An Englishman at the Eisteddfod

Eisteddfod - Wales' week-long celebration of the Welsh language - is also a time for anti-English sentiments to creep up the nationalist agenda.

John Mair

Topics Politics

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It hasn’t been a good week for the English in Wales.

First they were called ‘human foot-and-mouth’ by John Elfed Jones, (ex-)chairman of the Welsh Language Board. Next they were likened to ‘social misfits and society dropouts’ by Gwilym ab Ioan, then vice-president of Plaid Cymru (he was forced to resign from the party’s National Executive after his remark)(1). Then they were called ’a drain on our resources’ by Plaid Cymru councillor Seimon (nee Simon) Glyn.

Not surprisingly, it’s Eisteddfod – Wales’ week-long celebration of the Welsh language: a time when debates about Welsh culture get overheated and anti-English sentiments creep up the nationalist agenda. I, an Englishman, was there.

In muddy fields near Denbigh they came from far and wide to celebrate Eisteddfod. Even BBC Wales – which is broadcasting the event for S4C (the Welsh Channel Four) – published its programme guide in Welsh only. You could learn the language on site, courtesy of the American multinational owner of Welsh utilities company Western Power Distribution. But the event was full of contradictions like that. One stand for a Welsh group that wants the English and their second homes out of Wales for good was bang opposite the stand for Everest – the home improvement and double-glazing specialists.

The North Wales Tories – who have no MPs or many members – had their pitch next to the Welsh Lottery Funders and Welsh CND. It must have given former Welsh Tory leader Rod Richards convulsions to be stuck in that particular mud patch.

But nothing compared to the fits of anger suffered by fervent nationalists in the HTV tent. HTV had the gall to preview one of its programmes in English. Worse still, Tin God – a documentary on the late Saunders Lewis, a founding member of Plaid and the Welsh Language Society – ripped Lewis’ reputation to shreds. Historian Tim Williams labelled him an ’ideological anti-Semite’, calling for Welsh intellectuals to wake up from their ‘cultural denial’ and see Lewis for the fraud he was. And even Lewis’ political friends were unkind, with Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas, speaker of the new Welsh assembly and former Plaid MP, calling him ‘a lousy politician, a lousy writer, but a good Catholic’.

All that nationalists hold dear about Lewis was undermined: from his birth and education in England to his use of direct action (Williams called it ‘fascist methods’) to attack an RAF base at Penberth in the Lleyn Peninsula in 1936 (for which he was rewarded with nine months in prison). From the sheer bad quality of his dramatic writings to his most famous moment – his radio lecture ‘Tynged yr Iaith‘ (‘The fate of the language’) in 1962, which called for the Welsh language to be saved. Elis Thomas said that Lewis had been trying to ‘deify or reify the language’ and had taken the life out of it.

On to a latter-day Saunders Lewis, Gwynedd councillor Seimon (nee Simon) Glyn – whose group has a simple aim: Wales for the Welsh, English out. Apparently, that’s the only way to secure the survival of ’the oldest language in Europe, the greatest treasure that Wales possesses’.

According to Glyn, if the English are not exiled ‘it will be the end for our Welsh-speaking communities’. Trouble is, his grandfather was English and arrived in Nefyn on the Lleyn Peninsula (just down the road from Penberth, in fact) speaking not one word of ‘the oldest language in Europe’. But he picked it up in three months. His grandson nearly then lost it when hospitalised in Shropshire – and his grandson wants to ensure that doesn’t happen to any others.

Think of a cross between a pop festival for wrinklies, an agricultural show and a big concert in a tent – throw in lots of mud and you’ve got Eisteddfod. There was Welsh culture non-stop in the Big Tent, featuring lots and lots of traditional solo singers warbling on endlessly. But in other tents you could catch more contemporary music – like the calypso ‘Yellow Bird’ sung in Welsh.

There was EisteddFood galore – which meant tea everywhere, with New Welsh Labour laying on, what else but a photo opportunity plus tea. If you were feeling a bit more peckish you could go for Tato Pob (that’s jacket potatoes to you and I) or Nwdls (noodles) – though ‘authentic Indian cuisine’ didn’t seem to have any direct Welsh equivalent.

The select – thousands of them – were not a young set. Like the Tories, Welsh speakers seem to be a dying breed. There were lots of grandmothers and grandfathers, but few of working age. Grandchildren dragged along for the day did what any young person in any culture does – played games on the many computers dotted around the festival.

But there were no high spirits. In fact, there were no spirits of any kind – and woe betide the Englishman who asked, ‘Excuse me, where’s the beer tent?’. It might have been a grand day out in the sun and mud but I wasn’t convinced that there was much uniquely ‘Welsh’ about it.

The strong language used against the English this week in Denbigh had a strange historical feel. Remember Wilfred Wooler of Glamorgan Cricket Club saying three decades ago that Peter Hain (now a respected foreign office minister and leading Blairista) and others who tried to stop the South African cricketers from touring were ‘lefties, oddbods and weirdoes’? It’s a short step to Gwilym ab Ioan calling some of the English migrants ‘oddballs, social misfits and society dropouts’. And how long before second home owners in Wales really do ‘Come Home to a Real Fire’ – especially on Seimon Glyn’s Lleyn peninsula?

It might have been a good week to be a proud Welsh speaker, but it was no week to be an English second homeowner or migrant in Wales – unless, that is, you saw (and appreciated) the legs shot from under Saunders Lewis.

And just think – only 51 weeks to the next Eisteddfod.

John Mair is a factual TV producer, who recently worked for HTV, is English, and goes to Wales every summer to stay in his partner’s second home.

Read on:

Welsh wails, by Andrew Cox

(1) Ab Ioan fights party de-selection, BBC News Online, 17 August 2001

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Topics Politics


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