Brittle With Relics: A History of Wales 1962-1997 by Richard King

Review by Liz Dexter

In this extraordinary book, Richard King takes the voices of a hundred Welsh people who were active in various forms of culture and politics over the period covered (some for the whole period, some for parts of it), and weaves them into a seamless narrative that brings us from the 1960s gathering of momentum in the Welsh language movement 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 notes, making the context clear while leaving the page free for the individual voices. Making it an oral history was clearly the best way to go, and he takes sections on each theme and puts the voices into dialogue, giving immediacy and authority to the book. 

After a note on translations being well-nigh impossible to create directly and a list of the voices with notes on who they are, 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. 

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. There are heart-breaking sections and amusing parts: sometimes people’s enthusiastic protests don’t quite get the reaction they were hoping for. 

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 is of course an emotional one. Cleverly, King lightens the mood a little in the next chapter looking at the Welsh language music movement. There is also information on the peculiar attempts of successive governments to boost the Welsh economy by enticing overseas companies in or giving redundant miners money to set up enterprises selling chess sets and coffee tables to each other; the palpable sense of the betrayal of these communities shines through the interviews. 

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.

Being a Faber book with the usual high production values, there’s a useful map at the front, and a comprehensive index, with the participants marked in bold so the reader can follow their journeys through the book if they so wish. 

A 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 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.

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Liz Dexter understands more about reactions she had when she visited Wales in the 90s after reading this book. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Richard King, Brittle With Relics: A History of Wales 1962-1997 (Faber, 2022) ‎ 978-0571295647, 526pp., hardback.

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