Brittle With Relics is such a captivating title for a book, don’t you think? It takes its name from a poem:
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only its past,
Brittle with relics
From ‘Welsh Landscape’, R.S. Thomas
Award-winning Welsh author, Richard King, was born into a bilingual family in South Wales. For the last twenty years he has lived in Powys, in mid-Wales. This is his latest book, and it documents the closing third of the twentieth century, during which time Wales experienced the simultaneous effects of de-industrialisation, the subsequent loss of employment and community cohesion, along with the struggle for its language and identity. These changes were largely forced upon the country, whose own voice, rarely agreed upon within its borders, had to fight to be heard.
Brittle With Relics presents us with a landmark history of the people of Wales undergoing some of the country’s most seismic and traumatic events: the disasters of Aberfan and Tryweryn; the rise of the Welsh-language movement; the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath; and the narrow vote in favour of partial Devolution.
What King has achieved with this eminently readable book is nothing short of a sociological and historical marvel, in my opinion. Reading it provoked a range of emotions and responses in me, from laugh-out-loud moments when I remembered characters mentioned in the text, and their antics from my childhood (Caeo Evans, of the Free Wales Army, and his Appaloosa horses, for example, but that’s another story!), to audible gasped horror at the audacious inhumane cruelty of Thatcherism on Welsh mining communities, in particular.
But, if you have even a passing interest in any of the following – Small Nations; Language Preservation; Cultural Identity; Colonialism; Mining Communities; How to Destroy a Unionised Labour-force; Sociology; History; Politics – well, then, Brittle With Relics is a must-read for you.
In the spirit of ‘You-Can-Take-The-Girl-Out-of-Wales … But-You-Can’t-Take-Wales-Out-of-The-Girl’, plus the fact that I was a card-carrying young member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society), I appreciate the fact that the word Cymraeg (Welsh) is used consistently throughout the otherwise English text of this book when referring to the language of Wales. It’s these small things that matter a lot with regard to keeping the Welsh language alive.
Furthermore, I absolutely agree with other commentators who have said that Brittle With Relics is,
‘… oral history at its revelatory best: containing multitudes and powerfully evoking that most remote of times, the day before yesterday.’ David Kynaston.
‘… a testament to the brutal circumstances that bonded the communities of Wales into a new polity for the 21st century.’ Gruff Rhys.
‘… hanes y Cymry – the history of the people. Like a jolt to the heart to wake you up from a deep sleep.’ Gwenno Saunders.
This book features ninety-seven Voices in total, including (but not necessarily in this order): Neil Kinnock, Rowan Williams, Leanne Wood, Gruff Rhys, Michael Sheen, Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Siân James; Welsh-language activists; members of former mining communities, and many more, making Brittle With Relics a vital living history of a nation determined to survive, while maintaining the hope that Wales will one day thrive on its own terms.
‘A phenomenal community of contingent voices. An essential telling of Welshness that contains a powerful reflection of Englishness, too.’ Emma Warren.
Names of the ninety-seven Voices are marked in bold as they are presented throughout the text within each of the sixteen chapters. There’s a handy reference section at the beginning, listing all the Voices alphabetically, along with a brief description of each person. As I read, it was easy for me to ‘hear’ those distinctive individual Voices, and I was also delighted to discover how many of them I knew, or had met, or had heard of – people like Dafydd Iwan, folk-singer, Welsh-language activist, former president of Plaid Cymru, former chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg.
In my treasured 1970s Llyfr Llofnodion (Autograph Book), I’ve an undated handwritten signature and personalised message from Dafydd Iwan, that ends with a familiar flourish of words: ‘Cymru am Byth!’ (Wales Forever!). He sang at many’s the Noson Llawen (Happy Evening) I attended as a youngster at Neuadd Pentre Pumsaint, our nearby village hall, where I’d sing and dance along to his popular catchy Welsh songs. Indeed, he’s experiencing something of a comeback at the moment, since his timeless 1983 song, ‘YMA O HYR’ (‘Still Here’), has recently become a rousing chorus for crowds of fans to sing at Welsh international soccer matches.
