Welsh Jan Morris

Welsh Identity: As Others See Us

Jan Morris considers how the rumour of Wales plays across the world, and how Welsh identity is perceived from an outside perspective.

Jan Morris: “As a brand, so to speak, Wales is extremely successful. Of course there are plenty of people on the planet who have never heard of the country, but among those who have heard of it, its reputation seems remarkably vivid.

Down the centuries countless English people have subscribed to the old adage that Taffy is a thief, besides being of the opinion that when a Welshman speaks in the Welsh language it is only to annoy them. Wherever I go in the world the accepted opinion seems to be that every single Welshman sings in a male voice choir, and that the name of every Welsh village ends with the phrase llantisilio gogogoch.

A third of the world apparently thinks of Wales as one grim mining valley, another third believes it perpetually rains there, and the rest once had a lovely holiday in Porthcawl. For a nation of three and a half million, Welsh celebrities are remarkably celebrated – Welsh actors, rock stars, opera singers, rugby players have their fans across the continents. And, as a matter of fact, wherever I go in the world I also meet people who possess, for one reason or another, a genuine affection and admiration for all that Wales represents.

So there we are – Wales gets a whole gamut of reactions, but seldom no reaction at all.

What do the Welsh think of themselves? It’s hard to generalize, because the people have become so jumbled. There are so many sorts of persons nowadays who call themselves Welsh. There are the Welsh-born, Welsh-speaking Welsh. There are the Welsh-born, English-speaking Welsh. There are the English-born English-speaking Welsh. There are the English-born Welsh-speaking Welsh.

Then there are hosts of people, like me, who are a mix-up of them all, besides immigrants of altogether different origins who are often as decidedly Welsh as anyone else. I have very seldom met any resident of Wales who does not want to be at least partly Welsh, if only by remote ancestry. Every other English second home-homer, with a country cottage or a caravan, seems to have had a Welsh great-great-grandmother. Not long ago a very entertaining book was published in London advising aspirant Welsh persons how best to be Welsh.

Nevertheless, the Welsh can be extremely self-critical. They are very ready to denigrate and laugh at themselves and often the more thoroughly Welsh they are, the more they laugh and denigrate. Wales is halfway to self-government now, but it was a precarious passage that brought us here, and there are still many citizens who doubt if the nation is really fit to govern itself. They don’t quite trust it. My own experience is that, while I will trust my Welsh friends, neighbours and acquaintances with my life, I am not so sure about the Welsh generality, so to speak: Taffy may not be a thief, but he is quite often a manipulator. I suspect mine is a common attitude, and it contributes to a national undercurrent of self-doubt, the nagging suggestion of an inferiority complex.

Foreigners, and especially English people, do not generally see the Welsh thus. It is true that nowadays the Welshman of the English sitcom or comedy stage is all too often portrayed as a whining, hole-in-corner sort of character. I dare say Shakespeare better expressed the English view of Welshness in his depiction of Owain Glyndŵr in Henry V. He is a braggard and a bit of an ass. ‘I can call spirits from the vasty deep,’ he boasts, like any Welsh actor in full flow. Hotspur laughs at him – ‘But will they come,’ he retorts, ‘when you do call for them?’

But if Owain possesses no magical powers, at least he is, as Shakespeare says, ‘a worthy gentleman, valiant as a lion and wondrous affable.’ Even Hotspur himself is eventually seduced by Glyndŵr with a Welsh melody – music, as the old hero deceiver says, ‘hung in the air thousand leagues from hence.’ For a touch of the charming conjuror goes with the traditional English idea of the Welshman. They used to call Lloyd George ‘the Welsh wizard’, and it’s no surprise that Tommy Cooper, the ultimate seductive magician, came from Caerphilly.

Cooper embodied in himself, too, another Welsh stereotype. He really was a member of the Magic Circle, but he made his magic comical, and he was a virtuoso showman. If the great world thinks of the Welsh partly as slightly strange, perhaps with a touch of the occult, it also very often finds them funny and exhibitionist – just like that, as Cooper famously used to say.

Welsh tradition is rich in eccentrics, who have seldom hidden their peculiarities under bushels. You might call it a national tendency to show off – you might even say it’s a branch of that inferiority complex. But it has meant that Wales truly is a land of performance. The National Eisteddfod, said to be the biggest folk festival in Europe, is not only a declaration of loyalty to the language, but also a tremendous display of exhibitionism, with people of all ages declaiming verse, singing, dancing, acting, playing instruments and making fools of themselves, and for many citizens it really is the celebratory climax of the year. Even Welsh everyday conversation, in either language, is often a highly stylized sort of discourse, gilded with exaggeration, sly innuendo and hints of bawdy.

So it is not surprising that a people organically bred to such theatricals should produce lots of professional showoffs, opera-singers (the most all-round exhibitionists of them all) actors, musicians of all types and miscellaneous Tommy Coopers. There was a time, and not so long ago either, when Welsh clergymen were virtuoso performers too. We read that in the heyday of Welsh Nonconformism congregations were often moved literally to tears by sermons, or made to collapse in ecstasies of rapture or remorse.

