Monday, March 29, 2010



Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked by the literary there.

Of the English people I’ve met, most have an amused disdain for the Welsh; they think the accent is “annoying,” and in general I don’t know that the Welsh, outside of Wales, are taken seriously for much of anything. Dannie Abse says in his poem “Case History,”

‘Most Welshmen are worthless,
an inferior breed, doctor.’
He did not know that I was Welsh.
Then he praised the architects
of the German death-camps—
did not know I was a Jew.
He called liberals, ‘White
and continued to invent curses.

I’m not suggesting that most English people would even go as far as to accuse the Welsh of being lazy or slow! But the conflict between the two nations has a very long history, going back to the Middle Ages and earlier. As you’ll know from reading earlier parts of this series, southeast Wales was visited by the Vikings; much earlier, some Roman forts in north Wales were among the last of the British areas to be abandoned by the Romans in A.D. 41 (ish). (The Gower in particular has a truly remarkable pre-historic record culminating with the discovery of the truly ancient Red Lady of Paviland, but I won’t go into that now.) So it’s safe to say the land has been in demand down through the ages, and the princes of Wales had many Braveheart-like freedom battles between them. I think the conflict reemerged to a certain extent during the English Civil War, and it’s never really gone away. Interestingly—and tying it back to Dylan Thomas—he never spoke Welsh, though he had west Wales Welsh relatives who did, as his father was a schoolteacher and at the turn of the century, to be as English as possible was the rule for getting ahead in society. It’s a strange thing, I know someone of a certain generation from Cardiff whose accent is very southern rather than Welsh, while her husband is from the Valleys and sounds quite Welsh; I wonder if schooling gave her the accent of good breeding?

I’m sure you know that Scotland, in its government, always seems to be on the brink of deciding
whether taking total economic and governmental liberation from the UK is a viable option. Wales has Plaid Cymru, a party with the same ambitions for Wales, but the nationalist element is, as has been pointed out to me, not quite to the same scale. But, as my friend Jo says, it’s best not to reval your English accent on England/Wales rugby match days. On the other hand, though, for reasons I’m at a loss to explain, the Welsh have always been extremely friendly to me, more so (in general) than I have found in the rest of the UK (though my sample area has not been large, and I suppose London doesn’t count as you expect people there to be quite cold to everyone). Not uniformly, as is obviously the case with my encounter with the yobs, but I have found them to be a very generous and welcoming people.

I met quite a few very kind ladies when I was involved in an all-female choir when I was a student. They were mostly older ladies. You will find, too, that the stereotype of the proudly-voiced choirs of Wales to be true. I think many of the hymns, both in Welsh and English, survive only because of the choirs these days. I have committed several to memory simply by having sung them so much, such as “Gwahardiad” and “Watching the White Wheat” and the music of Karl Jenkins, which is truly an experience I’m unlikely to get anywhere else in the world. (I had to fake it with the national anthem.) In general, Wales has a tradition of its own dissenting church, whether that be Baptists or Methodists or some other nonconformist tradition (incidentally, there is a tradition of Welsh-speaking Presbyterians in the Khasi Hills in India because of Welsh missionaries there in the early 19th century). However, I have since learned that such churchly devotion was not without its drawbacks; the Bible-bashers/thumpers of the Rhondda were, at least in the 1950s-70s, strait-laced and puritanical chapel-goers.

Wales’ patron saint is St David, and St David’s Day is March 1st. It is, to an extent, a bit of a holiday; it’s not a bank holiday to be sure and it’s kids who get the most out of it. Girls go around in “traditional Welsh dress” (to me it looks like Mother Goose—tall black hat, dress, apron, and shawl). We all eat Welsh cakes and wear leeks and daffodils. You’re supposed to wear red (the symbol of Wales is the red dragon, which goes back to a prophecy that involved Merlin). I would imagine you’d drink some kind of Welsh liquor (Penderyn whiskey, perhaps, if not Brains beer). You might eat Welsh rarebit (a bit like a Ploughman’s, which is a meal based around cheese) or laverbread (a specialty of the Swansea area, which is local seaweed cooked in bacon grease with bacon) or indeed Caerphilly (a wonderful cheese). You might have bara brith (a sweet tea bread; “bara” in Welsh means bread). Or you might just go have a curry, because Indian restaurants in

Swansea are everywhere!! Mmm, peshwari nan . . .

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