As others see us

Jan Morris considers how the rumour of Wales plays across the world

As a brand, so to speak, Wales is extremely successful. Of course there are plenty of people on the planet who have never heard of the country, but among those who have heard of it, its reputation seems remarkably vivid.

Down the centuries countless English people have subscribed to the old adage that Taffy is a thief, besides being of the opinion that when a Welshman speaks in the Welsh language it is only to annoy them. Wherever I go in the world the accepted opinion seems to be that every single Welshman sings in a male voice choir, and that the name of every Welsh village ends with the phrase llantisilio gogogoch.

A third of the world apparently thinks of Wales as one grim mining valley, another third believes it perpetually rains there, and the rest once had a lovely holiday in Porthcawl. For a nation of three  million people, Welsh celebrities are remarkably celebrated – Welsh actors, rock stars, opera singers, rugby players have their fans across the continents. And, as a matter of fact, wherever I go in the world I also meet people who possess, for one reason or another, a genuine affection and admiration for all that Wales represents.

So there we are – Wales gets a whole gamut of reactions, but seldom no reaction at all.

The matter of Wales


This is the second of a four-part series. Next Sunday veteran historian and travel writer Jan Morris tries to look at Wales more realistically (though sentiment creeps in…)

What do the Welsh think of themselves? It’s hard to generalize, because the people have become so jumbled. There are so many sorts of persons nowadays who call themselves Welsh. There are the Welsh-born, Welsh-speaking Welsh. There are the Welsh-born, English-speaking Welsh. There are the English-born English-speaking Welsh. There are the English-born Welsh-speaking Welsh.

Then there are hosts of people, like me, who are a mix-up of them all, besides immigrants of altogether different origins who are often as decidedly Welsh as anyone else. I have very seldom met any resident of Wales who does not want to be at least partly Welsh, if only by remote ancestry. Every other English second home-homer, with a country cottage or a caravan, seems to have had a Welsh great-great-grandmother. Not long ago a very entertaining book was published in London advising aspirant Welsh persons how best to be Welsh.

Nevertheless, the Welsh can be extremely self-critical. They are very ready to denigrate and laugh at themselves and often the more thoroughly Welsh they are, the more they laugh and denigrate. Wales is halfway to self-government now, but it was a precarious passage that brought us here, and there are still many citizens who doubt if the nation is really fit to govern itself. They don’t quite trust it. My own experience is that, while I will trust my Welsh friends, neighbours and acquaintances with my life, I am not so sure about the Welsh generality, so to speak: Taffy may not be a thief, but he is quite often a manipulator. I suspect mine is a common attitude, and it contributes to a national undercurrent of self-doubt, the nagging suggestion of an inferiority complex.

Foreigners, and especially English people, do not generally see the Welsh thus. It is true that nowadays the Welshman of the English sit com or comedy stage is all too often portrayed as a whining, hole-in-corner sort of character. I dare say Shakespeare better expressed the English view of Welshness in his depiction of Owain Glyndŵr in Henry V. He is a braggard and a bit of an ass. “I can call spirits from the vasty deep”, he boasts, like any Welsh actor in full flow. Hotspur laughs at him – “But will they come,” he retorts, “when you do call for them?”

But if Owain possesses no magical powers, at least he is, as Shakespeare says, “a worthy gentleman, valiant as a lion and wondrous affable”. Even Hotspur himself is eventually seduced by Glyndŵr with a Welsh melody – music, as the old hero deceiver says, “hung in the air thousand leagues from hence”. For a touch of the charming conjuror goes with the traditional English idea of the Welshman. They used to call Lloyd George “the Welsh wizard”, and it’s no surprise that Tommy Cooper, the ultimate seductive magician, came from Caerphilly.

Cooper embodied in himself, too, another Welsh stereotype. He really was a member of the Magic Circle, but he made his magic comical, and he was a virtuoso showman. If the great world thinks of the Welsh partly as slightly strange, perhaps with a touch of the occult, it also very often finds them funny and exhibitionist – just like that, as Cooper famously used to say.

