The Welsh language and Class: Paradoxes and Contradictions

A photograph looking out across mountains

This blog is hard to write. Not just because it’s a rare paid opportunity, and I’m worried it just won’t be good enough, but because this morning I had yet another difficult exchange with my landlord. He doesn’t seem to mind that raw sewage is flowing down the side of the house and into the garden. On top of this, my Dad asked me to let my brother stay at my house before his court sentencing, where he will likely go back to prison for some years. Trying to navigate my relationship with my brother really hurts at the moment, as well as anything to do with our family system.

Mornings like these are defined by feeling like a nervous wreck. My stomach hurts, heart racing, I feel light tremors pulsing through my hands. In truth, the only condition I’m suffering from is a class condition, not the pathology of an anxiety disorder. When things like these don’t set me off, I’m more or less fine. Sadly though, these episodes occur often.

Sitting down and writing on days like this feel impossible. How could I write anything when my mind is racing full pelt around the question of how I’m going to escape my housing situation? How is this latest crisis going to affect my daughter? 

I end up making feeble attempts at trying to ground myself – lest my hyper aroused nervous system leads to me being reactive and short tempered. This makes me wonder about “lower class” people always depicted as aggressive. The mental load held day to day from carrying the (under)class condition is monumental. It will inevitably have an effect on anyone’s capacity for patience and politeness. 

Trying to wrap my head around the relationship between class and the Welsh language is my painful obsession. It’s a weeping wound that is being aggravated by daily life. Every day my face is rubbed into the fact that things are needlessly more challenging than they should or could be due to this arbitrary class pyramid scheme of a society we live in. 

A photo of a lake

It feels difficult to integrate my experience of class and language identity in Cardiff. The disorientation of being a native Welsh speaker with parents from Gwynedd, living in an area gentrified by middle class “gogs” (north Walians), to having grown up for my first 8 years in the south Wales Valleys, just as John Major was closing of the last coal mines. 

I feel uncertain about my relation to class and language to say the least. Whatever I “am”, one thing I know is that I feel a complete lack of anything that comes close to reflecting my experiences by what the current Welsh language culture projects a Welsh speaker is. Save a few absolute exceptions from many years ago that prove the rule,  such as Sgint by Bethan Marlow and the chaos of poverty and having a severely mentally ill parent in Un Nos Ola Leuad.

In English there are scraps of contemporary writing here and there of what I can relate to; from Stephanie Land, D. Hunter and Nicole Rose’s autobiographical works to publications like Lumpen journal. However these writings don’t get under the skin of the Welsh speaking part of me either – a part entangled with complex and unique cultural norms. Class is an issue in English language publishing too, but with many millions of English speakers in the world statistically more working & (under)class people are more likely to break through. 

Welsh language culture projects a close knit community of communities. This ranges from earnest solidarity towards what I have perceived in a few spaces as downright nepotism. Nepotism of course exists in the elitist English speaking world, but is further from our view. 

The Welsh – a people who have struggled for the survival of our mother tongue, and for their right to exist in the face of an onslaught by one of the most powerful cultural colonisers in the World (at the same time having some complicity in colonisation). A legacy of hundreds of people having gone to prison and many years of struggle for the language. Growing up without our history being taught in schools and having our language marginalised and dismissed, in addition to being the butt of many jokes in popular culture – it forces something to emerge from that. 

The poetry, the Cerdd Dant, the Urdd, the Ysgol Sul and the doesens of other Welsh language cultural expressions. People of all generations coming together and making space for culture and community (in Welsh). There is an orthodoxy that we are part of something, we’re different. We are holding on to some values that are different to that of empire and consumption. Pacifism, music and literature are pillars of whatever this is. And whatever this is – the laudable principles entangled in this feels like they shouldn’t abandon or marginalise. 

trees on a ridge

The fact is though, this is the feeling I have, to the point where writing some things in Welsh feels too difficult – there is a psychological barrier because I feel a lack of trust with my imagined Welsh speaking audience that I feel are in denial about this. Some people are left behind – our culture does not represent the whole spectrum of society, despite middle and upper class Welsh speakers attempting to feebly fill this gap –  especially in regard to Welsh novels. Authors such as Llwyd Owen, Dewi Prysor and Cynan Llwyd to name a few. 

Working class existence in these books are a parody of a gangster film more often than not. The complexity, chaos and tenderness of working and (under)class life is noticeably absent. We know that middle class writers trying to capture working class life doesn’t work (unless extensive research, interviews etc were done as I believe was the case with Bethan Marlow’s Sgint) – why do they keep doing it? Why is this happening instead of trying to solve the issue of no working class voices in our cultural discourse?

There is a lot to unpack here – this is a snapshot of an immensely complex situation. I do know however that class and my Welsh language culture are of fundamental importance in my feeling of estrangement in terms of writing.

