Language At The Edge of Wales

There are many European languages classified as in danger. Some, like Lower Sorbian, have dropped below the number of 50,000 speakers at which UNESCO regards them as effectively dead. The Celtic languages present a mixed picture. Manx and Cornish are effectively dead despite the efforts of revivalists while both Gaelic and Irish are endangered, the latter despite 90 years of official promotion by the Government of the Irish Free State and later the Irish Republic. Irish language policy after partition was based on the assumption that the language would inevitably flourish with the revival of national consciousness following independence. It failed, therefore, to provide economic support for the Gaeltacht regions where the language was spoken and thus to prevent economic emigration from those areas. In consequence Irish is now only spoken by about 60,000 people in scattered pockets around the west coast.

The position of Welsh seems much healthier, not least because there are large contiguous Welsh speaking areas. With Welsh now enjoying near official status anyone living in those areas can, if they choose, live their life almost entirely in Welsh. One of these regions is the Llyn Peninsula in North West Wales where I have been a regular visitor in recent years after first going there with my parents at the age of 7. Back then Welsh speakers were disadvantaged in a number of ways. Official business could only be conducted in English and decades of inadequate schooling had left many native speakers lacking the vocabulary to talk about much other than day to day and domestic matters. Consequently Welsh, in 1969, was largely a language of the home, one viewed by many (including some Welsh speakers) as a quaint relic of a bygone age.

Things were about to change and even as a seven year old I noticed the beginnings of militant Welsh language activism. Road signs, for example, were altered to remove Anglicised versions of place names, and official notices in English were defaced. From these small beginnings the campaign gathered pace and was to achieve notable successes, such as the decision of the Government in 1982 to accede to Welsh demands for a Welsh language TV channel (Sianel Pedwar Cymru) and bilingualism in signage and public services. Many people are opting to learn Welsh as adults ( including English incomers) and ,on the surface the picture looks rosy.

Yet in the heartlands the outlook is a little more ambiguous. We have just returned from a break in Aberdaron. In this part of the Llyn retirees and second home owners have helped to push house prices up to levels way beyond the reach of young locals. Employment here is either in agricultural and not well paid or in hotel and catering which is both poorly paid and seasonal. With many houses now costing well over £200,000 the economic foundations of this community and its ability to reproduce itself are now being undermined in ways which must have long term consequences for the language.

As always we drove two miles along the coast from Aberdaron to Braich y Pwll, the windswept head land that is the very end of Wales, with its view over Bardsey Island. This is a magical place, particularly on a summer’s day when the sea glitters in the sun. When we drove up there a few years ago language activists had chalked on the road


HOUSES WORK LANGUAGE which is a succinct summary of my argument. Welsh has a good claim to be the oldest living European language but there are reasons to be concerned about its future.

Despite this one summer visit inspired this poem ( which was first published in Dreamcatcher in 2007).


 The air is stitched with gorse.

High on its incense I rise above

the grassy headland to watch

the sea exporting stars,


watch Bardsey ride the waves

below, buoyant as the seals on

its flanks, the seals who bask on

the razor rocks but do not bleed,


as the soft hump of the island

seeps the waters that give life to

the abbey, farms and cottages,

the ground where mossy headstones


imply the histories buried below,

pilgrims, farmers  ten thousand saints

whom the heavens will honour for

as long as seals can hymn the moon.


An Outpost of Progress

A favourite board game of mine as a teenager was Diplomacy. This was a sort of highbrow Monopoly. The board was a map of Belle Epoque Europe and each of the seven players represented one of the Powers vying for continental supremacy. You had armies and fleets to move around, a bit like a conventional board game, but Diplomacy was ultimately a game of psychology. You negotiated with fellow players, formed alliances, double crossed them. This was the heart of the game. The throw of the dice, the randomness of other games, was absent.

