Daniel G. Williams, Wales Unchained: Literature, Politics and Identity in the American Century (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2015), PB £24.99

Seven years ago, just as I was starting my PhD at Swansea University, I went along to my first Llafur day school. Its theme was sport and we heard papers from Carolyn Hitt, Andrew Hignell, Martin Johnes, and Daniel Williams. It was here that I first heard one of the papers contained in this book – the quite brilliant ‘Black and White: Boxing, Race and Modernity’. I recall vividly the enraptured audience as we learned – some of us for the first time – of Ralph Ellison’s exploits in Cardiff during the Second World War, of the appearance of boxing in Raymond Williams’s Border Country and, perhaps more surprisingly to some, in Caradog Prichard’s Un Nos o Leuad. And it was this paper that introduced me to the marvellous art of Ron Berry, an author whose work now features heavily in my own. As I read the chapter, my mind was drawn back over the last decade or so and I realise that it was not just a fascination with Ron Berry’s work (second only to the obsession I have with Gwyn Thomas’s writing) that began that day but that the seeds of a much grander transatlantic project were planted too.

For this book speaks to my own research interests in ways that most Welsh history, indeed most British history, does not. With my friend and mentor Colin Howell, and encouraged by colleagues in Canada, Ireland, and America, and Neil Evans who gave me my first break in this regard, I’ve been working away on a borderlands project which seeks to show how ‘peripheries’, be they Nova Scotia or Wales, can and do make their own history, they do not simply absorb it from metropolitan centres – what we call the ‘metropolitan fallacy’. In the field of sport history, this has entailed the rejection – fully and uncompromisingly – of the diffusion model that has not only dominated the field but essentially driven its very existence. In essence, modern sport (with a few exceptions like baseball) was invented in Britain and ‘diffused’ across the world through imperial power. Even written out like that, I can’t much see the logic in it: for diffusion implies a system of power relations that favour the English speaker, favour the middle classes, and favour wealth. For all that such things may well be true, from a certain point of view, there is no denying that, as Marx once wrote (with a nod to gender parity here), people make history but not necessarily in the circumstances of their own choosing.

Borderlands scholarship recognises that there are multiple forms of cultural transfer which traverse both land and oceanic borders. In positing a multidirectional understanding of cultural transference, a borderlands perspective enables us to turn traditional models of cultural development on their head: from the metropolitan to the peripheral, from top-down models that service the national narrative to bottom up understandings that shed light on ordinary people and the communities that shaped and supported them. The most significant borderland for Howell and I is the North Atlantic, which has been a site of economic exchange and capitalist enterprise, demographic mobility, and industrial and commercial development, for centuries. It is the context in which Charlie Parker and Dylan Thomas, Aneurin Bevan and Paul Robeson, and many others besides, worked, thought, and practised.

I mention this not because Daniel uses a borderlands perspective, for he does not, although I think our work and his speak much the same language. Rather, that this is a book firmly situated in a transatlantic world. This is a book set in New York as much as it is set in New Quay. The key to understanding this book, to me, at least, is a passage on the penultimate page of the book. It reads:

The true British democrat […] is one who is prepared to argue that Scotland and Wales have the same democratic and multicultural potential as England within the geographical space we call Great Britain. To develop the political autonomy of Wales and Scotland is not to reject British multiculturalism, but is to deepen multicultural citizenship.

This is a bold step forward in the debate. It has echoes in the historical writings of Gwyn Alf Williams who once wrote that ‘Wales is a thing that the Welsh produce, if they wish to’. He also reminded us that a sense of Welshness is not an essentialist thing but a choice. Underlying the perspective posited in Wales Unchained is a highly progressive vision of Wales not as a nation of purity – the Saunders Lewis notion of a solely Welsh-speaking zoo of cultural conservation – but of plurality, of the celebration of the mosaic that makes up a modern nation. Welshness that is inclusive not merely of those who speak English or Welsh, or both, but those who speak Polish, Czech, Arabic, Hebrew, and any other of the myriad languages that it’s possible to hear during certain weeks of the summer in Aberystwyth or regularly on the streets of Pontypridd, Llanelli, Cardiff, Swansea, and Newport. As Dai Smith put it once ‘Wales is a singular noun but a plural experience’ – it is ironic that his writings have now become flattened caricatures in the minds of some scholars when they are in fact very much multi-dimensional. American Wales may have, at times, spoken with one voice, but it sure as heck had different accents.

Those who have followed Daniel’s career so far will be familiar with much of what is contained in this book, but to have the essays arranged in this way brings forth the clarity and value of his position. They are a vital perspective for our times. Underneath the bonnet, as it were, lie the ideas of Raymond Williams and Dai Smith, on the one hand, and Slavoj Zizek on the other. They make for a lively and enlightening fusion: as does the bringing together of music and literature. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of Dylan Thomas and Joseph Stalin – enough to bring out a wry snigger.

I suspect that the factual data of social movements and grassroots politics will clarify the cultural sphere that Daniel concentrates on, but I don’t think such findings will override his perspective entirely. Twentieth century Wales was always multicultural. Whether it was Jewish migrants living in Newport at the beginning of the century with their cycling club, literary society, and women’s movement; or it was Irish migrants living in Bargoed and Pontypridd with their hurling club and nationalist politics; or it was Cape Verdeans living in Cardiff entertaining themselves with traditional calypso music; or it was Hungarian teenagers in the 1950s installing televisions and aerials across the Valleys. Or it is migrants from the West Midlands now living in Aberystwyth who work in the shops and offices and drive the buses. Welsh historians have been slow to recognise these facts, on the whole, and their retreat from writing that bears the hallmarks of political engagement has weakened the field. To compare Welsh history today with the works of scholars attached to the Association of Welsh Writing in England (AWWE) is, from my perspective, to despair a little. I can think of no finer compliment of this brilliant book than to say this: Welsh historians have some catching up to do.