It’s the same old story. The London media has always ignored and neglected Wales. The Times is a classic example. It has a Scottish edition but never pays Wales the same attention. So I was not surprised to see the Welsh Senedd elections barely reported – and then badly – in today’s iPad edition of the paper. The Saturday news summary above ignores the fascinating and unexpected Senedd election results.
The story The Times did run (above) repeatedly referred to the Welsh Assembly – an institution that no longer exists. The country’s legislature is the Senedd – the Welsh Parliament.
Yet in its obsession with Hartlepool and Holyrood, the London media (with the honourable exception of the BBC and The Guardian) were missing a really significant story. The incumbent parties in government in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Westminster did well. Labour’s Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford has won plaudits across these islands for his calm leadership during the pandemic. The Senedd results showed that voters rewarded Labour for its steady hand on the tiller. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon looks to be close to an SNP majority. And, as the London media keep telling us, Boris Johnson has dealt a blow to Labour’s UK leader Keir Starmer by capturing another traditional Labour parliamentary seat in Hartlepool. But the story is rather more nuanced even in England.
On the eve of the Second World War, around 800,000 children were evacuated from big cities like London to the countryside to keep them safe from devastating bombing attacks. Many of the children had never been to the countryside.
This mass movement of the young has long been fertile ground for writers and dramatists. As a child growing up in Wales in the 1970s, I loved the BBC television adaptation of Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden’s novel about children evacuated to Wales. Years later, I watched it again with my then eight year old son, Owen. He was equally enthralled.
Lesley Parr has followed in Nina Bawden’s footsteps with a superb debut novel featuring two brothers sent to Wales in September 1939. Jimmy and Ronnie arrive at the village of Llanbryn after an endless train journey from London.
The author evokes the tension as the children wait in the miners’ institute hall to be allocated to local families. At first, Jimmy is worried about his brother, fearing that his sulky looks and tears will deter the locals from choosing them as their guests. (This reminded me of the petty humiliation of being the last to be chosen for a team in school games in Cardiff.) But we soon find that Ronnie is quicker to settle and develop a bond with their hosts, Mr and Mrs Thomas. Jimmy resents the way his brother calls Mrs Thomas ‘Aunty Gwen’ and wishes their host wouldn’t pretend that the house in Heol Mabon was the boys’ home. Only in time does Jimmy establish his own sense of belonging in Llanbryn.
Lesley was born in Wales, and has a nice way of showing how the boys from London struggle with Welsh names and words. (In many ways, the Wales of 1939 would have been much more of a culture shock to newcomers than today, as Netflix, social media as well as television have created a common culture across countries and continents.) On arriving, Jimmy is puzzled by the name Llanbryn on the station platform : “Funny word. Too many Ls.” Later, Ronnie thinks they are having cow soup for lunch, mishearing the word cawl, a type of Welsh stew.
The author also skilfully develops the character and back story of Mr and Mrs Thomas. At the meeting to pair the children with local hosts, the couple intended to take just one child, but change their minds and provided a home for the brothers. Had they done it for money? As time goes by, we see that they really care for the London boys. Lesley also shows that Mr and Mrs Thomas are set apart from others in the village, with the Anglican vicar in particular badmouthing the nonconformist Mr Thomas. (“Chapel is low, see. Up at St Michael’s we’re closer to God”, sneers the vicar.) Mr Thomas is a far more agreeable character than the cold Mr Evans in Carrie’s War.
The Valley of Lost Secrets also shows the ebb and flow of friendships amongst the young people. Jimmy was wary of Florence, another evacuee from back home whose reputation had been darkened because she was seen as coming from a bad family. But in time he appreciates her qualities and friendship. By contrast, he becomes alienated from his best friend from home, Duff, who joins a gang that intimidates Jimmy.
The heart of the book is Jimmy’s frightening discovery of a human skull in a tree – the lost secrets in the title. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but I didn’t expect the story to develop as it did! This is a comforting tale of warmth and friendship overcoming fear and prejudice.