Of course, smaller countries, Belgium say, or Serbia, could be occupied at will, and, the people of Europe don’t feature at all. This was a game of high strategy of a kind that Metternich or Kissinger would have loved. It inspired one of my friends to make his own version, based on the 1815 Congress of Vienna. It inspired me to design a game based on the Scramble for Africa of 1884-85. Real Africans and their right not to have their countries occupied by Europeans played no part in my game. In that respect I suppose I was nearer the truth of colonialism than I realised. I have to say that the game was not a success and Waddingtons and Spears failed to call. Designing the board did, however, give me a deep knowledge of the geography of Africa.

One part of Africa came to fascinate me and this was its dark heart, the Congo. I knew by heart the names of the towns along that mighty river. There was, for example, Kisangani formerly Stanleyville at the great bend in the river where it turns East for the Atlantic, there was Lubumbashi in the South, at the heart of the copper producing region of Katanga.

In those days both country and river were officially called Zaire at the behest of the ruling kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko. Zaire was in the sports pages too, with its football team becoming, in 1974,  the first sub-Saharan African country to reach the World Cup finals, while, a few months later, Ali met Foreman in Kinshasa in a brutal fight for the world heavyweight boxing championship, the so-called Rumble in the Jungle. Mobutu was flavour of the month in the West, he was one of ours unlike the regime in Brazzaville just across the river from Kinshasa which was backed by the Soviet Union.

Then, in 1978, there was a further uprising in Katanga which culminated in the brutal murder of Europeans, copper mining company employees and their families, in Kolwezi. There was a harrowing picture of this massacre on the front of Paris Match, to which I subscribed at the time, and press coverage in the UK essentially amounted to the view that Africans were brutes who needed the white man to keep them in check. In this case the French intervened to keep Mobutu’s brutal kleptocracy in place.

It was Joseph Conrad who first suggested to me a different picture. At school one day we read a short story with the savagely ironic title of An Outpost of Progress. In this story, a forerunner of the rather better known Heart of Darkness, Conrad asks the question, who exactly are the savages, who are the civilised people?

This was the spur to dig deeper into the Congo’s troubled history, from which Europeans do not come out well. There is the appalling story of the Congo Free State, the private colony of King Leopold of the Belgians, which was, in effect, a giant labour camp, followed by the Belgian colonial period when active racism mixed with brutal indifference to the welfare of the Congolese. Following independence in 1960, for which the Belgians had done nothing to prepare the country, the Congo collapsed into civil war. Collapsed is possibly not quite the right word. The Belgians incited the Katangan secessionist rebels and were themselves responsible  for the bestial murder of Patrice Lumumba whose only crime was to want to run the country for the benefit of its people and not do as the former colonial masters told him. There followed a brutal and rapacious 32 years of rule by Mobutu which has left a country with a vast wealth of natural resources with one of the lowest average per capita incomes in Africa. Such are the fruits of progress as Conrad noted so presciently over a century ago. .

The British were there too. Somewhere deep in the jungle are the remains of the villa of a rubber merchant who tried to plant a piece of the Home Counties in the heart of Africa. The rain forest’s tentacles have now all but reclaimed this most curious monument to European hubris. The Congo was never a British colony in the formal sense but the British played a full part in the ransacking of the wealth of somebody else’s land. Reflections on matters like these should be as much as part of Mr. Gove’s National Curriculum as the jingoistic drum beating he likes so much. I doubt it ever will be. Maybe a new board game would help people to understand?

When Scouse is Better than Swede

On BBC1 tonight you can see a report presented by Ruth Jacobs about the Merseyside Model. This is an initiative to protect sex workers from the violence that seems at times endemic to their trade. What happens is that assaults on sex workers are treated as hate crimes and prosecuted as such, which means that more severe penalties are available to the court following conviction.  Te Mersey model has been promoted for some years now by groups campaigning for sex workers’ rights. More recently it has been discovered by groups campaigning to criminalise the purchase of sex through the implementation of the so-called ‘Swedish Model.’ Last week this article appeared in the Huffington Post. It starts out from the essentially ideological position that ‘all prostitution is violence against women’ and proceeds to advocate both the Merseyside Model and the Swedish Model. This article is so full of misrepresentations and non-sequiturs that it should not go unanswered.

