Imagine that you are on holiday in France, Spain or Italy and stumble upon a gigantic cultural festival, full of history, pomp and ceremony.
One described as the biggest cultural festival anywhere in Europe, attended by almost twice as many people as watch Wales rugby matches at the national stadium. You hear an ancient language being spoken naturally and joyfully by people of all ages, classes and backgrounds.
Imagine a high-energy, colourful, diverse celebration of music, dance, literature, poetry and art, with some political speeches and beer thrown in too. Imagine strolling around the festival listening to five-year-olds from urban, monoglot English-speaking families happily conversing in the language in which they are now educated.
Imagine the charm and appeal as you quietly observe and marvel at the normalisation of an ancient language dating back 4,000 years.
Well, there’s no need to imagine or to go abroad. A trip to Cardiff Bay between now and August 11 will expose you to all that and more.
Yesterday, the National Eisteddfod of Wales kicked off in our capital city for the second time in 10 years.
The Eisteddfod is a staple of the Welsh summer. In its modern incarnation, it hasn’t missed a year except when war broke out in 1914 and its older roots stretch back to the 12th century.
Many of the expected 160,000 visitors will be new to Cardiff and possibly to Wales. No doubt, as tourists, they will marvel at what they experience, but what about us, the Welsh people?
How many of us will get to the Bay over the next week?
How much enthusiasm is there for our biggest national festival and is everything being done to attract people who don’t speak Welsh to the Eisteddfod Maes?
I sense that the Eisteddfod organisers have tried most things to reach out to people who don’t speak Welsh and, in my experience, the best ‘Steddfods have been those located in areas with lower proportions of Welsh-speakers like Newport, Bridgend and Abergavenny.
Plus, the chair for this year’s Eisteddfod is Ashok Ahir, who describes himself as “an adopted Welshman of Indian origins from the Black Country”.
But perhaps a more important debate is whether the Eisteddfod actually needs to broaden its appeal. After all, the Eisteddfod is a unique festival celebrating the Welsh language and its culture. Maybe it should concentrate on that USP and worry less about attracting new audiences?
This is the first “non-fenced” Eisteddfod, taking part in existing buildings rather than the usual temporary tents and stands. It is an open site situated in inner-city Cardiff on the waterfront, where sailors from Africa, Europe and Asia arrived and put down roots in Wales.
Despite the “Welsh-only” rule for actual Eisteddfod events, the festival itself is open and accessible and has bilingual signage and integrated simultaneous translation for those who don’t speak Welsh.
On this basis, the Eisteddfod should have the same appeal as my imaginary cultural festival somewhere else in Europe.
Yet I suspect it doesn’t and that’s not just because it lacks the exotic appeal of being abroad. Many locals and people from other parts of Wales will not engage with this unique festival, shunning it more out of ignorance of what it is all about than any particular antipathy or sense of exclusion.
So here goes – I’m going to make the case for locals who are not Welsh-speakers to attend the Eisteddfod…
First, this is big, proper big. If you haven’t been before, forget the Big Weekends, the various food and drink festivals, Tafwyl or even the Hay Festival. This is bigger, broader and arguably better.
You will see everything from brand-new drama to spectacular artworks, cutting-edge techno music to traditional Welsh folk-dancing, sculpture to sport. Over 6,000 people – old and young – will be competing in activities ranging from prose recitation to hip hop and street dance.
Through the medium of Welsh, the Eisteddfod’s activities are a decent reflection of what we are all up to in Wales right now.
But only a fool would argue that the Welsh language doesn’t remain a political hot potato, whatever claims are made to the contrary. Some of the angriest and most vitriolic contributions on social media come in debates on the two languages of Wales.
Who would claim that we are a people united and at ease with all parts of our national culture and heritage? Of course, there are a million reasons for this, some historical, some political, some demographic.
Some people feel nervous, uncomfortable or excluded by the Welsh language. No wonder when, historically, there has been a deliberate and highly-politicised closing down of opportunities to be educated in Welsh in parts of our nation. Many kids growing up in areas like I did had no opportunity to properly learn the language and for too long a generational gap was left which allowed these resentments and sense of exclusion to fester.
But we are where we are. Cities like Cardiff, Newport and Swansea have seen an exponential growth in parents wishing their children to be educated in Welsh. I spoke to a teacher from a new Welsh-medium school in Torfaen who said only a handful of their parents had any Welsh.
I’ve argued in other Western Mail columns that all primary schools should be bilingual in the hope of boosting one of our small nation’s biggest assets, one that is currently hopelessly untapped.
But we all have a responsibility here.
For those of us who speak Welsh as our second (or third) language, we must use it.
For those who don’t, maybe have a go at learning it or, if that doesn’t appeal, appreciate what a gift it is in its own right and do everything within your power to support its growth and sustenance.
And for those who were brought up using Welsh, make sure you take every opportunity to entice in others to that wonderful world of bilingualism, one incidentally regarded as odd only in the UK.
The Welsh language belongs to us all, whether we speak it or not. It is a precious gift and a priceless but fragile national asset.
Apathy or even passive goodwill towards the Eisteddfod might not be enough to safeguard its long-term future in a context of cuts and changing social habits.
The Eisteddfod is a magnificent explosion of Welshness at a time when globalised cultural homogeneity threatens to swamp everything other than powerful international languages and dominant cultures.
Like the Welsh language, the Eisteddfod belongs to all of us. For the big chunk of people living within an easy car, bus or train journey of Cardiff, take the opportunity to join in with something unique and pretty wonderful.
Don’t wait for your next foreign holiday to wonder at the quirkiness of such a festival or the remarkable survival of an ancient culture. There’s one on your doorstep – but, without all our support, it might not be there forever.