OF WALES & THE WELSH
Welsh Language Proves Hugely Divisive, Clearly Unjustifiably Costly & Damaging For Wales & Its Peoples …
Greg Lance – Watkins
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Hello Marcus, we haven’t met in person but, as you know, we are related. Our Great-Grandfathers were brothers, who moved from Herefordshire together to mine coal in south Wales in 1901.
We communicate occasionally on social media and share some common interests. And like you, I’m a Cardiffian who writes about sport.
But we have taken very different paths since growing up in Cardiff with our wider close-knit family spread across Cardiff and the valleys. I now live in north Wales, and live my life in the Welsh language.
Since the recent publicity regarding your negative posts about the Eisteddfod and the language, people have contacted me and my sons, to discover with amazement that we are related. My Welsh-speaking friends are aghast at your views, but I know where you are coming from.
When I grew up in Caerphilly, and then Fairwater, the Welsh language wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know anybody who could speak Welsh, I wasn’t even aware of the language until a lesson at the age of nine.
I remember it clearly now. We all shouted ‘Rydw i’n Hoffi Coffi’ until we were creased-up with laughter.
But that Welsh lesson to a group of monoglot Cardiffians changed my life. I don’t know what was triggered inside me, but from that day I was curious about Welsh.
I went to Fairwater Junior, and Cantonian High School long before Plasmawr was an option. Glantaf was just a rugby opponent where they only spoke Welsh to pass on secret lineout routines.
When it came to chosing my O Levels, I picked Welsh because it was easier than Physics or Home Economics. I also chose French and my Francophilia was born with a 2-week exchange in Nantes and a lavender-scented girl called Veronique.
I wasn’t offered an exchange visit as part of the Welsh course because- well – I was already in Wales. My only inkling that Welsh was a language that people actually used came at an Urdd concert in Sophia Gardens and a trip to Llangranog alongside other English-speaking kids.
I failed my Welsh A Level, actually failed it. It was way too difficult with obscure rules about mutations, construction and gender. There were rules for this and exceptions for that. And then there were the different words for the same thing.
I was a young Cardiffian expected to read and understand north-Walian dialect. I’m really angry about it when I look back. It should have put me off for ever.
And it almost did – until I met my first north Walians. My friends at Cardiff Uni were from Gwynedd, and they were just like us. We spoke English of course, because that’s what Welsh speakers do when they are in the presence of even a single person who doesn’t understand Welsh.
And then I met the Cardiff City fans and the musicians from Glantaf. They all spoke English to each other too, because we were a mixed language group. Those Glantaf kids who only spoke English at school – they all speak Welsh now they are parents. Welsh language education does have an effect in the long run.
My life changed when I visited north Wales for the first time at the age of 20. My new mates played a tape by Meic Stevens in the car. I had no idea what he was singing about but it amazed me that they were all connected deeply to this music and they shared a common relationship to songs that I had never heard.
And the mountains – my God, the mountains. This was a long way from Cardiff, geographically, literally, and of course culturally.
It was at Arfon’s house in Llanfairpwll (nobody really calls it by the long name) that I heard a family speak Welsh together for the first time.
I played piano with his young sister Bethan and was accepted with warmth into the family – never patronised, or excluded, just welcomed.
It was that weekend that I decided I wanted to one day live in the north. I felt cheated that this world, this Wales existed and nobody had told me.
But I could easily have turned out like you. The Steads were Labour people, with Welsh speaking wives whose language diasappeared in a single generation.
My mother’s family are royalists (not that you are), and Conservatives. They’re Welsh too, but very British.
I grew up as a Brit. I remember the whole street in Bwlch, Rd Fairwater singing ‘There’ll always be an England’ while waving Union Jacks at the Queen’s Jubilee Party in 1977.
What changed me was my introduction to Welsh language culture at a grassroots level. I met real people, real families and was given an introduction to Welsh as a real living language. I already had that introduction to France with my exchange trip, but never to my own country.
