AmeriCymru: Care to introduce your new book “What is wrong with the Welsh? Why are they mocked by the English?”. And what inspired you to write this book?
Meurig: The subject of how the Welsh relate to the English has come up many times in discussions with a friend who was born in Wales and now lives in both England and the US; it was those discussions that provided inspiration for this book. I like to think that I have some perspective on this subject because I was born and raised in Wales, educated at Oxford University and then moved permanently to the US and became an American citizen. My friend is also an artist of renown, and she went to my home town Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire in order to capture its essence in a drawing, which is included in the book.
I focused on mockery of the Welsh by the English for two reasons. It encapsulates so much that is different between the two peoples. And it is a subject that is still considered so disturbing that the Welsh Assembly recently called for “an end to persistent anti-Welsh racism in the UK media”. In addition, this subject merited a serious article in The Spectator in 2009: “Mocking the Welsh is the last permitted bigotry”, by no less an authority on every aspect of Welsh life than Jan Morris. Who, incidentally, is described in the October 31, 2016 issue of The Spectator as “the greatest descriptive writer of her time”.
AmeriCymru: How did history help you understand this issue?
Meurig: In order to understand this issue, I delved into areas where the histories of Wales and England intersect. For a thousand years, the Welsh have been subjected to military and/or political domination by the English, which culminated in Henry VIII’s Act of Union, whose purpose was to totally annihilate Welsh culture, language and laws, and to covert Welsh people into English people in every way. It was a major act of attempted genocide. Henry VIII is now considered to have demonstrated behavioural characteristics of a psychopath according to modern psychiatric concepts.
But the English failed to destroy the Welsh. In spite of many major military defeats and extraordinary degrees of humiliation, Welsh culture, language and national identity have survived. Morris attributed that survival to Wales’ inextinguishable national spirit. And she suggested that it was English feelings of inferiority compared to that Welsh spirit that resulted in their mockery of the Welsh.
AmeriCymru: You argue that English mockery of the Welsh is a classic example of “psychological projection”. Care to tell us more?
Meurig: Projection is a concept in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. In my analysis, I interpret the mockery in terms of such projection. That is, the English project their own feelings of inferiority onto the Welsh, as opposed to a simple comparison of the two countries that was suggested by Morris. But in both interpretations, it is English feelings of inferiority that caused their mockery of the Welsh.
How can it be explained that the mockery continued unabated from the Tudor era (which was documented by Shakespeare), through the mighty days of Empire, to England’s current loss of power and identity crisis? Shakespeare wrote his plays half a century after the Act of Union, so he was aware of how the Welsh had survived its harsh impositions - equal rights were denied to the Welsh if they continued to speak Welsh, which was their only language in most cases.
At the height of Empire, English national identity was defined by its power, but that of Wales was not, because centuries of military defeats and humiliations had eliminated any vestige of power from the Welsh psyche. The fact that the mockery continued throughout the height of Empire indicates that even the riches and power of the English were not sufficient to alleviate feelings of inferiority relative to that Welsh spirit.
AmeriCymru: Do you feel that more should be done to counter this kind of mockery?
Meurig: After its loss of Empire, Britain has struggled to determine its role in the world and establish its national identity, and that has been confounded by the recent decision to leave the European Union (Brexit), not to mention Scotland’s ongoing threat to leave the United Kingdom. So if the mockery can be attributed to the inferior national identity of the English compared to the Welsh, it cannot be expected to improve any time soon.
AmeriCymru: Shouldn’t the book’s title have been WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE ENGLISH?
Meurig: A good question indeed considering that the mockery has been attributed to shortcomings of the English. And that led to a consideration of whether other characteristics of the English may also have contributed to the mockery. It turns out that some of the most prominent English writers have expressed the opinion that hypocrisy is central to the English character. These include Jeremy Paxman and Alan Bennett. And David Hare wrote in his 2015 book The Blue Touch Paper: “The only response any halfway sensitive person could have to British life in the 1950s was to laugh at it….Britons were petty, posturing and ridiculous.” The book clearly reveals that he is referring to the English, not more generally to the British.
I indicate that there are suggestions that the Church of England may be coming to terms with its barely disguised hypocrisy through the ages. In the mid 20th century, religion mattered deeply in British society, but since then church attendance has declined steeply. That has been traced to the social revolution of the 1960s. I discuss an example where the Church, so accustomed to marketing blind faith in the irrational, is finally beginning to replace hypocrisy with truth, which has always been a more difficult concept to embrace.
AmeriCymru: Has Welsh ‘confidence’ increased at all as a result of the Devolution votes in your opinion? If so, would further devolution or even full independence increase that trend?
