Jan Morris

Mocking the Welsh is the last permitted bigotry

On the eve of the Eisteddfod, Jan Morris says that, much as the English might enjoy their personal experiences of Wales, ancient suspicion of their neighbours always kicks in

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‘Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans’ went a sarcastic lyric of Nöel Coward’s at the end of the second world war, and nowadays nobody of civilised instinct is beastly to them. Quite right too. Political correctness, so often stultifying to free expression, has at least ensured that racial bigotry is recognised as the cruellest kind of yobbery, distantly but recognisably related to genocide. Few of us now blame ‘the Germans’ for the evils of the war, and generalised mockery of Jews, blacks, wogs, frogs, Micks, Poles or Eyeties, let alone Muslims, has to be witty indeed to raise even a guilty laugh.

One class of person, though, one race, one nationality, is evidently exempt from this taboo. In England it is open-season still for Welsh-baiting. The Welsh joke flour- ishes. The Welsh language is still an object of derision. Scoundrels still ‘welsh’ upon their creditors, and to this day Lord Kinnock is calumnied as the old Welsh windbag. Who has not heard the English tourist complaining that the moment he and his family walked into a Welsh pub, ‘they all started jabbering in Welsh’?

So what? Yes, well, except that these adolescent attitudes are rooted in sadness. Nobody in all England lives further than 100 miles from a Welsh border, yet the public ignorance of the English about this intimate and ultimate neighbour is sad to contemplate. It is not simply geographic — every London taxi-driver, every other waitress in Leeds has been to Prestatyn or had a caravan holiday in Gwynedd. For that matter half the English middle-classes have either had a Welsh great-grandmother, or have spent their childhood holidays in their cottage near Harlech. But as to understanding anything more profound about the history, the existence and the meaning of Wales, their minds are blank and their responses generally weasly.

They squirm, that is to say, because their feelings are ambivalent. They enjoyed Prestatyn well enough, they still fondly remember old Miss Davies at the sweet shop, but they have been conditioned by history to steer clear of Wales, to stand back as it were, and mask their discomfort in ribaldry. Taffy the thief was a Welshman, after all. Who knows what those jabbering Welshmen in the pub were jabbering about? For centuries the English were open enemies of the Welsh, and I suspect they are innately suspicious still of their often obdurate and sometimes boring neighbours (for one has to admit that, as Shakespeare’s Hotspur said of their national hero, Owain Glyndwr, Welshmen can sometimes be ‘more tedious than a smoky house’).

So it is probably an inherited national instinct that allows today’s English columnists and tap-room jokers to be as beastly as they please about the Welsh. The contact between the two peoples has been essentially inimical from the start, and because the Welshman was always a wily kind of enemy, a guerrilla more than a stand-and-fight man, given to ruses and deceits, boasting of supernatural advantages — because the Welsh wars of the English were never quite like their other wars, and never did end in a Plassey, a Waterloo, an Omdurman or an Alamein, a brooding sense of dissatisfied resentment was perhaps left behind in the English subconscious.

Of course they have had many other hereditary enemies. The age-old rivalry with France has only recently faded. Colonial grudges find their echoes still. Even now Nazis and Germans are sometimes confused. The antipathy against Wales, though, is something different, because it is tinged always with contempt, and soured by incompletion. Isn’t Wales part of Britain — part of England, really? What’s this nonsense about the revival of a language — don’t they all speak English anyway, and why can’t they spell Owen Glendower like Shakespeare did? What would they be without us? What do they contribute? And listen, this will make you laugh — did you hear the one about the Welshman and the crocodile...?

There is something very sad about this dim antagonism, and for the Welsh the sadness is double-edged. On the one hand the English are at last, year by year, diminishing the Welshness of Wales — heedlessly, not by a war of attrition, but by a war of intrusion. Hardly a town is without its English-owned second homes, its English-managed pub, English voices in its schoolyard, English shops on its corners, not to mention cultural importations like obesity and leylandii hedges. On the other hand it is evident that the long rearguard action of the Welsh, fought with so much guile over so many centuries, is never really going to succeed — not just the English, I fear, but history itself is bound to obliterate such small nationalities in the end.

The sadness of the Welsh, then, is not so much for the inevitable defeat itself, but for the ironic manner of it. They are now closer to victory — that is to say, to national fulfilment — than they have been since the days of Glyndwr himself. They have, if not a parliament exactly, at least a National Assembly with some real powers. Their indefatigable patriots have seen to it that, despite all predictions, their language lives exuberantly, and to my mind there has been real grandeur to the pathos of their resistance down the ages.

All this makes the mean bigotries of English yobs more despicable still. This is the season of the Welsh National Eisteddfod, the annual peripatetic festival of the Welsh culture and its language, and if you happen to be near Bala in Gwynedd about now, you will be mean-spirited indeed not to share the joy, the beauty and the fun of the Welsh identity, expressed as eagerly in poetry and music as in rugby football. That less than half the inhabitants of Wales speak the Welsh language, that the Welsh Assembly has no tax-raising powers, that the only motorways in Wales are the ones that go to England, that the Welsh media is dominated by the English — none of all this quenches the true love of most Welsh people for their country.

Perhaps a sense of inferiority animates English people in their prejudice, as they compare this inextinguishable national spirit with their own? Perhaps they are beginning to understand why it is instantly advantageous to tell foreigners that you are not English, but Welsh? And perhaps the Welsh themselves should accept the infantile abuse of stand-up comics and loveless intellectuals with a shrug of the shoulders and an indulgent smile, in a proper exertion of boneddigrwydd — which is to say, more or less, noblesse oblige.