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May 29, 2009

In Praise of Wales - and its National Anthem

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison ponders on what he has learnt from 30-years of cricket tours of Wales.

Wales gave me my most satisfying moment in forty years of university teaching. It was at Stanford, we were studying immigration and ethnicity in America and a student called Jenkins and myself had agreed to cover the Welsh angle. The story of the Welsh in America is that they were extremely successful and integrated immediately so that that the hyphenated Welsh-American category was never used and there were no Welsh ghettoes (unlike even the Cornish). This led those back home who sought to establish a Welsh identity overseas to despair of North America and in 1868 they hired a ship to go to Patagonia where integration might be less tempting.

Anyway, we were talking about this sort of stuff when one of the students interrupted. "Excuse me", he said, "I can't relate to this at all. Where is Welshland? What sort of surnames do these people have?"

I thought I was on to something here and replied, "Typical Welsh surnames include Thomas, Lewis, Evans, Davies, Powell . . ." (I was enjoying seeing the jaws drop) " . . . and the most common surname in Wales is . . . . Jones".

There was a satisfying consternation followed by the lad who asked the original question saying, "Those are American names". To which I could only say, "I rest my case".

Though I suppose as a football fan I could have given them a chorus of, "You're Welsh and you know you are . . " Forty per cent of the population of the US claim to be partly Irish and virtually none Welsh, though how many wouldn't have an ancestor called Jones, Davies etc. ?

This reveals a Welsh problem: lack of a global brand image. Everybody in that classroom had heard of Ireland and had an image of the Kennedys, Guinness, the IRA et al. For Scotland they had whisky, tartan, Highlands, golf. But Wales? OK, we have rugby, choirs, loquacious politicians, but none of this gets much beyond the British Isles.

The poor old Welsh are not called by their proper name (Cymru, Cymraig) but by the derivation of a Saxon word meaning foreign. The French name, Pays de Galles, makes the place sound like some sort of reservation for Ancient Gauls while Victorian racial theory portrayed them as Ancient Brits hiding in the hills.

I remark, too, that anti-Welsh prejudice is one of the most acceptable and you can always get away with the Bernard Manning formula: "Just to be serious for a minute, I believe in the unity of human beings. I think we should all get together, Muslim and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, black and white . . . . and kick shit out of the fucking Welsh".

But Wales is in many respects much nicer than England - or than most places, for that matter. It is beautiful and fairly empty and, though English tourists sometimes complain that they find it unfriendly, I have often found the opposite if you are there for a purpose. Pre-satnav, you arrived in an English village and asked a lady in the street the way to the cricket club she was likely to say something like, "Oh! I do believe there is a cricket club - somebody mentioned it. Could it be on the road up towards the golf club?"

In the Valleys it goes, "You'll be the boys from Warwick, then? I should imagine we'll be seeing you in the Glendwr this evening?" Only in Wales have I known pub landladies to replace the bat grip for a visiting batsman!

Wales has the same population and area as Slovenia. Its mountains are not so high, but its thousand miles or so of coastline, including 44 beaches which officially rank in Europe's highest category, considerably outrank Slovenia's 25-mile coastline. Twenty per cent of Wales is National Park (a world record so far as I know) and if you add Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, in some respects second division national parks, this goes up to 40%.

Many sports fans think that the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff is the finest in Europe, if not the world. Welsh is undoubtedly the most genuinely "living" of the Celtic languages. And in 2008 the Welsh had considerable and disproportionate sporting success. The national rugby team won the 6-Nations, which is what really matters, Cardiff City got to the FA Cup Final, Joe Calzaghe acquired more world boxing titles than anyone else and Sam Thomas rode Denman to victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. All this might be some consolation for the average house price being lower than in any other part of the British Isles.

But what I most want to praise the Welsh for is their curious sense of national identity which allows sentiment to flow freely while more or less avoiding substance. Compare the singing of the Welsh national anthem in the Millennium Stadium with God Save the Queen sung at an English stadium or those dreadful insolent dirges Flower of Scotland or The Star Spangled Banner. (Incidentally, you can compare them - many versions - on YouTube within minutes.)

There is no comparison: the Welsh version is powerful, unambiguous collective emotion, exciting and slightly frightening, the rest flawed and limited by comparison. On TV the camera normally seeks out some fat guy, with his red welsh jersey and "Brains" written across his chest. And this chap, who probably wouldn't weep for any other reason, is blubbering at the sheer concentrated Welshness of it all as he belts out GWLAD . . . GWLAD (literally "land . . . land", but often translated as "Wales . . . Wales").

For those who don't know, "Brains" written across his heart isn't his nickname and it doesn't express his respect for intellectual activity; it is actually the name of the Cardiff brewer which sponsors the national team.

Yet this same guy will tell you over a pint that North Walians are tedious bastards and the language issue is a pain in the arse (I've done the research on this, believe me). And, historically, it has proved difficult to persuade him to vote even for very mild forms of devolution. Compare that with the political histories of two other rugby-playing nations, Ireland and South Africa, which are so fucked-up they have to sing two anthems to keep everybody happy.

The Welsh don't have the prickliness of the Scots and the Irish; they put themselves down as the English do and there are a number of Welsh intellectuals (including one who writes regularly for the Social Affairs Unit) who make running down their nationality a minor theme of their discourse.

In short, Welsh national identity gives you the sentiment - and in its purest form - without the bullshit and the political instability. The huge contradictions and ambiguities of identity, which tear other people apart, just don't matter in Wales and, as a result, there is a certain innocence to the celebration of national identity And which other country's football league has ever offered you a fixture between Cefyn Druids and Total Network Solutions? (Ancient un' modern, innit, see!)

This article was originally meant to celebrate my 30th and final cricket tour of Wales - 1978-2008, missing only 1980 because of the birth of a child. But guess what happened? We played the first game in England, crossed the border, then it rained . . and it rained . . . and it rained. Not a ball was bowled on the other side of Offa's Dyke. Typical, you might think. But not so: in 30 years we have played 95% of the cricket we were supposed to play. But I am not going out on a damp squib like that. All being well, I shall return this year.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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Great post. In part, it inspired me to a discussion of Britishness here.

Enjoyed the Scotland post too. Look forward to keeping up with your blog!

Posted by: Gaw at May 30, 2009 05:23 PM

Total nonsense
The Welsh own half of Pennsylvania and control the GOP. They are hated by the Polish and Italian mine workers
Most of their surnames are also English ones because they only had patronymics until the English forced modernity on them.
The Welsh are to Britain what Millwall is to football
There are fifteen million sheep in Wales. Three million of them think they are people but that does not preclude continuing carnal knwledge

Posted by: Gamaliel Guto at June 5, 2009 06:15 AM

Taffy might s well belt out Aux arbres citoyens as Gwlad gwlad. All hysterical fervour feels the same - look at France's anthem the Mayonnaise
Gwlad is simpler short for Gwladys, as in Gwladys Probert the slapper of the valleys. That is what Taffy is thinkng about when he sings Gwlad Gwlad. He does exactly the same when in the bed of Mrs Probert

Posted by: seamus at June 6, 2009 05:24 PM

"...a student called Jenkins and myself had agreed..." This is the English language of educational instruction? How depressing.

Posted by: mark mcfarland at July 12, 2009 03:39 AM
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