Time for Tea

It seems that the tradition of drinking tea is in decline in Wales. It is a tradition fairly unknown or understood outside of the British Isles. Being a country boy and growing up in a family from a farming tradition, tea was always an important part of daily life and one I maintain. The tea tradition varies a lot from family to family and from region to region, to the extent that talking about tea reveals how diverse the tradition is. Often when I have talked about meals I discover how how much diversity in terminology and mutual incompatibility there is. So it may be of interest to my readers to understand the system I use.

A word of warning is that the diet does seem very bread and cake heavy, such foods were once much more prevalent in our culture. Prevalent in a farming community where people would spend their days out in the cold wind and damp, working the land all day and needed the calories! Furthermore whilst I identify nine meals, I don’t think I have ever actually had all nine in a single day, I am not a Prince or King.

The Eight Daily Meals

First Breakfast (optional) A quick light snack taken very soon upon awakening before doing a task before main (2nd) breakfast. Usually a ‘continental’ style breakfast of breads and fruits. Generally taken alone.

Breakfast (Second Breakfast if first breakfast already taken): Can be a substantial meal or something light, always informal. Accompanied by tea that is strongly brewed or ‘breakfast tea’ blends. However these days strong coffee often replaces tea at this meal

Elevenses: A mid morning snack usually taken around eleven o’clock, often just a cup of tea or coffee for a quick breather from work.

Lunch (or Dinner): If lunch, then a light yet substantial meal to carry you though the afternoon. Maybe a ‘packed lunch’ if away up in the hills or indeed in an office.

If dinner then the main meal of the day, often consisting several courses.

Whether lunch or dinner is taken at midday depends on many factors such as the day of the week, the weather or the season. There is the Sunday Dinner tradition which is taken at midday. Usually the remains of the Sunday joint would be the meat element of meals of most of the week, but this tradition seems to have declined a lot

Afternoon Snack/ Tiffin (optional): A light snack taken early afternoon, often just a quick cup of tea and a biscuit if you are peckish before tea time

Tea: both the following meals are usually just referred to as ‘Tea’, which is taken is inferred from context.

High Tea: From four o’clockish onward. A very formal, yet very jolly meal consisting of bread and conserves followed by cakes accompanied by rounds of tea. Usually only taken when a large group have gathered as a social event in itself. Welsh Cakes are almost always served as their own course. This is the chance for the host to show off their baking flair by offering a range of home made cakes. Guests often bring their own cakes to add to the range, diversity and celebration of relationships. If High Tea is taken then usually low tea is omitted. After a high tea I’m usually quite bloated from so much cake, that I don’t fancy much for dinner.

Low Tea: Often a light meal or snack upon returning home from work, including a cup of tea, usually informal, guests (not of the family or close friends) would get a high tea.

Dinner : The main formal meal of the day. Omitted if Dinner was taken at midday, when low tea would have been a more substantial meal, but not as substantial as dinner.

Supper (optional): The final meal of the day, usually quite light, tea is not taken.

What I have found odd is that this terminology doesn’t seem that widely understood outside of Mid Wales. The phrase ‘I don’t want much for Dinner, we had a large tea’ makes perfect sense to me, but I have found others mystified by it. As is the phrase ‘Will you be back by teatime’? (around four o’clock). Even the questioning of ‘Would you like to come around for tea?’ is quite a different question to ‘Would you like to come around for dinner?’ and the person asked should be clear what to expect, but outside my culture I have found this not to be understood.

The other thing about tea, is it is difficult to assess how much the culture has declined or indeed it’s uniqueness to rural Wales. Tea has always been very much a drink of the home. It has always been difficult to get a really good cup of tea away from peoples homes. In any case, when eating out at a cafe, people always want something posh. Coffee was once regarded as a posh drink, whereas it’s become an everyday drink.  The only evidence I have for this decline is that some supermarkets do not stock loose tea blends anymore. Tea bags have never been able to produce the quality of brew as loose tea made properly in a teapot. Yet, if people are only drinking bagged tea exclusively  in the home, this does seem to suggest that the tea tradition is very much in decline.

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Posh Tea

Part of second language learning is re-exploring your first language. Through this re-exploration you come to better understand your first language, in my case English. Furthermore you start to explore how certain words and phrases have a distinctive cultural meaning away from the standard dictionary definition. Sometimes i find it very strange when second language English speakers start to experiment using these cultural expressions, it’s often very funny. I’m sure I am making some very amusing sentences in my Welsh.

A word I commonly use and was a frequent word used within my family when I was growing up was ‘posh’. However i use it slightly differently to the standard definition. My use is widely understood in Wales, but when I travel I have found it isn’t so.

The standard definition is that posh means luxurious, cultured, refined, of the upper class. However my definition is a nuanced version of this definition, with posh as needless, but enjoyable adornment, or affected ostentation.

I was driving a new car last week which had one of those automatic handbrakes, ‘how posh’ I thought. There is no need for an automatic handbrake, when new to using them it is fun to explore how it works, hence posh. Once you have got used to it it is no longer posh [my definition]. However if they remain a feature of ‘luxury cars’, then they become part of posh driving [standard definition].

Perhaps it is better explained with cups. We have a tradition of posh cups which have exquisite patterning and shape to be used with saucers of a Sunday afternoon or when we have guests around for tea. The idea is that these cups are ‘for best’ or to honour special occasions.There is a whole set of rituals involving their use, which is very enjoyable when you enter into the spirit of it. For me it is just wrong to make tea with bags to be put into posh cups. If you are going to the trouble of using the posh cups, you should also make the effort to make the best tea, which involves teapots and loose tea.

I wouldn’t use these cups for everyday as they would lose their special value, they would no longer be posh by my definition, but would remain posh. For me posh is the fun of using a pointless ostentation for the sheer fun of it. for me, the idea of using posh things everyday is just a waste. I regard it as a token of a developing friendship when you can visit someone and not be given the posh cups, but are graced with the everyday, more relaxed cups.

Thinking about it, this posh cultural tradition is dying out, people rarely pop around for tea anymore as friends and family live ever further apart geographically. My parents and grandparents generation were given several posh tea sets when they got married and everyday tea sets by their close friends. They carefully stored these tea sets, away in the attic, but keeping an everyday set and a best/poshest set. As wedding gifts they were highly valued and usually the very best set was stored away, maybe to be got out if the Queen happened to pop around.