Welsh tradition is rich in eccentrics, who have seldom hidden their peculiarities under bushels. You might call it a national tendency to show off – you might even say it’s a branch of that inferiority complex. But it has meant that Wales truly is a land of performance. The National Eisteddfod, said to be the biggest folk festival in Europe, is not only a declaration of loyalty to the language, but also a tremendous display of exhibitionism, with people of all ages declaiming verse, singing, dancing, acting, playing instruments and making fools of themselves, and for many citizens it really is the celebratory climax of the year. Even Welsh everyday conversation, in either language, is often a highly stylized sort of discourse, gilded with exaggeration, sly innuendo and hints of bawdy.

So it is not surprising that a people organically bred to such theatricals should produce lots of professional showoffs, opera-singers (the most all-round exhibitionists of them all) actors, musicians of all types and miscellaneous Tommy Coopers. There was a time, and not so long ago either, when Welsh clergymen were virtuoso performers too. We read that in the heyday of Welsh Nonconformism congregations were often moved literally to tears by sermons, or made to collapse in ecstasies of rapture or remorse.

They must have been charismatics, those old Welsh divines, like the supreme rock stars of today. “Look!” cried John Elias of Anglesey in a sermon once – “Look, the arrow of the Lord will strike the sinful!” and instantly the congregation opened before him, to let the missile pass. Alas, in the long decline of religion in Wales chapel ministers, in particular, were all too often reduced, in the world’s estimation, into figures of mockery and satire, strait-laced, tight-lipped teetotallers who cast a pious gloom across the multitude.

A generation or two ago that’s how many outsiders still saw us. Sometimes they still do, even when the influence of the chapels, for good as for ill, has so dramatically faded. As an agnostic myself, I see much sadness in their withdrawal, and in the countless abandoned chapels, all over Wales, that are memorials at once to their achievements and their failures. The Christian chapel culture, in all its myriad sects and dogmas, for all its squabbles and rivalries, really did give the nation of Wales a sense of   fellowship and purpose that lingers still.

What has replaced it, in the minds of outsiders, and in the minds of the Welsh themselves? To most foreigners, I fear, the culture of Wales today is almost indistinguishable from the culture of England – or for that matter from the culture of the United States of America. And plenty of Welsh citizens, too, are happy to do without national characteristics, in an age when it is so often considered racist to recognize them.

Years ago Lloyd George, in many ways an emblematic Welsh Calvinist chapelgoer, deplored what he called ”morbid footballism” as a new trait of the Welsh. Football undeniably is a substitute for religion, or at least a rival to it, almost everywhere in the world. In Wales at least it becomes more nearly an art form in the form of rugby union football, and I suppose rugby is another of the things that much of the world associates with Wales. So far the game has not reached the pitch of mercenary tabloidism that vulgarizes professional soccer, and for me it still represents much that is admirable in Welsh society – no matter that the Welsh XV did not win the World Cup in New Zealand, everyone admired the civilized way they competed.

Of course, not everyone admires Welsh patriotism, however they may be moved, despite themselves, by Hen wlad fy nhadau before a match begins. Many English people view the survival of the Welsh language, that emblem of nationhood, with mingled scorn and suspicion. One of the most telling indicators of the Anglo-Welsh relationship is this very familiar English complaint: “Why, d’you know, we went into a pub somewhere with one of those unpronouncable Welsh names, and the minute we went into the bar everyone there started jabbering away in Welsh.” Actually, as you and I know, they didn’t start jabbering away to discommode the English, they were just talking in their own language anyway! But I suppose to an imperial people like the English, it is a sort of affront to find just over their border, not even over the sea, people speaking a language they don’t understand. Indeed, the very idea that Wales can be a separate nation probably seems to them a kind of absurdity, and the survival of the language a downright waste of money and education.

So, then, the Welsh image in the world, like the Welsh self-image, actually, seems to me decidedly mixed. On the one hand the Welsh are apparently pious, hypocritical, unreliable, comical, given to hyperbole, absurdly nationalist and more or less English anyway. On the other hand they are entertaining, alluring, charismatic and utterly un-English.

