A Welsh agenda in an English tongue

Tuesday's Books: Dannie Abse ed, `Twentieth Century Anglo-Welsh Poetry', Seren, pounds 19.95; Pamela Petro, `Travels in an Old Tongue' HarperCollins, pounds 18

Wales is a nation so gnawed at by its frontier that the whole country is a kind of borderland, a place of the broken identities and uncertain loyalties revealed by last week's narrow Referendum scrape. The losers in the new assembly will still be the language nationalists. Going it alone, the Welsh will find their tongue as much a hindrance as ever.

Although the present century has seen a revival of Welsh-language letters, it has also spawned a successful English-language literature - unsurprisingly, given that less than 20 per cent of Welsh read Welsh. But Anglo-Welsh writing has helped mould current political sentiment by broadly sticking to a Welsh agenda.

As Dannie Abse's excellent anthology makes clear, this has been done by articulating an endemic sense of loss. Included in his compilation are poems by 67 different hands. Since these are presented chronologically by poet - W H Davies at the beginning, Deryn Rees-Jones (b.1968) at the end - the result is something of a showcase. What Abse's book brings home is the peculiar wealth of talent amongst a population a third the size of Greater London's. One reason for such riches is the anguished stimulus that comes of being Welsh, of being perpetually stuck out on a limb of others' devising, and the need for self-expression that creates.

By contrast, Travels in an Old Tongue wears the same need opportunistically. Pamela Petro, an American of Hungaro-German blood, had the bright idea of visiting the overseas Welsh. Her global pursuit of the Dai-aspora takes her to Norway, Belgium, India, Singapore and Japan and Patagonia. At the same time, having once studied in Lampeter, she resolves to learn Welsh.

What happens is that an obsession with collecting gets in the way of the sort of patient and empathetic observation that makes or breaks a travel book. Petro always has nuggets of mainly borrowed information at her fingertips, but she gushingly presses them on the reader, the way a child offers a sweet.

The net effect comes perilously close to a gargantuan piss-take. Petro's self-consciously infectious tones will make some Welsh readers feel distinctly ill.

Justin Wintle

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