A friend of mines mam recently decided to tidy up her attic and got down box after box of tea sets. A tea set being a posh teapot, a posh cake stand, tea plates, cups, saucers and a sugar bowl [though why anyone would befoul tea with sugar is beyond me]. She was minded to get rid of them, however, there are thousands of these tea sets in peoples attics, you can’t even give them away to charity shops for the shops have so many,  they are ‘too good’ [posh] to be thrown away and too posh to use as everyday cups. So she carefully cleaned them, wrapped them up and put them all safely back into boxes and returned them to the attic, ‘you can deal with them when I am gone’ she said. I get this, my fathers attic is also full of various posh tea sets and I remember well how much value was placed on them by my parents and grandparents, they could remember who had bought them each particular tea set even after fifty years. My point is that these posh things have no monetary value, posh is not equivalent to expensive or good quality, as I said, it”s needless adornment for special occasions.

The thing is that people and especially children break tea sets. I have smashed a fair few in my time, this is fine  and they become chipped and worn through use anyway. So when a tea set loses it’s posh value it is thrown away to be replaced by an exciting new tea set from the store of posh tea sets. Some tears are shed for the old tea cups that have faithfully served the family for years. In my family when a tea set was changed it was such an event in the family, to change the vessels of our cups of tea to new colours and new shapes! The trouble is that a posh tea is a rare social even these days, so in the course of life, people get through a lot fewer tea sets.

These traditional Welsh tea ceremonies, with their teisen gri (Welsh cakes), posh tea sets  and unfathomable family tea etiquette are not well known outside my native culture. There have been countless times when I have used the word posh and people haven’t grasped what I was saying. It’s only now, reflecting on my English that I notice such these things.

I haven’t found a standard definition of posh to refer to special occasions. Regular use of posh things, or visiting ‘posh’ places quickly lose their value with over-use and even so, you would miss out on all fun and diversity of everyday things. There are ‘posh people’ who are wealthy enough to use posh things everyday, but they have posher things for their special occasions. There are also those ‘trying to be posh’; who purposely buy and use posh things everyday to create some false mark of class. However these more standard uses are quite removed from my use of posh.

The things have the quality of being posh as a noun, but poshness is relative. When somethign is used on those rare occasions it is posh in use, as a verb. But with overuse, it loses its value as different to the everyday and is no longer posh in use.

It is difficult to understand a language from books. It is through listening to lived experiences of the subtleties and nuances of language that deeper meanings can be appreciated. However, when I looked up the Welsh word for posh in a dictionary, it came out with ‘swanc’ much like the English word ‘swank’.  Swanc just sums up my understanding of posh perfectly. That posh/swanc is a relative term for occasional ostentatious behaviour.

 

Social Feudalism

720px-Flag_of_Powys.svgWhen I was young and started thinking about politics the idea of Social Feudalism appealed to me. The basic premise is to take the  Middle Age system of regional Princes and Kings, such as Gwynedd or Powys, who extracted taxes from those who lived in their domains to live lives of culture and refinement in return for the rule of law and protection from raiders. Such systems was sustained for millennia. My modern twist on the system was to interject democracy into the system, the ruling class were restrained from over exploiting the serfs or imposing rules the populace wouldn’t accept through a democratic system, which I dubbed at the time the ‘Council of the Elders’.

These ancient Kingdoms perhaps had a tendency to expand, and in doing so become more efficient and offered greater protection to more organised bands of raiders. This perhaps led to the idea of establishing supranational entities for beneficial cooperation to be even more efficient, to have a Kingdom of the Britons. What happened was that the English/ Anglo-Saxons established a King of England first, who over, arguably, the more exciting  bits of history (Battles, court intrigue, which religion should we have debates etc) expanded influence to eventually create the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland (the UK), a modern nation state.

Historically the nation state is a fairly recent development in human history and is perhaps one whose time is passing. If the primary purpose is to protect populations from raiders, maintain the rule of law and share the advantages of scale, then it seems the nation state truly is in decline.

Modern raiders, or wars between nation states are now rare, so there is no need for nation states. Indeed the raiders now are the jihadist terrorists, who plot to destabilise nation states and use tactics that nation states struggle to counter but for no financial gain. Indeed the systems nation states established to counter terrorism reduce the freedoms of the subjects that nation states were able to protect.

Law is now global. We live in world of trade agreements and mega corporations who effectively set the rules or lack of them, rather than democratic or aristocratic bodies.

In the Uk the benefits of cooperation are no longer shared, living standards are in decline and the global rich, no longer attached to the land, just keep taking more of the pie.

The establishment, the modern day aristocracy, who have been kept in luxury by the nation state system is under threat: international trade agreements, jihadist terrorism and the end of the era of economic growth as the challenges of climate change and over-population prevent further economic growth, so they just seem to be asset stripping nations all the harder like there is no tomorrow.

Instead of the nation state investing in its poorer regions, such as Wales and ‘Yr Hen Gogledd’ (The Old North / Northern England), to deliver  growth and rise everyones living standards. In the UK, in recent decades we have seen the  UK establishment class asset strip the country for the gain of their group, rather than invest for the future. The nation state of the UK has lost it’s coherence, if it ever truly had it, where wealthier regions subsidise the development of poorer regions. Successful federal nation states, which maintain coherence and identity across the regions through regional governments, such as in Germany or the United States. I get the impression that those people much more comfortably identify as Germans or Americans, whilst we in Britian are more ‘I suppose I am British but…’. The UK has never really done this nation state building, being more obsessed with the development of Empire, power has always been centralised in central London and the regions plundered for their resources, coal, cheap labour and soldiers. Now the coal industry has died nations such as Wales have never received the investment it has needed to grow it’s economy to develop away from the old heavy industries. Wales has lacked the confidence to say, this really isn’t fair, the UK isn’t working for us, we’d be better off managing ourselves.

The answer seems to be more local accountability, to find solutions for local problems locally and not be subservient to protectors who no longer provide protection, rules that work or economic growth that is shared.

