Recalling a Canadian writer’s memory of distressed Wales


If one travels for any length of time, one is bound to experience an unhappy adventure or two. What turns a miserable traveling experience into one that can be looked back on with, if not fondness, than at least a smile is the ability to take something away from the experience, be it a lesson, a memory or the ability to count one’s blessings.

George Woodcock (1912-1995) was a noted Canadian writer of political biography and history, an anarchist thinker and a literary critic. He also published several volumes of travel writing. As such, he experienced his share of “bad trips.” Among those that stood out was one he took in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, while in his early 20s.

Woodcock was born in Canada but grew up in England. While he would later move back to Canada after World War II, he had an aunt who lived in the Glamorgan region in South Wales, which gave him the chance for free holidays. Apparently, he got what he paid for:

One day, when I was visiting her, I decided to take a bus and visit the Rhondda area, the heart of the South Wales mining district. Rhondda has a special place in the thoughts of those with Welsh connections, for one of the finest of all Welsh songs – stunning when the daios from the valley sing it at a rugby match – is called ‘Cwm Rhondda’  the hill of Rhondda. There are actually two valleys – Rhondda Mawr, Great Rhondda, or the main valley, and Rhondda Fach, the lesser valley of little Rhondda that branches off from it. I intended to go up Rhondda Mawr, cross over the intervening hills, and come down in Rhondda Fach, which I would descend and then make my way back to Bridgend, where I was staying.

It was the worst of times in Rhondda, though it probably looked just a little better than the best of times, since most of the mines were not working, and the smoke that would normally have given a dark, satanic aspect to the landscape was less evident that in more prosperous days. Still, it was dismal enough: a long ribbon of a main road with no real gap in the houses, so that it seemed like a single serpentine town, thickening out at each village centre like knots on a string. The houses were mostly built of gray stone long turned black from soot. In the middle distance reared up the gaunt towers and immense wheels of the pitheads and the truncated pyramids of the slag heaps. There were a few sickly trees among the houses, but the hills on each side were bare and greenish brown; spring had hardly begun.

It had the feeling of occupied territory. Many of the shops had gone out of business, the mines had slowed down years ago, and the General Strike of 1926 – disastrous for the workers – had delivered the coup de grace to the local economy. The people were shabby and resentful. Groups of ragged men squatted on their haunches, as miners do, and played pitch-and-toss with buttons; they had no halfpennies to venture. A man came strolling down the street, dejectedly whistling ‘The Red Flag’ in slow time as if it were a dirge.

Later, after being caught on the hills in a drenching downpour, Woodcock soddenly came across a slag heap where approximately 50 men and women were industriously picking over the ground.

I caught up with a man walking along the overgrown road from the mine into the village, whose damp slate roofs I could see glistening about half a mile away. He was pushing a rusty old bicycle that had no saddle and no tires, but it served to transport the dirty gunnysack he had tied onto the handle bars. He had been picking coat from the lagheap. ‘No bigger nor walnuts, man,’ he explained. The big coal had been taken years ago, so long ago it was since work had been seen in the village. I asked him how long he had been unemployed. ‘Ach y fi, man, it’s nine years I’ve been wasting and wasted.’ Yet he was friendly, perhaps because I looked such a wretched object that he saw me as an equal in misery.

(Top: View of Rhondda Valley today.)

Shining a light on anti-independence fallacies

Portrait of a boy with the flag of Wales painted on his face.

Among common canards used to thwart peaceful independence movements is the idea that the entity attempting to go its own way is too small, too poor, has too few people, etc.

These were arguments employed by those who opposed Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, and who resist sovereignty movements in Catalonia and Corsica, among other regions of the world where a segment of the population is pondering an autonomous path.

But the blog Borthlas, focusing on the idea of Welsh independence from the UK – said by some to be impossible because Wales is “too poor” – raises interesting points:

Borthlas turns to a comparison of national per-capita GDP as a means to judge a region’s muscle, admitting that this is not an exact science because per-capita GDP tells nothing about the relative cost of living in a country.

