In Conversation with First Minister Carwyn Jones

Carwyn Jones has been an Assembly Member for Bridgend since 1999 and succeeded Rhodri Morgan as leader of Welsh Labour and First Minister in 2009. His period in office has seen the first seasons of National Theatre Wales, the creation of Literature Wales/Llenyddiaeth Cymru and, this year, DT100.

Jasper Rees: Why is it that a journalist researching DT100 can request an interview with the Culture Minister and end up in the office of the First Minister? I can’t imagine the equivalent thing happening over the border?

Carwyn Jones: Because we are an accessible government [grins]. It’s important for us. We know that we’re looking to celebrate probably the most well-known Welsh poet there’s ever been and we took the view that we wanted to lead and to organise many events. It’s a celebration of Dylan Thomas of course but it’s also a way for us to extend Wales’s image in the world.

And so how much has your involvement been? To what extent has the organisation come right up to the summit?

I’ve been involved from the start. I’ve kept a close interest in what’s been happening, looked at the programme, but the work’s been done by officials here in the Welsh government. It’s an important festival for us not just for cultural reasons but ultimately in terms of tourism as well.

Can we talk about the size of Dylan Thomas? He lived only 39 years but he casts an immense shadow over Anglophone Welsh culture.

He did. It’s remarkable to think that he was still in his 30s when he died. What he might have done if he’d lived another 20 or 30 years… It’s incredible and he’s left behind of course work that’s known throughout the world, Under Milk Wood being probably the best known. But in terms of his poetry, as far as Swansea is concerned he had a real effect on the development of the literary scene in Swansea pre- and post-war. It’s said that his ghost still haunts the BBC studios in Swansea because he was there so often broadcasting, that he was very closely associated with it. The sadness is that he didn’t get the chance to carry on with the work that he’s already done and I’m sure that we’d have seen a lot more out of him.

Because he is this extraordinarily mountainous figure, does he occlude other variegated forms of Welsh culture?

He was a man of his time. He was born in 1914 to a family where his parents are Welsh speakers. He was given the name, as I would pronounce it, Dulan, even though that name wasn’t common at all and there has been much debate as to how it should be pronounced ever since. His parents didn’t pass the language on to him which was very very common at that time. It was felt by some Welsh-speaking families if you passed the language on you would interfere with a child’s ability to speak English properly, and English was the window on the world. So there is that in his background, which is typical of so many families of the time in the eastern part of Wales even as far as Swansea. He had an ambivalent attitude to the language all his life, but of course it was so important in developing what used to be called Anglo-Welsh literature, which is now more actually described as Welsh writing in English. What’s also more important is that his work had a joy about it, a fun in it, and sometimes in our literature in both languages there is a sense of Celtic gloom and he gets over that.

Where does the Celtic gloom come from?

A history of defeats I think is part of it. One of our most well-known poets is RS Thomas. RS Thomas and joy don’t mix particularly well. His work tended to focus on living as he did in a part of Wales that was at the end of the Llŷn peninsula. He was no fan of modernisation, he was very much a traditionalist and his poetry, although worthy poetry, doesn’t carry an awful lot of joie de vivre in it. Dylan Thomas was entirely different. He had come through the war, he had seen his home city destroyed, seen it being rebuilt, and there is a sense particularly in his writing after the war of trying to review things, trying to make sure that we had in Wales poetry and particularly plays that reflected the need to look at our history but also the need to look forward and start having some fun after such a difficult time in the course of the war.

How important is this year in Wales in terms of telling the world about itself through the figure of Dylan Thomas?

Exceptionally important. Historically we have been very bad at projecting ourselves to the world, certainly in the days before devolution. That much as changed. We have in Dylan Thomas somebody who has an international profile. I remember when I was in the junior school when Jimmy Carter came to visit Britain, our teacher telling us with great joy that President Carter had asked that Dylan Thomas be included in Poets’ Corner and how great this was for Wales. So we knew that we had a president in the USA in the Seventies who had a real interest in Dylan Thomas’s poetry. And where you have somebody who is an international figure I think it’s right that you celebrate their life as the centenary of their birth comes up and also that you use it to convey a sense of what modern Wales is. We need to have our cultural icons in order to make ourselves noticed in the world.

Why has Wales been bad at selling itself, or bad at presenting itself in the past?

A lack of confidence. We are talking about probably 15 years ago and more now. But a lack of belief that we had anything to offer the world, even though we did. We allowed the Scots to forge ahead of us with the icons that they have, same with Ireland of course – our Celtic cousins. That lack of confidence is being overcome now and we can say to the world, ‘We do have culturally many things to offer.’ And Dylan Thomas is one of those people.

What is it about contemporary Wales that the world needs to be told?

That we’re a forward-looking nation, that we want to see our economy based on the skills that people need for the future, not harking back to the past. RS Thomas used the phrase, ‘impotent people, sick with inbreeding, worrying the carcass of an old song’. Well, that’s not what we are. We’re a very cosmopolitan nation. If you look at Cardiff as a capital city you have people here from all over the world. There are 49 languages spoken in the city of Cardiff. There is an inclusivity about Welshness. Being Welsh is not about some kind of blood and soil relationship. It’s a civic nationality. It’s a welcoming and open nationality that anybody can become part of. And also we want to give the image of Wales as a country where we can do things, we’ll get things done for people. If people come as investors to Wales then we will work as a government to help them as much as we can.

