Wednesday, 29 November 2006

The humble leek: Tudor propaganda or devious Welsh camouflage

THERE'S NOT much wrong with the leek as far as I can see. It's a wholesome, robust and flavoursome vegetable that offers some potential as a weapon, but why it symbolises Wales is anyone's guess.

Information Wales says it is a 'fact' that Saint David had his countrymen wear leeks in their caps at the battle of Heathfield in 633 to distinguish themselves from their Saxon foes.

However, according to the 11th-century Welsh monk Rhygyfarch, Dewi Sant died on 1st March 589 — the date being the reason why we celebrate Saint David's day on 1st March — 44 years before the battle of Heathfield. Whatever, perhaps he appeared at Heathfield in a vision or something? Information Wales doesn't say.

It is an amalgamation of these 'facts' that causes Welsh soldiers to wear leeks on Saint David's Day each year. Have you ever tried wearing a leek in your cap? Me neither.

Some writers suggest that the battle took place in a field of leeks, presumably inferring that the wearing of leeks in caps was a devious Welsh form of camouflage.

Yet these accounts of leeks as a Welsh emblem all seem to stem from the English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631), a contemporary of Shakespeare, suggesting that the association of leeks with Wales might be some sort of Tudor propaganda, the meaning of which has long been forgotten. It could possibly relate to concerns about the legitimacy of Queen Elizabeth or to ensuring Welsh loyalty at a time of war with Spain.

The fact that Shakespeare's Henry V feels the need to mention he is "wearing a leek, for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman," should be enough to make you wonder whether Shakespeare, an accomplished propagandist for the English cause, just might be blowing smoke up your arse.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Welshmen in blazers

TYPICAL! YOU write an impassioned, idealistic plea for whatever it takes to be invested in making Welsh rugby the equal of the game played by New Zealand (see earlier post - Let's invest in a winning Wales), when the men in blazers immediately remind you of why it might be a bad idea to give them more money and influence.

As a Welsh rugby fan, you know if you pay good money to see the boys play New Zealand, part of the entertainment will involve the men in black doing a little dance before the kickoff. It has always been so. Always - even when we played them at Wembley.

But on Saturday, the hapless, posturing, self-important "village idiots" who run Welsh rugby - the very same people who are still in their positions despite the humiliation they heaped upon their country by mishandling the Ruddock fiasco - ruined proceedings with their points of protocol, which attempted to meddle with convention for no good reason.

What, exactly, was their objective in insisting that Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (the Welsh National Anthem) be played after the haka, apart from cretinous bloody-mindedness? Whatever it was, the board certainly managed to hand New Zealand a massive psychological boost, although I don't mean to suggest that this may have changed the outcome of the game.

The usual suspects fell over themselves in trying to cover their backsides, claiming variously that; Maori chiefs told them to do it, that Kiwi academics had approved their scheme, that it was all to do with Graham Henry playing mind games, that the original haka had been changed to include an offensive throat-cutting routine and that the Kiwis had not objected to the arbitrary reversal of tradition until the last minute.

According to The Western Mail, Roger Lewis, the WRU chief executive, sounded particularly disingenuous in trying to distance himself from the debarkle by saying, "This kind of brinkmanship is not good for rugby and not fair on the fans. It's a great shame we did not see the haka on Saturday, we were all looking forward to it."

He's a master of spin, is Roger Lewis. He has chosen these words carefully to imply sympathy - indeed, empathy - with the fans while suggesting that New Zealand were solely at fault, without specifically saying so. This is slipperiness of the first order.

Lewis' attempt to deflect criticism by implying that the International Rugby Board would support the WRU's position on appeal was immediately scuppered by the IRB press officer, Greg Thomas, who told The Guardian, "If Wales want to raise the subject [with the board] they are free to do so, but what happens in a friendly is up to the two countries involved." He added that in the World Cup, "The countries that traditionally perform the haka - Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand - will be allowed to do so after the anthems." End of argument.

Shame on all the members of the board. What little credibility they had after Ruddock left has now been used up. They should all resign to make way for a more imaginative, honest, and responsible management. Until we have people with integrity running both the Welsh Rugby Union and the country, people who are prepared to take responsibility for their actions when things go awry as well as accept the plaudits when things go well, I'm afraid we'll be on a hiding to nothing.

