On dissertation supervision

Today, I met my current crop of undergraduate dissertation students to discuss their projects and what they have been up to over the summer.

This year’s topics are fairly varied and include popular reactions to the 1947 Royal Wedding, the British state’s attitude to Welsh nationalism during the Second World War, the history of recording studios and the logistics of Operation Market Garden. I might have nudged some of the students in certain directions but they are their projects.

Dissertation supervision is labour intensive but it’s my favourite part of teaching. It’s great seeing and hearing students’ enthusiasm for a topic grow, their excitement at what they find, and even how it can lead different generations of a family to share memories and experiences.

As a supervisor, you learn not only from a student’s findings but also from their techniques, mistakes and problem solving. As the deadline approaches, you feel their stress.  At their final-year vivas, you feel proud of them. If they don’t do well, you feel partly responsible. The students might not always realise it but it’s a shared journey.

When so much of university life can involve working to prescriptions and formulas, the dissertation is a rare moment of creativity and freedom that teaches students about themselves, research, time management, planning, communication, and, of course, the past. You just can’t capture that in a league table or a Teaching Evaluation Framework.

 

Devolution in retrospect

Extract from Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012).

An extract from the ending of my book, written in early 2011. It’s a bit optimistic in terms of whether arguments over what Wales is have really disappeared but in today’s social media world small things are amplified giving a false impression of their frequency and significance. The basic argument still holds good I think. Devolution is a product and signal of a change in Welsh identity.

In such an outward-looking context, the National Assembly for Wales (NAW) was always going to struggle to engage and involve the Welsh people, a majority of whom chose to not even vote in its elections.  Much of Welsh politics thus resembled a private game, carried on in corridors and on websites inhabited and read by a few, overlooked even by the mass of Wales’ own media.  Post-devolution, most people’s lives in Wales simply carried on much as before.  The NAW existed on the peripheries of their vision, coming into focus only at certain times, such as when their son or daughter went off to university or when an election leaflet dropped through their letterbox, although even then it might go straight in the bin.

Before the advent of devolution, Ron Davies, its key architect, had argued that it would ‘only succeed if it can deliver a better quality of life and higher standards of living’. He was wrong.  For all the limited impacts of its policies and the general apathy that surrounded its workings, with astonishing speed devolution became an accepted part of Wales and a symbol of Welsh nationhood, one that stepped into void left by the disappearance of older symbols like coal and religion.

Moreover, the popular legitimacy that the NAW gained was remarkable when set in the context of post-war history.  Gone were the old arguments over what Wales meant or whether the language mattered or even whether Wales could enjoy a modicum of self-government and still survive.  Some of this may have been at the expense of Wales’s cultural uniqueness but it was to the benefit of Wales’s nationhood and more of the Welsh people felt Welsher than ever before.

But that did not mean the nation meant the same thing to everyone.  It was still a very personalized identity, based on individual experiences and outlooks, but it was much easier to feel part of a nation that was not too closely defined or indeed defined at all.  The Welsh nation was still part of a wider British and global civic and cultural space, but it was a nation in its own right too.

In the twenty-first century that might seem a rather odd thing to say but set against the previous seventy years of history Wales’s survival could not always be taken for granted.  Moreover, Wales now had a political function and a political meaning as the creation of the NAW gave everyone in Wales a democratic citizenship.  They might not have noticed or have even cared but it happened all the same.

 

Memories of Wales says Yes 1997

On 18 September 1997, the Welsh electorate narrowly voted ‘Yes’ on the question: “Do you agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly as proposed by the Government?” The turnout was 50.1%. The Yes majority was 6,721.

At the time, I was a student in Cardiff and very excited by the prospect of devolution.  It was a chance to recognise Welsh nationality and form a different kind of democracy after 18 years of Conservative government.  Like the election of Tony Blair earlier in the year, it seemed to offer a new beginning and I took the opportunity to speak to as many people as possible about it.

My overriding memory of the time, however, is the indifference of most people I knew. Some were clearly in the Yes camp, especially if they spoke Welsh and/or supported Plaid Cymru.  My friends who had voted Labour a few months before were far less enthusiastic. Indeed, many of those who were English seemed to regard the issue as nothing really to do with them.  Some actually stated it should be a decision for those who were Welsh rather than living in Wales.

