THE MATTER OF WALES is not a travel book. It is a dense, poetic, richly textured account of a land and a culture, passionate and extravagant in both location and spirit, almost hymn-like. Jan Morris gives emphasis to the memory of Wales as a culture separate from that of England, a culture steeped in its own history and traditions, and one that depends for its continuing existence on the survival of its language.
Wales is not a divided country in the way that Ireland is divided, but it does have two essentially different populations, and two separate identities. There are the Welsh and there are the Anglo-Welsh, the latter group consisting not only of those of English origin, but those of Irish and continental European origin, who have English as their first language; few of these have even a smattering of the Welsh language. Many of the former group may have English as their first language.
The separate identities go with the division: the ancestry of the truly indigenous Welsh goes back thousands of years; the Anglo-Welsh came in force with the Industrial Revolution and continued to come through World War II, when a great many Polish and Italian refugees settled in the urban areas of South Wales. There is ancient Wales, and there is industrialized, urban Wales. Jan Morris, who is herself half-Welsh, gives emphasis to the former, seeing it, ever-present, in the land, in the stones of ruined castles, in the customs that continue, and in the spirit that refuses to be extinguished.
The emphasis of Jan Morris' text is reflected very clearly in the book's illustrations. There are 13 black and white photographs in the book, all of them stark, unpopulated, mythic; they show mountains, sky, sea, rock, tree, and river. They are not so much photographs of places as they are evocations of a geographical condition connected to a national spirit. They tend to substantiate the most romantic view of Wales as a country of the fabulous, the magical, full of Celtic mystery. There is no sign here of the largest steel plant in all of Europe, which is at Margam in the county of Glamorgan on the South coast; or of the bustling, cosmopolitan milieu of Cardiff's Tiger Bay. There is no sign of the contemporary version of this view of Swansea in the 1960s given by Morris:
"Everything was dead along that shore. All the grass was blistered off, all the water was fouled, not a tree lived, not a flower blossomed. A pall of vapour lay low over the valley: no birds flew through it, only the chimneys contributed their filth, and the flicker of the furnaces was reflected eerily in its clouds. J.M. Neale the ecclesiologist said he could imagine no scene on earth more nearly resembling hell: George Borrow, walking his way up the valley to Castell Nedd, Neath, thought it all a fit subject for Hieronymous Bosch."
INDUSTRIAL SOUTH WALES is no longer that dismal, or quite that dramatic, but it is there that Swansea, "the America of Europe," is located, a city rebuilt from the ruins of the German blitz. Yet there is no need to object to Morris' insistence on attending to the more ancient and traditional aspects of the culture, or to her reverence for it. She is not at home in modern Wales. She cannot even name correctly one of the great, modern, Welsh heroes: Tommy Farr, the heavyweight boxer who went 15 rounds with Joe Louis on August 30, 1937. Morris is more at home with Owen Glendower, the country's legendry rebel leader, who defied the English during the first decade of the 15th century, and who, according to The Mabinogion, the great book of Welsh folklore, lay with his feet on the shores of West Wales and with hs hands hooked onto the East coast of Ireland, so that his army could walk across the Irish sea on his back. I suppose that does beat going 15 rounds with Joe Louis.
The Matter of Wales is subtitled, appropriately, "Epic Views of a Small Country." Morris' approach to characterizing a country that is a mere 8,000 square miles, and by far the least known country in Britain, is to trawl up from the recent and the distant past the full weight of Welsh culture: its religion, its poetry, its social systems, its legends, its heroes, and, with all of that, the nature of its heritage. She does so with great clarity, the kind of clarity that is increased, rather than blurred, by strong feeling. It is a book packed full of information, vividly rendered, and with no dead weight of mere facts. It makes fascinating reading, and, as a general overview of Wales and its people, can surely be seen as definitive.