The geographical and cultural polarisation of Wales means that communities can live a life-time without meeting the other side. Just as some in English-language areas are suspicious of the Welsh language, I know of people in the north – not many – who will consider monoglots as ‘not proper Welsh’.
A bigot is created by fear of ‘the other’. The English word, ‘Wales’ literally means ‘the other people’.
I can empathise with your views on the ‘crachach’ – that mythical closed-shop elite Welsh establishment. When I started looking for employment in Cardiff, there was a definite sense that it was impossible to work in the public sector without Welsh language skills. That situation can create an atmosphere of resentment against the whole community.
Did I miss out on that job with BBC Sports because I couldn’t speak Welsh? As it turns out, no – that wasn’t the reason, but I can see why somebody might think that.
I don’t accept your suggestion that people with names like ‘Esyllt’ and ‘Dafydd’ are prominent in Welsh establishment. They’re just Welsh names.
Welsh-speakers are just as likely to be called Rob, Dave and Sharon, but maybe their names don’t jump out at you from the TV credits.
I met my Welsh speaking wife in 1994, but we didn’t speak Welsh to each other until the birth of our first son in 2000. We literally changed to Welsh one morning and it was weird, funny and perverse. It was very tough and needed a lot of trust and patience.
We lived in Cefn Mably at the time, near St Mellon’s. It was when the local community started mocking her accent, and sneering when she spoke Welsh to our baby that I suggested we move north.
That really happened, Marcus. Several times.
So now I live in a village called Y Felinheli, and work in Caernarfon. And here’s the rub. The vast majority of the people here speak Welsh. It’s their language. It’s not just a political statement, a cultural stick to beat you with – it’s just their language.
They talk about Love Island, Donald Trump, and they buy their chips in Welsh. And you’ll have to trust me on this – nobody has ever, ever changed to Welsh because strangers walk into a pub.
They may change from Welsh to English and back again naturally from time to time, because we are a bilingual society hugely influenced by English language culture. But we never change to Welsh to exclude strangers.
And there are half a million people just like the people in Felinheli who live their lives in that language – the language of their country.
And when those Welsh-speaking people from Felinheli, Aberstwyth, Crymych, Dinas Powys or Splott visit Cardiff, they have a basic human right to use their language in the capital. That means road signs, VAT bills, parking tickets and yes, the consumption of media.
With increasing concentration of public services to Cardiff, that Welsh-language requirement becomes even more important.
You say that you are not against the Welsh language per se (though evidence suggests otherwise), and that you simply object to the compulsory provision of Welsh in schools.
Well without that compulsory provision, there is no way that I’d have discovered the rich culture, ancient language, and met the amazing, passionate Welsh-speaking people that I am proud to call my friends and family.
Why would you want to deny any child the key to a large part of their country’s culture and language? I genuinely don’t understand that.
I’m very uncomfortable with the way you have been treated. I vehemently disagree with your views, but I defend your right to express them.
There are people in Wales who feel Welsh, and those who feel British, and I don’t think Wales will ever change – aggressive colonialism has been far too successful. So we have to live together and respect each other.
But you must realise that when you criticise a language, you are attacking the very soul of the people who speak it. I suspect your intention was to offend, and you succeeded.
I think that exchange visits between Welsh schools and regions are the answer. I strongly believe that if you spent a week in my village drinking in our pub, hearing old people share tales, seeing the children play together and our community celebrating and mourning life – all in their natural tongue – that your stance would soften immeasurably.
It’s just an ancient, beautiful language – don’t be afraid of it.
To view the original open letter from Phil Stead to his cousin Marcus Stead:
An open letter to my cousin, Phil Stead
Marcus Stead Replied to Phil’s comments
Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead
I have never met my cousin, Phil Stead, but would very much like to. He took the trouble to write this open letter to me earlier today. Here is my response:
Thank you for your interesting and thoughtful letter. I’d also like to wish you and Mair a happy 20th wedding anniversary.