Click here to buy the t-shirt

New spin on Charles' Marie Antoinette Syndrome

TO AVOID the kind public criticism that met Marie Antoinette's infamous construction of a rural hovel in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, Charles' public relations people continue to spin the story of the Duchy of Cornwall's purchase of a Welsh country estate into something they think might be more palatable to feeble Welsh brains.

Straw poles conducted last week suggested that the public didn't entirely buy the "base for Welsh visits" spin the story was originally given, so the BBC Wales website is now claiming "experts (unnamed) believe interest in the physicians [of Myddfai] may have led Prince Charles to buy Llwynywormwood. The prince was apparently intrigued by the physicians' story when he opened an exhibition on their work at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, a few miles away at Llanarthne." I've highlighted the keywords to illustrate how they con you. There is no substance to any of this rubbish.

The Physicians of Myddfai lived in the area in the 13th Century and were renowned for their healing powers. However, the Myddfai Community Website, in an article written by the property's previous owners, John and Patricia Hegarty, who have researched the subject very thoroughly, says quite clearly that [Llwynywormwood] "is a name with tantalising but unproven connections with the herbal traditions of the Parish of Myddfai.

The Duchy of Cornwall is a business that generates massive profits solely for Charles' benefit. The implication that's its purchase of a Welsh country estate will be of benefit to Welsh people is entirely false propaganda. If Charles really has altruistic motives then he should be answerable for the actuality.

Click here to but the t-shirt (My motives are not altruistic either)

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Let's invest in a winning Wales

On the afternoon of 7th March 2004, I watched Wales (22) get beaten by France (29) on television at my apartment in Paris, smoking cigars and drinking old bas armagnac (the only rugby-watching experience that comes anywhere near actually being there) with two French friends.

I’m a very bad loser so, despite the fact that the boys gave a good account of themselves and pushed France close at the end, I felt the need to quip, “That’s what you get when a big nation of 60 million people takes on a little nation of only 3 million people.”

My friend, Monsieur Freibourg, a graduate of Sciences Po, the elite Parisian academy that educates the French political and diplomatic leadership, not to mention its captains of industry of which Monsieur Freibourg is one (meaning that I should have known better than to try to be clever with him), immediately quipped back that he thought Wales would have “no problem beating China” at rugby.

Apart from being a deftly executed turnover, this was also a good philosophical point, which came into sharp focus as another little nation of 4 million people took us apart in Cardiff today.

The game, for me, conjured up the scene of the Battle of Morannon (The Black Gate) from the movie of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – shot in New Zealand as it happens – in which the tiny Army of the West is vastly outnumbered by Sauron's army of men-and-other-creatures-in-black. In Cardiff this evening, there was no one able to throw Graham Henry’s ring of power into the Taff, so the inevitable happened.

I didn’t think the boys played that badly but there was no way they could win since New Zealand play an entirely superior quality of game with far greater aggression and athleticism. There was no shame in defeat since Wales fought manfully to the end, but the problem is that, despite the best efforts of Mr Giggs, rugby is all we’ve got. New Zealand extracts national pride from having a decent cricket team too.

The priorities in England must be different. After all, rugby union is just one of any number of team games at which England tends to be thrashed nowadays – cricket, football, rugby league and hockey all spring to mind.

But rugby union is the fountain of Welsh national sporting pride and, after today, simply beating England and winning the Six Nations should not be considered important enough objectives. We need to win the World Cup, beating New Zealand by at least twenty points in the final. We should be prepared to invest whatever it takes to achieve this outcome, even to the point of raising taxes in Wales if that’s what’s needed.

It’s only a small step from there to setting out to achieve in Wales a standard of living approaching that of Ireland, population 4 million, which is now ranked 4th in the world after Norway, Sweden and Australia (the UK is ranked 18th). We’d just need inspired representation with our real interests at heart and – crucial point this – the power to go for it.

If little nations like New Zealand and Ireland can achieve these important objectives then so can we. We’re not lacking in heart or intelligence or numbers, we’re simply lacking the tools to do the job.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

The Pendragon Legend

IF YOU happen to pass a bookshop while these words are still in your head, you won't go far wrong by walking in and buying a copy of The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix and published by Pushkin Press, ISBN 1-901285-60-X.

This wonderful little book, written and first published in Hungarian in 1934, is a gently satirical mix of genres; being a gothic, romantic, metaphysical, country house murder mystery psychological thriller - a sort of Gosford Park meets The Da Vinci Code meets The Name of Rose meets The Devil Rides Out.