I have often encountered critiques of devolution, who argue reductively that eventually everyone is a king of their own tiny private kingdom. This position misses the whole point of bottom up democracy. Deciding where decisions should be made isn’t a case of always smaller, it’s finding the right size. The right size is where there is an optimum balance between the advantages of pooling resources for efficiency and retaining local accountability. An ‘area the size of Wales’ with our population of just over three million people may be the right size, because Wales’ leaders can’t get too removed from the people, it is possible if you want to to speak with members of the Welsh government and make your point and if they don’t listen to reasoned argument you should be able to vote them out of office, but our current electoral system doesn’t quite work. As long as you have democratic systems that allow power to be moved up and down, to and from regions then the best balance will be achieved and those decisions need to be made at a regional level. Statically leaving power at one level is not sustainable. It may be that recreating the Kingdoms of Dyfed and Monmouth is the right level for law making. Democracy should be about a fluidity of decisions that remains accountable to the smallest area. For example: My bit of Wales ( King Squimple I) – my region of Wales – Wales – Britain – Western Europe – Europe – The World government.

It has been a week where I’ve been catching up on Welsh history and reading about the grievous attacks on democracy in Spain. In a world of instability it’s very disturbing that the Spanish government is raising troops to attack democracy in Catalonia. If a region wants autonomy, it should demonstrate it clearly (by holding a monitored referendum or suchlike) and then regain autonomy. So I condemn the Spanish government for its actions to defend the nation state against democracy. The democratic right to self-determination is what allows humanity to be free of tyranny and bad kings /rulers.

Wales also needs independence or something that will deliver democracy, protection and rule of law. So, there are many parallels between Wales and Catalonia, also an ancient Kingdom and has it’s own language and culture. However there seems to be a big difference between Wales and Catalonia. The economic argument doesn’t seem to apply in their case.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions in Spain, whilst Wales is one of the poorest in the UK. So the nation-state redistribution of wealth to poorer regions, such as Andalusia  is how things should be, to gain the economic efficiency across what is now Spain. I don’t think the independence movement in Andalusia is very strong, perhaps because it is respected and invested in by the Spanish state. I wouldn’t be advocating independence for Wales if was benefitting from being in the UK and being respected as a nation for our language and culture. I don’t know all that much about the situation in Catalonia, these things are often complex and there will always be many reasons for the people there deciding independence is in their interests, look elsewhere for more information,  maybe they are just being greedy in seeking independence but even so, a heavy handed approach from a central government just sends shivers down my spine. Self determination and democracy are too important to give up upon. The Spanish government should be welcoming democracy and the chance to point out how Catalonia benefits from being in the Spanish family of nations if that is the case. Then again we no longer seem to have mechanisms for making the best solutions clear, we no longer live in the age of reason, but one of petty media barons.

Maybe, maybe, the time is coming for Social Feudalism, for the ancient Kingdoms to rise again, but this time with democracy and accountability to the people who live on their lands.

yescymruEstelada Catalan flag | Catalan flag | Estelada flag ...

 

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Respectability

My parents and grandparents went to some lengths to instil in me the importance of respectability. This concept was one I struggled to understand when I was young and then realised wasn’t important as I got older. What I did learn was that it was important to my older family and the older generation and discovered through my friends  that our generation didn’t give respectability any real value. So what I learned was how to play the game of respectability to not upset older people.

I think my main objection to respectability was that it was so complicated and seemed to lack a coherence or a logically related set of premises, it seemed like a fairly random set of rules and thus required commitment to learn. Really respectability had been important for generations, bound up with the issue of class that bound society together for a long time. Respectability is about showing that you have learned this very complex set of rules. Hence it is showing that you have been educated. This was an important badge of respectability during a period when a large chunk of society didn’t receive any formal education. The older generation are very impressed when our generation wave around degrees or have letters after our names, when my generation isn’t at all.

Much of these complex rules were not just about respectability and education but also about our culture and it’s traditions. I think the older generation have been fearful of the way my generation unpicked all the traditions and worked out which ones had sense or useful purpose to them and which were remnants of things that had once been useful but no more. I think they feared we would lose our culture and sense of who we were.

I kind of get that fear, but the rules are so harsh that they hold a culture bound to arbitrary rules that actually inhibit cultural growth. What I mean is that you can spend so much time and energy following the rules that you lack  the time to realise why something is valuable.

To illustrate this idea by example. As a child I was taken to a music concert, great, but this involved such things as dressing in uncomfortable clothes that I wasn’t comfortable wearing, sitting still and receiving instructions on how to appear I was appreciating the music. So, being an anxious child, I felt obliged to follow all these bizarre rules to keep my parents and grandparents happy, so much so that i didn’t get to enjoy the music! It was only later that I was able to relax and open my ears and really start to appreciate what the musicians were doing. So I now look down on anyone who suggests there should be ‘dress codes’ at musical concerts, if you like dressing up, great, if it’s not your thing, that is just as cool. I personally, make a point of not dressing up at all as all music should be accessible to everyone, whatever helps you open your ears is what is of paramount importance.

The other issue my cohort had when growing up was that we realised that we were growing up in rural Wales. We could look back on our families tilling the land for generation after generation and for me that meant I was one whole generation away from the land and that tradition.My cohort have been realising that in European terms our local culture hadn’t undergone the rapid changes experienced by those who went to the large towns and cities, that we also needed to learn the new etiquette of a more globalised world, especially those of us who had lost the farming tradition.

For my generation the world isn’t one of knowing the arcane rules of respectability. Perhaps we are more interested in what things are valuable and useful and disparage those things which aren’t. In a way all this is is just a completely new set of rules of respectability, with the difference in that the rules relate to the world we know rather than old traditions.

We live in rapidly changing times. Rural Wales was late in awakening to industrialisation, so when my parents generation realised that they weren’t to continue the agricultural tradition, Europe was beginning to struggle with post industrialisation, we had missed out perhaps almost entirely on the industrial era, apart from tractors replacing horses. Tractors replacing horses was surely progress, saving so much time and not needing to grow crops to feed the horses. However these very changes meant that fewer people were needed to work the farm. Many farms became one or two man operations and the rest of the family had to go and find work elsewhere, which almost invariably meant moving away.

