Kenneth Williams on the Rhondda & Afan valleys (1950)

Monday, 4 September 1950

Went with Glyn by car all over the Rhondda and Afan Valleys. Mist shrouded everything – purple heather, black slag heaps, disused pits, grim wet stone houses, uniform rows of drab streets. Occasional water-falls cascading with pure music down the mountainsides. Rain dripping steadily off of leaves bent with the pain of it. A brooding sadness.

 From the brilliant but tragic, Russell Davies (ed.), The Kenneth Williams Diaries (London: HarperCollins, 1994).

Christmas in Wales 1900

The Victorians reinvented the idea of Christmas. Although they were drawing upon and reinvigorating older traditions of festivity and generosity, by the late nineteenth century Christmas had become a celebration focused on home and family and its now-familiar trappings – cards, trees, turkey, and Father Christmas – were all well established. Indeed, sending Christmas cards was so popular by 1900 that there were repeated deliveries of mail by hardworking postal staff in Cardiff throughout Christmas Day.

Taking note of the moral of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843), the Victorians were determined to make merry. This was as true of Wales as of England.  Although the Boer War, the price of coal and wet weather were all causing concern, the Western Mail felt able to proclaim that Christmas 1900 would be as ‘if one great wave of joy were sweeping over the face of the land, invigorating our emotions, tickling us into smiles, making our limbs dance and our whole being thrill in an epidemic of gladness.’

Central to such joy was the establishment of Christmas as a time for family.  This was not always straightforward.  The migration of men to the coalfields of south Wales and girls to towns for domestic service and shopwork meant that families were not always living in the same place.  Christmas was thus a time for reuniting families, something helped by the provision of a fairly comprehensive rail service on Christmas Day itself.  There were, however, complaints that limited Christmas services to rural west Wales were preventing some young men and women from returning home for the festivities.

At the heart of family gatherings was Christmas lunch.  Roasted turkey, goose or beef, accompanied by vegetables and followed by plum pudding had become the expected Christmas meal but this was beyond the means of all.  There were even claims in London that some Welsh people ate mutton at Christmas but pretended it was beef and supplemented it with roasted blackbird.  This was angrily denied by the Western Mail but poverty was very real.  State pensions were nine years away and some old people relied on local donations of Christmas food.  Many poor children’s only proper festive meal came courtesy of a charitable dinner at their school on Christmas Day itself.

That local dignitaries and churches funded such events was clear evidence that the religious and charitable ethos of Christmas was strong.  Llandaff Cathedral held Christmas services at 7am, 10am, 11am and midday. Churches were adorned with greenery for the day but chapels were more puritan.  Not only were they not decorated, some did not even hold Christmas Day services.

It was not just religious bodies that held public appeals for the poor and ill.  In Swansea, for example, the Cambrian newspaper organized the distribution of 2,000 toys to children in charitable institutions in the town. Even the inmates of the workhouses were given special dinners courtesy of the Poor Law Guardians and other donors.  In Cardiff, this consisted of roast beef, plum pudding and a pint of beer for the men and half a pint for the women.  There were, however, limits to Christmas charity.  In Denbigh, there were Christmas complaints that poor relief had been given to people brought up like hooligans and who lived liked fighting cocks.

Christmas had also begun to develop its commercial overtones thanks to the growing tradition of gift giving. Shops were brightly decorated and busy advertising presents for children and adults.  To increase sales after Christmas advertisements began to talk of New Year’s gifts.  The most common presents were fancy goods and toys, clothes and bedding, and food and drink.  But for the better off there was photographic equipment, bronze work, cutlery and clocks.  A store in Swansea was even advertising ‘Useful and Artistic Furniture suitable for Christmas presents’.

Christmas Day was also a time for entertainment and people traveled to towns to take part.  Most shops were shut and the pubs had short hours but eisteddfodau were held across Wales and senior football and rugby matches were played.

In theatres and music halls, there were few performances on Christmas Day itself but Boxing Day in Cardiff held plenty of treats from Aladdin at the Theatre Royal (which promised ‘pretty music, pretty dresses, pretty dances, pretty songs, and pretty girls’) to the Dowlais Male Voice Party at the Park Hall. At the Philharmonic Hall on St Mary Street, there was a pantomime called ‘The Christmas Dream’.  An advertisement described it as an elaborate production in twenty scenes portraying a Christmas of ‘Ye Goode Olden Tymes’. If that was not enough, the theatre also had roller-skating and a waxwork exhibition.

There was less cheer in the Rhondda where local magistrates rejected an application for the pubs to stay open to 11.45pm rather than 11pm on Christmas Eve.  In the same area, a 73-year-old partially-crippled peddler was arrested on Christmas morning after his wife was discovered having been beaten to death.  They had apparently argued over his drinking.  In Cardiff, however, police and magistrates reported a quiet and sober Christmas week, with not a single case of cutting and wounding or violent assault.  Yet the fact that this was a matter for comment at all shows the danger of imagining that all Christmases past were simply a matter of peace and goodwill to all men.

