Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Wales since 1939

I've been reading Martin Johnes's book Wales since 1939. And damn fine it is, too. Obviously it's going to be your first port of call if you have any interest at all in modern Welsh history, but it's also pretty essential if you're serious about post-War Britain.

There's a tendency - and I know I'm guilty of this - of not giving sufficient attention to Wales when looking at Britain more broadly; like Northern Ireland, it can be overlooked. So Johnes's book is welcome as a corrective to that, putting a mass of information on record about the changes wrought in the country over the last six decades.

Much of the ground is familiar as part of the UK story, but benefits enormously from having a different focus. The nationalisation of the coal industry, the advent of independent television, the entry into the EEC - it's fascinating and illuminating to see these developments from an angle too often neglected.

I was particularly fond of the chapter 'Promiscuous Living', on the social changes of the 1950s and '60s. Ignoring London and the handful of other English cities that always get examined, it's a joy to read about the impact of youth culture on Carmarthen and Cardigan, to hear Deke Leonard talking about his early days playing rock and roll, and to learn about an Aberystwyth group called Y Blew playing at the National Eisteddford in 1967 and calling for more groups 'prepared to twist and shout in Welsh'.

Perceptions of Wales changed in the 1990s, with the Cool Cymru moment and with the arrival of devolution - which is why I started reading this book, before getting sidetracked well beyond my immediate concerns - but Johnes is determined not to get carried away by an emerging sense of Welsh nationhood. His close analysis of statistics relating to, say, the revival of the Welsh language suggests a process still in its early days, while he's keen to draw attention to the fragility of the economic recovery during the long boom of 1994-2008: 'Wales did get wealthier; it was just that England got even wealthier even quicker'.

It's a terrific piece of political and social history, epic in its scope, fascinating in its detail, and splendidly readable.

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