And in the end, for most people, the overwhelming fact about Wales is the reputation of its landscape. It is the outer and the inner image of Welshness. Heaven knows it has been messed about over the centuries, by industry first, by tourism later, and by intermittent degradations of war and materialism. But the very first thing foreigners nearly always say to me, when I tell them where I’m from, is: “Oh, I’m told it’s very beautiful”.

Who’s told them? Well, perhaps it was the Welsh Tourist Board before it was disbanded, or maybe compatriots of theirs who’ve been here, and naive enthusiasts like me who never stop talking about it. But chiefly, I like to think, they have learnt about it, as Glyndŵr told Hotspur that day, by mystic influences “a thousand leagues from hence”. Scott Fitzgerald wrote once that France was a land, England was a people and America was an idea. Well, I prefer to think of  Wales as a rumour. More than most countries, to my mind, its very existence has to it something mysteriously suggestive. Was the land awaiting the arrival of some new Glyndŵr, wondered the poet David Jones in the 1930s, or was “the land itself that very lord?”

It’s a sort of magic, I suppose. There are lots of places in the world just as beautiful and much more spectacular. But to the real aficionado, like me, there is nowhere in Wales that is without its particular numinous beauty, its suggestion that there is more to it that meets the eye: its tinge, in fact, of that over-worked abstraction, hiraeth, a lovely sad yearning for we know not what.

“What a load of old cod’s-wallop!” the cry goes up, from Welsh as well as foreign voices, but I don’t care. For me an ultimate experience of Welshness is to emerge on a summer evening from a performance by the Welsh National Opera at the concert hall on the waterfront at Llandudno, of all places –to most of its visitors and in popular  reputation generally mocked  as an  epitome of honky-tonk, fish-and-chips and seaside boarding houses. But come out of that hall to find the mountains dim and blue behind you, the bay in front enigmatic, the street lamps coming on around the splendid promenade  – then, when  melodies of Mozart or Puccini are still in your ears, and seem to echo from the hills and the sea, and mingle with the thump of disco-drum somewhere – then, my dears, wherever you come from, whoever you are, I defy you to resist the rumour of Wales…

Jan Morris is a historian and writer. Among her many volumes is The Matter of Wales – Epic Views of a small country, first published in 1984, with a new edition in 1999.

15 thoughts on “As others see us

  1. “Down the centuries countless English people have subscribed to the old adage that Taffy is a thief, besides being of the opinion that when a Welshman speaks in the Welsh language it is only to annoy them”

    Third sentence in and the first rabble rousing, inflammatory statement is made. Do we really need any more of this hate promoting nonsense on such as ‘serious’ and ‘influential’ website?!? Hating the English is soooo 20th century. Time to grow up I think! otherwise that will be forever ‘as others see us’… as children.

  2. @ comeoffit

    I fail to see how this article can be described as hate promotion. There is a long history of anti-Welsh bigotry in English culture going back centuries. We are not alone in this; it came with having an empire and believing yourself to be superior to everyone else on the planet. It has receded greatly in recent years in the media but there are still outbursts to be found from time to time, especially in the press.

    The question is how do we get past that stereotypical image produced on our behalf and generate our own images and messages that portray ourselves in a more accurate way.

  3. Being Welsh when visiting companies and clients in France, Germany, Scandinavia and Italy in the late 1980s had its uses. A number of times I saw people visibly relax when I corrected them, saying Welsh not English (if they assumed I was British, that was fine by me), because of the toxic image stirred by by Heysel in 1985 and the such-like. It was a strange period (remember, in those days, football was followed by medics and solicitors in Italy, so the perception was redoubled) when impressions were pretty grim. This has all changed now, and the Englishman Abroad is is seen in a far happier light, a world of straw hats and decent chaps. But it shows how we are seen by others is subject to so many things that change in so many ways.

  4. “Wales as a rumor.” Read to the end of the piece, then think about the concept that Jan Morris sets out for us. The stereotypes annoy, and every country has them. But dig deeper and the reality seeps in and subtleties start to make sense in the context of the places where they occurred.

