Following the publication of Welsh [Plural] – a collection of essays offering radical and nuanced perspectives on Welshness and Wales – Wales Arts Review is delighted to share one of the 19 included essays from author, poet, memoirist and two-time Welsh Book of the Year winner Niall Griffiths. Here, he considers national and geographical divides as well as the things which unite amidst the growing popularity of Welsh independence.
The magistrate — quite a nice-looking lady, really, with bright eyes and a bird brooch on her lapel, but sat between two old codgers with faces like disgruntled cottage cheese — uttered the words “short, sharp shock”, and I went heavy and cold; wasn’t that something to do with Borstal? Aw Jeez, I’d seen Scum, I was no Carling/Ray Winstone, I could never be someone’s “daddy” and batter them with a pool ball in a sock — but then she said the words “discipline” and “resources” and “alternative outlets for certain energies”. She said the words “outward bound course”. My solicitor patted my shoulder and wiped imaginary sweat from his brow.
And two dawns later I awoke in a tent at first light. I crawled out, quietly so as not to awaken the other miscreants and instructors in the other tents roundabout and just stood breathing. Oh Mother of the Dark Waters. The peak of Yr Wyddfafrom where, later, I’d be able to see, far in the distance, the big coastal city in which I was born and lived, sheered straight upwards above the black lake and me all of a sudden big, so full and fecund, with a head full of ghosts and a heart full of blood. From here is where parts of me sprouted. From this great tumble of stone and from the Dark Water Mother. There can be no doubt. I could have a proper conversation there. I did. “‘Britain has always fudged its national settlement. A political and emotional story which began with England’s conquest of Wales in 1284 has never been completed or resolved,” wrote Jonathan Lis in Prospect magazine. So when Theresa May spoke about “our island story”, shortly after she deemed a vast number of people comfortable in their identities as “citizens of nowhere”, to which particular story did she refer? Which fucking story? Because if there is one overarching narrative to the history of these islands, it’s one that belongs to, and has been written by, the bully. It’s a tale that wilfully underwrites and neglects certain arcs of itself. That seeks to stuff some gasping mouths with stone. I’d always known this, in some deep place beyond words; the Dark Water Ma gave it utterance.
Alastair Moffat in The Sea Kingdoms: “because Welsh is such an old language and because it described Britain first, it carries a version of the history of the whole island inside it”.
True. And those words “Britain first” — an unfortunate pairing, these days. Capitalise the “first” and, yes, there are many descriptors in the Cymraeg, but you won’t find them in the dictionary. No Britain First for the first Britons.
My first time amongst a largely Anglo-Saxon populace was in Cambridge, and who were these people? Tall and fair and rangy, seemingly emotionally and spiritually constipated, generally pleasant and affable but alien in their ways: accidentally tread on their toes and they either apologise to you or threaten to glass your face, when an “oi! Can you get off me toe, pal?” would’ve resolved the matter without a) social awkwardness, and/or b) hideous facial scarring. And the songs that come out of them, when disinhibited by drink, were all about conquest and subjugation and being better than someone else — bereft of joy and celebration unless stuffed with gloat. It did not feel like home; it was as far removed from the shores of that high slatey lake as it was possible to be.
Marcus Tanner was born and brought up in southern England and never felt entirely comfortable. When searching for the graves of his Welsh ancestors in preparation for his book The Last of the Celts, he discovered why: “everything about me — my personality, my face, my height, my shape — suddenly made sense”. Stockiness, dark hair and blue eyes, a quickness to be moved to tears of joy and rage — “in England, I had developed a sense of watchfulness about my own personality, aware that it needed keeping in check, and that at any moment I might sound unsuitably loud, excitable and over the top. In Wales, that feeling of difference from my surroundings fell away.”
Join us, say the ghosts, and you say I thought you’d never ask. And you make the return and the ghosts come back tocorporeality. You re-inhabit them; imagine a butterfly crawling back into the chrysalis. An infant scrabbling back into the mother.
I’m at the plaque on the slope that commemorates the battle of Hyddgen in 1401, when Glyndŵr, numerically outnumbered by (but ultimately triumphant against) English troops and Flemish mercenaries, consolidated his reputation as a genuine threat to English hegemony. Kites and buzzards squeal and mewl in the fog. The reservoir is a great grey slab; more of the dark waters. Digs at sites in nearby Bryn y Beddau and Mynydd Bychan and Nant y Moch uncover masses of bones, still. This is a massive war grave. The dead seethe and speak. In 2011 there were plans to cover this area with wind turbines.
