Playground Wales

Oh, the joy! the euphoria! Didn’t you feel the surge of national pride, the collective Cymric breast heaving, positively heaving, at the joyous news? – Lonely Planet declares ‘North’ Wales to be the bestest al fresco fun fair around.

Well, obviously, it didn’t use those words (© Jac o’ the North), but that’s what it amounted to. Though the front page of Wednesday’s Wasting Mule seemed a little confused as to where exactly it was talking about (nothing new), believing that the award had gone to the whole country. Thankfully, page three made it clear that ‘North’ Wales was the recipient.

wm-lonely-planet

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So what exactly has ‘North’ Wales won? Well, it seems that northern Wales came fourth in the Top Regions category of the best destinations to visit in 2017. (The other categories being countries and cities.)

Northern Wales came fourth in the section subtitled “offbeat destinations demanding our attention”. Mmm, anyone who’s visited Betws y Coed or Caernarfon, Llangollen or Beddgelert, will find the use of that word ‘offbeat’ rather bizarre (and I haven’t mentioned the coastal resorts!). But, anyway, read the Lonely Planet piece for yourself.

So what are the other “offbeat destinations” with which north Wales was competing? In first place came Chocquequirao, “hidden across the deep Apurimac Valley . . . the last Inca refuge from the conquistadors”. Which makes this Andean location sound fascinating, and a worthy winner.

Second was Taranaki in New Zealand, which is certainly off the beaten track, confirmed with Lonely Planet‘s description it being a “remote location”. I shall return to the matter of tourism in New Zealand in a minute.

Then, one place ahead of ‘North’ Wales, we find the Azores. Described by Lonely Planet as the “next Iceland” and as a result we are warned, ” . . .  the secret won’t last: the Azores have seen a 31% increase in tourism over the last 12 months, so visit in the 2017 sweet spot before things really take off.” 

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Now I don’t know much about the Lonely Planet publication other than that it gets a lot of publicity – certainly here in Wales, for every time we get a mention it seems to merit a big news splash – but who pays it any real attention? Maybe its target audience, which I’d guess is the English middle class and its gap year offspring. (I belong to neither category.)

And that’s because, I suspect, Lonely Planet sees its role in identifying ‘offbeat destinations’ before – as seems to be the fear with the Azores – these idyllic locales are discovered by hoi polloi demanding ‘El fish and chips, Pedro – and pronto!’. Without, I hope, sounding snobbish, this is perfectly understandable.

tourism-stats
Courtesy of Visit Britain

In September, Mrs J and I took one of our regular trips to Scotland, and no matter where we went, from the Robert Burns Museum to Sweetheart Abbey to Threave (origin, tref) Castle, we met tourists from all over the world, but nowhere we went was overwhelmed in the way that parts of Wales so often are.

Of course Edinburgh can feel a bit ‘crowded’, but it’s bustling and cosmopolitan, it’s energising . . . and a hell of an improvement on being surrounded by miserable Brummies on a wet Sunday in Barmouth. These people milling around Princes Street and the Royal Mile are also spending lots of money (helped by the fact they’re not slumming it in ‘a caravan down the beach’), and when they go home they’ll tell their friends how wonderful Scotland is.

Scotland gets a better class of tourist, and certainly more overseas tourists. These even spend more per head (heid?) than overseas tourists to Wales. The figures for 2015 bear this out, for we see that while Scotland saw 2.6 million visits from overseas Wales welcomed just 970,000. In Scotland, the average spend per head was £651, compared with £422 in Wales. Giving a total overseas spend in Scotland of £1,695m against our £410m, less than a quarter of Scotland’s income.

There is of course a historic explanation for this. When railways became capable of transporting large numbers of working class people in relative comfort, and for prices they could afford, this advance placed Wales, unlike Scotland, within reach of many of England’s cities and industrial regions. Though that does not explain why we should still be providing holidays on the cheap, going for quantity rather than quality, 150 years later.

There are other, perhaps equally prosaic, explanations for Scotland attracting more overseas tourists and fewer English day-trippers than Wales. Distance being a pretty obvious one. Also, Scotland is much larger than Wales, with a greater variety of scenery. Scotland has airports with regular long haul flights to destinations around the world. Finally, Scotland has a beautiful and historic capital city.

But none of these explain the lack of ambition in the ‘Welsh’ tourism industry. Nor should they be accepted as excuses.

