Jan Morris Wales

Wales: Casting a Realistic Eye

Jan Morris bemoans the incursion of modernist materialism that is upsetting her romantic take on Wales.

I know very well that people like me tend to view our country through rose-tinted spectacles – if indeed we bother to put our glasses on at all. I really try, I really do, to balance my own vision of the place with the conceptions of less sentimental Welsh people, and of people who aren’t Welsh at all. So here are some of my more realistic assessments of the matter of Wales.

For a symbolical start, there is to my mind a profound organic sadness to the inexorable rise of tourism as the first purpose of Wales, especially as so much of the industry is now out of Welsh hands – even at its most homely level, all too few Welsh landladies, nowadays, will welcome you to the doors of promenade B&Bs, all too few Welsh landlords serve you your pint at the pub.

Of course, much good comes from tourism. It is economically essential. However, my heart never fails to sink when I come home from England by train and am greeted, as by a fist in the solar plexus, by the nightmare settlements of caravans that cast a hideous blight upon the northern coasts. They are like huge modernistic refugee camps. I try to be charitable, and remind myself that they provide happy holiday homes for thousands of modest families, not all of them from over the English border. But although they may look a bit like sanctuaries for hapless victims of war or calamity, they are essentially money-making investment projects for landowners and developers.

Alas, they speak for the nation, those desolations. Welsh opportunists must have allowed them to happen, and philistine Welsh bureaucrats, down the generations, must have sanctioned their drear pollution of the land.

Philistine bureaucracy, indeed, seems to me a curse of Wales. How feebly do administrators knuckle under to the most ridiculous dictates of health and safety! How rigidly unimaginative are the instructions that rule so much of life in this country, how inescapable the plethora of official notices that display them! I am often bitterly reminded, as I run the gauntlet of prohibitions and demands upon some Welsh promenade, of the solitary proclamation on a celestial Hawaiian beach that simply says HAVE FUN! Oh what a relief it is to find, as one certainly does here and there in Wales, that authority is embodied in a man or woman of taste, fun and humanity!

The nature of our governors is exemplified for me by Cardiff Bay, the administrative capital of Wales. There stands the National Assembly, and the Millennium Centre which is the home of the Welsh National Opera, to the world the nation’s prime cultural icon. It ought to be a grand, exuberant ensemble, proclaiming the hope and confidence of a proud young nation, but in my eyes, anyway, it generates about as much excitement as a provincial leisure centre.

Thanks, I suppose, to dullard planners, city councillors and such, mediocrity has enveloped the whole concept of Cardiff Bay. The least inviting of 21st Century boulevards links it with the city of Cardiff itself (which, incidentally, has a far superior, and much admired, municipal centre of its own). The supposedly enlightened concept of the development has resulted only in a litter of shops, offices and apartment blocks, with occasional reminders of a more vibrant past in the forms of a reconstituted port office, a seamen’s church and trendy maritime monuments. Not so long ago this sea-inlet, amidst all the portentous hubbub of the greatest coal port on earth, was a strange tidal retreat of mudflat, saltings and seabirds. When they dammed and re-invented it as an emblematic centre for the nation nobody apparently thought of naming it Tiger Bay, after the world-famous sailor town that had long flourished here: or if anybody did, I suppose the idea was squashed by mediocrats – a word I’ve just invented, by the way!

Yes, there’s the real rub in Wales. Antipathies of class are not among the weaknesses of this country, and by and large the gulf between rich and poor is not debilitating, but there is all the difference in the world between the national culture of the people and the national administration, between the popular styles, so rich in individualism and exception, and the general unimaginative drabness of officialdom. It gives me a nagging sense of dislocation.

For so small a country Wales embraces many varied ways of living, and while this is enlivening in many ways, in others it can be a weakness. An historical antipathy between north and south lingers still, and I am myself constantly annoyed by the use of the phrase ‘North Wales’, with a capital ‘N’ for north. After all there is no such place as ‘North Wales’ – northern Wales of course, with a small ‘n’, but to speak of ‘North Wales’ as one might speak of North Korea or North America or even Northern Ireland is to strengthen the sense of separation, between the two halves of the country, which should be left to history.

Another cause of psychological disunity, as I see it, is the half-way status of the country – half-way between a province and a State, self-governing in some ways but not in others. Few of us are really clear about what power is now in the hands of the Welsh Assembly at Cardiff, and what is still held by the British Parliament at Westminster. Immense changes in the order of things happen almost without explanation, leaving us in a state of bewilderment. For example, Monmouthshire became Gwent and is now Monmouthshire again. Aberystwyth used to be in Cardiganshire but is now in Ceredigion. Is Conwy a county or just a rural district?  What is Dwyfor these days? How many MPs does Caernarfonshire send to Westminster? How many Assembly Members to Cardiff? Can one person be both at the same time?