The divisions endure: north/south, west/east, urban/ rural, Cymraeg/Saesneg. The language — it has always been central, crucial to the fight for cultural separateness. When the iron went, and the steel, and the coal, the tongue endured and became emblematic of a small country unique within Europe (and the EU was widely regarded as a less oppressive supra-state than a UK dominated by England). What is it now, though? How does it express its not-England-ness? The nationalist movement has long been characterised as a cultural/emotional one rather than a political/economic one; indeed, the country, in effect, started building its institutions of statehood (such as they are) in 1999. And yes, there’s a different native language two hours west from London. As a child, bread was bara. Break these teeth with a rock, Theresa, and scatter the fragments, (Alexander) Boris (de Pfeffel) Johnson; they will find their way back to the shores of the Llyn Du.
At the time of writing, Wales is coming out of a lockdown, a “circuit-breaker” designed to arrest the movement of Covid-19. During this time, the border with England has been closed; police officers have manned it and conducted spot checks and turned people around. Wales has been, in effect, a closed country; there have been substantiated tales of English second-home-owners arriving in Gwynedd by boat, but primarily Wales has, like Scotland and the Six Counties, temporarily isolated itself from England. Covid-19 has exposed the limitations of the British state, exploded its exceptionalist myths and concretised the separation of Welsh devolved legalities. In the speeches of Vaughan Gething and Mark Drakeford there have been no “world-beating” claims, no preposterous populist posturing that has characterised the noises from Westminster. There has been a foretaste of the fracturing of the UK. Wales voted to leave the EU, yes, on the whole (excepting the capital and Monmouthshire and the Cymraeg heartlands of Ceredigion and Gwynedd), but, as Matt Withers has pointed out in the New European, “as the effects on the country’s manufacturing and agricultural sectors become clear in the coming years, it is inconceivable the anger won’t be directed at the Westminster government which imposed its hardest form, not Cardiff Bay”.
Well, we’ll see about that (with fingers crossed). As I write, the Senedd, the Scottish Parliament and Stormont have all rejected the Withdrawal Agreement Bill; that is, the directly elected legislatures of the UK that are not England have rejected this vast constitutional change, but it is being imposed by the House of Commons, a body which is ethnically 82% English, and which rises to an anthem that, uniquely, is not about land but about a person — the sound of a subject people begging to be dominated.
Caernarfon, 2019. The march for Annibyniaeth (independence). Almost as many EU stars are on display as there are y Ddraig Goch and the people keep coming, entering the square, singing and calling out to each other and I see my pals in the crowd and there is uplift here; even, dare it be said, a speck of hope. A glimpse of something that could be. A vacationing family — Spanish or Portuguese, by the looks — are eyeing askance these flags and banners, as well theymight; such shibboleths will not carry positive associations for them. A couple of pals and I explain to them what’s going on (and, as I guessed, they’re from Porto), outline for them what this means.
At the next rendition of ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ they sing along lustily; well, not sing, as such, not having the Welsh, but nevertheless they do a better job of it than John Redwood ever managed. This is not a nationalism that seeks to suppress and exclude. This is a small almost-country reaching for self-determination and release from an arrogant, self-entitled and deeply unrepresentative polity that is bereft of anything meritocratic and stuffed full of unearned and uncontested privilege.
And the 2019 election gave the Tories some of their first seats in Wales — Bridgend, Wrexham — since 1983. Labour polled country-wide at 41% and the Tories at 36%, but Labour has had almost hegemonic power in Wales, channelling money from the EU into deprived areas under the Shared Prosperity Fund, etc. And yet, the notion of independence is gaining traction; Emily Trahair, in an interview with Ned Thomas in Planet 240, noted that a YouGov poll amongst Welsh Labour voters — not Plaid or Yes Cymru — puts support for independence at 51%. Ned’s response to this is to:
See Wales through the prism of other European minorities where regional autonomy has created a civic identity wider than a much-eroded ethnic or linguistic identity. Support for independence usually correlates strongly with place of birth and language, and when that support has crucially spread to the wider group, the shift of allegiance derives largely from the perceived incompetence or corruption of central government and its coercive denial of self-determination, support for which usually runs far ahead of support for independence.