The author starts with the assertion that all sex workers known to her engage in sex work for money. This is, I think, unsurprising. Did anyone ever seriously think that they do it for any other reason? After all a claim of the sex workers’ rights movement is that ‘sex work is work’ a job like any other. The vast majority of people do their jobs for er money. Similarly she states that 92% of sex workers would leave the sex industry if they could. But doesn’t that apply to most people in most jobs?  I can well believe that 92% of sex workers would stop selling sex if their lottery numbers came up,  but so would 92% of office cleaners, binmen, invoice clerks etc etc. What I think Apicella  is trying to demonstrate is that sex workers have been coerced. A brief application of this logic to other occupations produces absurd conclusions and shows the flaws in the argument. Her conclusions simply do not follow from her premises. Poor logic, unfortunately, runs though the whole piece.

The claims made in the second paragraph are questionable. They are at variance with the findings of most impartial academic studies. The claim that 50% of women were coerced into prostitution is particularly interesting. Without a definition of coercion it is, of course, not particularly meaningful. The issue of trafficking is not specifically mentioned in this article but is worth looking at briefly. Clearly coercion and trafficking are not identical but it is reasonable to suppose that there is a significant overlap between the two, particularly in the context of British studies given that British law applies a much looser of definition of trafficking than that set out in international law. One particular type of coercion, debt bondage, is any way closely related to trafficking. In 2009 Operation Acumen concluded that there were probably 2,600 women in the UK who had been trafficked into prostitution, out of an estimated sex worker population of 80,000. This works out at a figure of 3.25%. Now, I am aware that the methodology of Operation Acumen has been much criticised by academic specialists but that was on the basis that the numbers may well be an OVER estimate. Is it really credible to claim that there are nearly 40,000 non-trafficked, therefore British women, forced to work as prostitutes?

Where Apicella is right is in saying that sex workers suffer both stigma and violence. Stigma and violence are closely related as shown by the tragic case of Swedish sex worker Petite Jasmine who was murdered by her violent former partner in July this year. Despite his violence towards her, he was awarded custody of their child as Swedish social services deemed Jasmine an unfit mother, precisely because she was a sex worker. This happened in Sweden, and is evidence that the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients has, in fact, served to perpetuate the stigma suffered by sex workers and increase their risk of suffering violence assault. This important point has clearly escaped Apicella, and other advocates of the Swedish Model. If you’re a Swedish sex worker who rejects the official discourse on your life choices and refuses to be ‘rescued’ you can expect police harassment and difficulty in accessing, for example, social services. Stigma is a real problem, yes, but the Swedish Model only makes it worse.

Violence is a problem in the UK too. There is an organisation called the Ugly Mugs here which helps sex workers avoid potentially violent clients, the ‘ugly mugs’, through text alerts, through a facility for sex workers to file reports online, and by working with the police who support the scheme. This has been a widely acknowledged success. It is part of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects which includes a number of support and outreach services to sex workers including help and support for those wanting to quit. The UKNSWP has unrivalled experience in helping and supporting sex workers, and is strongly opposed to any form of criminalisation as can be seen from their long and detailed response to Rhoda Grant’s consultation in Scotland here.  You might have thought that people like Apicella and Banyard might listen to others who know more than they do but this is sadly not the case.

And what about the Merseyside Model? Apicella clearly fails to understand the essential contradiction between it and the Swedish Model. The Merseyside Model can only be effective where sex workers feel that they can trust the police. If they don’t trust the police they won’t report attacks. It seems obvious to me that, if the Swedish Model were implemented here, that would not be the case as the police would have a duty to arrest the clients and put them out of business.

The claims Apicella makes about the Swedish Model are , at best, dubious. It may be true that street prostitution has halved since 1999 but it has declined in other countries too, principally because of the internet and mobile phones. It is nothing to do with the change of the law. Apicella’s comment about respect for women being contagious is breathtakingly naive. Sweden is not, for example, a country where rape is taken seriously. In a case earlier this year a woman who had been injured in a very nasty assault at a party, where a group of men attempted to push a bottle up her vagina, was told by the judge who acquitted her attackers that she was to blame for her injuries a she had closed her legs to prevent the violation. Oh and trafficking hasn’t gone away either as you can read here.

