDate&sortDirection=EITHER [Accessed 26/06/13].

[vi] Stephen Knight, A Hundred Years of Fiction, p. 187.

[vii] Grahame Davies, Everything Must Change (Bridgend: Seren Books, 2007), p. 54.

[viii] E.g. Weil’s tendency to refer to her dislike of human contact and her fear of germs as her ‘disgustingness’, Everything Must Change, p. 23.

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