They must have been charismatics, those old Welsh divines, like the supreme rock stars of today. ‘Look!’ cried John Elias of Anglesey in a sermon once – ‘Look, the arrow of the Lord will strike the sinful!’ and instantly the congregation opened before him, to let the missile pass. Alas, in the long decline of religion in Wales chapel ministers, in particular, were all too often reduced, in the world’s estimation, into figures of mockery and satire, strait-laced, tight-lipped teetotallers who cast a pious gloom across the multitude.

A generation or two ago that’s how many outsiders still saw us. Sometimes they still do, even when the influence of the chapels, for good as for ill, has so dramatically faded. As an agnostic myself, I see much sadness in their withdrawal, and in the countless abandoned chapels, all over Wales, that are memorials at once to their achievements and their failures. The Christian chapel culture, in all its myriad sects and dogmas, for all its squabbles and rivalries, really did give the nation of Wales a sense of fellowship and purpose that lingers still.

What has replaced it, in the minds of outsiders, and in the minds of the Welsh themselves? To most foreigners, I fear, the culture of Wales today is almost indistinguishable from the culture of England – or for that matter from the culture of the United States of America. And plenty of Welsh citizens, too, are happy to do without national characteristics, in an age when it is so often considered racist to recognize them.

Years ago Lloyd George, in many ways an emblematic Welsh Calvinist chapelgoer, deplored what he called ‘morbid footballism’ as a new trait of the Welsh. Football undeniably is a substitute for religion, or at least a rival to it, almost everywhere in the world. In Wales at least it becomes more nearly an art form in the form of rugby union football, and I suppose rugby is another of the things that much of the world associates with Wales. So far the game has not reached the pitch of mercenary tabloidism that vulgarizes professional soccer, and for me it still represents much that is admirable in Welsh society – no matter that the Welsh XV did not win the World Cup in New Zealand, everyone admired the civilized way they competed.

Of course, not everyone admires Welsh patriotism, however they may be moved, despite themselves, by Hen wlad fy nhadau before a match begins. Many English people view the survival of the Welsh language, that emblem of nationhood, with mingled scorn and suspicion. One of the most telling indicators of the Anglo-Welsh relationship is this very familiar English complaint: ‘Why, d’you know, we went into a pub somewhere with one of those unpronouncable Welsh names, and the minute we went into the bar everyone there started jabbering away in Welsh.’ Actually, as you and I know, they didn’t start jabbering away to discommode the English, they were just talking in their own language anyway! But I suppose to an imperial people like the English, it is a sort of affront to find just over their border, not even over the sea, people speaking a language they don’t understand. Indeed, the very idea that Wales can be a separate nation probably seems to them a kind of absurdity, and the survival of the language a downright waste of money and education.

So, then, the Welsh image in the world, like the Welsh self-image, actually, seems to me decidedly mixed. On the one hand the Welsh are apparently pious, hypocritical, unreliable, comical, given to hyperbole, absurdly nationalist and more or less English anyway. On the other hand they are entertaining, alluring, charismatic and utterly un-English.

And in the end, for most people, the overwhelming fact about Wales is the reputation of its landscape. It is the outer and the inner image of Welshness. Heaven knows it has been messed about over the centuries, by industry first, by tourism later, and by intermittent degradations of war and materialism. But the very first thing foreigners nearly always say to me, when I tell them where I’m from, is: ‘Oh, I’m told it’s very beautiful.’

Who’s told them? Well, perhaps it was the Welsh Tourist Board before it was disbanded, or maybe compatriots of theirs who’ve been here, and naive enthusiasts like me who never stop talking about it. But chiefly, I like to think, they have learnt about it, as Glyndŵr told Hotspur that day, by mystic influences ‘a thousand leagues from hence’. Scott Fitzgerald wrote once that France was a land, England was a people and America was an idea. Well, I prefer to think of Wales as a rumour. More than most countries, to my mind, its very existence has to it something mysteriously suggestive. Was the land awaiting the arrival of some new Glyndŵr, wondered the poet David Jones in the 1930s, or was ‘the land itself that very lord?’

It’s a sort of magic, I suppose. There are lots of places in the world just as beautiful and much more spectacular. But to the real aficionado, like me, there is nowhere in Wales that is without its particular numinous beauty, its suggestion that there is more to it that meets the eye: its tinge, in fact, of that over-worked abstraction, hiraeth, a lovely sad yearning for we know not what.

‘What a load of old cod’s-wallop!’ the cry goes up, from Welsh as well as foreign voices, but I don’t care. For me an ultimate experience of Welshness is to emerge on a summer evening from a performance by the Welsh National Opera at the concert hall on the waterfront at Llandudno, of all places – to most of its visitors and in popular reputation generally mocked as an epitome of honky-tonk, fish-and-chips and seaside boarding houses. But come out of that hall to find the mountains dim and blue behind you, the bay in front enigmatic, the street lamps coming on around the splendid promenade – then, when melodies of Mozart or Puccini are still in your ears, and seem to echo from the hills and the sea, and mingle with the thump of disco-drum somewhere – then, my dears, wherever you come from, whoever you are, I defy you to resist the rumour of Wales…”

– Jan Morris

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis

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Jan Morris is a historian and writer. Among her many volumes is The Matter of Wales – Epic Views of a Small Country, first published in 1984, with a new edition in 1999.