Apicella is not the first British feminist to suspend her critical faculties in relation to Sweden and I doubt she will be the last. It is, however, a worry that some many voices are making themselves heard in support of a policy that is unsupported by evidence, a triumph of ideology over common sense.

Flowering in the Vase

It is a lingering regret that Bromsgrove Rovers never reached Wembley in the FA Trophy. Rovers twice reached the Quarter Final. Their replay defeat against Enfield in 1976 was a heroic failure against much stronger opponents but the defeat at home to Northwich Victoria twenty years later was a bitter blow. Now a Bromsgrove team is on the road to Wembley again, this time in the FA Vase. After three seasons when Bromsgrove Sporting, as a new club, were not eligible for the Vase, being in a national competition has given the club a real lift. A win at Westfields next Saturday would see the club in a national draw with the possibility of a tie against holders Spennymoor Town or another Vase big name.

As Rovers tried and failed to get to Wembley two of our North Worcestershire neighbours. reached the Twin Towers. The team from a carpet town I won’t mention but  I will talk about Halesowen Town’s Vase exploits in the mid 1980s. After losing in 1983 the Yeltz were back at Wembley in 1985 and won the Vase with a 3-1 win over Fleetwood Town. I went down to cheer them on and remember a wonderful occasion. The Yeltz played some brilliant football and were irresistible. I can still picture Malcolm Hazelwood’s superb pass to release Lee Joinson in the build up to the first goal and the instinctive link up play between the Joinson twins for Lee to make it 2-0.  Was this really 28 years ago? It is still a vivid memory.

The following year Halesowen retained the Vase with a 3-0 win over Southall. This was, however, neither a memorable game nor a particularly good performance. My match day programme says that one of Southall’s strikers was a 19 year old electrician called Les Ferdinand. I wonder what happened to him?

Ir wasn’t the Finals that caused Halesowen difficulties but the Semi-finals. I remember a tense second leg against Warrington Town in 1986 that the refereed struggled to keep control of and then a remarkable replay at Telford which finished 6-3 but in which Warringtom refused to lie down and which remained in the balance until the last five minutes.

They say that the semi-finals are the worst stage at which to lose and this is certainly true of the Vase. What I saw in the players’ faces at The Grove and then at the Bucks Head was fear, fear that all the hard work of battling through six rounds was going to be in vain. Once you reach the Second Round Proper you can be drawn against teams from other parts of the country that you know nothing about and who may be very good teams. There are a lot of rounds to get through, some long journeys to play good teams: the Vase is a tough competition and if you lose in the semi finals you know that, unlike the Trophy, you will probably never get so close again.

But that is the joy of the Vase. Now that even the FA Trophy has been devalued by Blue Square Premier teams with ‘other priorities’ it is the last competition that retains the essential spirit of the Cups, the last one where all the teams involved really want to have that day out at Wembley. Six months and a lot of football would lie between Westfields and Wembley. But who says it can’t be done?

I Met Her in a Club

down in old Soho where they drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry-cola” So sang the Kinks in 1970 which is now nearly half a century ago. The tale of the transgender sex worker Lola in a club was set in a Soho that was already a long established red light area. To judge from reports in the News of the World , which I read avidly as a child, it was a place of street workers, clip joints, sleaze, vice, crime, practically Sodom and Gomorrha in the heart of London.

When I finally went to Soho it was to a place that was rather different to what I had expected,  a place associated with rock’n’roll (the 2is coffee car was in Old Compton Street and a plaque adorns the building) Mod culture (Carnaby Street and Wardour Street) with a wonderful array of independent shops, restaurants, and cafes. In short it is an interesting and vibrant place so different from the commercial blandness of Oxford Street. Then, of course, if you did want a paid sexual encounter…….

