For the first time since moving to Wales from the West of England 23 years ago, I am questioning whether or not I feel “Welsh”. What does it mean to feel that you belong in a particular culture, and especially one which has always struggled to differentiate itself from that of it’s ever-looming neighbour, England? The very word stamps its ambiguity on us. It has a long history in various forms of Germanic language from walha to wealas, all holding meanings ranging from “foreigner” to “slave”.
I first learned about Welshness from my teachers at school in Swindon. There is a road in Swindon called Cambria Place and on it is a chapel where my wife’s great grandfather preached in his native language – Cymraeg – the language of Cymru. He had been drawn there by the growth of the railway works, but later many offspring of the South Wales valleys, well educated as a result of a passion for learning amongst the miners, were drawn to the rapidly expanding railway town as teachers. In my Grammar School they made up what I remember as a quarter of the staff, and I was greatly influenced by some special quality which I find hard to pin down at such a remove in time, but I think it was passion. Under the influence of two of them I played the morbid Mr. Pugh in a version of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” as that year’s school play. I read and absorbed Richard Llewellyn’s “How Green Was My Valley” and The Welsh Valleys became a mythical landscape of dark wet mountains, soaring choirs – close working communities passionate about the chapel and education. On school hiking trips I learnt about the mountains of North Wales and in camp-fire sing-songs learnt traditional irreverent songs and limericks which, I found out much later, were seen as patronising by the inhabitants of those mountains!
It wasn’t hard to love the landscape of Wales, and two of many holiday trips are bright in my memory. In the first a young family, husband, wife and two little girls are on the last stage of a rainy trip from Wiltshire to the Mid-Wales border where they have bought an isolated semi-derelict cottage for £800. As the old Land Rover begins to climb out of Knighton we are engulfed by a dense wet mist, but there is light up ahead and suddenly we climb up into bright sunshine and there is the open moorland and the cottage lightly covered in snow and shining with the romance of wilderness. There are big holes in the roof and the floor is covered with a deep layer of sheep-shit, but there is a big open fireplace and we light a fire, sit on a log and eat our picnic. What does Natalie, the 4 year-old, think of it?
“It’s nice. It’s a bit dirty though.”
A few years later – 5? 10? – I am staying with friends who live near Carmarthen and decide to explore the road north. It looks interesting on the map – through a big forest and then up into the wilds of the Cambrian Mountains, a region I knew only from Winford Vaughan Thomas’ description as “The Green Desert”. The now so familiar village names were wonderfully strange: Brechfa, Abergorlech, Llansawel, Crug-y-Bar. Then, astonishingly, I was in real mountains, steep wooded valleys and high moorland, and nobody knew about it! This surely must be the home of the last remnants of the Red Kite, that ornithological icon of mid-Wales, and, bang on cue, there it was, the forked tail unmistakable: A RED KITE!
Twenty-five years and many visits later this lovely forgotten corner of Wales became my home. I absorbed the culture like a sponge, learning the language and becoming a supporter of “The Party of Wales” Plaid Cymru. In the local Welsh classes we learnt to love an ancient vocabulary nurtured in a land with no cities, a syntax with no direct way of saying “yes” or “no”, and a proud culture of resistance, perseverance, and tolerance. The Nationalism of Wales is about a cultural separation from England. It nurtures the community values of a small Nation, and as such is the political opposite of English Nationalism which, at that time, found its voice in the British National Party. That confusion of Britain with England – the flaunting of the Union Jack as a symbol for England – infuriates the Welsh. I had always disliked the small mindedness of rural Ultra-Conservative England, and saw Wales as a refuge where the more liberal values of England could find a home with the radicalism of the Valleys.
In 1987 Thelma and I bought Felin Maestwynog, a 7 acre small holding near Llandovery. In a bad year for live music, my career in music promotion was on the point of collapse so I returned to my former career as a woodworker. Thelma worked for 4 days a week in Bristol. We acquired a gorgeous lurcher dog called Flash and the three of us were very happy. I was still very emotionally involved in the business of live music, in particular “World Music”, and saw an opportunity to set up a little festival. What began as a few performers in our garden became the Small Nations Festival, “A celebration of the Music of Wales and other Small Nations.” For 10 years a farm outside the village of Cilycwm, (where we now live), became, in early July, the temporary home of some 2000 people who were able to enjoy amazing music from all over the world. I became a minor player in the world of Welsh language music – a culture which by-passed England to find an audience in places like Poland and Brittany.
How proud we felt when S4C, (Sianel Pedwar Cymru) the Welsh language TV channel, chose Cilycwm as the setting for a drama called “Pen Talar” which was a precursor for “Hinterland” with the same stars led by Richard Harrington who played what had to be the most miserable detective ever, and launched “Cyrmu Noir” to an appreciative international audience. I was working on the oak beams for our new/old house in a barn just outside the village where the film crew was based so got to know some of the actors, not least the extras from the village.
So the Welshness I feel now was the product of an admiration for the dense mining communities of the Valleys, a love of wild landscape, and an admiration for the language, music and culture of my adopted home. Increasing deafness had deprived me of music, but I still felt proud to be “of Wales” if not truly “Welsh”.
Then came 2016 and everything changed.
Like most of “liberal” Britain I had seen the EU Referendum as a squabble between rival factions of the Tory Party. To find that the Welsh Valleys had voted en-mass with the bastions of English conservatism was a profound shock. At first I threw myself behind campaigns for a second referendum, but the more I read about the post-industrial areas of Britain, the places that had been left behind as our country became more unequal, the more I began to understand that for many, because of our entrenched “first past the post” electoral system, this was the first chance they had ever had where their votes could actually achieve something. The thing they most wanted to achieve was to give the “elites” in London a bloody nose. The rational argument that leaving the EU would impoverish them even further meant nothing. They felt they had nothing to lose.
Ever since Wales voted for a devolved government I had been a keen supporter. I loved the Senedd building in Cardiff and even more the Millennium Centre with its bilingual inscription by the “Welsh Poet Laureat” Gwyneth Lewis, a friend of a friend I had met in the Cilycwm pub. This beautifully rebuilt part of Cardiff felt like a spiritual home. Now Plaid Cymru has a new and charismatic leader: Adam Price. I read his speeches and loved his insistence that it was time Wales stopped moaning about the English and took control of its own government. He was going all-out for full independence. It was time for Plaid to oust Labour and sweep into power.
Of course it didn’t happen. Wales followed England as it has so often in the past and now we have more Tory MPs than ever. The rhetoric is hollow. What has our devolved government actually achieved? I’ve read nasty stories of corruption. The Welsh language is dying. Is Rugby all we have left?
Twenty years ago I knew almost nothing of Scotland. Now, after 4 recent visits to the islands and the far north, it feels more like my spiritual home. Ireland has just given more votes to the Nationalist Sinn Fein than either of the two establishment parties of the centre. Will the contradictions of Brexit put re-unification back on the table? What would happen to Wales if the UK breaks up?
This already feels like a decade with more questions than answers.