Tag Archives: Welsh

Surely to goodness

30 Dec
'Surely to goodness you will not be my pub wanting from me', cried Llewelyn to the foreign gentleman.

‘Surely to goodness you will not my pub be taking from me’, cried Llewelyn to the foreign gentleman.


As an afterthought to yesterday’s post, I was distressed to hear the foot soldiers in Tietjens’ regiment, the Glamorganshires, speaking a hammy stage Welsh. Their speech abounded with arcane and weird phrases such as ‘surely to goodness’ – indeed one poor fellow could say little else. I have leafed through the Madox Ford novel but have not tracked down the offending passage: could it be Tom Stoppard’s intervention, or does this extraordinary language represent how a certain breed of English person thinks the Welsh peasantry actually speak? ‘Surely to goodness; indeed to goodness; a good man he is; on the table the tea is; it is his beer he’ll be wanting.’ Do these phrases actually exist outside the heads of English writers trying to “do Welsh”?

The problem of transcribing the language of people who are speaking a second language is a recurrent problem for the novelist.  It is related to, though not the same as, attempts made at rendering the syntax and word order of another language, but transcribed as though they were speaking English: Hemingway provides some hilarious examples of this in The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, with Spanish. For example, opening a page of the latter book at random, we find:

“Fernando,” Pilar said quietly . . . “take this stew please in all formality and fill thy mouth with it and talk no more. We are in possession of thy opinion.”

I am sure we could open this into a fascinating discussion, but I merely intended,  in the first instance, to make a note that it would be very weird, in 2012, to hear a ‘typical Welshman’ saying things like ‘Surely to goodness’. The truth is that never, but never, have I heard a Welsh person say any such thing. And while I can speak about the Welsh with some authority, I must also confess that I have never heard a Yorkshireman say ‘Ee bah gum’, or a Irishman say ‘Begorrah’, (although this does not necessarily mean that these things never get said and so leads us into speculation).  Representations of the other always have to be accompanied by some linguistic marker of ‘foreignness’. Welsh is a VSO (Verb-Subject-Object) language but this does not appear to have filtered into the English transcription of first language Welsh speakers attempting to communicate in English.

So, to return to Enid Blyton, and the seventeenth adventure of the Famous Five: Five get into a Fix. The kids go off to a place called Magga Glen and stay with a little grey haired old Welsh lady who speaks in the peculiar fashion I have described. She is, in many ways, a replica of another Mrs Jones (all Welsh people are called Jones, after all, and all their children run around barefoot, dressed in rags, stealing cheese). This other Mrs Jones runs the Inn in The Ragamuffin Mystery, another, lesser-known Welsh-set adventure by Blyton. There is an evil ornithologist (ornithologist was Blyton’s favourite long word, and she manages to get it into her stories with improbable frequency), and the lady of the Inn makes pronouncements such as: “He’s not bad is my Llewellyn, not wicked at all. It was those men, with their lies and their promises. They tempted my poor Llewellyn, they lent him money to buy the inn.” Note: in Blyton adventures ‘bad men’ are of two varieties: members of the ‘lower class’ and ‘foreigners’ (of indeterminate breed, but invariably unshaven and speaking ‘with an accent’).

And there’s the moral. Never borrow money from bad men, especially foreigner bad men, in order to buy a pub. Surely to goodness no.






Good Things about Being Welsh: No.1

31 Jul


Walking out yesterday with the brother, daughter and dog, this sign might have taken us by surprise, had we not been Welsh, and therefore accustomed to such wonders. Whether or not Being Welsh is perceived as a blessing in the general run of things, when it comes to going out of a Saturday and walking a country mile, coming across a sign such as the one in my photo – and I assure you it is not a set-up – only serves to remind us of our inordinate good fortune. Consider the topography: a field dotted with sheep; an unmarked road – little more than a lane – overgrown hedgerow and fern; a sky not threatening rain. And a home-made sign pointing up the road, indicating that in this direction the traveller will find a restorative musical experience.  In Wales we too are suffering the crisis effected by the bastard bankers, but here, at least, we have fresh duck eggs, border collie pups, a few bags of spuds and a MALE VOICE CHOIR.



Patagonia, the film

17 Jul


Imagine my surprise, on a crisp and cloudless day in March this year, sitting down to lunch outside a restaurant in Toledo, when I discovered that the young couple at the next table were speaking Welsh. I was skiving off from a rather dull conference in Madrid, and Toledo, less than an hour away, seemed an ideal distraction. It was one of those moments of apparent disconnect, when you need to make a quick inventory of your surroundings, pinch yourself, do some sums, listen doubly hard to make certain you are not hallucinating the sounds. We fell into conversation – this is almost inevitable if you happen to speak a minority language, however badly, and meet compatriots in foreign parts – and the talk came around to Welsh cinema. The film Patagonia had just been released: I had been away from Cardiff and unable to go and see it.

So I finally got around to watching it last night, and, on balance, I enjoyed it. Although I had reservations about the script, including the rather cheap trick of withholding vital information that undermines our response to the central protagonists’ relationship, the cinematography and acting were excellent. Nia Roberts gave a strong performance as a woman who wants more from life than she can reasonably expect; her boyfriend Rhys (Matthew Gravelle’s irritatingly dour and uptight photographer) goes through a minor epiphany on finding the body of a dead dog on the road, and later, in a redemptive act, befriends the dog’s shambolic, alcoholic tramp of an owner. Matthew Rhys, as their Patagonian guide, is an effective and powerful presence onscreen, subtly pitched the right side of brooding. This Patagonian part of the story comes close to being Big Cinema, but somehow just falls short. It was the Welsh adventure of the young Argentinian, Alejandro, cajoled out of his virtual life of sci-fi novels by his elderly neighbour Cerys (played by Marta Lubos) that most captivated. For both myself and Mrs Blanco, Alejandro (Nahuel Pérez Biscayar) was the star turn of this film, and we were most entertained by the scenes in which he appears, even his puppyish romp with Duffy, with whom he is improbably reunited after first meeting her when she passes out at a Cardiff nightclub.

But why do I always endure that nervousness, or painful sense of resistance, whenever Welsh artists (and that includes many of our writers, visual artists and film-makers) attempt to make a statement about contemporary Wales or any articulation of ‘Welshness’. However hard they try, there always seems to be some frantic element at work, as though we, as a nation, still have something to prove to the world. No one is interested. Certainly no one outside of Wales gives a shit, and many of us who live here just want to get on with our work without having to make continuous self-reflective reference to our Welshness. As if a Swiss writer had to pepper his stories with references to cuckoo clocks and dairy milk chocolate. So there seems to be something desperate about having to bring Blodeuwedd into the story as kind of smash and grab raid on the Mabinogion. It’s like stating outright: ‘Look, we have these early medieval antecedents, this embedded narrative mythology.’ I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t wash, and nobody cares anyway. And if you’re going to do it, do it in such a way that isn’t bloody obvious. Likewise the farcical pseudo-Celtic water burial ceremony awarded to Marta Lubos, poor thing – Health and Safety would have been down on that like a ton of bara brith.

Given my own self-confessed prejudices, I ended up enjoying this film far more than I had intended to. Er, four stars?