Jeremy Bowen’s ‘This Union: Being Welsh’ – so far, so disappointing
Lewis Eldred Davies
Last week, a three-part series on ‘being Welsh’ aired on BBC Radio 4, with Cardiff-born BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen navigating us through what it is to be Welsh in modern Wales.
When launching the series, Mr Bowen said that he is sometimes made to feel he’s ‘not Welsh enough’, despite being born and raised in Wales.
Thus far, the series has given us a greater glimpse into the conflict which our presenter faces regarding his identity, rather than what it is to be Welsh in 2022.
Since the presenter left Wales in the 1970s the nation has changed, unfortunately for the listeners the assumptions of the presenter remain squarely in the 70s and barely shift during the episodes.
The first episode begins with Jeremy Bowen in Cardiff for a Welsh rugby international, in what he describes as the “single biggest expression of Welsh [identity]”.
Now if I were a Welsh football fan, I would have probably switched off at this point. For the first episode, the relationship between football and Welsh identity is merely a footnote, with a lazy suggestion that it’s an expression of national identity in the north of the country.
The suggestion that rugby is the national game of Wales is a narrative that we in Wales have been happy to accept and regurgitate to the rest of the UK and elsewhere for some time.
The contributions from Carolyn Hitt, Tony Collins and Martin Johnes are insightful and informative, describing how the working-class sport came to be such an important avenue for expressing Welshness.
These contributors are the saving grace of the series, providing listeners with the history and knowledge of Welsh rugby that is second to none. However, for a Welsh audience this may be seen as going over old ground, repeating a story which many are accustomed to.
The story of Wales beating the mighty All Blacks in 1905 is well-known to most, cementing rugby union as the south Walian game during the industrial revolution.
It can be argued that the episode is superficial in its analysis of how sport and Welsh identity are intertwined.
Modern Wales has produced some incredible athletes – a Tour de France winner, the world’s most expensive footballer, a two-time British and Irish Lions captain, the first British woman to win a Gold Olympic medal in any cycling discipline, and a Paralympian who is the world record holder in both shot put and discus – to name but a few.
Unfortunately for this BBC Radio 4 series, they were unable to even acknowledge or even take pride in Wales’s sporting success.
The discussion regarding the politics of Wales is on the money. Jac Larnar, one of the leading academics on Welsh politics and identity provides a clear, succinct picture of how Welsh identity is tied to class, ‘left-wing’ values and national myths to the extent it relates to voting.
Jac’s insight on Welsh politics are one of the very few redeeming features of the episode.
The second episode of the series, focusing on the Welsh language is pitiful.
Jeremy Bowen is honest when he says that Welsh language plays no role in his Welsh identity.
However, instead of being open and truly exploring the role the language plays to Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers alike, the presenter took every opportunity to reaffirm his prejudices towards the language.
Jeremy Bowen’s obsession with language as the primary determinant of national identity is frustrating & reductionist.
He speaks of his fear that the “Welsh Government’s determination to spread the language risks devaluing the identity of Welsh people like me”.
Surely learning a language adds to someone’s identity, not detract from it.
The language provides a gateway to other aspects of Welsh culture, broadening a person’s outlook on Wales.
So, who was the series produced for? Arguably not an audience in Wales who are better versed in what modern Wales is and how that impacts on their identity.
Prior to the EUROs in 2016, the Welsh comic Elis James presented a wonderful Radio 4 programme called “In Wales the Ball is Round”.
The 2-part series provides a far more colourful, vibrant depiction of how Welsh identity relates to the national sports of football and rugby than what has been offered thus far in this series.
On the whole, BBC Radio 4 ignores Wales in its day-to-day productions. Maybe it’s best if we remain ignored. I’m sure BBC Radio Wales or BBC Radio Cymru could have produced a far more meaningful, in-depth analysis of what it is to be Welsh.
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