Even amongst those who were Welsh, there was sometimes a sense that somehow this was a vote on whether Wales’s future should be in the UK. One friend from a Valleys town was distrustful of my arguments because she said I was too “into the Welsh thing”. Others seemed to feel it was too soon after the election of a new government to make such a decision. The Tories had been in power nearly all our lives and some people seemed to want to see how government by New Labour would pan out first.  Few such people probably voted ‘No’ but not many voted ‘Yes’ either.

There may have been little enthusiasm but there was also little active hostility. Only one person told me he was voting No because he wanted less government, not more.

Looking back, I can’t remember why I did not get involved in the Yes campaign. Perhaps I did not know how at a time when the internet was in its infancy. I did get a Yes poster from somewhere and put it up in the window. It was the only poster on our street.

Despite my numerous conversations, it never occurred to me that the Yes campaign might not win.  Just as during the EU referendum, I was assuming that common sense would win out, despite the conversations I was having with people who thought otherwise.  As results night progressed, and it looked like No would win, I got depressed, as much with my own misreading of the situation as with the situation itself.

When Carmarthen, the last county to declare, swung the result, I was ecstatic. I felt I should go onto the streets to celebrate this momentous occasion of national importance.  But I knew no one else would be there. I did open the door but it was raining.

Instead, I watched television pictures of a party somewhere. In the background, I noticed the woman who lived next door. I had never spoken to her and felt a moment of guilt about the lack of community on our street. I wondered why she had not put up a poster in her window.

The next day, no one seemed that excited. A friend who I had persuaded to vote Yes told me she had meant to but the rain had deterred her. I’d like to think the margin would have been better had the sun been out but that would another delusion.  1997 changed Wales forever but it did so on the back of little widespread enthusiasm.

John Charles and Welsh football

An old article I wrote for Soccer History.

John Charles was one of a generation of immense talent to emerge from the schools of Swansea from the end of the 1930s to the early 1950s.  Most notably, Trevor Ford, Cliff Jones, Ivor and Len Allchurch, Jack Kelsey and John’s brother Mel all went on to become international stars. In the early 1950s Swansea schoolboys won the English schools shield three times. The guidance of local teachers did much to foster this culture of footballing excellence but another local institution, Swansea Town, never benefited from it in the way that it might have.

Charles was lost to his hometown club when Leeds United ‘stole’ him (and several others) from the Swansea Town groundstaff in 1948, after a scout had spotted him playing on a public park. Charles was yet to turn sixteen and was thus technically a free agent, despite an understanding that he and other boys on the groundstaff would sign professional terms for Swansea.  The FA subsequently changed the regulations on player registration to avoid any repetition.

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It was thus on the international rather than domestic stage that Charles contributed to Welsh football. He made his international debut in 1950 against Northern Ireland in the home championship.  As in club football, his international career was at both centre-half and centre-forward.  He helped give Wales an international profile in the game; the secretary of the Italian league remarked in 1961 that ‘Wales should give Charles a medal. He has put it on the map. Nobody in Italy knew where or who it was before’.  Charles won 38 caps for Wales, scoring 15 goals.  It would have been far more had Juventus been happy to release him every time he was called up.  Charles recalled, ‘If they [Juventus] were playing just before or just after an international I would have to stay behind.  It broke my heart.’

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After Wales qualified for the 1958 World Cup his manager and teammates were unclear about whether Charles would be able to participate or not. When the Welsh party left for Sweden Charles was not amongst them.  Juventus, with whom Charles had just won the Italian league, had finally agreed to release him but he was still waiting for clearance from the Italian Football Federation.  Charles himself had not thought that Wales would qualify and thus never thought a problem would arise. When he eventually made it to Sweden he was unexpected and arrived at an airport not knowing where the Welsh team were staying. Charles played in Wales’s three group matches, scoring once.  In the subsequent play off against Hungry he was kicked out of the match and injury prevented him turning out against Brazil in the quarterfinal. Without their star player, Wales lost 1-0 to a Pele goal.

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His desire to play regular international football contributed to his signing for Leeds United in 1961. After he quickly returned to Roma he insisted on a clause in his contract allowing him to play for Wales.  Charles finally played for a Welsh club when he joined Cardiff City from AS Roma in 1963.  By then he had lost some pace and played mostly in defence.