Until that is, broadband came, and the transport network got so congested that staying at home for administrative jobs started to become the best option. Furthermore the beginnings of the effects of climate change are starting to have real unignorable impacts and the era of cheap oil and indeed it’s tractors is coming to an end. Perhaps I am witnessing the end of that  flight to cities to find work and all in just one generation.

Welsh farmers have largely always looked down their noses at all the city people, sitting in offices not producing very much of any real use. They are largely right of course. Whilst they have been spending all their days proudly producing food for people to eat. After all owning land was the height of respectability. European history has always been about the those at top of society who own the land.

The thing is anyone can farm. Humanity for most of history has been made up of farmers. It was only during the industrial period when modern conveniences enabled rises in living standards that land, farmland, for a time lost it’s value, enabling a generation of farmers to finally own their own land. It can be viewed that they got lucky to have ended up with the the thing that meant respectability to the very last generation that valued respectability.

I grew up with the concept of ‘look smart and wear a collar and tie’. The dual meaning of smart of being educated and dressing well, is perhaps no accident as both meanings are really about respectability. There is some evidence of this word ‘smart’ flipping in meaning as the meaning of respectability changes. We now talk about being ‘street smart’ and making smart decisions. These newer meanings of smart are not about old respectability but more about being a useful individual and contributing to rather than exploiting society.

The great irony for me growing up of wearing of ties is that the people who wore ties all the time were and still are the big business executives and politicians who made decisions for their personal gain and failed to appreciate what the communities they effected needed. It seems to me that the wearing of a tie is a mark of the disrespectful. I grew up during the Miner’s strike, and the baddies were all wearing suits. I only wear them when etiquette and tradition demands though.

Anyone who analysis society realises that the things that respectability valued, such as land or education are largely acquired by luck or an odious obsession with garnering the facets of respectability through acting in a disrespectful way, such as the acquisition of land to be a rentier, rather than actively working the land. Somewhat paradoxically respectability regards those who are respectable by luck of being in the right family  in the right place much more highly, rather than those who have acquired respectability by behaving disrespectfully by the new generations definition. Perhaps because the mistakes of the previous generations of the powerful were more innocent and on a smaller scale than those made by those in power today.

So, whilst my generation watch as the old respectability does, we are witnessing the rise of a new one where what is regarded as respectable has flipped and  is utterly different and instead values being true to yourself and your community, rather than learning the rules to be someone different and of entering a sub-community. Where diversity and difference is at last valued and conformity isn’t. The interesting question now is whether or not respectability will flip again in a new direction with the next generation or whether we stop valuing people’s acquired traits at all. I’m sure if either of these two directions is more worthy than the other.

 

Welsh Country Rap

Moving back to Wales and finally getting around to learning the Welsh language has made me look again at my native culture in a new light. As a younger man I did wonder why so many people don’t have as ‘eclectic’ or wide ranging musical tastes as I do.

I grew up in rural Wales and like many rural cultures is deeply conservative and that is part of me. The culture promotes self-reliance, because services are usually far away and difficult to access. So there is a tendency to take personal responsibility for your daily needs. For example, I have ingrained the idea of keeping enough food in my kitchen to survive a week, in case of bad weather and inability to access food shops for a period (such as heavy snow or flooding). Rural folk tend to seek support from their family and neighbours should they hit trouble and wider statewide structures are seen as unreliable as they don’t cater for the specific needs of the community.

In contrast, the urban dweller tends to rely on easily accessible services, such as using public transport and tend not to have the space to have all their needs on hand, the need to pool and share resources more widely. Large towns and cities don’t get their electricity cut off for days or the internet going down for extended periods which rural people are more used to. The town person has to be more reliant on public services and hence strangers, than the country person. There is also the issue of space, the country person has more space and in consequence can store tools and supplies to an extent that the urban dweller cannot

Music is about cultures, in particular folk music, describing the trials and tribulations of life within cultures. There is a tendency of different genres of music  to be associated with different cultures. The example that comes to mind is that of Rap music being of the city and Country of the countryside.

I like all genres of music, but sometimes they don’t quite fit in with our surroundings. When listening to some Rap in the countryside it doesn’t fit, the beats do not chime with the wide open spaces, whereas Country does seem to blend in more with the landscape. However even if the music doesn’t fit it can still be enjoyed and appreciated. It is possible to enjoy a song about the hot summers day in the cold and damp of winter.

It’s not merely the music, it’s the lyrics, the words. Songs from rural areas are about life in the country and songs from the urban areas are about life in the town or from the perspective of the town. So, if you listen to a song from an artist from your own culture and locality, then there is a greater likelihood that the song will resonate with your own experience, to touch your soul in a profound way. However music from other cultures and traditions can still be enjoyed, indeed some feelings, such as emotional joy or loss are universal. However, some ways of viewing the world are culturally based, so resonate more deeply.

There is a tendency for people to predominantly listen to music from their own culture, certainly in the case of my parents and grandparents generation. I could never understand why people seemed not to be open to hearing about other cultures and different ways of  being. Perhaps a certain exercise of the imagination is required, to suspend reality to temporarily immerse yourself in another culture to appreciate what they are saying. Or it may simply be that the resonance with our own perspectives of the world, our own culture is such a warm, life-affirming feeling compared to that of the relatively weaker emotions of listening to songs from other places, that many people never make the leap to being able to really appreciate the music for what it is.

Furthermore in a conservative rural culture, that is more physically separated from interactions with other cultures in daily life and one that ascribes value to its own culture, the opportunities for such immersion are rarer. This, to such an extent that a concert by a visiting artist, may simply be an enjoyable experience but not be enough for the music to resonate in daily life.

Rural Wales is still much more limited in it’s exposure to other cultures than for more urban populations. Yet in my experience the rural conservatism of Wales is much more open minded, and less judgemental of other cultures, for example in comparison with the Southern United States, the home of Country music. There is an appreciation that things are different a few miles down the road and more so further afield, that we shouldn’t expect to be able to judge other cultures without understanding them better.

Perhaps the principle reasons for this difference between Welsh rural cultures and those found in England and America, may be due to their relation with the state they are a part of. British and American culture has sprung from the imperialist expansive culture of a world power. Such cultures where preservation of native cultures are not seen as of value or important. For example the scant regard of the British for the Welsh language and culture and historically a lack of respect for Native American culture by the American state.

