Hands Up Who Knows What Happened in 1404?
1404: the year Owain Glyndŵr called his first Parliament representing the whole of Wales at Machynlleth, where he was crowned as the country’s last prince. At school I learned the moon landing happened in 1969, six years after the assassination of JFK, that Krakatoa erupted in 1883, and we all know what happened in 1066 (even if we might not be able to find Hastings on a map). But 1404 meant nothing to me.
The year is also the title to a lesser-known Manic Street Preachers song. It popped up on my playlist today after I’d been reading about another missed opportunity for our younger generations to learn about their history (in a nutshell, some important recommendations for our curriculum were ignored, and essential topics that have been included remain as guidance, rather than being made mandatory — what any given child learns will depend on the enthusiasm of individual teachers and, crucially, the budget of their school).
It’s a gentle yet mournful acoustic song, accompanying the single Autumnsong, released in 2007. It opens by questioning what might have been for this nation, with JDB claiming ‘I could have been the king of Wales’. If things had played out differently, if we had been in charge of our own destiny, what would this country look like today? Surely, we would have a completely different political landscape, if we were able to shape it ourselves? One thing I’m sure of, we’d all know a lot more about the events affecting us that have transpired since. There are few other countries who know so little about themselves.
The song of course isn’t lamenting the loss of our own monarchy — that’s hardly something you’d expect from the Manics. Rather, it’s mourning the loss of a historical identity to call our own. That isn’t to say we don’t have one, but that for many of us it remains out of reach.
The chorus spells it out. Our identity, our maturity as a nation, is ‘stuck in time’. For me, all too often my pride in being Welsh is accompanied by a sense of regret. Whatever we achieve as a nation, the knowledge is there that it could be so much more. If we surpass England at the Euros, it’s in the knowledge we’ll never do so at the Olympics. When we remember the Chartist uprising or 10,000 marching under the first red flag in Merthyr Tydfil, we do so in the knowledge we’ve nonetheless just endured another decade of Tory rule. If a young Welsh talent like Charlotte Church gets to meet the most powerful man on earth, there’s always the possibility he might not know we exist.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way, but ‘we hide it all behind our smiles’.
As they often do, the Manics then get explicit:
If R.S. Thomas was compulsory,
and Saunders Lewis was for free,
and Gwyn Alf taught our history,
and Dylan Kept our memories.
Of those named here, I left school having only heard of Dylan Thomas, and that was on telly. He’s famous enough to be recognised by only his first name, but I can’t help but wonder: if the Americans never warmed to him, would we view him in the same light? Sometimes it feels like we look for approval from ‘legitimate’ nations to help decide who we should cherish.
R.S. Thomas and Saunders Lewis are different. Lewis, very much a controversial figure, was hugely influential in the fight for the survival of the Welsh language — no other country is able to assess this significance, so regardless of your opinions of the man and his often awful views, his importance should be recognised without seeking outside endorsement.
R.S. Thomas didn’t learn the language until he was in his 30s but gained prominence as a renowned poet while concerning himself with the anglicisation of Wales — again, something impossible to deny is integral to understanding our history. Yet many in Wales will shrug their shoulders upon hearing both names.
The other inclusion depressed me most of all, and a google search for the lyrics helps to reveal why. Every version I came across incorrectly replaced Gwyn Alf Williams’ name with Glydŵr, because when listening to lyrics you tend to hear what you know — and why would anyone have heard of one of the most important historians we’ve ever had? While another country might ensure books like When Was Wales? were widely available, seeing them as curriculum worthy, I recently had to hunt down a second-hand copy.
It’s not an uplifting song, which sadly matches much of our history, but there is hope. The truth is, we’re not stuck in time. The past may be gone and so many opportunities have been missed. But history isn’t over, and the future is ours to write.
It leaves you wondering: what might have been? What might yet be: at least we’ve not yet reached the full stop.