Epic Views of a Small Country

By Jan Morris
Book Review Details
Author: Jan Morris
Publisher: Viking
Edition: 2nd Revised edition edition (29 Oct. 1998)

Clevedon-born author and historian Jan Morris describes herself as ‘by loyalty Welsh’, and writes about her subject with warmth and eloquence. As a book that captures the spirit of place, Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country, cannot be bettered. Morris gives a brusque sense of intimacy so that you feel you’ve been grabbed by the arm and are being led across the bridges and down the valleys of Wales in your wellies, while she confides everything that she is passionate about. Far from being a dry chronological list of facts or a conventional tour guide, this book is an experience in which you experience history and enjoy literature at once. Given Morris’s joy in her subject, Wales the text, and of course the place, is packed with historical narratives, facts about the principality, anecdotes, images and stories of defeat, endurance and change.

Above all, Morris celebrates the survival and resurgence of the Welsh language. This was against the odds because, she records, the Welsh tongue was systematically discriminated against and suppressed. When state education was established in 1880, the native language was effectively outlawed, since hapless school children caught speaking Welsh were either fined or made to wear placards around their necks marked ‘Welsh Not’, an intended humiliation that was often accompanied by a beating. Quoting a phrase from poet Waldo Williams, Morris writes, in celebration and regret:

It is a life-giving language. In those parts of Wales where it has died, leaving only fugitive verbs and spectral adjectives to give an enigmatic beauty to the names of places, something is missing, something saddened, once called ‘the winter of a nation’, its cold heart conscious of losing its delight.

As might be expected, we discover more about the prominent symbols of Wales. The last dragon is said to have lived in the church tower at Llandeilo Graban in Powys, which still has a ‘dragon-chamber’. We learn too that leeks have come to deserve special honour because it is claimed that St David/Sant Dewi lived on spring water and wild leeks.

The origins of other symbols of Welsh culture are also debatable, since their relatively recent provenance places them as products of the process that Eric Hobsbawn termed ‘the invention of tradition’. But ideas like ‘authenticity’ and ‘invention’ are tricky. Certainly, most of the Eisteddfod traditions, purportedly medieval, are directly traceable to the creation of early-nineteenth century antiquarian and eccentric Iolo Morwanwg. The fact that Iolo Morwanwg made them up, however, doesn’t destroy their value. Eighteenth-century Bristol poet Thomas Chatterton’s ‘ancient’ poetry was a product of forgery in the senses of both making fakes but also of a creative work. In a similar way, although Iolo Morganwg was a forger, Morris suggests that since he ‘knew more about Welsh classical literature than any man alive’ his work honoured a mystical truth that contributed much to Welsh heritage. While little of the lineage of the contemporary Eisteddfod can be traced back to medieval times, still less to Druidic tradition, it is unquestionably an embedded and integral part of a thriving Welsh culture today.

And then there are those distinctive stovepipe hats that Welsh women and girls wear on special occasions; endearing, patronising or comical depending on your point of view. The Welsh hat is often believed to have been inspired by the costumes that Lady Llanover commissioned for her household, making it seem a clear example of the invention of tradition in the service of the local gentry. Morris speaks of Lady Llanover’s contribution to promoting Welsh culture in the Abergavenny area and to Eisteddfods but does not, however, claim that Lady Llanover introduced Welsh women’s hats. Indeed, recent historians have cast doubt on the role of Lady Llanover in inventing and popularising the hats, suggesting that her influence has been exaggerated. As an aside, during the Nineteenth Century many of the quintessentially Welsh hats were in fact manufactured in Bristol, by a company called Carver & Co, already set up to make top hats.

Unexpected ideas and facts appear throughout Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country. Morris was pleased that her ‘nook of a country’ has been ‘fertile enough in ideas’, recording some of the more poignant ones, such as that the mathematical symbol for equality (=) was first devised by one Robert Recorde of Tenby (who sadly ‘died bankrupt in a debtors’ gaol’). Interesting and significant is the claim that Cardiff was home to the first black community in Europe. Symbolically important in political history, is Morris’s note that the red flag of socialism is thought to have appeared for the first time in Britain during the Merthyr Rising of 1831.

Which leads us to Welsh radicalism. Morris is a chronicler and champion of Welsh traditions of resistance. ‘Lousy Corporations, Despot Dukes, Kings, Regents, Haughty Aristocrats, Exploiters, Traitors, Capitalists and Fascist Pigs of every kind have found themselves assaulted by Welsh radicals’, she writes approvingly. The great sweep of Welsh anti-colonialism and radicalism is traced from medieval times, when Llewellyn the Great and Llewellyn the Last and Owain Glyndŵr, famously took up arms against English military invasion, up to the present day. The Nineteenth Century saw significant disturbances which, in addition to the Merthyr Rising, included the Rebecca Riots and the activities of the clandestine ‘Scotch Cattle’. Such resistance, moreover, culminated in the final armed insurrection against the state on British soil, being the ill-fated rebellion known as Newport Rising in 1839 (its most prominent organiser, John Frost, ended his life in Bristol). A more enduring contribution to Welsh social life was the spectacular growth of non-conformist denominations in rejection of upper-class Anglican overlords. Welsh radicalism has continued in more recent decades, for instance when Welsh peace campaigners Women for Life on Earth began the protests against the nuclear base at Greenham Common and during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.

