How to be a Welshman

Daniel G. Williams explores the two worlds of Ned Thomas’ autobiography

Bydoedd (Worlds)
Ned Thomas
Y Lolfa, £9 95

Ned Thomas’ autobiography is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Hidden among the tens of generally tedious Welsh language autobiographies that hit the shelves with a resounding thud each year, Bydoedd is a strikingly different volume. Ned’s own story, from a childhood in Germany to periods spent in Salamanca and in Moscow, ensures that we’re spared idealised reminiscences of the Welsh ‘gwerin’ of Pontrhydfendigaid / Croesor / Maenclochog (delete as applicable).

But beyond that, autobiographical writing itself undergoes something of a revision in Bydoedd as contexts and social forces become the focus of the author’s history, as opposed to the usual attention given to individuals, friends, wives, parents and lovers. Where personal motivations are explored they relate to political and cultural views and values, not personalities and relationships. Indeed, whether he’s discussing the paranoia of the Soviet government in Moscow, or of Emyr Llywelyn in Llangeitho, the ‘worlds’ of this autobiography are often somewhat austere places where social and historical forces impact on individuals, governing their reactions to one another. Ned Thomas was the editor of the journal Planet, was one of the founders of Arcade, was a language campaigner and author of The Welsh Extremist, is a past director of the University of Wales Press, and is President of the Mercator Centre Wales. These activities are all covered in Bydoedd, and offer a useful basis from which to consider the thought of one of Wales’ leading public intellectuals.

The philosopher Agnes Heller described history as being “about what happens seen from outside”, while memoirs are “about what happens seen from within”. Ned Thomas succeeds in combining these two forms of writing, and of knowledge, in his book. In places he draws on intensely remembered moments or scenes in his life – a childhood view of the Alps for instance – and follows it up with detailed research into the history of places, people and movements. His family moved to Germany during his formative years during which his father (a native of Aberdare) was a lawyer in the British Sector of Nordrhein-Westfalen and was actively involved in the process of ‘de-Natzification’.

In an autobiography that ranges widely across time and space two worlds function as the primary frames within which Ned Thomas narrates his story: Welsh speaking Wales, and Europe. Reviewing the book at this moment in time is therefore something of a sobering experience. On the one hand, the coalition government in London, through a lethal combination of ideological commitment and callous indifference, is unpicking the fabric of the Welsh language culture that Ned, amongst others, has done so much to weave in the last 25 years. On the other, the European Union seems to have hardened into an oligarchic structure, in which the contempt of the elementary principles of democracy shown by the elites of the Council and Commission and their subordinates is reciprocated by the disdain of the majority of European citizens for the Parliament that supposedly represents them. Ned Thomas’s poetic observation in his introduction that it is not only individuals who disappear over time’s horizon but whole worlds, seems to carry a particularly charged resonance at the present juncture.

In the autobiography’s first chapter we’re told that Thomas’s mother (a native of Anglesey) had little German when the family were living in Elperweg, but in time her son was able to translate on her behalf. Later, while editing the British Council’s journal in Moscow, Thomas receives a letter from a Scot complaining that the journal’s title Anglia means England, not Britain. Ned notes that Velikobritania was used in the subtitle, but that sounded too grandiose. Bolshoi, as in the theatre, is the common term for ‘large in size’, but that wasn’t right for ‘Great Britain’ either. It was, he states, an early indication of the problems of translating ‘British realities in a language that had developed in a completely different system’.

In both scenes Thomas is a cultural mediator, and the pitfalls and problems of translation is a thematic thread throughout the volume. These scenes reflect the broader fact that ‘culture’ is primarily linguistic for Thomas. Throughout Bydoedd he sees the knowledge of languages – he speaks at least half a dozen – as the key to opening the doors of distinctive cultures. His political and social beliefs derive from this.

For many in Wales, Thomas’s emphasis on language as the basis of identity will smack of an outmoded essentialism based on a romantic attachment to a minority language. But the Welsh language is rarely romanticised as a repository of pre-industrial values in Thomas’s writings. Indeed, in his diverse lectures and writings on Matthew Arnold and Celticism he has interrogated the roots of that disabling conflation of the Celtic languages with a romantic, poetic, rural consciousness.

Ned Thomas’ commitment to language difference is firmly materialist. It lies at the root of his admiration for Raymond Williams, for instance, who in volumes such as Keywords explored the strata of historical meanings embodied in the etymological development of certain central terms in cultural studies, and in Marxism and Literature offered a wholesale critique of historical and economic determinism in order to place the emphasis, in Ned Thomas’ words, “on human creativity and self-creation”.

For Thomas, language is the endlessly evolving basis for human creativity and identity. This linguistic emphasis forms the basis for two of the most interesting aspects of Bydoedd: the scrutinising of the values and assumptions informing the culture and politics of Welsh speaking Wales; and the placing of the Welsh experience in relation to other European linguistic minorities.

