Obituary: Harri Webb
Tuesday 03 January 1995
Few poets in recent times have achieved the popularity of Harri Webb. Shortly after the opening of the Severn Bridge in 1966, Webb's "ode" to the new edifice was to be heard quoted widely throughout South Wales: Two lands at last connected Across the waters wide, And all the tolls collected On the English side.
The squib was stamped on a thousand T-shirts and, for a while, lorry drivers coming out of Wales, with the rhyme emblazoned on their chests, would shout it at the imperious attendants who took their money.
Webb wrote mostly in English, but another of his poems, in Welsh, "Colli Iaith" ("Losing a Language"), exquisitely rendered by the folk singer Heather Jones, became that rare thing - a song by a living poet that was generally thought to be traditional. He was delighted when it was incorporated into the annual ceremonies of the National Eisteddfod, where its blend of poignancy and defiance had enormous appeal.
Born into a working-class home in the docklands of Swansea in 1920, Harri Webb was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read medieval and modern languages, specialising in French and Spanish. In 1941 he joined the Navy and served as an interpreter with the Free French in the Mediterranean, and also saw action in the North Atlantic, an experience which was to affect his nervous make-up.
Demobilised at Largs, in Scotland, five years later, he wandered in Scotland for a while, without any sense of personal direction. The discovery of Hugh MacDiarmid's writing at this point in his life proved decisive. Like the Scot, Webb was "always whereextremes meet", and he learnt his nationalism, which was left-wing and inclined to the quixotic, from the writer and political activist who was to become his hero.
Webb began his career with the Republicans, a small group who enlivened the Welsh political scene of the 1950s by the burning of Union Flags in the towns of South Wales and the handling of dynamite up in the hills. After the movement's demise in 1959, Webb was for a while a member of the Labour Party, but then - appalled by its attitude on the question of self-government for Wales - he joined Plaid Cymru. He edited the party's newspaper and stood as its candidate at Pontypool in the general election of 1970.
Harri Webb was a vivid platform speaker, reserving his most scathing invective for his erstwhile comrades in the Welsh Labour Party, though capable of being equally trenchant about Plaid Cymru when he thought it was failing to give a lead as a movement of national liberation, as at the time of the drowning of the Tryweryn Valley after the building of a reservoir by Liverpool Corporation.
A convivial man, noted for his iconoclastic wit and wide erudition, especially among the young and less abstemious of his compatriots, he earned and enjoyed the status of People's Poet, thinking of himself as belonging to the ancient tradition of the Welsh Bard, whose function it was to rally his people against the foe, whether the English invader or the servile, collaborating Welsh.
He came to prominence as a poet during the 1960s, when political nationalism was beginning to make headway in the industrial valleys of South Wales, and became a regular contributor to my magazine Poetry Wales. His reputation as a poet of the Nationalistcause rests on the poems in The Green Desert (1969), and A Crown For Branwen (1974), which contain his most delicately lyrical work, but also on the rollicking ballads, outrageous epigrams, and pint-pot doggerel to be found in Rampage and Revel (1977) and Poems and Points (1983).
Among his other books were an account of the Merthyr Rising of 1831, published in 1956, a volume of stories for children based on the Mabinogion tales (1984), and a number of television scripts, including How Green Was My Father (1976). He also translated Pablo Neruda's epic poem "Alturas de Machu Picchu" into elegantly flowing Welsh, achieving that "sonorous utterance" that was also his aim as both poet and public speaker. The social condition of Wales was the "one theme, one preoccupation" of all his writing, though he set it in a broad frame of cultural allusion and contemporary significance.
His last years were sad and lonely. After his retirement, his health quickly deteriorated, he was housebound, and saw few of his old friends. He found some solace, however, in the Anglican faith of his boyhood, indulged his passion for the American cinema of the 1940s, and continued to read extensively in the languages at his command. Although his head was turned more than once, he never married.
By profession Harri was a librarian, first in the iron town of Dowlais, near Merthyr Tydfil, and later at Aberpennar (Mountain Ash) in the Cynon Valley, one of the most socially deprived spots in mid-Glamorgan, where he lived until taken into hospital last summer. But, ever "a Swansea Jack", he asked to be moved to his home town in November, wanting, I believe, to die there.
His last public act was to announce, in 1985, that he would write no more in English, adding with characteristic hyperbole that English was "a dying language" and that the only language for a true Welshman was Welsh.
For my part - and I write of his friend of more than 30 years, his literary executor, and the only other person to have read his voluminous journal - I take this to mean that Harri, almost all of whose writing was done in English, had nothing more to communicate, and that this was his way, provocative to the last, of burning Union Flags.
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