Whereas Wales has lived beside the giant power of England for all of modern history, yet many in Wales have passionately defended Welsh culture and our language from the ignorance of lack of regard from the centralised British elite. As such there is a tendency for the people of Wales to understand the feelings of oppressed minorities everywhere, for example the people of the deprived projects of America that gave birth to Rap music. Or it may be just that Wales is small and minority groups within our culture are less easily ignored.

As both the power of influence of Britain and America decline, there is perhaps an understandable realisation of the perils of a culture under threat, particularly if it’s built on foundations of dominance. As such we see crises in these cultures and a desire to preserve them. Associated with this is a reduction in valuing cultural diversity as this suggests itself as a way to preserve a culture. We can see evidence for this in Brexit and the language of Donald Trump. These cultures are new to feeling their culture threatened, whereas in Wales we have a very long history of feeling our way of life threatened. You don’t get anywhere by being fearful of diversity or trying to escape your own culture, the best way is to embrace both, embracing who you are as a person and embracing everyone around you.

As I keep harking on, binary choices are a false choice. You can like Country music and Rap music, You can be a conservative and a socialist. Understanding other cultures only deepens your love and connection with your own culture, in music and perhaps everything else. My perception of people ignoring diversity, wasn’t a conscious choice, but merely a example of a the false tendency to fear the unknown, rather than find more out about it. To conserve a culture by defending it through fighting against other cultures doesn’t work. Conserving a culture comes from an appreciation of other cultures and using that energy to enrich and grow our own cultures. You

 

For some examples, listen to some: Welsh Rap, Dafydd Iwan’s anthem”Yma o hyd” [“Still here”], or even Welsh Country. Mwynhewch/ Enjoy.

 

Children’s telly, literature and Brexit

Britain is over a year after the Brexit vote. The rest of Europe appears to be looking on wondering what exactly it is that ‘Britain’ wants. I think that the answer is that we don’t know. The opinion polls over the past year have remained steadfastly around the 50:50 split on the Brexit question, no consensus has been reached, the British media is still awash with uncertainty and many variants of an answer to the Brexit question. The UK seems to have voted for Brexit with no idea about what to do with it. If there was a clear objective, that would be so different to the confused mess we seem to find ourselves in.

Looking back at the arguments for Brexit, they essentially pool around the idea of greater powers for the UK government to enable a reduction of net immigration. I am all for a decentralisation of political power, though I would argue that the UK is the wrong level for this, I argue for bottom-up democracy and more power for local councils and the Welsh government. However the Brexit debate wasn’t really about this dry constitutional stuff. The emotional side of it and much of the rhetoric of the Brexiteers centred around the idea of British sovereignty, to restore a sense of Britishness.

Which is just plain strange. I am British, born and raised, but being British is only a small part of my identity. I just don’t see the point of trying to expand/ restore the prominence of this identity it once had. The identities of the people of Britain are many, varied and complex, so it isn’t clear exactly what this Britishness we are perhaps supposed to support is.

Many associate Britishness with the British Empire period. The period of history where Britain went around trying to control as much of the world as possible, mainly to create markets for British goods and services, to provide ever increasing wealth for the elite. Some good but a lot of harm was produced though this imperialist period. It is now history and is not going to be replicated anytime soon  and it isn’t anything to feel particularly proud of anyway.

Is it the sense of unity, of a united nation of the British people that had suffered together and won after the UK was dragged reluctantly into the two world wars of the last century. Ever since 1945, the forces unifying the country have been in decline. I can quite understand people wishing to restore the sense of a country working together in common cause again. However, it is difficult to see what exactly this common purpose would be. Politically the UK is a very divided society, it is just very hard indeed to imagine unity for common positive purpose.

Or is it just to be British and increase the common bonds between the peoples of these isles? What I have noticed as I have grown up in Britain is that so many of the common cultural ties have been steadily eroded. Partly this was the result of Thatcherite government and the whole concept of ‘there is no such thing as society’; if there is no society that what is being British and supportive of the state? Bizarrely it has seemed as though it has been the Conservatives who most want to restore this sense of Britishness, yet their party has been the one that has allowed this force to decline, through a promotion of market fundamentalism and corporate power running riot over local needs. This is what makes the Brexit debate so very strange to me.

It is only really possible to truly understand your cultural identity when you go away from home, to experience other cultures, where you begin to appreciate some of the peculiarities of your native culture. you discover exactly what are the common bonds between the British.

One of the first things I noticed was that I was more Welsh than British, that I come from a community that cares more about preserving traditions and culture than a typical British person. I am from a genuinely conservative culture. Yet it is meeting other Britons abroad that is the real eye-opener. You realise that you share a hiraeth, a homesickness and start yearning for some quintessentially British things. These British things are quite traditional, but in themselves are mere nostalgia, things such as tackily British brands of sweets and chocolate, ale, proper cider, tea, greasy curries, cake and other foods. Then while seeking these things with a fellow Briton abroad, you end up discussing the children’s television programmes of our youth. Yet apart from childhood comfort food and comfort television, what else is there, that is British?

As an adult, there doesn’t seem to be as much that is shared in common. Delving deeper, I begin a hiraeth for Welsh culture when away from Wales, and I can only share that with Welsh people and it connects me with my roots. I wonder if the millennial generation, who are much more fervently against Brexit than my generation is, perhaps have an even weaker sense of Britishness than my generation of Generation X has.

Arguably children’s television has become more international, less focused on British cultures. Whilst there may be a shared nostalgia, there is little specifically of British culture in it. I grew up with such programmes as the Trumptonshire series and Bagpuss, which took their cultural references from Britain and a culture that was in itself nostalgic, of a culture under attack from government policy, (after all Half Man Half Biscuit wrote a punk song about it, the ‘Trumpton Riots’ !). Yet such programmes gave a snapshot into the essence of the country, albeit a middle class one as if you help children learn about their culture. This seems much less in today’s children’s television, no sense of what Britishness is espoused.

Sweets have changed too, there seem to be fewer uniquely British varieties of sweets available. So, really what common British culture do the millennial generation have? Perhaps it is because everything has to have appeal to international markets, that exposition of the native culture is over-ridden. There just seems s little left of a common British culture.