In 1966 he moved on to join Hereford United as player-manager before returning to Wales to become manager of Merthyr Town in 1971 and then becoming assistant manager at Swansea in 1973 after a brief spell in Canada. Charles stayed at Swansea for three years before moving to Leeds to run a pub.  He was never a success in management, be it in football or business; perhaps his temperament was too genial.  But this did not sully the memories of those who had met him or seen him play.  With his greatest playing achievements taking place on the continent in an age before widespread television coverage, Charles was never as revered in Wales or the UK as he was in Italy. Nonetheless, he surely remains the greatest footballer ever to emerge from this small nation.

Martin Johnes is the author of: Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

The Political Aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean

On Friday, 21 October 1966 a coal tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan in the South Wales valleys.  The slide engulfed a farm, around twenty houses and part of the local junior school before coming to rest.  The disaster claimed the lives of 144 people, 116 of whom were school children.  The horror felt around the world was made all the more poignant as news emerged of previous slides and brushed aside warnings.  Such was the widespread sympathy that was felt that a fund set up to help the village raised £1,750,000.

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A terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude

In the days after the disaster, Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), attributed the tragedy to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip.  This was known by all the local people to be incorrect.  The NCB had been tipping on top of springs that are shown on maps of the neighbourhood and in which village schoolboys had played.  The government immediately appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry.  Its report was unsparing:

Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board … The legal liability of the National Coal Board to pay compensation for the personal injuries (fatal or otherwise) and damage to property is incontestable and uncontested.

These dry conclusions belie the passion of the preceding text.  The Tribunal was appalled by the behaviour of the NCB and some of its employees, both before and after the disaster:

the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above

Colliery engineers at all levels concentrated only on conditions underground.  In one of its most memorable phrases, the Report described them as ‘like moles being asked about the habits of birds’.

The Tribunal endorsed the comment of Desmond Ackner QC, counsel for the Aberfan Parents’ and Residents’ Association, that coal board witnesses had tried to give the impression that ‘the Board had no more blameworthy connection with this disaster than, say, the Gas Board’.  It devoted a section of its report to ‘the attitude’ of the NCB and of Robens and forthrightly condemned both.

Corporate responsibility

In the face of the report, it now seems surprising that nobody was prosecuted, dismissed, or demoted or even said sorry.

It  is also surprising that Robens’ offer to resign as NCB chairman, which even at the time was seen as perfunctory, was rejected.  Public records released under the thirty year rule, show that he had advance sight of the tribunal report and his private office ran a media campaign to keep himself in place.  Through very public attacks on government fuel policy, he was able to portray himself as a defender of the industry and win the support of the unions.  This was not a new line for him to take but Robens was a great PR manipulator and he knew that he was securing his position.  Ministers let him stay, despite disliking him, because they thought he was the only man who could manage the decline of the coal industry and avoid strike action.  In effect, Robens’ behaviour after Aberfan became irrelevant to whether he kept his job or not.  Rather, political expediency was the name of the game.

Nobody suggested that Robens himself was to blame for the disaster but he was the head of the organisation that clearly was.  The extent of mismanagement revealed by the Tribunal was such that the question of prosecution arose in Aberfan and the media.  However the NCB itself avoided prosecution because the concept of corporate manslaughter was very much on the fringes of legal procedures.  Mining was a dangerous industry where accidents were normalised as an almost inevitable part of operations.  This is not to say that they were taken lightly but rather that they were seen as just that, accidents.

Accidents might be the product of individuals’ errors maybe but the idea that those errors could be fostered by a wider corporate culture that amounted to criminal negligence was simply not part of the contemporary agenda.  When the question of manslaughter charges was raised it was with regard to individual employees not the NCB itself.  Concepts of corporate responsibility, in and outside the coal industry, were essentially under developed.  Thus, despite the evidence to the contrary, the Aberfan disaster did nothing to challenge the picture of disasters as tragic accidents rather than criminal negligence.

A catalogue of self-serving episodes

Other events that now seem surprising followed Aberfan.  In August 1968, the government forced the trustees of the disaster fund to contribute £150,000 to the cost of removing the remaining NCB tips from above the village.  These tips were in a place and condition in which, according to the NCB’s own technical literature, they should never have been. Yet the board refused to pay and even undermined the efforts of a rival firm offering to remove the tips for less money that the NCB thought it would cost.

The contribution was bitterly controversial.  Some people wrote to ministers to complain that it was inconsistent with the charitable objectives of the fund; ministers’ replies did not address the point.  The Charity Commission failed to intervene or even query the debatable point on whether such a contribution was legal.  In contrast, it asked the disaster fund to ensure that parents were ‘close’ to their children before making any payment to them for mental suffering.