    Jan Morris enjoyed a moment of ‘Welshness” at Llandudno. Jeremy Paxman reveled in the sheer Victorian character of the place on his cross-country rail trips. But Llandudno as we see it today is a “new town” relatively speaking, its early history overshadowed by the resort it became.

    Dig deeper, and you have to dig, then the history of the place becomes alive with Norsemen who called the promontory after Orme, who may have settled there on the way from Ireland to the Wirral. Walk down the road to Deganwy to a remnant of the Welsh princes of Gwynedd, or think about Conwy as a religious settlement before the monks were resettled upstream by Edward 1. Rumors of place worth exploration by Welsh people and visitors alike, and histories shared.

    Stereotypes fade into the background when rumors are either laid to rest, or given better definition as part of our own story. The outsider may say “I have heard…..”, and you can say,”That was just a rumor, but let me tell you the real story.”

  5. Comeoffit: whether or not speaking Welsh annoys the English,it very clearly annoys the hell out of you. Just read what you wrote again. The anger and irritation shouts from every word, whereas most people would not have thought anything of Jan Morris’ remark, which is neither rabble-rousing nor inflammatory, merely wry. A lot of your posts on the language betray the same deep resentment. We can only wonder what caused it.

  6. I had a massive argument with a guy here in Newport who had apparently been to that legendary pub in Betsy CO ED where they all spoke English ’til he walked in. Wouldn’t have it I explained the lot. Not just the English who believe this rubbish

  7. ” going back centuries”
    yawn RBJ!

    “very clearly annoys the hell out of you”
    R.Tredwyn, what annoys me are the centuries old grudges! It’s time to grow up. Where do you pick up these prejudices? Round the campfire at Llangrannog?

  8. @ comeoffit

    “Yawn RBJ”

    If it’s excitement you seek, then reasoned argument is not the best place to be.

    The essential point of reference is what is happening in the present. For a Prime Minister to describe Offa’s Dyke as the line between life and death is quite clearly laughable. The Nuffield Report, based as it is on fact, showed that there was a significant gap in waiting times but otherwise the different NHSs of the United Kingdom were broadly comparable. So why would an intelligent man like the Prime Minister make a fool of himself by making such a foolish remark? Part of the explanation for that is the view of the inferiority of all things Welsh present in English culture. As I said in my previous comment, these are now far less prevalent in the media than used to be the case so the situation is changing. But clearly not sufficiently for the Prime Minister who, it would appear, would like to erect a sign on the border reading, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

    My personal preference is that we discuss the problems in the NHS and how we best solve them. But when the Prime Minister makes use of deeply entrenched prejudices to make a political point, then these prejudices need to be confronted and dealt with.

  9. RBJ, I’m not sure what David Cameron’s comments have to do with this but you make some fair points about what he said I suppose. To anyone of rational thought, his comments are clearly not against Wales, but against Welsh Labour. If for some obscure reason Labour controlled the NHS in Norfolk then he would be bashing that too. I would hope someone such as yourself would see the distinction. Please don’t tell me you’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for the old ‘anyone who is critical is anti-Welsh line’ because if so we might as well be in 1930s Germany!

    Surely you’re a cut above the “remember Treweryn”, “they destroyed the language” and “it’s all their fault” backwards/inwards looking and complex ridden nonsense. I was merely trying to point out that that Wales will not benefit from breeding more people who hold this archaic, bitter and prejudiced view.

  10. @ comeoffit

    I understand that No 10 has decided to wage war on the Welsh Labour Government but there are a number of comments to make on that.

    Firstly, it would appear that David Cameron and David Jones do not have the confidence in Andrew RT Davies to lead the opposition in the Assembly. In his decision to go after Welsh Labour, it is clear that Davies has been swept to one side and left to act as cheerleader of a party of which he is supposed to be the leader, namely the Welsh Conservatives.

    Secondly, if David Cameron was soley attacking Welsh Labour’s handling of the NHS then this would be a legitimate target. But his rhetoric went far beyond that to suggest that our health is not in good hands because of the country we live in, not because of who’s leading it. Yet the only real evidence that can be pointed to is the longer waiting times for knee and hip replacements, which is not a matter of life and death but of discomfort and inconvenience.

