Welsh Identity and the Family Myth: an Outsider’s Perspective



‘You don’t speak to people in London, he remembered; in fact you don’t speak to people anywhere in England; there is plenty of time for that sort of thing on the appointed occasions – in an office, in a seminar, at a party’. – Raymond Williams, Border Country.


I realised I was English in 1998 at the age of twenty-nine. That was the year I moved to Wales from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I was born and bred, via Oxford, where I studied and worked for nine years. I have read the essays in this publication contributing to the ‘eternal conversation’ of cultural criticism with interest and anticipation. I love a good conversation; the arts and the debates that so often surround notions of identity are amongst my favourite topics. Gary Raymond’s announcement to the world that Welsh art is a conversation in which we’ll all want to take part is ambitious and generous. But as an outsider, and an English one at that, I can’t just dive in, no matter how whole-hearted the invitation.

At first I thought the common ground between us might serve as a conversational launch pad. There’s plenty of it. I am from a working class background. My Mam was a part-time shop assistant and my Dad was a miner who escaped the pit after eight years to work for a company that made paint for ships, trains and coaches. When I was fifteen and my brother was twelve my Dad was made redundant. His health was poor and he never received pay for work again. Pull the lens out from our housing association maisonette in Newcastle’s West End and you’ll notice the scars left by the demise of heavy industry in Northumberland, Tyneside and County Durham, some now healed, some still red raw and angry. As George Orwell once wrote, He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.’ Quite right in the main, but as Rhian E. Jones observes in her contribution to this conversation, ‘many invocations of the heroic past in Wales […] are reliant on conjuring memories and legends not of victory but of struggle, martyrdom, loss and defeat.’ People from North East England share this desire to celebrate the [extra]ordinary women and men who stood up to the ruling classes and lost: people like ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson and the Jarrow Crusaders. Like you, we have a strong tradition of trade unionism and autodidacticism; in 1850, over a third of mines in the region had a reading room. As in Wales, much of the art of the region is a product of working class culture. See, for example, the work of the Pitman Painters and play of the same name, the stand up comedy of ‘The Little Waster’ Bobby Thompson, and the theatrical performances of the Novocastrian Philosophers Club hosted by Newcastle’s ‘Lit and Phil’ and Mining Institute.

I could go on drawing comparisons. But there’s no point. It isn’t enough. Merthyr might have more in common with Consett than a Ceredigion farming community, but ultimately, in terms of identity, it doesn’t matter. Something holds Wales together in the imagination of its people; something connected to, but beyond its languages, history, socioeconomic conditions and geography. For as we know, these things divide as well as unite.

I have come to understand Wales as a family in which belonging is everything. And like any family, Wales has family myths. I use the term in its classical sense to refer to the specially selected stories from the past, the recognisable characters and narratives that remind people who they are and where they fit in the world. The arts and institutions of Wales shape and transmit these stories and I have absorbed them over the past fifteen years. This, in a nutshell, is my impression of Welsh identity as expressed through the most dominant stories of its family myth.


  1. The Welsh are an ancient people connected to the land. This idea is encapsulated in the tales of Owain Glyndŵr and in the form and content of Eisteddfod competitions but most succinctly in the words of Raymond Williams in Politics and Letters: ‘There is the joke that someone says his family came over with the Normans and we reply: “Are you liking it here?”’.


  1. The Welsh are brave strugglers, sufferers, martyrs and irrepressible underdogs who sometimes win. See the narratives of Wales’ heroic past, the songs, stories and art relating to the uprisings of the 19th century and the culture of, and attachment to, Rugby Union.


  1. The Welsh are co-operative, mutual, socialist. Family and belonging extend beyond blood to the trade union, the rugby club, the choir, the band (colliery or rock), the chapel and the workplace. Gwyn Thomas, raised from the dead by Carolyn Hitt in her recent BBC Radio Wales Arts Show documentary, expresses this beautifully. South Wales society is ‘the most marvellously interpenetrating thing’ where ‘everyone was sensitive and thin skinned to the problems of others’, a ‘warm soup of comradeship, love, singing, understanding’. In contrast, Oxford University is a place of ‘glacial, forbidding, remote frozen peaks of alienation’.


  1. The Welsh value education. As the Manic Street Preachers proclaim, ‘Libraries gave us power’. Welsh family myth tells tales of South Wales miners, rural quarry workers and farm hands who took as their own the works of nineteenth century intellectuals and literary story tellers and of the boys and girls who crossed the border to go to Oxford and Cambridge (generally to suffer).


