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Keeping up with the Joneses

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IT'S more than a decade since devolution and 'Cool Cymru' redefined Wales. So what does it mean to be Welsh in 2010 and are we still cool? If the cliches of Wales as a land of rugby and sheep are gone and the mines long closed, what have replaced them? How Welsh do the 2.98 million of us living here feel, and has that changed since the process of devolution and the world of celebrity culture, boom and recession altered the landscape? Social commentators, actors, artists, sports people and politicians are in rare harmony saying that Wales is now more confident as a nation.

They may disagree on the reasons, but the majority of voices believe Wales in 2010 projects a bolder, more modern image around the globe.

But old impressions die hard and some say that more must be done to strengthen our political, cultural and economic clout as the 21st century gets underway.

Sharon Morgan, one of Wales's most respected actors, who campaigned for the Welsh language and devolution in the 1960s, credits the Assembly for the new national self assurance. First Minister Carwyn Jones is in no doubt this is the case, saying: "In 1997, if the vote had gone the other way we would have disappeared in the minds of the rest of the world. We would have gone into our shells."

But Paralympic gold medallist Dame Tanni Grey Thompson thinks that our new confidence has more to do with economic regeneration.

And, like it or not, many outside Wales are likely to know about us through celebrity culture, music, sport, fashion, film and television.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ryan Giggs, Duffy, Ioan Gruffudd, Julien Macdonald and others give us glamour and a place on the world stage.

Television and song have undoubtedly helped put Wales on the map, with shows like Last Choir Standing and Pop Idol, and series like Doctor Who and Gavin and Stacey.

Doctor Who director James Strong believes television has breathed new life into Wales in the last few years. Strong says it was a cultural, as well as fantasy, invasion.

"A lot of people were surprised when Doctor Who went to Wales to be made (by BBC Cymru Wales)," he recalls.

"South Wales wasn't known as a centre for television drama then and Doctor Who completely changed that.

"There's now a plethora of productions and we pioneered the trail.It's great to challenge perceptions that everything has to be done in London, Manchester or Edinburgh. Television has done a lot to breathe life into Wales.

"Doctor Who showed that Wales has the talent and can deliver."

Strong lives in Bristol, but the director's grandfather came from Ferndale and he visited often before starting work here five years ago.

With his part-Welsh, part-English heritage, he feels a stronger tug to Wales since working here.

"I have family here and after five years working here I feel Welsh," he explains.

"When I visited Wales as a child, I'd see these rundown places affected by recession.It's really nice now to see new life breathed in."

Mike Ruddock, the man who led Wales to its first Grand Slam win in 27 years against Ireland in 2005, is too modest to take any responsibility for helping boost Welsh confidence in the midnoughties.

But there's no doubt that such a win left a wave of good feeling in its wake, a sense that we, as a nation, could do anything we set our minds to.

Mike now lives and works in England as rugby director of Worcester Warriors in the English Premiership, but says his strong Welsh identity is a vital part of who he is.

"At this time of year, I always have a bit of a banter with the lads about Wales and England," said Ruddock, who was born to an Irish mother and Welsh father.

"Thirty mad Taffs came up from my village in Blaina to watch my team play and then watch England against Wales in the Six Nations recently. My Welsh identity is important to me. You can't shake off the accent; you are who you are and I'm proud to be Welsh."

Ruddock has noticed a distinct change in Wales since his childhood in Blaina. "Wales has grown as a nation," he maintains.

"When I was growing up, we were quite insular and were recognised by coal and the steelworks.

"But with globalisation we've become more recognised. Many people I speak to in England talk about the beauty of Wales and what a great city Cardiff is now.

"We have great universities and people come into Wales to study."

Official statistics back his assertion. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that there are 18,615 international students studying in Wales - 15% of the higher education student population in fact. And more people are moving in than out.

In 2007, 15,500 people migrated into Wales from overseas while 7,000 people migrated from Wales abroad.

For those who stay and those who come in, more of us are choosing Welsh medium education. So how important is language to our identity? In the last Welsh National Identity Survey back in 2001, 60% of adults stated their identity as Welsh, but among people who could speak, read, write and understand Welsh, a much larger number, 89%, thought of themselves as Welsh only - rather than Welsh/British.

Just how much more Welsh people feel, or not, will be revealed next year when the 2011 National Census will include a Welsh tick-box for defining nationality for the first time.

