Magazine article The Spectator

Go Home, Englishman

Magazine article The Spectator

Go Home, Englishman

Article excerpt

DURING a wet week in August, on a windswept plateau above the little cathedral city of St David's, at the south-western tip of Wales, they dismantled the paraphernalia of one of Europe's greatest cultural festivals - stowing the immense portable pavilion, rolling up the marquees, stacking the boardwalks and folding away until next year the hundreds upon hundreds of flags. The London papers were full of the Edinburgh Festival, but they had taken hardly any notice of this one.

Yet it was more relevant to the condition of this splintered, multi-ethnic, plurally loyalist Kingdom. It was the annual Welsh National Eisteddfod, which is held in alternate years in the south and the north of the country. Besides celebrating all the arts and craftsmanships of Wales, and being a bit of a binge too, this event offers each year a spectacular public statement of Welshness - as an idea, a loyalty, a heritage and a passion. Here trumpets blare in the rain, harps twang, poems are declaimed, legendary Welsh luminaries like the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Bryn Terfel or the Super Furry Animals are liable to appear, and in fancy ceremonials white-robed Archdruids place crowns upon the heads of victorious bards.

You may perhaps think that Welsh patriotism needs no display. As Wales has found a new measure of political independence, so its sense of self has flourished too. God knows not every Welsh citizen has welcomed devolution, but there is no denying that Welshness has been boosted by the advent of a national assembly. If anything, the new Wales is now more sure of its identity than England over the border, where the feeling of unity seems to be sparked only by wars, football matches or royal occasions.

But the Eisteddfod is a national celebration of a particular kind. Like the Welsh national anthem, it celebrates not a Queen but a language. Everything in this vast weeklong festival is conducted in Welsh. The literary and dramatic competitions are in Welsh, the judgments are in Welsh, the jokes are in Welsh, and the multitudes of young campers who pitch their tents on the fringe of the field sing their rock songs, shuffle their dances, swap their irreverent scandal entirely in yr hen faith - the Old Language of the Welsh people. To English strangers dropping by, it must certainly feel as though they have entered a foreign country.

Of course this is partly, or subliminally, the intention. It is the survival of the ancient Welsh language, expressed here with such full-blooded enthusiasm, that above all signifies the separateness of Wales. This is not England. It may be part of the United Kingdom, but it is by instinct, by origins and by custom a different nation. Only a fifth of the people speak the Welsh language, but few Welsh patriots would deny its symbolical position at the centre of Welshness.

And here's an irony. As a new Wales begins to find itself politically, yr hen faith faces what is perhaps its last decline. After a thousand years of successful struggle, fighting off all the imponderable challenges that its enormous English neighbour has posed down the centuries, the language is approaching terminal crisis and at the hands, after all, of the English.

They have not done it with malice aforethought. Most English people, I think, if they care about the matter at all, wish Wales well enough. But they tend to assume that it is really part of England anyway, and that the Welsh are only a kind of vaguely sly, comical and dialectical English. In particular they seldom realise the seminal importance of the Welsh language to the meaning of Wales.

Welsh-speaking Welsh people, Cymry Cymraeg, live almost everywhere in the country, and nearly all schoolchildren learn something of the language. Only in certain rural areas, though, are hereditary Welsh-- speakers so concentrated that the language is the true lingua franca of the neighbourhood, spoken every day by most people in the ordinary course of events, in schoolyard as in corner shop. …

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