People might say, ‘What’s this got to do with DT100?’ Well, the first thing we have to do is to ensure that people have heard of us. By using one of our most well-known poets it increases the awareness of Wales. If people are aware of Wales they will then take an interest in doing business with Wales, they’ll take an interest in investing in Wales, they’ll take an interest in coming to Wales. But the first step is making sure that people have heard of Wales. And having a festival that celebrates probably our most well-known poet in the English language is one way of doing that.

What do you think Dylan would make of it all?

It would be very difficult for him to conceive of what Wales has become, I think. He lived at a time when the sense of nationality amongst the non-Welsh speaking population wasn’t as well-defined as it is now. I don’t know whether he would have thought of himself as a Welsh writer writing in English. It’s a nebulous concept to an extent, but he wrote about Welsh topics and themes and so fits quite neatly into that category. He’s been dead for such a long time and Wales has changed so much in that time, he’d have been surprised to see Swansea now doing so well, he’d have been surprised to see that we have a minimal coal industry compared to what existed in the Fifties. I think he would have been surprised at the opportunities that exist in Wales now that weren’t there in his time. The change has been so dramatic it’s difficult to see how he would have interpreted it or how he would have written about it.

I’m also asking you to speculate as to how Dylan Thomas would have made of this, to use a crude term, commercialisation of his legacy?

Very difficult to know. He didn’t offer a view particularly on what his legacy might be. I don’t think he expected to die as young as he did. It’s difficult to speculate, but I’m sure that he would have been pleased to see the extent that he’s known throughout the world and I think he’d have been pleased to know that people wanted to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

What sort of place did he have in your education?

I spoke Welsh at home but I went to an English-speaking school and lived in an English-speaking town in Bridgend. I studied English A level. We didn’t study Dylan Thomas at all.

There is this never-ending narrative about how English-speaking Wales rubs up against Cymru Cymraeg. Where does he fit into that?

Small nations will sometimes define themselves against the larger nations that sit next to them. English football defines itself by comparison with Germany at international level almost to the point of obsession sometimes. Same in Wales in terms of its relationship with England. Since devolution there is no need for us to do that. We can be confident. We don’t need to have a chip on our shoulder with regard to the fact that we live next door to the most powerful language in the world spoken by the majority of our population. We don’t have to have a chip on our shoulder about the fact that we live next door to a very large nation with 20 times our population. Dylan was a product of his time. He expressed both in terms of the way he spoke and in his views a scepticism – that’s probably a mild word – of the Welsh language and its value, but also in the way he spoke. He didn’t quite manage it, but he spoke – which was the fashion then – in a kind of RP. If you listen to him when he recites ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ you can hear it. He is trying to speak in what people around here would call posh Welsh. But now and again he lapses. And that’s part of his character. The fact that he felt that he had to speak in a particular way to try and, in some ways, hide his origins – but didn’t quite manage to do it – makes him similar to Richard Burton. He didn’t try to hide his origins but he had to develop a particular way of speech in order to get the roles. They were very much products of their time. So even in the way he expresses himself orally it tells us something about the historical background of the time when he lived.

Can the centenary bring the two halves of Wales together?

I don’t think there is disharmony. I’ll explain why. In many parts of the world you are with one or the other. My wife’s from Northern Ireland and in terms of the religious groupings there you’re one or the other. You can’t be both. Well, actually you can be both in Wales. You can be bilingual. There’s no divide there. There was more of a sense of misunderstanding in years gone by but I don’t think that’s the case now. I think it is important that we’re able to celebrate the best of Welsh writing in English. I think it is important that we’re able to look at somebody like Dylan Thomas who wasn’t afraid to celebrate his Welsh background. He celebrated the childhood that he’d had. He celebrated through Under Milk Wood the life in what those of us in Wales would think of as a fishing town in South Pembrokeshire or south-western Carmarthenshire where the English language has been dominant for several hundred years. He didn’t try to hide it. The ultimate joke is ‘Llareggub’ and the way it’s spelt backwards. Even though it makes no sense in Welsh it sounds to people who are not Welsh speakers like a Welsh word. He didn’t have any hang-ups about it.

Has he got something to say now to the Cymry Cymraeg?

I think the message is that we can celebrate our literary heritage in both languages. We know that Welsh literature goes back to the ninth century and before that. The irony is of course that the first literature in Welsh was actually produced by people who lived in Scotland and talked about the Battle of Catraeth in Catterick in Yorkshire at the time when Welsh was spoken all the way up to the Clyde. It’s all part of the literary heritage that we have. I don’t think that there’s any sense among Welsh speakers that Dylan Thomas was a hostile figure. Sure, he wasn’t warm towards the language, but he was a reflection of the times in which he lived. Who knows? Had he lived his attitude might have changed.