A verdict on the condition of industrial Wales today

A verdict on the condition of industrial Wales today depends on the viewpoint. From the outside, looking in, its progress since the war has been phenomenal. From the inside, looking out, the foundations seem not wholly secure, the future prospects patchy and unsettled.

History makes faith difficult. Middle-aged men in South Wales have the memory of the lean post-war years in their blood stream. Prosperity to them is likely to seem eternally precarious, with every minor check to growth appearing as a major threat. Older men remember that South Wales has been prosperous before and that the roaring, free-spending years before and after the First World War went down into the abyss of the thirties. What has happened once can happen again.

The Guardian, 18 Feb 1965

We shall see crowds from all directions making their way to Ninian Park to hoot and brawl like a lot of wild savage

‘We are drawing very close to the football season, when old and young get infected with a disease known as football fever. We shall see crowds from all directions making their way to Ninian Park to hoot and brawl like a lot of wild savages. As a sport football is very fine, but to think of the thousands that go simply to watch 22 men kick a ball about makes one wonder how these football enthusiasts get any sense of responsibility. What is our future generation going to be like? Not only is football the danger. As soon as a match is finished a great number of football supporters make headway for a public house to disgrace themselves and the country the live in. I trust the day will come when professional football and public houses will be a thing of the past. PRO, BONO, PUBLICO, Cardiff.’

Letter to the South Wales Echo, 20 August 1925.

Sport in the Heritage of Wales

A short piece I wrote for Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service

Sport is a central part of the history and heritage of Wales. It has played an important role in the lives of individuals, communities and the nation.  Indeed, in a country lacking the more conventional markers and apparatus of nationhood, it could be argued that sport is one of the reasons why a strong sense of Welshness has survived in the modern era.

For many individuals sport was an important part of the routine of their lives.  It offered a physical and emotional escape from the drudgery and harsh realities of work and urban life.  Whether through watching rugby at the local stadium, playing football in a park, racing pigeons from an allotment or even just talking over the latest betting odds, sport offered people excitement, companionship and physical and intellectual stimulation. It also accorded people a sense of self-worth and importance, whether through their reputation as performers or through their ability to pass judgement on the performances of others.  Such rewards and pleasures could make life more tolerable and more meaningful.  They embedded sport in people’s routines and made it more than something people just did.

The importance individuals accorded sport combined to make sport a significant part of community life too.  Sporting grounds and facilities were important parts of local landscapes, places where people came together, turning collections of individuals into communities.  Locals assembled there, often in their thousands or even tens of thousands.  Even pub and park games could attract large crowds, as people came in search of free entertainment and to watch their friends and families represent their neighbourhoods.  Being part of those crowds enabled people to assert their local and civic pride.  Moreover, the larger sports grounds helped define the towns in which they stood.  They hosted clubs named after those towns and were known far beyond the immediate communities.  They were as much a civic space and physical symbol of those communities as any town hall, church or pub.

The strength and diversity of these communities contributed to Wales and Welshness having a plethora of different meanings.  Yet, however, Wales was defined, it would be difficult to deny sport’s place in the inventing, maintaining and projecting of the idea of a Welsh national identity in and outside of Wales’s blurred borders, even if the Wales that sport has projected has varied according to time, place and context.  Although the Welsh language, music and Nonconformity have also played their part, few other cultural forms are as well equipped as sport to express national identity.  Its emotions, national colours, emblems, songs and contests all make it a perfect vehicle through which collective ideas of nationhood can be expressed.  Rugby and football internationals in particular have mobilizedWales’s collective identities and passions.  They gloss over the different meanings that the people of  Wales attach to their nationality, enabling them to assert their Welshness in the face of internal division and the political, social and cultural shadow of England.  This put national sporting grounds at the heart of the nation.

Sport needs places to be played and its sites, ranging from national stadiums to pub bowling alleys, are part of the historic environment.  Many may not be unique or architecturally impressive but they mattered to the people who used and lived around them. Some have helped define the nation itself. All are part of our collective heritage.

Aerial shot of The Vetch Field, Swansea, 1959. A football ground clearly rooted in the surrounding community. 

Photograph copyright of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales

Contemporary history

John Davies, a leading Welsh historian who was born in 1938, remembers being told at university that everything since 1911 was ‘mere journalism’.[1]  Such views were already then becoming outdated due to the momentous horrors of two world wars, events which plainly needed studying and understanding.

Yet studying the recent past remained less popular than events a safer distance away and even in 1997 Arthur Marwick could note a prejudice towards contemporary history.[2]  If there is a prejudice or hesitancy towards studying the recent past it is rooted in its difficulties rather than any sense that contemporary history is not an important or valid topic for study.  Contemporary history throws up significant challenges because of the volume of sources, the difficulty of negotiating the historian’s own position, outlook and memories  and the problem of not knowing what happened next.[3]

Even those who practice it can struggle with how contemporary history differs from studying other periods.  Mazower, a historian of twentieth-century Europe, wrote that he found it difficult to see the recent past ‘as a period of history rather than as a series of contemporary social, political and economic issues’.[4]  Elsewhere he noted that because it was social scientists who mostly wrote about post-1945 Europe, ‘the feel and approach of the scholarly literature … is quite different from that of earlier periods, and this poses special problems for the would-be synthesizer.  Lines of historical debate and terms of enquiry are ill-defined, non-existent or simply unrecognisable’.[5]

Any reluctance to study the recent past is masked somewhat by the changing boundaries of when that past is.[6]  No longer, for example, do most historians consider the Second World War as contemporary history.  Although 1945 remains a common boundary used to define the topic, even the 1950s and 60s are far beyond the living memory of many adults today and are thus often not regarded as contemporary history.

