I figure pretty much every language is going to become a boutique language sooner or later. Eventually English, Spanish, and Mandarin will become boutique, antique, or extinct, swept into the sea of time with Pali and Koro. It’s dismaying to think that only 40 million people speak Polish, only 7 million speak Czech … and Welsh?
That brings me back to the subject of Gwyneth Lewis, the poet who came all the way down from the Cardiff countryside to hear my talk at the British Academy last month. Somewhere in the middle of all that brouhaha, we had a Christmas season lunch at the National Café, where I was introduced to a fittingly Welsh “wild mushroom, leek, and glazed salsify stew with chestnut dumplings” as Gwyneth told me about her exploits.
All in all, it had been a good year for Gwyneth. She won the crown at the Vale of Glamorgan National Eisteddfod. Moreover, according to Wales Online, “The National Eisteddfod in the Vale of Glamorgan presented an intriguing counterpoint between Gwyneth Lewis’ magical translation of The Tempest for Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s Y Storm, and the modern day tragedy of Ma’ Bili’n Bwrw’r Bronco staged by the Wales Millennium Centre in an innovative co production with Theatr na n’Óg. Winners all.” I can’t pronounce any of it, so I’ll simply reproduce it.
I had meant some time ago to write about Gwyneth’s coronation – but I searched, in vain, for a video clip of the awards ceremony in Welsh, and then for Gwyneth reading anything in Welsh, and finally gave up the whole damn thing.
So I was grateful when her publisher Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books alerted me to her article in The Guardian, “Welsh-language Books Deserve Their Subsidies,” in which she takes issue with a Daily Telegraph article dissing grants given to Welsh writers, under the headline Taxpayer Funds Welsh Authors to Write Books No One Wants. She ably defends the language spoken by a mere 721,700 speakers (according to a 2011 census), principally in Britain and the Chubut province of Argentina.
“Welsh predates English in the British archipelago,” writes the inaugural National Poet of Wales. “If you want to know what cultural despair is, go to the US and see, as I did recently, the bleakness of a Native American poet trying to piece together his tradition from oral sources recorded by a white anthropologist. The rarity of a plant makes its preservation more important, not less.”
On an individual level, the creative economy works indirectly. It’s not a matter of putting in a pound and receiving a set piece of work from it. I’m not speaking here of commercial success (if you want that, become a banker) but of artistic quality. My first book of poems in Welsh, funded by the Welsh Book Council, paid me just over £14. I did consider framing the cheque (as my cousin did the $30 he received for expenses during each of four flights in the space shuttle), but I though it’d be useful for groceries. I publish Welsh poetry in Wales, English-language work with Bloodaxe Books and non-fiction with Harper Collins in London and America. Work in one form has an effect on what I can do in all the others. Therefore, a modest grant for a book of Welsh-language poems has a direct impact on what I can sell, say, in the U.S.
The imagination works by underground streams, proceeds by snakes and ladders. You grow new writers by doing not one thing but many different activities at the same time: promoting critical thinking, publishers whose commercial successes can subsidise fledgling talent and promotional services to expand the reach of high-quality writing like that of Owen Sheers and Rachel Trezise, Deborah Davies, Horatio Clare, Catherine Fisher, Fflur Dafydd, Belinda Bauer and many others.
What followed it was 261 comments, some of them surprisingly vitriolic (some of them had to be removed). Who knew language could generate so much spit and fire?
And behold, we finally found a video of Gwyneth’s coronation…