Russell Davies is not in the habit of writing short books. His earlier volume in what is set to be a three volume social history of modern Wales, Hope and Heartbreak: A Social History of Wales, 1776-1871 (Cardiff, 2005), came in at over 300 pages, and the present text is closer to five hundred. But length does not always make for a coherent text: it is almost as if Davies, in an effort to justify his opening lament that ‘historians, especially those working on the earliest historical periods, often bemoan their lack of sources’ (xiii), has sought to overload the reader with the flotsam and jetsam of the modern past. It is ironic that Davies sets off with this observation since a cursory examination of his own sources reveals an over-use of secondary material and a genuine absence of primary research beyond a handful of local, regional, and British newspapers, and some engagement with the Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics. Compared with the thorough, original grounding in the primary sources of his earliest, and best, work Secret Sins (1996), the present book proves a disappointment from that opening sentence.
But what is Davies’s purpose? It is, in one sense, to examine Welsh history from above and below, from the centre and the margins, and from the local and the national perspective. ‘Though Wales is treated as an [sic] unity’, he writes, ‘this study […] tries to be sensitive to regional variations and to reveal the complexities of circumstances and context’ (xxi). An admirable aim, but how far is it carried through? A good indication lies in chapter one, which ranges across steel, copper, coal, and agriculture (although not slate – Lord Penrhyn appears in the index, but not the workers who gave him such a headache). The chapter begins with a traditional retelling of the population boom and bust that marked Wales – and most especially South Wales – from the 1870s to the outbreak of the Second World War. We are treated to the statistics that we might expect to see: the Rhondda’s explosion, and depopulation of rural counties. We are told also that Wales was a land of immigration – but only immigrants from abroad (from Ireland or Italy) are discussed, rather than the largest bloc of migrants to Wales, those who came from Somerset, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and beyond. What did it mean to be born in Barbados, Australia, Gibraltar, or a myriad of European countries, and living and working in the coalfield? Such a question is not asked, the data is presented and we move on to that other typical complaint about Anglicisation of the southern counties. A conservative portrait of the impact of industrialisation, to be sure!
And the chapter proceeds along these lines: statistics beget trite observations about devastating depressions and change and an ineffectual portrait of wartime efforts to control food supplies. There is nothing here about milk strikes or protests about racketeering, or indeed about the place of the Co-operative society, the kinds of action that ordinary people were involved in in order to ensure that they were not exploited by greed. Rather, it is D.A. Thomas who is presented as the saviour (p. 34). Perhaps: but there’s rather more to the story than that. Steel and copper, for a long time the violas to a full section of violinists writing about coal, are welcome additions to this chapter but Davies has been caught out by the range of research now being conducted on the two industries in the Welsh context. As to his discussion of the coal industry, the less said the better. Statistics and clichés: ‘the statistics for Glamorgan’s coal industry are astounding’ (p. 47) and ‘the two valleys of the Rhondda […] saw the most intense activity’ (p. 48) and ‘In 1910 […] the long strike which affected the Cambrian Combine, [resulted] in rioting in Tonypandy’ (p.50). Yes, together with 11 months of a lockout, soup kitchens, occupation by the army and Metropolitan Police, and the Miners’ Next Step. But then, Davies fails to mention, even in passing, the establishment of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in the aftermath of the 1898 defeat.
Davies is on stronger ground when engaging with the fruits of his earlier research into sexuality, although there is a curious lack of discussion of sex which is not heterosexual. Brothels were not the only place where sex could be bought or enjoyed in a moment of danger and desire: toilets, parks, swimming baths, and alleyways, these were the sites of homosexual interaction. Observed by the police, written up in the press by ‘disgusted’ court journalists, the evidence of the other margins of Victorian and Edwardian street life is there and easily found. If, of course, you go looking for it. The same is undoubtedly true of drugs, which are also a curious absentee given how many scandals occurred in Cardiff, and how many of the city’s Chinese population were arrested on drugs charges (the evidence is in the city’s police records held at the Glamorgan Archives). Perhaps such insights will appear in the second volume – the contents for which are curiously appended as part of the ‘brief conclusion’ (pp.364-6). Perhaps! Perhaps?
This is, then, a rather weak and ineffective book best suited to readers who may not be aware of John Davies, Geraint H. Jenkins, or Gwyn Alf Williams, or who have read those better works and are in search of something to pass the time on a rainy October afternoon in Pontypridd. Despite being an admirable attempt at taking Welsh history off the beaten track, the reality is that the collective of Welsh historians – many of whom are not cited in this book – are already far along it. Statistics and clichés do not make for good history, even of Wales, and without necessary contextualisation and a guiding argument that is all that we are left with. After ‘pain and pleasure’, we await the second volume with a weary sigh and the inevitable downpour.
Since this review was published in Morgannwg (volume 59, 2015), I’ve had chance to read a few other reviews of Russell Davies’s book. The most recent of these, by Martin Johnes, my PhD supervisor, encouraged me to look again at the book. But it did not prompt a change of mind. Johnes’s enthusiasm for Davies’s history, which he suggests is usefully not ‘crammed into explanatory boxes’, seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous since, as Gwyn Alf Williams once put it, history is an enquiry about the past. Without the boxes, the explanations, the material detritus of questioning, what exactly is history? Why do we bother? There is, from my point of view, nothing valuable about this kind of exercise. It is a lot of stuff between some nicely put together covers. Now, it’s never fun to write negative reviews but in truth Welsh historiography is still developing and I really don’t think there’s really room for this kind of fluffy exercise in gathering together flotsam and jetsam. Especially not from the University Press.