VINTAGE GEMS Tony Conran

NWR Issue 32

A special relationship

America occupies a surprisingly large place in the Welsh consciousness, considering how few Welshmen actually emigrated there. There was nothing like the massive outflux of Scots people after the Clearances or Irish after the famine. Irish folksongs treat emigration as if it were a national infectious disease. The causes are hardly mentioned. Song after song describes the parting from sweetheart, from mother and father, from Ireland. The pain, the promises to write, to come back. And of course, the exiles' contributions to the Irish economy were very real - for good or ill. Many Irish smallholdings survive now because of money sent from 'Americay'. The revival and cross-world popularity of Irish folk music would hardly have been possible without it; neither would the campaign waged by the Irish Republican Army in Ulster. On the downside, though, it is possible that American subsidising of the 'Auld Sod' made it even more difficult for the Irish Republic to emerge as a competitor in the modern world.

There's very little of that in the Welsh experience. We had our own sump, our own melting pot of peoples. The centrality of the Valleys has even now not reached home to a lot of us. R. S. Thomas can talk about his mystical Welsh Otherworld of Abercuawg till the cows come home; or Gerallt Lloyd Owen can rite long awdlau lamenting the death at Cilmeri seven hundred years ago of Llywelyn, our last prince. It is a very good thing that they do these things, and we listen appreciatively and nod our heads and say, 'Ah'. But it's because of the yawning emptiness that is all that is left of the Valleys, that Abercuawg and Cilmeri retain any importance for us, as a nation, at all. I'm sure there are plenty of Abercuawgs in Cornwall: and I bet if you looked hard enough, the history of Dark Age Wessex or Northumbria is littered with Cilmeris.

The Valleys, as Dai Smith reminds us, were more like America than they were like England. The immigration into Gwalia (to use Idris Davies's name for them) was only surpassed by that to the New World. They were a melting - pot like America, that tended to take three generations to work. Just as it took that long for an immigrant to turn into a bona fide Yank, so three generations had to pass before a farmboy from Dyfed or Merioneth forgot his rural roots and became a fully fledged boyo from the Rhondda. That's why the long family saga is the Valley's art form par excellence; and why the relationship of children to parents is still more important in Anglo-Welsh consciousness than that between lovers or between man and wife. Dylan Thomas's poems about his father are among his most popular and meaningful; but his poems to Caitlin are turgid and vastly forgettable.

The Valleys - the coalfield - provided Wales with its own America. The Great Valleys Dream - socialism, if you like - was no less potent than the Great American Dream whose ruins are even now scattered across Vietnam, The Gulf, Nicaragua - even the Soviet Union. Like the American, the Welsh dream belonged to a frontier, of villages suddenly upgraded into sprawling conurbations on the edge of a wilderness. It was also, paradoxically, a dream without frontiers, of a proletariat international as the four winds. Allt-wen, Gwenallt says, the village overlooking the Pontardawe steel works where his father died, was not a village on the map of Wales to those that lived there, but part of Utopia, as it had earlier been part of the new Israel of the Methodists.

But the strange thing about Valleys consciousness was not that it was international, but that it was Welsh. It still is. If you look at Anglo-Welsh literature before (say) 1953, it divides roughly in two halves: people like Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins, Caradoc Evans, who write mainly for the great British metropolitan market and are happy, as immigrants, to use their foreignness as a selling point - a bit like Salman Rushdie perhaps, before the nightmare of resurgent Islam caught up with him. We'd had Scotsmen like Robert Louis Stevenson and Irishmen like Bernard Shaw. Now the Welsh had a turn. Pretty well all of them came from the periphery - Swansea, Dyfed, Powys - not the real heartland, the Glamorgan coalfield.

But the other half, at first submerged and more than a bit lost, were writers who felt they had to explain the Valleys experience to themselves. They were not necessarily nationalist - mostly in fact they weren't - but they were certainly Welsh. On the whole they did not go to university though some qualified as teachers in training colleges, often in England. It gave them a certain necessary distance from the coalfield, but it did not make them Welsh immigrants into mainline English culture. Novelists all seemed to be called Jones at this period - Lewis Jones, Jack Jones, Glyn Jones, Gwyn Jones. . . But there's also Rhys Davies, maverick, exile and homosexual, and of course Gwyn Thomas. And, among poets, Idris Davies and (again) Glyn Jones.