The analysis of the Welsh speaking cultural psyche is given a particular edge due to the failure of Thomas’s recent attempts at establishing Y Byd – the daily Welsh language newspaper. Thomas puts that failure down to a toxic combination of moral passion and political fear that he has encountered among minorities elsewhere, and at several junctures in Welsh cultural history. Jennie Eirian’s opposition to civil disobedience as a response to William Whitelaw’s u-turn on the establishment of a Welsh language television channel in 1979 is seen in these terms, as is the Welsh Government’s unwillingness to support a Welsh language newspaper:

“We’re dealing here with a cultural phenomenon, which possibly derives from the same background of fear that I discussed in relation to the television channel. Was this lack of confidence also there in the Welsh Government, contributing to the failure? It’s very possible. The danger then is that their decision contributes to the weight of hopelessness that the next communal struggle has to carry, and contributes to a lack of confidence in the political process.”

Ned Thomas’s own clarity of thought and expression (as manifested here, though in translation) makes him somewhat baffled by those who do not share his views. In the egalitarian world of the ‘Institut auf dem Rosenberg’ in St Gallen, which he attended from the age of ten, a perceptive French teacher berated the young Ned for being impatient with the weaker members in the class. And that impatience can be detected above. He characteristically reads the failure of his attempts at creating a Welsh language newspaper in terms of social attitudes. There’s no real analysis of individual failures.

During the 2007 assembly elections the blogosphere was alive with commentary. Y Byd had its own blog, which was unfortunately one of the least interesting on the web. The illustrative issue of Y Byd prepared for the Swansea Eisteddfod of 2007 failed to convince people that the daily paper would contribute anything particularly fresh to Welsh language journalism.

Ned claims that he doesn’t remember anyone speaking against the initiative, which suggests a certain distance from the debate on the ground. It’s a reflection of the respect in which he’s held that no one would say so to his face. However, Ned was himself interviewed in the kind of unflattering close ups reserved for criminals on the current affairs programme Y Byd ar Bedwar. While it is the then culture minister Alun Pugh who gets it in the neck in Bydoedd, figures such as Gwilym Owen and Aled Eirug had been openly sceptical of the initiative and, with some exceptions, the Welsh speaking middle class proved unwilling to reach very deeply into their pockets.

In Bydoedd the successes and defeats of the Welsh language movement are placed consistently in comparative contexts. Thomas recounts his meetings with figures such as the Scots Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, and linguistic activists from Quebec, Brittany and Ireland. This comparative linguistic emphasis was reflected in the European materials published in the early editions of Planet. Ned Thomas’ translation of Morvan Lebesque’s Comment peut-on étre Breton (How to be a Breton) appeared in English for the first time in Planet, as did Sartre’s important essay on the Burgos trials, where the French philosopher emphasised the rights of minority language speakers.

Perhaps it is the Basque experience that lies at the centre of Thomas’s comparative consciousness, but it is never a matter of simple equivalences. Between 1971 and Franco’s death in 1975 Thomas visited the Basque country many times. It was no longer illegal to use Euskera in the fields of education and culture. Nevertheless, anyone associated with linguistic activities were suspected of being members of ETA, “Many of the most moderate people were arrested, and tortured”:

“The difference between minorities is great, and that is how it should be. Other minorities are not versions of Wales. Every linguistic minority has its own history and culture. That is what makes the community a home. That is also what makes it a trap from which there is no escape.”

The Basque example is a model of resilience for Thomas, of the ability to create a future in the most dispiriting of contexts. “The survival of a minority”, he notes “is predicated on the group’s ability to transform its situation”. There is little that is romantic about this belief, for his commitment to minorities and dedication to social change has its roots in late 1940s Germany. The Second World War casts it shadow over Ned Thomas’s worlds. “I could never embrace any nationalism that did not also assume a co-operative, international framework,” he notes.

Wales, for Thomas, is primarily a linguistic community that forms part of the European cultural mosaic. The question that arises is where does that leave non Welsh speaking Welshmen, the vast majority of the actual Welsh people? Ned Thomas admits that his chapter on the ‘Anglo-Welsh’ may well have been the weakest in his The Welsh Extremist. The book’s purpose was to argue the case for Welsh speakers in the terms of the English New Left, and he says it was to be expected that the Anglophone Welsh would respond by drawing attention to their own existence. Dai Smith fulminated against the “breathtaking dismissiveness and historical ignorance” of Thomas’s view that the “English speaking culture that is Welsh” in south Wales “has shown little sign of dynamism except in connection with a political nationalism which is attached to the notion of a resurgent Welsh language”.

‘The production of Wales” continued Smith, “that was proceeding apace in the Cymricizing suburbs of Cardiff, in academic and journalistic circles on the subsidised pages of a Welsh language press”, and in journals such as Planet, “had no real need to take account of those who did not fit the picture”. Smith would later note in 1991 how relieved he was that “Planet has almost moved on from its Basque of the Month feature and Catalonian Centrefolds but you only have to scan the contents page and note the list of Patrons and Advisers to stand back in amazement at the thought that this house journal for a Welsh-language centred world is the Literature Committee’s flagship in Wales”.

