1990s >> 1997 >> no-1117-september-1997

TV Review: A Vivid Imagined Nation

It is always fascinating to attend an event later portrayed on television if only to make the obvious “compare and contrast” analysis afterwards. So it was on Sunday 10 August with BBC2’s The National Eisteddfod of Wales, which comprised commentary, clips and observations of an event I had attended in the cause of wage slave duty on three occasions the previous week.Given the strong links between the Welsh establishment and the media it was unlikely to be a highly critical piece—more so with BBC political correspondent Huw Edwards doing the commentary, a man whose father was a Bard. Focusing on the traditional portrayal of Wales as the land of harmonies and the harp, of poetry and prose, it successfully documented an event in many ways well worth attending, even by non-Welsh speakers. The impression given was that of a generally convivial atmosphere in the north Wales hills, sunshine beating down and fine music of most varieties all around. With much of this being true it might seem churlish to complain.

And yet in other respects it does well to cast a more cynical eye at events than the BBC is in the habit of doing. For instance, it is not necessarily a good idea to go to the Eisteddfod if you are poor. Entrance fees notwithstanding, food and drink prices on the site—dominated seemingly by a cartel of some sorts—were extortionate to a degree rarely found outside of Central London in peak season. And with the Eisteddfod site itself still being alcohol-free, a trip to the pubs in Bala which had also formed a cartel just for the week, was not an entirely sensible alternative.

You can of course go to Alton Towers or London Zoo and complain about the prices after they have got you in their ring-fenced compound, but in virtually all other respects the Eisteddfod has a clear edge. To illustrate this, it was a pity that the BBC didn’t have its cameras at the ready for the hardly untypical scene when a Jordanian academic, who had spent over a decade learning fluent English, conversed with a Welsh boy while showing him how to use the internet. Whenever he spoke to the child, the boy’s mother shouted at her son in Welsh not to answer him . . . and the naive among you thought language was all about effective communication. So did the pop band Gorky’s Zygotic Munci, who were banned from playing their traditionally bilingual set in the Rock Tent because the language-fascists thought their occasional English singing would have corrupted the young and innocent. (Bands singing sexist or totally vacuous shit was fine so long as they did it all in Welsh.)

Narrow-minded nationalists
The prevalence of this type of stultifying, narrow-minded behaviour is a tragedy for a land which otherwise has so much to offer. But then again. Wales has been blighted by nationalism and bigotry for as long as anyone can remember. And the ultimate irony is that while all nations are imagined communities, few illustrate this better than the Land of My Fathers.

Wales and the type of traditions currently celebrated at the Eisteddfod are largely a product of the rise of a Welsh non-conformist commerce-based class in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was a class initially desperate to throw off English domination and in some instances, at least, keen to pursue the same course eventually adopted by the southern Irish. The legacy of this mindset still persists today and pervades most Welsh culture and institutions.Wales has a fascinating culture and Welsh is a fine language but both have been devalued by the actions of capitalism’s class of predators who would have been quite content to let Welsh culture in whatever its forms die if it had not served their interests to cynically mould it and debase it.

None of this is really a matter of dispute even among bourgeois historians, with Kenneth O. Morgan once famously stating that it was this economically-inspired cultural process, with the refoundation of the long-dead Eisteddfod, which led to the “rebirth of a nation”, though admittedly the phrase “rebirth” was overstepping the mark a bit. In Wales: The Imagined Nation edited by Tony Curtis, another argues that the rise of the Welsh trading and capitalist class helped create “what was really a new national identity at a time when Wales was drawn inexorably into the maelstrom of British social, political and industrial life, and when many of the peculiarities of Welsh nationhood had either disappeared or become moribund”.

The Welsh capitalist class—today more fully developed than hitherto and perhaps even more entwined in the workings of the state machine than its English counterpart—still trades on the nationalist myth and distortion it was largely responsible for in the first place, binding its wage slaves to a totally fake commonality of interests encouraged by a suspicion of outsiders.

The Labour Party, much in evidence at Bala ’97 all the way from the Secretary of State downwards, panders to it all like they pander to their paymasters whoever they may be, from the City one day to the Farmers’ Union of Wales and the “Taffia” the next. Meanwhile, the culture of the dispossessed class reflects the competing claims of the propertied, a global class forever encouraging the parochial touch for its subordinates, not out of a cultural celebration so much as an extension of the principles of divide and rule and each against all. To this end, in the grim terraced mining valleys, metropolitan Cardiff and the massive sink council housing estates of Wrexham and Newport the working class go about their daily business listening to Oasis, eating at McDonald’s and occasionally taking night-classes in beginners’ Welsh. A cynical thought perhaps, but with more than a grain of truth attached to it and one unlikely to be given expression on the BBC.

Dave Perrin