When historians speak of an alternative culture in Wales, it’s often in the context of the South Wales Valleys and the rich seam of radicalism that runs through the history of places such as Bedlinog, Maerdy, Abertillery, and the Dulais and Gwendraeth valleys. But what of a Welsh counter-culture? How far did the Welsh engage with facets of urban alternativism such as squatting, communally run cafes and advice centres, drugs, and music? Today’s blog takes a side-ways look at Wales in the 1960s and 1970s and wonders again whether the prevailing image of linguistic and industrial conflict might yet mask an underground scene all of our own and one that might prove instructive as the Welsh seek to construct a new Wales.
Back in the 1960s, those who took the radical step of joining Plaid Cymru in places such as Hopkinstown or Treorchy or Dowlais or Penygraig found themselves in an unusual position. In many ways they shared the socialist ideals of those who voted Labour, they believed in the radical social transformations undertaken by Harold Wilsons’s government, and they held firm to the notion that Wales was and would forever be a left-of-centre nation. As a remarkably young party in the coalfield – by which I mean its membership had a lot of teenagers and twenty-somethings – Plaid thought about politics in a different way. It saw politics not just about committee meetings, canvassing, and council activity, but about culture and modes of regard too. To that end, branches organised music festivals featuring well-known Welsh language artists such as Dafydd Iwan and Y Triban seeking to raise awareness of the language and political issues affecting Wales that were otherwise neglected.
One such festival, probably the first of its kind in the central part of the coalfield, was held at the Regent bingo hall in Hopkinstown, Pontypridd in April 1969. The headline acts were Dafydd Iwan, Y Diliau, and local band Y Triban (two of them were actually from Ynysybwl!). The latter had released their eponymous EP the year before and gained some prominence with their track paid a dodi dadi ar y dôl (don’t put daddy on the dole). Y Diliau (the honeycombs) were at the forefront of Welsh female folk-pop music. One of the few songs that has surfaced onto the internet is their Welsh-language interpretation of Scarborough Fair – Ffair Ynys Hir. Dafydd Iwan needs little introduction in this context, save to say that at this point he was especially prominent in Welsh language circles as president of Cymdeithas yr Iaith. 1969 also saw the launch of SAIN records in Cardiff, a major step forward in the development of domestic Welsh language music. All of these acts were united in this period by folk-rock, and here we see the influence of American counter-culture on alternative cultural patterns in the UK. Much of Iwan’s early material involved translating American folk music (of the kind written and collected by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger) into Welsh. Guthrie’s famous ballad, This Land is Your Land becoming Mae’n Wlad i Mi – it is now a staple of this genre. The American influences remain evident in the ‘country’ styling that is present in much of Iwan’s subsequent writing.
Music is, of course, a well-known avenue through which to explore Welsh counter-culture and the role of Welsh-language music in projecting an alternative Wales has long been understood. But this should not blind us to its significance, or to the changing nature of that music. In the 1990s bands such as Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci translated wider musical trends into Welsh forms. And in recent times bands such as Swnami and Yr Ods give the hipsters and indie rockers of Pontcanna, Pontlottyn, and Pwllheli something to bop along to. Welsh-language counter-culture is not the static environment that its detractors would have us believe. For every rendition of Yma o Hyd there’s something that speaks to new generations as they emerge.
Although it certainly does not look like it now, with its large imposing job centre and jewellers shops, Charles Street in Cardiff was once the heart of Welsh counter-culture in the capital city. In December 1970, the RIB information bureau opened at 58 Charles Street. Featuring a commune-coffee shop, racks of alternative magazines such as Oz and Sometimes (produced in Bethesda in North Wales and described as ‘defiantly hippy in content’), newspapers, information literature, and its own what’s on newsletter, the bureau was a one stop shop for anyone wanting to get in touch with the alternative scene. It was also the headquarters of the city’s branch of the Gay Liberation Front. In short, the bureau was a sign of a new Wales, the Wales that we’ve partly inherited today.
Amongst the magazines and newspapers available at the RIB was the International Times (or iT), which serves as an enormously useful window onto the world of Welsh counter-culture in the late-1960s and 1970s. How else, for instance, might we know about recitals of live electronic music held at the Department of Extra Mural Studies in Swansea in 1968? Or of the city’s wholefoods shop and the collective that ran it? Or of squatting in Nant Gwythern? Or, indeed, of the special fayres held at Devil’s Bridge near Aberystwyth where you could buy a whole range of magic mushrooms? Likewise in the late-1960s and early 1970s, the iT was one of the few feasible ways for young gay men to reach out to others through placing personal ads – you certainly couldn’t place such an advert in the Western Mail or the Cambrian News. One such ad, placed in 1969, is fairly typical. ‘Cardiff Area: Young man (22) would like to meet good-looking males of the same age’. Others are less so: ‘mature gentleman South Wales area seeks other males interested in discipline, corporal punishment’.
The most successful aspect of early 1970s Welsh counter-culture was in the arts. Inspired by the Arts Lab, founded in London 1967, the Arts Lab movement was successful in spreading its message and idealism to other parts of the country. By 1970 the movement claimed as many as 150 labs in all parts of the UK. Jim Haynes, who founded the original lab in London described an arts lab as ‘an “energy centre” where anything can happen depending upon the needs of the people running each individual lab and the characteristics of the building’. By 1970 there were three such labs: one in Bangor, one based in Howard Gardens in Cardiff where students from Cardiff College of Art engaged in experimental theatre and graphics design, and another based in an old church hall in Caerphilly where students from Newport College of Art did ‘things like experimental films’. Towards the end of the decade this spirit of co-operative and communal engagement also gave rise to two musicians’ co-ops, one pursuing jazz and the other more experimental forms of rock music.
Cardiff benefitted from the active involvement of the Welsh Arts Council, which landed in Charles Street in the mid-1970s and opened a bookshop, gallery, and performance space at number 53. This was the famous Oriel. Before that though, it had sponsored a dial-a-poem service which provided both English and Welsh-language poetry at the end of a telephone line. This came towards the end of a remarkable period of weekly poetry gatherings at various pubs around the city, including the Blue Anchor in St Mary’s St and the Marchioness of Bute Hotel, where poets such as Peter Finch would read their latest work. These were published in a number of broadsheets known as No Walls.
In other words, there are no barriers to the construction of a flourishing, arts driven, bilingual counter-culture in Wales. This is wholly possible today. It’s not as though there was a great deal of money around in the early 1970s either. But one aspect which I’ve little touched upon here but which is important: politics. The politics of Wales’s earlier counter-cultural forms were barely hidden. When the establishment ignored the poetry of the No Walls and Second Aeon collectives, the poets shrugged their shoulders and carried on regardless (albeit with the financial support of the Welsh Arts Council). The musicians who played folk-rock in Welsh to audiences in Pontypridd that couldn’t understand the lyrics didn’t worry too much about that, they played anyway. A phrase in particular use at the time was Cymru Rydd meaning Free Wales. This has a variety of outcomes, one of which is a separation of Welsh modes of regard from dominant cultural forms elsewhere and making something distinctively Welsh. For a moment that happened in the late-1960s and early 1970s: when Wales threatened to become a hipster nation.