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.