I was always a little bit shocked to meet people in America who knew loads about and were often very keen to claim a lineage to Scotland or Ireland, but exhibited blank faces as to the existence of Wales, where I am from. (Fewer still non-Brits are aware of the Welsh language, which has been spoken in one form or another since 550AD, but more about that later.)
For the uninitiated, Wales is a small country of around three million people, which was once a sovereign nation with its own language and monarchy. It was colonised back in 1282 by the English army of Edward I, after a prolonged and bloody war of conquest. The word Welsh is actually an Old English word meaning “foreigner; slave.” Wales is also recognised by historians as the initial testing ground for a range of imperialist strategies which were used again in Ireland, which they invaded around a century later, and then right across the empire to (slightly) more well-known and horrific effects. The many centuries that have passed since the English invasion of Wales, and the general lack of knowledge around it, will leave many scoffing at the suggestion that Wales was ever a colonised country. Hell, some Welsh people might even raise an eyebrow, which would only be an indicator of how little is taught about this aspect of British history. It almost seemed distasteful to make this connection, until I learnt more. The colonisation of Wales may never have involved direct genocide of the Welsh people, but its diminished status as a secondary ‘principality’ of the UK has still had deep and lasting consequences. It continues to do so many centuries later even since Wales became partially self-governed through a National Assembly after the process of devolution in 1998. Many crucial areas of funding and prioritisation are still subject to English legislation, and unlike Scotland, Wales does not control its own legal, criminal or educational system. Poverty has long been endemic and generational. The poorest place in the whole of the UK by some margin is West Wales.
An indigenous language advocate whose work I read recently said that language is not just a way of describing the world, but a way of creating it, so when those languages die, the worlds they create fade away with them.
One theory put forward about this is that Wales never had a chance to develop its own bourgeoisie because the means of production and the land was owned by English industrialists. Without a class of Welsh people who had spent centuries acquiring property rights within their own country, during the advent of eighteenth century industrialisation (many still associate Wales with Coal for good reason) the wealth created through this intensive period of mineral exploitation was rarely spent in the Welsh economy. One consequence of the last seven hundred years has a been a cultural (not always explicitly political) identity hinged around radical traditions; rebellion in the classic sense of the word. The 12th century uprisings bred constant waves of resistance to an imposed feudalist order, from religious non-conformism to the spirit of international solidarity. Welsh radicalism is a key reason the UK has the NHS, because the idea of socialised medicine was modelled on a miner’s cooperative health initiative started in Tredegar, near Merthyr Tydfil. It’s also why so many of the international brigade volunteers in the Spanish Civil war were Welsh miners.
Many have no idea about the centuries long campaign of linguistic suppression (towards a stated goal of eradication) against the Welsh language, in spite of its healthy if timid resurgence in the last thirty-five years. Most Welsh kids (in the South, at least) first learn about this on school trips to a living museum called St. Fagan’s, where we would be encouraged to re-enact parts of a barbaric 19th Century classroom practice aimed at discouraging children from speaking in their own language. This was done by placing a wooden plaque (known as a ‘Welsh not’) around the neck of any child who was heard speaking Welsh, who could have it removed only if they told the teacher of another child doing the same thing, with incentive provided by the fact that the child wearing the ‘not’ at the end of the day would be duly beaten (thankfully they didn’t reenact this part, but the terror was real.)
My dad recalled his own Mamgu telling him about how she had to whisper in Welsh in the playground, else she ‘get the not.’ This practice, the use of the ‘Welsh not’ was considered so ‘effective’ that it was mimicked later in other colonial classrooms, notably in Nigeria where it was referred to as a ‘monitor’. Efficacy here meant ‘primitive’ languages being caned out of several generations of children until their own children had no words left to whisper. Somewhat ironically, what first brought Welsh back from the brink of extinction was the translation of the bible into Welsh by Protestant missionaries. I was interested to learn recently that the same practice was carried out in some indigenous nations across Australia, and aboriginal language advocates today scour copies of these translated bibles as they are the only written records of languages which were even more ‘effectively’ destroyed over a generation ago, using far more barbarous tactics.