Do you hear that grinding sound, beneath Westminster’s demand for compliance from the Celtic upstarts? It’s the sound of seismic shift; of political plates beginning to shift and crack. It’s a nice tune. It’s the fanfare for the return of souls set to roaming and “welcome back”, it says.
I’m in Penisarwaun with a pal called Bill; he’s from California. I met him first in Oregon. His grandfather fled this small village for Ohio at the age of seventeen, with no money and no English, just burning hopes. This little lane is where Bill began. Bill is Wales. Sheep and rugby and coal and choirs, etc. ad nauseam and the many dispersed diasporic Bills. He looks around with a child’s wonder and a child’s joy of discovery. Yr Wyddfa’s loftiest point can be seen, blue through mist and distance, and I think of the lake up there. Fancy I can feel its cold wash on my skin. Us two fellers here, re-capturing flecks of origin.
The country’s green and mountainous heart. Part of it is my back garden. How strange it is, how Other, to the Anglocentric mindset; it suited the Enlightenment to see this place as a serene escape and harmony between nature and man, of purer pre-industrial Britannic stuff, and not of mud and bone and blood and rot and dirt. I lean against the smaller of the Bwlch y Llo stones and see, amongst the patches of lichen, black splats of scabbing blood where some smaller bird has been devoured by some bigger bird. This is a kind of truth. These signs do not, cannot, lie.
As part of the West Coast Eisteddfod, I’m doing a reading at a bar in Oregon. I enter just as the more-than-three-ditchwater-dull hours of the 1970s Mabinogion animated film is ending and the rising lights reveal faces toad-belly white, emptied and exhausted, eyes reddened and pleading. I laugh. You poor buggers, they made you sit through that? Later, these same people will ask me if I know Llanddewi Brefi, Pontarddulais, Penisarwaun (there’s my Bill). One will ask me whether the top of Pumlumon really is “the windiest place on Earth”. Come and see; come and converse with the Mam beneath the water. Come and see the splotches of blood on the ancient stones. Come back for a bit.
Hiraeth, saudade, duende. These words; these concepts. They embody an idea that is all about calmness but has no place for comfort, and if I could explain what they mean to a person who’s never felt their pulse then I would.
The Sewel Convention of 1999 embodies a constitutional rule which suggests that the UK parliament will “not normally” legislate on a devolved issue unless the devolved legislature has given its consent. This, like the UK’s unwritten constitution, is a relic of an era when gentleman’s agreements and the sense of good old British fair play were deemed as binding as any law, and it is obsolete in the age of the political liar utterly unburdened by shame, the conman and the charlatan, the incompetent propelled by entitlement and privilege which goes uncontested in a land of entrenched and masochistic deference. The elected representatives of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have voted to veto a huge transformation to their economic and political status, but because they have no real power to do so, the hollow men in London do not care. They simply do not care. This contempt is entirely lawful, but it will exact a colossal cost. Suffer it.
I danced and gurned all night in an old stone hut in the hills. During the hours of darkness, people arrived from all corners of these islands and from the European mainland too and now, at dawn, they emerge blinking and pale and stand there breathing. Look where we are. Oh Mother of the Dark Lake. The crests of the mountains on quiet fire and the ridges sawing sheets of light. Photographs are taken and emailed and WhatsApped across the globe. Look at this. This is where I am. We are as far beyond doubt as that new-born hill and this we know because the watery whispers tell usso.
Paul Davies, Welsh Tory leader: “Wales is sleepwalking towards independence”. Oh no, pal; it is wide a-fucking-wake. Go back to bed.
Ry’n ni yma o hyd
Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth Ry’n ni yma o hyd.
Oh yes we are. For a while we weren’t but now we are, again. We’ve returned, like.
Niall Griffiths was born in Liverpool and has been living in west Wales for a quarter of a century. Author of many works of fiction, memoir, travelogue, and poetry, his words are translated into twenty languages and he has won the Wales Book of the Year twice, most recently in 2020, for Broken Ghost.
Welsh [Plural]: Essays on the Future of Wales is available now via Repeater.