Strolling with my dog down the road in the village in North Wales where I have been staying for the last month, I passed a small boy aged about six, dressed in a green school uniform, who was walking on the top of a stone wall, his hands outstretched to form airplane wings. His mother was behind him, watching.
“That’s a nice little dog,” he said in a strong Welsh accent.
“Yes, he is,” I replied.
“My dog’s black and white and a little smaller than yours,” he said.
“What’s he called?” I asked.
“Jack,” he said, and laughed, returning to his mother, who was smiling.
I walked on. For some reason that I could not at first fathom, this slight exchange had a strong emotional impact upon me. It was as if a weight had fallen from my shoulders. What was it that had so moved me?
Then I realized: it was the little boy’s uninhibited innocence. In the city he would already have learned the shame of unsophistication that has both destroyed childhood and lengthened adolescence into a permanent condition: for precocity in the ways of popular culture and street life swiftly gives way to arrested development.
It’s all too easy in the heartachingly beautiful landscapes of North Wales, and in the human warmth of its villages, to descend to dithy-rambs about the simple life. But the genuinely simple life here, before the advent of modernity and such amenities as hot water, was harsh and difficult. No doubt narrow-mindedness and bigotry abounded, too.
The chapels—Sinai, Bethel, Zion, and so on—are closing, converted into luxury homes or garden centers or even restaurants (I can recall when restaurants remained almost unknown in North Wales). And in the towns, despite the flourishing of the ancient Welsh language—the oldest in Europe with a continuous poetic tradition—the prevailing culture is the deliberately lumpen and grungy culture of modern Britain: pop music leaking out of the shops into the street like poisonous exhaust, young women, however fat and suety, exposing midriffs and pierced belly buttons to the appalled gaze of the middle-aged. After a certain age, you don’t go to the center of Welsh towns on a Saturday night any more than you would in English provincial cities. In Transylvania after dark, it was Dracula who kept you indoors; in Britain, it is the young who do so.
A friend, a valiant Welsh-speaking teacher, describes how, in a school in a small town in North Wales (there are no towns but small ones in North Wales), the pupils would turn their backs on her as she entered the classroom. They did not want to learn anything, because they thought they knew it all already. One of her problems was to stop the girls from applying makeup during class. In the war between makeup and the communication of knowledge, makeup won.
She gave up teaching and opted for the easier life of showing tourists round the old jail of Beaumaris, the beautiful little town on the Menai Straits that boasts the only remaining original wooden treadmill in Britain. In the summer, hordes of beer-bellied and heavily tattooed visitors arrive, usually the worse for wear, and demand to see the gallows. If the local economy began to flag, a few public executions would doubtless revive it quickly.
Even in the country lanes around Bangor, evidence abounds of the collapse of self-control. Empty plastic bottles, cans, and fast-food wrappings litter the hedgerows and ditches. No one, it seems, can go farther than a few yards without refreshment.
In the elegant Victorian seaside resort Llandudno, a real antiquarian bookseller runs a shop. He deals mainly in books of Welsh interest and in the Welsh language. Sometimes he has very rare books, of which only one or two other copies may exist in the world. He tries to interest Welsh universities and public libraries in them, but they always reply that the books are too obscure for anyone ever to want to look at them. The books, it turns out, end up on the shelves of American institutions.