It's too late for my beloved Wales

Louise Jury meets the poet, R S Thomas
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The Independent Online
"If I thought," he says, "that the people at English HQ would get to see it" - he means Westminster - "I would scribble 'YES TO AN INDEPENDENT WALES' across the ballot paper. But I suppose we have to grasp at crumbs that are offered to us."

R S Thomas, Wales's great poet, great nationalist and Grand Old Man, sits musing on what the principality is being offered in its own devolution referendum on Thursday.

He is 84. His wild white hair is thinning, his hawk-like features are slightly softened by age, but the ferocity of his passion for his native land is undiminished.

This is a man who has not only been trumpeted as a candidate for the Nobel literature prize; he has expressed understanding when English holiday cottages were firebombed by Welsh nationalists, and admits he would like the Welsh people to rise in armed resistance. He looks enviously across the sea to Ireland where, he says, the English handling of the Easter 1916 uprising created martyrs who acted as the catalyst for a great nationalist movement.

Not from him the apathy in much of the principality about this week's vote: only a keen regret that more is not on offer. But as politics is the art of the possible, he will take the chance this week to do what he can, and vote Yes.

"We have to be sophisticated in these matters," he says, as we sit in his home at the distant end of Anglesey, or as he would prefer, Ynys Mon. "I shall vote yes because it's a step. I don't think it's a step in the wrong direction because the more independence we can get the more clout we can have towards gaining something more."

Thomas himself learned Welsh at the age of 30. Born in Cardiff, to non- Welsh speaking parents, he feels he was robbed of his national heritage. It is "salt in the wound" that his poetry is written in English because, he believes, his grasp of Welsh lacks the necessary nuances.

Nonetheless, he spent much of his life as a curate deep in rural Wales where all spoke Welsh, in the hill country whose harsh life and landscape is reflected in his poems. He rails bitterly against the English second home-owners because their presence brought the intrusion of an unwanted alien language.

To him, the only entity that matters is a Welsh entity. Only 22 per cent of Wales is now truly Welsh "because the country has been anglicised". Yet complete independence is still his aim. "We're not so stupid as to swallow those ideas about setting up passport boundaries and things like that. We don't mean that sort of thing. It's the power to determine our own position."

As to the viability of independence, he expresses distrust of the economists. "All these figures are bandied about. You get some high-sounding person from England who claims to be a political economist, who says an independent Wales is completely unviable and he can quote one or two gross national products which, to the uninitiated, are a boneshaker. But others say it is."

This week's vote attests to the "duplicity" of the English political parties. Offering an assembly is English imperialism. It is not a recognition of Welsh rights.

"To me, the average Englishman is a nationalist and England comes first. I'm not against this. When I am questioned I say I love Wales and I hope you love England. But in any free-for-all, people are going to fight for their own country. So any Englishman worth his salt wants to keep England together. We know that the UK is only a euphemism for England. The Scots, the Irish, the Welsh are just appendages."

Language is where the Welsh outshine the Irish and the Scots, he says, with those who speak Gaelic being a tiny few. "We are superior." But Scotland has the advantage of distance. It is a long way north. The ties between the Welsh and the English are too many, he laments. The people inter- marry, they barely notice they are crossing the river Severn - or Hafren in Welsh. Thomas has no feelings about Scottish independence. "But in the case of Ireland, I have to admit to twinges of envy when I get to see the Irish independent free state flag flying."

He is as contemptuous of his English-speaking countrymen as of the superficial trappings of being a Scot (even though he, too, speaks English at home, his wife being Canadian-Irish). "I believe that patriotism is something stronger than a kilt or bagpipes - the things that the media love. My contention is that to be a Welshman you should speak Welsh."

Yet Thomas's longings are shot through, like his poems, with fatalism. Today, the Welsh, like all peoples, are so materialistic that it is "asking the moon" to expect any sacrifice, even in simple monetary terms. "This is the climate that has been reached by people's disbelief in God," he says, the priest still. Speaking Welsh is a bond, but a brittle one. "When you put the pressure on, you suddenly find they're not with you. I'm conscious that I'm a voice in the wilderness."

He thinks the vote will be lost. He will not celebrate much if he is proved wrong."I shall not be very moved if next Thursday there's a majority in favour," he says. "I shall just think that's one more obstacle out of the way."

For at bottom, Wales's champion fears the moment, if it ever existed, has long passed. Wales will never get independence now. Even as early as the 12th century, the rulers of Wales were recognising the English kings. It was "common sense and astuteness", he says. But that is no comfort. "It is the sadness of my position - I realise we are too late in history."

Focus, page 17

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