Set largely in North Wales - which is why I'm drawning your attention to it - the story concerns a young Hungarian scholar-dilettante who is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd, a reclusive eccentric and the subject of strange rumours. Invited to stay at the Earl's family seat, Pendragon Castle, the young man receives a mysterious phone call warning him not to go....

The author exhibits a wonderfully sharp intelligence, probing moral, psychological and religious questions without ever reducing the rapid pace of the narrative.

It's particularly sad to know that, having published only two novels, Szerb was beaten to death in a labour camp in 1945. His second novel, Journey By Moonlight, written in 1937 and now also translated by Len Rix and published by Pushkin Press, ISBN 0-901285-50-2, is even better than The Pendragon Legend. Give the first book a go and I defy you not to buy the second.

Click here to buy the book from Amazon

Charles and Camilla invest in Welsh hovel

SO, ESTATE agent Les Probert predicted in The Western Mail yesterday that property prices in the Llandovery area are set to boom with the revelation that Charles (and Camilla, apparently) have bought a farmhouse in the area. The Western Mail clearly thought this was a matter worthy of great rejoicing on the part of the populace since it devoted five full pages to the story.

The main feature alluded to "huge benefits for the West Wales economy" and mentioned the "warm welcome" given to the news by unnamed "business experts and economists" but the article failed to spell out why, exactly, we are expected to accept this as good news?

Property prices throughout Carmarthenshire have been booming for some time, driven ever higher by the insatiable demand in England for holiday homes and investment property. It is already the case that local people are priced out of the market and as the more picturesque villages gradually empty of indigenous population, so local schools and businesses are faced with closure.

It might be good news for the locals if they were able to sell up and move to, oh, I don't know, Romania, Bulgaria or Poland, for topical examples. But it's too late! English property investors have already caused booms in those markets too.

Ivor Jackson, the mayor of Llandovery, said he was "delighted" because, "It's going to benefit tourism to Llandovery and Myddfai and hopefully we will be able to have more investment come our way by reason of him taking up residence here. He might also bring in some more high-profile people round here."

I've lifted the above quote in full because I can't believe you really said those things, Mr Jackson. If I understand you correctly, you are encouraging the kind of investment that means your constituents will no longer be able to afford homes; you want to see the villages depopulated and the local schools close; you want an influx of hooray Henry's to grovel to and you want your congested, narrow roads to come to a complete standstill in the summer. Where's your head at? The good people of Llandovery should run you out of town but those that are left are probably blinded by the hype.

Charles may be totally out of touch with reality but his people are not daft. Remove the spin placed on the story by Charles' press office and you have the rather more prosaic news that The Duchy of Cornwall, a business of which Charles is the sole beneficiary, has invested in a 192 acre Welsh estate which happens to include a small coach house. The notion that he intends to use it as "a base for future royal visits to Wales" is clearly nonsense.

Obviously Charles needs the income that will come from renting the place out as a holiday let but the claim that "anyone using the property will be able to enjoy all the facilities, including the bedroom, kitchen and toilet used by the royal couple" is utterly ludicrous. That's how little they think of a Welsh person's intelligence.

I promise to eat my grubby WRU baseball cap if he ever really lives there.

Click here to buy the t-shirt

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Longing for home

Some years ago Sky Television invited me to a boxing match between Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno, which was held outdoors in the old Arms Park in October. The rain broke just long enough for Lewis to beat the crap out of a hapless Bruno and the fight was over in no time.

It was a strange set-up, with the curious Welsh locals in the cheap seats in the upper tiers, miles from the ring, and the proper boxing fans, mostly London eastenders, seated on the pitch. The mid-price lower stands were totally empty.

Before the kick-off (punch-off), they played Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (the Welsh national anthem). The upper stands erupted in song, while all around me, sat in the front row, was an uncomprehending silence. At that moment I just wanted to be up there with the boys in the stands.

Hiraeth is such a beautiful word, both in terms of its sound and its meaning. I know I’ve sworn an oath against sentimentality and cliché but, for me, hearing Richard Burton’s recording of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood brings on this uniquely Welsh emotion every time.

Click here to buy the t-shirt

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Welsh National Costume or English straightjacket?

