Wales: where we all can be at home

The Matter of Wales: epic views of a small country, by Jan Morris. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. Photographs by Paul Wakefield. 442 pages. $22.50. A durable sadness pervades Jan Morris's new book. Durable because Jan Morris writes a poet's English; sadness because the subject is Wales.

The author's style -- and it is a great one -- is suited to the subject. But since that subject is Wales, the appropriateness of the style is perhaps mooted by the fact the language is English, not Welsh. (Keep Welsh alive, the cry goes, and Wales cannot die.)

At present, only one Welsh person in four speaks Welsh. The patriot Gwynfor Evans threatened to starve himself to death if the government would not allow Wales a native-language TV station. ``It was an ideal victory of Welshness,'' Morris writes, ``peaceful, popular, frank and innocent.''

Wales is a land of sheep: ``Some 15 percent of all the sheep in the entire European Common Market live in Wales (but only 1 percent of the people),'' Morris notes. It's also a land of stone, water, and light. The qualities of these elements blend in the holy places, including ``the most venerated structure of all, the cathedral of Dewi Sant, St. David, not only the mother-church of Welsh Christianity, but the vortex of all that is holy in Wales.'' Morris writes of the presence of these qualities in combination; it is ``the unmistakable pause of holiness . . . and awes one suddenly with the power of old conviction.''

With this book, Morris joins the immortals. The splendors of the prose are, like Homer's sea, simply everywhere. She is an absolute master of the sentence. Variety is the rule. We leave the ``pause of holiness'' and listen to a story: ``When a fourteenth-century Mayor of Chester was kidnapped by the Welsh they took him to Mold and gave him a pie to eat, but when he cut it open he found only a rope inside, and with that rope they hanged him.''

We listen because we must. It's a big book, and we lose ourselves like children in the infinite variety of the matter of Wales. ``Like everything else in Wales, art tends to be close-focused . . . . Welsh artists have generally celebrated their own bro, their own chieftain, and in particular their own intimate experience of nature -- nature in detail, nature particular.''

But the book is more than a tapestry of vivid images of life. Morris thinks hard; there is thinking on every page. We learn that Wales stands for something. ``The essence of traditional Wales is the belief that social worth and cultural achievement need not be related to worldly success. . . .'' No wonder the English who still dream of Empire find Wales hard to take! Welsh has been until now a pejorative epithet in English (a ``Welsh pearl'' is a fake pearl). But Wales has its uses. The British must go through Wales to get to Ireland; it has minerals; the Welsh make good soldiers.

The centerpiece of the book is a seven-page ``Interlude,'' a ``fantasy'' on the theme of Welsh independence. Morris dreams in detail of the Republic of Wales. Wales is neutral, like Ireland, Sweden, or Switzerland. It is a member of the European Community. Its chief industry is the cooperatively owned steel mills of the south. Wales is ``the very model of a non-nuclear, neutral, un-militarist ecological state.''

A dream: the center of the book. The end of the book contemplates ``the Torment of the Two Peoples.'' Welsh and English, Wales and England. Perhaps it was no accident that, as Morris points out, it was a Welsh prime minister of Great Britain, David Lloyd George, who approved the Balfour Declaration promising a Jewish national home in Palestine.

To discover Wales in the pages of this book is to discover, once and for all, a country where we all can be at home. The pleasures of reading ``The Matter of Wales'' are as various as life in Wales itself; reading it (and one immediately wants to reread it, or, like me, finds himself rereading passages as one goes), we begin to love the idea of Wales, and to think ourselves worthy of that love. It is as if there were something Welsh about each of us, and that Jan Morris helps us to know ourselves more completely. Which is pretty much all we can ask of a book. ``The Matter of Wales'' brings out the best in us. A classic.

Tom D'Evelyn is the editor of the Monitor's book page.

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