My family is familiar with the disruption the outbreak of war caused. My father, Bob Skinner, was 12 when the war began. His school, Emanuel in Wandsworth, was evacuated to Hampshire, but Dad was sent to live with an aunt in Cardiff, and listened to Chamberlain’s famous, sombre ‘This country is at war with Germany’ broadcast in Cardiff on the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939. His sister moved with her school out of London, and his older brother joined the RAF. A few years later, their father died of a heart attack aged just 52. Life was never the same again.
PS: a historical curiosity. Lesley refers to Cardiff Central station in the opening chapter. I presume she wanted to avoid confusing modern day readers by using the 1930s name, Cardiff General. British Rail renamed it in 1973.
I wrote this article early in 1995. As the UK prepares for the possible disaster of a no-deal break up with the European Union, I reflect that I got it right 25 years ago.
Europe – a dangerous obsession
Rob Skinner, March 1995
British democracy is at crisis point. Not just because fifteen years without a change of government has left the nation restless for change. Not even as a result of former ministers making sleazy, easy money in a privatised quangocracy.
No, this crisis is a case of obsession. The subject of this obsessions is Europe, the perpetrators politicians and the media alike. This single topic dominates news bulletins, current affairs programmes and the leader columns of the national press. Yet it utterly fails to stimulate the nation.
The Euro-debate is almost entirely the preserve of the political professionals. Europe and its future currency is for most of the British people the non-issue of the decade. It rarely if ever puts in an appearance in public bars and at dinner party tables.
If the loudly debated referendum on the single currency took place tomorrow, Britain’s polling stations would almost certainly be lonely places as the electorate used their time to fulfil other, more pressing needs.
The media star a heavy responsibility for this sorry saga. Radio 4’s Today programme, in particular, has been dominated by Euro-obsessed talking heads for what seems an eternity, while the surfeit of Sunday political punditry on British television finds Europe a lazily easy choice for discussion.
Yet the obsession simply confirms what everyone outside Westminster’s cloistered circles has long suspected: that politicians are hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and incapable of tackling the issues that their constituents care and worry about.
Most people see Europe as a distraction. They long for a government and opposition that tackle the real issues of the day, such as unemployment, crime, rising taxes and the sense that Britain has become a less caring, more ugly society. For many, the great fear is not the loss of the UK’s economic sovereignty but the loss of something much nearer to home – their jobs.
None of these issues is being tackled. Instead, a sterile, futile debate dominates, which looks for all the world like an endless battle between two foolish lovers. The weakest, most enfeebled government in living memory seeks to impose the very thing it lacks – authority – on the country. A cynicism fired by years of misrule is now raging out of control, threatening Britain’s self confidence as a nation.
As a Welshman, I see Europe as an opportunity, not a threat. I believe in a Europe of many countries and cultures – not just a Europe of nation states. The doomed debate that has riven the Conservatives is very English rather than British. It speaks eloquently of a nation uncertain of itself, suspicious of outsiders and nervous of its smaller neighbours within the United Kingdom.
This is high irony. How could the dominant tribe in the British Isles, the English, have become so fearful, so lacking in vision of confidence that they have largely destroyed Britain’s standing on its own continent?
The crying shame is that Europe is important. There must be a proper debate about Britain’s future. We should be looking for ways to put right the failings of the democratic process in the European Union and within these islands. And we must be open and humble enough, for once, to recognise that the United Kingdom might profitably learn from democratic experiences beyond these shores.
John Major has sought sanctuary behind an ugly word – subsidiarity. Yet this strange and unfriendly term signals the way to make Europe and Britain more democratic. The principle is that decisions should be made as locally as possible. Yet in the UK, under John Major’s desperate leadership, the concept has been hijacked, and given a new, sinister meaning. That mother – the Mother of Parliaments – knows best. Yet who truly places trust in the traditional Westminster system in 1995?