I shall now address the points you made in the order you made them.
I can clearly remember when I discovered you and I were related. It would have been 1998-2000, and I signed up to the old Cardiff City FC newsgroup mailing list. I saw some of your posts and found it curious that there was another Stead on there. Soon after my first post, you contacted me to try and establish how we were related, as you were very keen on family tree research at that time.
I wish it had happened a little earlier, because my grandfather, Emlyn, who died in 1998, would almost certainly have been able to answer any question about our family tree you had asked. I asked my late father, Vincent, for his help in the questions you posed, but he couldn’t answer everything. He knew your father when he was a boy, but his memory of it seemed vague and they hadn’t seen each other for decades. He wasn’t able to say very much at all about what sort of a person your father was.
It is somewhat surprising that we have never met in person, because we both write about sport and share a number of interests. I have been asked many times if I am related to you, and we have a number of mutual friends and colleagues. You were supporting the Bluebirds in the ‘bad old days’ and I greatly admired the principled stance you took when the club’s colours were changed from blue to red. I have seen you on television several times and you come across well. Mutual acquaintances speak highly of you, so I have no personal axe to grind.
My experience of the Welsh language
Just like you, the Welsh language barely featured at all in my early education. I attended Holy Family Primary School in Pentrebane, Cardiff, between 1988 and 1995. Until around the time of the Welsh Language Act 1993, I barely heard a word of Welsh at school. Parents who wanted their children to be taught in Welsh could send them to a Welsh language primary school a short walk away. Parents had the freedom to choose the language in which their children were educated, which, in my view, is how it should be.
Things really began to change a few months into the 1994/95 academic year, when once a week, a teacher came in for one hour a week to teach us Welsh. In reality, it didn’t extend much beyond her teaching us to count to ten, the days of the week, colours, and a few children’s songs. Beyond that, a policy was introduced of ‘Welsh being used in a classroom context’. When the register was taken each morning and afternoon, we were no longer told to answer, ‘Yes, Mrs Sullivan’ but ‘Uma, Mrs Sullivan’ (is that even the correct Welsh word to use? I am not sure). Little stickers started appearing above classroom objects saying ‘cyfrifiadur’, ‘teledu’ and ‘bwrdd du’.
I recall on one afternoon, the older classes were taken into the school hall to learn the national anthem. It succeeded (I can sing it word-perfectly), but the way it was taught may not be to your approval. We were taught ways of remembering it that you may consider crude and unsuitable, for example, ‘mae hen’ became ‘my hen’. Even at the age of 11, I could tell that all this was essentially a box-ticking exercise. It wasn’t a meaningful gateway to the Welsh language or Welsh language culture.
From 1995-2000, I attended Corpus Christi High School, where Welsh was a compulsory subject until the end of year 9. For the first year, I ‘got by’, but in year 8, with the same teacher, I really struggled. Then, in year 9, something extraordinary happened, which I still can’t quite understand. I was in a much smaller class of about 12 pupils, with a different teacher. Welsh lessons became fun and a good laugh. I quickly made enormous progress, and it wasn’t long before I was near the top of the class!
At the end of year 9, we had the option of taking Welsh to GCSE level or dropping it. My year group was the last to be able to do so, as after that Welsh to GCSE became compulsory. The said teacher was mildly disappointed that I wasn’t continuing with it to GCSE level. Maybe if I knew for sure that she would be my teacher for the following two years, I’d have continued with it. Instead, I decided to take French and Spanish, which I was also fairly strong at, and both would enable me to communicate with potentially hundreds of millions of people around the world.
And that marked the end of me learning Welsh. You went down a very different path at around the same age, and I am happy for you. I don’t begrudge you a single second of the experiences you describe that clearly meant a lot to you.
