All entries for Tuesday 24 October 2006
October 24, 2006
Ned Thomas, The Welsh Extremist: Modern Welsh Politics, Literature and Society, repr. 1994 (Talybont: Y Lolfa, 1973).
This chapter made me the most angry. Thomas begins by examining, ‘the fluidity of the linguistic boundary here—both the geographical boundary and the line between individuals’ (103). He notes how many ‘Anglo-Welsh’ have learned Cymraeg, but he then suggests that writers of Cymraeg are far more ‘articulate and culturally active’ than the Anglo-Welsh (104). He suggests that English speakers do not work so often at universities in Wales and he states: ‘The English-speaking Welsh, unless they have access in some way to the Welsh culture, cannot feel the same about the place’ (104). These are huge assumptions and belying this claim is the complecent notion that the only Welsh culture is that of Cymraeg .
• That English speakers cannot understand Welsh culture;
If the English-speaking Welsh find serious discussion of their problems, ways of looking at themselves, expression of their aspirations, then they must find these in the press, the institutions, the literature of the centre. But do they? They will find very little about Wales, as one would expect. This forces us back on another question, which is the fundamental one: how far to they feel themselves to be Welsh at all? (105)
Who can say that the feeling of being Welsh is played out in these parts of South Wales…? (107)
• That English speakers of South Wales are complicit with capitalism;
the mystery of the new,. relatively affluent [?] working class of Western Europe, living what seems to be a life of passive alienation [!!]’ (105)
A more participant and egalitarian Britain might offer the condition in which South Wales workers could emerge from their alienation, just as they might in a Wales that had taken responsibility for its own future. (107).
• That English speakers are inferior to those who speak Cymraeg .
It seems to me that industrial South Wales has suffered a double wound—the sheer hardship of industrial life with the humiliation of the years of unemployment; and added to this the loss of the language and all that is contained in the way of spiritual resources with which to meet that suffering. There is a humiliation in losing your language as there is in the indignity of the means test, and though it may seem a secondary kind of humiliation, it can leave a mark that lasts a long time. (112)
As the educated Welsh-speakers look at the new affluent working-class of South Wales they are bound to see people who have lost a culture and gained only a higher standard of living [?!], people made particularly vulnerable to commercially fostered pseudo-values by their own rootlessness, people who have lost the dignity of a language and acquired a despised and comic dialect. (116)
This last comment makes me laugh the most because it reveals Thomas’ folly. He really believes that purity of language can shore up the problems of Welsh identity. However, for him, there is only one Welsh identity – his own: that of the speaker of Cymraeg . As far as he is concerned, the lack of Cymraeg in the South Wales Valleys brought about by the
Industrial Revolution is a terrible tragedy. Not once does he consider the gifts that were brought to Wales as result of immigration by Irish, Scots, Dutch, French and yes, even English workers! Thomas has some dubious notions about racial purity; the South Waleans are tainted and cannot possibly represent Wales. He also shows some foolish ideas about linguistic purity. The ‘Anglo-Welsh’ are left to speak “a despised and comic dialect”, yet it is exactly that dialect that makes a real intervention into the politics of Wales. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari state, to create a minor literature, one has to deterritorialize a major, vehicular, dominant language and this is what ‘Anglo-Welsh’ writers are doing and what they have been doing for years.
For Ned Thomas, the language is an essential part of a campaign for Welsh culture and Welsh language. Thomas sees the English as ‘unselfconscious’ about their language (a huge assumption!) (34). Thomas continues:
Languages are very delicate networks of historically accumulated associations, and a thought in Welsh has innumerable and untraceable [?] connections with the thought of past centuries, with the environment with the scenery even, with one’s mother and father, with their mothers and fathers, with the moral and emotional terms in which the community has discussed its differences.
A different language does not assert one’s total difference from other groups of the human race, but it registers the degree of difference that in fact exists; it is from the recognition of this that all worthwhile efforts at understanding between groups must start.
