ESSAY Chris Moss

NWR Issue 115

Quo Vadis? And Why, Exactly?

Homer’s heroes voyaged in search of love and war, to consult prophets, and challenge gods. The authors of the Old Testament constructed their narratives around themes of exile and exodus and set their key dramas in the desert. The New Testament, Koran, Buddhist, and Hindu texts all emphasise wandering as a requirement of ministry and a means of self-realisation.

Even in the modern age, when travel narratives tackled conquest, exploration, scientific discovery and, in recent times, transporting fridges around Ireland and waxing lyrical on past literatures, there’s often been an underlying spiritual element. We casually allude to it when we say we need to revive our spirits on the beach or embark on a literary pilgrimage. We might be explicit, visiting churches and temples, or splicing an ashram into a visit to India.

Among the predominant global news items in our still young century is migration. Locally, Brexit is a reaction to this. In the US, Trump’s wall project is a crude, physical expression of the same neurosis. Small wonder, then, that we might seek in travel something other than a narrative of desperation and might like to imbue the idea of the border with other, older meanings.

In A Wilder Wales (Parthian, September 2017), a collection of travellers’ accounts published between 1610 and 1831 (the Merthyr Rising is the selected cut-off, marking the onset of industrialisation and the beginning of modern Welsh tourism), David Lloyd Owen has one border very much on the mind. But it is nothing as tangible as Offa’s Dyke for, as he notes in the introduction, ‘Wales barely existed in any legal or political sense…. Before 1831, we also find a Wales in which the Welsh language and culture were largely unchallenged, as, by and large, were the local Gentry, since voters did what they were expected to do.’

This ambivalence – between legal non-existence and cultural unity – comes through in several of the accounts. ‘Wales is indeed almost a foreign country within our own,’ writes Reverend RH Newell in 1821, in a letter to an acquaintance planning to visit the country with a sketchbook. 'Its features, inhabitants, language, manners, and customs are so very different from those of England, that the Cambrian traveller is abroad – a stranger, yet at home.'

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previous essay: Memoir of Dylan Thomas
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