Friday, 4 September 2009

Welsh Icons

The nice folks at, a website where Welshness abounds, recently asked me to discuss my own personal Welsh icons for their blog. The following is a reproduction of the resulting article:

I can recall my father stopping the car during a holiday in Dorset when I was about 10 years old to point out the spot where T. E. Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident. An extraordinarily complex man, Lawrence was lauded as a hero for his leadership of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire but was condemned by some as a charlatan and a sadist. Having blazed his way to glory in the Arabian Desert, he sought anonymity in the RAF under a succession of assumed names. I wouldn’t have known he was born in Tremadog were it not for Welsh Icons.

Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia, my favourite film, was the best of an exceptional career. But if I were forced to remake it, I’d cast Rhys Ifans in the part without a moment’s hesitation. He may have been involved in a few stinkers, such as Rancid Aluminium, The 51st State (Formula 51 in the USA) and the Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio in the USA) but given a character with as complex a personality as his own, such as Peter Cook in Not Only But Also, or Bernard in A Number, or Jed in Enduring Love and Rhys is revealed to be one of the finest actors of his generation.

For some reason, Welsh Icons makes a point of “not condoning the actions of the Free Wales Army” before giving the ‘Byddin’ a detailed listing in the Welsh Info section. Yet the Famous Welsh section is incomplete without an entry for its Commandant, Julian Cayo Evans.

You don’t have to be a nationalist – I’m a ‘rationalist’ myself - to appreciate that the legend surrounding Cayo almost matches that of Owain Glyndwr, another Welsh rebel who was brought down by the English establishment.

The F.W.A. was not a terrorist organisation; its handful of volunteers openly wore paramilitary uniform and rather than terrorise the populace, with the exception of the policemen and politicians it made look inept, it simply exploited the media’s propensity to sensationalism to try to subvert the establishment. No matter how outlandish an F.W.A. claim - from the thousands of trained volunteers waiting in the hills for the signal to attack to the arms cache supplied by the I.R.A. to the pack of kamikaze dogs trained to let off bombs under tanks – Fleet Street journalists gleefully reported it all as if it were fact. Lazy journalists – let’s accept that many don’t have time to check the facts - repeat the same stuff today.

The F.W.A. lost, obviously, at great personal cost to Cayo, his co-commandant, Dennis Coslett, co-conspirator Keith Griffiths and their families. The Labour government of the day used the Public Order Act, the equivalent of today’s anti-terrorism laws, to get them out of the way so that the establishment could bolster its dominion over the Welsh people by Investing Charles as Prince of Wales in Caernarfon. The same journalists who had courted the F.W.A. to boost their own careers and sell their newspapers were the key witnesses for the Crown.

Cayo was educated at Millfield public school where Robert Bolt, the great English playwright who wrote the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, taught him English and History. A complex character, not unlike Lawrence, Cayo was more comfortable in the company of gypsy horse traders and working men than with people of his own socio-economic class. And whilst many of his contemporaries were strumming guitars in rock bands, Cayo preferred to play Irish rebel songs on the accordion.

Rhys Ifans would tell you I’m talking bollocks. We recently had a beery debate about the place the F.W.A. occupies in Welsh history and the role it played in Plaid Cymru becoming part of the establishment, which Rhys concluded by pointing a grubby fingernail at Rhys Mwyn across the table shouting, “He’s done more for Wales than the Free Wales Army ever did.

The extraordinary contribution Rhys Mwyn has made to Welsh music ought to be more widely acknowledged. During the 1980s and early 1990s, he played bass with Anhrefn, the seminal Welsh language punk band championed by the late great John Peel. The band toured Europe constantly with a manifesto to take Welsh language rock music as far as it would go.

During the 1980s, Rhys also ran Recordiau Anhrefn, releasing early recordings by Cyrff, Datblygu, Llwybr Llaethog (the band name I most like to say out loud, repeatedly, to the point of being annoying), Fflaps, Tynal Tywyll and others. He worked freelance with Dafydd Iwan at Crai, where he signed Catatonia, a band he also managed for a while.

Rhys eventually settled into management and making records through the resurrected Recordiau Anhrefn, mentoring and releasing a raft of outstanding artists from his Caernarfon stronghold. His ‘Outstanding Contribution to Welsh Music Award’ was recognised in the Radio Cymru Awards in 2002 and the Welsh Music Awards in 2003. I’m told his autobiography, Cam o’r Tywyllwch, published by Y Lolfa, is worth a read.

One of Recordiau Anhrefn’s more esoteric offerings is an album of accordion music and speech (in English) entitled The Marching Songs of The Free Wales Army by Julian Cayo Evans. It’s a fascinating record and worth a listen.

