Book review / More Welsh than the Welsh in the 21st century

A Machynlleth triad Jan Morris and Twm Morys Viking, £14
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The Independent Online
"For God's sake, don't pay more than you have to ...'' Not an admonition to the blackmailed, but the latest racy heading on the new Welsh Income Tax Form. There are complaints from linguistic purists, of course, but with a committee of writers and j ournalists to approve all public documents, there is a clear will to prevent any obfuscation in the language of government. You get what you pay for and you only pay for what you understand.

This is not today but tomorrow and A Machynlleth Triad, Jan Morris's new book (with a Welsh translation by her son, Twm Morys) is a holiday of the spirit, bubbling over with mischief and fun. Three contemplative essays deal with the past, the present andthe future as they are witnessed in Machynlleth, an obscure North Wales market town.

In the past Owain Glyndwr, the patriot leader and Prince of Wales, held a parliament there and lived by fire and the sword. There can be no doubt he ruled, but what of today?

Jan Morris poses the American journalist John Gunther's question of every place he visited: "Who runs this town?'' The answer in Machynlleth today, apparently, is the well-heeled, Welsh-speaking elite, gentlemen farmers of a modern kind whose properties ring the town. The most Welsh of sentences confirms this: "These people know everyone there is to know.''

The essay dealing with the future is the most fun. In the 21st century the law has been stripped entirely of the old English conventions, no wigs or tabs, no "M'luds'' or "Your Honours'', and there is a new code. "The first purpose of the law is not to punish the bad but to encourage the good.''

As you might expect, there are Welsh refinements. Garbage clearing, road maintenance and sewage work are carried out largely by miscreants, a high proportion of denim-clad bank managers among them.

In the 21st century, language remains of paramount importance. A historian notes that many, many years before, a certain Mr Roy Jenkins finally came home to Wales, perhaps attracted by the Cwm Einion '22, the sea bass and Abermo prawns, and provided an elegant English translation of the new Welsh constitution, a debt paid. This was at a time when the last goat mascot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was marched into oblivion and the long-established Welsh Assembly had become peripatetic, follow ing the Eisteddfod across the land, to the cheers of publicans everywhere.

By this time, the name Machynlleth is no longer a tongue-twister and as capital of Wales, if any stranger has the impertinence to say, "Alf-a-mo?''he will be cast out. Save that alien tongue for nasty old Cardiff, where loyal English speakers are national figures of fun.

Jan Morris, like all converts, has finally become more Welsh than the Welsh. It is not just that she is rightly honoured by the bards and the toast of the literati, there is a deeper passion.

As she says elsewhere: "If you love something hotly enough, consciously, with care, it becomes yours by symbiosis, irrevocably.'' The act of being "furiously Welsh by sympathy'' has strange consequences however, leading this, the shrewdest, fairest and most perceptive of observers into the ancient North Wales practice of taking stick to the South.

Still, the enjoyment of ideas is evident and there are serious undertones, a vision of an independent European Wales, above all a decent, egalitarian place. The hope is that just as the Swiss avoided the world's tragedies, a policy of calculated innocence and a "gently retained capitalism'' might be the winning formula for our own time.

Jan Morris could not write a dull sentence. Like the Dodo in Alice, she wants everyone to have prizes and her greatest achievement is that she makes us all so nice to know. It does not matter that only a Dylan Thomas could write: "There's a very nasty lot around here when you come to think of it!''