“The population of a country with a low GDP per capita and a low cost of living might actually feel better off than the people of another country where both figures are higher,” the blog explains. “It also tells us nothing about the way wealth is shared out in a country – so the population of a country with a low GDP per capita but where the wealth is evenly shared might feel better off than the people of a country with a high GDP per head and huge inequality.”

But despite those caveats, per-capita GDP is still a good starting point to assess where would Wales fit were it an independent state, Borthlas writes.

  • According to International Monetary Fund figures, Wales would place 24th in the world in per-capita GDP were it independent of the UK, out of more than 170 countries;
  • The World Bank puts Wales at 27th, ahead of more than 150 other nations; and
  • The United Nations ranks Wales 31st place, with more than 160-odd countries beneath it.

Each organization has per-capita GDP figures for a different number of countries; currently there is something like 195 recognized independent nations.

Map of Wales.

Map of Wales.

Wales fares relatively well among European Union nations, as well, ranking in the top half, according to Borthlas.

The real issue why it’s difficult for regions such as Wales, Scotland and Catalonia to gain traction when it comes to independence is multi-fold.

First, these areas are often compared economically to the countries of which they are a part. Wales and Scotland aren’t going to stack up very well against the UK as whole, but then again, neither would England proper. But if there’s a place in the world for the likes of Andorra, Belize, Equatorial Guinea and Liechtenstein, entities such as an independent Wales, Scotland and Catalonia would not only have little problem surviving, but would almost certainly thrive.

Next, traditionalists, and certainly hidebound imperialists, are almost always reluctant to give up that which they have spent centuries holding reign over, for psychological and political reasons.

Finally, the loss of any portion of a nation to independence means a loss of money, one way or the other. Some may point to a region such as Wales and say that it receives significant sums from the UK Treasury. However, Wales is denied sovereign control over its natural resources, including water, mineral and energy exports.

Ultimately, the bottom line tends to be the bottom line these days when it comes to adhering to the concept of self-determination.

Romania: Trying to recover from bad luck, bad choices

antonescu and hitler

The 20th century was, to be blunt, pretty crappy for citizens of many countries. Those of the Soviet Union, who were forced to endure two world wars, civil war, the onset of communism and Stalin’s murderous regime, had it particularly bad, for example.

Other nations that had a rather rough go of it during the 20th century include:

  • Poland (the loss of 450,000 men in World War I even though it was not independent at that point, a war with the Soviets from 1918-1921, invaded and decimated by Nazi Germany with a huge loss of life – estimated at more than 6 million, including 3 million Jews – then placed under Soviet hegemony for 45 years);
  • Korea (annexed and brutally subjugated by Japan from 1910 to 1945, divided and then involved in a ruthless civil war from 1950-53, and both North Korea and South Korea still at daggers with one another); and
  • The former Yugoslav republics (cobbled together in part through Woodrow Wilson’s machinations after World War I, invaded by the Nazis – who set up a brutal puppet state – commandeered by Tito after the war, and finally rent asunder by brutal internecine conflict in the 1990s).

Another country that would probably like a do-over for the 20th century is Romania, which didn’t acquit itself very well in either world war and suffered under the whip of two particularly odious dictators during the Cold War.

Romania chose to remain neutral for the first two years of World War I before joining with the Entente Powers in the summer of 1916. Unfortunately,  Romania then quickly found itself overwhelmed by the Central Powers, which occupied two-thirds of the country.

When Russia capitulated to Germany following the Russian Revolution, Romania found itself surrounded and was forced to sign a harsh peace treaty. Although it was ultimately able to acquire territory under the Treaties of Saint Germain, Trianon and Paris, total Romanian military and civilian losses between 1916 and 1918 were estimated at nearly 750,000.

Things turned out even worse in the Second World War for Romania. Originally loosely affiliated with Great Britain and France, Romania opted to align itself with Nazi Germany after the start of World War II when the Nazis made quick work of most of Western Europe.

Seventy-five years ago this week, the Romanian government, under the control of fascist Ion Antonescu, officially threw its lot in with the Axis Powers, signing the Tripartite Pact.

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Agincourt’s intangible impact continues to make itself felt

battle of agincourt

Sunday marked the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt in which a badly outnumbered English army overcame and routed French forces, ensuring their place in history, thanks in no small part to later generations of (English-speaking) writers and actors.

