Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Historian Strongly Contests Victim Culture

Summing It Up

Martin Johnes , the Arts of Wales , January 31, 2020
Summing It Up by Martin Johnes The previous articles seeking a cultural summation started with geography, moved to demography and suggested much may be understood via anthropology.

Civil society is buoyant and I have been its beneficiary for a long time. But the state, at least at the level of Wales, is not so buoyant. Twenty years of the Senedd, as reported last year, were marked with small jubilation. Opposition opinion is vocal that life for many has not got better. 48% do not know who has accountability for their Health Service.

As far as culture is affected, vibrancy at community level runs up against engagement at national level. The novel and the drama lack a richness of soil in which to flourish. That is a pity because they are genres I enjoy. They also ennoble a culture.

Drama is the art of fissure. The lack of confidence within government in culture means that this is anathema. The mines of France got “Germinal”and the stockyards of Chicago got “the Jungle.” Readers of Wales do not get to read their equivalent.

An art, or a politics, that seeks to promote national exceptionalism is a dead-end. The facts do not cohere up and attempts to sustain it get tied up in knots. The silliest thesis I have heard, delivered by a teacher in higher education, was that the theatre of Wales stands gloriously apart from its geography. The profound ur-Celtic heritage is better located in relation to the arts of Asia and beyond.

Wales is like other small states of Europe. As in the Baltic Republics a goodish proportion of the population has low to no affiliation with its Government. Around 30% in the north-east is the figure according to 2020 polling. Wales' political division as expressed on 23rd June 2016 is partly attributable, by the reckonings of the political scholars, on grounds of emotional allegiance. My own county's strong vote of linkage to Brussels is driven by a sense of low emotional linkage to London. In a culture of courage that reflected itself this ought to make riveting material for theatre; I expect not to see it.

Martin Johnes belongs to a new generation of historians. In 2019 he made an impact in print, on television and in person. I reviewed the book for Wales Arts Review and heard him speak for an hour, without notes, at the Rhosygilwen Literary Festival.

His thesis of Wales and England was one across all the outlets. Were Government, Boards, Councils and media to internalise his argument and make it theirs the culture would be stronger.

His theme is twofold. The perpetuation of the thesis of Wales as historic victim is ahistorical and lacking in nuance. The corollary is that to emphasise a powerlessness in the past is to reinforce a projection of powerlessness in the present.

Johnes wrote an article this winter with the same theme. “Education, the decline of Welsh and why communities matter more than classrooms” was in excess of 2000 words. Cut to its essence::

“Why Welsh declined is an emotive topic. For more than a hundred years, some have liked to blame the British state, with the Welsh Not offering an apparently convenient symbol of official attitudes. Others prefer to argue that wider state attitudes deliberately created an atmosphere that encouraged people to turn against their own language. Either explanation frees Wales from responsibility for the decline of Welsh (although the former misunderstands how education actually worked and the latter implies that the Welsh of the past were gullible victims of some wider conspiracy).”

“...Education is part of this story but it is only part. If education was decisive to people stopping speaking Welsh, it is hard to explain why there were such large regional variations in language patterns. The central purpose of education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was to teach people English but in rural Wales it often failed. In 1891 in Meirionnydd and Cardiganshire, three quarters of people were returned as only speaking Welsh, despite fifty years of growth in the education system. In 1901, 10% of 15-year-olds in Wales were unable to speak English, despite the fact that school attendance had been compulsory for more than 20 years. In rural districts of Meirionnydd more than half of 10 to 15-years-olds were unable to speak English.

“Today, the education system is sometimes condemned for teaching English to the Victorian Welsh. But in that period, people damned it for failing to do so...education did not bring about significant linguistic change in rural communities because it often failed to actually teach people to speak English properly. At schools where teachers refused to use Welsh, children might learn to read and repeat English words but they did not actually know what these words meant because no one ever told them and because they never heard them outside class.

“Moreover, even if education had been better there was little to be gained in Victorian rural communities through abandoning Welsh. The language was spoken everywhere and by nearly everyone. Giving it up would have made no sense. It was both natural and useful, whatever the Blue Books said.

The language changes in the south were driven by migration:

“Contemporaries noted how the key linguistic shift was among the children. They might speak Welsh at home but, in communities full of migrant children unable to speak Welsh, they played and learned in English and thus English came to be their natural tongue for speaking to anyone who was not their parents. They, in turn, raised their own children in English. Thus demographics were key to why Welsh remained strong in the countryside but was declining in industrial and urban areas.”

And to public policy:

“If the Welsh Government wants to reach a million speakers then education alone is not the answer. Even if this nominal target is reached through a massive expansion of Welsh-medium education, it will not mean there are a million who do speak Welsh, merely a million who can speak Welsh. The decline of Welsh was rooted not in what happened in classrooms but what happened in communities. The future of Welsh won’t be saved by education either. It relies on ensuring there are still communities where it is natural to start a conversation with a stranger in Welsh. It relies on people elsewhere having other opportunities to use the Welsh they learned at school. It relies on being a living language outside the classroom.

“Indeed, it’s probably better, and certainly more sustainable, to have 500,000 people regularly speaking Welsh in their community than a million able to speak it but rarely doing so.”

The article in full of 19th February can be read at:

https://nation.cymru/opinion/education-the-decline-of-welsh-and-why-communities-matter-more-than-classrooms/

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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