Book Review, Gothic Fiction

#AmReading: Wales, Land of the Living Dead I: Context and Poetry (1940s-1997)

Introduction

In this first post (this time, one of three) I will look at Chapter 4 of Jane Aaron’s Welsh Gothic, (UWP, 2013). This time, it’s a look at Wales as the land of the living dead in metaphorical terms, putting these texts into historical context, and looking at these themes in poetry. Next time (Thursday 28 Nov), I’ll look at the zombies/walking dead that Aaron identifies, both figuratively and literally, and the third one (Monday 2 Dec) will be vampires on the Welsh borders and some actual vampire folklore!

Depending on the story, the living dead represent different things: usually, it’s the state of Wales, its language, and its communities, clinging to places where the industry has gone, leaving behind mass unemployment and no reason for the towns to exist anymore.

Some of the novels Aaron discusses in this chapter are in Welsh, and translations of the quotes as well as the quotes themselves are provided side-by-side in the text.


Land of the Living Dead

Aaron briefly discusses the background to the dark feelings expressed and fictionalised in the Gothic texts of this modern period, but I will give a bit more information here too.

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalist party founded in 1925 advocating for Welsh independence from the Union, grew in membership during the 1950s when proposals came in to flood the village of Capel Celyn and turn the valley into a reservoir to serve the people of Liverpool, England.

By obtaining authority to create the reservoir via an Act of Parliament, Liverpool City Council didn’t need to consult the inhabitants of the Trywern valley or the village itself, and didn’t need the consent of the local Welsh authorities. Capel Celyn was one of the last Welsh-language-only communities left in Wales, and the proposal was highly controversial. The bill was opposed by 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs in Parliament (the 36th MP didn’t vote) but it passed in 1962. The village was evacuated, the community scattered, and the valley flooded in 1965. 48 people lost their homes, and all the buildings, including the cemetery, the chapel, and the school, were submerged. Families who had relatives buried in the cemetery were given the option to disinter them and move them somewhere else; eight bodies were disinterred, but the remainder were left where they were.

It is this event that inspired the metaphors in R. S. Thomas’s 1968 poem, ‘Reservoirs’, quoted below – and his is a challenging perspective, given that he blames the Welsh people for their own complicity in the drowning of their culture.

1024px-Flag_of_the_Free_Wales_Army.svg.png
Flag of the Free Wales Army By Trashcanmonkey – Image:Gb-w-eag.gif (www.crwflags.com/fotw/images/g/gb-w-eag.gif), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3262051

The ineffectual opposition of the Welsh MPs on this issue underlined Plaid Cymru’s argument that they were essentially powerless. This episode gave impetus to the question of devolved government for Wales. Paramilitary groups founded in the 1960s like the Free Wales Army and the Meibion Glyndŵr were not taken seriously by the mainstream media, but they did pose a threat to public order.

A key moment of national trauma came in 1966, when, after years of demanding the National Coal Board take responsibility for the spoil heaps on the mountain above the village of Aberfan, one of the spoil heaps finally slipped down the mountainside on 21 October around 09:15, and engulfed the junior school, killing 109 children and 4 teachers. Anger grew as the British government forced the Aberfan Memorial Fund to pay for part of the clean-up operation – to the tune of £150,000. The remaining tips were not immediately cleared and were only taken away after a lengthy legal battle with the residents. It did, however, lead to the passing of the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act of 1969.

The injustice and trauma of Aberfan rocked the nation and fuelled protests and support for Plaid Cymru and, in some quarters, for the paramilitary groups. The FWA were accused of plotting to disrupt the investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon in 1969, and nine men were arrested and kept in solitary confinement for 11 weeks after their arrests. Bombings did occur after the flooding of Trywern and the submerging of Capel Celyn, but they were carried out by groups unconnected to the FWA and this trial was ‘about free speech’, according to John Mortimer QC. For more, you could read John Humphries, Freedom Fighters: Wales’s Forgotten ‘War’ 1963-1993, (UWP, 2008).

The 1970s get painted as the worst post-war decade, the years of civil unrest, police corruption and porn, but there are other takes on that. Ending with the 1979 election that swept an Oxford-educated grocer’s daughter from Grantham into No. 10 as the new Prime Minister, it was definitely the decade of change. The changes it brought were not all welcome.

Meibion Glyndŵr [The Sons of Glyndŵr] firebombed around 220 English-owned homes between 1979 and 1994, and planted bombs in Conservative party offices in London, and in estate agent offices across England and Wales. In 1989, clarifying their position and explicitly rejecting violence against migrants and immigrants of colour, they declared, “every white settler is a target. We will bury English Imperialism“.

The reasons for the founding of the Welsh-language TV channel, S4C, in 1980, was also controversial. The late Plaid Cymru MP, Gwynfor Evans, threatened to go on hunger strike if the channel was not funded, a move that was criticised at the time and since by political opponents and some of his political successors.

