Learning the Welsh tongue

Sian's on holiday in North Wales, taking a break from politics and enjoying that great country's cul

London, elections, politics – all banned from my blog this week on the orders of me. I’m officially on holiday, in North Wales for a few days for a bit of a party, lots of wandering around on local trains and buses, plenty of eating and tons of touristy stuff amongst the mountains.

I haven’t visited Snowdonia since being brought on hiking trips when I was at school. Given that this time I haven’t been dragged out of bed at 6 am, fed on baked beans and reconstituted ‘breakfast slices’, made to use an outside toilet or walked uphill in the driving rain all day, I’ve come away with a very different view of the place, although it’s no less spectacular than I remember.

I am leading by example here, because getting people to holiday in Britain is a personal project of mine at the moment. Along with everyone except Landrover, I’ve given up on carbon offsetting, so have switched to persuading people to replace holidays abroad with trips to our own shores instead. The biggest success so far has been to get my whole family to join me in the Lake District this May half term. I’ve estimated that, if it displaces a flying holiday to Europe for each of them I’ll have helped save about 3 tons of carbon dioxide, even if we leave the lights on all week.

Perhaps, in order to convince my nephew our trip to the Lakes beats another beach in Spain, I should have gone for North Wales instead. This part of the UK isn’t just beautiful, it’s also more of a change from London than any European city I’ve been to lately. This impression is helped by the fact that the Welsh language is so widely spoken in daily life.

Contrary to what my name suggests, I have no Welsh in me and hardly know a word of the language, but my travelling companion is fluent and most of the people we’ve been spending time with are Welsh speakers too, so I have found myself being the ‘foreign one’ in conversations, with people kindly speaking to each other in English for my benefit.

This has helped start a few good discussions about how best to put concepts that can only be properly expressed in Welsh. The best of the resulting new Welsh words in my nascent vocabulary are therefore ‘malu cachu’ (bullshitting – literally ‘mincing shit’) and the neologism ‘poptŷ ping’ (microwave – literally ‘ping oven’. If I had a microwave I’d definitely call it that).

Of course, tourism can itself be a force for homogenisation and low-wage economies, which would undermine the sense of difference that makes this area so attractive. So it was a bit disheartening to see a new Tesco just on the edge of Porthmadog, a town with independent butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and clothes shops along the high street. How long they will survive is anyone’s guess and I am a bit confused as to why the local council has allowed a supermarket to be built. Surely localism, tourism and the culture of the area would all be enhanced by keeping the likes of Tesco out of towns like this?

After a busy few weeks, I’m using this trip for emergency relaxation. Looking at the sea is brilliant for the soul, and the coastline around Bangor, Harlech and Porthmadog is some of the best I have sat and gazed at in ages. Thoughtfulness is further stimulated by this part of the world being absolutely stuffed with stone circles (put up for druids at the annual Eisteddfod arts festival) and gorgeous mediaeval castles.

Built by Edward I from the 1270s to ‘contain the Welsh’, fourteen of these are dotted around the top left corner of Wales. They seem to grow straight up out of the bedrock in many places, and the most famous include Conwy, Beaumaris, Carnaerfon and Harlech, all World Heritage Sites. We spent an afternoon clambering over every inch of Harlech Castle – home to an early Welsh seat of government after being captured in an uprising by Owain Glyn Dŵr in 1404 (and then captured back five years later by the English under Prince Harry of Monmouth, later Henry V).

The castle is now home to hundreds of crows doing aerobatic displays and, though it originally had the sea lapping up against its walls, is now about half a mile from the beach in Harlech, as the enormous and growing sand dunes have gradually reclaimed the land below. This is something rising sea levels may rectify if we don’t do something soon. Perhaps that’s what Rhodri Morgan meant when he said climate change “will not be entirely unhelpful” for Wales. Oops, I’m on the way back to London now and politics is creeping in again. Time to shut up.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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In defence of the metropolitan elite

Railing against low-paid academics will not solve Britain's inequality problem. 

It’s a measure of how topsy-turvy our political culture has become that Theresa May, a Conservative, Oxford-educated prime minister, can claim to be on the side of "ordinary working-class people" against a sneering "elite". But while Brexit has made this division central to our political culture, we’ve been heading in this direction for a while. 