  1. The Welsh are artistic, poetic, musical. This is one of the very few preconceptions I brought with me from England to Wales. My Uncle Dennis won a medal with his Tyneside male voice choir at Llangollen in the early 1950s, a proud achievement, talked about within the family decades later. The formality of Eisteddfod competitions provided an alternative route to education and recognition particularly in the past for those who were unable to take up educational opportunities due to economic constraints. And of course, there’s Dylan Thomas. There’s always Dylan Thomas.


  1. The Welsh are the binary opposite of the English. To be Welsh is to be not English. You can be Welsh Somali, Welsh Italian or Welsh American. But never Welsh English.


My understanding is, of course, partial, obscured and sometimes (because I am a human) wilfully blind. I’ve only lived in three places in Wales, all of them cities in the South. I have no Welsh relations outside my partner’s small family. I do not speak Welsh. I was schooled in England and learned exactly nothing about the history between my country and Wales. I came to Wales before I’d learned to pay attention to the undiscussed so it never occurred to me to conduct my own investigations.

For a while, I considered joining the conversation at this point to challenge the tenets of the Welsh family myth. Wales is perceived traditionally as a land of the left, but Welsh Tories exist, as do the politically disinterested. I do not question the sincerity of Gwyn Thomas’ description of the connected and loving nature of his childhood community but my partner’s late grandmother told me equally convincing stories of the cold, unwelcoming response she and other Welsh speakers from Llanelli received when they moved to Ebbw Vale to seek work and hope in the early 1940s. Likewise, Rugby Union undoubtedly played an enormous part in the social and cultural history of large parts of Wales, but I wonder if an overemphasis here might distract attention (and therefore resources) from other sports in which Welsh women and men punch way above their weight.

And then there are ‘The English’. I do recognise the lazy anglocentrism, encapsulated in my own lack of education and curiosity about Wales prior to my moving here and in the institutionalised ignorance and bias of some network news and sports coverage. I also appreciate that the role played by ‘The English’ in the Welsh family myth must be understood within the context of historical suffering and the current threat to the Welsh language. Nevertheless, ‘The English’ are bizarre and unrecognisable to me. You don’t have to be Welsh to suffer alienation and homesickness at Oxford University – being working class and poor will do the trick nicely. And in contrast to Matthew / Will’s perceptions in Raymond Williams’ Border Country, I have observed and experienced the ease with which people in the North East of England strike up inconsequential conversations with strangers. In this sense, I believe it is a more casually friendly place than South Wales.

Even the notion of mutual exclusivity in terms of Welsh and English identity is flawed. According to the 2011 census 21% of people in Wales were born in England. But I wonder how many of this group were brought up in Wales? How many have Welsh parents, grandparents or children? How many have lived here longer than anywhere else? What proportion of this group would identify as a Welsh-English hybrid (even if they’d never use that term)?

To criticize Welsh family myth because it fails to reflect modern Wales (and England) is, however, to miss the point spectacularly. Which is that family myths, despite their reductive nature, have the power to nourish, to encourage, to hold together family members.

For example, the notion of Wales as a country of song, poetry and socialism in the imagination of its people is a protective force within a context of savage public spending cuts. (Newcastle City Council’s arts budget was recently cut by 50%, the initial proposal being a 100% cut). And for a Welsh working class young person who loves books but feels unconnected to their peers, the stereotypical notion of the Welsh orientation towards education has the power to raise aspirations and provide a sense of belonging. This very process has been captured in research exploring the stories of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in rural Wales who went on to achieve success in university. The researchers found that the participants’ worldview and sense of national identity were ‘freighted with evocative images of a centuries-old literary and musical tradition, a sense of how their forefathers kept their mercurial intellect alive despite their toil in the quarry or on the farm’. This gave the participants a sense of entitlement to higher education, despite their poor backgrounds. The stories of Welsh family myth belong to Welsh people and they are empowering.

Then, just when I’d convinced myself that I should mind my own business, keep quiet and content myself with an occasional eavesdrop into the conversation, I remembered something important: good art has the capacity to do more than reflect and shape our sense of identity. I think about the Welsh art that has affected me the most, art which whilst deeply rooted in this country also points beyond the horizon.

The Last Painting of the Grange End by Phil Watkins, 2009
The Last Painting of the Grange End by Phil Watkins, 2009

Phil Watkins is a painter from Caerphilly who gained a degree in Fine Art from Newport College of Art in 1977. He mainly paints places where human activity comes up against nature within an urban environment – bridges over roads, underpasses, housing estates, the deserted Grange End of the old Cardiff City stadium, Ninian Park. You are unlikely to come across Watkins’ paintings amongst the sheep, miners, mountains, valleys terraces and farmers leaning on gates popular amongst commercial galleries in Wales. To quote him,

I was born into a South-East Walian working class family, a mixture of miners, railwaymen and small farmers. However, the Wales I grew up in was fast moving away from its old industrial past. I paint the Wales that I see, the Wales that has made an impression on me, studying at Newport in the seventies, or as a Youth Worker on Cardiff Estates in the nineties and early part of this century. The fact that this ‘new Wales’ is starting to look like lots of other places is of no importance to me, these are the places that I know and that have an emotional connection to me.