Subsidiarity needs a new, more attractive name. The Welsh word agosrwydd means nearness, and has been suggested by David Morris MEP and Martin Caton as a far better epithet.*
If the English aren’t ready to accept a Welsh word for what might be the most important democratic principle of the dying years of the millennium, then nearness will serve just as well. It is a compelling sentiment, an idea whose time has come. The European Union is here to stay, and Britain’s future is inextricably linked to it. For non-state regions and countries like Wales, Scotland, Baden Würtemberg and Catalunya, being part of a wider family is a historic development that arguably makes the break up of nation states like the UK less likely. But it is only less likely if the nearness principle puts greater power in the hands of regional governments such as a Welsh Senedd.
John Major talks of a triple lock within the burgeoning Northern Ireland peace process. In a wider concept, three links also hold the key to unlocking the eternal dilemma that has dogged Britain for a quarter of a century: regional identity, our British identity and the European dimension. Only by creating harmony between all three, and recognising their legitimacy, will we ever escape this constitutional conundrum.
In this anniversary year , of all years, we must look back to 1945. Not only to commemorate the huge sacrifices made to secure our generation’s freedom and future. But just as nobly to recall how the European ideal was born, in the ruins of a continent that had allowed evil and hatred to carry all before it.
After Warsaw, Aschwitz and Dresden, reconciliation might have been expected to have taken decades to bear fruit. Yet amidst the tragedies of an unimaginable numbers of lives, the determination to forge a different Europe was born. Since those dawning days, the idea of Britain and Germany taking up arms against each other, or Belgium and France being overrun by a continental army, has become inconceivable.
Now the challenge for Britain’s politicians is to shake off their obsession and start treating Europe as something that is part of everyone’s lives. Votes can only be lost over this issue, not won, and it is time for Eurosceptic and Europhile alike to recognise the basic truth. The year of the last great second world war anniversaries would be an appropriate time for Britain belatedly to throw away the empty rhetoric and start to build a future for itself.
* A Europe of the Peoples – the European Union and a Welsh Parliament’ – ed John Osmond, Gomer Press 1994
British Airways lost a lot of goodwill in Wales today by tweeting support for England in the autumn nations cup rugby international at Llanelli.
The airline may be a sponsor of the England team but a moment’s thought should have revealed that such a tweet would upset a lot of Welsh supporters – like me.
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething put it well: “Good way to annoy 3m potential customers. BBC News at Ten presenter Huw Edwards tweeted, “I love @EasyJet.” The super-active YesCymru independence campaign was quick to draw attention to BA’s blunder.
Some have countered, saying that BA’s tweet was understandable as the airline sponsors England rugby. But that misses the point. For a UK brand to choose one nation over the others is ill-judged, especially today, when the union is under pressure and national consciousness is stronger than ever in Scotland and Wales. Nationwide Building Society was wiser, sponsoring all four UK football nations, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, earlier this century.
Other brands have been less sensible. I got so annoyed by emails from O2 urging me to cheer on England’s rugby team that I blocked all marketing emails and then moved to EE. I should add that I have nothing against others supporting England rugby – just that brands need to understand national identity.
To end on a positive note. To its credit, British Airways quickly deleted its tweet and apologised, saying it had strayed offside. Let’s hope that it has learned its lesson.
PS: Wales lost – but it’s unlikely that BA’s support for England made any difference.
One of my favourite memories is getting a high speed train in the rush hour in London in the 1980s and finishing my journey five hours later at an isolated stone cottage near St Davids on Wales’s Atlantic coast. At first, the train was packed with commuters to Reading and Swindon, but as we travelled further west into Wales the train took on a different character. I savoured a beer watching the evening reflections as the train followed the Tywi estuary. My father collected me at the end of the line at Haverfordwest. We then enjoyed a magical car ride in the fading summer light to the dramatic Atlantic coast at Newgale and on to the quietude of St Davids, the smallest city in Great Britain.