Thomas notes that Welsh identity is not so much defined by politics or institutions, because there are no such institutions that properly represent the Welsh. Rather it has been defined by Cymraeg and the literature of Cymraeg . For Thomas, Welsh identity, ‘lacks the strain of militarism and imperialism which is there in the British identity’ (36). He continues: ‘The Welsh language was not part of that imperialism, and as Welsh speakers in their own country the Welsh themselves were victims of a kind of imperialism’ (36).
The history of Cymraeg though has been one of repression:
• the Act of Union of 1536
• the Welsh Not and the Blue Books
Interestingly, Thomas believes that the Welsh now have to fight against ‘the sense of inferiority which centuries of official and social contempt have given many Welsh speakers’ (38).
It is rather as if the English working class had acquired a wholly different language from the upper classes and that great writers had been born into their culture and spoken for it. Welsh literature is the literature of the people not in any self-conscious way, but because Welsh writers have had no other audience but the ordinary Welsh community. (38)
What Thomas fails to recognize here is that the working classes do have a language of their own, a new recycling of English. However he does make some interesting comments on the supposed faults of Cymraeg: its dialectical nature, its slovenliness, its use of English borrowings and its uncertainty about grammatical points. Cymraeg is the minor language of a minor culture and as a consequence of this, Thomas believes that it is, ‘more favourable to the mergence and flowering of all kinds of group identities hitherto suppressed—for example, women, and linguistic and racial minorities throughout the world’ (41).
At the beginning of the chapter, Thomas complains: ‘The Welsh language community does not have defenders in England among those educated, liberal English people who sympathize with minorities everywhere, from the Nagas to the Basques’ (20). Thomas believes that the reason behind such attitudes is the image of Wales as, ‘provincial, unglamorous and comic’ (20). The English who do not have access to the language and literature of Wales fall back on stereotypes such as ‘the trousered eisteddfod druids invented in the nineteenth century’ (20).
Thomas is particularly hard on Anglo-Welsh literature and its representation of Wales:
A special kind of Anglo-Welsh literature grew up. now mercifully on the decline, which lent support to the stereotypes by presenting rich fruity characters speaking a fantastic dialect of English and spilling over with words and emotion. This is the sort of synthetic identity that always arises when a minority nation has to make its way in conditions of social dominance. The same ersatz approach to nationhood is found in the Scotland of tartan and haggis. If this is what the other cultures of Britain are like, the educated English have every reason to despise them.
I assume that here Thomas refers to novels like Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, and he is right to note that books like these are full of emotion and sentiment. Yet there is something disquieting about his vitriol, which, I think, has everything to do with linguistic purity. Thomas despises the ‘fantastic dialect of English’ perceived by the Anglo-Welsh and sees it as the English might as a substandard version of another language rather than a language remade for the purposes of the Welsh. This is a flaw in Thomas’ commentary.
Thomas also describes a representation of the Welsh as two-faced. The first face ‘turned towards England and concerned with getting on (again like the Scots)’, while the second face turns away, ‘having to look away to survive’ (21).
Yet the Welsh literature that represents these issues and problems is under-represented, especially that in Cymraeg. Thus the issues of Wales are not represented, but as Thomas states, ‘no Welsh issue can be a major conflict in Britain because only 2½ million people are involved’ (23).
Thomas now proceeds to challenge some Welsh stereotypes. The first is of pettiness, that the issues of concern to the Welsh are petty in the prospect of a world picture. However, Thomas states: ‘People subject to petty oppression do nurse petty grievances’ (25). He denies any belief in ‘irreducible national categories’ and he admits that, ‘Britain in her world role has offered generations of educated Welsh scope for their talents and a freer atmosphere in some respects than was tolerated by the Non-conformist sects at home’ (26). However, Thomas is adamant that: ‘People must be given enough power to negotiate with other groups and to set their own priorities’ (28). Wales is provincial in its own way and does not have the same economic drive as England, but it cannot continue to exist in ‘a picturesque and geographical sense’ only (30).
