Brittle With Relics’ author Richard King’s chronicling of Welsh oral history has been 10 years in the making. Luckily, he tells Adam England, it’s all been worth it.
“I tend not to dwell on things like that, but I’ve been told the reception has been very good,” Richard King tells me. I’m asking about his new book, Brittle With Relics: A History Of Wales, 1962-97. An oral history of Wales across 35 fundamental years, who better to write it than King?
“My mother’s family was completely Welsh-speaking, from Garnant in the Amman Valley, and my father’s family was from Chepstow,” he tells me. Born in Newport himself, King has lived in mid-Wales for 22 years. When looking at King’s earlier books – How Soon Is Now?, Original Rockers, The Lark Ascending – there’s a distinct musical feel. So Brittle With Relics is something of a departure, I wager.
“I don’t think it’s that different,” says King; “The Lark Ascending was mainly a history of the landscape – I don’t think it really counts as a music book. And Original Rockers was, in many ways, the history of Bristol during a certain era.
“I wanted to write a history of Wales for about 15 years, and it was actually commissioned 10 years ago. There was no kind of eureka moment where I said ‘Right, now we’re going to do a handbrake turn in history.”
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Welsh history has long been an interest of King’s, who explains that he’s always been curious about what he calls a lack of unitary Welsh identity and sense of Welsh history: “On my mother’s side, their interpretation of what being Welsh was was largely to do with the language, and it had so little in common with that of my father’s.”
He explains that between 1962 and 1997, he wanted to find out what a teenager in one area of Wales would have had in common with a teenager in another, for example. “Could there ever be one Welsh identity?”, he asks.
In the book, King finishes by looking at the 1997 Welsh devolution referendum, something he said he knew he wanted to do. “I wanted to demonstrate just how precious devolution was because the margin was so small – I wanted to demonstrate what we had to go through to achieve it.”
He asks why certain regions – ones you might not instinctively expect to – voted for devolution. “What does that tell you about that kind of area?
“Partly, they’re voting for change because they’ve been absolutely hammered by the policies of Westminster, that set its course on deindustrialisation,” he says. “But similarly, there’s a residual sense of identity in those communities that stems from the municipal ethos of trade unionism.
“There’s a sort of sense of cohesion in those places that I think people drew a great deal of self-confidence from – the kind of confidence that would allow you to vote in favour of devolution.”
Of course, there’s plenty of Welsh history to discuss pre-1962 and post-1997. Is King the man for the job?
“I’m working on something about post-97,” he reveals. “I’m working with several institutions about how we assess and mark devolution. I think it’s generally agreed that the pandemic convinced quite a few people – pre-pandemic levels of support for devolution weren’t spectacular, but I think it’s a bit of an inflection point in our relationship with devolved government.”
But that’s in the future – it’s not been long at all since Brittle With Relics came out, and as King says, it’s been pretty well-received. He tells me a story of his son’s primary school teacher asking if he could use the book to teach the class about Capel Celyn, “and within a week, they’d made a mural of Cofiwch Dryweryn – so that was beyond my wildest dreams,”, he says.
“The other really pleasant thing is that people often come up to me after events and say ‘I’m buying two copies. One for myself and one for my mother or father.’ That means a great deal.”
Brittle With Relics: A History Of Wales, 1962-97, Richard King (Faber)
Price: £25. Info: here
Richard King will be appearing at the Green Man Festival, Brecon Beacons, Fri 19-Sun 21 Aug (exact date TBC); Art Shop & Chapel, Abergavenny, Wed 7 Sept; Le Public Space, Newport, Thurs 22 Sept
words ADAM ENGLAND
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