It was allegory with a vengeance when, in the first decade of the 21st century, the cartographers of the European Union decided that Wales did not exist, and struck it (inadvertently perhaps) from the map. For Welsh patriots of my persuasion, though, no worries. We know that since the beginnings of history ours has been, as often as not, a country of the mind, a homeland of the imagination, a love-land if you like, impervious to the vulgarities of map-makers and politicians.
Besides, our traditions are full of places that have sunk without trace, or are temporarily invisible. Castled islands irrevocably subside into lakes, remembered in a bubbly way only by subaqueous chimes of bells at midnight. Swathes of land are swallowed by the sea – if you are suitably constituted, like me, you may still distinctly detect them shining on the western horizon. Lord bless you, in proper Welsh weather it often feels as though the whole country is about to be submerged anyway, and it doesn’t discourage us – good for the character, we say.
For of course the prospect of elimination has been with the Welsh nation for generations – if not extinction by drowning, then expungement by history. Removal from the rest of the United Kingdom, which the EU visionaries apparently foresee, is for many of us no threat at all. I myself often love to dream that we have somehow been geologically detached, and have drifted south-westward into the Irish Sea, to a location somewhere between Cornwall and Cork.
For many English people too the disappearance of Wales from the map would be no disaster, although to be fair to them they are generally thinking of political rather than physical maps. As the London Daily Telegraph observed in 1860, it was only ‘a small country, unfavourably situated, with an indifferent soil and inhabited by an unenterprising people’. The Prime Minister Herbert Asquith once said that he would rather go to hell than visit the western flank of the kingdom, and it is well known (though apocryphal, I fear) that the entry for Wales in the Encyclopaedia Britannica used to read simply: ‘See England’.
It was not always a joke, and isn’t now. English policy was for centuries directed towards the absorption of Wales into England, and has repeatedly been nearly successful. The ancient Welsh culture, which is unique to itself, has been at one time or another almost overwhelmed by the sheer presence of its insatiable neighbour, the mightiest cuckoo in all the nests of history. Heirs to the English throne were impertinently dubbed Princes of Wales, when as often as not they seldom came near the place if they could help it. English bishops and clergymen swarmed over Welsh parishes. English landowners occupied huge estates, living ineffably English lives.
Above all, the English tried to stifle that essential inspiration of Welshness, Cymraeg, the Welsh language. In churches, in schools, in courts of law, in every aspect of Government, the language was ignored, despised or where possible extinguished. Nothing is more bitterly remembered among Welsh patriots, to this day, than the humiliating ‘Welsh Not’, the sign that was hung around the neck of any pupil heard speaking the Welsh language in 19th-century Welsh schools.
It is a miracle that it has never happened. The most determined of the Welsh remain just as Welsh still. The language remains indestructible. Few English people, I think, would now wish Wales to be struck from the map, and on the whole, as far as I can make out, few of them care much about Welsh independence from the United Kingdom. The worst attitude they display towards Welshness is one of frivolous contempt, expressed in adolescent humour by comedians and journalists: this is due, as we all know, to their national sense of inferiority, and is best dealt with by a proper noblesse oblige.
I laugh, but that map may well come metaphorically true. Welsh patriots know that even now the Welsh identity is maintained only by a ceaseless resistance to every inroad from across Offa’s Dyke – assaults made immensely more powerful nowadays by England’s subservience to everything American. Anglo-America, or rather Amer-england, is the threat to their survival now, and as all its manifestations pour insidiously and inexorably across our defence-less frontier, Wales may yet disappear by sheer force of osmosis.
There are people in the Welshest parts of Wales who are made so profoundly unhappy by the whittling away of their language, their values and their ways of life that they are driven to alcoholism, driven to nervous breakdown. It is not only incoming ideas and examples that are doing it to them: it is incoming people. They may be accused of racism, but as they see whole villages, whole districts virtually taken over by newcomers, with the best will in the world (and the Welsh are the kindest of people) they can only wish to God the English would stay at home in Wolverhampton or Basingstoke. ‘Welcome to Wales’, says the slogan of one resistance movement. ‘Enjoy your Stay, Then Go Away’.
Tourism in Wales, the badge or front of almost any country nowadays, is already very largely in the hands of English people, from the country pub to the allegedly posh hotel (not very posh, actually). Nearly every corner shop is gone. Half the post offices are in English hands. And the vast tide of English families means that even the schools, where the Welsh language is part of the curriculum, become more Amer-anglicized every term – for every incoming child who becomes Welsh, half a dozen Welsh-speaking children no longer speak Welsh in the playground. Every day of the year another few hundred Welsh houses of the Welsh countryside are sold to English people for prices that very few Welsh country people can afford, more often than not to become bridgeheads of cultural corrosion.
For myself, half Welsh, half English, I am certainly no racist, and I am only just a nationalist nowadays, because I no longer believe in nationality, or in the cursed Nation-State. I am, however, a culturalist, and I fear that peoples must achieve Statehood if they are to preserve their very selves. To my mind it would be a dreadful tragedy if small peoples like ours were in fact to disappear from the map – not the geographical map, which probably won’t happen for a million years or so, but the political map, which might happen any time.
But I dare say those cartographers of the Eurostat Statistical Compendium were subconsciously expressing a truth when they consigned Wales to oblivion. In a way ours is already an invisible country, or at least a hidden country. ‘As soon as we came into the pub’, say English raconteurs when they get home again, ‘those people started jabbering in Welsh.’ Nonsense. They were jabbering in Welsh long before you came in, before your forebears even crossed the Severn, and believe me, they will be jabbering still when you are gone.
For much of the Welsh culture is private. Countless poems are written, innumerable tales are told, songs are sung, customs honoured, jokes enjoyed, loyalties upheld, beyond the observation of visitors. Beneath its surface ours is a strong society still, commanding the love, no less, of hundreds of thousands of its people, whether they speak Welsh or not – for if they do not speak it on the tongue, most of them speak it in the instinct.
So go ahead, you map-makers of Europe. Strike us off, let us drift off your margin. We know you mean no harm, and have probably just pressed the wrong button on your computer. Anyway, if you come to Wales now you will find it half submerged already: by the end of the century it may all be flooded. Listen, though, whenever you come, listen hard, dream a bit, and down there in the waters you will hear those bubbly bells still ringing.
Photograph © Wikimedia Commons / National Library of Wales
This essay was written in 2009, and is published in Allegorizings, the final book by the late Jan Morris.