The Rings of Saturn accompanied me when, just a few years ago, I travelled to South Wales to visit the homes of my ancestors revealed by family research. I started my cycle journey to Pembrokeshire in Penarth, the pendant to Cardiff beyond the Taff, where I grew up. That day was hot spring, and I pedalled slowly about the once-familiar streets indulging in bitter-sweet nostalgia for a youth that had departed nearly fifty years ago. In the little centre, the names on the shops had changed, and too many had taken on the tattiness that follows charity. But turning a corner, I had the feeling that I might look up and find a gaggle of old acquaintances come laughing by. They would not recognise me, this grey-haired man in late middle-age, but they themselves would be unchanged, because they were in my memory as if cryogenically preserved. The streets were full of ghosts of those not yet dead.
But in the midday midweek sunshine, the suburban avenues were quiet and resting in the light of a hyper-reality, one that is brought about by a sheen of memory and association and departed love. Despite the new building on the playing fields behind, the trees before the old grammar school still shade the pavement, the exotic palms in the sea-front gardens prickle the air, and the brambles and elder hang over the old railway cuttings though the trains were long ago cancelled. The swings still wait for the children to pour out of Albert Road Primary. Here among the tidy gardens and the tennis courts and the leafy church yard was a safe place to grow up, if we had known it.
Westbourne Road does indeed take you west, down and out from the hilltop town. It starts in 1880 in big Victorian villas and after a mile and a bit ends in 1960 with white bungalows, a happy traverse of suburban architectural history. Number 158, a few doors and drives before the home in which my family lived, is a detached house of mournful pebble-dash, that in the past as I recall, was hidden behind an untidy shrubbery. It has recently had a blue plaque added beside its front door, which commemorates the occupation of the house by the founder of Plaid Cymru. The plaque reads (and I include the Welsh out of respect for the man's preoccupations):
J.Saunders Lewis. Llenor, gweledydd a gwebidydd, am a sylfaenwyr Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru. Bu'n byw
yn y ty bwn (Bryn-y-Mor) rhwng 1952 a 1985. Writer, visionary and statesman, a founder of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, lived in this house (Bryn-y-Mor) from 1952 to 1985.
Lewis was born in 1893, the son of a Welsh Calvinist Methodist minister, in a Welsh speaking household, but in Wallesey, and he read English at University in Liverpool. After the disruption of World War One he spent his life as an academic and Welsh language journalist, who also produced plays and novels in the language, to some acclaim. I am not able to judge their worth, but in 1970 he was nominated for a Nobel prize on the strength of them. With two others he founded Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, in 1925, but his notoriety derives from taking a leading part in an arson attack on an RAF bombing school in the Lleyn Peninsula in 1936, for which he spent nine months in Wormwood Scrubs - and of course lost his academic post. He was unable to return to academic life until 1952. In old age he was reconciled to the establishment with the award of an honorary doctorate. In the First World War he had served on the Western Front front from September 1914 until virtually the war's end. There can be no doubting that he was a man of courage and principle. He deserves much credit for his work in rehabilitating the Welsh language in Wales. The world is richer for it. But for Westbourne Road, it was the act of arson that defined him, even though that was in the ever more distant years before the great hiatus of another World War. This was after all the early sixties. In the anglophone area of Wales, of which faux-genteel Penarth was the epitome, Plaid was still a Welsh language fantasy that would never bear fruit. Such at least is my recollection. And for Saunders Lewis the deracinated Welsh,(that is, most of his neighbours and townsmen) were, he wrote, the flotsam and wreckage of men.
My innocence of recollection is in despite of his appearance. As he aged photographs indicate he took on the aspect of an Old Testament prophet raging against Babylon. It strikes me he shared this and other qualities with that other angry Welshman of a slightly later generation, R.S.Thomas. Similarly conflicted and barely reconciled to the twentieth century or to having the English as neighbours, Thomas was obliged to produce his magnificent poetry in English (he only learned Welsh at thirty), married an Englishwoman, and sent his son to an English public school. In such anger at the world one senses commonly an anger at the self.
Thomas of course was an Anglican priest, and his poetry is frequently metaphysical work in which he wrestles with God, as only those can for whom God matters. Lewis was a Catholic convert, part of that generation which in the thirties seemed compelled to choose between Rome and Moscow. Sadly, this appears to have been part of a world view, common to many of his kind, that put hierarchy above democracy, and culture above humanity. One might guess that there were qualities that he brought into his Catholicism from his Calvinist background. But the product was a cold discrimination, so that he could infamously refer to unemployed miners as the halfpenny demos, and complain of the Hebrew nostrils of Wall Street financiers. He appears to have adopted as his influence the French fascist writer Maurice Barres, who wrote : the country is our soil and our ancestors: it is the land of our dead. This is the siren call of arid nationalism, the near-enemy of cultural pride. And it is in such words that you find the roots of the Holocaust, the Armenian slaughters. the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, and all the other eternal and interminable massacres of difference down the ages. Thus Barres went on to add that for the Jews their country... is the place where they find their greatest profit.
In writing which is collected in the volume Campo Santo, W.G. Sebald writes of his puzzlement at the story of the Gadarene swine told by St Mark. You will recall that Jesus casts out from a madman the legion of foul spirits that possess him, causing them to enter a herd of pigs who duly run to their deaths in the sea. For Sebald the story can only be a parable of human reasoning which diseased as it is, needs to seize on some other kind that it takes to be inferior and thus deserving of annihilation.
In his encomium on the unveiling of the plaque I have referred to, the past President of Plaid Cymru, Dafydd Wigley, claimed that Saunders Lewis had no doubt about the place of Wales as a historical and modern European nation. Bearing in mind Plaid's view of the importance to Wales of the European Union, this seems a form of special pleading, albeit one that appeals to my prejudices. But in fact, the Europe Saunders Lewis may have wanted, authoritarian, Catholic, agrarian too, is not the Europe that I have in mind, nor I think, is it one that modern Plaid would likely endorse. The weight of history and culture bore down on Saunders Lewis to make him conservative, fearful.
In setting down the above I have come to a very belated remembrance of the early section of Sebald's very last novel, Austerlitz. There is a juxtaposition here which the writer himself would have relished, for that section describes the upbringing of a Jewish refugee of the Kindertransports by a Calvinist Methodist minister in Bala. It is a strange place to start a book that ranges so widely across Europe and its recent history, and I can only guess that Sebald saw in the emotional and physical chill that he conjures a paradigm for the blight on the hopes of mankind. But Sebald is too good a writer to stigmatise a whole nation. The child's upbringing is leavened with his contact with the ghosts of an older Wales, and the sunlight on the Mawddach estuary.
It is one of the achievements of W.G.Sebald that he can make readers see beyond the outworn tenets of nationalism, and indeed, to feel that they share in a rich culture that, through all the cataclysms of war and genocide, crosses boundaries and in its melancholy humanity grasps something universal.
I do not know how much time Sebald spent in Wales, but long enough to capture in the manner of a cubist painting some truth of it by passing glances. He died in a car accident in 2001. He was fifty-seven.