In the third in a series of essays contributing to what Gary Raymond has termed ‘the eternal conversation’ of cultural criticism, author and critic Rhian E Jones gives her perspective, as a Welsh writer long resident in London, on the current state of Welsh culture, the stains of the past, and the potentialities of its future.
“The Welsh are all good actors; it’s only the bad ones who become professionals.” – Richard Burton
The Welsh, according to myth and reality, are adept at the art of playing a role and telling a story. What stories are we currently telling, and what roles are we choosing to play? Having read the recent pieces by Gary Raymond and Dylan Moore on the incipient blossoming of the arts scene in Wales and the need for critical engagement with it, I am intrigued by what narratives of the past few decades are being constructed and, when doing so, what balance is being struck between past and present, between the rose-tinted and the realistic, between the undeniable positives of Wales’ devolutionary success story and the equally undeniable negatives of the aftermath of the 1980s? In this essay I wish to ask whether this cultural flowering offers the opportunity to create new, inclusive and tolerant accounts of identity that will broaden the meaning of what it is to be Welsh beyond the unhelpfully bleak or sentimental, to reconcile some historical tensions within the construction of ‘Welshness’, and to attempt to revitalize the country’s political possibilities.
Both Raymond and Moore emphasise the need to move beyond a perceived national tendency for introspective brooding, towards a view of Wales as player on a larger UK-wide or global stage. The confidence required for such an undertaking is clearly in more abundant supply than was the case even a decade ago, and Moore rightly traces this back to devolution and ‘the ensuing quiet revolution in identity politics’. Popular music, my own area of interest, witnessed a brief flicker of Welsh flame kindled by the mid-Nineties emergence of a nebulous ‘New Welsh Cool’, a somewhat awkward agglomeration of the sudden success of the Manic Street Preachers and the emergence in their slipstream of Welsh bands of varying quality and longevity. When I left Wales for London, in my late adolescence and in the twilight of Cool Cymru, the handful of bands which had made their distinctively Welsh mark on the mainstream allowed me to associate myself, if I so chose, with an identity I found slightly more agreeable than the anachronistic archetype or mere blank slate with which so many otherwise associated the country I had come from. Beyond the music scene, however, artistic self-actualising in the Nineties seemed impossible without leaving the country for vistas of greater space and opportunity, a problem that seems far less apparent in post-devolutionary Wales.
To accept the story that Welsh music prior to Cool Cymru had consisted either of outmoded mass choral dirges or workmanlike pub-rock is to unfairly caricature the pre-Nineties scene. Nevertheless, as music produced within Wales has grown more eclectic and gained more respect, there has been a proportional reduction in antagonism by Welsh artists towards their origins. I recall feeling both surprise and unease at the Manics’ co-opting of a celebratory Welsh identity, when they had never previously appeared to regard flags as anything other than combustible material. In addition, the band’s residual, essential Welshness had inspired borderline-racist treatment in their early outings in the British music press, while their not-Welsh-enough origins in the English-speaking Valleys had prevented their acceptance within a narrow Welsh scene. This predicament, a stranding in no-man’s-land, was one with which many Welsh artists could empathise and which a Welsh establishment seemed disinclined to alleviate. The sudden change in dynamic between band and nation in the late Nineties, from poles of mutual repulsion to a mutually beneficial embrace, seemed to reflect willingness on both sides to consider a more inclusive and mature idea of Welsh identity. Even if this appeasement stemmed from superficial and commercial considerations, its results were more helpful than not.
The psychological buoyancy and optimistic exhortations of Cool Cymru’s cheerleaders, however, stood in stark contrast to the material conditions which prevailed in much of Nineties Wales, as the stubbornly post-industrial economy and Old Labour politics of much of the country made it an awkward fit with the twin triumphalisms of Britpop and Blairism. In addition to the dispiriting micro-machinations surrounding the attempt to impose Alun Michael as London’s man in Cardiff, New Labour’s post-socialist direction and the Assembly’s initial lack of tax-raising powers undermined the possibility of any commitment to concrete economic improvement. No longer condemned to an industrial past, large areas of the country remained condemned to a post-industrial future. Furthermore, less fashionable aspects of Welsh identity – the instinctive adherence to socialism, resistance to optimism, and persistence of a chippy outsider consciousness – were, in a reputedly post-ideological age of class drag and class denial, made to feel like weaknesses instead of the strengths they can be both culturally and politically.
Attempts to understand and explain what it means to be Welsh have been consistently plagued by contested conceptions of Welsh identity. Exclusionary ideas of the ‘real’ Wales as being variously Welsh-speaking, hill-farming, chapel-going, Labour-voting, insular, garrulous, poet-warrior, or indelibly stained with coal dust, are falsely absolutist, obscuring such interesting facets of the country as the diverse ethnic communities which shaped Cardiff or the internationalist tradition which produced an influx of Welsh participants to the Spanish Civil War. This kind of purist insistence has also led many to reject a Welsh identity wholesale – as Raymond states, ‘… in the last two years I have not only begun to feel Welsh, but it is the first time I have ever recognised myself as having any identity outside of my personality’. If the potential for a rejuvenated Welsh arts scene allows us to conceive of a more varied and inclusive form of belonging to Wales, then, how prescriptively should this be policed? Should it be emphatically upbeat in order to mark its distance from the past, or should it take account of present troubling realities, whether or not it also seeks to suggest solutions to them?
