In the Taliesin Tradition

Emyr Humphreys’ Legacy

From Planet 241

by M. Wynn Thomas

M. Wynn Thomas remembers his friend Emyr Humphreys, who died in 2020 aged 101, a Welsh European until the end. He reflects on what Humphreys’ work tells us today about the ideological power of the image, the complexities of the postcolonial condition, and what it really takes to be a politically committed writer.

During the course of an interview I conducted with Emyr Humphreys some twenty years ago, he made a prescient remark. The British media, he explained, ‘is currently struggling to perpetuate what is left of the English imperial mentality: despising the European Union and grudgingly admiring the United States for commandeering their role and language’. He had seen Brexit coming, and known it would be the catastrophe it is now turning out to be. But he had also feared, with chillingly accurate foreknowledge – he was ever the most incisive of cultural analysts – that a gullible, inadequate, and complaisant Wales would be enticed into following England’s example, and self-destructively choose to turn its back on Europe as well.

‘To be European, we need first to be more Welsh,’ he had sadly, and despairingly, observed in another of the interviews I conducted with him. He himself had identified as a convinced Welsh European ever since spending a formative period at the end of World War Two helping to run a large refugee camp in the very heart of old Florence. That experience had for him been as culturally educational as it had been humanly revealing. It had also confirmed what he had already begun to learn through the life and work of his hero, Saunders Lewis: that Wales had once been a European nation and needed to become so again if it were to retain the distinctive cultural identity he so loved. On one of the last visits I paid to him, I found him – as he approached his hundredth birthday – reading (as he did every year) Dante’s Divina Commedia in Italian, but with Daniel Rees’s classic Welsh translation alongside. Wales and Italy: his two great loves. He was in his element.

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