Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Report of the Burton Centre Postgraduate Conference



This year’s Burton Centre conference was a resounding success. With contributions coming from Swansea-based postgraduates working in a variety of disciplines, there was much to reflect and debate on during the course of the day. It was also great to see the various threads and connections that could be made between the students’ work.

We kicked off with a panel that set the day off to a great start. Bleddyn Penny, a PhD student in the History Department, whose research is focused on the Steel Works in Port Talbot presented a paper entitled ‘“Steel City”: Industry, Identity and Place in Post-War Port Talbot’. As a native of Port Talbot myself, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Bleddyn’s insights on the significance of the steel works in the construction of Port Talbot’s civic identity; it is perhaps something you can take for granted through sheer familiarity. Bleddyn’s research is thoroughly needed today, not only in shining some light on what can be now seen as a fairly grubby town, but in the wider context of the importance of social history. Sophie Williams’s research is a comparative take on Welsh and Basque national identity. Her paper, ‘The Analysis of National Identity and its relationship to the Nation and Nationalism’ offered us a fascinating overview into the methodology and aims of her research, and what is striking about Sophie’s fieldwork is the amount of work she puts in to interviewing people from Wales and the Basque Country. The comparison made is a strong one, but what was refreshing about Sophie’s paper is that she was honest that the driving force behind her research was her interest in, and passion for, the Basque Country. It may sound naïve, but the importance of enthusiasm and love for your subject cannot be dismissed, and this is something that came across strongly in all our speakers (we are still young, this may fade!). Sam Blaxland ended our first panel with a paper about the overlooked history of the Conservative party in Wales. Sam pointed out the ideological biases that he has faced in his research, as Welsh has been and to some extent still is, very heavily Labour-dominated.

The second panel began with Alexandra Jones’s paper, ‘“Lost Limbs, twisted spines, gashed faces”: Disability and the Male Body in British Coalfields Literature’, which was fascinating as usual. Alex’s work always throws out new insights into coalfields literature, and you never fail to be amazed over the prevalence of images of disability that dominate these texts. Alex’s paper explored the tragic consequences of disability on the male body, and it was thoroughly moving. My own paper was next, ‘“It was the blood that spoke”: Race and Identity in Geraint Goodwin’s The Heyday in the Blood’, which was based on work I have done this year as part of my MA. The last paper in the panel was a bit special (not least because the speaker had done a Prezi- I’m still yet to embrace PowerPoint, and played it safe with a hand-out instead) as this speaker had come over from Kent State University to present to us. Mark Rhodes’s paper, ‘Paul Robeson: Cyfaill Cymru a’r byd/Friend of Wales and the World’, spoke to a long-standing interest we have in Wales with the slightly mythical figure of Robeson. Mark’s research explores the memorial landscape of Robeson, and he compared his presence in Wales with his near absence in America. This paper prompted some probing questions from Professor M. Wynn Thomas who shrewdly pointed out that we may want to think to what use Robeson is being put to in Wales (not before giving us one of his wonderfully insightful ‘sermons’!).

One of the highlights of the day was undoubtedly our keynote speaker, Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University. We were delighted and privileged to have Richard speak to us on his new book, ‘The Fascist Party in Wales’? Plaid Cymru, Welsh nationalism and the Accusation of Fascism (published originally in Welsh last year). Richard talked through his motivations for writing the book, and raised some of the key issues, arguing persuasively that the accusations have been, to be short, nonsense. What was also great about Richard’s lecture is that he offered his views (and they are views that we should all take notice of, coming as they do from a committed and inspirational scholar) on the nature of Welsh Studies. He spoke of three key areas- methodology, context and myth. He made an impassioned claim that the Welsh language should be central to Welsh Studies, arguing that in the US, a reading knowledge of at least one other language is generally a required element of graduate school there. While this might put some students in an awkward position, it is a persuasive argument that you cannot fully be involved in many areas of Welsh Studies without knowledge of (or at the very least, a genuine respect for) the Welsh language. But Richard also warned us of the dangers of being too parochial, arguing that we must set Wales in a wider context, and engage with Wales’s place in the wider world. Richard lastly pointed out the dangers of a ‘Whiggish’ view of Welsh history that can lead to lack of debate, and argued that there must be challenge to the Labour hegemony that has dominated Welsh history.

Two fascinating papers followed the inspirational talk by Richard, one looking at linguistics, the other looking at Wales’s theatre tradition. Ben Jones’s research looks at the Welsh-English dialect in fiction, which offered some really interesting insights into who has used the Welsh English dialect in different periods and to what effect. What was also interesting and very new to me (and to some of the older members of the audience who I am, despite my twenty-two years, clearly more aligned to) was the use of Welsh-English dialect in videogames, and how this might be linked to positive stereotyping of Wales as a fantasy Celtic land. Liza Penn-Thomas, working on the Welsh theatre tradition, gave a marvellous paper which showed the richness of archival research in a field like Welsh Studies. Liza unearthed some wonderful sources and went through the palpable joy felt when you stumble upon a vital find in your research.

Hannah Sams’s paper, delivered in Welsh, ‘A yw hi’n amser i newid y gan? Perfformiad y Theatr Genedlaethol o Diweddgan gan Samuel Beckett’, not only showed us of the need to have academic work written in the Welsh language in Wales but also introduced many of us in the audience to the Welsh-language theatre tradition. Hannah’s research questions whether the theatre of the absurd has had its day in Wales, which is a common opinion among reviewers and audiences. Lastly, Christian Williams’s paper looked at the significant heritage of Swansea’s chapel culture, a heritage that is under serious threat. Christian called for a society to be set up in Swansea which will celebrate and commemorate this significant aspect of Welsh history, before it is lost to all.

‘Why were there so many voices?’, asks a bewildered Trystan Morgan’s towards the end of Glyn Jones’s The Valley, the City, the Village I often think of this quote when I reflect back on any academic conference I have attended. It can feel like that- but then you realise the need that a small nation like Wales has for a diversity of voices, of experiences, of opinions. M Wynn Thomas, whose presence at any conference automatically enriches the experience, insisted at the end of the conference that presenting a paper isn’t enough- we must be prepared to listen to the multiplicity of voices around us in order to work together for Wales’s academic culture to grow. The challenge we are left with is how we can get these voices heard outside the comfort of the seminar room.


The conference was arranged by Hannah Sams (Academi Hywel Teifi), Sophie Williams (Political and Cultural Studies) and Clare Davies (CREW). The organisers would like to thank all in RIAH for their support, especially Dr Elaine Canning, Helen Baldwin and Vicky Lewis, and Professor Daniel Williams, Director of the Richard Burton Centre. Warm thanks also to all those who presented on the day, and of course to Professor Richard Wyn Jones for his wonderful keynote. Diolch o galon i chi gyd.