As someone who grew up with Welsh and English at home, all of this pulls at me in a place I can’t really name, in any language. As a teenager I was embarrassed to even try and reply to my dad in the language he spoke to me in. I didn’t see it as necessary and didn’t recognise the strangeness in translating everything he said to me in order to reply. I never had to fight to hear Welsh on TV or first on road signs, but I did fight my (English) mother to speak English in the Welsh accent befitting of our where we grew up. This was a war fuelled by nineties class anxiety that my sisters and I sadly lost, so now I move through the world with a placeless ‘British’ voice, facing disbelief when I state my heritage. I was totally blindsided to learn later in life that the demand to establish an entirely Welsh-medium TV channel (S4C) was only won under intense campaigning that included sit-ins, license fee strikes and the threat of a hunger strike by the leader of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans. Thatcher capitulated to this in 1982. I was blown away to learn that the stakes had ever felt that high for the simple existence of something I had taken completely for granted, and ashamed that the history of this struggle was never taught to us in school. Dad’s insistence on flicking back to that channel at the first opportunity suddenly felt much less arbitrary and annoying. 19% of people in Wales can speak Welsh, with more learning every year, and there are now rules in place that prioritise the Welsh language in state institutions and for employment. A model that enables what was once dismissed as a ‘dead’ language to be revived feels like a beautiful possibility for language advocates here in like Australia, where, of course, the true wages of the same coloniser logic in its fullest and most terrorising and deadly form eclipse anything that ever happened in Wales. More than anything it is a demonstration that where political will is present or can be dragged into being, things can change. Just not without a fight.(See UKIP’s recent attempts to resist Welsh schooling by framing it as ‘foreign.’ To Wales. Truly mindbending stuff
These days, things look somewhat different, and my tiny nieces and nephews happily learn Welsh in school, alongside Sudanese and Syrian refugee kids who easily add Welsh to the many other languages they have picked up. All this hints at the possibilities for a space beyond an English frame. One of my nieces, born outside wales with south African heritage on her Dad’s side now goes to an entirely Welsh-medium school, and my heart swells to know she will grow up fluent although I did not. An indigenous language advocate I read recently said that language is not just a way of describing the world, but a way of creating it, so when those languages die, the worlds they create fade away with them. When I try to construct my own sentences in pidgin attempts at basic Welsh I once knew well, I feel a world opening up. Another frame.
As a result of all this, it’s probably not a surprise that I’m a freak for Welsh language punk, and we’re talking about that then I have to start with Llygod Ffyrnig (roughly; ‘fierce mice’) four seventeen year olds who self-released the first Welsh language punk single exactly a year after the Buzzcocks made Spiral Scratch.
They were from Llanelli, a small town on the doorstep of West Wales that sits just beyond the grey, sludgey estuary I crossed to get to school, where wild horses would occasionally drown when the tide rushed in too suddenly for them. It’s also the closest town to the small village where I visited my Mamgu most Sundays, staring into her psychedelic blue carpet while she regaled us with local gossip in rapid fire Wenglish, presumably so my mum could follow along. In the early sixties, when she was still running the village’s local shop as a widow, my dad took his first job at the local steel refinery, learning how to measure and test the resilience of each slab of steel once an hour from the bottom of a rigidly enforced pecking order. Fifteen years later, the subject of Llygod Ffyrnig’s Melody Maker single of the week hit were job prospects at the NCB (National Coal Board.) This gruff yet tuneful proto-hardcore with sparse, barked lyrics highlights the grim reality of what was a choice between ‘byw ar y dole’ (living on the dole) or hot, dangerous and exhausting work as a miner where ‘ddim ond silicosis sydd ar ol’ (only silicosis – an occupational lung disease also known as Miner’s phthisis – is left) succinctly explaining a reality which is often lost when people look back to what was being fought for during the strikes that would come. There’s an amazing and incongruous Rush-esque solo halfway through this growling banger, and the B Side has some cheeky Sais-(English)baiting and a song about snogging a girl called Bethan at the bus stop. My heart swelled to read a comment on the KBD Records blog where one member chastises the other for ‘punching a cow in that barn we used to practice in.’
The first Welsh-language single I bought was a reissue of a single by a band called Y Sefydliad. Their only single ‘Cerddor Cymraeg’ came out in 1983 and is weirdly euphoric, punky power pop that is probably the fastest welsh-language punk I’ve heard. Not to be confused with Ail Symudiad, who are more straight up power pop, and have a song called ‘Garej Paradws’ (Paradise Garage) which was apparently about a punk clothes shop in Cardiff. Delightful stuff.
Anrhefn means disorder in Welsh. Founded by the legend Rhys Mewn in Bangor in 1982 , they were definitely one of the better known Welsh-language punk bands of the era, championed by John Peel who frequently played them and many other welsh language bands on his radio show.Anrhefn signed to Workers’ Playtime at one point (an Alternative Tentacles subsidiary) who asked them to write and release something in English, and were enthusiastically told where to go. They did massively well in Europe, where the monoglot stranglehold on pop culture was much less of an issue. They followed a similar trajectory to many of their English-medium UK82 counterparts, softening their edges into a more stadium rock type of place at first, but there’s still a cool vibe to even their later stuff which transitions into an experimental electronic type of place which goes all the way to 1995!
