Only a fortnight ago in these pages, Elin Williams claimed Cerys Matthews as ‘Welsh royalty… someone who truly believes in what she does; she is genuinely passionate about music and devotes her time to spreading the word.’ Craig Austin described her new book Hook, Line and Singer as being ‘rooted in community, engagement, and social interaction’. Yesterday, Radio 4’s Today programme broadcast a six-and-a-half minute item on the potential fallout of next year’s Scottish independence vote on Wales and the anti-Cerys backlash began.
Part of the problem with the piece was identified as being the Today editorial slant. ‘What does Wales think of itself?’ asked presenter James Naughtie, before saying: ‘We asked the singer and broadcaster Cerys Matthews for her personal view.’ There is clearly an inherent contradiction in exploring something as complex as national identity through personal opinion. Some of the outcry was aimed at lazy journalism: outsourcing an issue of the UK’s constitutional future to an item that combined an unrepresentative voxpop and a vague trailer for the BBC6music presenter’s efforts in curating the World Music Expo in Cardiff later this year.
In the context, it was unclear whether this was really an item about Welsh male voice choirs (Matthews is working with the world famous choir in Treorchy) or the status of the language (she interviewed a group of sixth formers at Ysgol Gyfun Glantaf) or the prospect of eventual Welsh independence. Certainly it was a lot to tackle in six-and-a-half minutes and certainly it exposed the fact that for all Cerys’ talents – wonderful singer-songwriter, brilliant radio presenter, great cultural ambassador – she can be guilty of oversimplification when asked to comment on political topics.
Matthews cannot be blamed for simply responding to a request from the programme’s editors. But there is, perhaps, a danger inherent in her accepting of a role as spokesperson on what is billed on iPlayer as an examination of the issue of independence for Wales. London editors clearly see Cerys as a Face of Wales; hardly surprising. But maybe she should take a leaf out of the book of her hero Bob Dylan, who was always uncomfortable with being billed as a social spokesperson. ‘I’m just a song and dance man,’ he said.
Despite Matthews’ affable style, she seems to have drawn the wrath of many in the Welsh literary fraternity. Osi Rhys Osmond, interviewed in his capacity as a member of the Arts Council, simply questioned the singing ability of the average Welsh person, citing the droning ‘Wales, Wales!’ chants at rugby matches as an example. Matthews seemed to take genuine offence – perhaps personal, perhaps nationalistic – leaving herself open to charges of sentimentality and being out-of-touch. ‘Are you serious?’ she asked. ‘Do you live in my Wales?’ ‘I live in my Wales,’ Osmond countered enigmatically.
Perhaps the main thing that came through from the item, to a Welsh audience certainly, was the degree to which Cymru/Wales is still a country of contradictions and confusions. The collision between Cerys and Osi illustrates the point; there is no homogenous ‘Wales’. Osmond would like to see ‘more participation in the arts – more music in cafes and pubs and clubs’ but thinks the standard of singing has got to improve; by all accounts Cerys thinks there isn’t a problem. I suppose it depends which pubs you go to.
One gentleman Cerys asks in her voxpop claims ‘The only thing we have to offer the world is our musical culture,’ a very claim which also manages to serve as a sad indictment of the rest of Welsh culture and the continuing downer many in Wales have on themselves. Indeed, Cerys, identifies ‘confidence’ as still being something of a problem – something that Rhian E Jones addresses with verve and insight in this fortnight’s Review. Many of the issues thrown up by this short but important radio piece are clearly a matter of perception. ‘Even the poorest person [in southern England] is thinking, I could be King next week,’ says one man, which makes me wonder what country he’s living in.
Despite all the carping from the wings, Cerys is right to identify as a problematic Welsh trait a fixating on our differences: the north-south divide, the ‘griping cos of Cardiff’ as one man puts it, and the ‘language issue’. Another respondent, in Treorchy, speaks for a huge constituency when he says ‘the language is a lovely thing and should be kept but you can’t force it on people’. Conversely, there is a worrying subtext in the view of a Welsh-medium educated schoolgirl who says of anyone opposed to more powers for the Assembly: ‘they’re mostly English people who’ve moved here and they can just move back if they don’t like it.’
Cerys concludes: ‘We’re in need of the same kind of debate that Scotland is having… we need to ask who we are, what unifies and not what divides us, whether it be geography or language, so we can move confidently to find our place on the world stage.’ The first step, before we step into the minefield of complexities such a debate throws up, I would suggest, is to put to one side any hang-ups about how we are presented in the metropolitan media. Whatever the future holds for Wales, it becomes increasingly clear with every day that goes by that our problems need to be solved from within. And the second step is to stop throwing mud.