Journalists are constantly irritated at having to get past formal and deliberate obstacles to the truth. The job of creating such impediments often falls to individuals called ‘public relations officers’, though their status is mostly ‘other ranks’ and the only relationship they seek with the public is a mollifying one based on promoting the view of their employers or moving an embarrassing confession into the best possible light.
One way of doing this is to be personable towards the inquiring scribe, and if the scribe is Welsh and the PRO metropolitan English the exchange often begins with a query – ‘Is that a Welsh accent I can hear?’ To which one is tempted to respond with an inquiry (not so personable) about whether or not everyone phoning with some accent or other is asked the same question. Am I over-sensitive? I don’t think so.
It might be an innocent, even a friendly, question, but in most cases one hears the flap of the pigeon-hole opening to admit a stereotype. Once Welshness is established, a whole raft of associations and prejudices floats into view. One wouldn’t mind so much if the London voice were not so ambiguously classless. What would be the response if the Gwalian inquirer asked if it were an Essex accent at the other end of the line? Most annoying is the redundancy: if I give my name and say I represent a Welsh publication, should it be a surprise, or even a matter of interest, to find that I speak like someone from Aberdare or Bala? It’s not usually a question asked by a compatriot of expatriate status. At least that would be reasonable.
Accent, of course, is the first pointer to stereotype. I’d read a lot by Professor Gwyn Alf Williams before I heard him speak. In the strictly aural sense, one never writes with an accent, and though I might have suspected that he would speak English with Welsh mellifluousness it was a surprise to hear from him such a strong inflexion. A xenophobic English colleague of mine – she’s dead so I can’t libel her – identified what she called ‘an educated Welshman’, meaning someone intelligent and articulate who spoke with the lightest of accents: ‘the merest curl at the edges’, as someone once described the way Wynford Vaughan Thomas, John Morgan and Huw Weldon spoke.
Nothing Gwyn Alf might have said – for example, on the non-Welsh subject of Goya’s disappointments and personal crises during the Spanish War of Independence – would have persuaded her to concentrate. The strong Valleys accent would have put her off, in the same way that it made people recoil from the eloquence of Aneurin Bevan and Neil Kinnock. Would Kinnock have merited his ‘boyo’ tag if he had spoken like a Buckinghamshire squire? In a Yorkshire accent, of course, he’d simply have been a ‘tyke’. Boyo, Tyke, Paddy, Taff – all labels affixed and impossible of removal. Add to the Welsh accent a Bevanesque rage, or combine it with any kind of voluble saeva indignatio, and the stereotype is more or less established. The partial mind drifts instantaneously towards speculation and wish-fulfilment – roughhouse upbringing, coarse manners, education against the grain of an impoverished sense of decorum. The picture is almost complete, because stereotype images have no depth. My xenophobe, by implication, regarded ‘uneducated’ Welshmen as beyond the pale. Gwyn Alf would only have had to draw some comparison with the Merthyr riots for her to have been justified in her revulsion.
But resistance to stereotyping is confounded by pride. The reason most Welshmen do nothing to reject prejudiced views about themselves is that they willingly lapse into self-parody, encouraged by celebrities from across the cultural spectrum. Bolstered by Wales’s reputation for exporting education and educationists, the ‘professional Welshman’ has emerged. Definition? A Welsh native tenuously linked to his background and working in a non-Gwalian environment who nonetheless hopes an accent curled suavely at the edges – just the edges, mind you – will enable a lingering hiraeth to pass for national pride, or even patriotism. At the other end, I always had problems with so-called ‘Wenglish’ (‘Whose coat is this jacket?’) because it was funny but also slightly demeaning. Do we really talk like that? Do we say those things? Is it something to boast about? And do comedians have to bang on about leeks, daffodils and outside-halves and sing those god-awful hymns and arias? Apparently, ‘yes!’ to all those questions bar the penultimate.
Wales is about so much else that confounds expectation and gives the lie to received wisdom, especially in music, which is what I deal with professionally, among many other things. Last year, I researched the world premiere* in 1920 of En Arabesk, a rhapsody for baritone, chorus and orchestra by Delius, at the Great Central Hall in Newport. The chorus – miracle of miracles – was the Newport Choral Society. Like the Central Hall, it no longer exists. Few know or care to learn more about this extraordinary cultural event, which, incidentally or perhaps significantly, demonstrated what some English critics thought of Welsh musical heritage. Not much. A few years ago, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales deleted Newport, now a city, from its Wales touring itinerary partly because of poor audience support. A concert in Newport a few years ago featuring the world-class Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans attracted barely 200, less than half the capacity of the city’s new Riverfront Theatre. Welsh National Opera is world-renowned and hugely supported; but while the company gets into the community to promote itself, I suspect Welsh operagoers, generally a well-heeled bunch from the other side of the tracks, keep the good news to themselves. Would you believe it? Would the stereotypists believe it? I attended my first male voice choir concert when I was twelve. Many years on, most of these choirs are still singing the same things, often in a depressingly lifeless fashion and proving that. even the knackered horse has bolted through the stable door, an equine peloton of one. Fall often comes before pride, and the male voice choral tradition fell a long time ago, leaving pride as an empty gesture prey to outsiders who like to make fun of us.
At the end of one of his TV documentaries – it might have been ‘The Dragon Has Two Tongues – Professor Gwyn Alf refused to join in some Saturday night pub celebration to do with rugby because he did not consider it typical of what being Welsh really was. On the contrary, it was stereotypical and culturally dead. He had other things to celebrate. Who will lecture those patronising PROs on good telephone manners? And who will remind them and their ilk that Welsh pubs no longer close on Sundays, that none but a handful of Welshmen now mine coal, that patriarchal chapel elders rule no more and that rugby, like sport everywhere, is a debased religion. At the moment, we are good at the game again, though sporting fortunes are invariably mercurial. At least poor showings are capable of improvement, unlike the view of ourselves that many of us tirelessly and tiredly promote, playing into the hands of those who refuse to take us seriously. At present, they are better at pigeon-holing us than we are at fleeing their preconceptions.
* Different versions of an essay about the premiere were subsequently published in The Salisbury Review, Planet and the British Music Society Journal.