We hunger for light in Wales. Fortunately light in one kind or another has generally been available to cheer us up, revelatory light for the religious, but a more specifically Welsh light for the rest of us: the light, that is, of surprising human character. An endless roster of unusual, entertaining, outrageous and astonishing Welsh men and women has kept the drizzle at bay, and in the past few days two in particular have strolled into the headlines to reassure us that Welsh illuminati are still around to lighten our darkness.
The first was John Davies, one of the most universally respected men in Wales, author of an incomparable history of the country. Davies is an academic, a man from the Rhondda, happily married with four children - a Welsh-speaking Welshman of the good old school, you might say. The other day he upped on television, with his wife's blessing, and revealed himself to be homosexual (or bisexual, I suppose, or omnisexual, or something). He was announcing, in effect, the arrival of a new, modern Wales, more openly tolerant than the old, less hag-ridden by guilt and hypocrisy, and everybody I know has welcomed the brave new light he brought us.
The other light-bearer was Sir Anthony Hopkins of Port Talbot and the Motion Picture Academy, who suddenly announced that he was tired of ridiculous showbiz, thought he had wasted 31 years in a fake and false environment, considered acting a futile occupation and wanted to start a new life. He says he dreams about Wales three or four times a week, so perhaps he will come home and brighten the wattage permanently, if he thinks he can stand the pace.
LET THERE be colour, too, might be another Welsh prayer, but we can partly blame ourselves for this particular need. We live in a setting of grey and green, and we long ago came to believe that our national genius was colour-blind. Generations of pundits had assured us that the Welsh had no visual sense, which was why we channelled our creative talents into poetry. Lately another of our intellectuals, however, has almost single-handedly challenged this old conception.
Peter Lord has just written the first volume in his magnum opus, a huge and lavish trilogy about the visual culture of Wales. This one deals with the period of the industrial revolution, and very properly too, because it was the arrival of industry, and the contemporary burgeoning of non- conformist Christianity, which took much of the flair out of Wales. It used to be a famously merry country: the mines, the mills and the elders made it morose, so that the image of a wet Welsh Sunday became the image of the nation itself.
Opening the pages of Lord's book is like letting in some sunshine - not because all its pictures are sunny, but because it represents such a dazzling new interpretation of Welshness. We think of art in Wales as the art of the picturesque, lovely landscapes and peasant folk, but Lord makes us realise that in Wales the visual arts carry more significant messages. Workers toil in the gloomy depths of mines, bearskinned soldiers combat Merthyr rioters, and a quarryman, a cinder filler, a mechanic and a storekeeper all pose with the tools of their trade for vividly suggestive portraits.
Mr Lord is not much concerned with art for art's sake. He knows that what he is doing is revealing a shadowed side of the Welsh tradition, and making it less monochrome in our minds.
AND PLEASE, dear God, let there be interest! I think this is the crux of the dispute over whether Alun Michael, the Blairite Cabinet minister, is going to be the first leader of our coming quasi-Parliament, or whether it will be Rhodri Morgan the backbencher - assuming, that is, that Labour wins a majority in next year's assembly elections. Although both aspirants have impeccable Welsh credentials, many of us see it really as a choice between Welshness or Britishness. I write myself as a whole-hog Welsh separatist, a Welsh European, looking ahead to a sovereign Welsh nation within a European confederation. But do any of us, even more moderate patriots, really want to go on being lackeys of a lackey of the Americans? Or do we want to see a new kind of Wales, original, fun, and interesting?
If these are really the alternatives, the choice of leaders is not hard. Nice Mr Michael (Keele University) seems to be a terrible bore: difficult Mr Morgan (Oxford and Harvard) is full of flash and fire. It is not lengthy administrative experience we need, in the grand experiment of making a new country - we have civil servants for that. It is imagination, enthusiasm and knowledge of the modem world at large. Wales is already acquiring a new reputation: no longer do Americans ask me "Isn't that just part of England?", and I notice that sneering Welsh jokes are fading even from the London broadsheets. But to keep that momentum going, what we need is a figurehead in the flamboyant Welsh kind, the Lloyd George kind perhaps, bold, outrageous, entertaining, unconventional, moving. Can you imagine Alun Michael in this theatrically demanding role? As the Emperor Augustus said of his stodgy successor in the purple, "Poor Rome, to be chewed between those slow jaws!"Reuse content