Delving further into my Llyfr Llofnodion, there are two autographs, dated January 1974 and August 1975 respectively, from the late Gwynfor Evans. He was elected on July 14th 1966 for the first time as a Westminster MP (Member of Parliament) for Plaid Cymru (the Welsh Nationalist Party). Later, Gwynfor was joined at Westminster by fellow-Plaid MPs, Dafydd Elis Thomas and Dafydd Wigley. And I see now that I have both their autographs too. Lucky me.
I also have an undated autograph from one of his daughters, Meinir Ffransis, wife of Ffred Ffransis, both of whom feature in Brittle With Relics: ‘Pob hwyl iti. Meinir.’ The Welsh word ‘hwyl’ is similar to the Irish word, ‘craíc’ in that it’s difficult to give an exact translation – ‘hwyl’ is a uniquely Welsh word with a wider definition that can’t be translated with absolute accuracy into English. In this instance, ‘Good Luck’ is about as close as it gets.
I experienced a tingle up my spine, along with a bunch of vivid memories, when I read the following account of Gwynfor’s first successful election bid, as told through the Voice of Tecwyn Vaughan Jones:
‘The biggest deal was 1966, when Gwynfor Evans won Carmarthen … it was a big news item … I remember my mother sending me to his [Tecwyn’s father] workplace … ‘Just tell him that Gwynfor has won.’ I thought, ‘Well, this is really, really important.’ I was fourteen years old then.’
My own stand-out teenage memories are of a later election, October 1974, when Gwynfor was re-elected. I remember standing outdoors as part of a massive crowd, all of us gathered in front of Carmarthen Town Hall, waiting late into the night for the election results to be called; joining in with four-part harmony hymn singing that made my chest tremble with emotion; and eating a rare family treat of takeaway fish and chips with a bottle of ‘pop’ (soft drink) to swill it down.
There isn’t a time that I can remember in my life when I didn’t speak Cymraeg. And yet, in the chapter called ‘Incomers’, from my point of view as the eldest in a family who spoke English at home, I identify very much indeed with the Voice of Dr Kirsti Bohata, Professor at the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales, Swansea University:
‘… we barged in through the school doors chanting, ‘Siarad Cymraeg pob amser [Always speak Welsh]. The headmaster turned around and said, ‘That’s baby Welsh’. And that was that, we were crushed. There was … at best a reluctance to engage with them [Welsh learners]. ‘Dysgwyr’ [‘learners’] was a derogatory term.’
My lived experience corresponds fully with this. My Welsh teacher at Lampeter Secondary School singled me out during every Cymraeg class, without fail, to ask me and only me, ‘Wyt ti’n deall?’ [‘Do you understand?]. He was making a deliberate mockery of me in front of my fellow students for being the only non-native speaker in the classroom. Rather than ‘crushing’ me, however, I steadfastly remained in the Top Form for Welsh throughout my years at secondary school. And it’s a source of personal pride to me that I can still, decades later, understand and speak Welsh.
Back to the Voice of Tecwyn Vaughan Jones. Here he’s speaking about a television programme discussing Welsh identity:
‘Neil Kinnock … had to name three things that were important to Welsh people, and Kinnock said, ‘Singing in a choir, beer-drinking and playing rugby’ – those were the three things. And then they went to this very respectable old lady, in Nefyn on the Llŷn Peninsula, and she said, ‘Speaking Welsh, going to Chapel and attending eisteddfodau [annual festival of Welsh music and poetry].’ In between that, on the continuum, you’ve got 3.1 million different views of identity.’
All six identifiers mentioned are, of course, inherently stereotypical, but, oh, that last line packs a punch. It is, indeed, ‘… oral history at its revelatory best.’ (David Kynaston).
Llongyfarchiadau, Richard (Congratulations), for giving us this astonishing and wonderful addition to our bookshelves, Brittle With Relics. It truly is a phenomenal piece of social, cultural and historic research, told with authenticity through your chosen ninety-seven Voices, and it deserves all the accolades going. In the words of my Scottish-born, Plaid Cymru-voting late father,
‘Wales. The first to be conquered … the last to be freed.’
(c) Jo Nestor
Jo Nestor is a retired Adult Educator. Her writing features in the 2021 edition of the broadsheet, Autumn Leaves; also, the Leitrim Guardian 2021 edition. She was long-listed in June 2020 for the FISH memoir competition, and won the 2020 Leitrim Guardian Literary Award. She chooses to live in hope.
Order your copy online here.