There are sadly no Steads left in my particular branch of the family. Those that I knew were mainly Labour voters, and unionists who could take or leave the Royal Family (though my father was definitely a republican). However, I am not connected to any political party, though people tell me I am ‘on the right’ (whatever that means). My values are: National sovereignty (UK), a low-tax economy, strong families, law and order, proper education, free speech, freedom, a ‘small state’ and personal responsibility. I support the Royal Family as an institution, though I criticise individual members when I want to.
You refer to the singing of ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ during the Silver Jubilee of 1977. I have no objection to that. I will happily join in many songs from the UK nations. I don’t see it as an ‘either/or’ choice. I am proud to be Welsh. I am also proud to call England my neighbouring country. I am proud to have links in my bloodline to Devon, Herefordshire (as you remind me), Yorkshire and Italy.
I do question your claim that the ‘Crachach’ closed-shop elite is mythical. I have seen many examples of it in the arts, media, civil service and higher education in Wales. The late Ian Skidmore once wrote a blog article, sadly no longer available, titled ‘Wales is a Limitedd Company’ which detailed his own experiences of this while working at BBC Wales. Paddy French’s ‘Rebecca Television’ website also provides many detailed examples of this. Carolyn Hitt wrote an amusing parody of the Crachach in 2006. I know of journalists and broadcasters who feel ‘frozen out’ because they’re not part of the clique (being a Welsh speaker alone isn’t enough – the right family connections help), but have gone on to have successful careers on the other side of the Severn Bridge and beyond. There is an establishment in Wales that ‘looks after its own’.
It is of course wrong that the local community in Cefn Mably were sneering at your wife’s accent, but it sounds to me as though your heart was set on a move to North Wales in any case. I have had people mocking my accent during periods when I’ve lived and worked in England, and it’s just one of those things you learn to laugh off, or find a witty rebuke.
However, I strongly disagree with you when you say that Welsh speakers never speak Welsh to exclude strangers. I’ve seen it myself in Welsh media circles and I’ve spoken to many English visitors to our country who have had similar experiences. It is basic good manners to communicate with people in a language they understand, if possible, when in their presence.
I am glad you and your wife have found happiness in North Wales. You had the freedom to make that choice and things seem to have worked out very well for you.
A reality check
At no point have I said that I am anti-Welsh language. But I am pro-choice. I believe in freedom of choice in religion, sexuality, and for people to live their lives in the way they wish as long as it does not negatively impact on others. For that reason, I believe parents should have the choice as to whether their children are educated in English or Welsh.
There is no getting away from the fact that English is by far the main language of Wales. 80% of the population of Wales speaks little or no Welsh.
The story of the last 40 years in Wales is one of a group of small, but vocal Welsh language campaigners demanding more and more, and being given exactly what they want, regardless of cost or benefit to wider society. It began with road signs in English-speaking parts of Wales being produced in both English and Welsh after a stupid and dangerous campaign by Welsh language campaigners of painting over English-only road signs. This was followed by Gwynfor Evans threatening to starve himself to death unless S4C was created in 1982. This was followed by the Welsh Language Act of 1993, which led to a massive increase in the use of Welsh in the public sector, regardless of demand. This was followed by the creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999, which fewer than one in four of the people of Wales actually voted for. This was followed by another Welsh Language Act in 2011. In that same year, the Assembly’s powers were increased, which fewer than one in five of the people of Wales actually voted for.
To bring the story up to date, there is now a policy of ‘Welsh first’ road signs being gradually rolled out, regardless of the fact that in many cases these are in an area where only a tiny minority actually speak Welsh. Ever more provisions for the Welsh language are being made by the Welsh Language Commissioner, regardless of demand.
Value for Money?