I was there a few weeks ago, had a drink in the Dog and Duck pub on Bateman Street which sadly I don’t own, had lunch in the unfairly maligned Gay Hussar on Greek Street and generally mooched around. The sex workers are not exactly in your face, the only sign I saw was a couple of handwritten cards on doors in Wardour Street advising of the presence of a ‘friendly model’ upstairs.

I didn’t know then that Soho’s tradition of easy going tolerance is threatened by the Metropolitan Police. They have written to Soho Estates the major landowner in the area threatening them with prosecution if premises of which they have the freeholds are used as brothels. Consequently, leases have been cancelled and, on Tuesday women were evicted from a flat on Romilly Street. More evictions are expected to follow. The following day the English Collective of Prostitutes organised a demonstration outside Soho Estates offices in Greek Street which you can see here.

The Met are behaving in an underhand way. They would normally be required to go to court and produce evidence of illegal activity to be able to close premises used for sex work. By leaning on the landlord they are effectively bypassing proper legal process. In any case many of the working flats are occupied by women working alone. These are not brothels in English law so nothing illegal is taking place in them.

You will notice the weasel words of the Soho Estates’ representative on the lines of “I don’t want to do this I really don’t but…..” I, however, have the impression that they are not minded to resist police bullying because there is serious money to be made as a wave of gentrification sweeps in, bringing corporate uniformity in its wake.

Soho residents support the sex workers (see the contribution of the Soho Society representative 5 minutes into the video) first and foremost because they are part of the community, friends and neighbours, but also because the many independent traders see this as the thin end of a wedge. After all who needs an authentic family owned Italian coffee bar when you can have Starbucks?  Or a traditional London pub serving quality real ale when you can have a designer bar serving ice cold lager?  This is not just about sex workers,  it is about defending the unique character of one of the last genuinely interesting areas of central London. Please give them your support.

More information on the protests and defending Soho can be found here and here

A Tale of Harry and Roy

I am going to start with two footballing scenes. The first is at The Hawthorns in February 2011. West Bromwich Albion are playing West Ham United in a Premier League game. Roberto di Matteo had been sacked the week before and the new appointee Roy Hodgson is at the game as a spectator before formally taking up his duties.  For half an hour or so the Baggies take West Ham apart and lead 3-0 at half time. But no-one is relaxed. 3-0 is just not a safe lead for this team. When West Ham score early in the second half we fear the worst which duly arrives. It finishes 3-3 amid shambolic defending.

The players had been due to have a few days off but the new manager tells them they are coming in on Monday. There is work to do. At the next match the Baggies, without playing particularly well, look better organised. Obver the next few weeks they stop leaking goals, and begin to pick up points. Albion stay up comfortably and pick up a long awaited win over Villa on the way.

The proof of the pudding is in he eating and even if Hodgson is a rather conservative coach, the pudding he served in his 15 month tenure at B71 was appetising enough. Maybe his time at England has been a disappointment, maybe his tactics have not always been right but who could do better given the limited amount of talent available and the top clubs doing their best to hinder rather than help?

The second scene is at Dean Court Bournemouth in 1971. This is according to a university acquaintance who recalled a 3-0 win over Aston Villa in a Third Division match where Harry Redknapp the West Ham reject reject playing at outside left   tormented Villa’s right back before, in the dying minutes, receiving the ball and sitting on it to taunt his hapless opponent.

This surely is the most apt image of Redknapp, a lower division journeyman and local hero. like a southern Cec Podd or Alan Buckley. It was as a local hero, now managing the Cherries that he enjoyed his one significant managerial success, an FA Cup Third Round win over Manchester United in 1984. That’s a long time ago. and he hasn’t done much since apart from sweet talk the gullible London football press into thinking he’s some kind of football genius.

But what about the 2008 Cup win? What about it, bought as it was with lavish amounts of money Portsmouth FC didn’t have, which is why they are now halfway down League Two. Harry Redknapp is, essentially, a small time footballer and a small time coach with a high opinion of himself that he has conned the press and part of the public to share. That is the essence of the matter. He is a con man, a Cockney spiv if you like, and he who should keep his counsel, particularly with regard to a coach who, whilst even less distinguished as a player, has walked the walk as a coach. .    .