We had our own America, in the Valleys. Like America it created a vortex. Whereas for the rest of Wales, Anglo-Welsh consciousness was centrifugal, looking to London, the Valleys experience wound round on itself, a new, modern consciousness, whatever language you spoke; as Welsh as New York or Philadelphia were American. Even though the Valleys as an economy are in ruins, the vortex they created is still very much with us. The extent to which Wales is centripetal now, not centrifugal, has more to do with Tonypandy or Merthyr than it has with Abercuawg or Cilmeri.

In its heyday Valleys culture was not antipathetic to America. Quite the contrary. Idris Davies's Angry Summer is full of jazz, of songs from 'America and Spain': Spain because 'Dolores' was a favourite pop-song in 1926. The 'glamour of Hollywood' cast its spell. In those pre-McCarthyite days, before radicalism was purged from the American consciousness, the striking Welsh miners regarded America as a potential ally - they sent fund-raising appeals there, which the British government had difficulty preventing. America had not yet become the policeman of world capitalism. Idris Davies parodies the posh English voice of the big bourgeoisie plotting to forestall the miners:

'Tis time to go to America
And tell an impressive tale
Or money will flow across the sea
And this strike will never fail.


But these things, Jazz, Hollywood, the Land of the Free, then the Big Bad Wolf of Yankee imperialism - these things are not peculiar to Wales. You go into a cafe in Arctic Norway and there's a jukebox with two thirds of the music on it American. All over the Western world Hollywood films are the norm. Nevertheless, Wales does have a special relationship with the New World - not simply the pull of emigration or the friendliness or enmity of rival melting-pots. And to bring this relationship into focus I have to change tack and talk in mythological terms.

One of the things the Welsh are good at is creating myths. Great organising myths, like the return of King Arthur to reunite Britain. The myth of the Roman Emperor making Caernarfon the centre of his empire. Or the myth of the Promised Land, taken over from the Bible. The Welsh then convert their neighbours to this mythological way of looking at things and promptly disclaim all responsibility for what happens. Caernarfon castle is a case in point. On a day-to-day socio-political basis it was a massive military device for keeping the Welsh down. In terms of heraldry, however, with its eagles and its imitation of Byzantine Rome, Caernarfon is the first monument to the British Empire ever to be foisted onto the bewildered English - the first time that 'Britain' became an important factor in English politics. As ideology Caernarfon Castle is as Welsh as a gymanfa gani.

As far as America is concerned, I think we have to begin with the myth or legend of Madog, the twelfth-century prince, who is supposed to have sailed away from the internecine warfare that followed the death of his father Owain Gwynedd - sailed so far away, in fact, that he discovered America and founded a tribe of American Indians that were still Welsh-speaking in the eighteenth century. This legend had obvious political implications: it was used by the Anglo-Welsh scholar John Dee to claim that North America was originally part of King Arthur's 'British' Empire and therefore rightly belonged to Queen Elizabeth as Arthur's successor. In 1792 Iolo Morganwg recruited John Evans of Waunfawr in Gwynedd to look for the Welsh Indians, thought to be the Mandan tribe in Dakota. However, John Evans was captured by the Spaniards and became a Spanish agent. He did locate and befriend the Mandans, and made them pro-Spanish and anti-British. He then reported back that the Mandans were not after all Welsh Indians - and of course as a Spanish agent he had to say that - before he slumped into depression in New Orleans and died at the age of twenty-nine. The Mandans were then all but annihilated by small pox - one theory is that it was deliberately introduced - and their language was lost. American scholars think it was a variety of Sioux.

Most of you will know the story. My concern with it is not as history but as myth. As 'muthos', the Word became story. And here one can watch it ramify out, to aboriginal America, to the Gwladfa in Patagonia, and its latest manifestation, to the land of the Khasis in the Himalayas. Our chairman, Nigel Jenkins, has brought back live Khasis to sing Welsh songs to us - let's hope he'll not be like John Evans, suborned by the Spanish or anyone else, to make his testimony worthless.

Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism points out that myths 'degenerate' as it were, as their heroes go down a sliding scale of importance from gods to heroes of romance, then to great men in the real world, then to ordinary people like ourselves, and finally to people very much more trapped than we are - prisoners, lunatics, the tramps in Waiting for Godot.

