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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad