The great Welsh divide

As I was saying recently to my Scottish friends (the fictional gay double act, Ben Doon and Phil McCaverty), tradition is a wonderful thing.

Just think of those traditional Scottish songs that Andy Stewart used to sing on The White Heather Club, all written by Cockneys in Soho's Tin Pan Alley in the 1950s. Or those tins of traditional Scottish shortbread, mostly baked at a factory in Deptford. Or the glorious tradition of Burns Night (known in England as Guy Fawkes Night), where participants proudly wear their traditional Scottish kilts, invented by the English factory owner Thomas Rawlinson.

Our Royal family, incidentally, only don kilts at Yuletide, but I'm told that many Scotsmen wear them all year round - so the sheep won't hear the zip.

Nowadays, traditional sheep-shagging jokes are mostly directed at the inhabitants of Wales, one of the few ethnic minorities at whom it's apparently still OK to hurl gratuitous insults. For the English, even the word "Welsh" has dubious connotations (of reneging on debts), and although it's claimed that the centrepiece of Welsh culture - the annual Eisteddfod

 -  is a tradition that dates back to ancient Druidic times, it's actually a Victorian reinvention, which only began in 1861. 

As a child, I used to listen to the unfathomable lyric poems and watch the chairing of the bard in fascinated bemusement each year, because the ceremony was always carried on the BBC's English transmitters during the school vacation, but such eccentric scheduling has no place in today's ratings-obsessed industry, and it's now only available on the Welsh channel S4C.

When I tried to review it last year, and asked Sky Digital to add channel 184 to my subscription, they refused, offering me only this cryptic explanation: "We can't, because you've got the wrong postcode".

Fortunately, that bizarre policy has recently been relaxed, so I was able to spend yesterday afternoon watching Day Three of this eight-day festival, coming to us live from Denbigh, near Rhyl. And I mean watching, because I find the Welsh language to be utterly impenetrable (why are words that begin with "ngh" listed in Welsh dictionaries under "c"?), and all the speech I could hear was aural scribble, punctuated with seemingly abstract English words.

I quote: "Disqwuil cumbaya a borra hegdiwth Woolworths kelpan aranta lady croisor Prozac twmî (God alone knows why Prozac was getting a mention).

Yesterday's main presenter sounded as though he was hawking up phlegm, and it struck me that this must be the worst possible language in which to have tonsillitis. I mean, just describing your symptoms to the doctor would be worse than an operation without anaesthetic.

The afternoon's proceedings were mostly given over to a music contest for teenagers, which proved to be a mixture of the absurd and the sublime. Someone dressed as a farmer tap-danced with a garden rake, a group of menopausal women (who would be known as a "kwa" if they lived in Surrey) sang in unlovely can belto style, and a fat boy (who looked as though he had recently eaten of the insane root) played the penny whistle.

But then Gwenan Gibbard from Pwllheli played an exquisite contemporary modal composition on her concert harp, and I instantly forgot all about the Celtic tram smash in the stupid hat who preceded her.

Miriam Nan Hughes and her flute performed some stunning Poulenc and Telemann too, after which the winners were announced. It seemed everyone had won a prize. And then came whatI'd been waiting for. Dozens of middle-aged men in saris (sporting hats that might have been designed for the Real Ku Klux Klan by Ms Shilling) recited their poems, and a favourite phrase of Swansea pub landlords was uttered (in Welsh) to a gentle -man called Penrhy Roberts. "You're bard".

It's easy to mock. Very easy, as it happens. Wales is a small country, and its Welsh-speaking population is smaller still, so any major artistic festival it holds is bound to contain a good deal of dross (as did the legendary Seventies show Disc a Dawn, BBC Wales's gloriously dreadful answer to Top of the Pops).

But at a time when C4 has almost entirely abandoned its commitment to the arts, it's reassuring to see that at least S4C still values culture, and I'll certainly be tuning in again, to revel in the magnificent incomprehensibility (and occasional excellence) of the event.

Nevertheless, my enthusiasm for Welsh culture will not stop me from continuing to refer to four sheep tied to a Llandudno lamp post as "a Welsh leisure centre", nor from insisting that, whenever I walk into a Welsh pub, the locals all suddenly start speaking Welsh on purpose. It's true. They're not talking in Welsh because it's their language, they're doing it simply to annoy me, and I know that for a fact.

You see, before I enter a Welsh pub, I always travel in my astral body into the saloon bar first, and do you know what? They're invariably standing around discussing the content of last night's EastEnders. In English.

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