Earlier this year, I was watching a heated exchange between centrist Labour MP Alan Johnson and Left Unity’s Simon Hardy on the Daily Politics show. At one point, Johnson bellowed across the table: "You’re a middle-class intellectual!" So this is now a stand-alone insult, I thought to myself, and took to Twitter to share my indignation. A friend immediately replied: "He means you." And she’s right. I am indeed a middle-class intellectual, a member of the metropolitan elite. Given the prevalence of post-Brexit elite-bashing, I’m loath to stick my head above the parapet. But as my liberal intellectual English lecturers used to say, these terms need unpacking. 

The right-wing anti-elitism that we are seeing all around us co-opts the left’s opposition to financial and corporate dominance and converts it into opposition to those who are educated. To listen to Tory speeches now it’s as if the top 1 per cent didn’t own half the world’s wealth, as if the sales of individual global corporations hadn’t overtaken many national economies, as if CEOs didn’t earn 300 times the salary of the average worker. No, it’s the liberal, metropolitan elite that’s the real menace – those mighty "experts" and "commentators". As Michael Gove, another Oxford-educated Tory, declared during the EU referendum: "People in this country have had enough of experts." 
Anti-elitism conflates political office and cultural and educational distinction on the one hand, with social privilege on the other. But there’s no intrinsic reason why there should be a homogenous "political class", or that those with expertise or artistic judgement should necessarily be rich. In 1979, 16 per cent of MPs had a background in manual work; in 2010 the proportion had dropped to 4 per cent. The history of the Worker’s Educational Association and the Open University reveals a lively tradition of working-class intellectualism. It’s true that, right now, political and cultural capital are appallingly centralised, and there is a revolving door between ministerial office and business. The range of people entering the arts and higher education has been narrowed by the removal of social security and block grants.

Today's anti-elitism, far from empowering the disenfranchised, covertly promotes neoliberal economics. High standards are equated with having the upper hand. Attacks on "cosmopolitan elites" - i.e. those who benefited from affordable education - entrench inequality, put the left on the back foot and protect the real elites – all this while producing a culture that’s bland, dumbed-down and apologetic.
This manoeuvre is everywhere. Brexit is a surreal pageant of inverted protest - May’s use of the royal prerogative supposedly represents the will of the people. The beneficiaries of the PM's grammar school "revolution", she claims, will be "the hidden disadvantaged children". Those who question the evidence base for this are simply metropolitan snobs. ‘This is post-referendum politics’, the BBC’s education editor reminded us tellingly on Today, ‘where the symbolic status of grammar schools as a chance to better yourself has trumped the expert consensus’.
The higher education bill currently going through Parliament brandishes the downtrodden student consumer as a stick with which to beat academics. According to the business-friendly University Alliance, academia’s reluctance to emphasise "employability" carries "more than a whiff of snobbery". Top-down curation is out; impact, feedback and engagement the new mantra. With their worth constantly weighed against the most pressing social priorities, cultural organisations no longer seem convinced by their own right to exist.
The "democratisation" of education, media and culture must be recognised for what it is -  a proxy for real democracy and any attempt to tackle social and economic inequality. Just as the redistributive work of politics is shunted onto embattled and underfunded sectors, the same anti-elitist pressure weakens politics itself. Democracy is thoroughly distorted by economic forces. But the solution is not, as right-wing populists do, to attack the system itself - it’s the only means we have of creating a fairer world. 
This anti-political sentiment is aimed disproportionately at the left, at do-gooding idealists and defenders of the "patronising" welfare state. Stricken with anxiety about being out of touch with its former heartlands, Labour is unable to strategise, put up a credible leader, or confidently articulate its principles. Unless it can tell a positive story about informed debate, political institutions and – yes – political authority, the left will remain vulnerable to whatever Ukip contorts into next.

It’s time to stand up proudly for good elitism – for professional judgement, cultural excellence and enlightenment values. Once, conservatives championed political authority and high art. But now that they’ve become scorched-earth modernisers, it’s time for progressives to carry the torch. Otherwise, disparities of wealth will become ever sharper, while the things that give our lives meaning dissolve into mediocrity.



Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.