Y Cyrff (The Bodies) from Conwy come off as a pretty good mid 80s guitar pop band, with weirdly hypnotic New Order-style bass lines and a couple of songs which display the occasional flash of gothy gloomth, like lost Sisters of Mercy cuts… in Welsh. Members would go on to form alt rock triple platinum group Catatonia during the later ‘Cool Cymru’ years with a gal named Cerys who went to my school. This the welsh outcrop of the cultural moment known as ‘Cool Britannia’ which formented around Blur and Oasis and Tony Blair’s boom years.
Then there’s Datblygu (which means develop) who you may already know about due to their cult following and status as a kind of catalyst for a lot of this 80s welsh-language rock boom – they even have a Peel Session! Sad and often meandering slighty nihilist poetry in Welsh sung-spoken by David R. Edwards over propulsive casio, washy blips and phasey synths. The lyrics are often super arch, sternly shit talking the limits of Welsh cultural hegemony. David R. Edwards suffered a breakdown just before ‘Cool Cymru’ exploded, a moment in which he and Patricia Morgan (who wrote all the music) coulda-shoulda found much, much bigger fame. They have nevertheless retained that cult status, playing an All Tomorrow’s Parties a few years ago and releasing a ton of stuff on both Anrhefn recordings (founded by Rhys Mewn) and Ankst, a prolific and still-active experimental label founded in Aberystwyth.
In 1989, Traddodiad Ofnus (Tradition of Fear) made a wicked almost industrial post-punk album called ‘Welsh Tourist Bored’ – the drummer is playing a couple of ‘nuclear’ gas canisters in one video for a song called El Hombre Secretivo about the Falklands War. They’re floating down the Thames in sunglasses. One of them also made a record with some teenagers as ‘Pop Negatif Wastad’ (Negative Pop Forever) which is some wonky synth-based, acid inflected weirdness, very indicative of the time. The nascent welsh-language infrastructure and funding for arts and media caught onto this wave of new bands fast, so a lot of them frequently appeared live on S4C in cut n paste genius videos. I uncovered another band of this era, called U-Thant (which despite looking like a Welsh word were actually named after the UN General Secretary at the time) recently, and their thuggishly intuitive style (it’s all football shirts and shades, shoulder-bargey lad dancing, ten years before Liam Gallagher) is a beautiful thing to behold.
Beyond that lot, there are of course bands of pretty much every punk subgenre which formed and were active in Wales, but due to the fact that they sang in English, people often don’t know them to be Welsh. I very much enjoy a bare-bones very proto-oi banger by a possibly sketchy Welsh band from 1977 called Venom. The song ‘Saturday Afternoon Trouble’ is a primitive terrace-brawler anthem played with zero distortion that is pretty perfect. Shortly after, singer Dai aka Snakey went into Swansea town centre with a knife with the express intention of ‘doing someone in,’ stabbed some poor bastard in the arse, and went down for 18 months. Oh Snakey. Much later on (and much, much more right on) there’s the very well-known early 80s Cardiff skins The Oppressed and the Partisans (best song? ‘Killing Machine’ duh) who inflected a bit of the UK82 cockney bark into their delivery but actually hailed from Bridgend. Oh, and Icons of Filth? Also Welsh, and winners of what should be an award for probably the sickest and most obnoxious use of a phaser on ‘Asking too Much.’
It’s also worth checking out another compilation called ‘Is the War Over?’ which was pulled together by creepy Cardiff post punk group Reptile Ranch on their Z Block label, who are now potentially the first Welsh band to make the cover of MRR (408!) They ‘incubated’ Young Marble Giants prior to their signing to Rough Trade and it shows. For more of this ilk, there’s an entire Welsh Messthetics (104) comp to get into. It focusses mostly on South Wales and there’s lots of outsider clanging and bleak social commentary to soak up.
My favourite jam on here is a bonus track from the Tax Exiles called ‘Rough in the Valley,’ a deranged, insanely overdriven and noticeably snottier breed of punk than everything else on the comp which is from 1977. Total no-fi cardboard box recording that comes off like a thuddy, swaggerless version of the Dead Boys but way more shit-fi, like if Stiv Bators had been from Pontypridd. There’s a sick apocryphal story about the singer John Evans, who is still a punk (!) chasing Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten down a side street for picking on some hippies in the street.
I’ll end there in the hope I have at least convinced that you need to post me your Llygod Ffrynig record as cultural reparations. Fe godwn ni eto, etc etc.