Morris’s own radical sympathies are made clear in the short interlude at the heart of the book. Here she sets out her imagined vision of a future Wales, ‘sometime in the twenty-first century, perhaps’. Quaintly, its main Parliament is based in the small market town of Machynlleth (fittingly, once the site of Owain Glyndŵr’s assembly), although power is devolved to six regional councils. Morris’s Wales is a bilingual autonomous republic, neutral and outside of NATO. Her preference for small democratic units is in keeping with an overlooked but significant libertarian socialist political heritage. In respect to Wales this had immediate origins in the ideas of the Austrian émigré and philosopher Leopold Kohr, who made the small country his home and supported Plaid Cymru. Kohr had earlier been inspired by the inclusive direct democracy based on the ‘cantonisation’ of small federal states such as Switzerland and that he had seen first-hand in anarchist experiments during the Spanish Civil War. Kohr’s Breakdown of Nations (1957) was to influence E. F Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and the bioregionalist Kirkpatrick Sale.  A variety of the cantonisation he admired is currently flowering, albeit precariously, in the predominantly Kurdish area usually known as Rojava, now called the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Morris’s enthusiasm for similar autonomous democratic structures and for workers’ co-operatives is integral to her thoroughgoing internationalism. Now in her 90s, she continues to be a patron and contributor to the journal called Planet: Welsh Internationalist.

The history and destiny of Wales is defined by its relationship within Europe and with its immediate neighbour, England. In this respect the proximity of the cities of Liverpool, in the north, and Bristol, in the south, have ensured particularly significant connections, co-evolving across the border and Severn Estuary. The intimately entwined historical relationships between Bristolian and Welsh neighbours, in friendship and (occasionally) in war, have developed across the centuries. A largely hidden history is the role of Bristol Castle in the colonial domination of Wales. In addition to around 600 fortresses constructed within the borders of Wales, Bristol Castle both acted as a strategic stronghold for surveillance and control within the West Country, and was situated to supply military deployments across the River Severn, should the need arise. Edward I’s armies’ completed their conquest and occupation of Wales by 1283, in which year Llewellyn the Last’s nephews, Llewellyn ap Dafydd and Owain ap Dafydd (in line to succeed as Princes of Gwynedd), were captured and taken to Bristol Castle. While Llewellyn ap Dafydd died within four years, Owain ap Dafydd is believed to have been incarcerated within Bristol Castle for 42 years. In around 1305, twenty years after his arrival at the Castle, Jan Morris tells us, Edward ordered his Constable to make ‘a wooden cage bound with iron, in which Owain may be enclosed at night’. Happily, this tragic tale has been succeeded by many more cooperative exchanges between Wales and Bristol.

Today, tangible evidence of these bonds across the water is to be found in the name of the Welsh Back. This dockside location formerly hosted a bustling market (tellingly, street markets are invariably thought to ‘bustle’, in a way that supermarkets seldom do), supplied by boats which crossed the Bristol Channel to trade their wares in the heart of maritime Bristol. No more than a boom’s width or two away off the Welsh Back, is another clue in a name; this time that of the Llandogger Trow. This beautifully-fronted seventeenth-century pub and eating house (currently under threat of closure), was supposedly so-called in tribute to the flat-bottomed trows that used to sail between the city and Llandogo, and other riverside villages in the Wye Valley. Welsh is taught in Bristol in the present day, but seldom heard in the streets around the Welsh Back or anywhere else. I don’t know whether the language numbers among the more than ninety community languages that are considered to be regularly spoken by current residents of the city.

If Welsh influences have impacted upon Bristol, Bristol’s economic and cultural influence has prevailed even more across South Wales. Bristol was long the major centre of population and seaport near to South Wales, since in 1800, for example, the population of Cardiff was around 6,000, while the population of Bristol was around 50,000. ‘Bryste’ was therefore, Morris writes, ‘for centuries the true metropolis of South Wales’. Her observation, based on the interdependent networks of economic supply and demand that existed, particularly before the Welsh ‘coal boom’, reveals the deep and dynamic links across the Bristol Channel. Jan Morris is a distinctive and insightful Anglo-Welsh writer who brings alive and transforms cultural history by revealing such connections. Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country is a moving and amusing account of the history of one of Bristol’s closest neighbours, often overlooked on this side of the border although hidden in plain sight.

Stephen E. Hunt

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