Essays and Criticism
The Historical Relations Between the English and the Welsh
In ‘‘Think of England,’’ Davies returns to the same setting he chose for his story ‘‘A Union,’’ which appeared in his first short story collection, The Ugliest House in the World. ‘‘A Union’’ takes place in 1899, during a bitter strike at a slate quarry in North Wales. The strike drags on for months as the ruthless employers refuse to give any ground. Hated English soldiers are called in to keep order in the town. Eventually, the union runs out of money and the men straggle back to work. This unnamed town, forty-five years later, is the setting for ‘‘Think of England.’’ The village is still scarred by the memory of the strike. Even sixteen-year-old Sarah knows all about how for a generation families of the strikers refused to talk to families of the ‘‘scabs’’— men who broke the strike by going back to work. Old resentments continue to be felt in the village, even though Sarah thinks such things are silly, especially since the quarry has been in decline for years and now employs only one in five of the men in the village. Sarah has learned that only the rise of Welsh nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s kept the town from dying, by reminding the quarreling people of their common enemy, the English. This background sets the stage for the theme of the story, which is the uneasy relations between the Welsh and the English, and the continuing strong national identity of a culturally threatened people.
Davies neatly links nationalistic tensions with sexual aggression, both overt and covert. The title of the story is an ironic allusion to Queen Victoria’s oft-quoted advice to those of her female subjects who were horrified at the prospect of meeting the sexual demands of their husbands: ‘‘Close your eyes and think of England.’’ Whether knowingly or not, the young English soldier Colin alludes to the famous advice when he says to Sarah, as his sexual pursuit of her heats up, ‘‘Who says you Welsh girls don’t know your duty. Proper patriot you are. Thinking of England.’’ Patronizing, crass, unfeeling and insulting, the remark well illustrates the dominant metaphor of the story. The sexual aggression of the English men—first the drunken, seedy Harry with his stream of offensive, sexist jokes, and then Colin, who knows what he wants from this young Welsh girl and becomes abusive when he is thwarted—is a metaphor for the relations between the colonizing English and the exploited Welsh. That, at least, is how it might be described from the point of view of the Welsh nationalists.
The subject of Welsh nationalism has never grabbed the world’s headlines. When people think of conflict within the United Kingdom over the last thirty-five years, they think not of Wales but of Northern Ireland, where civil unrest has led to thousands of deaths. Nonetheless, Welsh nationalism has at times in the twentieth century been a potent force that the British government, based in London, England, has had to deal with.
Modern Welsh nationalism began in 1925, with the formation of the political party Plaid Cymru (literally, the Party of Wales), the goal of which was to educate the Welsh about their national history and culture. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Plaid Cymru became a powerful electoral force in Wales, winning several seats in the British parliament. During this period there were also hundreds of violent incidents organized by groups such as the Free Wales Army, which placed bombs in public buildings and water pipelines, and the Movement for the Defense of Wales. In 1980, Welsh nationalists set fire to many holiday homes owned by the English in Wales. These homes were unoccupied for most of the year and had an adverse effect on Welsh community life. Davies touched on this issue in his short story, ‘‘The Ugliest House in the World,’’ in which a man who has lived for forty years in England retires to a village in North Wales only to have Welsh nationalist slogans daubed on his house.
Relations between the English and the Welsh have a long and complicated history. In 1485, the two kingdoms were united when the Welshman Henry Tudor, leading a mostly Welsh-speaking army, defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth to become Henry VII. As John Osmond points out in his ‘‘Introduction’’ to The National Question Again: Welsh Political Identity in the 1980s, following Henry Tudor’s victory, the Welsh gentry moved to London and began to identify themselves as British rather than Welsh. Within a short period, Wales was legally...
(The entire section is 1855 words.)