Our myth starts as romance. Prince Madog is like St Brendan in Ireland, a legendary discoverer of marvellous lands. It's on this kind of level that T. Gwynn Jones uses the Madog story. His short epics which look superficially Tennysonian, are in fact all of them about Welsh civilisation and whether it can survive in the modern world. Typically that civilisation is realised in his poems as some sort of Celtic Otherworld; but the poems are not escapist. They're not like 'The Lady of Shallot'. The decisions made in or about that Otherworld are agonising ones, usually tragic, and vitally affect the way we live as Welsh people here and now. 'Madog' is one of the finest of these epic-type works. It was written in 1918, during the First World War. Like T. Gwynn Jones himself, Madog is horrified at the barbarity of war. He has just witnessed the slaughter of his brother, the poet prince Hywel ab Owain. He hears of a "Land of Heart's Desire" that St Brendan had found across the sea; and he sets sail to reach it. However, his boat is wrecked and he drowns with all his crew.

In a sense, T. Gwynn Jones has written the most unAmerican poem imaginable. Madog does not discover America, he drowns instead. The distance between Afallon, the Land of Heart's desire, and contemporary Wales is too great to be bridged. No new Gwladfa, no new Wales, can be founded now. Emigration is not the answer. There's nowhere for a Welsh Aeneas to carry his household gods, out of the sack of his country. If you want to stay true to your Welsh inheritance, the only place to live is Wales.

Of course, this treatment of the myth on the level of romance was in the Welsh language. Anglo-Welsh poets did not use it in such an undisplaced form. But there are hints of it, all the same, in what Northrop Frye calls the 'High Mimetic' mode, that of a man greater than normal who yet lives in the real world, the mode of Homeric poems and high tragedy. We remember that two of our best poets, Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins, both died with tragic suddenness in America - one of drink, the other of playing tennis. Certainly in Dylan's case the high mimesis of tragedy was never far from the core of his work. And you could say that like Madog he fled the barbarity of Wales - in his case exemplified in the demands of His Majesty's Inspector of Taxes - to seek new fortune in the lecturer rooms and bars of New York and Chicago?

But we come now to what Northrop Frye would call the 'low mimetic' version of the myth, where the hero or heroes are ordinary folk on a level with ourselves. This is the mode of the Victorian novel, of most comedy, and of television soap opera. It is also that of the post-war poets that we call the Anglo-Welsh Second Flowering, people like John Ormond, Leslie Norris, right up to Curtis and Minhinnick and beyond. Basically it's the middle-class staple of our education system. As Wordsworth said, this sort of poetry is that of a man speaking to men. It's perhaps more common nowadays to find it as a woman speaking to women. But the basic principle's the same.

On this low mimetic level, the emphasis now shifts from Madog himself to the later stages of the story - John Evans, the Mandans and the United States' treatment of the Native Americans. This last has an effective symbol in the smallpox with which it is said the Mandans were deliberately infected. One can separate the different strands of the myth. First, the original desire to escape and found a new Wales. After the First World War, as T. Gwynn Jones's poem accurately registers, this Madog motif was no longer a common factor in Welsh aspirations. A trace of it occurs in Idris Davies's poem about Welsh emigration to England during the depression:

We shall grumble and laugh and trudge together
Till we reach the stark North Sea
And talk till we die of Pantycelyn
And the eighteenth century.


But this is only a cold shadow of the original aspiration. The North of England is not America.

Second, we have the Welsh desire to recover their past. To find the lost tribes of Israel. To go into a bar in Singapore or Buenos Aires and hear someone speaking Welsh. To be recognised as Cymry - fellow countrymen. To learn that Welsh is a world language after all. During the Falklands War there were persistent folk-tales about a wounded Argentine soldier from Patagonia talking Welsh to his captors in the Welsh Guards. A further ironic twist in some versions was that the anglicised guardsmen couldn't understand him.

On a more profound level, this has meant that Welsh people have had a persistent interest in other small nations fighting for their very existence in an alien world. I suppose the greatest monument to this fellow-feeling is the magazine Planet: the Welsh Internationalist, where 'Internationalist' turns out to mean, not Germany or Nato or the Communist Block, but peoples like the Friesians, the Basques, the Corsicans; and as far as America goes, the Cherokees and the Navajo. There was a time when everyone's thoughts seemed to be full of Cherokees. Uniquely among Native Americans they had adapted themselves like the Welsh, to the modern world. They were literate, small-time farmers living in peace with their neighbours, true nephews of Uncle Sam. It did them no good at all. They were turfed off their lands in the east and forced to trek hundreds of miles to a miserable reservation in Oklahoma, where they were treated as if they were Plains Indians - that is, an intolerable nuisance to the all-American cowboys on the prairies.

