It’s taken me a while to read and review this special and important book: I didn’t want to rush it, wanted to give it my full attention and respect, and I found it incredibly moving in parts, too. Although I didn’t come into existence until 10 years through its timeline, and didn’t come into political consciousness until the mid-80s, I remember the miners’ strike very well, and the Greenham Common protests, both covered in depth here.

Even though I provided administrative support on this book and have known about its existence, concepts and contributors for a long time now, it still surpassed my expectations when I held and read the finished item.

Richard King – “Brittle with Relics: A History of Wales 1962-1997”

(1 February 2022, from the publisher)

“This is a history of a nation determined to survive during crisis, while maintaining the enduring hope that Wales will one day thrive on its own terms”. (p. 8)

King takes the immediate and up-to-date voices of around a hundred Welsh people who have been active in various forms of culture and politics over the last third of the twentieth century and beyond, and weaves them into a seamless narrative that brings us from the 1960s gathering of momentum in the Welsh language movement, agitating for equality between Welsh and English in the country and taking part in specifically non-violent protests (although there were also the holiday cottage burnings, also not causing harm to life and still never clearly resolved), to the referendum on and vote for a new Welsh Assembly (the Senedd). He intersperses extracts of the participants’ words from long and detailed interviews with historical interpolations, making the context and ramifications clear while leaving the stage free for the individual voices. Making it an oral history is a masterstroke, and the way he has taken sections on each theme and put the voices into dialogue with each other gives a stunning immediacy and authority to the book as a whole.

After a note on translations being well-nigh impossible to create directly and a list of the voices with notes on who they are (local councillors to Lord Kinnock and Leanne Wood; Michael Sheen and Rhys Ifans; men who were down the mines and women who protested at Greenham Common; folk musicians and the peerless wonder that is the late David R. Edwards, founder of Datblygu to widely known pop musicians; couples, parents and children), noting the spaces left by people no longer with us or those whose reliability of memory was self-describedly failing, King opens the book with his own Easter journey to tend family graves in the Amman Valley, looking out over the chapel and down a traditional mining valley, considering the industrial disasters and the neat terraces, concentrating in on the miners’ institute and what those organisations meant to the communities they were in. He fills us in on the background to the events in the book, starting with Saunders Lewis’ radio speech, ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ (The Fate of the Language), warning that Cymraeg faced extinction, along with the way of life and culture it represented. He explains the twin threads of the Welsh Language Movement and the crisis across Britain, but seen especially in Wales, of traditional industries and employment patterns. On the former, he’s careful to state his position:

“The history of the relationship between Cymru and Cymraeg, between Wales and its language, has most usually been told in the mother tongue. To present the history of the Welsh language during the period covered in this book in English is an act of faith: it is one not entered into lightly.” (p. 8)

We’re then on a roughly chronological journey through the period, although some themed sections such as that on the Women’s March to Greenham common and subsequent protesting take a longer section of history and overlap in the time line. It took me quite a long time to read the book as it was often a very emotional read, the participants’ individual voices interacting, backing each other up, arguing, talking about someone then having their own words pop up. There are heart-breaking sections and there are amusing parts – veteran campaigner Ffred Ffransis buying a clapped-out car that wouldn’t go up the hills out of Aberystwyth in order to park it to protest against tax discs being in English only, only to find the police ignored it for a month.

The long section on the miners’ strike was brilliantly done, with so many voices and making sure the women who were politicised and supported the miners and their families were fully represented (this section also pleasingly has the events that were described in the lovely film, Pride, mentioned). Putting Arfon Evans’ highly emotionally charged description of the return to the pit at Maerdy right at the end of that chapter, after the other returns had been discussed, was a rightful twist that had me weeping. Cleverly, King lightens the mood a little in the next chapter looking at the Welsh language music movement (and others who did not sing in Welsh, and those who pushed against traditionally seen Welsh values) with a mention of John Peel’s influence on spreading Welsh music across Britain including a packed gig all the way over in Harlow, curated by Attila the Stockbroker, that cheered.

The contrast between the two independence referendums was very interesting (one resounding no, one just yes, politicians doing their usual thing, leaflets mysteriously never manifesting, etc.) and there’s another book to be written on the contrasts between Scotland and Welsh independence movements and campaigning, only touched on lightly here, for reasons of space, I’m sure. The last word is given to Michael Sheen, eloquent and poetic, looking back at Wales and into the future in a powerful paragraph.

The epilogue explains how the Senedd continued being developed, its values and the phenomenon that people still didn’t really see what it did – until the pandemic came along and

That Wales could operate independently of Westminster was noted both by its own population and a London government animated by patriotism and the attendant manufacturing of divisive grievances. (p. 501)

And the book ends, after the Acknowledgements, within which I’m desperately proud to appear, with an in memoriam to folk lost during the writing of it.

An absolutely vital resource, something that hasn’t been written before, certainly not in this breadth and depth. It’s lively and never stodgy, thanks to the way it’s put together, and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a good, solid read on community, politics with a small and large p, industrial and social history and the history of the proud and distinct country of Wales.

I was sent a copy of the book by the author, via his publisher, in thanks for having contributed to its production and to review. All opinions are my own.

This was my first review for Reading Wales 2022.