As for the Welsh university system, once the pride of a people avid for education, Heaven alone knows what has happened to it. The University of Wales used to have constituent colleges in Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, Swansea and Lampeter, with a lively University Press and links with various colleges around the world. It had originally been financed, in the 19th Century, by the contributions of thousands of citizens, and commanded the proud affection of countless graduates. But one fine day in 2011, I think it was, we woke up to learn that it had been more or less abolished. In future there would be no such thing as a University of Wales degree, or for that matter, as far as I can make out, a University of Wales. I doubt if one citizen in a thousand could say just what’s become of it, and what has succeeded it.

There used to be a debilitating antipathy between Welsh-speakers and the rest. This has undoubtedly faded, but there is still resentment about the enforced teaching of the Welsh language. Of course there is – which would be more obviously useful to ambitious young people, a command of Welsh or a command of Chinese, say? I myself believe in the ideal of a bilingual Welsh nation, but in an existentialist sort of way – for its own sake, that is, as part of the beauty and identity of the community – armed with which young bilingual Welsh people can move on with extra confidence to learn other languages, too. But the policy is hardly working anyway. In another generation nearly everyone in Wales, it is true, will have some knowledge of Welsh, but listen now to the chatter of Welsh schoolchildren at play, and you are likely to hear only a modicum of it actually being used – and less still, perhaps, if you can eavesdrop on them in their homes, where even Welsh-speaking parents may well encourage their children to use  the language of ambition (and of television, because only a small proportion of the inhabitants of Wales watch their own Welsh-language TV channel…).

Which brings me inevitably, I suppose, in this realist’s review, to the multi-ethnic issue. Wales has been multi-ethnic for centuries, ever since the English began to colonise the country, and infused their Norman and Saxon globules into the native Celtic blood bank. For generations Jewish, Italian and African communities have lived generally happily in the ports and mining centres of the south, and more recently hundreds of thousands of English people have settled on the Welsh side of Offa’s Dyke. So far as I can gather few of them have encountered unfriendliness – it is only tourists who complain about the prevalence of Welsh jabbering – and lots and lots of them have brought with them into Wales nothing but good.

Nevertheless, numbers count, and Wales has undoubtedly been altered by the vast uncontrolled influx of settlers from England. Whether they are permanent residents or second-homers, they affect the nature and the character of the country. They vote in Welsh elections, for one thing, including Welsh referenda about the future of the country. They flood Welsh schools with their English-speaking children. They buy houses that Welsh people cannot afford. While many of them, of course, become distinguished and valuable members of Welsh society, many more are not in the least interested in the matter of Wales, and hardly realize they are immigrants to another country: so they weaken the cohesion of local communities, and whittle away at their self-confidence.

But it is not just the incursion of the English, and Englishness, that makes Wales less Welsh, less distinctive, as the generations go by. It happens in almost every country of the western world. It is rather, to my mind, the general incursion of modern materialism, distributed by all the new technologies, spearheaded by the intoxicating examples of America and the universal primacy of the English language. Religion, tradition, ideology, custom, even patriotism are vulnerable to its corrosive power. And by the nature of things, Wales is perhaps more vulnerable to it than anywhere else. This is an advanced, relatively rich little country, where everyone has access to the media, every family has television, nearly all adolescents know their way around Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, where the influences of religion are fading fast and the disciplines of tradition are all too often discredited. And where, most crucial of all, a population of three million, with an indigenous language that has been defensively embattled for centuries, lives bang next door to a fulcrum of materialist consumerism, England.

And what can be done about it? Nothing. Even an entirely self-governing, sovereign Wales could never close its frontiers to its immediate neighbours, especially as there can hardly be a family in Wales that does not have relatives in England. Still less can it, by its own force of identity, keep the new materialism at bay. Its identity is too fragile. Wales is no Scotland, with great natural resources, and long traditions of fiscal expertise: could it ever really exist without English subsidies? Is Welsh political independence no more than a dream? Perhaps history has overtaken it. Perhaps devolution has circumvented it. Perhaps the people have outgrown it.

That’s how I see it all, anyway, in my less transcendental moments. It is a rearguard action that Wales perpetually fights in defence of its own meaning, and the realist in me says it is bound to lose that battle in the end.

The realist says so, yes. But no, don’t worry, never the romantic!


Illustration by Dean Lewis

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In the latest contribution to our series of essays on Welsh Identity that has come to be known as ‘The Eternal Conversation’, Wales Arts Review is extremely proud to bring you the first in a four-part series of articles from the Institute of Welsh Affairs‘ Click On Wales, by one of our nation’s greatest living writers, author of over thirty books, Jan Morris

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.