On the whole, interestingly enough, neither the black Negro population nor the Spanish-speakers of the United States (the two largest lumpen-American groups) have really engaged Welsh sympathies - unless you can count Paul Robeson disguised as a Welsh miner singing his way through Proud Valley. Nor have we had a lot of interest even in Welsh expatriates in America, though the article on 'race' in the Encyclopaedia Britannica tells me that people with Welsh surnames like Jones or Roberts are among the purest - genetically speaking - in the whole United States. Certainly, one of the best newspapers about Wales that I know of, Y Drych, is published in Michigan. I am afraid we've tended to regard American Welshmen - even those who come back to Wales like Jon Dressel - as welcome curiosities rather than a valid extension of our tradition. Again, the contrast with Ireland is marked. Sometimes one gets the impression that Massachusetts is the next county on from Limerick.

No, to be American Welsh is probably the next worse thing to being a London Welshman. But in the Amerindian experience, we find ourselves. Linguistically, for example. No Native American language - and there are about two hundred of them still spoken - has more than a fifth of the speakers of Welsh. Most have less than a thousand, some down to two or three individuals. Their cultures are very often kept alive for tourism, the Sioux equivalent of Welsh dolls with tall hats. A lot of them seem to live in a whisky-soaked poverty and degradation that haunts our own worst fears, cheated out of their inheritance by the 'treaties', the 'Acts of Union' which signed away their land.

As far as Anglo-Welsh poetry is concerned, the locus classicus for this recognition is of course the poet John Davies's sequence 'The White Buffalo' from The Visitor's Book. John Davies has visited America, lived in America, for quite considerable periods. When he was asked why America was important to him, he replied:

New space, accessible foreignness, an antidote to Tory Englishness - a lot of things. It has been invaluable. For me, a sense of place is a metaphor for being alive, and poetry a moans of exploring what that means. I've lived in the same town for twenty-five years; for clearer sight, I've needed shorter tenancies. America has influenced the way I see things here and vice versa.


John Davies's brother (who is very close to him) is with the Moonies in New York. It is typical of the poet to feel himself a visitor everywhere - even in the Afan Valley where his family come from. And yet he is not an exile, as Anglo-Welsh poets of John Tripp's generation - and mine - often were. There is a strange ambiguity about both his isolation and his (very real) sense of belonging wherever he goes. He says of his brother in America,

Sometimes I think I'm living his life for him here and he's doing the same for me there.


For John Davies, the Welsh language - his wife and daughters are Welsh-speaking but he is not - is part of the intimate otherness which he customarily inhabits. He's a visitor there as well.

John Davies's poetry - diffident-sounding, often a bit throw-away, sometimes almost prosy - at least if you're used to Dylan Thomas - is the most subtle Anglo-Welsh confrontation with America that I know. And it's quite a violent place, and certainly a sad one. 'The White Buffalo' sequence deals with the plight of the West Coast Indians, tribes in Washington State that has its capital at Seattle, named after an Indian chief. But John Davies is also very conscious of the human motivations of the White settlers who usurped the country. In a sense, they are Mandans too - Cymry in disguise, fellow-humans. The sequence begins with Davies following the Oregon trail:

I drive a steady fifty
where families hauled their lives towards
new ground, hauled them and kept hauling.
On the Oregon trail, with wagons like white
buffalo rumbling west, they left their dead.


He identifies with their aspirations - 'New ground is what I want too,' he says. But the settlers saw only the empty land and tried to ignore the tiny numbers of Native Americans for whom it was home. So now, John Davies says,

This is another land of ghosts.
Its past is not my own.
Sun bursts on the windscreen.
For now, it blurs unsettled ground that is.


The sunlight blurs, so that he cannot see how 'unsettled' the ground is - unsettled both with a lack of settlers and because of the racial and cultural unsettling that still exists, and which his sequence explores.

