Do the Welsh deserve Snowdon?

If the people of Wales cannot decide on a national assembly, what hope is there for Snowdonia?
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The Independent Culture
At the National Eisteddfod of Wales, earlier this month, to bardic acclamation and a cheque for pounds 1m from Sir Anthony Hopkins, the National Trust announced its Snowdonia Appeal. It had become necessary after a local farmer, whose family had owned the land that encompassed Snowdon's summit for 300 years, declared his reluctant decision to sell. Fears were immediately raised that the mountain might be bought by a developer who would exploit it for tourism - rumour pointed at a mysterious Irishman. But, patriotically, (he had already received a bigger offer) Richard Williams announced that if the National Trust could raise pounds 3m, then he would reserve it for the Trust. For three months only.

But with only 80 days left, the fund is still pounds 1,530,000 light - and an extra million will be needed to cover other charges. Meantime, a simple calculation shows that if you add pounds 200,000 from the Chris Brasher Foundation to Sir Anthony's munificent million, then divide the remainder between donations from Wales and those from England, the US and elsewhere, then it appears that the Welsh value this great national symbol of theirs at, roughly, 54p a head. (Which, it should be said, does not include the pounds 50 collected by patrons of the Kiln Inn, Wrexham, handed over this week by footballer Ian Rush or the cheque, in the post presumably, that was promised last week by the Prince of Wales.)

Still and all, this doesn't mean that the Welsh are tight-fisted, even though you still hear the old joke that the 50p coin was made hexagonal the better to pry it with a pliers off a Cardigan farmer. The real truth is that the Welsh are so divided over almost everything that affects their lives that it's crazy to expect them to regard without serious suspicion something as major as the future of Snowdon.

And I say that as a Welshman who, true to his national tradition, is as schizoid about the place as, well, the entire electorate of a nation, which managed a referendum result for a National Assembly so absurdly close that it was decided by a majority somewhat smaller than the crowd that shows up at the Cardiff v Swansea rugby game. Which, sadly, is not large these days.

And so I am in two minds about sending my contribution to the Snowdonia fund. I am not sure, indeed, that my countrymen deserve Snowdon. Indeed, I never stood a chance of being anything but totally confused on a subject like this one since I was born and raised on the wrong side of its major fault line, the one that divides the Cymru Cymraeg, the Welsh-speaking Welsh from us Anglos.

Allow me to review my case history. My mother was a Jones: her family went back to 17th-century port reeves of Swansea. But my father's lot had come over on a boat from North Devon a couple of hundred years later, which would mean, among other things, that I would never become, for example, the Director of BBC Wales.

Nevertheless, when I went to school, we Anglos were still in the ascendant. Sure, there was a once-a-week Welsh lesson and I can still say "It's raining" in Welsh, though don't ask me to spell it. It would be another, full generation at least before Welsh became so chic that the doctors and lawyers and such of my native city started to send their kids to schools to be taught entirely through the medium of Welsh.

When I went up to university meantime, also in Wales, none of my best friends, indeed any of my friends, spoke Welsh, even though the place was full of Cymru Cymraeg undergraduates. There was complete linguistic apartheid. In the students' union, every single election, right down to the secretaryship of the jazz club, was conducted on the language issue. We faced off like Papes and Prods in Ulster. We called them "shuns", a rough phonetic rendering of Sion, which is Welsh for John. God knows what they called us. "Saes", I expect, which is Welsh for Saxon, qualified, I'm sure, by some choice obscenity. But I wasn't a Saes, I knew full well. I didn't want to be a Saes. Trouble was, the Sions wouldn't let me be Welsh either, so sod them, I thought. And if, at that time, you'd have asked me to contribute to the saving of Snowdon I'd have said sod Snowdon, too.

