Why the Welsh are funny (at present)

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The Independent Online

The other day, I brought you a selection of "Albanian proverbs", one of which read as follows: "Has anyone ever applied to become Welsh?"

The other day, I brought you a selection of "Albanian proverbs", one of which read as follows: "Has anyone ever applied to become Welsh?"

Shortly afterwards, I received a fuming letter from Mr Williams, a Welshman living in London, who says he finds the remark offensive and condescending, and that he is appalled and saddened to read of my disparaging remarks abut his country and its people. "For shame, Mr Kington, for shame."

I was shaken to begin with by the ferocity of his reaction, especially as I had not intended it as an insult to the Welsh at all. The thought at the back of my mind, originally, had been that there are some nationalities - or regional identities - to which it is impossible to aspire. You can become British, if you want to. (Unless your name is Al Fayed, of course.) You can become Israeli or Italian or American. You can even become Jewish or Catholic.

But what you cannot do is become part of the smaller identities within the bigger identities. You cannot, really, apply to become Welsh. Or Breton. Or Sicilian. Or Scottish. There is, as far as I know, no immigration channel which leads to Geordieship, only a long period of submersion in local culture until you have been there so long that everyone forgets you were ever anything else.

And that, honest to God, is what was at the back of my mind when I wrote: "Has anyone ever applied to become Welsh?" I could equally have written: "Has anyone ever applied to become a Scouse?", or "Has anyone ever applied to become an Ulsterman?"

I rather wish I had now.

Because when I examine my motives for putting "Welsh" instead of anything else, I see that I was guilty of taking the easy option. There is at present a vague assumption that there is something mildly comic about being Welsh. Why? There seems no basis in reality for finding the Welsh any more comic than anyone else, so why do English people sometimes use the word to get a laugh? Why, A A Gill? Why, Ann Robinson?

My theory is that it is simply the turn of the Welsh. Comic targets pop up and fade away quite inexplicably. There are towns in Britain that are comic for a season (Birmingham, Scunthorpe, Aberdeen, Neasden) and then stop being comic. Norfolk is thought to be comic at the moment, serving urban comedians as an example of a slow, backward region. (Takes the pressure off Somerset, then). Why Norfolk? God knows. Why Birmingham? Why never Bristol ...?

As far as other countries in the British Isles are concerned, Scotland was a butt of humour for a long time. If you have a look at old volumes of Punch, from 1880 onwards, you will find that the Scots were funny because they were successively supposed to be a) stingy b) drunk c) puritanical d) dressed in strange garments. Then we tired of these stereotypes, and decided the Irish were funny instead. People started telling Irish jokes, the point of which was that the Irish were stupid. As the Irish are not stupid at all, the days of the Irish joke were numbered from the start, and are now pretty well dead.

So my theory is that we have now spontaneously decided it is the turn of the Welsh. The only trouble is we haven't even worked out a shallow rationale for thinking them funny. At least we once pretended the Scots were mean, but when it comes to jokes about the Welsh, the English have not had the wit to work out a rough script, even though there are certain character traits shared by the Welsh that you might legitimately satirise. Their oratorical tendencies, for instance? Their over-sensitivity? Their undue dependence on Dylan Thomas as a great man?

Well, maybe. But meanwhile, I think I'll give up using the word "Welsh" as if it were funny.

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