New Welsh Review
Brittle with Relics: A History of Wales 1962–1997
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Interviewing people is not as easy as good writers make it appear. You have to ask the right people the right questions. You have to corral and connive to tease out sentences worthy of a reader, of a quotation. You have to transcribe, trash, edit, collate and curate some kind of narrative from the Babel of um’s and ah’s, waffle and digression.
On the surface, Richard King has pulled off the task with Brittle with Relics. Subtitled A History of Wales 1962–1997, it comprises sixteen topical chapters (The Welsh Language, Incomers, Cardiff Bay) built mainly from direct quotation, as well as a short introduction and epilogue. The easy way to test the effectiveness of his approach is to open the book at random and see what’s there. I did it five times. I landed on pithy insights from former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on secularisation, poet and former activist Dewi Prysor on protest group the Meibion Glyndŵr Colour Party, former Secretary of State for Wales Peter Hain on the Valleys after the miner’s strike, Super Furry Animals singer-songwriter Gruff Rhys on Richey Manic and SFA bassist Guto Pryce on the 1997 devolution referendum – which marks the book’s cut-off, which is a little frustrating, twenty-four years on.
But is the book more than a dip-in and dip-out ‘loo read’? The jacket blurb declares it is a ‘landmark history of the people of Wales during a period of great national change.’ No one would argue with the latter, but does the form fit the content?
If you take in a whole chapter, the main theme is allowed to build, to an extent, through diverse if not necessarily divergent voices and a picture emerges of Wales stepping forward over the years, and stepping back, too, lacking confidence and leadership, power and – sometimes – pride. History books are most often written in a dry, more or less academic register, a mannered, antiquated style that can suck the life out of even the raciest subjects. One major advantage of having Wales’ recent history presented as a series of voxpops is that the human voices impart their own energy and musicality. At its best, Brittle with Relics is akin to a lively pub conversation with a selective guest list at lock-in. The gang get on well, though there are occasional differences of interpretation and some memory lapses. It’s also fun not to be in the company of serving politicians or established scholars, though former leaders (Neil Kinnock being the best known) has been allowed in.
As you might have inferred, the interviewees are an idiosyncratic ragbag. King, who has previously written books about working in a record shop, indie music labels and the relationship between music and landscape, has a decent contacts book. He mixes his music and festival-circuit friends with a handful of authors and linguists, political campaigners and schoolchildren, and, of course, Michael Sheen – the actor is to Wales what Maxine Peake is to the north of England, always available, always ready to opine. To be fair, Sheen’s contribution, on page 496 (the last page of the main chapter-section) is one of the more thought-provoking in the book. I or anyone could point out dozens of omissions of theme and viewpoints (Wales’ political and cultural sectors are large) but it’s King’s book, and he at least seems to have managed to avoid raging bores and the kind of spokespersons who spiel from a script.
A key weakness of the project, however, is the lack of third-person action. Speaking about things you’ve done and believed – burning holiday cottages, arguing for a Welsh TV channel, pushing back against Westminster – is all very well, but King’s short interpolations never amount to sustained drama. It may well be that there has been a lot more talk than action in Welsh politics in the period covered by the book, but there isn’t even a forceful sense of place, because oral history is usually weak on detail and colour. Ask a writer to say where she lives and you’ll get four or five words at most. Ask her to write about it, and you’ll get pages,
Chapter 11, The Miners’ Strike, is, at 75 pages, the longest in the book. This is inevitable, perhaps, but there are many excellent studies of the subject. It is here that listening to Kinnock on auto becomes tedious. Kim Howells and Ron Davies have little new to offer, either. There seems to be nothing left to say about 1984–85. I grew up in a pit town and know the story inside-out, so perhaps these recollections will be of greater service to young learners or those entirely unfamiliar with the period. I wonder, though, what King thinks after reading all these entries. Didn’t he want to theorise, at least a little, offer a polemic, devise a novel gaze on a matter so familiar and oft-told it is in danger of becoming a cliché like Cottonopolis or chimney-sweeping kids?
Perhaps the author’s overall view is in the title, which comes from RS Thomas’ famous poem, ‘Welsh Landscape’: ‘There is no present in Wales, / And no future; / There is only the past, / Brittle with relics.’ It’s a typical Thomas line, seemingly Wales-deprecating but also provocative and political. Why, we ask, is there no present or future? Is the past, anyway, not a solid basis for a society? On the cover of a book, it could suggest that going over the past is potentially futile or fragile. History can be a means of propulsion or a drag, a bolster or a burden. Is King subverting his own project? Brittle with Relics, with its chosen mode of recollecting in tranquillity, is a calm book, a slow book and an accurate rendering of Wales’ long-held tradition of self-defeatism. But, for me, it felt thin on energy and excitement, short on incisive analysis as well as memorable synthesis. It’s as if the lock-in went on all night and too much was said, carelessly, and it all got heard in the end. It’s as if, in truth, even the title was taken too much to heart and imposed on the project a spirit of rueful regret. History needs new formats, fresh methods of presentation. But this compilation album of random, sometimes inexpert, but rarely popular, voices is more a handy resource for future narrators of the 1962–1997 period than a satisfying book in and of itself.
Chris Moss is a writer from the north of England.