All four of my great-grandparents on my father’s side were Welsh-speaking. Two of them spoke little English, and were part of the iron-smelting and steel-making communities in Dowlais. My grandfather, John Stanley Humphreys, who would have been raised in a Welsh-speaking family, though he never learnt it properly, joined the army and fought in the Somme, from where he was invalided out in 1916 and then became a primary school teacher and musician of sorts. He grew up in a culture where Welsh as a language was despised, the people who spoke it regarded as backward looking and who believed that if you wanted to “get on”, you needed to function only in English. This was nearly 40 years after the 1888 Education Act that allowed instruction in Welsh in Welsh-speaking areas, following nearly 100 years of anti-Welsh language sentiment and practice in Welsh schools – the principal effect of which was to root Welsh medium instruction for thousands of children in the churches. At the time my grandfather was teaching, it was a form of cultural pressure, generated mainly from the aspirant middle classes and from those in education who felt that thorough instruction in English, rather than a bilingual education, was best for children. It is laughable now, to see the struggles we have to get the white British population to learn another language, that we denied children a chance to be be bilingual.
People who get annoyed by the fact that Welsh is resurgent in government and public corporations like the BBC in Wales need to remember this recent history, and get used to the redress in balance that it represents. It is not (just) rampant nationalism, the Eisteddfodau or some sort of bloodymindedness that keeps Welsh alive, but something of a worldview that refuses to accept an Anglocentric, market-forces-driven way of looking at things as the only one. It is no surprise that the principal statement of Welsh Nationalist economic policy (1949, Towards an Economic Democracy by DJ Davies) was towards cooperative economic practices, rooted in localism and self-sufficiency, away from dependence on coal and steel, rejecting oppressive capitalism and state-driven socialism in equal measure. Wendell Berry would have heartily approved.
Anyway, back to John Stanley Humphreys. Last Saturday, we visited the church in Llanhamlach where he was organist. As someone who was both the head of a primary school and a church organist, there is much he and I have in common. Indeed, when I had just a moustache and was thinner, we looked a lot alike. He is the guy standing top left in the picture, looking magisterial, and having very different responsibilities to the ones I now carry. He died shortly after this photograph was taken, in 1937, and the family moved south to Pontarddulais and then to Swansea, where they bought the house my aunt still lives in, in the Uplands. Before the family left Llanhamlach, this same aunt, then aged no more than 10, I suppose, allegedly sunk her teeth into one of the pews in the church – and despite the good upkeep of the small sanctuary, her teethmarks can be seen to this day. Or so I am told…
I regret not knowing or visiting Llanhamlach more. Part of the “get up and get out” philosophy that drove thousands of Welsh people to England “for their betterment” or to the south of the country for the mines and mills was a planned industrial dictatorship that denuded the land of people and contributed to the conditions that gave rise to the General Strike in 1926 (industrial capitalism always having the problem that the people involved with it – the wage-slaves – will eventually find the compartmentalization of their lives and the destruction of their communities too much to bear). Nowadays, the A40 (dual carriageway) roars through Llanhamlach and the schoolhouse is a private home hard up against the eastbound carriageway. The community as such hardly exists, though the church still has services once every three weeks or so, and the land is farmed for pasture.
Somehow this is a part of me, of my heritage, and yet, with my dad having travelled the world, invaded France, served in India and Hong Kong and Germany, and me having left and lived for years in southern Africa, it doesn’t seem like it. Leaving home is one thing. Staying away and losing touch with your “home place”, or constantly being on the move as we tend to be nowadays, has serious disadvantages, mainly felt in the inner world of our own self and sense of belonging. It isn’t just the gap between my grandfather and I that I feel, but the lack of meaning that my forebears have to me. I do not know their stories, nor, to my shame, have I really thought to tell my children the stories of those family that I do know of.