Meanwhile, for many in Wales, the feeling was that it was better-the-Devil-you-know, and ironically the terrorist acts of these groups helped to push public feeling in the opposite direction. My grandfather, a lifelong Labour voter, refused to vote for Plaid because he associated Welsh nationalism with extremism, citing Evans’ hunger strike and the firebombing. There was a referendum concerning Welsh devolution in 1979, and this was resoundingly defeated.

Pride_poster.jpg
Poster for Pride (2014), Source: http://www.impawards.com/intl/uk/2014/pride.html, Fair Use Policy Wikimedia Commons

During the 1980s, however, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) became a hate-figure for her policies, many of which were regarded as inhumane, and in particular miners blamed her for the pit closures and for gutting Wales of its industry. The 2014 film, Pride, is one of the best-known films about this era, although was criticised in some quarters for not casting Welsh actors in the roles and for the dodgy accents employed by the ‘Big Name’ members of the cast.

In the 1990s, support for devolution was gathering momentum, although many in South East Wales were opposed and voted overwhelmingly against it in the referendum. Some believed that the cronyism and tribalism of Welsh politics would scupper any meaningful action that a Welsh Government could undertake, that the powers would not go far enough and we would be saddled with an expensive drain on our economy viz a viz the salaries and expenses we the tax-payers would have to fund, and white elephants of shiny new buildings we didn’t need but would have to pay for.

My grandfather believed a combination of these things, and grimly watched the news with real anger and resignation as the Yes vote won out by a narrow majority of only 6,721 votes.

He remained a critic of the Welsh Government and of politicians in general, and when I once, as a fairly young child, said maybe I could go into politics and help change things, he told me, “Don’t. You’ll become like all the others.” I protested that I wouldn’t, that I would be different, that I cared. He said, “No. They all say that at the beginning, but they aren’t. And you won’t be any different either. You’ll change. It’s what happens.” (He also advised me not to become an actor, or I would lose myself and go mad. “That’s what happened to Peter Sellers.”)


 

Zombie Nation

Ruth Bidgood (b. 1922) has been described as one of Wales’ foremost English-language poets in the last half-century. Her poetry, an intense evocation of place, meditates upon the landscape of Wales, the constructions of past and present, and the complexities of the notion of ‘home’. Aaron opens the fourth chapter with Bidgood’s poem, ‘The Zombie-Makers’, written in 1969-70 but first published in 2012 in Matthew Jarvis, Ruth BidgoodWriters of Wales Series, (UWP, 2012), ‘Appendix B: Two Unpublished Early Poems’, pp. 133-4.

Her anthology Above the Forests, which marked her 90th birthday, was also published in 2012. You can listen to some of Bidgood’s recordings, including the titular poem ‘Above the Forests‘, which also plays with a sense of undead and living dead within the landscape, on the Poetry Archive.

Seventh hell is for the zombie-makers

who cut the heart out while it faintly beats

and clamp whole valleys to a heart-and-lung machine

of reservoir and forestry – work now, die later –

then switch off. As the blood congeals,

here come the corpse cosmeticians, bland embalmers,

to prettify the violated body

with labelled forest trail and picnic area,

and fake a ghoulish animation

that is not life, and mocks at death.

~

If you must kill a land,

let it die, then.

Llewelyn’s head, a death-in-life on Cheapside once,

rotted at last to the dignity

of dust, like the sundered body

under the altar in remote Cwmhir.

‘The Zombie-Makers’ by Ruth Bidgood, (1969-70)

The poem evokes the death of Llewelyn the Last (1282), whose head was severed after his death and whose body was entombed in the Abbey of Cwmhir. The reference to his head in Cheapside, London, refers to the fact that Edward I took it to show to his English troops at Anglesey as proof of his death, then sent it on to London for general public display. There, it was set up in the city pillory for a day, and crowned with ivy to show he was a “king” of outlaws. This was also an act in mockery of an ancient Welsh prophecy attributed to Merlin, which said that a Welshman would be crowned in London as king of the whole of Britain.

[Edward’s great-grandfather, Henry II, had already ‘disproven’ one of Merlin’s specific prophecies relating to Ireland, exclaiming after the refutation, “Who now shall believe that liar, Merlin?“, although this didn’t stop James VI of Scotland claiming he had fulfilled this ‘King of Britain’ prophecy when he took the English throne as James I, referring to his own mixed ancestry to bolster his legitimacy.]

Aaron makes the comparison between this early Bidgood poem and ‘Reservoirs‘ by R. S. Thomas (1968):

There are places in Wales I don’t go:
Reservoirs that are the subconscious
Of a people, troubled far down
With gravestones, chapels, villages even;
The serenity of their expression
Revolts me, it is a pose
For strangers, a watercolour’s appeal
To the mass, instead of the poem’s
Harsher conditions. There are the hills,
Too; gardens gone under the scum
Of the forests; and the smashed faces
Of the farms with the stone trickle
Of their tears down the hills’ side.

Where can I go, then, from the smell
Of decay, from the putrefying of a dead
Nation? I have walked the shore
For an hour and seen the English
Scavenging among the remains
Of our culture, covering the sand
Like the tide and, with the roughness
Of the tide, elbowing our language
Into the grave that we have dug for it.