The villagers of Aberfan were traumatised  beyond the comprehension of outsiders who could see only their ‘unpredictable emotions and reactions’.  The trustees of Bethania chapel, which was used as the mortuary after the disaster, pleaded with George Thomas, the Secretary of State for Wales, to get the NCB to pay for it to be demolished and rebuilt, on the grounds that its members could not longer bear to worship there.  Thomas passed the plea on to Lord Robens, who rejected it.  Eventually it was rebuilt but at the expense of the disaster fund not the NCB.

The NCB paid just £500-a-head compensation to the bereaved parents.  To some parents this was insultingly low. Coal board lawyers, however, regarded it as ‘a generous settlement’ and it was not at odds with other contemporary payments of loss of life by a child.  Even as insurers wrangled, the ruins of the school and empty houses remained for a year.

For those in Aberfan, the legacy of this catalogue of self-serving episodes was a deep feeling of being let down and injustice.  The result is a lingering mistrust of authority.  It has also made the closure process difficult and undoubtedly hindered the healing process in the local community.  Subsequent events served to exacerbate that feeling.  In October 1998 the village suffered severe flooding.  An independent inquiry showed that the flooding was exacerbated by dumped spoil from the removed tips.  One survivor of the disaster and victims of the flooding said ‘I was buried alive in that tip in the disaster.  Now it’s the same tip again dumped outside my door.  It’s no wonder I am angry.’

A community on the periphery

George Thomas, Secretary of State for Wales and originally a teacher from the Rhondda, did initially protest at the decision to encourage the disaster fund to contribute to the payment of the removal of the tips.  But his lone voice in the cabinet was not sufficient and in the end he acquiesced in the plan and placed strong moral pressure on the disaster fund to ensure it too gave in.

There was considerable local anger but the South Wales valleys consisted of safe Labour seats.  All the major Labour figures knew that the rising Plaid Cymru support in the valleys was essentially just a protest that would pass.  The Labour hegemony thus condemned Aberfan to the margins.  In contrast, Robens’ ability to avert a coal strike was very much the concern of government and he kept his job as chairman of the NCB.

Gwynfor Evans, leader of Plaid Cymru, complained in the parliamentary debate on the disaster that if the tips had been at Hampstead or Eton, the Government would have taken more notice.  Aberfan was a small working-class community isolated from the heart of UK politics.  The government’s decision to grant legal aid to the Aberfan Parents and Residents’ Association at the Tribunal of Inquiry did mean they were able to afford the best ‘silk’ of the day.  The fearsome Desmond Ackner triumphed over the NCB at the Tribunal.  But in the aftermath of the disaster, a Labour government, whose support across South Wales was secure, ignored Aberfan’s interests.

The disaster itself, of course, was not marginalised.  The London media, Royalty, and the Prime Minister all travelled to Aberfan to see the horror for themselves.  It was only a few hours drive away or an even shorter flight.  Even Lord Robens got there, 36 hours later.  Politicians were undoubtedly personally touched by the disaster.  Harold Wilson noted that when he visited a Cornish school less than eight days after the disaster, he felt ‘almost a sense of resentment at these happy innocent children, with all they had to look forward to, compared with the children of that Welsh valley, who had no future.’  Intensive media coverage, particularly television, ensured that the disaster was seen as a national one.

Yet this was not enough to overcome the residents of Aberfan’s position on the political periphery, something that had contributed to the causes of the disaster and intensified the injustices after it. The disaster simply would not have happened had the NCB taken local fears about the tips more seriously or enforced its own rules on tip safety. But it was an organization hampered by mismanagement yet protected from market and political pressure by being part of the state and a dominant local employer.

Before the disaster, the NCB’s economic and local political power meant no one, including the small local authority in Merthyr, was able to challenge it to do more about fears on tip safety. After the disaster, the NCB’s economic and national power meant its interests took precedent over those whose children it had killed.

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean are the authors of Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Welsh Academic Press, Cardiff, 2000).  Further details of this book and other aspects of the disaster can be found at www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/politics/aberfan/home.htm A second edition will be published in 2017.

 

 

The creation of the Welsh Office…

It’s 50 years since the Welsh Office was created. Here’s an extract from my book Wales since 1939 that outlines the background behind its creation and the growth of Welsh administrative devolution.

