Maes space

You might be wondering what exactly happened at the National Eisteddfod in Bala earlier this month.

Well, so am I.

And I was there.

There are many eisteddfodau (which is the correct plural, where the last syllable rhymes with ‘pie’) around Wales and the world. But the National Eisteddfod is unique, it’s the biggest and varies its location, alternating between north and south Wales annually.

This was only my second National Eisteddfod. To the people who’ve been attending since a very young age, I described it as being this exotic thing in my mind, like Rio Carnival, which was perhaps overstatement. But what you get in this blog post is an atypical viewpoint of a newcomer, or possibly outsider.

(By the way, if you can write Welsh and you have any comment to make on this you should consider starting your own blog and making it there. Lle mae fy mlogs, gyfeillion?)

For most other attendees, I imagine the Eisteddfod takes on a familiar, reassuring regularity every summer. On one hand it’s a Welsh language idyll for a week, understandably protected in order to retain the essential vibe which makes it unique (because there are plenty of other events catering for various languages and tastes – the Eisteddfod is just plain different mmkay?).

It’s also a chance to do things common to all humanity like listen to music, have a drink, see friends and cousins. And then maybe compare children. You know, with the Joneses.

Cymry Cymraeg take the latter to a whole new level. To my mind, the default state of a young child is shyness and total inability to step in front of a crowd, let alone entertain one. When I was eight years old, say, I was in Berkshire and we had roughly one or two light entertainers per class, which is maybe 5% give or take. I don’t know how the schooling is done but by the time a Welsh language child gets to the stage, he or she will possess total confidence to sing, perform and dramatically contort the face with a very fine degree of eyebrow control.

Obviously at the Eisteddfod you get the top percentile, the very apex of primary school level performance craft, but it is definitely embedded in the culture. I could list all the things about the Eisteddfod that were novel to me but this is a good one because it means there is a constant flow of competition-ready offspring being bred in folk artforms and Eisteddfod traditions before I’ve even built my tent. Or figured out the appropriate Welsh verb for this (codi to raise, not adeiladu to build).

I had a great, great time. Gigs, camping, good weather, good company. The Eisteddfod took over the whole of Bala town, which felt like the heartland and small enough to be conducive to fringe events and spontaneous happenings and encounters. Last year in Cardiff was very dispersed by comparison, where the maes was on the margins of the city centre at a distance from fringe gigs and other goings on. That and it was diluted, by the rest of the city and by actual rain.

In Cardiff the focus ended up on the maes which is not the sum total of the Eisteddfod experience. Please don’t let it be the sum total. In fact, reaching the point around the fifth hour of deciding which of three quango stands to visit – all of which totally irrelevant to your life and work – yields a kind of existential despair as you crumple the day ticket in your pocket. What I’m trying to say is, there are a lot of organisations who mistakenly think it’s important to have a presence and show the face at the maes and it ends up feeling like a row of uniform display stands at a business expo. Unless they can pack a mean display stand and dazzle us then they probably shouldn’t bother at all. Oh and cool freebies. Little tractors I can give to my nephews would be good.

I had to dig to find the cultural stuff at the maes but it was there, stuff like Tu Chwith at the Pabell Len (literature), Pictiwrs showing shoestring films and Twm Morys roaring and banging a stick on the ground. I saw someone singing Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper but in Welsh and on a harp which is something to write home about, I guess. There were a couple of noteworthy tech launches too (Cysill grammar checker and a belated but welcome phone from Samsung that does predictive text in Cymraeg).

Over in town, the inaugural Gorsedd Y Gîcs event was good too. It’s fun to be in a gorsedd.

The (proper) Gorsedd and the costume is what many people associate with the Eisteddfod and is again, only a part but admittedly rather peculiar.