I have always believed that it is important to understand and support your own culture. In Wales we have this preserving tradition bug with our language, our music. Yet I also feel an urge to experience other cultures, to listen to other musics. I prefer folk music to the more sanitised global music brands. Today, I was listening to the wonderful Canadian folk song ‘Blackfly’ this led to an exploration of other Canadian folk songs, which was wonderful, I get the songs despite not having been lucky enough to visit Canada. I believe that to appreciate other cultures you also need to understand and appreciate your own culture too [I discovered this guy, from my area of my country at the weekend, I just get his songs so much]. I suppose I grew up being taught both the value of preserving traditions whilst being open to other cultures and new ideas.

In appreciating literature something similar happens. You learn to read, usually with stories about your own culture and then open up with experience to the huge breadth of international literature. I really got this with Science Fiction being my favourite genre. In Science Fiction the very basis of the genre is to speculate and imagine living in different cultures and indeed different kinds of society.

So, recently it has been strange to revert to learning to read books again in another language, Welsh. There is a literary tradition in Wales and books continue to be published in Welsh. It’s fascinating to learn to read again, but also interesting because there are so many fewer professional writers in Welsh compared to English! There is no Welsh language Science Fiction for me to read. So I read books in genres I wouldn’t normally read in English, which is exposing me to new ideas on literature, which is fascinating and helps me appreciate literature in English more too.

I seem to be the anti-thesis of the Brexiteer, the person arguing for more of a British identity. I think cherishing native culture is important and being open to understanding and supporting other cultures, other traditions too. The Brexiteers seem to be a group that value a single narrow definition of Britishness, be against any other culture and want people to conform to their narrow view, including native British cultures. I don’t really get it, it just doesn’t seem British to me.

 

Being British

I survived and indeed thrived in a week doing everything in the Welsh language. Dw i’n wedi blino iawn ac mae fy ymynedd wedi toddi [I am really tired and my brain melted]. The most amazing thing was I now know that it is possible to live in another language, which is incredible for someone who was monolingual for so long. More on this nes ymlaen [later on]. Sorry I’m still thinking of saying things in Welsh before the English! It was also lovely to spend a week away from the UK general election and finally get around to visiting some of Edward I’s castles in North Wales.

Disturbingly, the first thing I noted was an opinion poll putting the Tories on 40%. Huh? . This just makes me feel so sad after a week in a really positive community. Have people really forgot what being Welsh and/or British is?

You don’t really know your connection to your country until you live away from it for some time. Long enough to pine for the things you love about your home. Most of the time it is just the native sweets and chocolate that aren’t available worldwide, but it’s also other things like: church bells, proper chips, cask ale and cider, the incredible naffness of the screech of the wheels of a Pacer train going around a corner, Indian restaurants, the National Health Service, the 2p games at the seaside, afternoon tea, BBC Radio,  the bizarre but lovable traditions that have been maintained and the general sense of what somehow holds British communities together.

Yet, all these cool things about Britain are under threat, not by immigration, not by the EU, but by this continued obsession with right wing corporatist government, placing the interests of a wealthy minority above everyone and everything else. I do think that the vote for Brexit was simply an expression of the frustration of losing the things we love and a sense of helplessness about it which found expression with Brexit. But why oh why oh why are people turning to the Tories, the very people who caused the losses and the people who continue to perpetuate them?

Wales is different to the rest of Great Britain, which is made up of so many diverse communities, but we have so much in common. I am Welsh and Wales has it’s own history and peculiarities, yet so does England and Scotland. We should not get bogged down by what is different, but simply celebrate our diversity and enjoy living amongst so many communities in such a rich and varied island. We should never accept a single definition of beimg British.that there is only one way of being, one economy to prioritise or only one language we should use.

It is time for the people of Wales and the rest of Britian to just wake up and look around at what is happening to our society, to be Indy Curious and seriously think about autonomy for Wales, to be open to new possibilities. Why stick with the Tories? You don’t keep taking things out of communities to give to those already wealthy and put nothing back into the communities that generated the wealth: closing schools, closing hospitals and community groups struggling for resources are signs of failure, not signs of success. To use a farming analogy, you don’t keep growing crops out of a field and put nothing back into the soil and then wonder why your yields get worse every year, you nurture the soil, you put fertilisers back into the soil, you put back into the soil what it needs to enable it to produce food. It’s exactly the same thing with communities, you plough back in investment, you improve services for the future, to enable those communities and their economies to thrive. This is what Wales badly needs as do communities all across Wales, Britain and indeed the whole world.

Yet, Theresa May rabbits on how much she says she cares about unity and the United Kingdom, when in reality her policies will continue to cause harm to the things she claims to care about and then has the gall to attack those groups who are fighting for their communities.

To advocate an independent Wales is not about seeking separation or  being somehow anti-English. I seek autonomy for Wales because what Wales needs is simply not being provided by UK government and there is nothing to suggest that this will change anytime soon. I love Wales and I love Britain. I want Wales to be able to look after itself to survive and thrive, just as I want other communities in Britain to thrive. With autonomy Wales would be empowered to work together with communities across Britain, to share ideas and re-build British communities. Seeking Welsh independence is the most pro-British thing that there is. I want every community to succeed and to achieve that means helping your own community first. Supporting the Conservative party is about division, taking away power from communities and giving it to the rich multinationals. There is nothing wrong with large corporations, but they just have an unfair advantage at the moment. A large supermarket chain can force out local butchers and other local businesses, whom are often more efficient than the big corporations.

So, lets wake up Wales and the rest of Britain, let’s take on the spirit of Owain Glyndwr, who rose up against the oppression British communities by the English establishment. It’s time to really take back control and stop voting for this lot of corrupt Tories. It’s time to work together to preserve the traditions of Britain and embrace the future with open hearts.

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The Flag of Glyndwr

Binary School

Some people get the whole being smart and wearing a shirt and a tie thing and some people don’t. I am one of those who don’t. The best answer I was ever given was that on relevant occasions you should wear a collar and tie for the people who do get it and think it’s important and these people were family, so I learnt the times when it was expected, when you had to.

The other night I was listening to a radio discussion about the old chestnut of school uniforms. What was interesting was that instead of an advocate of no school uniform against  an advocate of school uniform, one of the protagonists argued for a balanced position, the other for strict uniform.

