I’d written this piece for my writing group which was due to meet 1 Mar 19, Dydd Dewi Sant (St David’s Day). Sadly our host for the day has a family medical emergency so we had to postpone. Given the timeliness of the piece I thought I’d post it anyway and write something else for our re-arranged event. Here it is:
It’s a frequent conversation. ‘Are you English?’ ‘No I’m Welsh’.
I’m British and comfortable with that but I’m not English. That’s geographically wrong. There’s a clear border and when you drive over it you see that it’s a different place. There’s evidence of another language, the place names are different and it seems that there are fewer motorways, there’s more green grass and lots of sheep.
I grew up in Wales, in Connah’s Quay in the top right hand corner. That’s close to Chester which is in England of course but it makes it no less Welsh just like Chester is no less English because it’s close to Wales. It wasn’t the most Welsh part of Wales, few people spoke Welsh, but there was a Welsh chapel in the town and we learnt Welsh in school. As children when tossing a coin to resolve a difference we generally called ‘tails for Wales’. We wore daffodils on St David’s Day and saw nothing strange about the pubs being closed on Sundays.
I was in school during the 50s and early 60s and we learnt about the great Welsh heroes, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd and Owain Glyndwr, and about its radical political leaders William Gladstone, David Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan. We were thrilled by and proud of present day heroes: Richard Burton, John Charles and Tom Jones. They were big for us at the time but you know with hindsight that they were just a minority, fine exemplars of their type but nothing really exceptional and just ones amongst many.
Strangley our school environment was essentially Welsh. Although the teaching medium was English most of our teachers were Welsh and Welsh speaking. There was a majority of teachers with typical Welsh surnames: Jones, Williams, Evans, Thomas and Davies. In those days of course teachers learnt their trade at teachers training colleges and it appeared that those in Wales seem to supply schools across England as well where Welsh became the language within their staffrooms.
Wales was conquered by the English and although they gave us a Prince he had and still has no power. It’s been clear who’s the boss. From limitations imposed on the use of the Welsh language to the exploitation of the South Wales coal fields by English robber barrons Wales hasn’t profited much from its relationship with England. It’s not surprising that it’s been a source of radical socialism.
Wales of course is, along with Scotland, a part of the Celtic fringe but as you travel you see more evidence of the latter. Maybe it’s because of its ship building heritage but you see its impact from Jardine Matheson, Hong Kong’s leading trading house, through Jalan Macpherson in Singapore to market leader Mackay’s Biscuits in Chile. I remember a highland gathering in Jakarta and visiting the offices of Forbes Gokak in Mumbai and enjoying its board room which could easily have existed on Princes Street in Edinburgh.
Although there’s said to be a Welsh enclave in Patagonia the Welsh don’t seem to have had the same international impact. Except of course if you look at India. There’s a school of thought that the sing song nature of Indian English is down to the influence of Welsh missionaries. But really the Welsh do not seem to have travelled even to England. Close to my home now there are no Joneses on the cenotaph in Histon.
The other side of this coin is Wales itself. Despite the urban cliche of Dai Wong’s Chinese restaurant in Cardiff and the melting pot of Tiger Bay which begat Shirley Bassey Wales is not a country of immigrants. I had thought that the appearances of Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi in the red jersey of Wales last weekend signified a trend but they are still outnumbered by the Joneses, Williamses, Davies, Evanses, Owens and the like. Maybe that’s why it voted in favour of leaving the European Union in the recent referendum despite its success in attracting EU money and the dependence of its hill farms on EU subsidies.
I don’t return to Wales very often now, I have no immediate family there, but do attend an informal reunion of people I met at the grammar school each November. It’s now got a Facebook group and through it I’ve been introduced to one linked to Connah’s Quay. But they’re both for reminiscence and don’t speak of the present. Although some like me have left most have remained so that’s a pattern that hasn’t changed.
Last year following the reunion Juni and I spent the weekend in Dyffryn Ceiriog, the south end of Snowdonia in what we’d call mid-Wales. OK it was off season but we saw a different world to the one we experience around Cambridge: hills and moorland, mountains and lakes. The sheep are still there and the Welsh language is visible in a way that it was not 50 years ago. There’s little evidence of the frenetic economic activity that’s a part of Cambridge life.
Fast forward to 2019 and I’m still Welsh. I attend the annual St David’ Day dinner at Jesus College and I watch the Welsh rugby team but it does tend to stress me out, although last Saturday’s match was one to savour. I’m proud of today’s heroes like Gareth Bale, Sam Warburton and Geraint Thomas but they’re all sports people and all men at that. Where are the giants of culture and the political firebrands? Are we still stuck with Tom Jones and is there no-one to follow Neil Kinnock?
So given all this what does it mean for me? Does it matter?
It means that I like eating lamb, I enjoy rugby and I can pronounce those Welsh place names with their wicked ch and double l sounds. But more importantly it gives me an empathy for the underdog, the ability to spot injustice and a willingness to fight against it, and the unwillingness to accept authority just for its own sake. I’m also told it’s given me a residual Welsh accent which I find surprising.
I am Welsh. It matters.