Fears about the economic future in the late 1940s and early 1950s had also created demands within the Labour Party for some official recognition of distinct Welsh needs and a distinct Welsh identity.  In an acknowledgement that Wales did at least exist as an economic, administrative and cultural unit, a Council for Wales and Monmouthshire had been set up in 1949 as a non-elected advisory body to the government.  It came under the chairmanship of Huw T. Edwards, a Caernarfonshire trade unionist whose profile through the 1950s saw him dubbed the ‘unofficial prime minister of Wales’.  Looking back in 1958, a civil servant argued that the council had probably be intended as ‘relatively meaningless sop’ but Edwards’ personality had seen it gain a good deal of importance.  Through the 1950s the Council did keep up the pressure on the government to create a Welsh Office and Secretary of State, framing its demands more in terms of effective government than national recognition.  The Council was taken seriously by government but Edwards resigned in 1958 after it became apparent that it was not going introduce a Secretary of State. The government interpreted the Council’s demands as a desire for parity with Scotland but feared that should that be granted then Scotland might demand further devolution.  Given that Wales was operating under the same legal system, it foresaw that any Secretary of State would have to follow different policies to England in order not to make the position superfluous.  This, it feared, would be difficult to explain and would lead to inequalities that would be especially manifest in the Marches where social and economic ties crossed the border.  It also worried about the costs and administrative complexity of forming yet another department and feared controversy over the position of Monmouthshire, which it regarded as an English county but one that by tradition would have to be included in Welsh administration.

There was some popular support for devolving some powers from London.  In 1956 the Parliament for Wales campaign presented a petition with 240,652 signatures, representing some fourteen percent of the Welsh electorate.  Gwynfor Evans estimated that 80 percent of the people asked had signed it.  This was the culmination of a six-year campaign that had included leading figures from Labour, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru.  But it won no sympathy with the government or most of the press.  The Cardiff Labour MP George Thomas thought the Welsh people needed saving from themselves, while David Llewellyn, a Tory MP in the same city, even drew parallels between the campaign and Mein Kampf.  The lack of specificity in the campaign’s claims probably made it easier to collect signatures but the internal disagreements within the campaign over what Wales’ problems actually were and how a parliament would solve them undermined its political influence.  At the end of 1956, one of the leading figures in the campaign reflected ‘All the petition’s papers are now in cardboard boxes, one on top of each other, rotting through dampness’. The campaign did help raise the profile of Plaid Cymru and was another step towards the gradual construction of a proto-Welsh state but ultimately its failure marked a widespread satisfaction with the status quo.  This was clear when the South Wales area of the NUM voted against the campaign, fearing it would undermine the UK bargaining position of the union.

The Tryweryn revolt, the reports of the Council for Wales and the Parliament for Wales campaign may not have secured their immediate objectives but cumulatively they encouraged government to take specifically Welsh interests seriously.  In 1958, civil servants anticipated that Plaid Cymru could grow if Welsh feelings were ‘handled tactlessly’ and if there was a fusion between the party and elements within Labour that were ‘more Welsh than Socialist’.  The key to avoiding this, they felt, lay in persuading Wales that the government was taking its economic welfare seriously and dispelling the ‘widespread notion that people in England neither know nor care whether the Welsh and Welsh culture fare well or ill’.  Seven months earlier the Prime Minister had told his cabinet, “There is a general feeling among Welsh people that their particular interests are not receiving the attention which they should and we shall need to be specially careful and sympathetic in our handling of Welsh affairs at the present time if we are to prevent the Welsh Nationalist movement from gaining ground.”

In response to pressure from Welsh MPs for a Secretary for State for Wales, the Conservatives had already introduced a Minister of Welsh Affairs in 1951, a post held by an existing Cabinet member with a different portfolio.  Although the minister did not have a government department, the position did ensure someone within the Cabinet with a specific remit to look after and act on Welsh interests.  The first holder was the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a Scottish lawyer, who tried to defuse criticism that he was not Welsh by claiming that that one of his ancestors had led an army from Scotland which tried to join Owain Glyndwr.  He proved the worth of the post by shelving unpopular forestry and military plans for Welsh land. Although there were still the occasional controversy – such as the government’s 1960 appointment of a non-Welsh speaker as National Governor of the BBC in Wales – there were significant signs of increased sensitivity to Wales.  In 1958, a Festival of Wales was held under the government’s auspices. It culminated in the holding of the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and the announcement by the Queen that Charles would be made Prince of Wales.  The introduction of county rather than national referenda on Sunday opening in 1961 was a concession for rural Wales, as was the main Mid Wales railway line’s survival of the Beeching cut. The government began giving financial support for the publishing of Welsh-language school books in 1954, and the 1959 Eisteddfod Act allowed local authorities to support financially the National Eisteddfod.  In 1958, a new steel development went to Llanwern rather than Scotland after anger in Wales that the Forth Bridge had been given priority over the Severn Bridge, despite the Minister for Welsh Affairs arguing the Severn’s case to combat the ‘wide and deep distrust of the Government’s attitude towards Wales’. Cardiff was made the official capital of Wales in 1955 and four years later government pressure on Buckingham Palace led to the Red Dragon being declared the official national flag.  These Conservative concessions were the result of external pressure on the party but they also show how the existence of a minister for Wales and then sensitivity over Tryweryn increased the influence of Welsh interests in government.