I feel a keen sense of betrayal when on one hand my culture expresses that it’s one of communitarian values, but my experience has shown how conditional membership in that community really is at times. 

Underclass. Lumpenproletariat. Chavs… Different people call them different things. 

The authoritarian left paternalises, the libertarian left romanticises, both use the lumpen as props and don’t take this group of people seriously. The right on the other hand just vilify the underclass. In a world where class and its intersecting oppressions, race, gender, disability are invisibilized and normalised, who is to blame for the pitiful condition  of underclass but those people themselves – I mean, we live in a meritocracy after all don’t we? 

Chavs” by Owen Jones sheds light on this. This book, without hyperbole – contextualised my life and the struggle I have sought to be a part of for the last 15 years. Why is class struggle so different now? Why does it feel so irrelevant to so many?  Where did this pathological emphasis on meritocracy in our society come from?  

Anyone with talent can “make it” as long as you leave your people behind. In the time of industry – people struggled collectively to better their lot as a class, a community. After Thatcher’s violent ideology was imposed, poverty, loss of identity and community became the norm for millions – we as a class never fully recovered. In post-industrial areas unemployment and all the social problems it brings became a feature of life –  and the Chav and underclass became the bogeyman of our society. 

The scrounger – this bile against incapacity benefit claimants and the unemployed was always there. As a child I remember my Mum in floods of tears after being for some kind of ‘test’ to see if she should still receive this benefit. She had to go through the humiliation of being grilled on her ability to cope. Treading the fine line between “mentally ill enough” to be entitled to the benefit but not mentally ill enough to warrant intervention by social services (the social services came anyway in our teen years). Everything she had fought for in terms of her mental stability she had to surrender for the sake of pennies. All her work to be well she had to strip down to the most unwell version of herself – to prove that this benefit was something she needed. 

Be it single mothers or “yobs”, be it disabled people on incapacity benefit / PIP – the vilification of this group of people is in part what the Tories used to justify austerity. It’s the picture they painted with the help of the mainstream media to gain tacit consent for the devastating welfare reforms that mean that now in 2024 nothing works any more, so many institutions are barely fit for purpose. 

I say this from experience having to deal with friends and relatives probation services, social services, healthcare and so on. There are no decent jobs, pay and conditions seem to be awful, whatever you end up doing. People leap from one thing to another, hoping something will be a bearable way to get by. Dan Evans portrays this vividly in his recent book on class – “A Nation of Shopkeepers”.

It worked – yesterday’s propaganda is today’s common sense. Apparently the issues of our society are not structural, but stem from the moral failings of those who don’t seem to be managing very well in this society. It’s the ultimate example of victim blaming. Capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and so on all intersect to produce a result where women, people of colour, the disabled and the poorest are seen as the architects of their own demise, dragging everyone else down with them.


A photograph of a lake surrounded by mountains

What do we owe each other?

My mother was in and out of psychiatric hospitals since her early twenties. From the small pieces of information I’ve had over the years, she received horrendous treatment. She did her best to look after us with very little support growing up despite having a major mental illness. Some years ago she had to come off all medication due to the concentration of these medicines in her liver being dangerously high, her psychic health has since profoundly deteriorated. 

Her “episodes” are frightening and confusing. After her parents died, 3 of her 4 siblings cut contact with her. Living in a council house in a rural village, and struggling to get by. Being sanctioned at the job centre after saying in a psychotic haze that she owned several houses, she told me she struggled to eat. I tried to give her money. She would shout at me because the exact way I handed her the money was “wrong”. 

I was struggling myself, especially in terms of my housing situation and money in general. I ended up shoplifting during desperate times for food to eat. For my Mum, accepting help, although she would begrudgingly do it, released a fury in her, usually directed at me. My Mum is a symptom of this individualist, capitalist society that left her to fend for herself while being seriously unwell – she didn’t choose to be this way. 

My Mum hasn’t had central heating in over 6 years, she has turned her television to face the wall from being absolutely terrified of being caught without a TV licence fee. So that theory would know that she doesn’t use the television if “they came”. All this time my brother was in and out of prison, self mutilating and attempting to kill himself, succumbing to addiction. 

After I got some compensation from a police arrest I bought my Mum an energy saving heater that wouldn’t be too expensive to run, a Dyson in fact. Some paranoia or resentment towards me meant that the next time I visited her I saw this £400 heater thrown in the long wet grass in her front garden. 

Trying to support her feels impossible. She didn’t want it. From the way she was talking it seems she had thought that I had put poison in the heater. Of course this is psychosis, she is sick and I shouldn’t take it personally – but the fact that she thought I would want to hurt her is upsetting. 

