Re-imagining Wales: Contemporary Welsh Writing [Literary Review v44n2]

Curtis, Tony and Meredith, Christopher eds.

Since there is so little Welsh-language writing available in English we are unusually (for this series) including a book-style publication, a special issue of the American (New Jersey) Literary Review entirely dedicated to writers from Wales. Like this Babel Guide the collection ranges over both Welsh and English works by Welsh authors, comprising ten short stories or novel extracts, some reproductions of Iwan Bala’s art and much poetry.

The fifteen poets represented include Dannie Abse, a major name in his era. Peter Finch’s ‘Chew My Gum and Think of Rifles’ cited below is a wry and witty take on the ‘revolutionism’ of the late 1960s in a Welsh context while Meic Stephens’ short story ‘Damage’ gives a face and a voice to the ‘physical-force’ Welsh-language militants who were apt to blow up equipment associated with dams rather than maim and murder folk on buses or in pubs in Palestinian or IRA style. Interestingly, Grahame Davies in the poem ‘Rough Guide’ nevertheless tries to line up the Welsh experience with that of the Palestinians.

Taking a much broader view, in a quite technical explanation of a particular form of Welsh-language poetry, Sioned Puw Rowlands’ concluding essay in this collection gives us a flavour of the still-formal poetry tradition in Wales upheld and celebrated by the famous National Eisteddfod. The other essay here, by Angharad Price, gives a sense of discussions about the present-day precariousness of literature in Welsh and the resultant pressures on its writers, citing Wiliam Owen Roberts’ remark that ‘writing in Welsh is very much a classic twentieth-century experience. You are writing at the edge of a catastrophe’.

Amongst the prose pieces there is Siân James’ ‘And Perhaps More’ which finds a lonely bachelor farmer in an era when few young women are attracted to hillside rural existence. Harri Pritchard Jones’ ‘The Stranger’ encompasses another rural world, an atmospheric Irish-speaking part of Ireland rather than Wales, where a dutiful grandson listening to ‘Mamo’ (his grandmother) dreams of ‘the warm bar of MacDaid’s, the place full of enthusiastic, forgetful

talk’. A modestly short extract by one of this collection’s editors, Christopher Meredith, from his
Sidereal Time, reveals a talent for close-up domestic detail, while Catherine Merriman’s ‘Learning to Speak Klingon’ is a witty and concise piece on acculturated Welsh valleys full of unemployment and unease.

Sioned Puw Rowlands’ whimsical ‘A Fantasy in Memory of the Anglesey Bone Doctors’ returns us to a much lighter vision of the country. Active Welsh-English translator and editor Meic Stephens in ‘Damage’ shines a torch onto the saboteurs of militant Welsh nationalism destroying machinery that will eventually help to flood a valley where Welsh is still spoken.

Also included in the prose extracts are sections from translations of three novels: Mihangel Morgan’s Melog (Melog), Robin Llywelyn’s O’r Harbwr Gwag i’r Cefnfor Gwyn (From Empty Harbour to White Ocean) and Wiliam Owen Roberts’ Y Pla (Pestilence), which are reviewed in full elsewhere in this Babel Guide. RK


He tried to keep his mind on the minister’s words, but they didn’t seem to have much connection with his mother. Had his mother ever Lived in the Lord as he seemed to be suggesting? Glyn couldn’t see it like that. To his way of thinking, his mother was altogether more earth-bound; had worked hard all her life—and died disappointed. And it was his fault. He was forty years old with no wife and no child so that the farm was blighted, fated to fail.

As far as he was aware, his mother knew nothing of the Romeo and Juliet variety of love, but she was always stressing that love, family love, was essential on a farm to make all the hard work worthwhile. ‘Get yourself a nice sweetheart,’ she’d beg Glyn over and over. ‘And if at rst you don’t succeed, try, try again’.

When he was young, Glyn had put his back into the quest. But the farm was on an unclassied mountain road, eleven miles from the nearest small town, three from the nearest village, and by that time girls had decent jobs in Building Societies and Estate Agents and didn’t want to be farmers’ wives. Or at least no one wanted to be his wife. Even twenty years ago he was overweight and nothing of a talker. He’d persevered though, for several years, being everyone’s best friend at the Young Farmers’ weekly meetings, having a good laugh with all the girls, driving them here and there, buying them drinks, but never able to establish a special relationship with one of them.

‘I’m giving up,’ he’d announced just after Christmas one year. ‘There’s only so much fun a person can be doing with’. ‘Don’t give up,’ his mother had begged. ‘Please don’t give up’. Siân James ‘And Perhaps More’ 261–2

‘What we needed was a great leader in a set of Castro fatigues with a gun. He would have stood on the balcony they’d have erected hastily along the front

of City Hall and told us we were worth everything in the world and the enemy, rich with gum and nylons, could go to hell. Imagine that. Strutting up and down Queen Street in our camou
age pants with the crowds roaring. No planes, we wouldn’t have planes. Some rusty vans, maybe. And a truck, with a whole crowd of us, singing and dancing on the back.

But it was never like that. We got people who hectored us, with their hands in the till and some fake tongue in their mouths. Not one of them wore a uniform.

I chew my gum and think of ries.

Then I recall that we are a peace-loving people. If we’d had ries then, by now, we would have given them up.

 Peter Finch ‘Chew My Gum and Think of Ries’ 234

It happens inevitably,

like water nding its level:

every time I open a travel book,

I sail past the capital cities, the sights,

and dive straight into the backstreets of the index to nd that in France, I’m Breton;

‘I’m New Zealand, Maori;

in the USA—depending on which part—

I’m Navajo, Cajun, or Black.

I’m the wandering Welshman. I’m Jewish everywhere.

Except of course in Israel.

There, I’m Palestinian.

It’s some kind of complex, I know, that makes me pick this scab on my psyche. I wonder sometimes what it would be like to go to these places

and just enjoy.

No. As I wander the continents of the guidebooks in every chapter’s harbour the question is the same:

‘Nice city. Now where’s the ghetto?’