Unity in Diversity: searching for synthesis in the heart of Wales
This week Dr Martin Wright (Cardiff University) makes some personal observations on teaching and writing history in Wales.
I’m living in a foreign country
But I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge
One day I’ll make it mine
Although born in the heart of England, I’ve lived in rural Wales all of my adult life. I was attracted to the place by an early found love for its landscape, and I have never passed a day in the country without finding some cause to celebrate my being there. That said, living and learning in the Bro Cymraeg of Welsh speaking Wales has placed me on a cultural, linguistic and national interface that has profoundly influenced my view of British history.
It was at a Welsh university in the 1980s that I first encountered modern British history. It may have been a full decade after Pocock’s celebrated plea, but there was little that was ‘four nations’ about the history I studied. According to the grand Anglocentric narratives that I absorbed in the lecture rooms, the industrial revolution started in Ironbridge and reached its apogee in the Lancashire cotton mills; Chartism was a three legged creature, with feet in Leeds, Birmingham and London; even when we studied local history we crossed the border to examine the local history of an English market town.
All this was fascinating enough to encourage me to pursue postgraduate study, and I subsequently undertook a project on the early years of the British socialist movement. Again I was pulled into an Anglocentric narrative – a narrative that I became responsible for perpetuating when I took over the teaching of some of my institution’s British history courses. As my research project progressed, though, and as I travelled from my beloved Welsh hills to read primary sources at libraries in Manchester and London, I became acutely conscious that there was something out of place. I began to experience dissonance between my life in rural Wales and the history I was studying – a disconnection between place and mind.
My response was to join the Extra-Mural Department at Aberystwyth and throw myself into the teaching of local history, while at the same time learning the Welsh language. I traded my Anglocentric British narrative for multiple micro-narratives of locality. The outcome was a revelation. I discovered, for example, as I read the Boards of Guardians Minute Books in the local record office, that the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 – that great set piece of British social history – didn’t really happen in my part of Wales until the 1870s. I was confronted with an industrial history – the mining of metals, unmentioned in our undergraduate British history lectures – that made the so-called Industrial Revolution look like a mere flash in the pan. Under the new light of locality the familiar narrative of British history suddenly seemed more complicated.
I also met people to whom the history of place was deeply personal. The grand narratives that I had casually recounted in my British history lectures had only a tangential personal connection to my audiences. Things were very different in the village halls of Ceredigion. I’ll never forget the experience of discussing Mr Morgan Morgans, a four year old on the 1881 census, only to be interrupted by an aged gentleman at the back of the hall: ‘Excuse me. I remember Mr Morgan Morgans leading the victory parade through Tregaron in 1918’. Neither will I forget the class in which I dissected the (somewhat dubious) testimony of a certain mine captain to the Kinnaird Commission of 1864, only to realise that one of his descendants was sitting directly in front of me. The liberty available to those constructing grand narratives is more restricted at the level of the ultra-local. This was a history that had living guardians.
And then there is the question of language. It was the 1990s. While I was having my idea of history re-invented for me in the Bro Cymraeg the discipline of history was being taken down its own linguistic turn. I was never wholly comfortable with this, and what still strikes me – I admit I may be showing my ignorance here – is the failure of the linguistic turners to engage with the fact that there is more than one indigenous (if one can use that word) language in the British Isles. If the use of language is a crucial factor is structuring reality, the choice of language, in a context where more than one language is available, is fundamental to its very creation. As I became proficient in reading and communicating in Welsh I realised that integral parts of Welsh (and thus British) history had been invisible to me.
Thus, when I recently returned to academic research, after some years doing other things, and decided again to focus upon the history of the socialist movement, I saw a different creature. My interest was attracted by a group of socialists who don’t feature in the grand narratives of British socialism, or even centrally, for that matter, in mainstream Welsh socialist historiography. My subjects, Robert Jones Derfel (1824-1905), T.E. Nicholas (1879-1971), Robert Silyn Roberts (1871-1930) and David Thomas (1880-1967) among them, all accepted the universalist ideology of socialism (or cymdeithasiaeth), but sought to make it relevant to the conditions of their own homeland primarily by communicating it in their native tongue.
For these socialists, expressing their ideology in Welsh was a matter of choice which communicated both an identity and a mission. Their choice is echoed by the students who take my Welsh medium course on the history of labour and socialism at Cardiff University today, and this brings me to my ultimate point. My life as an Englishman in Wales, living on the interface between English and Welsh, attempting to write history and drawing inspiration from the land and the people around me, has raised some fundamental questions for me. One outcome is that I have written two theses and teach two courses ostensibly on the same topic. For all the unity of subject matter, though, these histories inhabit different worlds. One is conducted in Welsh, the other in English; one is rooted in the place around me, the other is connected to an external world; one speaks to me as I am, the other as I once was. My feeling is, though, that to begin to write a satisfactory British history these two worlds somehow need to exist in one.
In the 1890s R.J. Derfel, one of the first Welsh socialists and the man who coined the Welsh word for socialism, cymdeithasiaeth, used the phrase unoliaeth mewn amrywiaeth (unity in diversity) to describe the ideal he was pursuing when discussing the relationship between national identity and socialism. The phrase might serve as a motto for four nations history. To achieve such a synthesis, which would demand the mastery of everything from the ultra-local to the universal, in several languages, will – if it is at all possible – most likely take generations of communal effort.
Martin Wright is a Lecturer in History at Cardiff University. He is currently preparing a monograph, Wales and Socialism: Political Culture and National Identity, 1880-1914.