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After my Caledonian digression let me return to what I hinted at earlier when mentioning Taranaki, second among the ‘Top Regions’. A friend of mine has visited New Zealand a few times; it’s not cheap, but then, he’s a wealthy bachelor. I remember him telling me about one particular trip to the Southern Alps. He had to book in advance, prove he was healthy and insured, and as they liked the cut of his jib he was taken on a trek through the mountains lasting a few days.

The Southern Alps are protected by various National Parks and other forms of legislation to the point where the chances of a coachload of drunks turning up and making nuisances of themselves is close to zero . . . unlike on Snowdon, for example.

snowdon-tourists-caption

Returning to the Lonely Planet review of ‘North’ Wales we see that what got us noticed was zip wires, wave machines and subterranean trampolines. It seems logical to conclude that if we have more of these, and maybe a water chute running from the top of Cader Idris down to Dolgellau, or Talyllyn, we might achieve the coveted third place next year. Dare we dream of second place!

Grouped with the last refuge of the Incas, the as yet unspoilt Azores, and the majesty of the Southern Alps, a few big boys’ toys scattered about the north seem laughably incongruous, and unworthy. Especially when you read under the ‘Responsible Travel’ heading, “At Lonely Planet sustainable and responsible have always been parts of our vocabulary.” ‘Sustainable’ and ‘responsible’ are words that have never tarnished the lexicon of ‘Welsh’ tourism.

Which I suppose exposes the central contradiction of tourism – ‘Come see this awe-inspiring place . . . and by so doing, help despoil it’. Which explains why I admire the New Zealand approach that realises beautiful and irreplaceable environments and landscapes such as we find in the Southern Alps need to be protected from tourism.

If the Southern Alps had been in Wales they would by now have been extensively and thoroughly ‘developed’, suffering regular visits by twat-like politicos spouting bollocks so vacuous and inane as to make Vacuity and Inanity rise up in indignation. But on the bright side, there would be local employment – collecting garbage.

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When you look around Wales at the ugliness tourism has inflicted, the anglicisation it has brought, the environmental degradation, the social disruption, you have to ask what sort of people are we to have allowed this.

The answer is that we remain what we’ve been for maybe 800 years – a people with no real control over our country. Tourism is a perfect example, not only does it serve England’s interests, but ‘Welsh’ tourism is largely run by, and therefore profits, English people. Why should they give a toss about wrecking our homeland?

What’s best for England will always prevail over the best interests of us Welsh, and devolution has entrenched this system of exploitation even more firmly. I recently coined a term for this phenomenon, devocolonialism. In a future post I shall expand on what I put out recently in a tweet.

devocolonialism-tweet

I feel this needs to be done because anyone believing that devolution has achieved anything positive for Wales needs a cold shower of facts.

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Beginning of the End

The Scottish independence referendum was ‘won’, Alex Salmond has resigned, ‘Loyalists’ roam the streets of Glasgow attacking Yes supporters and burning Scottish flags . . . danger over, what was all the fuss about? That, I’m sure, is how the less sophisticated among us will interpret – and be encouraged to interpret – the events of the past few days. They couldn’t be more wrong. After settling back into Chateau Jones, and collecting my thoughts, here’s my report, starting with a wee travelogue.

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Don’t misunderstand me, I love Edinburgh, but in the murky weather my wife and I experienced there last week those big and imposing brown buildings can look ever so slightly oppressive. And if a few are somewhat architecturally overwrought then the Scott Monument is positively hysterical. I’ve looked at it from many different angles over the years and I can only conclude that the architeScott Monumentct finished designing it before realising he’d only used up half the budget; so from then on it was a case of more knobs here, more fol de rols there, and let’s squeeze on another excrescence . . . to the point where the whole thing is so overburdened with adornments that it looks more like a Thai temple than a memorial to the man who ‘invented’ Scotland for foreign readers. (I have even read someone blaming Sir Walter Scott for the American Civil War. For being the most popular author in ante-bellum Dixie he stands accused of implanting the ‘chivalric’ outlook in Southern menfolk, and encouraging the ultimately destructive delusion that being true to these values would overcome the North’s greater wealth and superior manpower.)

