Dylan Moore finds much to admire in three new works of nonfiction, but can’t underestimate the importance of a little literary sparkle.
Neil Evans, whose essay opens the new, updated edition of A Tolerant Nation? Revisiting Ethnic Diversity in a Devolved Wales (UWP), rehearses the argument that ‘the Welsh people were the most upright, God-fearing, radical, moral, philosophical, cultured and tolerant in the world’, a position supported in a vague and very generalised sense by the idea of the gwerin and more specifically in academic work that has celebrated particular instances of proletarian internationalism like the South Wales miners’ support for Irish independence in the 1920s and the Spanish Republic in the 1930s. But he also quotes from the historian Jon Parry the understated line that ‘The Welsh have never been immune from prejudice’.
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On such a dichotomy the rest of the volume rests. First published in 2003 in the early days of devolution, the central issues in A Tolerant Nation? – race, nation and globalisation – are all well worth this revisit just twelve years on. Vaughan Gething – who knows, one day perhaps the first black First Minister – says as much in his introduction. Wales, as a nation, is in flux; as is ‘Welsh’ as an identity; multiculturalism is contested from both left and right; religious diversity has a more potent and more urgent charge. The vitality of A Tolerant Nation? is born out of the fact it is not simply an excellent multi-disciplinary book, but that it doubles as an urgent state-of-the-nation appraisal at a time when we seek not only to ‘understand the past and present [but also] to build our common futures’.
It is not only the well-known socialist brand of internationalism that gets the once over. Aled Jones, in his essay ‘The Other Internationalism?’ revisits the idea that Welsh Nonconformist missionaries, who played a pertinent role in Welsh life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not simply adjuncts to British imperialism, a history which is also traced here by Jane Aaron. Missionaries, we are reminded, raised questions of social injustice and imperial oppression.
If the histories of both tolerance and prejudice in Wales are fascinatingly explored by a relatively small group of writers with kaleidoscopic academic range, the final chapters of the book provide the most vital reading for those seeking to understand ethnic diversity in Wales today. Paul Chaney outlines the issue of black and minority ethnic representation in Welsh policy-making, or rather the lack thereof, where the inclusive rhetoric of all the major parties in Wales is not matched by statistics. An ‘expert-bureaucratic’ approach has prevailed over the ‘participatory-democratic’, and ‘swift action’ is recommended to ensure broader and deeper participation in policy-making and public life.
Perhaps the litmus test for any society wishing to promote its propensity to tolerance is its treatment of sanctuary seekers, of whom, in an increasingly complex globalised world, there are far more than ever. Alida Payson’s contribution certainly pulls no punches in its conclusion that the story of contemporary sanctuary in Wales is ‘not one of fleeing persecution elsewhere for protection and the free, full exercise of rights and citizenship in a tolerant nation but rather that ‘people seeking sanctuary in Wales find themselves buffeted by global patterns of displacement and marked out by entrenched racism and discrimination in immigration law.’ More encouragingly, Payson traces the Welsh Government’s positive record on asylum, going so far as to claim it has often worked to ‘mitigate harm’, in ‘contradistinction’ to the UK Government’s harsh immigration law. Charlotte Williams ends the book with a fascinating resume of the situation regarding Welsh identity today, questioning the ‘tolerant nation’ thesis along Welsh/English lines as well as through reference to ethnic minorities. ‘Welsh multiculturalism remains a curious bundle of contradictions and a project in the making,’ she concludes.
If A Tolerant Nation? provides a near-definitive study of ethnic minorities in Wales, Huw Edwards’ new book City Mission: The story of London’s Welsh chapels is a history of the Welsh as an ethnic minority. Clearly a labour of love for the BBC news anchor, City Mission tells the story of the Cymry Llundain – the London Welsh – through the history of its places of worship. In London, as in Wales, for much of nineteenth and twentieth centuries, collective life revolved around the chapel, and Edwards’ tome is, among other things, a reminder to our secularised Wales of the extent to which this was so. Chapels were not all sermons and hymnals; they served as community hubs, and City Mission is as chock-full of eisteddfodau and tea parties as it is of religion.
At times, Edwards’ detailing of chapel histories can become very dry. The copious archival research is impressive, but sometimes the intrigues of chapel politics – buildings and moves and ministers and schisms – become little more than longform lists. A godsend I am sure to academics and historians, for the general reader the book could have done with a narrative arc and a little more literary trickery.
A similar criticism can be levelled at Edwards’ fellow broadcaster, Glyn Mathias, whose autobiography Raising an Echo is also published by Y Lolfa. Despite flashes of insight and some amusing anecdotes that come by virtue of the fact Mathias had an interesting career covering UK and Welsh politics, and met many of the major figures of the day, he lacks his father’s literary flair. The sections where Glyn remembers Roland Mathias and his Breconshire childhood threaten to do as the title says and raise an echo of times and people past, but ultimately Mathias’ memoir leaves an unsatisfying sense of skimming the surface.
There are times when the juxtaposition of personal and professional life threatens to give the book a real sense of tension. Mathias struggles to cope with his wife’s recurrent alcoholism and bringing up young children while pursuing a successful career in journalism, but there is a limit to the detail with which he is willing to impart more personal information. This may be entirely understandable, but it does detract from the investment the reader is able to make in Mathias’ story.