Watch the video above. I missed this bit so I’m glad I caught it here. The commentary is in English. As you can see, any remaining poetry hopefuls are lambasted for a lack of vision, organisation and clarity. There is no poet decent enough this year so the chair kinda just yawns at the audience. The audience can’t do much but applaud – I don’t think it’s the TV edit – it looks like they do just break out into applause at such mediocrity regardless.

(For moments like this somebody should invent negative applause where you suck bursts of sound from the air in disapproval.)

In the clipped parlance of Twitter, lolspeak and leetspeak this is known as a #fail.

In life itself I’d like to create this kind of tension at times by announcing to a packed auditorium there is a chair for something but that nobody deserves to sit in it. I’d reserve it for things which make me disappointed and very cross, like public transport and the general state of things.

6 Replies to “Maes space”

  1. Hi – Bala’s my home town (albeit having left it some 20 years ago) and I find your comments really refreshing and interesting. I was at the E all week broadcasting, and it’s so good to have a fresh pair of eyes to look at something I’ve grown up with.
    Cheers, Sioned.

  2. Great post. It was my first eisteddfod, and many of my thoughts were similar to yours, especially the business expo feel of the maes. (Lovely to meet you there, btw.)

    I was at the chairing (or non-chairing, as the case may be), and there was also an audible gasp from the audience when the judge announced there was no winner; that didn’t seem to make the television edit. But yeah, thinking about the audience applauding mediocrity is pretty funny! People are too nice sometimes… (:

  3. Annwyl Carl,

    The audience are applauding the judges for maintaining the high standards of the competition. There is quite a lot o pressure on them to award the chair because the ceremony is the highlight of the week and the media and the local Eisteddfod committee, well everybody, have high expectations and naturally want to see somebody ‘being chaired’ (idiom Cymraeg) and if there isn’t a winner it could effect the overall legacy of the Eisteddfod in that area (but this won’t happen with Bala because it was such a brilliant Eisteddfod).

    So the audience are disappointed but show respect and support of the judges’ decision not to chair, appreciating that while chairing the bard is a great moment for the nation, it is not worth jeapordising the standards the national Eisteddfod because it is such a prestigious title. This is why ‘teilyngdod’ is such a big word when the judge is reciting the adjudication, and people get very excited when they hear positive vibes from the judges knowing that someone will be chaired, or like I found myself this year, ‘ooo’-ing sadly when it became clear not one awdl had pleased the judges.

    It doesn’t mean the awdlau submitted to the competition were terriibly bad, the standard of the competition is very high. Some bards may even publish their work in a magazine after the Eisteddfod for the public to read (and inevitably compared to the winning awdl), but this probably won’t happen this year because of the shame of no ‘teilyngdod’ – worthiness. After the Eisteddfod, a volume of the winning literature with full critical appraisal from the judges is published and the bardic community can be very critical of the judges if a wrong decision has been made.

    Waaa! The politics of the chairing!

    Sori, unwaith fi’n dechrau dwi methu stopio!

    Menna

  4. Sylwadau wych, diolch!

    Ymddiheuriadau am fy gramadeg drwg. Rhywbryd hoffwn i dechrau blog arall yn y Cymraeg – rhywbeth gwahanol siwr y fod. Ar hyn o bryd, gobeithio gallai fy ffrindiau yn darllen fy profiadau trwy’r Saesneg.

    Sioned, mae Bala yn hyfryd, rwyt ti’n lwcus!

    Courtenay, dw i’n meddwl mae nhw’n gallu wneud mwy gyda’r maes. Rhaid iddo maes yn creadigol. Nawr, efallai dyn ni’n chwilio am lluniau o’r eisteddfodau yn y gorffenol am syniadau! Braf i cwrdd a ti hefyd.