I met Phil Watkins when I joined his adult education course in art for beginners. He taught me how to look properly and therefore how to see more of the world around me. He taught me that the ‘black’ in his paintings is a concoction of other colours, mixed to reflect the place and time and not black at all. His paintings have influenced the way I view grey skies and the industrial debris interlaced with weeds near the place where I walk my dog. Sometimes it looks bleak and desolate, other times sculptural, beautiful. 

Where Watkins has influenced the way I look at the world when I am alone, The Passion of Port Talbot was a profoundly collective experience. I have always loved the subversive nature of the gospel narratives in which the poor represent truth and the powerful, corruption. When I was young I joined a non-conformist church in Newcastle and later I studied theology at Oxford. I was eager to understand. But ultimately I did not possess the agility or will to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to believe in a God who is merciful, omnipotent and omniscient. So I put it behind me.

On Port Talbot’s Aberavon beach Michael Sheen’s Stranger announced:


What was hidden shall be shown

What was silenced shall be said

What was forgotten shall be known.


The atmosphere was reflective, respectful even, and I wondered what the people around me, the believers, the lapsed, and the life long atheists and agnostics, might be thinking about and feeling. I remembered the easy friendships I had with people in my church who were decades older than me, my involvement in a sincere and enthusiastic (if not pitch perfect) choir, the encouragement to recognize beauty in the plain and simple. It wasn’t until I read Dylan Moore’s contribution to this conversation that it occurred to me that the experience of the Welsh people on the beach that day might have been shaped by a collective memory of Wales’ largely forgotten chapel culture, ‘once so characteristic as well as emblematic of Wales’. But my ignorance did not matter. This was powerful art about memory and loss, banishment and belonging, redemption and renewal. Entirely about Port Talbot; entirely about anywhere else.

And so, in contemplating my response to the teaching and paintings of Phil Watkins and The Passion of Port Talbot, I found a way to connect and a place from which to join the conversation. Good for me.  But why should you care? You should care because there are other Others. You should care because the most interesting conversations take place among people who have a diversity of life experience as well as things in common. And because some people might need encouragement to join in this conversation.

Like those who do not possess the ‘cultural capital’ – the language, confidence and special knowledge – to talk about the arts and be taken seriously. In most places in the Western world arts criticism is an exclusive activity. In England, a number of people have told me that, since I have been to university and enjoy visiting art galleries I am no longer working class; as if the middle classes owned education, art, language and ideas. Here in Wales, it is understood that they do not. If Wales is ‘a young country not afraid to remember what it might yet become’ its self-identification as a country that is working class, educated and cultured bodes well.

Then there are the people who are ‘stained with the colours’ of more than one culture, to coin Raymond’s phrase. The identification in family myth of the Welsh as an ancient people of pedigree is artistically productive but it has the potential to result in a national forgetfulness or lack of interest in the cultural contributions of Wales’ incomers. Those interested in the arts in Wales will be familiar with the paintings of Welsh Italian Ernest Zobole, and of the works of Bernice Rubens and Dannie Abse, both writers of Welsh Jewish heritage. The poetry of Cardiff’s Welsh Somali communities, recently showcased in the National Theatre Wales’ production De Gabay, is probably less familiar, whilst the cultural contribution of the Catholics of Irish decent largely inhabits the realm of the undiscussed in Wales.

And then the rest of the world. If Wales is a nation prone to introspection (though aren’t they all?) the sparking of a conversation about the arts across national boundaries could be challenging. Wales Arts International plays a role in promoting international collaborations and raising awareness of Welsh arts overseas. Perhaps the stories and memories of Wales’ internationalist connections will also be useful here; the Welsh participation in the Spanish Civil War; the establishment of the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, radical and visionary in a gentle way; the artists who came to Wales, not to change the culture but to be changed by it – people like Graham Sutherland, Martha Gellhorn and Paul Robeson.

Gary Raymond’s announcement to the world that Welsh art is a conversation we’ll all want to join in is not only ambitious and generous but also quite canny. Conversations with ‘people like us’ are often enjoyable and comfortable but they can’t change us. Conversations with people who are not like us have the potential to expand our world by making us look up, use our imagination, and think against the grain. Just like good art.