A friend of mine on Twitter () asked me what the Welsh connection was. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what she meant. I don’t recall ever reading of an undercover cop getting shot dead in Llandudno. I’ve been to Llandudno. While there might be some low level drug dealing, it didn’t strike me as the kind of place that went in for major league narcotics. The slightly lavatorial WCUK doesn’t have the same ring as FCUK, either. My best guess is that it was my casual fondness for Wales and Welsh that Sue was talking about, though because I generally get it wrong when it comes to understanding women, I still wouldn’t put a money bet on it.
I’m not Welsh. To the best of my knowledge, none of my ancestors are Welsh, though my Uncle Joe married a woman from Merthyr Tydfil, and my cousin was born there. My Dad was a Bevin boy in the war, too. However, neither my Auntie Maverill or my Dad’s experiences underground in northeast England really makes me convincingly Welsh.
Aberystwyth is a wonderful name for a place, especially when pronounced slowly and solemnly in a Welsh accent like Dylan Thomas’s, or Cerys Matthews’s. When I was in my twenties I thought how nice it would be to go there, and when I was in my thirties Aberystwyth University was a customer of the company I worked for. One of my managers even vaguely planned a business trip for me, but it never happened.
Time passes, as the reader in Under Milk Wood says. I was in my late fifties, and I still hadn’t ventured further into Wales than Cardiff and Bryn Mawr. I don’t now recall what made me think of Aberystwyth, but I do remember that it was a wet Sunday afternoon, and I realised that unless I went to Aberystwyth, I never would, fairly obviously. I turned the computer on, and booked myself two nights in an old fashioned hotel on Aberystwyth sea front. Job done. After some more thoughts, I decided that if I was going to go to Wales, I might as well spend a bit longer than two nights there, and see some of the country, so I booked two nights in a Travelodge in Caernarvon, and two nights in a pub at a place called Talgarth, near Brecon, making an Aberystwyth sandwich. Job properly done.
David Wyn Jones is fab, I expect.
I set off from home on a September morning, I had lunch in Ross on Wye, and Mrs Garmin led me through the Llanberis pass to Caernarvon. That evening, I walked along beside the Victoria Dock (or Doc Fictoria, which sounds like someone from the delightful Diamonds & Dust
) and into Caernarvon itself. Or Caernarfon. At first, I assumed that the town was full of Eastern Europeans, because nowhere did I hear any English spoken. There was a fish and chip restaurant, and two women chatting as they rearranged the chairs. “Are you open?” I asked slowly, in case they had trouble understanding.
“Sorry, love,” said the older of the women, in a beautiful Welsh accent. “We’re just closing.” That was when it dawned on me. They weren’t foreigners. They were Welsh, all speaking Welsh, and I was the foreigner.
I found a pizza restaurant, where the waiter and the cook were leaning on the bar chatting in Welsh. There weren’t any customers, but they weren’t closed, so I ordered the ‘special’, which was a pizza and a beer. Because they weren’t busy, the waiter seemed happy to chat, so I asked him about the people speaking Welsh. He said that Caernarfon was a Welsh speaking town, and that the children learnt English when they went to school. That made sense. I’d seen a young woman with a pushchair talking to her baby in Welsh, and the schoolgirls joshing one another in the street had been joshing one another in Welsh. The waiter said that his father was French and his mother was Welsh, so he’d learnt his English from watching Mickey Mouse videos. He didn’t speak with an American accent, though, so he might have been lying. He also said that Bangor was an English speaking town, but when I went there, it didn’t sound very English.
Amgueddfa yn Aberystwyth.
Aberystwyth was a strange place, and not as pretty as Caernarfon, but I liked it when I finally got there. I have to admit that its weather wasn’t especially likeable, with wind and rain, so I spent quite a lot of my time there indoors. However, I heard quite a lot of Welsh spoken, and there was a bookshop with Welsh books and the prices of the postcards in ‘c’ instead of ‘p’. The woman behind the counter glared at me when I didn’t understand what she said. I apologised. “Sori.” The exhibits in the museum had labels in both Welsh and English. I bought a novel in Welsh from a charity shop, and tried to work out what some of it might mean, not to any great effect. On the other hand, I did think that Dripping In Aberystwyth would be a great title for an erotic novel.
I didn’t hear any Welsh spoken in Talgarth. A young man in the pub said he came from Caernarfon, and he could speak it, but he didn’t know anyone else to speak it to. I found it rather sad. There is a Welsh language TV channel, but mostly they show programmes about old people on farms, or fat blokes singing. There’s a soap opera, called Pobl Y Cwm, filmed in a world built almost entirely of brown melamine. There are lots of children’s programmes, but as far as I could tell, nothing for teenagers. English speakers learn Welsh at school, but once they leave, there’s no need for them to use it. Everyone over the age of five also speaks English.
Cnau, yn Saesneg.
If it were down to me, I wouldn’t spend the money on making programmes about old people on farms. I’d spend the money on stuff for teenagers. A Welsh language version of Shout, and a Welsh language version of Nuts, probably called Cri and Cnau. Subsidise them, so that they’re cheaper than the English equivalent, and suddenly there’s an incentive to remember the Welsh you learnt at school. Welsh isn’t up against some struggling tribal language, it’s up against the most widely spoken language on the planet. It needs all the help it can get if it’s going to survive.
I’m doing my bit, and I’m learning Welsh in a fairly desultory fashion. It serves no really useful purpose, since everyone whom I’ll speak to will also speak English, and I’m not especially interested in fat blokes singing, or old people on farms. On the other hand, it’s fun, and it gives me an excuse to return to Caernarfon, and Aberystwyth, so that I can practise. Gwneud yn dda.