Davies's poetry seems to me to exist at the extreme edge of the low mimetic mode. He's still a man talking to men, about people who are conceived as ordinary men and women with the same degree (if freedom as ourselves. But the fifth of Northrop Frye's modes of using myth, where the heroes of the story are much more trapped than we are - prisoners, lunatics, circus animals, or Indians in a reservation - this 'ironic' mode (as he calls it) is nearly in place. It is the mode of most modernist art, The Waste Land or Waiting for Godot, and a great source or its strident unpopularity. It is of course what one encounters everywhere in modern American literature. Its relative unfamiliarity in Wales, where we've been preoccupied with other things, is one reason why outsiders so often think of Anglo-Welsh poetry as fuddy-duddy and boring.

My impression (for what it is worth) is that John Davies in his later work has moved a long way towards the ironic - Flight Patterns for example is a very ironic title to give a book - without ever quite relinquishing his hold on the democratic voice of the low mimetic. Other poets have learnt from American experience. Tony Curtis wrote his finest Poem, The 'Deerslayers', in a fully ironic mode, before scurrying back to the low mimetic's relative safety. Nigel Jenkins worked in a travelling circus in America, and the sequence of poems called 'Circus' has some ironic features, a kind of whirlpool of raw capitalist exploitation gone mad. But Jenkins is essentially too political, too humane a writer, to sustain the vision of unfreedom for very long. There was of course considerable anti-American feeling among left-wingers - one thinks of Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, together with the horror of the Bomb. It may be that the bitterness and impotence of that time was one of the sources of the 'circus' poems. But I don't think Jenkins would ever have been happy for long with their rather mechanical modernism. One has the feeling that he is in some kind of crisis as a poet: he has reached and suffered the ironic vision, but for perfectly good creative reasons, as a putative citizen of Wales he is not content to build a poetic around it. Perhaps his play about the nineteenth century Chartist and eccentric, Dr William Price of Llantrisant, is the nearest he has so far come to reconciling these two things; but that's another story, not a lot to do with America.

Nevertheless it is in drama that we have the ironic vision most securely embodied in Wales - and particularly of course in the work of Ed Thomas. Contemporary drama is more divided a realm than poetry now is. Middle-brow and high-brow, like the lion and the unicorn, are still fighting it out in the theatres and telescreens of the land. Whereas poetry can relax into Arts Council subsidy and its own special kind of suburban cosiness, drama still stakes a claim to the roughstuff of box-office and audience ratings. And ever since the fifties, with the mutual demise of the verse play and the prose drawing-room drama of situations, irony in Northrop Frye's sense has dominated the highbrow theatre. From Waiting for Godot and the theatre of the absurd, from Brendan Behan to Edward Bond, the ironic vision of unfreedom is practically de rigueur.

As a dramatist Ed Thomas offers us an escape from the awful sogginess and claustrophobia which is where the low mimetic is at, these days. His emphasis on the absurdity of Wales, and on the need to invent one's own language, seems to me thoroughly salutary. America looms over him like a Goliath. Or perhaps, as a great enabler. It's ambiguous, as befits the ironic vision. So although he regards his first successful play, House of America, as still basically an exercise in naturalism, that is, the low mimetic, it's clear that the theme, the story line, goes far beyond it into the absurd. I quote from the Seren blurb:

'House of America' is an explosive, passionate play about the Lewis family, an absent father, an open-cast mine, and the American Dream. Sid and Gwenny create a fantasy world based on Jack Kerouac's On the Road, their brother is a hometown boy with no home, and mam goes mad after killing a cat called Brando. Is Wales a land for heroes?


For our purposes, House of America represents the last savage twist to the myth of Madog discovering America. Madog, the free man fleeing a Wales he despairs of, has become this down-at-heel family, where drugs, drink and fantasy implode into incest and madness. They discover America all right, it's like a mystery religion, a way of sharing in the life of the gods. Sid and Gwenny's obsession with Kerouac and his mistress give point to their aimless existence, make it sexy at second hand. One of the clearest things about the ironic vision, according to Northrop Frye, is that as you travel further and further from the low mimetic into irony, the mythical nature of our existence comes back into focus. The gods return, in shabby, ironic and yet compelling ways. Kerouac and Joyce Johnson are the real equivalents of Dionysius and Aphrodite in Greek myth. And like Dionysius and Aphrodite, what they give us is the raw material of tragedy. Incest, suicide, murder. .. You name it.


       


previous vintage gems: Fathers and Sons
next vintage gems: At the Inquiry



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