For Thomas, young Welsh have two choices:
1. To give in to the demands of capitalism and desert their home and culture;
2. Or (the better choice according to Thomas) to stay in Wales.
Thomas relies on the rather false proposition that if the young Welsh leave Wales, the culture will collapse. In any case, Thomas concludes in a sympathetic note: ‘So we salute the Czechs and the Anguilans and the Bretons and the Basques—there are degrees of oppression far worse than we know’ (31).
Ned Thomas, The Welsh Extremist: Modern Welsh Politics, Literature and Society, repr. 1994 (Talybont: Y Lolfa, 1973).
Thomas begins the first chapter, ‘The Welsh Extremist’, with a comparison:
I had grown up with the word extremist almost constantly in my newspaper—Kenya, Cyprus, Malaya, Adan; very often the word changed to terrorist and then one day the word would disappear and the head of a new independent state would arrive in England to meet the Queen. (9)
Thomas begins by thinking about extremism abroad and he notes this definition of that state: ‘ Extremist put them all beyond the pale, or rather asserted that they had put themselves outside the community of reasonable men’(9). This word, says Thomas, was also used about the Welsh (and we must remember that he is writing in the 1970s when the Free Wales Army were burning down English homes in Wales etc.). Thomas describes the rise of Welsh Nationalism and how when he returned to Wales, ritual sparring had been superseded by, ‘total politics as I had observed it in years of living in Spain and the Soviet Union, politics in which the control of institutions was all-important, politics which made people conceal their allegiance lest they suffer in their jobs, or else use their jobs in a political way’ (10).
Wales’ politics are supposedly different from England’s situation. For Thomas, England is ‘a technologically mature, socially humane society, held up with minor variations by both the Conservative and Labour parties’ (10-11) while Wales is ‘a country where the unemployment remains well above average, and where the more or less static population figures conceal the fact that in every generation the young and talented have to leave to find a job, while their places are taken by retired people moving to the coastal resorts; people who may come from any part of Britain and have no identification with the local community’ (11). This anxiety about outsiders coming in seems rather old-fashioned in today’s climate of globalisation, yet for Thomas and for writers like R.S. Thomas it was a serious concern. This is something that Wales has had to reconcile within itself.
Thomas describes the corruption of Welsh tradition and he notes that the Welsh do not feel themselves to be British: ‘If they could be made to feel British and not Welsh, if they could believe the changes were being forced on them in the name of a better and juster society, they would not need to feel disgruntled’ (12). For Thomas, the most passionate protest about the state of Wales has been in the language of Welsh, which I will refer to henceforth in its Welsh name, Cymraeg. Literature plays an important part because, ‘it holds up the ideal of a civilized and humane society, which is an ideal for people in other places’ (13). Thomas wonders whether a ‘small community […] can go on existing in these islands’ (13). It is for this cause that Welsh people protest and it is this cause that creates extremism. Thomas makes a comparison again at this point:
When it is negro[dodgy terminology here] violence in the United States we see the conflict in terms if historical cause and socio-economic pattern; the same in Northern Ireland. So far in Wales we have been talking as if there were a handful of people practising or advocating violence who constituted a wholly isolated current of thought, and no general social significance. (15)
Thomas describes the case of two men, who before the Investiture of the Prince of Wales, blew themselves up when trying to lay an explosive charge at government offices in Abergele. Thomas describes how the new story was suppressed and many had sympathy with the story because it symbolised something about the state of Wales. This is one aspect of what Thomas would think of as the Cymraeg community, yet there are as many attitudes within its as there are people. Violence is one option open to protesters, but Thomas suggests that civil disobedience is more fruitful and worth while.
Altogether this chapter is a mixture of good and bad aspects of Welsh political writing: good in its socialist outlook and its awareness of other minor cultures; but bad in its fear of outsiders and its feeling of insecurity where Welsh traditions are concerned. The bad aspect emerges in later chapters, particularly in the section on the ‘Anglo-Welsh’ (a term that I dislike intensely).