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A land of delectable paradoxes

How H.V. Morton deepened and enriched British perceptions of Wales

“It is the land of lost content; I see it shining plain — those happy highways where I went and cannot come again”. So wrote A.E. Housman in A Shropshire Lad, putting to paper one of the simplest and best descriptions of nostalgia in the English language. 

Like the very first strains of Elgar’s Nimrod, Housman’s pained sentimentality is stirring in a peculiarly English way; it reminds us of the inaccessibility of home as we remember it.  For me, it brings about a fond wistfulness for the hills and woodlands of north-east Wales where I grew up. Like Housman’s Shropshire, those hills are a half-remembered half-truth. That place is both more than and less than a memory — it exists only in the imagination. 

Yet occasionally we are offered artistic glimpses of our own lands of lost content, which validate our deeply-felt nostalgia; for me, this is H.V. Morton’s In Search of Wales. First published in 1932, In Search of Wales is ostensibly a travel guide, which follows Morton as he takes a tour around the perimeter of Wales — starting in Shrewsbury, he travels up into the mountains of the north before retreating down the West Wales coast, and into the smog-filled valleys of the south. Over his months-long journey, he catalogues his exploits in painstaking detail, freely mixing indulgent prose with social commentary on the Welsh condition, and gushing accounts of local folklore.

Morton is most famous for his coverage of the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1923. After retiring from journalism, he went on to build a respectable career as a travel writer, specialising in the British Isles and the Holy Land, until his death in 1979. He is a delightful example of the leisurely, personal style employed by all the best Victorian travellers. Where modern travelogues labour on advertising the subject of their study to the prospective visitor, Morton prefers to offer an unapologetically personal narrative; his style owes more to Bilbo Baggins than to William Dalrymple.

He was a man enamoured with mysticism and romanticism; his accounts are peppered with attempts to situate his physical surroundings in half-mythical history. As he climbs Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa — “haunted by both Merlin and Arthur” — he takes to imagining how the mountain might once have played host to giants and dragons and how it might still be populated by fairies, whom he imagines to be “malicious and terrifying.”

He is equally moved by the walled city of Conwy, a favourite childhood destination of mine — though, Englishman that he is, Morton is insistent on referring to it as “Conway”. Atop the battlements, he immerses himself in imagination, spending hours alone thinking about the castle’s dramatic history — and concluding, simply, that “Conway is exquisite”. 

Morton’s starry-eyed sentimentalism is not reserved exclusively for sword and sorcery, however. In Bala, he lauds “the romance of the Welsh chapel” and its place in “the long and glorious struggle which is Welsh history”. He recounts with equal enthusiasm the situation of Welsh agriculture and spills much ink about the “large and comfortable-looking farmers” who tend to those rolling hills. 

This is Wales as I remember it, a land of duality and contrast; industry (or, more accurately, post-industry) and agriculture, the magical and parochial side-by-side. 

Even for those ill-acquainted with the land of hills and valleys, Morton’s account of Wales is full of charm and life. It is a vivid and detailed look at Welsh life in the early 20th century, complete with colourful characters and rich descriptions of the principality, warts and all. The wonder and joy that permeates Morton’s writing is its most attractive quality. This, coupled with his admirable attention to detail, instils In Search of Wales with a gently simmering magic. 

Yet Morton’s work is more than an account of the hills that raised me. Consciously, or unconsciously, it is also part of a far older tradition. In writing on Wales as an Englishman, he situated himself in a tradition which stretches back a millennium. For as long as the English have lived in these isles, they have written on Wales — and, in turn, they have shaped how Wales sees itself. 

Indeed, Morton’s work bears a striking resemblance to the 12th century reports of the Cambro-Norman monk Gerald of Wales, sometimes called Giraldus Cambrensis. Though born in Pembrokeshire, Gerald was the scion of a Norman father and was situated firmly in the culture of the Norman ruling class. In 1191, he published Itinerarium Cambriae, an account of his 1188 tour of Wales, which would be followed three years later by Descriptio Cambriae. Itinerarium and Descriptio are some of the earliest descriptions of Wales and the Welsh. 

With remarkable candour, Gerald lauds the Welsh for their military prowess, their bardic poetry, their love of freedom, and their sense of humour. He holds a rather lower opinion of their moral character, however; in the second half of Descriptio, he goes to great pains to condemn the Welsh tendency towards “constant perjuries”, gluttony, and clannishness. 

In the coming centuries, it was the latter half of Gerald’s report which loomed largest in the English imagination. In 1682, William Richards’ Wallography called for the extinction of the Welsh language, embedding the widespread perception that Welsh speakers were ignorant and backwards. Upon visiting the steel-working town of Merthyr Tydfil in 1850, Thomas Carlyle described the town as “a vision of Hell”. Perhaps most infamously, the Reports of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales, popularly known as the ‘Blue Books’, characterised the Welsh as dirty, ignorant, and lazy, with little interest in the education of their children.

By the mid-19th century, the English regarded the Welsh as a poor and simple-minded people, living in an ugly country of smog, smokestacks, and stubbornness. In response, the Welsh became hostile, closed, and resentful of their larger neighbours. 

Morton’s writing exists as part of a rehabilitative trend, in direct opposition to this contemptuous norm

Morton’s writing exists as part of a rehabilitative trend, in direct opposition to this contemptuous norm. In the South Wales valleys, he is embarrassed to meet locals who acknowledge the disparaging view of the Welsh in English popular consciousness. As if over-correcting for the snobbery of his countrymen, his description of the Welsh verges on sycophantic, a naked attempt to shift the weight of cultural opinion through flowery prose.

In Search of Wales, alongside the earlier Wild Wales: Its People, Language, and Scenery by George Borrow, was instrumental in helping Wales to shed its overwhelmingly negative reputation. Modern perceptions which fixate on the country’s picturesque mountains and quaint old villages owe much to sympathetic writers like Morton. 

The interwar and post-war periods would see the emergence of native writers like Richard Llewellyn, Dylan Thomas, and R.S. Thomas, who would finally enable Wales to speak with its own voice. Their work, however, could only have been met with popular interest due to the earlier efforts of English authors who worked to generate interest in the Principality.

Wales is a land of delectable paradoxes. In its national canon the Anglo-Saxons are at once the hated invader and the fraternal companion; Welsh identity was both built by the English and constructed in opposition to them. As a child of the border marches, this Jekyll and Hyde approach to our nearest neighbour was a feature of life where I grew up. I am often struck by how little my English peers grasp the complexity of that relationship, or the nuances of its troubled development. Those earnest Anglo-Saxons seeking to understand their smaller, poorer Celtic cousins could do worse than to start with Morton.

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