Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on our national day and how we might have ended up with another saint
There have been signs recently that St. David’s Day is developing a bit of a swagger. We haven’t started painting white lines in the road green (or should it be red) as the Irish do in New York, but there will be a march through our capital and some feasting in the National Assembly. Toasts will be drunk. The anthem will be sung, many times. The day is so crowded with Welsh events, that it would make it easier for everyone if we had a St David’s week.
It is a day that more usually hovers between the commercialised romanticism of St Valentine’s Day and the ascetic rigours of Lent. And there’s no escaping the fact that St David was very definitely one for ascetic rigour. Those of you who caught the first episode of Huw Edwards television history of Wales last Monday will have seen St David testing his mental toughness by standing for hours in a pool of freezing water. You would never have caught him propping up the bar of a Welsh hotel, even for a national celebration. He was a serious soul. He and his brethren were teetotal, vegetarian, given to hard labour, and preaching fire and brimstone.
I don’t want to knock someone who, is after all, the centre of today’s celebration. However, if I can quote the great American journalist H. L. Menken, “Puritanism is that terrible nagging fear that someone, somewhere is enjoying himself.” It was the sort of thing Gwyn Thomas had in mind when he said that there were “parts of Wales where the only concession to gaiety is a striped shroud”. And talking of shrouds, isn’t it strange that whereas we celebrate the birthdays of so many people, in the case of St David the 1st of March is the anniversary of his death. Clearly the Welsh liking for a good funeral goes back a long way.
Of course, we might not have been celebrating St David at all if St Patrick had had his way. I feel rather sorry for Patrick. After all, he was a sophisticated chap – according to 11th Century monk, Rhigyfarch, he was “learned in the Roman arts” – and he was already a bishop. He had been doing his bit around Wales – admittedly, he didn’t take too kindly to Cardiganshire which he left quite quickly, but was much taken with the rest of Dyfed. When he came on this little hollow called the valley of the roses on the western edge of Pembrokeshire, he promptly set up camp and said to himself, “This is for me. This would be just the place to build St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
But he reckoned without an ‘angel of the Lord’. In fact, in Rhigyfarch the angel of the Lord is a frightfully busy chap. The bad tidings in the angel’s telegram was that the valley of the roses in Pembrokeshire was already reserved for the as yet unborn David, who would be born in 30 years time.
Now, being passed over for a flesh and blood rival is one thing, but being edged out by someone as yet unborn is a bit rough. There is no doubt that Patrick took it badly. You can understand it. It’s a bit as if the angel of the Lord had taken the Lord Elis-Thomas – definitely bishop material – to the top of Snowdon and told him to forget Cardiff Bay and to become the Presiding Officer of the Irish Dail.
So St David it is. Fine. Let’s get on with the story, while resisting the overwhelming temptation to sentimentalise, and to set a country and a culture in aspic.
On Monday the BBC’s Huw Edwards started to tell The Story of Wales – the first television history of Wales for 27 years. The last was a series called The Dragon has Two Tongues in which Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Professor Gwyn Alf Williams famously argued their way through Welsh history.
I daresay a lot of people will start to compare the two series. I wouldn’t advise it. They were made in very different circumstances, and for very different channels – The Dragon in the 1980s for a young, experimental Channel 4, The Story of Wales for peak-time BBC One. The former arose from that gloomy period of intense self-questioning after the failure of the 1979 referendum, and amid the trauma of the miners’ strike – a time when Gwyn Alf saw Welsh people as “standing naked under an acid rain”. It was out of the same circumstances, the same gloom, the same sense of frustration, that the IWA was born two years later.
In The Story of Wales Huw Edwards is clearly intent on striking a more upbeat note – to match the landscape, luscious in all its high definition glory. And, thank the Lord, there is a lot to be cheerful about. The last decade and a half – 1997-2012 – has been the most remarkable period in the whole history of Wales. I would not have wished to live in any other period of Welsh history.
We are a small country, three million people – remarkably, the same number as the population of the American colonies in 1776. For the first time in two millennia we are now democratically constituted in a discrete Assembly. We have started to own our own problems. It is also an era when democratic governments have assumed many of the tasks of Dewi Sant’s medieval church, (including, less happily, keeping their own people on message).
St David was not a hermit or a reclusive monk, he was engaged with his community. Our National Assembly and Government are similarly engaged – engaged, in their own way, in tending the land, in helping the poor and the sick, in educating our children, and in making provision for our spiritual needs, these days in the form of our arts and culture. Some members of the Assembly have an inclination for fiery preaching, though the brimstone is less in evidence. We have yet to breed our own Dennis Skinner or Ian Paisley (Rod Richards having retired early) and perhaps should be thankful for it.
So we can stop fretting about our identity, we have proved once again our capacity for survival against all historical odds.
The historian Norman Davies, recently published a book entitled, Vanished Kingdoms, reminding us that seemingly immutable entities, can flourish for centuries and then vanish. Whatever became of the Empire of Aragon, or the Kingdom of Burgundy – stretching at one point from Dijon in southern France to take in the whole of the Netherlands? Who of us ever knew that the largest country in Europe was once the Grand Duchy of Lithuania? How many of us, or how many fulminating Telegraph readers know that Glasgow was founded by the Welsh before either England or Scotland existed: the Kingdom of the Rock – Alt Clud – that lasted for more than six centuries?
Somehow we, the Welsh, survived. Perhaps, as some have argued, we have a survival gene. Perhaps our very fragmentation – a distributed network, like the internet – makes us difficult to destroy. Or perhaps, beneath our too passive exteriors we have always waged an unconscious guerrilla warfare of the mind. So, as I said, let’s not worry about Welsh identity any more. The issue now is what we do with it. It’s time to worry much, much more about the mode and means of our future existence, and to wonder when our politics and politicians are going to come out into the open about what lies ahead.
In this I may be naïve or idealistic. All governments have an inclination to say that everything is fine or needs just modest improvement. But we know that isn’t the reality in Wales. We were at the bottom of the prosperity league table in Britain, even before the biggest recession for 80 years. The Institute of Fiscal Studies tells us that Gordon Brown’s rule that national debt should not exceed 40 per cent of GDP will not be met again until some time after 2032, and even then only with a fair wind from economic growth.
2032!! God willing, I will be 88 and my age group will have increased in size by 55 per cent and be digging an even bigger hole in the national coffers. A decade or so later I hope I shall still be toasting Dewi Sant, even awaiting a telegram from the Queen or, for all I know, the King of Scotland.