It’s the weekend of the Big Match, but only those outside Wales will need to ask: which one? Wales v England at rugby. For the Welsh, an opportunity to strike back at a thousand years of English dominance and, for the first time this year, to do so at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium where, in the words of the Max Boyce song, “the roof slides back when Wales attack, so God can watch them play”.
The stadium is the visible symbol of what some call the New Wales. Unlike its invisible sibling, the National Assembly, lost somewhere down in Cardiff Bay, the stadium slams you in the face as you leave the central railway station. On match days, the police have to close the roads through the main shopping area, so proving that rugby has succeeded where the chapel failed, in checking our compulsion to shop around the clock.
When my colleagues and I came up with the idea of making a short film for Channel 4 about the relationship between the Welsh and the English, the unconforming largeness of the stadium seemed the right place to start. It’s that rare thing, a big Welsh building in Wales. Most of the others are castles, built by English invaders.
The proposition of the film – made to the English by an Englishman – is that England, sitting at the heart of a fragmenting United Kingdom and at the edge of a growing and more assertive European Union, needs help in securing its own identity. The English, we suggest, might for once stop looking down at Wales and instead learn from a country that has shown matchless ingenuity over the centuries in retaining its identity and national purpose.
It is an argument that necessarily begins by inspecting views of Wales on the eastern side of Offa’s Dyke: not a noble spectacle.
“Wales reminds me of everything that I used to hate about England,” one London journalist told me when I started working at Cardiff University. “It’s England stuck in the late 1950s, before the shops opened decent hours and the restaurants served good food with a bit of spirit.”
No, that wasn’t A A Gill, who merely called the Welsh “loquacious dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly pugnacious trolls”. Gill declined an invitation to take part in the film, but the writer Simon Heffer obliged, warning that Wales was in danger of becoming “the Albania of England”.
Once it starts, English invective against Wales rolls like an avalanche. The Welsh are uncultured. They don’t have the craic like the Irish or have the brains of the Scots. We’re happy to have a Cabinet half full of Scots, but give a Welshman a chance and he blows it by behaving like a drunken boyo at a Royal Garden Party – viz Neil Kinnock at the Sheffield election rally in 1992. In so far as the Welsh do have any culture to inspect, it takes place in some sodden field, where you’re not allowed to drink or speak the language that four-fifths of Welsh people speak all the time, namely English.
What’s more, you can mock the Welsh without fear of reprisal. There’s never been a Welsh Billy Connolly. Didn’t Hugh Grant sum it all up in Notting Hill when he won Julia Roberts’s heart by pointing out that if she rejected him, all she had to go home to was an empty fridge and a masturbating Welshman (Rhys Ifans)?
Channel 4’s own contribution to this tradition flourishes. Ali G makes an expedition to Wales to mock a language that involves “flobbing”. Harry Hill has a favourite location called Landfill Gogogoch, where you can’t see the leeks for the tall hats. Over on the BBC, Jeremy Clarkson snips Wales off the map and stuffs it in the microwave. Hilarious!
Similar confusions beset the work of our historians. As Norman Davies points out in his Celt-friendly The Isles, “one would be hard put to find another state or country which is so befuddled about the basic framework of its past”. He describes a procession of famous historians, guilty of confusing England with Britain, Britain with the United Kingdom, and worse.
As a child, I went a lot to Wales on family holidays, mainly to places such as Rhyl and Prestatyn. But my favourite childhood snap is of my mum, dad and two brothers standing beneath the huge stone arch of Pentre Ifan, a Stone Age burial chamber. Because it was part of childhood’s dreamland, I had no idea of this place’s whereabouts, until finding it near where we now live in west Wales. We spent the first day of the millennium there. Magic.
Historians think that Stonehenge was built with boulders from these hills, but no one can be sure. Most of Welsh history is shadowy, and short on melodrama. Even the most famous Welshman in history, Owain Glyndwr, simply vanished without trace after failing to overthrow the English. No public execution at the Tower of London. No Mel Gibson movie.
Meanwhile, Welsh children were beaten at school for speaking the language of their parents.
There is no doubt that the impossible strangeness of the Welsh language is what most upsets the English. I’ve asked dozens of English people to explain why they don’t like Wales and the response invariably includes a story about finding yourself in a shop or pub, and faced with people speaking Welsh.
If the same thing happens in Italy or France we, the English, don’t mind. It’s because we know the Welsh can speak English, and, secretly, because we think they’re in our country, that we take use of the language as an act of gratuitous hostility. The colonial master is not amused. This is precisely the thoughtless, gut reaction that the English must put behind them, if they are to shape up to questions about their own and other national and community identities.
The point about language, apart from being a core issue of freedom of expression and therefore of civil liberty, is of wider cultural significance.
Professor David Crystal of Bangor University, an expert in dying languages, says that somewhere in the world a language dies every fortnight. Since language is the best and in some respects the only transmission mechanism for ideas through time, this represents a startling loss of cultural biodiversity.
The argument in the film is not that Wales is utopia. Not at all. The Welsh come in all shapes and sizes, good, bad and ugly. And because Wales is a country whose economic output per head is not much more than 85 per cent of the UK average, its people get sicker and die younger. Wales badly needs to build upon its strengths (such as organic farming) and address its weaknesses (information and communications technology).
But to do any of these things requires a relationship with England based upon mutual respect. It is this that the juven- ile stereotyping by the English media corrodes.
Wales must get the balance right between countering and ignoring this abuse. The fact of the National Assembly will, in time, help. But as Rhodri Morgan admits in an interview for the film, the assembly will succeed politically only if it is first seen to have helped cause economic revival. And the most vital ingredient of economic performance is confidence, as any economist will tell you. Perhaps the legend above the assembly’s doorway should read: Don’t get mad, get even. Or even: Paid a gwyllti gwna’r un peth n’ol.
We talked for ages about what to call this film. In the end, the ghost of Bruce Lee arose and it became: Enter the Dragon. It’s a title conceived in a spirit of what politicians call cautious optimism.
Enter the Dragon, a Presentable production, is on Channel 4 at 7.30pm and in Wales on S4C at 9.30pm on 2 February