Darkness on the Edge of Town : An Interview with Cllr. Aaron WynnePlaid Cymru County Councillor, Crwst Ward, Conwy
"The language, the whole culture of the Lakota, comes from the song of our heartbeat. It's not something that can quickly be put into words. It's a feeling, it's a prayer, it's a thought, it's an emotion - all of these things are in the language." - Larry Swalley, Lakota
A decade ago I stood on a short, stubby street of stone built terraced houses in a Welsh coastal town. It was a late January evening and there were no lights on in any of the windows; I had a sudden, dislocating unease as I realised every house on the road, that had once held a family, was now a holiday cottage or a second home. A small but concrete expression of loss.
The town I was standing in would once, not so long ago, have been a place where Welsh was the medium of everyday communication ? and now it is not. A living language needs its communities and place in the home, the school and the street.
In contrast to this narrow, personal experience, the recent headlines for the Welsh language are positive - last year?s ONS figures, the number of Welsh Duolingo downloads, or the growth in demand for Welsh medium schools. To frame this positivity, the Welsh Government has a target for a million Welsh speakers by 2050.
But scratch deeper and the picture shifts to darker tones.
Census data between 2001 and 2011 (the next one is in 2021) has mapped out the language?s decline in many core areas. There is a silent, but huge, diaspora from Welsh-speaking areas, as young people leave for educational and work opportunities. The brain drain is mostly one-way. Housing is being bought at an alarming rate for holiday homes and buy to let - reaching almost 40% of sales in Gwynedd last year; a figure that excludes the large numbers of people moving to the area to retire.
Then there is what you hear, because what I saw ten years ago is not limited to one road or place. Stand on the streets of some North Walian towns and all that is left in former Welsh speaking heartlands is the ghost of a community written in its street names. In others, where a decade ago you would have been alone as an English speaker outside the tourist season now you are not.
Maybe the overall situation is just confusing, but between headline statistics and the sense you pick up in everyday life must lie a truth. To get nearer to it, I wanted to form a more accurate, iterated perspective by exploratory conversations with people who have a finer grained understanding than I do.
First I spoke to Aaron Wynne, a Plaid Cymru County Councillor in Conwy, who on the day I met him had just been selected by his local party to stand for the Aberconwy Welsh Assembly seat in 2021.
Welsh-speaking, Aaron, as a previous interview attests, is driven by clear, identifiable beliefs, but also guided by hard evidence. He has a fundamental frankness scarce in his chosen profession; he does not think politically what he should tell you, but takes care to tell you what he actually thinks.
I began by asking him if he feels that Welsh is under threat as a living language, and the reply was an emphatic, "Yes."
He went on to essay over an hour across social history, education and economics, but leaving the firm impression that the latter, by determining shifts in demographics, was the central issue.
He started by describing how social changes, such as losing the centrality of the Welsh-language chapel, have made Welsh-speaking communities more vulnerable, with education now left holding the line, saying, "In a lot of small rural communities the Welsh medium school is all that is left. If you lose that you lose the centre point and you lose the community."
And then he developed the thought, ?We need to revisit how we look at Welsh-speaking communities - especially as we face great social changes now - so that there is always some form of centre point. And that needs to be relevant to the Welsh language and use the Welsh language.?
This fragility is compounded as, despite progressive bilingual policies, many children come out of English medium schools with high grades in Welsh GCSE but without the social confidence to use the language, nor the cultural connection to want to. Aaron was happy to address this directly, touching on his own core political ideas as we discussed, then took a tangent from, the issue.
He first highlighted the academic context, "The course difference is important ? the difference between first and second language Welsh courses." Then indicated a pragmatic resolution, ?We need to treat each child individually on a continuum - when a child starts in primary school they are all at different places, but everyone must end at the same place - which is confidence in both Welsh and English. A much more flexible approach.?
Before expanding into what happens to language skills once gained, as students move to find opportunity, ?Young people, first and second language Welsh speakers, are moving out, taking their skills and language and they are not returning, they are not coming back.? Detailing further, ?The population is steady - but the people coming in to replace them are not the from the same demographic. I am all for freedom of movement, that people can choose where to live - but the young people go from here for work or university opportunities, and they settle in the places that have what they need.?
I asked if he saw that outward flow as a major problem, he answered emphatically again, ?Yes, and not just for language, and it is across Wales - we have, because of demographic churn, an ageing population. Conwy County, for example, has one of the oldest average ages in the UK. In simple terms, the number of people working, paying taxes to support all the health and social care we need, is inadequate.?
