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The Personal Column: Hedd Wyn

Jeff Cloves reflects on the life of Welsh poet Ellis Evans

As the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War draws to a close, I feel an undeniable sense of relief. The seemingly-endless grainy images of soldiers climbing out of their trenches and charging across no man’s land to be slaughtered in the name of king and country, have dominated the TV screens of the Dis-United Kingdom for long enough.

I suspect, however, that the urge to resist war has been strengthened by this prolonged assault on our human solidarity. There is unquestionable evidence of widespread disbelief that British involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is either effective or just, and incomprehension as to why our troops should be there anyway.

It was striking that, when ‘God Save the Queen’ was played at November’s Scotland-England football match at Celtic Park Glasgow, the Scottish supporters drowned it with their booing, and my heart lifted. It can be argued that, since the end of the Second World War, international sport has been nothing more than warfare by other means and its events have been sullied by a win-at-any-cost ethos, drugs, bribery and corruption.

As you might guess, I’ve avoided watching most newsreel coverage of the First World War, but I did decide to watch a showing of Hedd Wyn (to mark Remembrance Day) in Stroud and am very glad I did. The film was made in 1992 and is in Welsh with English subtitles. It tells the true story of the Welsh poet Ellis Evans who was killed at the Passchendaele front in 1917. ‘Hedd Wyn’ was his bardic name – it means ‘Blessed Peace’ – and he remains the only poet to have received the Eisteddfod bardic chair posthumously.

The film is unequivocally anti-war in sentiment but is not didactic; its story does its job, as does the beauty of the Welsh hill-farm landscape. I feel this film should be much better known and its themes reveal how Welsh nationalism and English colonialism were an essential element of the Home Front. Ellis Evans himself is a man who places poetry above everything but is irresistible to women. They realise eventually that he loves his work more than he can ever love them and he goes to his death emotionally-unfulfilled and unaware that he has triumphed at the 1917 Eisteddfod.

That Hedd Wyn was shown at all was the result of a personal initiative of Stroud poet Kevan Manwaring and it attracted an audience of a dozen. There was no admittance charge but donations to the Peace Pledge Union were welcomed. Altogether, a moving and timely event which left me more up than down.

I was born the day after Remembrance Day and have been forever heartened to discover that Jeffrey means ‘God’s peace/divine peace/gift of peace’. This year an anarchic green activist friend gave me a book for my birthday titled Tiny Acts of Rebellion. He wrote on the fly-leaf ‘this reminds me of your enthusiasm for The Invisible Insurrection Of A Million Minds’. I’ve written about TIIOAMM several times in this column and for those of us not made of the stuff of heroes and martyrs, this ’60s tactic of resistance is very appealing and, I think, under-used. Though, of course, by its very nature how would I know?

Anyway, my birthday book (published by Michael O’Mara Books in 2009) is by a Rich Fulcher – a comedian I’ve never heard of who’s appeared in TV programmes I’ve never seen. His book is written, he claims, ‘for us: people who have an inherent need to rebel…. these acts should not be considered meaningless. If we don’t commit tiny acts of rebellion on a daily basis, it [I’m not clear what his ‘it’ is] is inevitable’.

This book is funny in a surreal way but equally it can be puerile and offensive – to me at least. However, there is a worm in his rose and my friend is right: it’s the – diluted – spirit of TIIOAMM, so I’ll leave the last – characteristic – words to Rich Fulcher: ‘Whether it’s giving the finger to a waiter under the table or fashioning your own “Do Not Disturb” sign that says “Do Not Resuscitate”, this book is a primer that enables you to unleash your rebellious side in everyday life, without getting arrested* – probably.

*Legal disclaimer: the author is not responsible for anything, ever’.

My footnote: it’s time for the terms First World War and Second World War to be changed – they were not ‘world’ wars but ‘The White Wars’.