That said, Edinburgh is a great city and a real capital. Princes Street, the Royal Mile and other thoroughfares were still swarming with people – mainly high-spending overseas tourists – at seven in the evening, stopping to have their photographs taken with pipers that could be found every hundred yards or so. (One of whom played Calon Lân for us!) Of course there was the tawdry and the kitsch, but if you’re from Canton, Cracow or Chicago then you may not recognise what is authentically Scottish (and nor will the people back home you’re buying presents for). Even the architecture is different. Look around Edinburgh, or any Scottish city or town, and you know immediately that you aren’t in England. Finally, there are the centuries-old institutions embedded into Scottish life, making devolution, and even independence, a natural progression for a nation in everything but a seat at the UN, whereas Wales has political devolution sitting top-heavy and almost unworkable on a country otherwise integrated with England through countless cross-border institutions and ‘Welsh’ civil servants taking orders directly from London.

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My original plan for polling day had been to take the train to Dundee, but £60 each seemed too much to pay for just over an hour’s train journey, so I drove to Stirling. (Ah! that Cardi blood, coursing close to my wallet.) First stop, Bannockburn; then Stirling castle; finally, the Wallace Monument.Bannockburn poem

The equestrian statue of the Bruce at Bannockburn is big, and in its way it’s impressive; though I suppose similar, slightly overbearing statues to national heroes and liberators can be found from Bratislava to Bogota. Though the whole site was recently rescued from the realm of superheroes by the addition of a poem on a new timber ring atop the rotunda. Written by Kathleen Jamie I reproduce it for you here. The references to “mere transients” and “Small folk playing our part” tell us more of national struggles than huge and dominating statues ever can. (No, I’m not turning socialist.) Bannockburn was such a crushing defeat for the English and their allies that the only sizeable number of foot soldiers said to have made it alive out of Scotland was a detachment of Welsh spearmen, who had the good sense, or leadership, that helped them stick together and fight their way to safety.

The castle at Stirling overlooks the town and the surrounding countryside and is still used as a military barracks. It has regularly played a part in Scottish history, not least in 1314, for the English army the Scots defeated on the plain below was attempting to relieve Stirling castle, the laStirling Castlest English garrison in Scotland. The arrangement agreed was that if the castle was not relieved by mid-summer then it would surrender to the Scots. Great though his achievement may have been, I suppose that for those of a leftward political persuasion Robert de Brus, being an aristocrat, does not arouse the same levels of affection accorded William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace, whose memorial was next on our agenda.

There is, fortunately, a minibus service to the base of the Wallace Monument from the car park and visitor centre below, but after that, you have to climb the 246-step spiral staircase. Which is not as daunting as it sounds due to the regular exhibition rooms you’ll encounter on the climb, these present welcome opportunities to get your breath back. The Wallace Monument is also in the Gothic Revival style but more restrained than the Scott Monument in Edinburgh. It was completed in 1869 and funded by public subscription from within Scotland and thanks to a number of foreign donations, one of them by Giuseppe Garibaldi. It stands on Abbey Craig, from which Wallace is said to have watched the English army (with its Welsh levies) taking up positions on the plain below before the Battle of Stirling Brig in 1297. An army that might have outnumbered Wallace’s forces by as much as five to one, making us realise what a great victory the Scots achieved that day.

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Enough has already been said about the referendum and its result, so I’ll avoid adding yet another lengthy post mortem and limit myself to just a few general observations.

As the debate went on it became increasingly clear that ‘The Union’ is not some wondrous creation bestowing benefits on all, something to be defended from sacrilegious maniacs wishing to dismantle it; no, the Union is, more than anything else, about prestige – England’s prestige. For with Scotland gone ‘England’ would lose a third of her territory, and this would lead to all sorts of dangerous questions, such as whether ‘England’ should retain her seat on the UN Security Council, or whether, in the EU, ‘England’ – now situated, in population terms, somewhere between Spain and Italy – should still be counted alongside Germany and France. And then there’s those nuclear weapons on the Clyde – with them gone Uncle Sam would find a new best friend.

There is a minority in both Scotland and Wales that understands this, and buys into it, often for reasons of personal advancement. Then there is a much larger constituency that will support the Union because they can be persuaded it offers them more than independence can deliver, or perhaps they can be swayed by purely emotional appeals to ‘shared history’ or ‘standing together against the Nazis’. Support for this interpretation comes from a poll taken just after the referendum which shows, among other things, that 59% in the 25 – 34 age bracket voted for independence, but only 27% in the 65+ age bracket. The shared experiences, whether WWII or British Steel, are largely meaningless for most Scots under the age of 55. Then there’s devolution itself, which for many in the 65+ plus age bracket is something they’re still unfamiliar with, and perhaps uncertain about, whereas for younger Scots, for whom ‘the shared experiences’ belong to the distant past, having a Scottish parliament is normal and – as I mentioned earlier – makes independence almost a logical progression.

