NWR Issue 60

War Archives

the madman and the statue stare
at the blackened flags,
the scattered bits, the empty space

and nothing has ever been so still
as this:
the figures that could be bits of wall
the blistered walls that could be live
and puncturing the fret of green and rust
the poison rinse of chlorine sky
without a wing alive in it
without a wing alive.]

From 'Europe after the rain', by Christopher Meredith

A young boy stares out at me from the newspaper, his eyes craters of pain, his arms blown to smithereens. A line of text in bold type runs under the photograph: 'Ali, who lost both his arms in the bomb blast that killed his parents'. A few weeks later, and Ali is still making the headlines as the papers report on the hundreds (if not thousands) of other children in Iraq who have reportedly pledged that he 'personally' will do all he can to help Ali. No good, say the journalists, if the others are left to rot. Young Ali, says one writer, has been singled out to play a starring role in the 'showbusiness' that is war these days.

Funny, isn't it, how quickly they crop up? Those theatrical metaphors that serve so well to reveal the power and cynicism of war. They are of course sadly appropriate, especially in a so-called post-postmodern age when war itself is a virtual reality, according to the theorist Baudrillard and his Chinese whisperers. Nevertheless, the proliferation of the vocabulary of performance in war journalism brings home the depressing truth: that war is merely a repetition of the same. Words themselves become progressively emptied of meaning as they are either over-used or are simply inadequate to the task of description; as a TV reporter stands next to a dying civilian, for example, and as we in the so-called First World witness death upon death without protest, as if drugged.

The pen is clearly not mightier than the sword - if it were, then there would arguably be no wars - but there are those who are determined to use their ability to shape words and drive intelligent communication between people to protest against this deliberate numbing of the electorate. Affiliations of writers for peace have been springing up all over the place, including Wales, with the help of the internet and e-mail communication. All have been concerned to frame an engaged protest which will cut through the swathes of showbizzy reporting which permeated our daily lives when the 'conflict' was at its height. Most memorably, perhaps, Andrew Motion sent a protest poem to one of the broadsheets which was published on the front page, resulting in calls from certain quarters for his resignation as Poet Laureate.

The difficulty with not having a broadsheet media in Wales is that it's almost impossible to track these kind of debates and engaged protests here because there is simply very little space in which they can happen in the first place. Would The Guardian - or The Western Mail, come to that - have published a front-page protest poem by Menna Elfyn or Robert Minhinnick? I doubt it.

Wondering how Wales's writers have responded to war in the past, I dug out old copies of Keidrych Rhys's Anglo-Welsh literary magazine, Wales, which ran from the late 1930s to the late 1940s (with the odd gap from time to time, usually due to straitened financial circumstances). Throughout the Second World War, Keidrych Rhys frequently lambasted the government for spending millions of pounds on war when ordinary citizens were living in poverty at home. Even by late 1944, he was still concerned to debate the issue, this time with an eye to the reconstruction of Europe following the war. In the Autumn issue of Wales that year, for example, he drew his readers' attention to a recent essay by T.S. Eliot, 'The Responsibility of the Man of Letters in the Cultural Restoration of Europe', published in the August issue of The Norseman. Rhys quotes at length from Eliot's essay, praising his 'sympathetic' attitude towards minority cultures such as Wales and Catalonia.

T.S. Eliot was more than sympathetic: he was actively interested in Anglo-Welsh writers of the period. Through Faber & Faber he was about to publish a first collection of poems by Keidrych Rhys's wife, that tragically unsung poet Lynette Roberts. In the Autumn '44 issue of Wales, just a few pages after Rhys's editorial piece on Eliot's essay, there are four new poems by Lynette Roberts, followed by black-and-white prints of two paintings by her in a naïve style not dissimilar to that of her contemporaries Cedric Morris (see page 13 of this issue of New Welsh Review) and Margiad Evans. None of these four poems offered direct literary enagements with war on a par with God with Stainless Ears, her second collection of poems which was published by Faber in 1951. This later collection is an epic, ambitious and difficult work, which has yet to receive serious and widespread attention from literary critics in a Welsh context (let alone an international framework). Even in this series of four poems, however, there are hints of Roberts's allegorical engagement with cultural conflicts and of the nihilism which would pervade her later work.

In 'Fifth of the Strata', for example, she imagines the sea rising up to surround 'The Dragon's Sacred Fort', leaving 'nothing of Wales/But white island shining/The crest of Snowdon/Glittering with dark wintry-ice.' She tells her readers to 'Find no woe in this', because the waters will engulf England completely, leaving it - in a portentous mutation of the Welsh myth of Cantre'r Gwaelod - 'Lying below us/A submerged village'. The poem culminates in a dystopian vision of a liberated future for Wales which will never come to pass: 'And this shall be always,/As it is never.'

All the same, fascinating though it is rifling through the archives, I'm only too aware that an ephemeral cultural magazine like Wales can offer no more than a small fingerprint of a culture in a given place at a given time. In its gossipy particularity, its necessarily hasty and occasionally random collation of articles, stories and poems, Wales cannot even begin to recount the grand narrative of Welsh Writing in English in the twentieth century.

I started thinking about all because of the war, and because of the power of literature to influence hearts and minds. Looking at the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year shortlist for this year, I can't help wondering, where are the serious critical books which might give us a sense of the bigger picture? They seem to have taken a back seat in the competition in the last couple of years, and this, I think, is a mistake. Gerwyn Williams's Tir Neb, a conceptually brilliant book about Welsh-language literature and the First World War (if a little light on critical analysis in places), won the Welsh-language award in 1997, and it's time for an equally ambitious monograph about writers of the Anglo-Welsh period and armed conflict to be written. The material is certainly there, and it is the retrospective consideration of historically, geographically and culturally specific events such as war which, to my mind, can give rise to the best criticism, interrupting as they do more artificially 'constructed' and generalized theoretical approaches to literature. (Daniel Williams's introduction to a review by Dylan Thomas of Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952; see pages 5 to 12 of this issue) eloquently suggests ways in which Welsh Writing in English might be interpreted in broader international and post-colonial frameworks, without losing sight of the specifity of its point of origin.)

The ACW shortlist in English boasts a richly disparate range of literary titles this year: an autobiography, a collection of short stories and a collection of poems, each of which self-consciously tests the elasticity of genre and the muscularity of language, and the shortlist would certainly be poorer without any one of them. Is it time, then, to establish an entirely separate competition which will focus attention on and broaden the market for critical books? Welsh Writing in English is still a 'young' field of study which needs all the help it can get: anything which brings critical work to as broad an audience as possible can only be a good thing. And if it releases a poet like Lynette Roberts from the shadowy recesses of the library stacks to which posterity seems to have consigned her, then that would be a bonus.


previous editorial: How Black is Noir?
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