In the dozen or so years since I came to live and work, and bring up my Welsh-speaking (sort of) children here, I have met many lovely, warm and welcoming people. Then I have met the others. Mostly natives of the small town of Aberystwyth, where it seems that, despite the wide, ever-changing vista of the Irish Sea, or perhaps because of it, there is insufficient room to breed larger minds. Unlike their South Walean cousins, certain Aberonians give microcephalic definition to the word ‘provincial’.
If it’s not to do with the obtuse and unhelpful attitude of the local shopkeepers, it’s the aggressive mentality of householders who imagine they own the very streets which others, too, have to live on. The ones who put furtive, misspelled notes under your wipers, moaning that (you have parked on a public road) no-one can get past your car, which you have thoughtfully half-buried in the hedge in order to leave enough space to let even one of those ubiquitous mobile homes on a trailer get by, or parked thirty yards from the junction around which the note-placer claims he cannot safely manoeuvre. The one who moans that you are blocking his driveway, when your back-end is three yards past the turning (only because he likes to park his van there himself – he has a large turning area in front of his garage but doesn’t use it). And who then spitefully parks the van right up your exhaust, across his own driveway, so that you cannot get away in the morning. The other one, who parks his several vehicles on the road tantalisingly as far apart as not quite a car’s length, seemingly to prevent any of his neighbours from polluting the public spaces opposite his house, when he has a private driveway of his own that has never seen a parked car.
These hateful people are operating in permanent grudge mode, having perhaps once long ago been given some justification for their annoyance, that they have brooded over for decades, which now re-activates their moaning circuitry and heightened sense of territorial possession whenever the opportunity arises. This feeling of deep grievance is, I’m afraid, compounded by the notoriously large chip some Welsh people still wear on their shoulder, concerning the centuries-old relationship with their English neighbours; and their unfocussed longing for a dim-and-distant Neverland, ‘hiraeth’. The mere sound of an English accent (doesn’t matter which one) causes a chemical imbalance one dares not name as racism. I speak to people of other nationalities: Spanish, Poles, Germans, even black people, none of whom experiences the same fear and loathing simmering in the bible-black depths of the Welsh soul for the old enemy. Hundreds may arrive every day: the English are still the only immigrants they actually notice.*
I vividly recall the night, five years ago, when, in a rush to get to choir, I omitted to pull the handbrake on. My car rolled gently backwards three feet downhill into the copious bumper of the Volvo behind, and I didn’t see it happen. I wasn’t there. No damage at all was done. When I got back, a drunken, baying mob disgorged itself from the nearby pub, their leader raving that I had parked so close to the Volvo that people in wheelchairs couldn’t get between the cars! Having tried in vain to explain that I had not deliberately parked thus, and seeing no sign of anyone actively struggling with a wheelchair, who could not have gone round the obstruction, or simply used the pavement provided, I drove off shaking, with the Welsh pack still yelling and jeering after me. The discomfited cripples gambit was just the Welshman’s way, however absurd, of gaining the moral high ground. He always knows best, is always morally superior (even while being stubbornly illogical) and always has to have the last word. Except, of course, when he is arguing with his wife, a swollen termagent who is, if possible, even more rebarbative, pugnacious and self-defensively priggish than he is.
And then there are the Aberonian shopkeepers, of either nationality, whose attitude towards their customers is indescribable. I was once thrown out of a shop when I told the proprietor I didn’t appreciate his off-colour jokes and would he please just concentrate on serving me? And out of another, for daring to return some faulty goods and asking the shopkeeper if he might kindly replace them? Of course, I denied his accusation that I had broken the goods myself, on purpose. It did not occur to him to wonder why anyone might do that, having spent good money on them in the first place, and not ask for a refund? Perhaps my language did become a little colourful, language issues being so sensitive. And then there was the waitress behind the counter in the greasy spoon cafe on the promenade one lunchtime who, when asked for ‘bacon, egg and sausage, please’ by the unsuspecting tourist in front of me, snapped back definitively: ‘We don’t serve eggs after twelve o’clock’… Ah, Aberystwyth. The wartime economy.
I am sad at the thought of shortly leaving, yet so immensely happy. Conflicting emotions roil within. Such a lovely place. Such annoying people. That liberated feeling whenever one escapes from this tiny, repressed islet of blinkered, self-righteous, argumentative, provincial dullards striving to get one up, to put one over, to kick the drop-goal past everyone else, is palpable. (To leave Britain’s shores altogether, indeed, usually makes one’s heartstrings positively zing…) I shall especially not miss the purveyors of phoney invoices; those local tradesmen who, incapable of earning an honest living, simply invent debts they can aggressively pursue against anyone they think has any money.
But there are many others who can have my forwarding address, if they want it.
It is April 2015. The General Election is a month away, and my local paper is carrying a front-page story, second lead, about the local candidate for Plaid Cymru – the moderately nationalist, socialist party here in Wales. He has apparently called the English community in Wales ‘Nazis’. This is actually a reversal of the facts: Plaid Cymru is both nationalist, and socialist. Geddit? And if Welsh people in England encountered the same degree of 800-year-old hostility and discrimination in a country run by such inept, corrupt and dimly illuminated bulbs as we English do here, they would probably protest loudly. As it is, we don’t dare. Disrespecting the Welsh culture is a grave offence.