THE MORE I delve into Welsh iconography the more I feel like an extra in The Truman Show (a movie about a man who, without realising it, has lived all his life from birth as the subject of a reality television show).

It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the Welsh National Costume was invented by a wealthy English lady in the early-19th century to encourage Welsh women to wear wool produced in mills owned by her friends?

Influenced by fashion, comfort, cost and availability, women - not just in Wales but throughout the British Isles - were wearing garments made of cotton, milled in Britain but imported from the colonies, in place of traditional woollen clothing. As a result, the Welsh wool business was suffering and prices, both at market and at the mill door, were depressed.

Her motives probably weren't entirely as bad as it seems, and I wish I could feel more charitable towards Augusta Hall, also known as Lady Llanofer. She learnt to speak Welsh, which is more than can be said of me, and she even helped to found the first Welsh-language periodical for women. But she was an ultra-conservative hypocrite who believed that "false respectability encourages forms of dress incompatible with active employments".

My guess is that Lady Llanofer's 'Welsh' thing was, as much as anything else, motivated by a romantic fantasy of the rural idyll, a fashionable interest indulged in by the landowning gentry of the time.

Fortunately, she didn't feel the need to design a Welsh national costume for men because the extraordinary outfit in which she dressed her harpist, Thomas Gruffydd, would definitely get you bottled down the pub on a Friday evening.

Click here to buy the t-shirt

Monday, 20 November 2006

Pwllheli Pirates

One fateful day in 1566, a Dutch merchantman laden with sugar, molasses, goat’s skins and other wares on a voyage from North Africa to Antwerp dropped anchor off St Tudwal’s, two small islands a few miles west of Pwllheli. The ship was way off course because pirates had captured it.

The pirates sold the stolen cargo to the inhabitants of Pwllheli, who were desperately short of provisions. Having pocketed the profits, they sailed off into the sunset leaving local brothers Jevan and Richard ap Meredith to face the noose.

Asda is currently in the process of providing a similar service to the people of Pwllheli, riding roughshod over the planning process to build a superstore that will ship profits back to their Wal-Mart shareholders in the USA.

Although Pwllheli will now have the convenience of a superstore on its doorstep, it'll be at the cost of numerous small Welsh businesses that used to put money back into the local economy. There's globalisation for you.

Click here to buy the t-shirt

Sunday, 19 November 2006

The humble daffodil: proper Welsh emblem or a cheap bit of tat

The daffodil, it seems, originated in Portugal, Spain and the southern coast of France, not in Wales. But the daffodil is cheap and cheerful and only lasts for a couple of weeks, which makes it eminently suitable as our national emblem.

The name for daffodil in Welsh (cenhinen Bedr) translates as Peter's Leek. The word for leek is ‘cenhinen’. This allows plenty of scope for conjecture and confusion. I might as well add to it.

Daffodils are also known as Lent Lilies, Easter Lilies, Daffys, Narcissus and by the Latin name Narcissus Pseudonarcissus. The Greek Theophrastus first wrote about narcissi around 300BC in his Enquiry into Plants. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and was turned into a flower by the gods.

Medieval Arabs apparently used the juice of wild daffodils as a cure for baldness. I have no idea if it works. It is said that Roman soldiers carried daffodils with them to eat if they should be mortally wounded in battle, in order to hasten their journey to the underworld.

Mohammed wrote: "He that has two cakes of bread, let him sell one of them for some flowers of the Narcissus, for bread is food for the body, but Narcissus is food of the soul."

Mercifully, the Welsh are only encouraged to wear daffodils in their buttonholes on 1st March of year, and the kind of Welshmen who possess buttonholes do actually wear them. But why?

The daffodil became a popular Welsh symbol in the 19th century. Lloyd George, no doubt feeling that leeks were a bit dull and unattractive, used the daffodil to symbolise Wales at the 1911 Investiture of Edward Windsor, the soon-to-be Nazi sympathiser who, having been crowned Edward VIII of England, got sacked for marrying an American divorcee.

I have no idea why you need a plant as a symbol for a country. Is it any wonder some nationalists prefer the rather more powerful and evocative symbol of the white eagle of Snowdonia?

What else do you need to know? There are about 50 species of daffodils, and many thousands of named cultivars and hybrids of garden origin. The Royal Horticultural Society International Daffodil Register lists more than 26,400 named daffodils. They're common as muck!

Click here to buy the t-shirt