My writing partner, Paul Durden, is something of a Welsh Icon, having penned Twin Town, the biggest-grossing Welsh movie of all time especially on DVD (from which format he receives no royalties). Paul was the inspiration for Alexei Sayle’s Welsh former miner and aspiring scriptwriter character in The Strike, The Comic Strip’s satire of a Hollywood studio creating a warped, sensationalist account of a real British historical event, in this case the miner’s strike, in which Peter Richardson plays Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill and Jennifer Saunders plays Meryl Streep playing Mrs Scargill.

Thing is, does Paul qualify as a Welsh Icon? He’s lived most of his life in Wales, fair enough, but he’s actually from Salford. So far as I know, he doesn’t have so much as a Welsh grandparent. We’re currently working on a movie about the Free Wales Army.

From the Welsh Products section I’d choose Welsh water. Yes, I know it rains a lot, but in the longer term I think that might prove to be of great economic benefit to Wales in a way that it isn’t today.

The drowning of the Tryweryn valley in the 1960s to supply Welsh water to Liverpool displaced an entire community and provided the spark that led to the formation of the F.W.A. and to Plaid Cymru gaining its first toehold at Westminster with the election of Gwynfor Evans as MP for Carmarthen.

Liverpool decided to go for an Act of Parliament to build its dam so that it could compulsorily purchase the land and evict the inhabitants without having to consult anyone in Wales. Every Welsh MP either voted against the Act or abstained from voting – probably the only time in history when they all agreed on something - but the overwhelming majority of English MPs carried it.

The Red Dragonhood grew out of the anger I felt when I tried to understand who I was and where I came from. The history of Wales since Owain Glyndwr is less than glorious, the landscape being one of the few consolations. My T-shirt designs make use of Welsh iconography to make statements about what it means to me to be Welsh. But most of the traditional icons prove to be based on myth or English political propaganda.

A couple of years ago, to make a point about how such myths are created, I concocted a hoax suggesting Jimi Hendrix might have recorded a version of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in the week before he died. The media bought it. The story went around the world like wildfire. Within a week, Google searches were returning 190,000 pages on the subject and a friend called me from Nepal to tell me the story was on the back page of the Himalayan Times.

On St. David’s Day that year, the BBC Newsnight invited me onto Newsnight to reveal the fact that my mate John Ellis, the guitarist with The Vibrators and The Stranglers, a London by – I wrote the guitar chords down for him and he did the rest - had really recorded it. I never said it was Hendrix. People wanted it to be Hendrix.

I knew the BBC would reduce my eloquent speech about Welsh iconography to a matter of moments so I wore a T-shirt with a very large Prince of Wales’ Feathers on the front on which I had replaced the German motto ‘Ich Dien’ with the well known Welsh phrase ‘Twll Dîn Pob Sais’ (down with the English). 250 Welsh speakers complained! Paxo had to apologise the following evening, even though he clearly thought it was funny.

A few weeks later, an Essex sign writer who had a commission to produce a new sign for The Feathers pub in Westminster, did a Google image search for ‘Three Feathers’ and found my design. My version is clearer and easier to reproduce than Charles’s so he used mine. The sign was up for three days before a passing Welshman told them what it really said. Which supports the point I was originally trying to make.

Above all poets there is John Donne. I like the work of Dylan Thomas but, given the way I feel about Wales and my Welshness, my favourite Welsh poet is R. S. Thomas. He was frequently hard on his countrymen but his poetry expresses the Welsh condition brutally and beautifully with true compassion and understanding.

Much of Thomas’s work raises a question that is fundamental to the human condition: What is life for? Is it simply to consume more and more, diverting our consciousness with ever more elaborate entertainments and gadgetry, or is there a greater purpose?

I may have spent most of my life away from Wales but my heart belongs to the land of song. I can barely hold a note but I can belt out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau with the best of them. There can be no national anthem that is more beautiful. It always makes me cry.

On a related subject, I like the Stereophonics song As Long As We Beat the English, not because I think it’s a battle him as many seem to believe, but because it sums up the lack of ambition in Wales, something I am pledged to rectify with my commitment to Newid. I urge everyone who reads this to do the same.

Welsh food? I love Gower salt marsh lamb and laverbread with cockles and bacon. I love samphire from Ashton’s in Cardiff Market and Joe’s ice cream from Swansea and Gorwydd cheese from Llanddewi Brefi. My nain used to make wonderful Bara Brieth but I like Welsh Cakes better. Mind you, I’ve never found Welsh Cakes in Wales that are the equal of those I get at home, cooked by my half-Finnish, half-Pakistani, London-girl other half.



Paul Durden said...

My Mum was born and all that goes with it in Swansea so there. please do yourself a big favour and try to get things a little bit right. Paul Durden

Martin Wilding Davies said...

Please do yourself a big favour, Paul, and try to read the proofs I send you rather than telling me it's "fine" when apparently it's not. Then I might have a chance of getting things a little bit right, don't you think?