In an interview on the BBC News earlier this month, the singer Bonnie Tyler was interviewed by Katty Kay and Christian Fraser, usually an intelligent and benign pair of individuals with whom I have no axe to grind. The interview was standard early evening fare, and the three chatted away, getting along famously. Then, at 4’18” — if you click on the link below — you will hear Ms Kay ask the singer: ’Do you ever sit back and think, Bonnie Tyler, not bad for a girl from Wales?’
What does this seemingly innocent utterance actually reveal?
I would suggest that it comes from, and taps into an unconscious prejudice, something so deep-seated in the English mindset as to be understood — presumably — without further explanation.
Kay doesn’t say ‘a girl from Skewen’ (the village where Tyler was born) — but identifies her country of origin. What, by contrast would it mean, to say ‘not bad for a girl from England’? Nothing at all, presumably, because a ‘girl from England’ could be anything at all. The utterance would be meaningless. It can only be compared with a statement such as ‘Not bad for a girl from Scunthorpe’ or Middlesborough, or Blackpool (towns with the some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England) or ‘Not bad for a girl from (insert name of any rundown estate in east London).’
Why then is ‘not bad for a girl from Wales’ so offensive?
It can only be because ‘Wales’, in the minds of so many English people, is a backwater, and can only very rarely be expected to produce individuals who rise above the murk and mire of their place of origin, a dim and misty bogland somewhere to the west of the Severn — sorry, the Prince of Wales — Bridge, suitable perhaps for holiday homes, and for off-colour jokes about sheep, but hardly a place likely to offer up a stream of talented individuals who rise to the top of their professions on the international stage (omitting of course, such exceptions, in the world of theatre and show business, as Richard Burton, Siân Phillips, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones; in the business world, names such as Charles Rolls, Frank Wright and Laura Ashley; in the literary world, David Jones, R.S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Lynette Roberts, to name only poets; in the world of the visual arts, Richard Wilson, Thomas Jones, James Dickson Innes, Augustus John, Kyffin Williams, Gwen John, Shani Rhys James; photographers such as Phillip Jones Griffiths and David Hurn; countless first-rate musicians, entertainers, scholars, scientists and sportspeople, I don’t need to list them – and realise I’ve missed out lots of names. So actually, considering the population of our country, I’d say we punch well above our weight . . . )
I am sure Katty Kay does not view herself as a racist, and her slip was almost certainly not malicious. But it reveals an attitude that goes far deeper. Despite all the debate about unconscious prejudice with regard to people of colour, or towards the LGBTQ community, these small indicators of the ways in which the ‘other nations’ of these islands are regarded by the ascendant group — the English — continues in much the same way as it has for centuries. In my youth, overt racism was displayed toward the Irish — I can remember the pubs in London with signs reading ‘No Dogs No Blacks, No Irish’. In recent years, animosity towards the Irish has shifted towards the remaining British Celts, and is expressed, sometimes relatively mildly, as with Ms Kay’s remark, and sometimes far less so (see the recent sacking of a senior Iceland executive for calling the Welsh language “gibberish” or even the Telegraph’s article opining that the Wales rugby team would be the Six Nations’ ‘worst ever Grand Slam winners’, were they to win their deciding match against France last night).
Prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, is of course much easier to identify in others than in ourselves, but the bias against Wales and the Welsh certainly has a long history.
Which brings to mind the story of Parsifal, or Perceval. In the first full account of the Arthurian legends by Chrétien de Troyes, in the twelfth century, Perceval is identified as ‘the Welshman’ (li Galois), and it should be remembered that Perceval, after facing ridicule at Arthur’s court as a country bumpkin — as befitting someone from Wales — surpasses the deeds of all the other knights by finding the Holy Grail, and in the process healing the wounds of the Fisher King. As the mythographer Robert Johnson writes: ‘He is born in Wales, during that time a country geographically on the fringe of the known world and a cultural backwater, the least likely place for a hero to appear . . . Who would ever think of Wales as possibly producing an answer to our suffering? Myth informs us that our redemption will come from the least likely place.’