Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Matters Arising

I was expecting more online interest in Simon Brooks' new book Pam Na Fu Cymru; perhaps there was some confusion as to whether the book should be treated as an academic essay or a political polemic, or perhaps like me some readers just struggled with the vocabulary.

Mr Brooks poses the question why isn't Wales a Welsh speaking country and why isn't it independent.  Looking back to 1850 he points out that we were then in a stronger position, linguistically and culturally, than some present day independent European states, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe.  The failure to develop a successful national movement is laid at the door of 19C Welsh liberalism and the subsequent 20C radical movements in particular the Labour Party - a radicalism that puts wider interests ahead of those of its own community.  I suppose you could say that Wales is a conservative country whose intelligentsia pretend to be radical and that pretence holds us back.

I don't disagree with this analysis, indeed it was true of the Civil War and the earlier stripping of the altars.  The English are the radical iconoclasts and the Welsh are the conservative traditionalists and the failure to recognize this fact accounts for the present day failure of our national movement to make an impact.

I'm not going to comment directly about the book but rather note down some points that crossed my mind, especially regarding Radnorshire, which arose from an initial reading.


There's a trend in modern history which sees the study of the borderland or periphery as being particularly useful in understanding processes affecting the heartland, I was reminded of this frequently while reading SB's book.  Radnorshire history receives little attention and yet it surely has something to offer in understanding the broader picture.

SB points out that in 1850 Welsh was the language of some 90% of the people, with English monoglotism found mainly in the long established "Englishries" of Gower and South Pembrokeshire; the more recent advance of Welsh into the Vale of Glamorgan being a reminder that language shift doesn't have to be all one way.   In Radnorshire however the language was already in retreat.  In 1827 a report discusing the dialect of the Llandrindod district stated that the language had retreated 20 miles in living memory, this ties in with reports that in New Radnor there was nothing but Welsh in 1742 or that in 1744 there was little English between Bleddfa and Llanfihangel Rhydieithon.

Here's Jonathan Williams writing in the early 19C to explain the process of language shift in Bugeildy, a border parish on the river Teme - the 17th longest river in the UK which flows 81 miles into the heart of England to join the Severn below Worcester:

"An increased intercourse with England, a more general interchange of the commodities and produce of these two countries respectively, and, above all, the introduction of that jurisprudence with which the inhabitants of Wales found it necessary to be familiarized, as well as the diction in which all legal pleadings, deeds, conveyances, processes, &c., are executed, soon undermined that predilection for their mother tongue which was before their distinguishing character, and rendered the study and acquisition of the English language necessary, not only as an accomplishment, but also as a matter of indispensable interest." 

This statement suggests two important facts, firstly that bilingualism and subsequently language shift are made possible by everyday contact with the English language.  This was possible in eastern Radnorshire in a way that was impossible for the common folk in counties further west.  Language shift was not then a matter of national sentiment but of opportunity.  Secondly the adoption of English was seen as a legal necessity.  Obviously this had been the case for the gentry class but why lower down the social scale? The support for Welsh that Mr Brooks notes amongst conservative landed circles surely had much to do with the language being seen as a barrier to the hoi polloi getting above themselves.  Yet in Radnorshire there was a tradition of the generality using the law, as here for example.  I put this down to a not unsizeable class of small landowners, descendants perhaps of the querulous manwyr noted in the 16C bardic poetry.

Physical Force

Another stick to beat 19C Radnorians, especially those in the west of the county was it's physical force tradition, exemplified by the open flouting of the fishery laws - here's an example - but also participation in the Toll gate riots, resistance to squatter evictions and action against landlords and shopkeepers, especially those newcomers who stepped on people's toes.  Even Ireland took note of the Radnorian example. It's interesting that these actions occurred in districts where language shift was proceeding apace with bilingualism allowing young couples to abandon the teaching Welsh to their children.  The more monoglot districts on the Irfon, by contrast, were far more peaceful.

Radnorshire was often slandered by Welsh non-conformity for its immorality and English tongue, so there is some satisfaction in SB's unmasking of this class as the sell-outs they appear to have been.