Mountains, Welsh Culture and a bit of Science Fiction

I recently finished a 1977 novel called Survivors: Genesis of a Hero. It’s a tale of Britain a few years after a catastrophe that has wiped out of most of the human race. A violent and oppressive government has sprung up to govern what’s left of England.

Wales, however, holds out against this new militaristic regime.  Communities there realize that the English revolution is based on using the guns, food and technology of a civilization that is now over. Instead, they try and build a (Welsh-speaking) society that is not only fairer but more sustainable and self-sufficient. What enables them to do that, and hold off the advances of the English revolution, is retreating to the mountains and fighting a guerrilla war. It’s a military tactic that was familiar to medieval Welsh princes.

The geography of Wales has shaped its history.  Indeed, the opening line of Owen M. Edwards’ influential 1901 history of the nation was ‘Wales is a land of mountains’. The mountains divided north and south, undermining a sense of national unity. But they also kept out not only invaders but migrants too. Only slowly did tourists, industrialists and railways open up north Wales to Anglicizing influences. Mountains were key to why Wales survived into the modern world.

But modern technology and wealth undermined that, as people by the 1950s were only too aware.  In 1961, the nationalist writer Iswlyn Ffowc Elis complained (in Welsh):

Wales is no longer a haven beyond the mountains, but an open playground for hordes of motorists and cyclists and hikers, and an experimental field for the Government’s technology.  The teeth of her defensive mountains have been drawn, her valleys drowned by the English, and the innards of her rural society ripped out.  She now stands naked before the world.

Ironically, mountains are now seen as important to the future of Wales precisely because they bring in the spending power of tourists.

That’s surely a good thing. Wanting to close our border and deny outside influences can only harm Wales, both economically and culturally. Welsh identity survived in the post-war period because it embraced the modern world rather than rejected it. Once ‘the teeth of the defensive mountains’ were drawn, Wales reinvented itself as nation built on the present rather than the past.  Thus while a few opposed the building of the Severn Bridge in the 1960s because it would open Wales up to the world, far more embraced it for exactly the same reason.  Wales was a redefined from a land of hymns and pubs that were shut on a Sunday to one of pop music and personal freedom.

In Survivors the new Welsh society is welcoming of refugees from oppression in England. Those refugees have to agree to live by the ways of the new society but it’s also recognized that the incomers can bring new ideas and news ways of doing things. The best way to protect a culture is to ensure it does not stand still.

Survivors: Genesis of a Hero is out of print but there are pirated pdfs online.  There’s a review of the book here.

Welsh rain

Welsh rain… It descends with the enthusiasm of some one breaking bad news. It comes down in a constant cataract. It blots out sea, sky and mountain. Vast shapes from the beginning of the world that tower to the clouds are as if they had never been. The rain is like a separate element. A man can lose himself in it as if lost in fog. It flies, abetted by its companion the wind, to the left and to the right. It even blows upward over the edge of high places. It runs around corners with the wind.  It finds its way up your sleeves and down your neck. It sings a song on the roads as it runs, a miniature stream, to join other rivulets until it forms a little mountain torrent. In the hills it comes rushing through the heather-stems to fall in hundreds of tiny waterfalls – hundreds of Lilliputian Bettws-y-Coeds – over stone walls upon the mountain passes. And a man looks at it in amazement and thinks that Owen Glendower must have been at his tricks again. In such wind and rain was the tent of Henry IV blown down when the English armies were seeking the Welshman. And no wonder the whisper went round that he could control the elements; for rain in Wales can seem directed by some malignant producer, some one bent on drowning the earth and wiping from the mind of man all memory of dry places.

From H. V. Morton, In Search of Wales (1932).

Random Swansea scenes from the 1937 Coronation

The South Wales Evening Post noted most of the celebrations were unofficial and reported that ‘the mass of people has been aflame with enthusiasm, and the results in the small streets and tiny hamlets have been half comic, but touching in their exuberance. “Eat, drink and be merry” is the national watchword tomorrow.’

One Swansea woman noted in her diary, ‘As we passed small public house [that afternoon] I heard about 4 or 5 men inside singing God Save the King very emotionally and raucously – they sounded half-intoxicated.’

At an unemployed men’s club in the town, the coronation concert began at 3pm with God Save the King and ended with Hen Wlad fy Nhadau and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. In-between was a comedian, old music hall songs and some Welsh hymns. It was followed by a bus trip to the Gower.