It is paradoxical that so many invocations of the heroic past in Wales, from Owain Glyndŵr to Dic Penderyn onwards, are reliant on conjuring memories and legends not of victory but of struggle, martyrdom, loss and defeat. Echoing Raymond’s call to ‘respectfully move on from Dylan Thomas’, Moore’s piece ups the ante by stating that many of his and my generation experienced the Miners’ Strike only as children or not at all. The epic clashes of the 1980s are indeed so far behind us now as to seem more like nightmarish myth than history, but their effects remain obvious and substantial, their volatile rawness underlying, for instance, the rituals of community catharsis that Margaret Thatcher’s death induced. The significance of the Miners’ Strike as a formative and enduring influence on my political identity, not to mention the continuing material reality of my family and community, is difficult to overstate, and the ability to move on psychologically from such disturbance does not mean that the social and economic wounds sustained have also healed. While I sympathise with Moore’s desire for the nation to define itself by our best qualities, rather than our worst, he is correct to note that this will be an uphill struggle both within and outside the country. I found it sobering to contrast Raymond’s optimistic overview of Welsh arts and culture with another recent article in which an external observer tracks the post-industrial Valleys’ economic decline, and its social and cultural impact, in what sometimes reads like an echo of the Victorian travelogues which eulogised the beauties of the Welsh landscape and largely overlooked its quaint but inconvenient natives.
The Valleys is a location over which hands have historically been wrung, its people objectified as nobly enduring defeat and oppression whether down the pit, on the pitch or on the picket line. Who can say to what extent these hellishly depressing assessments have been internalised by the area’s present inhabitants? Growing up in the former coalfield, made constantly aware of the idea of industrialisation as catastrophe, as the corruption and exploitation of a pure, resource-rich land, can feel like having been born into a peculiar variant of original sin. An alternative view of industrialisation, however, might see it also as progress and opportunity, as a catalyst which gave rise to great things in the way of working-class organization, self-education, art, politics and culture – the National Health Service, for instance, was built around Bevan’s experience of the Tredegar Medical Aid Society. I hope, with extreme and probably naïve optimism, that the end of heavy industry in Wales might also come to be seen as giving rise to positives as well as negatives, acting as a spur to the development of a different way of life. Lamentations over the social and economic crisis of the Valleys too often indulge in sentimental objectification, in preference to attempting to generate an appropriate level of anger and desire for improvement. They mourn the loss of the spirit that built the NHS, rather than striving to revive it.
It would be surprising if anyone living in post-industrial Wales needed the editorialising of a well-meaning national establishment to enlighten them as to their situation. The plight of the Valleys has been insultingly evident for decades. As long ago as 1991, the Manics memorably claimed that a representation of post-industrial Blackwood would consist of ‘rubble and shit’ – but in doing so they were courting attentive recognition, not pity. Focusing on an oversimplified, often romanticised past, however grievous and traumatic its loss, produces only stasis and resentment – but while the stagnating effects of post-industrial identity are undeniably pernicious, this identity must be articulated and acknowledged in order for it to be overcome. Moving on from it needn’t mean considering oneself part of Moore’s ‘generation unscarred by the battles of the past’ – any product of the south Welsh coalfield, as of other parts of post-industrial Britain, is thoroughly scarred by the battles of the past and knows themselves to be. But it does mean that these scars needn’t be one’s defining feature, in one’s own view or that of outside observers.
Pulp’s ‘Last Day of the Miners’ Strike’, a song characteristically attentive to past disasters and their present-day fall-out, hints at the supplanting of historic political struggle with hedonistic euphoria. If modern Welsh identity is to witness the last days of the Miners’ Strike as a touchstone, how will it be replaced? In fashioning an inclusive, non-didactic narrative of modern Wales, tying in a capacity for social criticism and a political potential that draws on past traditions, it is vital to acknowledge the disparate, often overlooked or forgotten, identities which make up the nation. Earlier this year, in the course of examining historical tensions in the cultural and political construction of Welsh identity, I wrote:
… there is no One Wales. Even beyond the country’s linguistic, geographic and political divisions, there exist multiple fractured identities, defining themselves by the local not the national – particularly through being from X, rather than from Cardiff. The Wales of swords and stone circles, drowned lands, dragons and druids, Taliesin and Eisteddfodau exists in romance alongside the reality of GLC’s Newport, Gavin & Stacey’s and Simon Price’s Barry Island, the drug-soaked, politically corrupt underworld of Lloyd Robson’s Cardiff Cut, the Valleys anti-romances of Rachel Trezise, and a multitude of other identities scattered and self-contained but highly secure in their specifics. To brush under the national carpet all of these peculiarities, to smother them in fantasies of ancient racial purity, the flag, the Senedd, or MTV’s predictably execrable The Valleys, does justice to nothing.
Ancestor-worship will remain endemic in a country which lacks the self-confidence to believe we can produce anything to replace the glories, or even the glorious failures, of the past. If this situation is on the cusp of change in cultural terms, can a similar renewal and seizing of the day take place in Welsh politics? It has been perversely heartening to hear Welsh politicians using words like ‘atrocity’ to describe current welfare reforms, in contrast to the vacillating and equivocating that has characterised the Labour leadership nationally, as well as to see Plaid Cymru under Leanne Wood display increasingly sharp flashes of republican socialist steel. As the acceleration of inequality rolls on under the guise of austerity measures, given the relative left-leaning consensus within Welsh politics and the progressively more ebullient radicalism of Plaid, could Wales carve out an alternative path to neoliberalism and austerity which consolidates and fulfils the political potential of the country’s past? This of course would require economic as well as artistic investment. While it’s one thing to move forward in terms of arts and culture, in socio-economic terms it’s quite another.
Any worthwhile revival of Welsh arts and culture will recognise a multiplicity of identities, taking due account of past traditions and narratives while not allowing them to obstruct future changes of direction. Meanwhile, any worthwhile critical or political engagement with this should recognise the economic effects of the past and their capacity to stifle social and cultural progression. Wales has come a long way, and that should be applauded, but as we advance towards these promised sunlit uplands there remain whole handfuls of nettles to be grasped.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis