Show Hide image

Wales: England’s oldest colony

Subjugated and marginalised, the Welsh have refused to be dominated.

When Anne Robinson relegated the Welsh to oblivion a few years ago on Room 101, the outcry in Wales - much smaller than it was made out to be in England, but admittedly pretty shrill - was met over the border with a further sneer. "How predictable," was the response. "Where's their sense of humour?" Robinson, who was born in Liverpool (as was I, but a very different Liverpool from the one she knows), said that she found the Welsh "irritating", and asked: "What are they for?"

At the risk of endowing self-satisfied bigotry with a dignity it doesn't deserve, I'll answer the question and state that one of the functions of the Welsh is to not be English: that the people, nation and language are there for an arrogant and imperious bully of a neighbour to measure itself against, and to find itself wanting. The essential and assiduous unconquerability of an ex-colonial power's nearest neighbour and oldest colony is exasperating and an affront to certain hearts. So in short, Anne, to answer your preposterous query: the function of the Welsh is to not be you.

It's the continuing use and existence of the Welsh language, I think, that so infuriates the Anglocentric mind; for God's sake, they speak English 12,000 miles away in Australia, so why can't they speak it a mere 120 miles west of Whitehall? Britain's Celtic communities are defined linguistically, rather than by race or place of birth. Alistair Moffat, in his book The Sea Kingdoms, writes that "because Welsh is such an old language and because it described Britain first, it carries a version of the history of the whole island inside it" - an idea that can be seen as crystallised in the naming of nations. The word "Wales" in Old English means "land of foreigners", while "Cymru" in Welsh means "land of friends", and the Welsh word for England, "Lloegr", means "the lost lands". What histories of strife and surrender, what vacillations between tolerance and antagonism, are encapsulated in such nomenclature.

English is, of course, an astonishingly rich and diverse language, but its existence is not predicated on the extinction of other tongues, as Anglocentrism seems to think (and, sometimes, even to desire). Ned Thomas, a tireless campaigner for the Welsh language, wrote in The Welsh Extremist that "a campaign to establish proper bilingualism in Wales is . . . a direct threat to bureaucracy . . . To the system, the area in which people think in Welsh is an area of chaos." In Wales, the power politics of language has been, and is still, played out: from the "Welsh Knot" (a heavy block of wood hung around the neck of any child heard speaking Welsh) to the erasure of Eng lish names for Welsh towns from road signs. Welsh identity has always been bound up with the language. In fact, for some, the two cannot be differentiated.

Recently, in the Don egal Gaeltacht, an Irish learner explained to me the comparative success of the Welsh language: it was, he said, because the Welsh look forward, whereas the Irish look back. I can't agree with this entirely - the dead are fetishised in Wales as much as in any other Celtic country - but I take his point: self-confidence and sense of identity, and ultimately political recognition, are contingent (or can be made to be contingent) upon a living language. This know ledge has led, at last, to Welsh becoming "cool". Once that imprimatur is awarded, it is very difficult to lose, and a survival of some form is almost guaranteed. Half a million people speak Welsh fluently: that's one in six of the population. A century ago, it was one in 30. That's a slow recovery, but it's not going to go away; new learners appear every day (myself included).

The danger here, however, is that, to a certain type, the ability to speak Welsh allies them with other minorities across the globe. This is fine when a shared identity is forged with, say, Bretons or Catalans, but it becomes distasteful, to say the least, when a comparison is made with Palestinians or post-Katrina New Orleans blacks - particularly when one considers that the ability to speak Welsh is the very reason why a high-paying job in the Welsh media, and consequently a half-million-pound house in Cardiff's Pontcanna or the Bay, have become available. This has become a small, if persistent and self-congratulatory, trend in Welsh-language writing recently, and I find it profoundly offensive; it's concomitant with the wider western vogue for pretending, for wanting, to have suffered more (see the writing of James Frey or Augus ten Burroughs, for example). In England, such people tend to be called "the middle classes"; in Wales, they're the crachach, easily distinguishable by their frequent and vehement denials of belonging to that group.

I personally believe that a docker from Swansea has more in common with a docker from Hull than he does with a white-collar professional from West Glamorgan, but that's never going to be recognised; the conqueror's tactic of divide and rule has been so successful as to now run bone-deep, on both sides of Offa's Dyke. The cleverness of the common enemy - those who divide and rule - is that they stay unacknowledged and hidden.

