Eisteddfod Special 1: Pleasures of the Maes

John Osmond provides one person’s glimpse of this year’s 150th anniversary festival on the outskirts of Wrexham

It has often been said that the Eisteddfod experience is unique because it as though the whole of Wales has decamped for a week into one spot and collectively discovered the pleasures of the Welsh language. Certainly for me, now celebrating 15 consecutive years taking the opportunity of promoting the IWA at the festival, the institution never ceases to surprise.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment came about five of six years ago when, standing in the hot sun in front of our stall as one lunchtime approached, I thought, “Wouldn’t a pint of Guinness be marvellous.” I lifted my hat, wiped my brow, glanced up, and noticed about 50 yards away a large van bearing the inviting sign of the harp. “It’s a mirage,” I thought. “It must be the heat or sunstroke or worse.” But I staggered towards it and discovered that lo and behold, some dreams come true. No-one had told me that, in their wisdom the Eisteddfod authorities had decided it was time to move with the times.

Eisteddfod Special

Tomorrow Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on the media debates that dominated much of the discussion at the National Eisteddfod this year.

But the most pleasurable thing for me, stuck as I am to our table of publications endeavouring to persuade havering customers to join the IWA, is the extraordinary range of people I meet and the conversations we strike up. I’m constantly hearing extraordinary stories, learning about inventive schemes and new initiatives, and absorbing enough ideas to fill the IWA’s journal Agenda for the year to come.

Here’s a sample from last week. Hydraulic Fracturing could be coming to a place near you, especially if you live in the Vale of Glamorgan’s Llandow site for next year’s Eisteddfod. I need to learn more about this, but apparently it’s about forcing a toxic mix of liquid through bore holes thousands of metres into the ground in order to force out oil and natural gas. Expect an article in the forthcoming Agenda.

Then there was a couple who spotted the name John Osmond on one of our publications. “Is he around?” they asked. Once I had announced my identity they were most effusive, saying they were very close to the late Tom Ellis in the nearby village of Rhosllannerchrugog and that he had often mentioned myself and the IWA. Of course, they joined up.

Soon after a man appeared and pronounced, “You don’t know who I am do you?” I confessed I did not, but it turned out that he had been my brother’s best friend at school and we had last met more than 40 years ago. He joined as well.

By now I have an eye for intelligent souls who might be encouraged to show an interest in the IWA and always make a point of accosting these promising individuals. One such turned out to be Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, though you would not have guessed it from his casual attire. We started having a conversation about the difficulties the Church of England is having with women priests and gay clergy before I properly  clocked how central he has been to the argument. For Jeffrey, who is a Welsh-speaker from Tonyrefail, made headlines in 2003 when he was the first person to have openly been in a same-sex relationship to be nominated as a Church of England bishop. Owing to the consequent controversy he withdrew his acceptance of the nomination, but only after Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury had intervened and asked him to step down to avoid further division. I think Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales, should take a lead and find him a bishopric in his home patch.

A woman from Swansea, who joined, was full of enthusiasm about the way Wales was changing with devolution. She confided that her father had died in 1997, only a few hours after the referendum result of that year, but told her he was departing a happy man as a consequence.

I fell into a conversation with a couple from Yorkshire who said they had taught themselves Welsh, entirely from books. The man, who had retired from teaching after 42 years said he didn’t believe in classrooms. “They’re full of people who know as little or less about the subject than you,” he told me. “Why did you want to learn Welsh?” I asked. “It’s a fascinating language,” he replied. “It has borrowed so many words from so many places, from Latin, and medieval English amongst others, words that no longer exist in the English language today.”

One man from Texas told me he was fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition by finally managing to attend the Eisteddfod. Another from Australia insisted that Australians had been first in Patagonia, and nothing I said was able to dissuade him.

Occasionally I get to slip away from our stall to investigate other parts of the Maes. A favourite stopping place is the clutch of bookshops that decamp from Blaenau Ffestiniog, Aberystwyth and Swansea each year to present a 19th Century face to the Eisteddfod world. Much of the contents of their shelves seem to come from a hundred years ago as well, and seem to be constantly replenished with the same titles year after year.

And, quite apart from what goes on in the big tent, which I never get near to, there’s a constant round of lectures and meetings on every topic under the sun. I promise myself that once my IWA days are over I’ll attend the Maes as a casual visitor able to take in these delights on a systematic basis. This year I only managed to get to two events, apart from the IWA’s own annual lecture, with Aled Roberts AM on Border Politics in North East Wales, and our debate on Broadcasting in Wales – a crisis in two languages. The first, organised by the Law Society, was a discussion about the case for a Welsh jurisdiction with the solicitor and crowned bard Emyr Lewis and Professor Thomas Watkin, Emeritus Professor of Law at Bangor University and the National Assembly’s first Welsh Legislative Counsel. I hope we’ll be hearing more from them in the pages of Agenda.

But the most moving and remarkable experience was watching a short film about Tryweryn in the Arts and craft pavilion, made in the early 1960s by pupils from Friars secondary school in Bangor. Part of a haunting exhibition Without Words, it was grainy, slow-moving garish Kodachrome colour footage telling the story of how the people of Capel Celyn were removed from their homes in the early 1960s to make way for a reservoir to provide water to Liverpool. “Water knows no boundaries’ was its banal but provocative title. It is interspersed with still black and white prints by the photographer Geoff Charles whose son – a pupil at Friars School at the time – worked as a cameraman on the film. Together with newspaper images from the period the whole combines to convey a mesmerising, rather unnerving glimpse of one of the seminal stories of modern Wales.

But the most lasting and teeth grating impression comes from the voice-over, delivered in clipped received English pronunciation by strangely – since this was a boys’ school – a girl’s voice. She could have been delivering the Queen’s Christmas Day message. The script is even handed to both Liverpool Corporation which, of course, needed the water, and to the plight of the villagers. You can see how the outside world at the time – and this included Friars School – simply had no moral compass when it came to comprehending a predicament such as this. The accent, now part of that grainy sepia world of 20th Century England and Wales, up to somewhere in the 1970s, also tells you how Tryweryn could happen in such a top-down deferential class-ridden culture.

Above all, in this 150th Eisteddfod the weather was kind. Most days it was warm, if a bit humid and there were only occasional showers to remind us of an outside world threatened with financial collapse.  Long may the Eisteddfod continue to provide us with memories, stimulating conversations, cultural wonderment, and the whole array of diverse pleasures that make up our resourceful small country.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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