I think I started to change when, in the Sixties, it was decided to flood the Tryweryn Valley in North Wales and with it the village, with its school and chapel, that went by the same name. (Getting serious now, see?) A handful of Tryweryn folk demonstrated in Liverpool: it was for a water supply for Liverpool that the valley was going to be sacrificed. The villagers tried to speak at a city council meeting but they were evicted to triumphant catcalls from Bessie Braddock, a loud, heavily built bully of a woman who at the time was a Labour MP. When I saw her on film, even in black and white, I knew I had met the real Saes face to face.

After that, I sort of mellowed to the Sions. Gwynfor Evans won a by-election for Plaid Cymru, the party of the Sions, in Carmarthen and, well, Gwynfor was a saint, wasn't he? All in all, I was ripe for a naive sort of conversion, and when, soon after, I went to live in New York, the process was complete. Something in the air there, I suppose.

But it had a lot to do also, I'm sure, with my spending so much time in Irish bars on 2nd Avenue, which nightly rang to the Wolfe Tones and other groups of the same kind hammering out "rebel" songs. Facile they were to the point of daftness, I could see that, and the invincible ignorance of the Irish American audience was plain, too. But they seemed, when they boozily roared out "Boolavogue" or "Kevin Barry" to have an identity that I lacked. I didn't know the words of any Welsh songs. They were all in Welsh, see.

So I ended up joining the St David's Society of New York, and at first I was encouraged to learn that in the US - or certainly in New York and Philadelphia - it was actually quite chic being Welsh. Fresh from their own Industrial Revolution, they'd set up the steel mills of Pennsylvania and by the time the Irish arrived they were members in good standing of the best country clubs. Which is why, no doubt, when I opened my invitation to the annual March lst St David's Day shindig, I found that tickets cost $150, a lot of money in the mid-Seventies.

With that, and the discovery that I they held eisteddfodau, I quit the society. I continued my Welsh studies, though, feeding on a rich and heavy diet of Welsh history. We had heroes as gaudy as Brian Boru and William Wallace: Owain Glyndwr scourging Hereford and Shropshire then disappearing into the mist and Owain Law Goch, Owen of the Red Hand, and his men fighting alongside the French against the Saes like Ireland's Wild Geese.

Later I became more sophisticated. The real heroes of Welsh history, I discovered, were different. The Scots and Irish had nationalists: we had nonconformists and socialists. Martyrs too, like Dic Penderyn, hung in Merthyr after the Chartist riots and the striking Welsh miners and railwaymen, just before The Great War, shot dead by soldiers under the command of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill...

Heady stuff, and headier still when you are 3,000 miles west of reality. By the time I came back to Britain in the mid-Nineties, if Snowdon had been up for grabs, I'd have gone deep into the red to help save it. And it seemed as if my timing had been perfect. Almost the first thing that New Labour did was set up a referendum for a National Assembly for Wales, not as good a deal as the Scots were getting, but it was a start. And, so help me, I joined Plaid Cymru. I had come full circle. In all but language I was a Sion.

What I'd forgotten, of course, was the instinct of my countrymen for keying the self-destruct command, their talent for spontaneous fission that rivals the amoeba's. Suddenly, Wales itself had become unimportant. Instead, what emerged from its cave to fight the smallest degree of autonomy was dinosauric Welsh Old Labour, terrified of losing its ancient monopoly of power, to become locked in battle with Tony's Own. Nationalists and Tories were irrelevant. Sure, the vote was affected by the old folk from England emerging from their retirement bungalows in Colwyn Bay and Tenby to resist any possibility of the UK breaking up, but if they were Saes oppressors, they could have fooled me.

It was like waking up from, not a bad dream, but one that was only tenuously connected with reality. To tease English friends I still refer to "The Queen of England" and I still have a sneaky admiration for those kids in Aberystwyth a while back who shamed that lady into turning back when, in (so they believed) insufferably patronizing style, she showed up at the National Library of Wales.

So it has not entirely vanished, that dream, and meantime, what should I do about Snowdon? The straightforward thing, give what I can to keep it for Wales? Or will I simply be handing cash over to a foreign organisation - the National Trust - to make the mountains safe for Saes jocks like Chris Brasher?

I'm still havering. I'm a Sion, really, see. Aren't I?

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