A 62-year-old charwoman noted how her Swansea street was decorated with streamers and Christmas festoons. The children had tea at the street party at 3.30pm (Blanc Mange Jelly, Cream Slices and Pastry). The women had theirs at 4pm (Ham and tongue, pickles, pastries and cake). The men ate next. She listened to the King’s Speech too, saying it was ‘very nice’ and that he did ‘very well’. She noted that he did not stutter but did stop periodically: ‘you’d think he’d finished and then he’d go on again’.

That night there was dancing in neighbouring streets with the music coming from radios in open windows. There was no ‘rowdyism’ and it was all very friendly. The charwoman did, however, break a tooth on a bread roll which led her to later tell her employer ‘So I shall remember the Coronation’.

Taken from the Mass Observation May the Twelfth day survey, 1937

First words in Welsh history (or openings from some random books)

Tonight a new ‘landmark’ series begins on BBC Wales about the history of Wales. I don’t know how far back it will begin but it’s prompted to me to dig out some schoolbooks on the history of Wales and see how they start.

Here are the results of this random exercise:

” History tells us of the deeds of the men of olden time, and their manner of life. These men were our ancestors, and therefore we resemble them, as children resemble their parents: nevertheless, no age is exactly like the one before it; for new things are constantly being discovered, and so the world progresses. Thus, though ancestors of ours have for many centuries lived among the hills of Wales, we should not recognize one of them, if he were to come to life again, but should certainly believe him to be some wild savage.”  J. E. Lloyd, Llyfr Cyntaf Hanes (1893).

“The story of England and Wales is a very long and a very famous one. It is full of deeds of brave and wise men, each of whom loved his own country, and did his utmost for it.” John Finnemore, The Story of England and Wales (1924).

“Julius Caesar invaded Britain twice, fifty-five and fifty-four years before the birth of Christ. He wrote a book about his invasion, but he never came to Wales so his story does not belong to Welsh history.” Mary McCririck, Stories of Wales (1957).

“During the early years of the Second World War, Britain was threatened with invasion from the east across the North Sea, and from the south across the English Channel. Thousands of people left their homes in eastern and southern England, and came to Wales to find refuge from possible occupation by the enemy. It has always been like that. Through the Christian era, and through far longer prehistoric ages, in the face of invasion the people of lowlands have pressed westward into Wales, and the invaders of one age have become the refugees of the next.”  David Frasers, The Invaders (1962).

“Imagine living in a country where the trees drip with human blood.”  Terry Deary, Horrible Histories: Wales (2008)

There are lots of different ways to tell the story of Wales and lots different places it might start. But however and wherever history is started says more about the teller than the subject.

There’s decentralisation for you!

London is more get-at-able than Cardiff for us in North Wales. It is, therefore, with interest that we read of the new Secretary of State for Wales, Mr. James Griffiths, establishing himself a Welsh Office in Whitehall.

Half a dozen civil servants have already gone up from the Old Office at Cardiff (there’s decentralisation for you!) and reinforcements are expected at Paddington hourly.

Will Wales, North or South, benefit as a result? Certainly the experience of Scotland under the Scottish Office would not lead one to think so. In Cabinet, Scottish business always tended to be taken after the affairs of England and Wales were disposed of.

This was even though the Secretary of State for Scotland had statutory powers which Mr. Griffiths does not possess. Mr. Griffiths, in fact, has neither the power nor, now, the backing of a substantial Department, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. He is a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best.

Editorial in the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald and North Wales Observer, 23 October 1964

Some angry comment on bilingual motorway signs from 1977.

Some rather angry comment on bilingual motorway signs from The Economist, 25 June 1977. 

As you barrel along the M4 motorway, heading towards Newport with the Severn Bridge at your back, a giant road sign leaps out from the verge and screams … what? At 70 mph, with the children fighting in the back seat, you search the lines of bold lettering for a clue. There is none, until farther along the road an equally large sign – in English – reveals that the first one instructed Welsh-speaking drivers of heavy lorries to keep to the crawler lane.

How many drivers of heavy lorries speak Welsh? The question of numbers is irrelevant and that of road safety nearly so. The government is spending £10m to cover Wales with bilingual traffic signs, having decided that the opportunity to give the Welsh language a place of importance and dignity in national life is worth it, even though the language may be on its way to extinction by the year 2000 and the signs may keep drivers’ eyes off the road for longer than is strictly necessary.

Advice for motorists in rural Wales 1955

The road surface varies from county to county, but on the whole is hardly up to the English standard. In the remoter mountain districts the roads are narrow, tortuous, seldom tarred, and with breakneck gradients, providing the adventurous motorist with the maximum of thrills. Garages and filling stations, which are often closed on Sundays, are few and far between in some districts, and ample supplies of petrol and oil, besides a spare inner tube, should be carried.

H. A. Phiehler, Wales for Everyman (London: 1955)