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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, June 24, 2003
    Praising people's historians
     
    It started on holiday. In his brilliant book Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, Neal Ascherson made mention of Gwyn Alf Williams, celebrated Welsh historian, author of When was Wales?, head history prof in my Cardiff Uni days.

    It brought him back to me - the man Ascherson calls a "fiercely serious historian", who spat and stammered his way through the most engaging TV history series I've ever witnessed, HTV's The Dragon Has Two Tongues, in which he battled with the romantic visions of Wynford Vaughan Thomas, striving to locate "my people and no mean people" in a far-from-singular Wales, Wales and Welshness being "living and constantly changing things." These people, Williams wrote, "who have for a millennium and a half lived in [these two western peninsulas of Britain] as a Welsh people, are now nothing but a naked people under an acid rain." Ascherson observes that Gwyn Alf attempted to "open up quarries of the past which could serve to build a future". So he did. And with great passion.

    Ascherson's mention made me want to re-read Gwyn Alf's seminal book, and made me also remember and give thanks for an equally committed historian, Williams' colleague then and my teacher, Dai Smith, now Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Regeneration) at the University of Glamorgan. Dai's Welsh History was a people's history, he took us (literally) into the valleys and coalfields of the ordinary men and women who shaped modern Wales, to engage with that shaping and their present plight.

    In the mid-80s, myself an object of Thatcher's vicious social re-engineering, sitting in Cardiff pubs hearing Smith's clearly-stated and committed Marxist analyses was light and life for me. Cardiff was a cauldron in which I learned to think politically and apply it back home. I guess that's why I'm still a keen reader of anything that comes out of Wales along those lines. It's why I was especially drawn to an article by Dai Smith in New Welsh Review, 59, Spring 2003, in which he weaves the story of another great historian into the stories of those already mentioned here, and the story of Wales itself. He pays tribute to Eric Hobsbawm, not least for the values at his core, which I feel Smith and Williams also share (and which causes me to value them so highly): "an unrelenting hatred of anything that diminishes or disparages the ordinariness of humanity. ... This, I believe, is his true moral distinction amidst all the turbulence of passing political debate and mistaken loyalties:
      Governments, the economy, schools, everything in society, is not for the benefit of the privileged minorities. We can look after ourselves... it is for the people who, throughout history, have entered history outside their neighbourhoods, as individuals only in the records of their births, marriages and deaths. Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities."