EDITORIAL NWR Issue 34
Living with the English
"Does it matter that Fred Inglis's biography of Raymond Williams often seems to get things wrong when it talks about Wales?" Ned Thomas asks at the beginning of his review of that book in the current issue (p 84). It is certainly true that part of the Welsh cultural condition as we approach the end of the 20th century is that Welsh issues and concerns are for the most part either ignored by most English metropolitan commentators, be they writers or journalists, or emerge through a filter of ignorance, amusement and contempt. They may be our next-door neighbours, but they don't seem to like us very much. Things are said about the Welsh, which if they were applied to any other ethnic group would be condemned as breaches of race relations legislation.
But in practice this is nothing new. As Hywel Teifi Edwards's article on Matthew Arnold makes clear (p.l6), an assumption that the Celts are inferior has been part of the English mind set for generations. Far from being upset by the recent wave of virulent attacks on the Welsh by English gadflies - as the Western Mail and the outraged contributors to its letters columns suggest we should be - he suggests "we only need to 'smile like razors' and tell them to fetch oil"!
This is surely the right approach. Wanting the approval of the English for things Welsh has also been long part of the Welsh mind set, whether we are discussing our languages and literatures, the beauties of the countryside, the efficiency of our industry, or national institutions and ways of doing things.
We can argue over the roots of this insecurity - what the Scots and Australians characterize as "cultural cringe" Indeed, it is persistent theme of Welsh intellectual discussion. Some would say it stems in the first place from the fact that Wales was conquered rather than a nation like Scotland, which joined the Union voluntarily. The 19th century "Treachery of the Blue Books" was clearly important, as has been the savage economic, social and cultural upheavals Wales has suffered for much of this century. Christopher Harvie in his intriguing review of Welsh Writing in English Vol. 2
, (p.88) attributes the underlying problem to the "imposed modernity" of the First World War. "All the props [provided by a powerful over-assured establishment of ministers, teachers and Liberal businessmen] were shot away, [and] the burden settled on writers in both languages to make sense of a society dysfunctioning to the point of mania".
But it is important to recognise that English attacks on the Welsh are equally part of the dvsfunctioning of English society, its inability to come to terms with its transformation from world imperial power to multi-ethnic society in little more than a generation. As David Cow and John Osmond argue in their replies (p.21) to Denzil Davies MP's essay in the previous issue of NWR, the political convulsions caused by the probable emergence of a single European currency are symptomatic of a British imperial parliament's psychological inability to accept its loss of empire and the need to see England's - and Wales's - future in the 21st century within a wider, culturally diverse, European grouping.
A few more years will need to pass before these historic trends, which have profound cultural as well as social and cultural ramifications, work themselves through and English frustrations are no longer vented on, amongst others, the Welsh. Indeed, assuming Labour wins the General Election, the chances are that we shall be subjected to a crescendo of English imperial spleen protesting at the proposed creation of a Welsh Assembly.
In the meantime, however, the Welsh need to remember they are better placed, and certainly less vulnerable, than most minorities in British society to ignore the nonsenses written about them. The more important job is to get on with projecting a positive image of Wales as a society with a quiet confidence in its own worth and cultural expressions-Ron Berry's remarkable new novel, This Bygone, see p. 9, is a case at point - rather than getting het up over the ignorant, abusive comments of those who purport to speak for England.
previous editorial: The Numbers Game
next editorial: "Book of the Year" debacle