Unconquerable connections

And yet, transcending class, and away from the industrialised, citified south or the arcaded and promenaded north - and less than half a day's travelling from Westminster - lies what many commentators (and tourists of the more intrepid sort) like to call the "real Wales": the green and mountainous heart of the country.

It's a place utterly "Other" to the Anglocentric mindset. Superficially, it resembles the Lake District, but where that has been widely gen trified and prettified and twee'd down towards the tourist quid, this place stays filled with that brooding wildness which tends to characterise lives lived in the shadows of colossal waves of rock. It suited the Enlightenment to present such a place as serene and beautiful, where men and nature lived in harmonious interaction, but the reality is what confronts you here every single day: mud, bone, shit, blood, rot, hawks hunting overhead, death always adjacent.

It's alien and threatening to the suburbanised soul; it's the cancer in the Little Englander's body politic. The "playground Wales" mentality never ventures here; it erects its Union flags elsewhere, it props up the bar in seaside towns and sounds off about not liking the Welsh, but "at least there are no niggers here" (I'm sorry, but I've lost count of the number of times I've heard such sentiments expressed; see the kind of people we're invaded by?). This place endures; its boulders, peaks and streams can be discerned in the hard consonants and snarled sibilants and sudden plosives of the language that long ago evolved from these pinnacles and troughs.

Such a place informs the peculiarly and wholly Welsh concept of hiraeth. Often translated simply as "longing" or "homesickness", it is actually much, much more than that. It is more closely related to the Portuguese saudade or the Spanish duende: a kind of affirmative sadness, of attachment to a place so physically and spiritually profound that it can be heartbreaking, as well as a powerful spur to creation. It has nothing to do with wearing patriotic garb or singing the national anthem (even if "Yr Hen Wlad fy Nhadau" sung at the Millennium Stadium does make the soul soar); instead, it's bound up with a recognition that the blood beats in your arteries in the same way that the seas and streams around you boom at their shores and banks. It's to do with a calmness, which, like the calmness that comes with finding a god, has absolutely nothing to do with comfort.

Marcus Tanner, in his The Last of the Celts, talks of how his travels through Wales in search of his ancestors' graves gave him the means to understand aspects of his looks and personality that had always, during his upbringing in southern England, baffled him. "Almost everything about me," he writes, "my personality, my face, my height, my shape - made more sense." What had marked him out as unusual in suburban England - his stockiness, his black-haired/blue-eyed colouring, his propensity to be quickly moved to tears of joy or rage - made him un remarkable in rural Wales. "In England, I had developed a sense of watchfulness about my own personality, aware that it needed keeping in check, and that at any moment I might sound unsuitably loud, excitable and over the top. In Wales, that feeling of difference from my surroundings fell away."

That's what it means to have an unconquerable connection to a place: it's an indication of how a culture can endure. Such constancy despite ubiquitous social flux - in which the cosmetic creation of personal identity is not only foisted on us but, it seems, actively yearned for - offers a necessary anchoring: a placid and vital immutability. As the old song says: "Ry'n ni yma o hyd/Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth/Ry'n ni yma o hyd". Which, for those non-Welsh speakers out, there means: "We're still here/Despite everybody and everything/We're still here". And thank God for that.

This article also appears in Catalyst magazine 


Assembly elections

The National Assembly for Wales has its third election on 3 May. Labour, which holds 29 of the 60 seats, is likely to suffer, although not as heavily perhaps as in Scotland. This is what is at stake:

A coalition government of Labour and the Liberal Democrats is the most likely outcome. If Labour's losses are severe enough, however, a "grand coalition" between the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru could oust Labour from power altogether.

Turnout is expected to be low. In 2003, just 38 per cent voted.

The Welsh Assembly is far less powerful than its Scottish counterpart. It cannot make primary legislation and has no tax-varying powers. Despite this, the assembly has introduced some eye-catching policies, such as providing free school milk to primary-school children and scrapping prescription charges.

As in Scotland, each voter votes twice. Of the 60 assembly seats, 40 are elected from constituencies under the usual first-past-the-post system. The remaining 20 are elected through a form of proportional representation. In 2003, all Labour's seats were constituency ones, whereas the Conservatives gained ten top-up seats and won in only one constituency.

After the election, the Government of Wales Act 2006 will come into force, expanding the assembly's powers. However, some believe it is not far-reaching enough.

Research by Sarah O'Connor

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood