Urien Wiliam

Welsh-language populariser


Urien Wiliam, teacher and writer: born Barry, Glamorgan 7 November 1929; married 1955 Eiryth Davies (two sons, one daughter); died Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan 21 October 2006.

Urien Wiliam was unusual among Welsh academics in that he wrote for the common reader. He had received his education almost entirely through the Welsh language and insisted on the highest linguistic standards. But his penchant was for writing detective novels, light verse, soap operas, cartoon scripts and books for children.

His uncommon first name - Urien Rheged was king of the Old North (the north-west of England around Carlisle) in the sixth century - was given him by his father, Stephen J. Williams, Professor of Welsh at the University College, Swansea. He was born in the city in 1929.

Like his father, he had a special interest in the grammar of Welsh, and wrote it with precision and a simple elegance that won him many admirers. He published two grammar books and was an acknowledged expert on the finer points of a language that requires a good deal of attention to be written correctly; he believed in reforming the most conservative rules of the written language and making it more flexible and akin to the spoken forms. This interest is shared by his brother, Aled Wiliam, also a writer and translator.

His first degree was in Welsh at Swansea, after which he took an MA in Education and then a doctorate in Psychology at Liverpool University. Refusing to do military service on grounds of conscience, he taught for a few years at Pembroke Dock before taking up a research post at the Children's Clinic in Colwyn Bay. From Trinity College, Carmarthen, where he had been a lecturer in Welsh, he moved to the Barry College of Education, which was later merged with the Glamorgan Polytechnic (now the University of Glamorgan), where until his decision to turn freelance in 1981 he had been senior lecturer.

I first came across him in the 1960s at a late-night session of the Welsh Academy, at which he shone as a raconteur and reciter of funny verse. He had an inexhaustible repertoire of tribannau, the four-line stanzas popular in Glamorgan in which the last syllable of the third line rhymes with the third in the last line. Aficionados will know of a good example in the opening verse of the song " 'Twas on the good ship Venus". Here is another:

Three things I cannot relish:

A woman who is peevish,

To meet a parson without wit

And Llantwit's broken English.

The form is extremely difficult to do in English, though not as difficult as the englyn, that other gem of the Welsh alliterative tradition, but it was from Urien Wiliam I first heard an englyn in French:

Déjà nous sommes à Dijon,

Jolie ville, je la vois en vallée,

Et viens, Bill, le vin est bon,

Et la bière nous la boirons.

He came to prominence in 1969 when his farce Cawl Cennin ("Leek Soup") won the main prize for drama at the National Eisteddfod; it was followed by Y Ffin ("The Border") which took the prize in the year following. The competition was upgraded shortly afterwards and in 1972 and 1973 he won the Drama Medal with his plays Y Llyw Olaf ("The Last Prince") and Y Pypedau ("The Puppets") - the only playwright to win in successive years.

After turning freelance he was able to work more for radio and television. Perhaps his greatest success, at least in popular terms, was writing scripts for Wil Cwac Cwac, a winsome duck who is as familiar to Welsh children as Mickey Mouse. The character had been created by Jennie Thomas and J.O. Williams in the early 1930s but Wiliam breathed new life into it. He also scripted the soap opera Coleg ("College"), about a group of students and staff at a fictitious campus somewhere in South Wales.

Coming as he did from a bookish, highly intellectual background, and seeing what was happening to the Welsh language outside academic circles, Urien Wiliam chose to join those who strive to extend the language's domains by writing material that is more entertaining than educational, and thus he made an important contribution to its survival as an everyday language that is yet capable of a wide range of modes and registers. We need quizzes, cartoons and pop-songs in Welsh as much as we need philosophical treatises and historiography.

Among his novels, about a dozen in all, is Breuddwyd Rhy Bell ("A Dream Too Far", 1995), which connects the French landing near Fishguard in 1797 - "the Last Invasion of Britain" - with the arrival of French ships in Bantry Bay in Ireland and the part played by Lord Edward Fitzgerald and the United Irishmen. He also wrote plays for radio and translated others into Welsh, notably Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms.

Urien Wiliam's chief means of relaxation was caravanning. With his wife and three children he travelled to many parts of Europe, usually finding some place or incident to write about. In one essay, translated as "Hi-ho!" in the anthology Illuminations (1998), he gave a spirited defence of caravanners against the charge of being "middle-class gypsies", in prose as polished in its style as it was genial in outlook.

Meic Stephens

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