In the mid-1960s, two disastrous events happened in Wales. One was the flooding of the Tryweryn valley in the north of the country, to create a reservoir that would supply water to Liverpool – an unbelievably arrogant act that destroyed the Welsh-speaking community of Capel Celyn. The other was the catastrophe that occurred in October 1966 in Aberfan, the south Wales pit village where, despite clear warnings of looming danger, a vast spoil tip slid down a hillside behind Pantglas Junior School, killing 144 people, 116 of them children. Both episodes shone harsh light on the neglect and condescension that characterised the British state’s treatment of a country of 3 million people. For example, having been informed of the Aberfan tragedy, the chairman of the National Coal Board decided not to drop everything and visit the scene, but keep his afternoon engagement to be invested as the first chancellor of Surrey University.
In this rich and moving history of modern Wales, Tryweryn and Aberfan are portrayed as the low points that led to the revival and protection of the Welsh language, and the eventual arrival of political devolution. But its 500-odd pages contain much more, thanks partly to its author’s inspired decision to write an oral history – a form, he says, “that favours the grain of the voice and the grain of the Welsh voice in particular”. It also allows the text to spin out into compelling digressions. Better still, though the experiences of the Welsh-speaking west and north of Wales are very different from those rooted in the anglophone, (post-) industrial south, common themes of mistreatment and resistance come to life in the form of first-hand anecdotes. Richard King’s 90-plus interviewees range from the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and that ex-resident of Lambeth Palace Rowan Williams, through a multitude of trailblazing activists, to such cultural figures as the writer Rachel Trezise and Manic Street Preachers. All of them capably join the personal to the political.
A particularly vivid element of the book is the long saga of sabotage and civil disobedience practised by campaigners for the official recognition of their language: at its peak in the 70s, as they made the case for a Welsh-only TV channel, as they made the case for a Welsh-only TV channel in the 1970s, a thousand members of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the imperfect English translation is the Welsh Language Society) were incarcerated either in prison or police cells.
More murky but no less interesting is the mess of unanswered questions that still surrounds the burning down of second homes and holiday cottages between the late 1970s and mid-90s, and the tale of the somewhat eccentric paramilitary organisation that called itself the Free Wales Army. A longer lasting aspect of Wales’s collective identity was heralded by the arrival in some of its rural areas of beatniks, hippies and eco-pioneers, whose belief in what we now call sustainability eventually added a crucial element to the image it now presents to the world. But at the time, their utopian visions were soon overshadowed by the awful convulsions experienced by people in other parts of Wales – not least of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and the hollowing-out that followed it. “Within months, what had been confident communities with real vitality and strength had become drug-dependent, subject to family breakup, divorce, delinquency of various kinds, rootlessness and social fragmentation,” Kinnock says. Here was a similar abandonment to that seen in Aberfan and Tryweryn.
The former south Wales coalfield remains a byword for disadvantage. Nonetheless, Wales now has a tentative confidence in itself, thanks to what King calls a “community of communities”, founded on both politics and a popular-cultural renaissance. A good example can be found on the Manics’ fifth album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours: a song titled Ready for Drowning, which presents the flooding of Capel Celyn as a parable about Wales’s treatment by distant centres of power: “Drown that poor thing, put it out of its misery / Condemn it to its future / Deny its history.” As much as the revolts and refusals it describes, this book eloquently rejects that erasure of memory and experience; the result is a work of history whose stories feel as if they are still unfolding.
• Brittle with Relics: A History of Wales, 1962-97 by Richard King is published by Faber (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.