NWR Issue 19

Caradoc Evans's Wales

IT is nearly 80 years since Caradoc Evans's burst on to the literary scene with a volume of short stories My People, which quickly earned him the title of the most hated man in Wales. He remains to this day the most controversial Anglo-Welsh writer of the 20th century. Chapel-going may have dwindled to a shadow of its former self, but many people in Wales, re-reading his short-stories today, are still touched by the feelings of outrage which they provoked originally.

But as John Harris's fascinating 1992 Gwyn Jones lecture, reproduced in this issue of NWR, illuminating his early life and work, first as a drapers' assistant and then a Fleet Street journalist, makes clear, there was a serious purpose to Caradoc Evans's full-frontal attacks on Welsh Nonconformity. As he saw it, the worst crimes endured by Welshmen were at the hands of other Welshmen, most in the name of religion. If Wales was to change for the better, then its people had first to be undeceived.

Caradoc never pulled his punches. Hitting back defiantly at those who protested at his savage caricatures, he declared: "There is no Wales to speak of, no real national life: no art, no dance, no folklore; no literature "except for the foolish mouthing of its preachers". Atrophied artistic life signalled a spiritual void, and the Welsh peasantry in particular had been drained of all substance by debased religion: Nonconformity, "a body without imagination and vision, a body which breaks down beliefs and traditions and all lovely things, and builds in their places hard materialism and avarice and hatred."

Today, the power of the chapels has not only been broken. Large numbers of them have been closed and demolished altogether. A new secular Wales is now upon us. However, whether this has produced the better Wales which Caradoc desired is, still the subject of debate.

Certainly it is no longer possible to say "there is no Wales to speak of", at least in the terms in which he expressed it. Artistic life, while there is room for substantial improvement (see Jonah Jones p20), can no longer be described as atrophied. Art, dance, and folklore (however that might be defined in a modern context) are flourishing and there is a lively literary scene. But few would deny there is also a downside.

Ironicaly, it is another one-time Fleet Street journalist and writer of more modem vintage, Tom Davies, also writing in this issue of NWR (p57) who believes passionately that it is the decline of Wales's Nonconformist tradition which has opened the floodgates to those targets of Caradoc's attacks - "hard materialism and avarice and hatred": the good influence of the chapel has been replaced by the cult of violence and propagated by TV and video.

Certainly, were Caradoc alive today, it seems likely that other, more powerful Welsh institutions would be feeling the scornful heat of his pen. As John Harris notes, the roots of Caradoc's fiction lay in campaigning journalism. Literature was not to be made out of other literature, but from the life around us. "Characters are found on the plains of reality not in the wastes of fiction magazines." That is advice which every generation of writers of fiction, whatever their purpose, can usefully heed.


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