Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Day 26: Idris Davies and the South Wales Coalfield

It was probably sometime in the early 1990s when I heard “The Bells of Rhymney” by Robyn Hitchcock and the New Egyptians. I liked the song for its tune, and because I was familiar with all of the places mentioned in the song from my trips to the valleys of South Wales while in grad school at Oxford, and the words tugged at my socialist heart. I mention this because, while researching the life and poetry of Idris Davies, I learned that the words to the song are from his poem, originally published in 1938 in his book Gwalia Deserta, and put to music by Pete Seeger.

Idris Davies was the son of a collier, and a poet of the South Wales coalfields. North Wales, with its steep, alpine mountains, maintains its place as the heartland of the Welsh-speaking Wales and the historical home of the Welsh Princes who defied England. Mid and West Wales has small fishing villages (the kind that inspired Llareggub in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood) and a rural countryside of green hills dotted with sheep. South Wales was the industrial heartland, its valleys lined with iron mills and coal mines. And, South Wales was the heartland of radical politics in Wales; the home of Chartists, trades unions, Labour, socialists, and communists. Idris Davies, writing in both Welsh and English, was their poetic voice from the 1920s until his death in 1953. You can read more about Idris Davies in the Welsh Biography Online and also here .

The first poem for today, “Do you remember 1926?” recalls the nine-day General Strike called throughout the UK by the Trades Union Congress in a failed attempt to stop wage reductions and to halt worsening working conditions for miners. An interesting animation of Davies reciting the poem is available here. The second, “Mrs. Evans fach, you want butter again” provides an commentary on the strike from a small shopowner’s point of view. Both poems are from The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English, Gwyn Jones, editor.


Do you remember 1926? That summer of soups and speeches,
The sunlight on the idle wheels and deserted crossing,
And the laughter and the cursing in the moonlit streets?
Do you remember 1926? The slogans and the penny concerts,
The jazz-bands and the moorland picnics,
And the slanderous tongues of famous cities?
Do you remember 1926? The great dream and the swift disaster,
The fanatic and the traitor, and more than all,
The bravery of the simple, faithful folk?
‘Ay, ay, we remember 1926,’ said Dai and Shinkin,
As they stood on the kerb in Charing Cross Road,
‘And we shall remember 1926 until our blood is dry.’


Mrs. Evans fach, you want butter again.
How will you pay for it now, little woman
With your husband out on strike, and full
Of the fiery language? Ay, I know him,
His head is full of fire and brimstone
And a lot of palaver about communism,
And me, little Dan the Grocer
Depending so much on private enterprise.

What, depending on the miners and their
Money too? O yes, in a way, Mrs. Evans,
Yes, in a way I do, mind you.
Come tomorrow, little woman, and I’ll tell you then
What I have decided overnight.
Go home now and tell that rash red husband of yours
That your grocer cannot afford to go on strike
Or what would happen to the butter from Carmarthen?
Good day for now, Mrs. Evans fach.

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