There appears to be a real reluctance among Welsh language campaigners I’ve encountered as to whether all this investment in the Welsh language provides value for money. A few examples:
1. S4C receives an annual subsidy of £80 million from the licence fee pot. That’s well over £1.4 million per week. Yet aside from Pobwl y Cwm, live sport and the news, very little programming on S4C gets more than 30,000 viewers per week. Why can’t we have a debate as to whether throwing money at S4C when demand for it is so low (even among Welsh speakers, evidently) is a good use of public money? It has seldom been successful. Some years ago, a well-known Welsh radio broadcaster from the 1980s (now retired and no longer living in Wales) told me that in the 1980s, he and a colleague at BBC Wales worked out that for certain S4C programmes, it would be cheaper to send out a VHS video to anyone who wanted to watch them than to broadcast them over the airwaves – and that was in an era of four channel TV before the audience fragmentation of today.
2. The number of Welsh speakers fell in the decade to 2012, despite huge investment in the language in education and the public sector. So maybe money isn’t the issue? Why can’t we debate this?
3. All local council correspondence is sent in English and Welsh. The Welsh language version ends up going straight in the bin in many households. Why can’t councils send a questionnaire to all households asking whether they’d like future correspondence in English or Welsh, and then just send it out in their chosen language? People get criticised for even suggesting that.
Some Welsh language campaigners struggle to accept the reality that most people in Wales do not share their agenda. Demand for Welsh independence is only around 15%. Plaid Cymru is tearing itself apart, and is not taken very seriously by a lot of people. Of those 80% of the people of Wales who speak little or no Welsh, few have any intention of learning.
Their vision of Wales is not a vision of Wales shared by others. Some of us think of Welsh culture in different ways – our industrial and mining heritage, music – from classical to Tom Jones to the Manic Street Preachers, various sporting achievements, Brains beer, Welsh cakes, a night on the town, our spectacular coast and countryside. That’s what Wales and being Welsh means to me, and to many, many others. I am proud to be Welsh, I am proud to be British, and I am proud of the various components that make up my ancestry.
As I have repeatedly said, I am all in favour of children learning Welsh at school if that is the will of their parents. But others would prefer their children to learn other languages instead. As the 21st Century progresses, the world will become an increasingly small place. The jobs market is effectively becoming global. Today’s children will be competing for jobs with alongside those from Asia, South America and many other emerging markets.
Therefore, many parents would prefer their children learnt Spanish, French, Mandarin or any language that will enable them to communicate with hundreds of millions of people across the world. By contrast, Welsh is spoken by 20% of the people of Wales, in Patagonia, and hardly anywhere else.
A frequent argument I hear is that it’s not ‘either/or’ and they can learn both or several of these languages. Indeed they can, but there are only so many hours in a school day. I took French, Spanish, History and Geography as my GCSE options. I’d have needed to have dropped one of those to accommodate Welsh lessons.
To clarify my point – I acknowledge that the Welsh language is important to SOME families in SOME areas of Wales. But to many others it is not. I can understand some Welsh language campaigners finding it a hard pill to swallow. I ask them to please try and lose this mentality of ‘WE are Wales – the non-Welsh speakers just live here.’ Wales is a small country with a small population. We cannot afford to drive out our best and brightest graduates because they feel shut out of the jobs market on the basis they cannot speak Welsh. We need the best available people in the best jobs.
We also need to be honest about how Wales is under-performing economically. Why isn’t the Welsh tourist industry doing better at a time when the pound is weak? Other areas of the UK are benefitting. Why is Wales lagging behind? When I posed this question on Twitter, and suggested POSSIBLE reasons why, I received a barrage of abuse, but not one sensible suggestion as to why it might be happening.
Just ONE of the FTSE top 100 companies is Welsh, and even that has American management. Why isn’t Wales more entrepreneurial? As the (actually rather likeable) Welsh establishment figure Geraint Talfan-Davies said on TV a few years ago, if Wales had a nickname, it would be ‘Grant’. We are heavily reliant on subsidies from the English taxpayer to maintain our standard of living. I don’t like that fact, but it’s a fact nonetheless. A disproportionate number of my friends and associates in Cardiff either work in the public sector or in retail. There isn’t anywhere near enough by way of small and medium-sized business activity.