This threat to English prestige is the reason we saw political parties, media, banks, businesses, Orangemen and other elements that benefit (or can be persuaded to believe they benefit) from Greater England, unite to oppose Scottish independence. Equally obvious was the strategy of isolating Alex Salmond and presenting him as the sole advocate of the policy. For how often did we see anyone else interviewed? Would anyone know from the media coverage that the influential Scottish Green Party was supporting independence? Or that over a third of regular Labour voters were switching to the Yes camp? And where was Tommy Sheridan, or would his face on the screen have reminded viewers of the perfidy of the London media? No, the independence debate was all about that megalomaniac Alex Salmond. By comparison, there were countless rational and unbiased voices, urging Scottish people to vote No – in the interests of Scotland, of course – voices amplified by a complaisant media and supported by other reasonable voices such as those of Deutsche Bank warning that Scottish independence would precipitate another Great Depression.

Now there is a price to be paid for this unholy and unnatural unity prompted by blind panic when it was thought that Alex Satan might prevail. It’s falling apart now before our eyes. The Tories, under pressure from their own backbenchers and Ukip, have to hold out the prospect of English votes for English-only legislation if not a separate English parliament. Labour cannot accept this due to its traditional reliance on Labour MPs from Scotland (and Wales). But as I’ve mentioned, and as this poll I linked to earlier shows, 37% of those who voted Yes last Thursday voted Labour in the 2010 UK general election . . . are they going to vote Labour again in 2015? Given that we can reasonably assume that most of the Labour voters who supported independence belong to the younger age groups then it’s also reasonable to conclude that Labour is facing a demographic time-bomb in Scotland – yet Labour is the only party that can maintain the Union. Making Labour’s opposition to an English parliament understandable, but hopelessly optimistic, based on a flawed and outdated premise.

LD Voters

The tactic of isolating Alex Salmond may have won the referendum, but the longer term consequences are all positive for both the Scottish National Party and the wider cause of Scottish independence. The SNP is increasingly perceived as the only party that can stand up to the liars and the bullies down in London, a gang to which the #RedTories clearly belong. And this is not just me spouting off – since the referendum the SNP has signed up over 20,000 new members, giving it more members than the Liberal Democrats, a UK-wide party. We were told that the referendum was not about Scotland v England, and of course it wasn’t . . . but it is now, and an increasing number of Scots feel that the only party representing Scottish interests is the SNP.

Scottish independence is guaranteed within a decade, and it probably won’t need a referendum.

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So where does all this leave Wales? Well, among the many promises made to the Scots was that there would be no revision of the Barnett Formula which sees Wales short-changed in comparison to Scotland and the Six Counties. So Wales looks set to gain nothing, although vague promises of extra powers have been mentioned. Carwyn Jones has, I believe, made a few statements. I say ‘I believe’, because no one listens to Carwyn ‘the veto’ Jones, whether in Wales, England, or Scotland. The man is a weakling and, consequently, a nonentity universally ignored. There may even have been contributions by some person called Crabbe, who’s about as relevant to Wales as Jones is to Scotland.

Though Jones’s predecessor had something to say in his weekly column in the Wasting Mule. If I understood it right, Rhodri Morgan knows that Northern Ireland does well out of Barnett because of the Troubles, and Scotland does well because of the fear of Scottish nationalism. There his reasoning cannot be faulted. But then he goes on to argue that Wales should also be rewarded because we ” . . . didn’t put the whole of the UK through the mincer via referendum or civil war . . . “. So, in other words, we should be rewarded because England has nothing to fear from us. Doesn’t this clown, after a lifetime in politics, understand how it works!

His argument may have self-destructed but it still says a lot about him, and his party. As I have made clear, I detest the Labour Party. I regard the Labour Party in Wales as nothing but quisling scum that have held Wales back for a century. There is no hope for Wales until there is no hope for the Labour Party in Wales. It would be easier to achieve that happy state if we had a party like the SNP. But instead we have a party most of whose leading members still dream of a coalition government with Labour in 2016. Which suggests to me that the Labour Party might not be the only obstacle to Welsh progress.