Shakespeare’s Henry V, with the namesake’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, which includes the famous line “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” alone guaranteed collective immortality for those English and Welsh who, outnumbered by an estimated six-to-one, cut down the flower of French nobility in one of the great battles of the Hundred Years’ War.

But, as famed author Bernard Cornwell, who has himself written a thing or two about late medieval warfare, opined in The Telegraph, there was little glorious about what happened on the battlefield in northwestern France on Oct. 25, 1415:

Legend says Agincourt was won by arrows. It was not. It was won by men using lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls and falcon-beaks, the ghastly paraphernalia of medieval hand-to-hand fighting. It was fought on a field knee-deep in mud, and it was more of a massacre than a battle. Olivier’s famous film shows French knights charging on horseback, but very few men were mounted.

The French came on foot, and the battle was reduced to men battering other armoured men with hammers, maces and axes. A sword would not penetrate armour and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, but a poleaxe would fell him fast and then it was a simple enough job to raise the victim’s visor and slide a knife through an eye.

That was how hundreds of men died; their last sight on earth a dagger’s point. It is not a tale of chivalry, but rather of armoured men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls. At the battle’s height, when Henry V expected an attack on his rear that never materialised, he ordered the newly captured prisoners killed. They were murdered. Agincourt was filthy, horrible and merciless, and it is still celebrated as a golden moment in England’s history.

For all its fame, Agincourt’s effect was short-lived. Seven years after the battle, Henry V was dead. Seven years after his death, the French, inspired in part by Joan of Arc, broke the siege of Orleans, which began to turn the tide against the English.

The final battle of the war, a French victory, took place in 1453, and left the English with little in the way of Continental possessions beyond the port city of Calais.

When it was all said and done, France was in the process of being transformed from a feudal monarchy to a centralized state, while England found its coffers depleted, the war having forced the crown to tax its citizens obscenely to fund the conflict, begun in the 1330s, and thousands of Englishmen were dead.

Yet, Agincourt has remained a rallying cry for English leaders, soldiers and citizens for six centuries and will likely remain so for at least as long, if not much longer.

Such are the whims of history.

(HT: To the Sound of the Guns.)

In Vermont, a solution goes in search of a problem

south burlington scoreboard

In a nation of perpetually aggrieved there is diminishing room for reason.

Consider the “controversy” taking place in South Burlington, Vt.

For more than 50 years the South Burlington High School has used the “Rebels” as its nickname, said to be in recognition of the city’s secession from Burlington many years before.

However, now there is a movement to do away with the moniker because “rebel” is said to be associated with the racist policies of the Confederacy, a former teacher at the school told the Burlington Free Press.

“It was unintentional, I’m sure, but it’s still connected to that,” said Bob Walsh, who taught at the school for 18 years. “I think it’s time for us to recognize the fact that this symbol is inappropriate and it’s time to change.”

Walsh’s comments came during an August school board meeting. He was the only member of the public to speak against the school’s nickname.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, board chairwoman, said when she grew up in the area and participated in events against South Burlington High, she never recalled any reference to the Rebels being affiliated with the Confederacy.

Julie Beatty, another school board member and a South Burlington High alum, said she never associated the “Rebels” nickname with the Confederacy during her time as a student, and said she doesn’t think students today associate it with the Confederate States of America.

The board decided to gather more public opinion before making a decision. Young said the topic will be open for public comment at the next board meeting, which will be held tomorrow.

What Walsh and others who advocate a break with the name “Rebels” seem to overlook is that not only did South Burlington split from Burlington, but Vermont itself was established by many individuals who were considered “rebels.”

Vermont was founded by Ethan Allen, Thomas Chittenden and others who sought independence from New York, seeing themselves “as a distinct region outside the legitimate jurisdiction of New York,” according to historian Christian Fritz.

Although Vermonters fought the British during the American Revolution, they didn’t join the fledgling United States at the outset of war, as both New York and New Hampshire wanted the territory for themselves.

Instead, in 1777, Vermonters declared independence, wrote their own constitution and formed the Republic of Vermont, which lasted until 1791, when the state was admitted to the Union as the 14th state.