In the UK, it is probably the last three decades that really marks the contemporary past, not least because of the thirty-year rule in public records.  Thus the recent growth of work on the 1970s gives a more vibrant impression of contemporary history than would be garnered if work on the 1980s was looked for.

A search of the Bibliography of British and Irish History clearly illustrates how the volume of work on more recent decade tails off to such an extent that it cannot simply be because earlier decades have had more time to be written about.

Number of bibliographic entries on Bibliography of British and Irish History related to different decades[7]

 

It is not just the period that contemporary history refers to that is shifting.  Freedom of information legislation, new archival policies, the internet and the general shift to electronic communication and storage are all changing the nature of researching the recent past.[8]  Indeed, practitioners of contemporary history often express confusion about what research resources are now available online.[9]  The practice of the topic is changing and changing quickly.

Nonetheless, there has been a recent upsurge in writing about the recent past. The work of Dominic Sandbrook, in particular, has shown there is both a market for contemporary history and significant potential in its telling.[10] Others have begun explicit attempts to use history, especially recent history, to offer policy lessons for the present.[11] But it is still surprising that there is not more contemporary history written or even taught. After all, students’ view of what is contemporary is rather different to their older lecturers.

Neither students nor history have always been quite as well served by universities as they might have been. In looking at what professionalization and the growth of higher education had done to British history, David Cannadine argued that it became introspective, pedantic, narrow in focus and preoccupied with fine detail rather general interpretations.  Too much of it was ‘little more than an intellectual pastime for consenting academics in private’.[12]

Perhaps more than any other kind of history, contemporary history can meet this challenge.  When done well, it can be lively, entertaining, engaging, unsettling and provocative.  When it achieves that, not only is the public expenditure on its production justified but so too is the thinking, agonizing and slog that went into its writing.

Martin Johnes is the author of Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Pres, 2012).

 


[1] John Davies, ‘Whose memory do we keep?’, in John Osmond (ed), Myths, Memories and Futures: The National Library and National Museum in the Story of Wales (Cardiff, 2007), 58-67, quote from 59.

[2] Arthur Marwick, ‘A new look, a new departure: a personal comment on our changed appearance’, Journal of Contemporary History, 32, 1 (1997), 5-8.

[3] For a full discussion of these challenges and how they can be negotiated see Martin Johnes, ‘On writing contemporary history’, North American Journal of Welsh Studies, 6, 1 (2011).  Online at http://welshstudiesjournal.org/article/view/11/7

[4] Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (London, 1998), 478.

[5] Mark Mazower, Response to Review no. 67, http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/67/response

[6] For discussion on when contemporary history is see Jane Caplan, ‘Contemporary history: reflections from Britain and Germany’, History Workshop Journal, 63 (2007), 230-38.

[7] Data assembled using the ‘close search’ facility. An item which covers long period is counted in each decade’s total.

[8] For discussions see E. Hampshire and V. Johnson, ‘The Digital World and the Future of Historical Research’, Twentieth Century British History, 20, 3 (2009), 396-414, and A. Flinn and H. Jones (eds), Freedom of Information: Open Access, Empty Archives? (London, 2009).

[9] Vanessa Ann Chambers, ‘`Informed by, but not guided by, the concerns of the present’: contemporary history in UK Higher Education – its teaching and assessment’, Journal of Contemporary History, 44, 1 (2009), 89-105, 99.

[10] Dominic Sanbrook, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (London, 2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (London, 2006), State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974 (London, 2010).

[11] See the History and Policy project. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/

[12] David Cannadine, ‘British history: past, present – and future?’, Past and Present, 116 (1987), 169-191. Quote from 178.

My favourite literary passage on football

To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling the Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art; it turned you into a critic happy in your judgement of fine points, ready in a second to estimate the worth of a well-judged pass, a run down the touchline, a lightening shot, a clearance by your back or goalkeeper; it turned you into a partisan, holding your breath when the ball came sailing into your own goalmouth, ecstatic when your forwards raced away towards the opposite goal, elated, down cast, bitter, triumphant by turns at the fortunes of your side, watching a ball shaped Iliads and Odysseys for you; and, what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through aturnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art. Moreover it offered you more than a shilling’s worth of material for talk during the rest of the week. A man who had missed the last home match of ‘t’United’ had to enter social life on tiptoe in Bruddersford.

J. B. Priestley, The Good Companions, 1929

The past is being taken away from us just as we are beginning to discover it

‘It’s all the more difficult to get a grip on Welsh life because of the way the tide has rushed in over the last couple of decades and demolished so many familiar landmarks. Most of us no longer live in the society we grew up in. Paradoxically, the past is being taken away from us just as we are beginning to discover it.’

Patrick Hannan, The Welsh Illusion (Bridgend, 1999), p. 11.