In contrast, internal pressure from Labour MPs, not least James Griffiths, led that party to finally commit itself to creating a Secretary of State for Wales, a promise which it honoured when it returned to power in 1964.  Not everyone in government was enamoured.  In his diary, Richard Crossman called the Welsh Office an ‘idiotic creation’ and ‘completely artificial’.  There was also some concern in the north that Wales’s voice in Cabinet would actually diminish because the post meant Welsh affairs would be treated separately after England had been looked at.  The Secretary of State would be ‘a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best’ one paper surmised.  But one immediate benefit was felt.  The new department took the importance of expanding the M4 far more seriously than the Ministry of Transport and plans were quickly put in place for a series of new sections that would open through the 1970s.

The full and referenced version of this text can be found in Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012), available in paperback, hardback and on Kindle.

The Alarm: 1980s Wales in a Band


Alarm_kalvoya_01071984_10_500The Alarm sold 5 million records but they were never cool.  Even in the early 1980s, when they were singing punkish rebellion songs like 68 Guns, the band never won the critical acclaim of the music press.  Instead, they were derided as pretentious and inferior imitators of U2.  Even their big hair was mocked.

Perhaps it was just easier to be cool if you came from Dublin rather than Rhyl but even in Wales those who take their rock and pop music seriously have not accorded The Alarm much credit.  Books on Welsh music history overlook or deride them (although David Owens’ Cerys, Catatonia and The Rise Of Welsh Pop is a notable exception).  The contrasts with the feting and celebrations of the Manic Street Preachers could not be greater.

The Alarm released five studio albums between 1984 and 1991, although the name was revived by singer Mike Peters in 2000 and he continues to tour and record under it.  Peters’ health problems and his continuing musical and charitable work mean that the band continue to have some profile in Wales at least.  The derision that was sometimes aimed their way has faded but it has not been replaced with popular affection or admiration.

The Alarm, however, do deserve some recognition and even analysis.  Music does not have to be original or innovative to say something and touch people and the Alarm did both.  Their popularity alone means they deserve a mention in the contemporary history of Wales.  But more than that, The Alarm also offer a window into wider trends in that history, not just in what they did but also in how they ran against contemporary currents.

The band’s early albums captured the anger and frustrations felt by so many young people in a period of mass unemployment.  Most young people may not have been rioting or even been particularly politicized but there was a certainly a resentful sense that affluence and opportunity were not being equally shared out.  As The Alarm sang in Father to Son (1985) ‘How many years must I waste? Today I can’t find nothing nowhere. Tomorrow I might find something somewhere. Give me a future now. I need it so badly now.’

Much of the associated blame and anger was aimed was aimed at Mrs Thatcher, who became hated by many people in a way that no previous Prime Minister had.  The Alarm’s Marching On (1984) did not name her but its angry accusations seemed to be aimed at her and it demanded ‘You’d better look at what you have created and think of all the people who hate you’. This may not have been poetic or subtle but it did sum up how many felt.

Yet rock bands like The Alarm were a minority taste.  Far more popular in the 1980s were catchy pop songs that were an antidote to rather than comment on hard times.  One purveyor of such tunes was Shakin’ Stevens, one of Wales’ most successful modern musicians.  Although he came from a deprived Cardiff council estate, his most popular songs were ditties about love, a green door, and Christmas.  In this, he was more in tune with popular sentiment than The Alarm and others whose anger was politicized.  Indeed, overt faith in the political system was fading and being replaced by apathy and cynicism.

