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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, November 07, 2003
    Cowbois' new catalogue arrived today and I'm drawn to this design. 62. Year I was born. It's only a t-shirt but it's a revelation to me. Makes me realise I was born at a time and in a place of revolution.

    What's the significance of 62 for Cowbois, proud young Welsh designers of a clothing range for postmodern Celts, bearing slogans like Vorsprung durch Celtique and Di Cymru ddim ar werth (Cymru's not for sale)?

    62 is the year the Welsh language movement was born. On 13 February 1962 the radical writer-campaigner Saunders Lewis gave the BBC Wales Annual Radio Lecture. Titled Tynged Yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), Lewis used this stirring speech to declare that the language would die unless revolutionary methods were used to defend it. He wittingly and willingly ushered in two decades of nonviolent direct action to achieve these aims. Our mainstream histories neglect to recognise these events as such, but what Lewis sparked in Wales was nothing short of revolution.

    In the summer of 62 a Welsh language activist decided to ignore an English language summons to appear in court for allowing his girl friend to ride side saddles on his bicycle. At Trefechan Bridge, scores of campaigners sat down in the road to bring Aberystwyth to a standstill. Spurred on by a rising mood in the country, later in 62 a number of young people formed the pressure group Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) which campaigned for reforms such as bilingual road signs and cheaper local housing. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s hundreds of its members were imprisoned for breaking the law with nonviolent direct action.

    The consequences were profound - a limited Welsh Language Act was passed in 1967, a Welsh language television channel, S4C, was born in 1982. Every visitor knows about the roadsigns. Lewis's aim to make it impossible for local or central government business to be conducted in Wales without the use of the Welsh language, has also come to pass.

    What's struck me today is that I was born into this. Liverpool, a massive Celtic city, nurtured nationalism in its Welsh societies and churches in the early 20th century. Saunders Lewis himself was born in Wallasey - just across the Mersey from my own childhood home. There's Welshness in my blood; we always holidayed there; and the house my parents bought a year before Lewis's radio lecture belonged to a Welsh woman they knew who retired back to the land of her fathers. Hiraeth.

    And in latter years I embraced the conflict, choosing to live in Llanbedr in 82, a youth worker to village kids aggressive to outsiders (using language and on one occasion knives as weapons), later choosing Cardiff as the place to explore Welsh literature while putting to bed once for all any romantic notions of my own Welshness - too different from the rugby crowd, unmoved by that odd anthem, shamefully aware that my home city drinks water piped from reservoirs above drowned Merionedd villages.

    In the lounge of a big house overlooking Cardigan Bay I watched as S4C was born. Impressed on one level but more deeply torn because I knew I was missing many programmes on the all-English new Channel Four. Today I occasionally lead services at our local Welsh congregation. I preach in English and can only mime to the hymns and prayers which are led by Liverpool-Welshmen at my side.

    If I buy the shirt I'll embrace the conflict even more. The backprint bears a quote from Lewis's famous broadcast: I'd be walking around displaying words I cannot speak and do not understand. But I think I will buy the shirt. First because I like Cowbois, their vision and creativity. Second because I affirm the struggle, which the Welsh are winning with a vibrant, growing contemporary culture. And third because 62 is key for me, obviously. And I'm thrilled to have realised now, it's not just any old year. It's the year a revolution was born.