“When I was growing up my mum told me that they [the Welsh] hated us [the English] because we stole their water. And it’s true, we did. And I’m sorry. But your water was lovely.” So soliloquises Benjamin Zephaniah, Birmingham Rastafarian poet of Jamaican ancestry, as he drives in the direction of this year’s Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (the Frenhinol doesn’t seem to get a mention these days) to learn what on earth the annual festival of Welsh language culture and competition (and druids) is all about.
Zepahaniah was a more than engaging host. His charm and passion for poetry and people enabled him to put people at ease – despite committing what used to be a capital crime of speaking English within sniff of the competition tent – and learn (and share) the passion of the attendees and performers at an event that might not date back to ancient times but which does belong to a Bardic culture centuries old and, as poet and chair-winner Twm Morys observed, has now been going for 200 odd years in its own right.
There was good mix of arts represented, sadly only in passing owing to limits of time. Cerdd dant got a good airing and I enjoyed Zepahaniah’s own singing along to the harp playing. It was interesting to see his reaction to realising that the members of the first choir he heard sing probably really were builders – art and culture by and for the people. There was also a good introduction to the strict meter poetry cynghanedd for which the Chair is awarded. Alex Jones of One Show fame popped along to talk about how proud she is of being nominated to the Gorsedd of Bards, and Cymdeithas yr Iaith made an appearance although no one seems to have translated the signs for our Benjamin – although the point was made that it’s traditional that they protest about something. Zephaniah thought they could show more fire.
Apparently I qualify via my degree for membership of some outer level of the Gorsedd. I doubt I’d survive an interrogation though, not least as I’d have to rush off to Google Translate these days. Via some cosmic coincidence I had a postcard of some Zephaniah poetry in front of me whilst I was struggling to get to grips with Welsh in my first year. And I’ve only ever been in the flesh to one Eisteddfod despite always catching a fair bit of it via S4C. But Zephaniah’s infectious enthusiasm and, again, seeing all over again just how much quality there is in this people’s art has made me get the dream going to maybe pop over to Abergavenny next year. If I have even a quarter as much fun as Zephaniah it’ll be a helluva time – but I doubt I’ll come even close to expressing it all as well as he did in this programme.