And, of course, rebellion was the dominant theme in the founding of the United States of America, with the Founding Fathers undoubtedly being seen as “rebels” by Great Britain.

(Top: Scoreboard at South Burlington (Vt.) High School, with nickname “Rebels” evident.)

Tolerance includes putting up with things you find disagreeable


One of the more disheartening aspects of the “tolerance” crowd is that some members are rather intolerant when faced with opinions that differ from their own.

Take Morgan Clendaniel, the editor of the online website Co.Exist, owned by business magazine Fast Company.

While Wikipedia describes Co.Exist’s mission as covering innovation-related topics, the name carries with it the concept of co-existence, which suggests mutual tolerance despite different ideologies or interests.

Clendaniel would appear to be among those who believe co-existence is great – until a viewpoint they disagree with comes along.

Consider a recent piece by Clendaniel titled “While We’re Doing The Flags, Here Are Some Other Confederate Things We Should Get Rid Of”.

In it, he writes, “… the reach of the Confederacy – and the almost-insane tone-deafness of organizations and politicians who celebrate its history – goes well beyond the flag and hides in other insidious ways throughout the region.”

In a nutshell: Clendaniel really, really, really doesn’t like Jefferson Davis, who served as the president of the Confederate States of America.

Clendaniel begins by taking to task social fraternity Kappa Sigma for having “one – and only one – honorary member: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, racist, and traitor to America.”

Kappa Sigma made the mistake of wishing Davis Happy Birthday in 2013 on its national website. The fraternity was also castigated by Clendaniel for recently welcoming a new member and identifying him as the great-great grandson of the Confederate leader.

The fact is that most anyone born in the 19th century would be considered a racist by 21st century standards. Davis, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, William T. Sherman, etc., ad infinitum. Who knows how our own views will stand up to the test of time?

As for Davis being a traitor, the Founding Fathers would also fall into that category – certainly the British saw them in that light.

Next up on Clendaniel’s hit list is US Senator Thad Cochran. Cochran, who represents Mississippi in Congress, has come out in favor of his state changing its flag to remove the Confederate battle flag in its corner. However, that’s not enough for the Co.Exist editor:

“ … when the senator goes to the U.S. Senate chamber, he sits at a desk that was once used by Jefferson Davis, when Davis was a senator from Mississippi, before he betrayed his country by leading a breakaway republic based on maintaining the institution of slavery,” he writes.

Clendaniel is also irate because Cochran “spearheaded a Senate resolution in 1995 that officially makes Davis’s desk the desk of the senior senator from Mississippi. Thad Cochran made a law that he has to have the desk used by the President of the Confederacy.” Continue reading

Famed Manx nationalist remains little noted by modern officials


The Isle of Man, inhabited for at least 8,500 years, counts among its greatest heroes Illiam Dhône, a 17th century nationalist who was executed for actions taken amid the English Civil War.

How does the Manx government honor Dhône? Hardly at all, it turns out.

Dhône’s memorial is nothing more than a weathered brass plaque on a stump of an aged concrete structure that marks the site of his execution, according to the Celtic League, an organization that seeks to promote greater cooperation between Celtic peoples. The plaque is not only hard to find, but the site is unkempt and overgrown, and the dilapidated building is unconnected to the events of 1663, the year Dhône was put to death.

In 1648, amid the English Civil War, James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby and the supreme lord of the Isle of Man, appointed Dhône as receiver general of the island, located in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland.

Three years later, Stanley went to England to fight for Charles II, who was battling Parliamentarian forces in a bid to regain his throne. Stanley’s wife Countess Charlotte de la Tremouille was left in charge of the island, with Dhône, whose English name was William Christian, in command of its militia.

The Earl of Derby fought with Charles II at the Battle of Worcester on Sept. 3, 1651.

Once Stanley left to aid Charles, a revolt erupted on the island. Led by Dhône, the conflict, known as the Manx Rebellion of 1651, was the result of the void caused by Stanley’s departure and discontent caused by agrarian changes recently introduced by Stanley.

After the rebels seized many of the island’s forts Dhône entered into negotiations with Parliamentary forces.

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