Since 4 January 2010, many people have tried heroically – but in vain – to catch the essence of Hywel Teifi Edwards. Some of his closest friends have come close, but would probably admit that it is impossible to catch in words the vitality and presence of the man. Hywel Teifi was an experience.
The university lecturer who thrived particularly on his extra mural classes also had a comparatively brief period as a working politician, as a Dyfed County Councillor for Plaid Cymru for 14 years and as a two-time parliamentary candidate, once in Llanelli and then in Carmarthen in 1987. Succeeding Gwynfor Evans and suffering from the anti-Conservative Labour squeeze of that year, his creditable 23 per cent of the vote was still a disappointment. More so for being beaten into third place by the Conservative, Rod Richards, whose politics, considering his background, were inexplicable to Hywel Teifi.
That result denied us the enjoyment of seeing the hurricane from Llangennech whirling into the Westminster establishment, but it also saved him from years of frustration. A fairly reluctant candidate, he would hardly have enjoyed the suffocating atmosphere of Westminster.
So, his real political contribution was more lateral. Through his academic work, and particularly his public lectures, he forced the Welsh speaking political community, in particular, to face up to the uncomfortable story of its evolution. Symbolically, the starting date, was around 1847, when the infamous inspectors toured Welsh schools and published the disparaging report that became known as the Blue Books or, more often, The Treason of the Blue Books. For Hywel Teifi, they were a cause of, and a catalyst for, the subservient, empire-loving, dying-to-please attitudes that were to blight much of Welsh-speaking Wales for the next century and a half. In those attitudes he was able to trace many of the complexes which held – and still hold? – us back from a confident, open and generous assertion of our identity.
And he told us so. To listen to one of Hywel Teifi’s lectures was to be coaxed and cajoled, to be damned and delighted. It was like being in a half-time pep talk after a particularly inept performance. “What’s the matter with you?” he might have been asking, before proceeding to answer the question with all the wit, and some of the profanity, of an old-fashioned soccer boss. They were deliberately bravura performances.
His ebullience – or bullishness as Meic Stephens put it in his obituary in the Independent – sometimes masked his scholarship. He was the oracle for Welsh culture in the second half of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th Century but, more than anything, was the historian of national attitudes, as expressed through literature, theatre and other vehicles of culture.
In Welsh-speaking circles, the Eisteddfod was the supreme expression of this. He analysed and, occasionally, dissected the great festival. Amongst his own people – in the Pabell Lên, or Literature Pavilion, which was invariably packed to creaking point when he spoke, he could be devastating about some of its weaknesses. To a less sympathetic audience, he would defend it to the last blow of the herald’s horn. But Hywel Teifi Edwards enjoyed the Eisteddfod with all its foibles, just as he enjoyed the extravagant expressions of sentimental Welshness in events like the great pageant of 1909 or the Chicago World Fair of 1893.
These were the manifestations of the crack in our image brought about by the Treason of the Blue Books, often expressing themselves in seeming confidence but more often in uber-moralism. Hywel Teifi often referred to “Cymru lân, Cymru lonydd” (Pure Wales, placid Wales) and “Gwlad y menyg gwynion” (The land of the white gloves), the image of a God-fearing, virtuous folk that developed in response to the Blue Books’s accusations of immorality and ignorance.
All this would be expressed in an explosion of language. Audiences for a Hywel Teifi lecture knew they were in for the long haul – almost a flask and sandwiches occasion – but would usually leave wanting more. It was an echo of the kind of vibrancy that he saw in the 19th Century, long suffocated in Welsh culture by stultifying biographies of ministers and dire epic poems that aimed to mimic the creations of the world’s great civilisations – Rome, Greece and, of course, the British Empire.
Many felt that Hywel Teifi himself would have been at home in that period, as another Emrys ap Iwan, the essayist and polemicist who derided the Welsh for their subservience. He would have loved the cut and bludgeon of cultural and political argument and the idiosyncracies of the characters around him.
As an opponent in debate, he could use bluster and even mockery as a tactic but, as many of his eulogists mentioned, could be far more subtle when the need arose. M. Wynn Thomas mentioned his winning ways in defending the Welsh language within the University in Swansea. Many members of the erstwhile St. David’s Forum remember his paean to Llanddewi Aberarth, the Ceredigion seafaring village of his childhood. It was lyrical and loving but was aimed at smashing another myth. Far from being parochial, Llanddewi Aberarth had a Sunday School classfull of sea captains who had sailed around the Horn.
While he wrote a valuable book about the reality and myth of the village in the Welsh cultural psyche, he was also one of the few who studied the image and role of the coal miner in Welsh literature, again vigorously shaken in the slipstream of the Blue Books. With family connections to the industrial valleys of south Wales and having lived and lectured in several parts of the industrial south-west he had a more complete vision of Wales than many Welsh speakers and non Welsh speakers alike. And his culturual world included boxing and soccer too.
Whilst Hywel Teifi’s numerous books manage to capture his scholarship and erudition – and some of his way with words – they can’t express the full force of his personality, as a person and cultural historian. Hywel Teifi’s political influence will be seen in the attitudes of people who heard him and read his work. Those who had the experience.
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