Alun Richards made the same point more succinctly in one of his letters, sent from Mumbles, to Ron Berry in Treherbert and recently published in Dai Smith’s In the Frame: Wales 1910 – 2010. Richards noted that the acceptance of a story in Planet would not lead him to “renew my subscription – fuck Basque nationalism!”

Yet Planet, from its inception under Ned’s editorship, did pay considerable heed to the English language culture of Wales, publishing works by Jack Jones, Malcolm Parr, John Tripp, Alun Richards, Ron Berry and others in its early editions. Indeed, Ned Thomas’s role in establishing Welsh writing in English as a viable field of study in English departments has been overlooked. Bydoedd offers an account of his struggles to include Anglophone Welsh texts in the syllabus at Aberystwyth University. The emergence of the field of ‘Commonwealth Literature’ in English Universities offered a potentially enabling context in this respect and Ned pioneered what we would now recognise as the ‘postcolonial’ approach to the literatures of Wales. Writing in 1971 he noted:

“We have been seen, and when we have climbed into education it has been to see ourselves with [English] eyes. This must be the attraction of the Welsh-speaking culture for any English-speaking Welshman who gets within hailing distance of it – that it is unequivocally our account of things and places, and what happened: Cymru not Wales, y werin not the Welsh peasant-farmers or whatever.

“Does this mean that there is no way to become the seer not the seen other than through a separate language? In the ex-British West Indies, especially Jamaica where the African element in the population is large, there is quite an interest in African languages and rather wild notions of relearning them and of going back to Africa. But equally there is successful writing in English, as there is in countries where other languages are strong, for example Nigeria or India. English can be wrenched to belong to us.”

Thomas is speaking from a cultural moment when many Anglophone Welsh writers desired to carve out their own distinctive space, both in relation to Welsh language literature and to English language literature more broadly. But if Thomas would see the expression of a Welsh identity via the English language as a process of ‘wrenching’, others would argue that expressing Welshness in English had been as natural as breathing for the majority of the Welsh people for the best part of a hundred years. While the comparisons with Jamaica, Nigeria or India that Ned Thomas innovated would be fascinating and illuminating for some, others would see little more than a ‘self-aggrandising self victimisation’.

For Thomas, Anglophone Welsh culture was best seen in the context of other parts of the world that had witnessed significant cultural struggles. Planet proved a significant vehicle for the voices of Chinua Achebe, Jean Rhys, Ngugi wa’ Thiongo, Derek Walcott and others. The ‘worlds’ in which Anglophone Welsh culture could be most appropriately placed was thus different to the emphasis on European minorities characteristic of his work on Welsh language culture. For Thomas, it seems, identity is primarily relational and a people’s sense of selfhood derives from analogies and comparisons.

At a key moment in his autobiography Thomas refers to the observation, which he ascribes to the French feminist Colette Guillaumin, that dominant cultures fail to see themselves as one among many other cultures, but as ‘The Culture’ that renders all other cultures peripheral. The comparative impulse in Thomas’s work may then be seen to derive from a minority consciousness. It follows that, for Thomas, a genuine multiculturalism in contemporary Europe must register the reality of multilingualism. Anglophone multiculturalism is, for example, different from Welsh ‘aml-ddiwyllianaeth’, a point he made forcefully a few years ago in arguing that we must ask “what is the meaning of multiculturalism within a particular discourse, and within a given language and culture”:

“What is often meant within English-language discourse in Britain is tolerance and even encouragement of a number of background cultures and languages within a society which has English as the foreground language – or to be plain, the dominant language. Many speakers of immigrant languages are happy to accept such a place for themselves, always providing that sufficient resources are made available to support their background culture and that it is respected. Welsh speakers on the other hand, like other European territorial minorities, claim a historic space in which their culture too can be a foreground culture, allowing people of different backgrounds to participate. This yields a more European view of Britain, like continental Europe, as a mosaic rather than a melting pot, and requires a rather different account of multiculturalism.”

This is an example of Ned Thomas at his best: clear in expression, persuasive in argument and forensic in his ability to see the main areas of tension and the possible ways ahead.

The monolingual, Anglophone, form of multiculturalism informing much cultural debate in Britain today is rooted in the belief that the English language is the only legitimate bearer of all civic-democratic nationality, and that those lying beyond its generously catholic embrace are little better than atavistic racists. Breton and Basque face exactly this same problem in relation to the ‘universalist’ assumptions of French and/ or Spanish language cultures. If the Welsh language is to have a meaningful future, it will inevitably be a multicultural future. It is to be hoped that Ned has many years of cultural activity ahead of him for in this emergent context his role as our leading cultural mediator and translator –which he describes and analyses vividly in Bydoedd – continues to be utterly indispensable.

Daniel G. Williams is a senior lecturer in English and Director of the Centre for Research into the Engish literature and Language of Wales at Swansea University.

Also within Culture