Welsh culture is one of many casualty cultures, a bit like bits of the ex Soviet Union or even Northern Ireland. Like many other countries, its local, ancient culture was largely destroyed by industrialisation in the C19, and with it the language. Wales is rightly now trying to reconstruct the language, and with it the culture. But can it work this way round? In a living language, words regularly come from below and from common usage. But in Welsh, new words almost always appear in print before anyone utters them. The absence of new Welsh slang from the dictionaries is an indicator of this.
In Wales, almost anything new arrives via English, and we then make a pathetic attempt to make it our own by coming up with some daft literal translation. ‘Crematorium’ becomes ‘the place where you get burnt’ – more or less. For this and many other cringe-making examples, see any road sign in Wales. The result is that many people who speak Welsh, even as a first language, do not have the vocabulary to discuss genuinely subtle distinctions in an argument.
My 65 year old brother – an educated, highly literate Welsh speaker from birth and a militant welsh chauvinist who has sung for the best male voice choir in Wales for forty years – recently admitted to me that there are conversations he could have in English, but not in Welsh. At a certain level of complexity, he just had to use English. This shocked me, and convinced me that if he couldn’t have a genuinely free conversation in Welsh, then very few others can. There must be just a handful of dusty academics in an attic in Aberystwyth or Machynlleth who can have a decent conversation in Welsh. And there they are, synthesizing the language as we speak, like an ad agency in a Harry Potter movie. But a language is important to maintaining an identity, so something has to be done. So the synthesis of new Welsh is a life support system which is vital until the cultural heart starts beating again, and we’re stuck with it. Until the Great Redeemer comes. Which brings us to the key factor of Welsh culture, The Messiah.
King Arthur was our man as little children: “Arthur awake, don’t sleep for long. Come back, oh come back to your land!.” as our entire generation used to sing at the tops of our voices in our little village schools: “Arthur Deffro! Paid a cysgu’n hir!” However, in the real world, successive bouts of economic depression sent alternate generations seeking for something universal, but with local flavour. Revivalist Christianity fitted the bill perfectly. The last major example of this, led by the charismatic Evan Roberts in 1904, engulfed the entire industrialized belt and beyond. It created the culture of music and Romantic devotion and misty-eyed longing which has become the Welsh trademark. The thing called ‘hiraeth’. Part blues, part weltschmerz, part schmaltz, part rusting steam engine. Its message of an individual relationship with a God who understood your suffering and who guaranteed your salvation through music and a Wordsworthian oneness with nature worked like a charm on a generation which had seen its beautiful landscapes carbonized and mutilated, and who spent their lives either underground or servicing the hellish furnaces of the steel mills. We were the Israelites in an industrial Egypt or Babylon. That was the impression we were given at school, even in the early 1960s. And one day, just you wait and see…
Of all the non-conformist sects, the Baptists held a special appeal. In a country of rivers, how could it fail? Some of its appeal must have lay in a sense of reclamation of nature from the scarring, charring industrialization of the Railway Age. Of using the waters to cleanse the soul rather than cool the furnace and temper the steel and wash the coal.
Adulam baptismal pool. Afon Lleidi. Felinfoel. Carmarthenshire.
Either way, religion was taken very seriously, even that late, and was undoubtedly a strong communal working class bond. Those who attended the much grander and over-adorned Anglican churches tended to be either English speakers, those in ‘trade’, isolated farmers, or those who serviced the domestic needs of the ‘county’.
The Welsh industrial working class would have said they were ‘chapel’. And even if they didn’t attend, they still knew the hymns from school. And what glorious anthems they were. Stadium rockers every one. ‘Oh Iesu Mawr!’ (‘Llef’) ‘Mi Glywaf Dyner Lais’ ‘Calon Lan’ and the rest. All soaring musical expressions of communal defiance and hope, whatever the lyrics.
The sound of a full Welsh chapel in full voice is like no other sound on earth, and part of the credit must accidentally go to the architects of the buildings themselves. Architecture which produced an acoustic which must have fed into the composition process at some stage.
So the chapel stood in for the theatre. As there was no popular indigenous Welsh Theatre at the time, to speak of. And everyone was allowed to perform. If you were very good, you got to solo. As in the best tradition of the American Southern Baptists. The other black people who used the call-and-response choral form and relished those big fat rousing chords that dripped with loss and promise. Amazing Grace, the seminal hymn of romantic individualism, is dear to all Baptists. And for all I know could be a key stone in the foundation of early Blues.
That black culture went on to become what it is today while Welsh culture stayed more or less where it was in 1904, give or take the odd micro-wave, is the mystery. A culture does not rely on either its own language or favourable circumstances to make an impression on the world, it seems.
But a community in trouble, like the Wales of its formative period, the 1930’s, does establish its own forms of self-defence. Enter the trade unions and the labour movement.
It could be said that the ultimate political expression of Welsh politics is the NHS. Aneurin Bevan the True Redeemer – betrayed of course, by those nearest to him – but still the man who left one of the greatest legacies in history.
That is Bevan’s place in the Welsh pantheon. But whatever his achievements, he is still only a hero. And a culture that relies on heroes to define its identity is, again, in trouble.
The heroes today are the entertainers. Sportsmen and musicians. Can this class be trusted to carry the burden of the Welsh identity? Does any nation have an identity any longer? Look at England if you want a real identity crisis.
At least we never had an Empire to lose. That must have really hurt.