    I don’t object to criticism where it is based on fact and evidence. No-one can argue with the facts regarding ambulance waiting times, for example but if that is due to their having to wait at A&E because of overcrowding there, then they can hardly be blamed for that. Problems require accurate analysis so that the problem receives the right solution.

    What I won’t take is an English Secretary of State for Health telling us that we have to learn the lessons of Mid-Staffs when it did not even happen on our watch or in our country. One can only admire Jeremy Hunt for his front in criticising the Welsh Health Service for its poor performance when the English Health Service’s performance was far worse.

    The proper comparison is between Scotland and Wales, both of which have rejected the market model of health care provision, yet Scotland’s performance is far better. So let’s have some criticism of the Welsh NHS based upon a proper and fact-based comparison, not the ideological claptrap pouring out of Conservative Central Office.

  11. As an American, I would have to say that Wales is definitely one of those “best kept secrets” in what it has to offer; with its people, culture, history and stunning, brooding landscapes. The flipside to being a “best kept secret” is that it is not a secret at all, but the result of centuries of oppression, colonization, extractive industries, political impotence and, maybe even in these days, bad marketing. “The rest of humanity scarcely you know that you are a people” said in the 13th century by Archbishop Peckham, is largely true today, at least for us American bumpkins. Most Americans probably think a Welshman to be a strange, hill-country Englishman, or maybe even a profession, like a fishmonger. We did grow up hearing the “Taffy was a Welshman” rhyme, never really knowing its meaning.

    Wales is elusive to us even when we come as tourists, especially when we discover that many of the people running the hotels and shops are actually from England. How do we meet the Welsh, even in Wales? Maybe you need “Welsh owned an operated” on your businesses, “Welsh spoken here” signs so we can come and have a more meaningful interaction. Yes, Wales is ephemeral to us as outsiders, and that can be an attractive mystery, or simply the result of a country ransacked ages ago, with its image and voice faint, weak or control by others. Politically I would say that one point I believed that Wales had a lot to offer the world in the richness of its experience as a small nation, but recently the devolution process looks more like Wales going to Westminster with a begging bowl, rather than a country confident in claiming its rights.

  12. @ Keith Frausto
    Some interesting and refreshing insights from American Keith Frausto, regarding our country; they are very welcome, as indeed is he ~ Croeso i Gymru, Keith.

  13. Keith Frausto – oh what a joy your second paragraph is to my ears. As an incomer, two decades ago, I have been saying the same things until my throat is hoarse. It’s even worse than you write: I have been in Welsh owned and run businesses, especially ones catering for tourists, that hide their Welshness. As you so eloquently point out, this is not only stupid for business, but helps perpetuate the unknowing ness of many people in Wales of themselves.
    As for devolution, you are right there too. I hope that Scotland votes Yes so that the fracturing of the Union will lead to a sustained and realistic conversation and actions about the future of Wales as a reality, not just a myth.

  14. I just don’t think “brand Wales” as Jan Morris calls it, has had much of an impact on this side of the Atlantic. Which is too bad, because it could. Here are some crass, overly simplistic recommendations for “brand Wales”: first, stop using the name Wales altogether, and (spelling differences aside) let earth’s largest mammal have it once and for all. Why on earth use the derogatory name given by your conquerors for your national identity? How twisted is that, anyway? The name Cymru has more of a positive meaning and using it exclusively would enable you to boldly declare a move away from the subservient past. Cost=nil. Second, stop viewing the culture and language as liabilities and use them more as assets. People will pay a premium for cross-cultural experiences these days, and don’t just want to sit on a beach. There are so many things to be learned/experienced in your country, and if you market the “Welshness” of Wales, maybe more people will see an incentive for learning the language. Cost = realignment/reinvestment of marketing resources. Third, get on with the political transformation. Grow a pair and demand taxation powers or whatever else you don’t have that hinders your development. The stronger Wales becomes the more the rest of the world will take notice. Cost=not as much as staying where you are! Thanks for allowing this “outsider” a chance to offer my opinions.

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