Once upon a time the NorthernReader household was located in Wales. Indeed, KatePonders was born there. If you are not fortunate enough to live here in the debateable lands between England and Scotland, I can heartily recommend Wales to you as an alternative: beautiful countryside, not too full, and lovely, lovely people. Only don’t call them Welsh, which means, depending on who you ask, barbarian, savage or slave. Remember your manners and call them Cymraeg, which means The People. You can see for yourself which might get your conversation off on a better foot. This weekend, our very good friends from the Land-of-their-Fathers-and-you-could-do-a-lot-worse have travelled up to stay with us: partly, of course, for the pleasure of our company, but also because we are all marauding northwards on Sunday to the Scotland/Wales rugby match at Murrayfield. You and I have talked before about what it means to be Scottish, and what Scotland has contributed to (in no particular order) the bookshelf, the country (that’s the United Kingdom, Mr Salmond) and the world: so now might be a good moment to consider Wales – I mean Cymru (very easy language to get your head around once you have grasped that Y sounds like UH and U sounds like EE: and there has to be some cachet in being able to say even a few words in what is said to be both the oldest language in Europe and the language of Heaven).
It might be that Dylan Thomas comes first to mind: orotund, lyrical and visionary, his poems demand reading aloud. I have previously suggested that you listen to Richard Burton, that great spoiled talent, in Under Milk Wood: I do hope you did so – if not, off you go. But there are other Thomases worth reading. Here are two. RS Thomas – Ronald to his friends – learned Welsh too late in life, by his own assessment, to write poetry in it, and therefore found himself in the quite strange position of writing in English while fiercely criticising the Anglicisation of his beloved home country. Thomas was a priest in the Church in Wales, and his poems are resonant with his sense of spirituality and religion as well as the rich landscapes and characters of Wales. He was beyond question one of the very best poets of the twentieth century. Try the elegant simplicity of ‘A Marriage’, or the bitter bleakness – very much his distinctive note – of ‘The Welsh Hill Country’.
My other Thomas for you is the writer, columnist, broadcaster and critic, Gwyn Thomas. Born in the same year (1913) as RS Thomas, but less long-lived, he was the child of the South Wales Valleys. His novels, short stories, essays and articles exactly capture the life of the mining communities in the Depression and beyond, into the postwar years. Self-deprecating and wryly humorous, he is a treat to read, and you can catch up with Anthony Hopkins’ wonderful portrayal of him in Selected Exits, a BBC drama some twenty years old now which was based on Thomas’s memoir A Few Selected Exits.
Two more poets, but of a different time. George Herbert has a lot in common with RS Thomas, being a Welsh-born Anglophone, an Anglican priest and a metaphysical, deeply spiritual poet; but his poems are considerably less pessimistic and grim. Every poem that survives (he was writing in the early seventeenth century and died in 1633) is on a devotional theme. Shortly before his death, he founded the religious community at Little Gidding that was later to influence the thinking and writing of TS Eliot. Herbert’s near-contemporary, Henry Vaughan, came through Cromwell’s Republican years but suffered losses, not least, perhaps, of simple-minded adherence to a cause. Ostensibly a Royalist, his poems reflect a deeply-felt (and entirely justifiable) contempt for all authority and the endless cycle of people struggling for power, gaining power and then cracking on with the same regime of intolerance, repression and beastliness as the previous lot. Sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? Another good reason to add Henry Vaughan to this week’s shelf.
Going back somewhat further, we come to Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis to his Latin-reading contemporaries and Gerallt Gymro to his Welsh relatives: ah, when I said earlier what a piece of cake Welsh is, I should perhaps have mentioned that it is one of those humdingers of a language that mutates at the front depending on the case: fun, huh?). Gerald was of mixed Norman and Welsh heritage but very sensibly stressed his Norman connections in order to Get On in life. A cleric and chaplain to Henry II, Gerald found himself accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury on a tour of Wales in 1188, which he wrote up some years later as Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae. Fear not, Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, translated by the great Betty Radice, is a most entertaining Penguin paperback, not least because Gerald is a world-class moaner, always ready with something snipey to say about everywhere he goes and everyone he meets. The ideal travel writer, really.
But before you get carried away with the idea that Wales is entirely – or even faintly – a land of mists and legends, all Arthur and Pendragons, we had better add its current flowering as the home of hugely enjoyable BBC drama to our idea of what it is to be Welsh. Andrew Davies, who brought you the entirely perfect dramatization of Pride and Prejudice, as well as Little Dorrit and the screenplay for Bridget Jones, and Russell T Davies, creator of Queer as Folk and breather of new life into Doctor Who, can wear their ddraig goch (look it up) with pride.
So as you read this, think of us as we head up the A68 – the best, most heart-lifting road in Britain, feverishly trying to remember the words to Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau while – because I have a Welsh-born daughter but Scottish ancestry – humming Flower of Scotland and wearing my thistle earrings with pride. Put it this way: this is rugby match I can’t lose.