There is very much a middle position on this, a sensible compromise, so i was very much on the side of the gentlemen who argued for the  middle way. The most practical argument for school uniform is that it is cheap for parents to kit out their children in a school uniform. However there are educational arguments too. On the one hand it teaches that there are occasions when you represent an organisation other than yourself that you are required to dress in a particular way. On the other hand it helps children develop style, by which the child can make decisions on how to wear the uniform, which usually involves some rakish way of wearing the tie.

The gentlemen arguing for strict school uniform argued for no adornment, no jewelry, which seems overly harsh. When I was at school you were allowed one earring per ear, one neck adornment and one bracelet per wrist. Many children at my school wanted to wear more than this, but that there was a compromise, enabled compromise. It allows experimentation with style without the onus to take things to an extreme position.

I very rarely wear a suit, but I do see men who do wear suits stylishly. These gentlemen have a tendency to be Italian, it is indeed rare for me to see people in this country pull off a suit well, yet people seem to persist. I always imagined that this suit wearing thing was just old-fashioned and by the time my generation had grown up, the practice would have fallen by the wayside, but it hasn’t. Enough people still expect people to dress a certain way. Really it takes some effort to get away from these stereotypes. For example I have a bright yellow high-vis coat. Whenever I wear it, I can almost disappear in a crowd, I become unnoticed, I’m assumed to be working. rather than being myself.

Yet there continues to be a dark side to all of this. Particularly women for whom the rules are so much more complex, especially if they are in a public facing role. There have been cases of women being asked to go out and buy high heels for roles that involve traipsing up and down stairs. I have been in a situation where a female host was escorting me in high heels, which is daft and I just felt really uncomfortable.

I get the idea that when you are working you are not supposed to be stylish or express yourself. You are there to be the organisation you are working with, so you wear the uniform to blend into the background, so your personality doesn’t distract from what you are doing. However does this really have any meaning in most modern organisations, as surely we are usually trying to attract peoples interest, to be novel rather than bland?

The middle way is interesting, as those with a developed sense of style seem to have a lot of fun, like children with school uniform of doing just enough to blend in and just enough to stand out. These are the skills that a moderate school uniform helps develop. I at least get school uniform now. I am coming around to the idea that style in clothing and fashion in general is about this finding a reaction to recent past styles, to conform to where things are whilst expressing a difference in a new direction. After all being able to express yourself is important for your own well-being. The difficulty with style is that there are those few who are naturally really thoughtful about it and have a well developed sense of style , whilst people like me blunder around shops wondering how on earth to replace my tatty old garments. You have to wear clothes, it’s too cold most of the time, so having some sort of style is unavoidable and people will make judgements about how you look. So, it is really important that as a society we do what we can to help young people explore this and school uniform does seem the best way of doing it.

A Sense of Achievement

Towards the end of the year, many people, like myself, reflect on the year that is drawing to it’s close. Often a question asked is what has been achieved?

Conducting this reflection myself I feel I have made substantial progress on the projects I set myself in three areas.

Firstly I had the aim to learn to speak Welsh properly. Whilst I am still a long way off fluency I have passed many milestones and have some competency of the language and feel it is a part of me now.

Secondly, I wanted to make progress in learning and practicing social skills, now that i had overcome anxiety, again i feel I have made substantial progress.

The third thing, was trying to understand why people support right-wing ideas. Whilst a somewhat vague aim, I think I have progressed here too.

I do feel a sense of achievement, a warm fuzzy glow from the realisation that I have exceeded my own expectations. Really, perhaps the main reason why as animals we do things is simply to enjoy these positive feelings.

Another thing people do at the end of the year, is travel home or spend time with their families and do different things, such as watch live TV, which I no longer normally do.

On the telly recently I watched a really interesting documentary about the Waorani tribe in Ecuador. This tribe live in the rainforests of Ecuador, living a basic existence by Western standards. One of the striking things was that the people generally seemed happier than people in Western countries. I wondered what it was that made life somehow better there. Indeed, I experienced this myself when I lived for 3 months in a camp in the forests of Madagascar, a time I was much happier than at home. I think the reason is a lot more than simply living more naturally in some wonderful forest.

It is perhaps to do with this sense of achievement. As humans we essentially do two types of thing. One type of thing is what we have to do to survive (secure food, water and shelter) and things we can do once the survival stuff is done. The non-essential things may involve home improvements, finding way of making our work easier and more efficient and other projects to feel good about being alive, to achieve this sense of achievement, sometimes this sense is heightened when what we have achieved has no effect on surviving, it is done for the pure thrill of doing it.

This men of this Woarani tribe have a ritual where they go out and catch Giant Anacondas. I can understand this, as I loved catching snakes, whilst I was in Madagascar. In the film, the men and indeed the presenter were clearly showing that they felt this sense of achievement. The question then is there a difference in the Woarani experience and Western society?

For the forest tribe, it is clear, where the lines between surviving, improving and fun are, even if many of the things they do combine these elements. It’s the same thing here in Wales, we do a similar mixture of activities, however the lines are not so clear. For example, we play computer games and gain a sense of achievement for finishing a level. Indeed games are designed to give you this sense of achievement. However, at Christmas, a family tradition is to play board games. Arguably this is more fun because it involves the social interactions with other people and in particular people you share long term relationships with.

I know from my experiences in Madagascar that a large part of my own sense of achievement sprang from living in a sealed community of a small number people, where almost all our social interactions were with each other. We were living and working together, suffering problems together, like a tropical monsoon and the river flooding and also sharing our successes. We were emotionally in the same place, most of the time. I imagine life for the Waorani is similar to this. The positivity of the shared success was bolstered because we believed that we were doing something useful. Even though some other people would argue that what we were doing wasn’t useful. The important thing is that we believed in it.

When we play a video game, or go shopping, we do enjoy some sense of achievement. However, this is often not a huge sense as we kind of know that we are not doing anything that benefits anyone else, or indeed ourselves very much. Incidentally, we perhaps enjoy Christmas shopping more as we are doing it for the people we are buying presents for. We don’t really have this big sense of having achieved anything really useful. I believe that doing something useful is a very important part of doing things in general.