Meurig: Welsh ‘confidence’ is certainly on the rise. After the second world war, Gwynfor Evans (1912-2005) assumed a leading role which slowly infused a renewed confidence in the Welsh national psyche, and a greater presence for Wales in British politics. He was also a lawyer and historian of note. He felt strongly that Henry VIII’s Act of Union had a major negative impact on Wales and personally made contributions to correct that. He was President of the Welsh political party Plaid Cymru for 36 years and was the first Member of Parliament to represent it at Westminster, where he was instrumental in passing the first Welsh Language Act, 1967, which gave some rights to the use of the Welsh language in legal proceedings in Wales. That was followed by creation of the Welsh Assembly in 1998 which provided limited power to make legislation independently of the British Parliament. That it required the use of the Welsh language in teaching and government jobs, as well as street signs, etc., provided a significant boost to Welsh confidence.
Perhaps the most significant indicator of the resurgence of Welsh pride is he emergence of young people who are able to express themselves fluently in both Welsh and English. The Welsh TV station S4C is central to enabling such advances.
But these developments do not seem to be reducing mockery by the English. And we can now understand that in view of our conclusion that the mockery results purely from shortcomings of the English.
AmeriCymru: What’s next for Meurig Williams? Any new works in the pipeline?
Meurig: Yes. After retirement 16 years ago, my main interest was to enjoy the beach life in Florida. But after a few years of such unapologetic indulgences that was not enough, and I hankered for a more meaningful existence. So a period of personal reinvention was called for. I had worked at the Xerox Research Center in Webster, New York for many years where I had the opportunity to conduct basic research into one of the little understood sciences upon which copier and laser printer technologies are based. I made some experimental observations which I considered to be of unusual importance, but they were not well received in that competitive community. So, here was my new retirement opportunity, a return to the world of scientific research after an absence of several decades. Thanks to the online availability of scientific journals, I brought myself up to date on the recent developments in the field, and integrated them with my early work.
This resulted in a series of successes - several publications in peer-reviewed journals, presentations at scientific conferences, and a cover page article in The American Scientist in 2012: “What Creates Static Electricity? Traditionally considered a physics problem, the answer is beginning to emerge from chemistry and other sciences.” My contributions became recognized by the scientific community to the extent that I was invited to be keynote speaker at a major conference hosted by NASA in 2013, and received a job offer by a California startup. That was as far as I could take my research without access to a laboratory for further experimentation. An opportunity to collaborate with a university department arose but that became unrealistic on account of the travel that would be required. So a second reinvention was called for. I decided to write about my re entry into the scientific world and extended that to include a variety of life experiences.
And that has led to my current book. But it is not the last. I have started a novel, part fiction, part truth based on a panoply of ambition, intrigue, betrayal, high drama and tragedy both among friends and a few notable personalities.
AmeriCymru: Any final messages for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Meurig: For anyone who has a deep interest in Wales the country, Welsh life and Welsh people, there can be no better reading than Jan Morris’ 1984 landmark book THE MATTER OF WALES. EPIC VIEWS OF A SMALL COUNTRY. I consider it to provide the deepest and most sensitive insights into what being Welsh is all about. This is taken from that book:
Often hated and generally scorned by the English, the Welsh have fluctuated down the centuries from arrogance to self-doubt, from quiescence to rebellion, and today only a minority of them actively fight for their national identity, or even speak their native language; yet despite the overwhelming proximity of the English presence, a force which has affected the manners, thoughts and systems of half the world, for better or for worse Wales has not lost its Welshness.
Their brief years of triumph (referring to Owain Glyndwr’s uprising against the English in 15th century) represented a climax in the history of Wales, but changed nothing in the end: for the Welsh always were, and perhaps always will be, in a condition of resistance against the present, yearning sometimes for a more magnificent past, sometimes for a future more rewarding. It is the nature of the people: very likely the genius too.
Wales, a History by Gwynfor Evans, 1996. This book presents an important analysis of the critical junctures in Welsh history which determined its current state.
Wild Wales: its People, Language and Scenery, by George Borrow, 1862. Borrow was an English author who wrote novels and travelogues based on his experiences traveling around Europe:
But it is not for its scenery alone that Wales is deserving of being visited; scenes soon palls unless it is associated with remarkable events, and the names of remarkable men. Perhaps there is no country in the whole world which has been the scene of events more stirring and remarkable than those recorded in the history of Wales. What other country has been the scene of a struggle so deadly, so embittered, and protracted as that between the Welsh and the English – a struggle that did not terminate at Caernarvon, when Edward Longshanks foisted his young son upon the Welsh chieftains as Prince of Wales; but was kept up till the Battle of Bosworth Field, when a prince of Cumric blood won the crown of fair Britain.