    Menna, mae system yn eitha diddorol achos (dw i’n dychmygu) mae’n pwysig i datblygu’r barddoniaeth a chadw’n traddodiadol ar y un pryd. Felly beth fasai’n digwydd os rwyt ti’n (neu rhywun arall) sgwennu rhywbeth arbrofol ond da iawn iawn – a dydyn nhw ddim yn licio fe? Mae system yn swnio fel mae’n anodd i newid pethau – efallai. Pa cylchgrawn ydyn nhw’n cyhoeddi’r barddoniaeth i mewn, fel arfer?

    x

  5. I actually performed in the National Eisteddfod y’know. I was playing in a recorder ensemble with about four other kids from my school, I guess I was about 9 years old – it was the mid 80s anyway. We played a couple of phwat toonz called “Hajduk Dance” and “I Pricked My Finger On A Thorn”. I’m telling you, the competition was FIERCE. Walking out onto that massive stage in front of cameras and hundreds of people was intimidating, but a rush. As a primary school teacher in England now, I am often taken aback by the non-Eisteddfod culture that we live in: why is it not cool to perform? We were under such pressure to perform on the day – you are constantly made aware that it was a real honour to represent your region – which was scary, but when/if you pulled it off it was great and you were a hero! I guess the difference between Welsh performing arts at Primary level and England is that it is the coolest thing ever to be involved with a bit of cerdd dant or singing or playing instruments and to be seen to do well, whilst here it is definitely NOT cool to stand up in front of others and do something different or weird. At least for the vast majority of kids I see and work with, anyway.

    And as for the empty chair, I see it less of a celebration or acceptance of mediocrity and more of an expectation of excellence. I chose to take the applause as the people approving the judges’ expectations being higher than anything that was on offer. Refreshing I think in a world of abundantly instantaneous mediocrity. Let’s applause high standards, even if we don’t quite make them!

  6. (Still catching up with a summer’s worth of missed rhithfro action, sorry.)

    Felly beth fasai’n digwydd os rwyt ti’n (neu rhywun arall) sgwennu rhywbeth arbrofol ond da iawn iawn – a dydyn nhw ddim yn licio fe?

    Mae’r Gadair yn cael ei rhoi am gerddi yn y “mesurau caeth”, felly mae arbrofi gyda ffurfiau yn anarferol, ond mae’n digwydd. Yn Abertawe yn 2006, er enghraifft, daeth Eurig Salisbury yn agos at ennill y gadair gyda cherdd oedd yn cynnwys txtspk. Os dw i’n cofio’n iawn, oedd un o’r tri beirniad o blaid cadeirio Eurig (yr un ifanca o’r tri, eto os dw i’n cofio’n iawn). Mae Eurig yn feistr ar y cynghanedd, felly mae’n arbrofi o’r tu mewn, fel petai.

    Yn Nhŷ Dewi yn 2002, enillodd Myrdin ap Dafyd y Gadair gyda dilyniant o gerddi oedd yn cynnwys mesurau anarferol iawn – dw i ddim yn gwybod digon am gerdd dafod (ac o’n i’n gwybod llawr llai pryd hynny), ond dw i’n cofio yr oedd sôn bod Myrddin wedi mynd bach yn “rhy bell” gyda gwthio’r ffurf i siapau newydd.

    Ond os ti moyn gweld arbrofi go iawn ar lwyfan barddol yr Eisteddfod, dylet ti edrych ar rai o enillwyr y Goron. Gan fod honno yn cael ei rhoi am gerddi vers libre, mae llawer mwy o chwarae o gwmpas gyda’r ffurf. Yn 2002 (eto), enillwyd y Goron gan gerdd oedd yn cynnwys elfennau barddoniaeth concrît. Er bod hyn yn hen newyddion yn sîn barddoniaeth Saesneg, dyw e ddim yn gyffredin iawn yn y “Cyfansoddiadau”. Bues i mewn cyfarfod lle gafodd y gwaith ei drafod, a doedd dim llawer o flew ar dafodau beirdd gwlad Ceredigion. Oedd e fel bod mewn un o “Two-Minute Hates” George Orwell. Maen nhw o ddifri am eu barddoniaeth lawr fan hyn.

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