I feel a sense of achievement in learning Welsh, not only as a personal accomplishment, but also because I can now contribute to the Welsh speaking community. Similarly with overcoming anxiety, I can now be more helpful to others. Also the same with understanding the right, I feel I can contribute to discussions more usefully when discussing politics. Simply having this sense of usefulness beyond a personal satisfaction is what makes  the sense of achievement feel so much bigger, so much wider.

I often write on this blog about how as a society in Britain, we are not doing well because there is a sense that all our achievements are artificial. It’s a modern curse really,there is rarely a clear link between what we do and a positive outcome. Perhaps too many of our achievements are not useful, not large, not important and this is part of the problem in our society.

The other big change that happened to me this year was taking on what people describe as my first “proper” job. It has been a really fascinating journey so far. I’ve made decisions in my role that have increased the income of the organisation that I work for. It is an organisation that I believe is doing useful things. So I should feel a big sense of achievement. However I only feel the smaller sense, like in a video game, where I receive satisfaction of getting tasks done quickly and finding more efficient ways of doing things. There is a sense that what i do isn’t real, isn’t palpable. I’m not doing my own projects, I’m doing someone elses and I am but a tiny cog in the organisation. I think this disconnect, where the good things resulting from your actions are felt distantly, elsewhere. This sense of an alienation from results affects most modern jobs, especially in offices. In contrast, when i have been doing science and solve a problem or get real results from an experiment i got the big proper sense of achievement. Whilst I am grateful to have a job and be earning a little money above basic need, I feel I should really be getting back to science as soon as I can, even if that means a smaller income.

I think we all want to have moments of feeling a real sense of achievement and it is often better to do those things within our community, with people we interrelate with and share a commonality.

So, this is what I don’t get about, the right and the whole Brexit thing. Across the spectrum of mainstream political thought, is the idea, that most of us relate to, is the idea that we should all contribute to our community, our society. In particular those with more resources should help those who are less able. Like how in the Woarani tribe, when the young men go out to hunt and the old stay in the village to look after the children, similarly we should all have roles in our communities. The right-wing idea that the market, or individual people and organisations should fulfill these roles, by creating wealth, that is then spent charitably, rather than the state is completely understandable, it is one way of getting to this good society that the Western world has struggled to achieve. However, the modern political right in the UK have abandoned the whole community idea, instead to serve a subset of society, or people like ‘us’, people who are conservatives. I just don’t get this and it makes me angry, it’s just so divisive and pits sections of our society against each other, when we should all be working for the good of our communities. I don’t understand why right wing people are not more angry with ‘their’ politicians for dividing society. How can you gain a sense of achievement from making things worse, it’s below the neutrality of a video game, it should be guilt. It is simply harder to gain a full sense of achievement when all you are doing is making a worsening situation just that little bit less bad.

I appreciate that we don’t live in local communities anymore, that we live in our various globally connected niches. However, local communities, where at least geography is shared is so important. It’s why I associate with the Welsh, simply as the people who live in Wales, rather than some weird racial/ religious identity. I think as humanity, we lose a sense of community at our peril. A sense of achievement is greater than hatred of another lot of people.

The bitter aftertaste of the Olympics

I really enjoyed the Olympics, I focussed on watching the amazing sport on offer and basked in the warm glow of the success of fellow Britons. However the circumstances of this success has left a bitter aftertaste as what happened wasn’t somehow really British.

TeamGB achieved success by being well-funded and organised, allowing teams of athletes to focus on analysis and incremental improvements in performance. This is great but, hang on, ‘organised’?, well-funded’?? is simply not how the British do things old boy. This support of elite sport is in the context of drastic cuts in grass roots sport, funding cut for municipal sport facilities, slashing in funding for sport in schools, selling over of playing fields for awful developments. I think most people would rather have great facilities than watching some athletes achieve success on the other side of the world. Also, it just feels like we cheated by funding athletes better than other countries.

The funding for TeamGB comes from the National Lottery. The National Lottery is essentially a tax on the poor. It provides hope of a big windfall so people can afford a house and escape poverty, but half of the money paid in goes to ‘good causes’ such as supporting elite sport. Something similar happened when The UK hosted the games in 2012, public funding in deprived areas was cut, to release money to develop facilities in London, which is the wealthiest part of the UK. This happened in Brasil too, a poor country, lumbered with paying for the games for a poor return on facilities for the city of Rio, and they couldn’t even make cheap tickets available for the locals, leading to empty stadia, much better to take the money of a few rich tourists.

Don’t get me wrong, funding of elite sportspeople isn’t wrong, they can be an inspiration for participation in sport generally and dedication to the following of dreams. However when it is the only thing that the UK does really well, it leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Then there was the media coverage, some of  which was horribly nationalistic. I watched the coverage of events on the extra channels provided by the BBC, however the main BBC1 coverage, seemed to obsess over the UK athletes, to the detriment of a comprehensive coverage of the games, also simply not British, we’re supposed to apologise for success. I do expect some focus on the home athletes, but it was a bit much. Then there was the repeated coverage of the ‘Medal Table’ documenting, which countries have the most medals. Yes, it’s nice to see that TeamGB managed to finish with the second highest medal tally, historic even. However the medal table for me is rather nationalistic for what should be a friendly games. I grew up with the medal table being a battle between the two evil giants of  the USA and CCCP. Years of drugs scandals, led the establishment of the idea that medal table success was not a proxy for a nations success, but a representation of a sinister side of nationalism. Jade Jones, the Welsh gold medallist in the Taekwondo, was rapped, for breaking protocol and running with the Welsh flag and the Union Jack, when the rule was only to carry the Union flag (which still doesn’t represent Wales). How easily the cosy togetherness of Britain can break down. I know there is no law for the official flag, but in the stadiums there seemed a lot of UK flags with a light blue background, not the proper dark blue of the Saltire. Well OK, we’re British, we’re just not very good at being united in anything.

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Really, the Union flag hasn’t changed in two hundred years. Isn’t it about time Wales was represented properly. Adding the yellow  cross of St David to the flag can be so simple and as you can see, doesn’t have to really change the aesthetic of the flag. There is nothing stopping anyway making this flag and using it to represent the UK.

I think the issue is that Olympics is not representing the best of humanity, not simply being a vehicle for demonstrating what wonderful things human bodies are capable of. Instead, it represents what you can do with power and money taken away from ordinary people and this is just very very sad.