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.
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
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