While some turned their backs on party politics, others began to weave a sense of nation into their political views.  This was significant because Welshness had largely been a matter of sentiment rather than politics in working-class urban Wales.  The changing attitudes were evident in the Welsh iconography of banners at the 1984-5 miners’ strike.  One social scientist claimed that Welshness was stepping into a void left by a fragmenting sense of class consciousness.

The_Alarm_Change_BackTheses shifting attitudes to Wales were evident in the output of The Alarm. In 1989, they moved away from their class-based lyrics and released Change, an album inspired by the lead singer’s new found sense of national identity.

Peters learnt Welsh and a version of the record was also released in that language, making it probably the first fully bilingual album.  Change brimmed with a sense of anger and frustration at the state of Wales: ‘I saw a land standing at a crossroads, I saw her wrath in a burned out home, saw her tears, in rivers running cold, her tragedy waiting to explode’ and ‘I see the proud black mountain, beneath an angry sun, under drowning valleys, our disappearing tongue, how many battles must we fight, before we start a war? How many wounds will open before the first blood falls?’

This open sense of Welshness did not help the band’s image outside Wales and their use of a male voice choir on the track New South Wales drew some mirth.  Even in Wales, it left the band vulnerable to accusations of clichés.  But to me, a teenager at the time, this was all heady stuff and it gave my sense of nationality a distinctly political twist.  I surely was not alone.

The Alarm still sounded indistinguishable from so much of western rock music, even with the new lyrics about Wales.  Yet that is no reason to dismiss them as part of Welsh culture. Understanding those facets of our culture that are shared with other nations is just as important as appreciating what marks us out as different. Besides, ultimately, there is little in Welsh popular culture that is unique to Wales.  When The Alarm sang about the pull of Merseyside, they spoke for the Welsh majority whose cultural inspirations and aspirations did not stop at the border.

Popular music is a powerful social force.  It can entertain, inspire and anger. But sometimes it’s nothing more than part of the humdrum of everyday life, something in the background, barely heard or noticed. The Alarm were all this.  Yet, whether they were singing about social trends or were just another tune on the radio, the band are a part of the story of modern Wales.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University and is the author of Wales since 1939.

Ought we to feel bitter against the English now? (1910)

If you and I had lived in the time of Llywelyn the last, no doubt we should have felt very bitter, when we saw our friends killed, our lands torn from us, and our families cruelly treated by a nation that could not excuse themselves by saying they were bringing us the gifts of civilization.

Ought we to feel bitter against the English now? If you will think of this carefully, you will see the answer is “No.” Englishmen are no longer free to harm our friends, or take away our lands, or treat our families cruelly. The law protects a Welshman from a bad Englishman in exactly the same way as it protects an Englishman from a bad Welshman. In law, Welshmen and Englishmen are equal.

William Glover, Stories from Welsh History (1910).

Wasn’t she a tyrant ten times worse than Miraz?

While reading my kids a bedtime story tonight I came across this passage. It seems rather apt for recent events.

“They say she ruled for a hundred years: a hundred years of winter. There’s power, if you like. There’s something practical.”

“But, heaven and earth!” said the King, “haven’t we always  been told that she was the worst enemy of all? Wasn’t she a tyrant ten times worse than Miraz?”

“Perhaps,” said Nikabrik in a cold voice. “Perhaps she was for you humans, if there were any of you in those days. Perhaps she was for some of the beasts. She stamped out the Beavers, I dare say; at least there are none of them in Narnia now. But she got on all right with us Dwarfs. I’m a Dwarf and I stand by my own people. We’re not afraid of the Witch.”

C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (1951)

In Narnia there were more beasts than dwarfs.

Two voices of reason from football’s past

A letter from a Cardiff City fan to the South Wales Echo (3 Dec. 1927) that the club’s present ownership would do well to think about.

“The true position with the City at the moment has nothing to do with the players but concerns the management, and I’m afraid that unless they consider a little more of the wishes of the supporters they will kill the bird that lays the golden egg.  If the directors would mingle with the crowd, instead of being perched like tin gods in their reserved stands, they would find that what I say is true.”

A letter to the South Wales Echo (23 Feb. 1922) that the owners of all clubs would do well to think about.

“If the City is to maintain the good feeling of its supporters, it would be wise to give all classes an opportunity to see the match, because, after all, the working man is the backbone and stay of the club. It is a pity that the directors should confuse and misconstrue sport for greed, and remember the story of the magical goose.  If the directors cater only for the rich they will find that class deserting them in times of trouble.”