Rocks on the top of a mountain

As time wore on, her brothers and dozens of cousins carried on with their lives in another small rural town in Gwynedd, a couple hours away. They had families, they renovated and built houses, ran businesses. I would say they were blissfully ignorant of our struggle as a family, but they heard some things from the one elderly aunt that kept some sort of contact with my Mum. Now and again two of my aunt’s children would visit her too and for that I’m deeply grateful. But she needed much more. 

I went to every health service multiple times. Getting services to help was impossible because my Mum doesn’t fit neatly into a box, and wouldn’t cooperate. This was probably due to her past medical trauma of being placed in the asylums and psychiatric hospitals of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In terms of mental health, unless you are about to kill yourself or someone else imminently, there is no support apart from token things like 6 councelling sessions from the GP. 

I lived in despair. I was signposted in a vicious circle from one organisation to the next. They couldn’t help me but they would take my time to tick their boxes and “signpost” me to the next place. They wasted my time for their own funding reporting. This only ramped up my rage. 

Nothing will get better for her, no statutory service, no charity will do anything and I find it more and more hard to believe my brother will find any safety and recovery, not that he is going to prison soon for the 4th time.

My Welsh language culture would have me think that families help each other, or that there’s a community to fall back on. Unlike the anglo-american-neoliberal-individualism that’s the core of the mainstream English language culture, some of the old principles of solidarity endure. This is not my reality.

It feels to me that the lumpen state is a virulent disease, and will spread quickly to anyone that gets too close to us. I didn’t expect my Mum’s family to “save” us, or even me, but a text asking if I was ok, or some concern for my Mum and brother would have meant a lot. I grew up going to their houses, making cakes and watching films in their clean, well heated living rooms and kitchens. They didn’t want to maintain the connection into my adulthood, lest I bring them the problems of my family. 

A couple of exceptions prove the rule, those in the family who are closest in class terms to us have tried. My Dad’s side of the family, where most of the cousins have had issues with police and spates in prison have although been dealing with their own stuff, it’s always felt as if they wanted to know us, have sympathised with us, though they didn’t have the resources to give any practical help. 

Addiction makes you feel rejected. The addict, self medicating their pain away will always choose what their nervous system’s demands before us. Understanding addiction as almost a form of OCD has helped me understand this, as someone who had OCD themselves. Addiction is compulsive behaviour and thinking someone could just “stop” just by will is medically incorrect.

The wound of my family’s dependance on alcohol and drugs is really painful, and it doesn’t get easier. I’ve spent many nights unable to sleep, in tears. Desperate to help them but not knowing what to do. I feel like they have nothing but struggle and pain.

A photo of a lake

Even during some of the most beautiful moments in my life, the pain can be acute, I went on a trip and saw a landscape so breathtakingly beautiful it made me cry. I was racked with guilt and grief that my brother and Mother will never get to experience anything like this. 

This hurts, but it makes sense in the logic of addiction. What I can’t explain and hurts almost as much is my estrangement in relation to my relatives. They don’t have an addiction as an excuse, why dont they want to know me? 

Why don’t they care what’s happening to us? Interacting with me maybe made them feel cheapend or shone a light on their precarity – a reminder of their proximity to what they have spent all their lives trying to get as far away from as possible.

What does the Welsh language have to do with this? 

It’s complicated. 

Culture is seen as a way to transcend. The highest prize in Welsh language culture is the chair of the Eisteddfod for a work of strict metre poetry. “Wylit,Wylit Lywelyn, Wylit waed pe gwelit hyn’. Often I’ve wondered if I had been successful in writing or poetry, would my extended family want to claim me as their own? I’ve grown to realise that doesn’t really matter. I can’t force people to want to be my family by trying to be successful in things they respect. 

Welsh culture, which has a political base to the left of anglo-american culture would have you think that people should take care of each other. I think this is where my feeling of betrayal lies. You’re supposed to help those in trouble, the disabled and mentally ill, the poor, young people, those on the verge of homelessness. But the truth is, often people don’t. Our cultural myths in Wales don’t stand up to reality. My trust in what we all tell ourselves and each other in public discourse, in literature – it’s not there, it feels like empty rhetoric.  

I had not intended for this piece to be so intensely personal. However before I talk about class and the Welsh language in more of an objective way, why I think we are living in this strange, somewhat geographically split class dynamic – I wanted to put my own cards on the table. 

I’m filled with bitterness and pain as I see the middle class, Welsh speaker section of my family abandoning their disabled, and underclass sister and her similarly disabled and underclass son – and leaving me to deal with their situation without any support, when I just can’t, mentally or materially. The guilt of this is constantly tormenting me.

I had not intended to write something so personal, or so devoid of hope. I have been writing about this subject in order to understand the paradoxes and the contradictions that define my experience of being a “working class” Welsh speaker. Writing is just writing, and I can’t expect it to to help me gain closure on this topic, however sharing this immense frustration, in the hope that others can relate is a small step towards reconciling these two intersections of being, that are under immense pressure.