~‘Reservoirs’ by R. S. Thomas, (1968)

The complicity of the Welsh in the death of their language and culture is what haunts these later poets and writers, and the death of the industry and slide into economic depression and deprivation was (and in some cases, still is) a source of pain and anger.

From 1900-1970, the percentage of Welsh speakers dropped steadily from 49.9% in 1901 to 20.9% in 1971. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 109). In 1935, the poet Gwenallt (the bardic name of David James Jones, 1899-1968), mourned the existence of the Welsh language and culture as a cross the inhabitants of Wales were made to bear, or as if they were its zombified pall-bearers, in thrall to its demands upon them.

Addressing Wales the country, he asked her:

Paham y rhoddaist inni’r tristwch hwn,
A’r boen fel pwysau plwm ar gnawd a gwaed?
Dy iaith ar ein hysgwyddau megis pwn,
A’th draddodiadau’n hual am ein traed?
Mae’r cancr yn crino dy holl liw a’th lun,
A’th enaid yn gornwydydd ac yn grach,
Nid wyt ond hunllef yn dy wlad dy hun,
A’th einioes yn y tir ond breuddwyd gwrach.
Er hyn, ni allwn d’adael yn y baw
Yn sbort a chrechwen i’r genedlaeth hon,
Dy ryddid gynd sydd gleddyf yn ein llaw,
A’th urddas sydd yn astalch ar ein bron,
A chydiwn yn ein gwayw a gyrru’r meirch
Rhag cywilyddio’r tadau yn eu heirch.

Why give us all this misery? The wrack
Of pain on flesh and blood like leaden weight,
Your language on our shoulders like a sack,
And your traditions fetters round our feet?
The canker rots your colors everywhere.
Your soul is scabbed with boils. Your song a scream.
In your own land you are but a nightmare
And your survival but a witch’s dream.
Still, we can’t leave you in the filth to stand
A generation’s laughing-stock and jest.
Your former freedom is our sword in hand,
Your dignity a buckler at our breast.
We’ll grip our spears and spur our steeds: go brave
Lest we should shame our fathers in their grave.  

~’Cymru’ gan Gwenallt Jones | ‘Wales’ by Gwenallt Jones
Translated [into American English] by A.Z. Foreman

Aaron compares ‘Cymru’ to ‘Hon‘ [This] by T. H. Parry-Williams (1887-1975), who uses ‘hon’ in a feminine way in Welsh, suggesting that Wales is female and England, by extension, is therefore male, evoking Seamus Heaney who does the same thing with Ireland/England (female/male) and Alexander Cordell’s acclaimed 1959 novel, The Rape of the Fair Country, published thirteen years later.

The final couplet of Parry-Williams’ poem depicts Wales as a savage creature, not only full of ghosts and spectres of the past but also a monstrous mother actively dragging her children down with her into the grave:

Ac mi glywaf grafangau Cymru’n dirdynnu fy mron.
Duw a’m gwaredo, ni allaf ddianc rhag hon.

And I can hear Wales’ claws torturing my breast.
God save me, for I cannot leave this place.

‘Hon’ gan T. H. Parry-Williams (1946) | ‘This’ by T. H. Parry-Williams (1946)

Translated by Gareth/’Amadeus’

The sputtering reanimation of Welsh culture in the 1960s increased alongside the growing sense of Welsh political impotence. After the drowning of Capel Celyn in 1965 and the investiture in Caernarfon of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969, something that strongly divided Welsh public opinion, tensions were high.

In 1972, poet Gerallt Lloyd Owen (1944-2014) published his collection Cerddi’r Cywilydd (Songs of Shame), deploring the investiture and accusing Wales of ‘passively proceeding on course to its obliteration’ (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 125). One of the poems in this collection is ‘I’r Farwolaeth’, or ‘To the Death’:

Awn heb yr hoen i barhau

I’r nos na ŵyr ein heisiau,

Awn i gyd yn fodlon gaeth

Efo’r hil i’r Farwolaeth.

~

We go on without will to survive

To a night that won’t need us alive.

We go willingly, all, every breath,

In a race to the death.

~‘I’r Farwolaeth’ gan Gerallt Lloyd Owen (1972) | ‘To the Death’ by Gerallt Lloyd Owen (1972)

Translated by Gillian Clarke

But the will to survive is exactly what is brought out in many of the English and Welsh language novels that fall within the scope of Gothic fiction. I will end this post with a quote from a novel, one of those that will be discussed in the next post:

“Killing a language is like killing an octopus, you know. Not simple, like killing a man.”

~Resistance, Mary Jones, (Belfast, 1985), p. 123

This novel ends on a note, not of optimism, exactly, but an observation on the primal strength of the need to live:

“It is a base instinct, the will to survive.” (p. 149).

Base, yes. But it is vital, and survival is just what Welsh language and culture did, despite the pessimism and the gloomy predictions.


Next Post: Land of the Living Dead II (1940s-1997)

Next time, the prose fiction of this period that invokes the zombie metaphor (or literally has zombies in it)!

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