The relative success of UKIP in seats like Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent etc has revived something a prejudice against the inhabitants of what was once known as the  Black Domain.  The rural traditions of violent community action transplanted to the area in the form of the Scotch Cattle, the anti-Irish riots of the 19C and the Tredegar riots of the early 20C are condemned as, perhaps, proto-fascist in nature, harbingers of the 21C UKIP vote - oh well it's a theory.

Looking back to the 1960s you sometimes wonder if Cayo Evans was responsible for more advances than Gwynfor?  Certainly the threat of MAC - whose activists seem to have often been English speakers from the South East - must have been partly responsible for the abandonment of Labour's plan to build a new town of 60000 souls in Mid Wales.

So here we have another long-standing contradiction, a "radical" national intelligensia who wouldn't say boo to a goose - does no-one in Cardiff currently own a spade for example -  and who seek the approval of their betters across the border, contrasting with a more rough and ready tradition of essentially conservative reaction to unwelcome and unasked for change.


Now here's a term I'd never heard before, seemingly the first stage in building a national movement.  Radnorshire had its fair share of such folk: William Probert of Painscastle - a translator of the Gododdin and Edward "Celtic" Davies* of Llanfaredd come to mind as does Ffransis Paine in more recent times.

I've never been a member of the Radnorshire Society but how its membership must have had their Anglo prejudices shaken in the years before and after the Second War by the articles of Mr Cole, detailing local wills with their numerous APs and VCHs.

Iorwerth Peate decribed Radnorshire as ""a deracine society, a people fallen between two stools, a community of half-things."  Perhaps that has been a common prejudice amongst Welsh speaking intellectuals, who have sometimes given the impression that this great chunk of  Central Wales should be handed over to the West Midlands.

Radnorshire's Welsh history has largely been recovered by Radnorians themselves, which is as it should be.  Does Wales consist of two indigenous communities - the English speaking Welsh and the bilingual Welsh?  Perhaps it does, although I like to think that it is one community, although at different stages of a single historical process.  If only that bilingual community were a little more aggressively Cymraeg in its outlook.

* It's interesting that the Dictionary of Welsh Biography says that Celtic Davies had an imperfect knowledge of Welsh, yet he grew-up on a farm just five miles from, and a generation before, the childhood home of  Carnhuanawc, although  on the opposite side of the Wye.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Hillbilly Nationalists*

"Simpering, self-serving, holier-than-thou bullshit" so says the heading of a sidebar on Jac's blog.  A pretty controversial statement in a Wales that seems to have more than its fair share of simpering, self-servers.

It was a very clever move for the elite to take over the original rainbow coalition idea in order to isolate those who might actually pose a threat to their hegemony - like poor southern whites for example.  Obama is OK because he's black, Hillary Clinton will make a fine president because she's a woman and in 2020 we'll probably be due a gay president and anyone who opposes will be branded a homophobe.  Let's forget about their actual policies, identification with a right-on minority is all that matters - they may be warmongers, neo-liberal thieves, perverters of the constitution and servants of the 1%, but, hey, they're the new radicals.

This confederate flag business seems to fit right-in, you can tweet your outrage and tick-a-box.  You might think you're a rebel but really you're a pussy, you salivate when someone rings the bell.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a young woman shinning-up a flagpole to pull down a version of St Andrew's cross, but not as an attack on the flag itself but rather as a stunt to embarrass those who use it to divide ordinary folks.

It wasn't always like this.

Here's a snap from Chicago in the late 1960s featuring a Black Panther and an activist of the Young Patriots Organisation, a group of white working class youth of mainly Appalachian origin who allied themselves to the Panthers and to the Puerto Rican Young Lords.  You'll note that the Young Patriots used the Confederate flag as their symbol and this caused no friction between them and the Panthers.  Of course the Panthers were a real threat to the interests of the ruling-class, which is why so many of them ended-up on a mortuary slab.

Together these Chicago groups opposed Mayor Daley's corrupt political machine, they failed, indeed the Daley machine's most recent graduate now occupy's the Oval Office.