by Denis G. Campbell
Two overfilled trash skips are all that remains of The Welsh National Eisteddfod 2012. The tents are packed and headed north for next year’s festival. Most left weeks ago but cleanup of the massive site just ended last Friday and former aircraft runways were once again home to dog training, learner drivers practicing in wide-open spaces and model aircraft flight practitioners plying their very serious trade.
It was my first time at an Eisteddfod so, for perspective, US readers should think Iowa State Fair without rides, livestock or corn dogs. I was covering for a couple of magazines so took in the festival day-by-day. That meant a full week of Welsh immersion: visiting nearly every booth, trying all of the foods, listening to performers and hearing politicians brag.
My first impression was where are all the people?
Yes, 150,000 visit annually and that number included exhibitors, school groups and performers that numbered several thousand each day. The Eisteddfod also, unfortunately, was forced to compete for attention with London’s Olympics, the most watched modern games ever. Attendees faced early days of rain, mud and Wellies (rubber boots) were a must have fashion accessories.
But most of the locals in surrounding villages were noticeably absent. Something so big, so close by was met with a collective ‘meh?’ That seemed strange.
Said one home on holiday at a local pub when I asked if he would take his kids, “naaah, I’d rather go surfing on Southerndown Beach than attend that racist fair.” Whoa… that was strong. I asked another friend to elaborate. “I went two years ago when it was in South Wales. My wife is English and I am Welsh. We felt unwelcome and, upon hearing my accent, were forced at every step to speak Welsh, it felt like France.”
It was easy to see how they could have that impression. It is a festival celebrating Welsh language, poetry, music and drama. But it also had the feel of an exclusive club requiring knowledge of that language to be accepted and really enjoy. Having a US accent and Press badge meant slightly different treatment, but not that much.
Wales is a nation of about 2.9 million people and 400,000 of them speak Welsh every day. Many of them are in the more rural northern parts of the country. Cardiff though is a largely international university town where English is mostly spoken. There have been a number of efforts to revive the Welsh language including several Welsh-only primary and comprehensive schools and, it remains a difficult language to master.
Yet the poetry and music during the week were haunting. I found the rhythmic nature of the poetic style Cywydd fascinating to hear. There was so much to enjoy at this festival, if only the organisers an exhibitors were inviting to those outside of the Welsh speaking world. And the fundamental problem with efforts to keep a language alive and vibrant, depend on the nation’s view of itself. The experience of Wales (after covering its government and business for many years) is that despite its ability to talk a good, welcoming game… outsiders are welcome to visit, but not made to feel very welcome if they stay. So rather than use the indelicate term from above, I would use ‘parochial’ or ‘closed.’
And that’s a real shame, because this Celtic-root language has much to offer and yet force-feeding it will never work. School children are required to study Welsh, but the curriculum (as with the teaching of most foreign languages) does not help to instil a love of the history of the language that both schools and this festival could do, if they approached it differently.
Kids are consumers. They don’t like to be sold to but… everyone loves to buy! Kids in Church in Wales primary and comprehensive schools abandon the church because it force feeds them religion for 10-12 years. It’s the same with language. So why not take language and culture and adopt a classic pull strategy because it and this festival have so much to offer.
The winner of the prestigious Glamorgan Crown, Gwyneth Lewis from Cardiff wrote a brilliant lyrical 250 line poem based on the theme ‘Island.’ Someone read the translation to me and it was transfixing. Yet when I attended her press conference, it was strange to sit in a loud open tent without her on a platform mic’d or, as in other pressers, an English translation. Not understanding the language or being able to hear, it was the waste of an opportunity to tell a great story.
Across the fairground people sold goods and services or tried to attract business with trading signs. The smart ones used both languages. There were several though with Welsh-only signage. One looked interesting but summarily refused to speak English. After a while, I got the hint and simply bypassed those with Welsh-only signage.
Others were inspirational. There was an entire sustainable community in a yurt on the back of the property that had woodworkers, craftsmen and women and storytellers of all kinds. They were happy to speak in any language and tell their sustainable story.
The most ironic illustration of my point was when Dai John of Prostate Cymru (Cymru = Wales) told us their story at our regular noon presser. Dai had recovered from prostate cancer and was urging the Welsh Assembly Government/NHS Trust to fund robotic surgery that saves men from the damaging effects of radiation. It is fully covered in England but he had to spend £13,000 pounds ($20,000).
Before the presser started, I watched him erect a 2.5 metre high roll-up stand. I noticed it had been removed before the conference started. When I asked him why it was missing, he said he was told to take it down because… “it had English on it.”
There’s a predictable routineness and… edginess to the preservation of the language. The National Eisteddfod is a great event that should have a much broader and bigger audience. If it adopted a ‘pull’ vs closed/parochial strategy based solely on language, made it fun vs. a rite of passage and instead of a celebration of struggle, became an event that joyously and openly celebrated a culture and helps people who do not speak that language feel welcome? The sky would be the limit. It should draw from the entire UK. It can be that good.
But, having lived here almost a decade and become a Welsh citizen, when you ask a Welshman (or Welshwoman) how they are doing? The answer almost never varies…
“Not so bad.”
Eisteddfod 2013 needs to change that answer to “GREAT! Come on in, pull up a chair and let me tell you about how great it is here in Wales!”
When you do that, then you will be truly missed when you leave town.
Denis G Campbell is the author of 6 books including 'Billionaire Boys Election Freak Show,' 'The Vagina Wars' & 'Egypt Unsh@ckled.' He is the editor of UK Progressive Magazine and provides commentary to the BBC, itv Al Jazeera English, CNN, MSNBC and others. His weekly 'World View with Denis Campbell' segment can be heard every Thursday on the globally syndicated The David Pakman Show. You can follow him on Twitter via @UKProgressive and on Facebook.
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