A Wales not of protest but of celebration

The annual Eisteddfod displays the welcome diversity of the United Kingdom, argues Tony Heath
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The Independent Online
"For Wales, see England". This dismissive annotation has disappeared from geography textbooks but the belief that Wales is an afterthought tacked on to a large and powerful neighbour dies hard east of Offa's Dyke.

Perhaps that explains why liberal commentators such as the Guardian's Matthew Engel describe Wales as "a cowed country" and its national anthem as "gibberish". What prompts A N Wilson to sneer "the Welsh have never made any significant contribution to any branch of knowledge, culture or entertainment" when the work of Dylan Thomas and Anthony Hopkins is acclaimed across the globe?

For these thousands flocking to the National Eisteddfod, which opens today at Llandeilo, a Carmarthenshire market town, the anthem is anything but gibberish and the week-long feast of culture will be enjoyed by Welsh people of all types and shades - and thousands of others from Britain and overseas.

What upsets the chatterers from over the Severn is the fact that the proceedings are conducted in Welsh, a language spoken by 500,000 of Wales' 2.7 million people, even though the ever-helpful organisers lay on a simultaneous translation service for those unfamiliar with the language.

The Eisteddfod combines the best in Welsh culture with a hard-edged commercialism. Bards will be chaired and crowned, while 300 trade-stands push everything from love-spoons and harps to double glazing and CDs. Government approval is apparent - the Welsh Office (proprietor William Hague, MP for Richmond, England) provides a pounds 362,000 grant. Sponsors include Tesco, high street banks and Kwik Save - a name which causes a few to swallow hard because there is no letter K in the Welsh alphabet.

Camouflaged in voluminous robes are bards, drawn from the great and the good. Recent additions to the coveted circle include Jan Morris, who as John Morris reported the conquest of Everest, and Robyn Llewellyn, grandson of the late Sir Clough Williams Ellis, who created the Italianate village of Portmeirion on the north Wales coast. They are sitting targets for Anglo-Saxon barbs, but however sharp the jokes, the ceremonies differ only in degree from the bewigged panoply of the state opening of parliament and the ritual of blindfolded grown men with a trouser-leg rolled up being inducted into a secretive brotherhood.

The ban on the sale of alcohol at the Eisteddfod is a shock for visitors, but nearby pubs anticipate a bumper week. One brewery is producing a special ale - Cwrw Caio (Caio Beer) - named to commemorate Caio Evans, the self- styled commandant of the Free Wales Army who died last year. He served a prison sentence for his clandestine activities during the 1960s, despite having been educated at Millfield, a leading English public school.

Anomalies abound. Tony Lewis, who chairs the Wales Tourist Board, played his cricket for Glamorgan and captained the England XI in 1973. Thanks to the demise of the coal industry, Far East firms are taking over the Welsh economy. Japanese is taught at Cardiff University to 35 students, Welsh to 100.

The Welsh Fourth TV Channel (S4C), set up 15 years ago when the veteran nationalist Gwynfor Evans threatened to starve himself to death, collects a subsidy of more than pounds 1m a week - a figure which arouses understandable envy in broadcasting circles elsewhere. The Government's Welsh Language Board energetically promotes the ancient tongue. Its chairman is Lord Elis Thomas, the only nationalist peer, whose embrace of the ermine in 1992, after 18 years as an MP, caused true believers who hold that the Upper Chamber is an English gents' club to grind their teeth.

With all of this in mind, perhaps it is not surprising for critics to claim that Wales is a bit of a mixed-up place, dependent on patronage and London goodwill. And, away from the geography books, it is indeed a curious mixture. Gritty former mining towns like Tredegar, birthplace of Nye Bevan and Neil Kinnock, seem to have little in common with the rural north-west, where the language is overwhelmingly Welsh. Of course, the same could be said about leafy Surrey or Tunbridge Wells and Wallsend or Whitehaven.

But in north and south - in Wales, that is - everyone unites in distaste when the doggerel "Taffy is a Welshman/Taffy is a thief/Taffy came to my house/And stole a leg of beef" is trotted out, or when someone is accused of welshing on an undertaking. Rees Lloyd, a California lawyer who runs the grandly titled Welsh-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is a staunch ally of the country from which his forebears emigrated. "Newspapers that would never use slurs against blacks or Jews insult the Welsh by using the word as a term to mean cheating on debts," he says. Last year, he forced the right-wing governor of California, Pete Wilson, to apologise for using the term.

In a kingdom looking increasingly disunited, to register a distinct identity is not to claim superiority. In Wales, that is left to the magic circle of opinion-formers, who are apparently reluctant to admit that diversity is no bad thing. But the National Eisteddfod is a reminder that the fact that the inhabitants of these islands make up a yeasty mixture, rather than a homogenised pap, is to be welcomed.