Du a Gwyn: Shades and Shadows of Life in Wales

Well, I am used to it. That is, I used to be. Seeing images of my surroundings on the big screen is rather a common experience if you live in the cinematographically well-mapped center of New York City. Moving from Gotham to Cymru (that is, Wales) seemed to push my life effectively off the map I had gone by in the shaping of my existence ever since I first set eyes on the Big Apple. I have been reluctant to discard the old plan in exchange for a new atlas, one that matches my present environs, one that might help me to position instead of dislocating myself. This journal has been largely a mode of escape, a vehicle of expression designed to transport me from a place in which I have not yet found a voice. Just from what am I trying to get away, though? And how much longer can I get away with using a chart of my own making, drawn, as it were, with my eyes closed to the world?

You might say that moving from and vowing never to return to what is supposedly my home (my native Germany), whether to Manhattan (where I lived for about fifteen years) or to Wales (where I have been residing nearly three years now), is a continual rehearsal of my sense of displacement as a gay person, as someone not quite at home in any society, as someone suspicious of the very concept of home. As an expatriate, I have made the experience of being born an outsider a matter of choice.

I have been reminded of my estrangement—and the unease of longing and not belonging—while attending Fflics, the aforementioned festival of classic films representing Welsh life or a Wales imagined elsewhere. How queer, for instance, to feel alienated by The Corn Is Green (1945), a Hollywood movie based on a play by gay actor-dramatist Emlyn Williams and starring gay icon Bette Davis. Here is a studio version of Wales that bears little resemblance to any Cymru past or present, a film that now strikes me as disingenuous and calculating as the strumpet portrayed by Joan Lorring.

Three years ago, I would not have been able to tell that the accents in Corn are as phony as the painted backdrops. However willing I am to suspend disbelief, I cannot go so far as to suppress my new knowledge and experience for the sake of entering into a world that commercially exploits foreignness without embracing it. Williams’s own struggle to come to terms with his marginality is deproblematized, his secret code obliterated. What remains is the missionary message that it takes someone ignorant of your origins to assist in what amounts to a purge, to prompt and prod you into becoming someone you ought to be according to superimposed standards.

An extreme form of such reconditioning is presented in The Silent Village (1943), a propagandist documentary imagining the invasion of a Welsh (and linguistically entirely non-English) community by the Nazis, whose first act is to prohibit the use of the Welsh language. Meeting with silent resistance, then active revolt, the fascist invaders effectively take the town off the map, killing its men and razing its homes in retaliation of the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official.

It is a remarkably restrained, unsentimental and unhysterical recreation of the Lidice massacre, acted out by ordinary folk in a Welsh mining town not unlike Lidice. While the town of Cwmgiedd was being turned into a symbol, it lost none of its character during or as a result of the location shoot, the iconography of its everyday being carefully rendered. Verisimilitude turned to reality, pastness to present, when one of the Welsh villagers, a schoolboy back in 1943, spoke after the screening of the film about the town’s non-hostile takeover by the British film crew.

Utter hokum by comparison is Graham Cutts’s The Rat (1925), a pseudo-Parisian melodrama reveling in its own irrelevance. Gay Welsh matinee idol Ivor Novello plays a tormented object of heterosexual desire, an apache who comes to value the love of his gal pal over the glamorous world that enslaves him even as he seeks to conquer it. Penned by Novello himself (under the telling pseudonym “David L’Estrange”), The Rat invites decoding; but even if the code can be cracked, the film remains impersonal, sheltered as it is by its own artifice.

Rather more personally relevant to my experience is the image of the stranger in Proud Valley (1940) starring Paul Robeson as a black American introducing himself into a Welsh coal-mining community. “Why, damn and blast it,” one of the miners protests, “aren’t we all black down it that pit?”

As I learned reading Cadewch i Paul Robeson Ganu!, a fascinating account of Robeson’s ties to Wales, the actor-singer-activist found here a “cymuned o’r un anian,” a kindred community. “There is no place in the world I like more than Wales,” he once exclaimed. He expressed his solidarity with the Welsh miners, whom he first encountered and aided in 1929, singing for them (via transatlantic exchange) even when he was barred from international travel after his passport was confiscated by the US government.

It is a “kindred community” like this to which I have yet to gain access; it is this sense of being embraced and found valuable that I have yet to experience here. I realize that, for this to happen, Wales and Welsh have to become a more integral part of my existence as I am sharing it in this journal. So, after following a haunted and hunting Ivor Novello (as a suspicious foreigner and loner) into the London fog shrouding The Phantom Fiend (1932), the underappreciated talkie take on Hitchcock’s Lodger, I am discovering the actor anew in a Welsh setting established in speech and song by Cliff Gordon’s radio comedy “Choir Practice: The Storm in a Welsh Teacup” (produced in 1946) and subsequently adapted for the screen as Valley of Song (1953), another one of the films shown as part of the Fflics festival. Here, at least, the idiom rings true . . .

6 Replies to “Du a Gwyn: Shades and Shadows of Life in Wales”

  1. I was looking forward to what I knew would be a highly personal account of the Fflics experience – you have surpassed my expectations. I\’ve called broadcastellan, located somewhere in cyberspace and originating in Wales, a home away from home, and I mean it.


  2. It is a great joy and comfort to be read and understood by you. When your visits here introduced me to Relative Esoterica, I sensed it to be almost an extension of my self. It was strange to find a language so familiar, to find myself a reverberation of your song.Yes, I needed to make this personal to capture the startling experience that Fflics turned out to be. I hope this comes across more forcefully in this re-edited version.Another Dietrich/From Here to Eternity moment (well, you know what I mean): When I published my first draft of this essay, I was not yet aware that Novello is heard in the radio play I had planned to share (as the only Welsh old-time radio drama I know). David L\’Estrange, indeed.


  3. Ah, still more vivid and affecting. Your posts haunt me!L\’Estrange things happen to those who welcome them, perhaps. … I\’m afraid that my attempts to enjoy \”Choir Practice,\” in quiet, today, were thwarted. Perhaps tomorrow.


  4. If you find that quiet moment, let me know if you experienced any technical difficulties going to \”Choir Practice.\” I was thwarted by glitches in getting past the rehearsals.


  5. Wonderful. I thought the link might have been faulty; turns out, it is probably just the Welsh version of broadband. The play reminds me of the work of my favorite Victorian author, Anthony Trollope, particularly his Barsetshire series.


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