Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Looking for Wales: One Wales/Rob Brydon's Identity Crisis

Radio Arts Feature

BBC , Radio 4 & BBC4 , March 5, 2008
Radio Arts Feature by BBC On and around Saint David’s Day “Rob Brydon’s Identity Crisis” was aired four times on BBC4. Thematically muddled the film went in search of a national stereotype of gloom and pessimism. Surprisingly, they failed to materialise. Despite the title it was a film neither of cultural exploration, nor about the nature of comedy, nor was it much of an interesting profile of a gifted performer. It was not the finest hour for a good channel.

A television budget allows a lot of interviewing time, which may then be cut for snappy soundbites. Amidst the showbiz comrades, critic A A Gill, master historian John Davies and Meri Huws, Chair of Bwrdd yr Iaith Cymraeg, were permitted no more than snippety contributions. As it happened, Meri Huws was also to be heard on “One Wales?” an “Analysis” feature broadcast 24 October last year. It was a programme as enquiring, open-minded, and broad-ranging as the Brydon programme was thin and under-informed.

The television film limped from the Severn Crossing as far as Pontardawe and Aberdare. In “One Wales?” Welsh-born journalist Mukul Devichand travelled from Caernarfon to Newport taking in Beddgelert, Caerphilly and Cardiff en route. In Planet 149 Dylan Jones of Trinity College, Carmarthen reported on the complex effect of economics, population movement and dispersal on language usage. Devichand’s first meeting was with a surprisingly cheerful leader of Cymuned to talk this over.

Prices have rocketed in Gwynedd as much, if not more, than elsewhere. Anything up to seventy percent of homes in Abersoch are empty all winter. With Welsh speakers forced toward what cheaper housing is available, the universal law of unintended consequences has swung into action. This concentration effect in cheap, often public, housing has acted paradoxically as a boost to language usage.

In as far from Caernarfon as can be travelled in Wales Devichand uncovered what must be a fresh phenomenon. Monoglot English-speakers in Newport express a vicarious sense of pride in Cymraeg. There is a sense that it too belongs to them, even if no more than a handful of words might be intelligible.

In between his on-the-ground interviews Devichand secured an interview with Manuel Castells, Professor of Sociology at the University of California. A native Catalonian, former adviser to the UN, Castells is the fourth most cited academic in the social sciences. He has been called the cartographer-in-chief to the information age. Writing on the interaction between technology, economics, politics and religion, “the first great philosopher of cyberspace", according to the Wall Street Journal, has been placed alongside Marx and Adam Smith.

Castells himself is a fine example of that flux of what is called “liquid modernity.” Barcelona-born, he entered university there to study law and economics. After involvement in anti-Franco demonstrations he fled to Paris to avoid arrest. In France at age twenty-four he became the Sorbonne's youngest professor, his then subject urban space. Forced to leave France at the time of the 1968 evenements he moved to Switzerland. Before eventually arriving in the USA he studied in Allende's Chile, and was expelled from Brazil while working with the later President, Hernando Enrique Cardozo.

His writings are not easy. His Information Age trilogy is twelve hundred pages of dense prose. His arrival in California coincided with the birth of Silicon Valley so he had an early vantage point on what he viewed as the three key interlocking and mutually dependent forces of modernity; an electronic world without seams, fast and revolutionary cultural shifts, and globalisation. It is an age of unsettlement in which civil society is stressed, the autonomy of nation states reduced and traditional cultures undermined. If his prose on the case studies of transforming companies, cities and states is dense, his words on radio were plain.

He saw trends in Wales as similar to those in his native Catalonia. “All identities are culturally constructed” he said. “People decide to assign themselves these identities, but it doesn’t mean these are arbitrary identities. People work with the material of history.” In his writing he maps out the new social movements. “They become trenches of cultural identity to build social autonomy in a world dominated by homogenous information flows."

“One of the forms of building autonomy is reconstructing the national culture, linguistic culture, historical culture to which we can relate and that had been either abandoned or repressed by the institutions of the dominant state” he continued to journalist Devichand “Therefore being Welsh, or being Catalan or being Irish, more than ever, actually means you have a new chance of building a community that will be different, because it will be yourselves. It’s a little bit utopian, but that’s where we are.”

So allegiance, in the Castellian view, becomes selection, one more choice to be made within a consumer culture. Certainly if a check were made of any Welsh school playground, fierce fans of Liverpool and Manchester United can be found. The fact that these are far-off places, which only a few of those fans will have ever actually seen, matters not. But then it is not quite an open choice. The choices are restricted; that restriction is made by the power of branding, promotion and money’s sheer muscle.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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