Some people seem rather offended by one tweet in particular about the Eisteddfod with the ‘speaking Welsh or very drunk’ remark. I actually borrowed that joke from the Welsh language comedian, Daniel Glyn, who made exactly the same joke on a feature for a BBC Wales feature about Glantaf School that you posted a link to on your Facebook wall several years ago. Incidentally, Daniel made a remark in that same feature along the lines of, ‘some people feared that Glantaf opening would lead to the creation of a middle class Welsh speaking elite who’d end up getting all the best jobs…..and they were right!’ I’ve had professional dealings with Daniel a number of times and we seemed to get along, but surely this remark is an admission by him that the Crachach is very real? And as for his/my joke – why didn’t he receive a similar backlash for saying the same thing I did?
My reasons for not being a fan of the Eisteddfod are many – a ‘Mind Matters’ column in Wales Online in 2006 summed it up, slightly more crudely than I would, with the words: “It’s a mind-achingly banal cross between a Women’s Institute convention, a Morris Dancing championship and the annual Conservative Club summer fete. Harp-playing, dancing with brooms and tedious speech choirs may have their place in our national tradition but are they really going to keep the youth of tomorrow thronging to get in?”
I tried very hard to watch a few hours of this afternoon’s Eisteddfod coverage on S4C and, despite 12 years having passed since that article was written, I’m afraid I found it difficult to argue with that definition. The site is just a short walk away from Butetown, one of the oldest and most racially-diverse communities anywhere in the UK, yet I didn’t see a single non-white face in the Wales Millennium Centre main hall or in the surrounding area outside throughout. This screenshot demonstrates that there were empty seats and a disproportionate number of those in attendance were elderly.
It doesn’t feel like a festival that celebrates all that is good about Wales – English speakers, Welsh speakers, different racial backgrounds, many faiths and so on. It felt very much like the Welsh ‘establishment’ speaking to itself at the expense of others, and, yes, I was bored watching it.
I don’t want to spoil anybody else’s enjoyment, but if there is to be a festival so narrow in scope, I don’t see why the public purse should be expected to subsidise it? I do not demand that the taxpayer subsidises my tastes in entertainment.
There’s an old saying – ‘you are judged by the company you keep’, but I don’t agree with that. For instance, I don’t judge people by how unpleasant I find other members of their family. I also grasp that in politics, especially international politics, you sometimes have to be diplomatic with unpleasant characters for the greater good.
For that reason, I am glad that you are keen to distance yourself from those who have been harassing me in recent days, which extends well beyond Twitter, incidentally. Some of it, which I won’t describe on here, is now in the hands of the police, so I won’t comment any further, other than to say their behaviour has been utterly despicable and a disgrace to the cause they claim to represent.
I work on the assumption that if people are being foul-mouthed and abusive, they have lost the argument, and they have certainly lost the right to communicate with me, since my policy is to block and ignore all such people. It implies inadequate vocabulary and insecurity on their part.
But there is a wider question that needs to be asked as to why such a substantial number of Welsh language campaigners are so unpleasant and aggressive? I think what this boils down to is that over the course of the last 40 years, Welsh language campaigners have been asking for more and more, and have usually been given whatever they want. They’re not used to people challenging them or questioning whether every aspect of it is an appropriate use of public money. Unused to being challenged, they resort to insults, threats, and ever-more menacing behaviour. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their agenda is ‘fair game’ to be abused, threatened, or shouted down.
Dissent is not tolerated. A ‘live and let live’ attitude is out of the question. Injecting a bit of humour into the debate is a definite ‘no, no’. Anyone who doesn’t share their ideology needs to be bullied, abused and driven out of Wales. I should also point out that this ‘win at all costs’ mentality can be found in wider political discourse in the UK nowadays, and it is by no means confined to this issue.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I think it’s time we met up, don’t you? Anywhere that serves Brains SA or Felinfoel Double Dragon will do!
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