Ceri Shaw is a former college lecturer from Cardiff, South Wales. Currently he attempts to make a living as a Web Designer and as a freelance writer on a range of topics including Literature. He is a regular contributor to Americymru.com. Ceri wrote this article about Anglo-Welsh literature and its exploration of the themes of national, cultural and personal identity.
What is Anglo-Welsh Literature and why Should Anyone Care?
As a Welsh ex-pat currently residing in the USA I have noticed a profound disparity between the notion of Wales that many Americans of Welsh descent entertain and the reality that I left behind five years ago. Nowhere is this more evident than in the literary field. The triumphs of yesteryear are rightly held in high regard but modern literary trends and authors are sadly neglected. The legacy of Dylan and R.S. Thomas is , of course, sacred to us all, but Wales has moved on and a new genertaion of writers reflect that fact.In recent decades we have witnessed a flowering of literary culture in Wales and stereotypical Welsh writing so famously satirized by Harri Webb in his poem “Synopsis of the Great Welsh Novel” has been left far behind. We have seen the emergence of Welsh noir ( Niall Griffiths, Malcolm Pryce, John Williams ) which continues to be popular and other major talents such as Lloyd jones, Rachel Trezise, Trezza Azzopardi and Owen Sheers have made their presence felt.
But what is Anglo-Welsh literature and why should anyone care? I would argue that at its best it provides a unique perspective (in the English speaking world at least) on modern ideas of national, cultural and personal identity. As Gwyn Williams once famously said:- “The Welsh as a people have lived by making and remaking themselves in generation after generation, usually against the odds, usually within a British context.” Both Welsh-language and Anglo-Welsh literature have played a prominent role in that process. It is not a literature of rage. At the risk of offending a portion of my audience I will say that English colonial rule has for the most part been far too benign to produce a violent reaction but it is a literature of self-assertion and defiance, albeit sometimes confused and unfocused.
These themes are explored in a number of fascinating works by contemporary Welsh writers. Owen Sheers’ magnificent debut novel ‘Resistance‘ is set in an alternate universe in which the Nazis invade and conquer Britain in World war II. It focuses in large part on the struggle to reinvent oneself, adapt and survive in the face of extreme adversity.
The book ends with both protagonists facing a stark choice which is really no choice at all. In order to survive they must turn their backs on everything they have known and attempt to find personal salvation in a future that is as uncertain as it is dangerous.The novel hints at the special relationship which the Welsh people have with their landscape. The hills of Wales are indeed magnificent but they pale into insignificance, at least in topographical terms, when compared with the European Alps or the North American Cascades. Their special gravity and power lies in the fact that every nook and cranny, every fold and crevice, is invested with some human significance. The sum of history and legend which the landscape reveals is almost an externalization of Welsh identity itself. It is against this backdrop that Sarah, the heroine of this novel, must strive to uproot herself and accept the evolutionary challenge.
A far more extreme adaptation and ‘remaking’ (or failure to adapt) can be found in the pages of ‘Niall Griffiths’ stark and brutal novel..”Sheepshagger“. Here we see what happens when ancient tribal resentments, personal greivance and drug-addled inarticulacy combine to prevent ‘personal growth’. The desperate and bestial acts of violence committed by the novels anti-hero are the products of a sense of loss and a seething resentment directed against those who have deprived him. He is unable to articulate his impotent rage by any other means. He asserts himself as a serial-killer. It should be pointed out that this exploration of the darker side of the Welsh ‘psyche’, whilst magnificent, also contains passages of graphic violence which would make Brett Easton Ellis blush.
The fact that the Welsh are a naturally restless people and constantly searching for a lost identity or fashioning a new one is perhaps more happily exemplified in Lloyd Jones extraordinary “Mr Vogel”. This novel which is by turns baffling and inspiring recounts an epic journey around Wales made by a delusional alcoholic. To say that the narrative is not straightforward would be an understatement but what this novel lacks in simplicity it makes up for in many other ways. We are never quite sure what the nature of the quest is but the journey is perhaps its own justification. Toward the end of the book, when his epic perambulation is almost complete, Mr. Vogel finds himself in a mental hospital where he offers the following observation to one of his fellow patients:-
“When was Wales? Wales has never been, it has always been.” he rambled on to his next victim, Myrddin the schizophrenic, who fortunately) was asleep. “I’ll tell you something for nothing.” he said, “true Wales is never more than a field away, and true Wales is always a field away, like Rhiannons horse in the Mabinogi. Got it?”
Jones’ work is a tribute to the transformative and redemptive power of the imagination and its ability to refashion national, cultural and personal identity.
None of the above should be taken to suggest that Anglo-Welsh literature concerns itself solely with these themes or that other literary traditions neglect them. I would contend howver that owing to Wales unique history,a history in which its cultural identity has constantly been threatened with absorption by that of its much more powerful neighbour,they are much more acutely focused in the Anglo-Welsh literary tradition.
Books Referenced in the Text:
“When Was Wales” Gwyn Williams Penguin Books 1985
“Resistance” Owen Sheers Faber and Faber 2007
“Sheepshagger” Niall Griffiths Vintage 2002
“Mr. Vogel” Lloyd Jones Seren 2004