I was fortunate enough to return for a work management offsite a few years ago in St Davids. I’m sure some of my London colleagues wondered why our boss had chosen such a remote location, but if you want to reflect there’s no better place to go. We stayed in the excellent Twr y Felin hotel. It was nice to be able to speak Welsh on a work trip!
I took a train for the first time in over five months this week. What a contrast to that last journey in March, before Britain’s coronavirus lockdown began.
Our short (eight minute) journey from Tenby to Saundersfoot was simple enough. We remembered to take our masks. The Transport for Wales guard challenged passengers who weren’t wearing masks, although the man sitting opposite us remained unmasked as we got off.
Many of the seats were out of use to ensure social distancing. Fortunately this two carriage train was not busy.
To give Transport for Wales credit, the information signs on the train and the platforms were very clear.
As we alighted at Saundersfoot station, it struck me that the town was likely to be a decent walk away. So it proved. I was reminded of tales of Victorian travellers leaving their trains at stations with the ‘Road’ suffix on a wild Welsh night not realising they were miles from the town in the station name. A practice followed by budget airlines 125 years later…
I was intrigued to come across this sign on our two kilometre walk to Saundersfoot . ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (Remember Tryweryn’) recalls the infamous flooding of Capel Celyn in North Wales to provide a reservoir for the English city of Liverpool. Parliament voted for the project, but not a single Welsh MP voted for it. The scandal was a major boost to Welsh nationalism and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language society) in the 1960s and afterwards.
We finally reached the sea at Saundersfoot. This peaceful town was once a major port, exporting coal from the Pembrokeshire coalfield. We walked through a tunnel that was built for the narrow gauge coal tramway. A lovely mix of industrial history and rural beauty – not uncommon in Wales.
Today, thousands of young people were celebrating after getting their GCSE results. But these were unique results, based on their teachers’ predictions of how they’d do in an exam, rather than the outcome of actual exams, which were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
I still remember the tension of awaiting my O level results (the predecessor of GCSEs) 40 years ago this month. We were on a family holiday in California when the results came out. I knew the results slip would be waiting for me as I walked through the front door. The journey from the Severn Bridge back to Cardiff on the final part of the journey from Gatwick airport was excruciating. I grabbed the envelope from the pile of post and tore it open. The first thing I read was, ‘This is not a certificate’. In my nervous tension I thought that meant I’d failed! But I hadn’t. It was a mixed bag, but I’d passed maths as well as getting good results in my favourite subjects. And I hadn’t failed any.
This year, young people have had a lesson in taking things seriously from day one and not relying on putting in a performance on the day of the exam. I did poorly in my O level mocks, getting around 20% in chemistry. I enjoyed the subject earlier in my Cardiff High School career, but struggled as it got more complicated. The school told me it wouldn’t let me sit the O level, but put me in for the easier CSE exam instead. I was mortified, feeling like a failure. (Years later, a friend told me how surprised she was to see me joining the CSE class.) But it was the best possible outcome. I was at the right level, and enjoyed chemistry once again. I got a grade 1, the equivalent of C at O level.
I also sat two combined syllabus exams in maths and biology. Passing these gave both an O level and CSE.
My school report after my mock O levels makes painful reading even 40 years on. No wonder my mother read the riot act after she found me time wasting rather than revising in January 1980.
If I thought my 1980 results experience was stressful, I had a further shock to come. When I sat my degree final exams in law in 1984 and 1985, I discovered that the University of Leicester posted everyone’s results on the door of the law faculty. That meant much jostling on the doorstep as I tried to find my results. Fortunately I was happy with the outcome. I assume things are done in a more sympathetic way in today’s online age.
Congratulations to everyone who has got their GCSE results today, including my great nephew Mylo.