He then offered a more specific intervention, designed to help more young people, bilingual or not to stay in Wales, where their skills and energy are needed, "We now fund universities by essentially giving a student the money and they then give it to the university they choose; the Welsh Government?s university budget goes to students and a proportion of those take it elsewhere, over the border. We could give the universities the funding directly, and improve the universities whilst encouraging young people from Wales to study here, unless they cannot do the course they want in Wales."
He continued, broadening out the theme from education to work, "Economic development policy needs to change too, especially how we look at employment. When AMs and MPs in North Wales talk about jobs they talk about inward investment, big companies coming in and creating work. I disagree with this emphasis ? an approach that often means putting our eggs in one basket, that lacks resilience. The big company goes and the jobs go. There?s no safety net."
"The suspension of work at Wylfa is a great example of this - and not just the local jobs, the whole of North Wales suffered a setback with that decision. And even if it had gone, or does go, ahead - Wylfa 1 and Trawsfynydd were built in the past and those are still two of the poorest areas in Wales."
Which led the conversation to tourism, the direct cause of the pressure on many places, yet the creator of a huge number of jobs.
For Aaron Wynne the issue is a matter of balance, "We have an amazing tourism industry in Conwy, but it is not a great employer in some ways. The issue is the same in Llandudno or Llanrwst - hotels in Llandudno, adventure tourism in Llanrwst. The proportion of the population in this seasonal work is even greater in Llanrwst though, and in the winter months you can feel there that people are poorer. You can see the knock-on effects to non-tourism businesses, feel that people are struggling to pay their bills. That pressures a place. We need something steady to balance it."
The conversation then tested a party political point, that served to underscore the notion of the hidden centrality of economics to the language debate, as Aaron illustrated a core principle Plaid Cymru holds dear for the resolution of Wales' deeper ills, ?We want to work from the ground up, and help to build home grown businesses, and support them to support the community. Building employment working with our small and medium-sized companies, not attracting short-term fixes from outside. Aston Martin being in Wales is great ? but there is a better way to do it in the future.?
Continuing, "Instead, we need to support and grow smaller businesses better. In future instead of giving, for example, companies like Aston Martin tax breaks to attract them, they should go to small firms, increasing local employment and creating a more vibrant and resilient economy."
"We hope for one thing to solve our issues - that?s not how it works."
However you stress Aaron Wynne's views by questioning them, he is motivated by people, communities and fairness; and he has an honest intent, through working from the local upwards, to improve the lives of people who live in North Wales, whether they are Welsh-speaking or not; whether they live in Llanrwst or Llandudno.
The drift of the dialogue held a clear message. Although language is vital to him, it is in an overall social and economic context, as something essential to people and their communities, not as a 'single' issue; to define this further I did ask blankly why a minority language should be protected, and his response was stark, "It's our identity, it is who we are ? Welsh is the language of Wales - everyone should have the right to speak it. Community and language go hand in hand. If we lose language, we lose community."
As the bilingual poet and novelist Alys Conran said, "I could not live without the culture and language that surrounds me."
Aaron is optimistic - we finished the interview with him enthusing about the 2018 Cardiff Eisteddfod, "It was amazing ? one of the best I have been to. No fence, no charges ? you could stumble on it. Maes B was an open stage in Cardiff Bay, it was a free party and people turned up who had never experienced Welsh language music before. We need to offer this to everyone - Cardiff has to become a template and a symbolic way of presenting ourselves. It was a trial ? it was the biggest step so far in modernising (the event) and we need to work out what that means, but it worked well, and we shared language and culture with some people for the first time."
Then, before he left for a Council meeting, he framed a final point of hope, explaining the increase in Welsh learning in Abergavenny since the Eisteddfod was held in that overwhelmingly English speaking town in 2016.
Aaron Wynne and Alys Conran identify something profound; the people, community, language and culture that surround you are the meaning of who you are - weaken any element and there is an existential loss. Take this as fact and there is a reciprocal obligation rooted in society; those of us who do not speak Welsh have a moral responsibility to protect and aid the people and communities that do, as they do to us. What this might mean seems at least as rooted in economic policy as cultural.
The pressures are global. When travelling to Welsh-language gigs I have encountered a palpable depth and density of community. I have felt that same warmth in an inner-city Liverpool café, in an Irish village pub and at an Indian wedding - but it is everywhere rarer than it once was.
And one thing is certain - in some places change is already absolute; as I looked around on that cold January street a decade ago it was no longer about language, there was simply no-one left living there to speak a word.
This is the first in a series of interviews on language and place. The title for the piece, 'Darkness on the Edge of Town', is taken from a landmark Bruce Springsteen album, which features contrasting songs of hope and loss.