We’re on holiday in Tenby, Pembrokeshire this week. This intriguing town is called Dinbych-y-pysgod (little fort of the fishes) in Welsh. Yet Tenby has been an English speaking town for the best part of 900 years.
Look at the map of South Pembrokeshire above. You might think you can’t learn anything about the state of the Welsh language in a region from a map. But think again. Look at the place names. They are all in English. There’s nowhere else in Wales that the landscape and place names are all in English.
Now look at the map above, showing Pembrokeshire place names just a few miles north of Tenby. All the names are in Welsh. The border between Welsh speaking and English speaking Pembrokeshire is often called the Landsker line. That name in itself echoes the history, as it comes from a Norse word meaning divide. South Pembrokeshire has often been called little England beyond Wales.
We’re looking at the impact of events 900 years ago. The Normans and Flemish conquered this part of Wales and unusually changed the language of the landscape as well as that spoken in the market place. By contrast, the Vale of Glamorgan west of Cardiff was similarly Anglicised but was later re-Cymricised.
Take this modern Ordnance Survey map of the Vale. Welsh was banished here many centuries ago as in South Pembrokeshire yet yr hen iaith was resurgent in the 18th century. As a result, the place names returned to the old Welsh versions. In time, however, especially in the 20th century, the tide turned once again, and the Vale became overwhelmingly an English speaking part of Wales. But intriguingly the names on the map largely remain the Welsh ones.
Welshness is not just defined by the language spoken. Tenby is a very Welsh town, regardless of the language spoken on the streets by locals and visitors. At my mother’s funeral in 2018 I talked about the old saying that the dragon has two tongues. in other words, Wales isn’t solely defined by language. Our country has made enormous strides over the past 60 years to restore the status of our ancient language. Whether you recognise Tenby or Dinbych-y-pysgod, you have equal status as a Welsh person. Cymru am byth.
We were meant to fly to Florida on Friday, for an amazing family holiday in Walt Disney World. It was obvious months ago that the dream would have to wait. So we booked an Airbnb in Tenby in West Wales so we’d have a holiday to look forward to. We were so glad we did.
We arrived in the rain, but it soon passed and we were revelling in a night walk around the old town and along the Castle beach.
I have so many happy memories of Tenby. My father Bob took me on a tour of West Wales at the end of my upper sixth school year and we called in to Tenby on the way home. A few years later I enjoyed a weekend in the historic town with my sister’s family when Siân and Ria were small. I fell in love with Tenby that weekend: it was endlessly fascinating yet also had the small town charm. I spotted the flat we stayed in – Troy House – near the harbour this weekend as we arrived. I must find that photo of Ria at the round table in the bay window overlooking St Julian’s Street leading to the harbour.
This is the beach I remember from those long-ago holidays. I built dams across the streams running down the beach with the girls. I was intrigued by the fort, which dates from the 1860s – so not quite the redoubt against Napoleon Bonaparte that I misremembered!
We enjoyed a boat trip to (but not on) Caldey Island. This lovely island houses a Franciscan monastery. My good friend Anthony Beer and cousin Rosemary Dymond have both enjoyed retreats on this special piece of land. I can imagine the tranquility and solitude. Intriguingly, the island is a mix of sandstone and limestone, giving a contrasting coastline.
Tenby is a remarkable example of an ancient town that has kept most of its ancient town wall. Here you can see the wall as it ends at the cliff. Below is the gate we drove through to get to our Airbnb at Scarborough House, The Paragon. (Highly recommended .)
We climbed to admire the views from Tenby castle over the sea and the town.The weather was perfect for exploring today. I remembered the fun I had hanging from the canons at Fishguard and Tenby in 1984, and naturally had to recreated the fun… Needless to say, Owen, 12, had to do the same…
I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.
These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.
Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:
How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.
Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:
“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”
Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:
“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”
Wales takes the lead
It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.
As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.
It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.
The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.
Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.
Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:
“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”