Stifyn Parri, who set up SWS, the Welsh club for ex-pats in England and abroad and whose agency Mr Producer promotes the Llangollen International Festival and other events, says we need to focus less on our differences and more on what binds us together.

He feels language can be a barrier for some, as does National Eisteddfod organiser Hywel Wyn Edwards.

"I still think we're behind and should worry less about who can speak Welsh and who can't, who is from the north and south and who is militant and who is not," says Parri.

"It would be ideal if we all clubbed together and promoted a bright and confident nation."

Edwards agrees that such unhelpful divisions still exist. "There is a difference between north and south and that will never go away," he states.

"What I hate is when people are saying, even in Welsh, 'we can't understand how you talk, because you're talking north or south Walian Welsh'.

"I'm from Flintshire, in the middle, so I don't see the problem.

"I go up and down Wales in my job and meet people from all over who feel Welsh."

He says that the National Eisteddfod has worked hard to promote itself as a celebration for all.

"There's a misconception from some people that you have to speak Welsh to come to the National Eisteddfod," he adds.

"We try our best to include everyone. That's quite a battle for us to address, and we really try to tell people from the outset that you don't have to speak Welsh, you can still enjoy it. If we went just for Welsh speakers, it would be a very, very small festival indeed and not attract the many thousands who come.

"We depend on non-Welsh speakers, and people who do or perhaps don't know anything about Wales.

"We always think of who will come from within an hour's drive of the site.

"This year the National Eisteddfod is in Ebbw Vale, and there will be people coming from England who can't speak Welsh."

Edwards credits famous faces like opera giant Bryn Terfel for helping raise the profile of the Welsh language here and abroad and agrees celebrity culture and mass media has helped shape more positive, modern images of Wales.

"People know more about Wales now and know about it through all sorts of things," he says.

"A lot of it has to do with television programmes and famous people like (classical singer) Katherine Jenkins.

"It's surprising the number of Welsh people who are in the public eye in Britain and beyond.

"You hear Bryn Terfel on the radio and they even pronounce his name correctly now and don't even have to say he's Welsh.

"I heard him singing in Welsh on Classic FM recently. I'm certain that wouldn't have happened a few years ago."

Edwards points out that many more Welsh choirs now perform in England, Scotland and abroad.

"The BBC programme Last Choir Standing had two Welsh choirs in the final, Only Men Aloud and Ysgol Glanaethwy," he explains.

"What that showed was they could sing as well or better than anyone else, but it wasn't the old cliche of singing Myfanwy and just standing there and singing in the stereotype way of male voice choirs.

"Rhydian (Roberts) on X Factor also showed that we in Wales, although we're the smallest nation in terms of numbers in the UK, can stand head and shoulders with the rest in all sorts of spheres."

Edwards, like some others, has reservations about those old-fashioned images of children in tall hats and aprons on St David's Day, however.

He says he came in for "a lot of stick" when he told The Western Mail three years ago that he'd rather people ditched the habit which gave Wales a backward-looking image. At the time, he said Wales was in danger of stereotyping itself with tall hats and colliers' outfits, which should be swapped for red clothes, daffodils and national football or rugby shirts. Edwards is not keen to re-open the controversy, but says: "Personally I'd like to see them move away from the old fashioned images." Ann Thomas from Cyfanfyd, a Cardiffbased organisation promoting education for global citizenship in schools, believes Welsh national costume is just one aspect of Wales and we need to highlight other ones. "It's nice to maintain links to the past but if you go to Welsh craft shops you'd think we only turned out love spoons," she points out. "We have to be careful to balance tradition and heritage. "I wouldn't like to see St David's Day without national dress and think that it's a shame if everybody goes in rugby kit. "But, on the other hand, many see rugby as more representative of the Wales we have now." She also stresses that for some, their Welsh identity is part of a multi-cultural heritage.

Latest Assembly figures show that in 2007, 9% of all live births in Wales were to mothers born outside the UK, a rise on 1998, when only 5% of births were to mothers born overseas. From 2001 to 2007, the percentage of people in Wales from minority ethnic groups increased from 2.1% to 2.9%, with the largest group being Asian or Asian British. In 2007, this group made up 1.2% of Wales' population. It is a minority, but one that lives here and has as much claim to being Welsh in 2010 as anyone. As Thomas points out: "A colleague of mine describes herself as firstly a woman, then a Welsh woman and then a Pakistani woman." Cardiff, which has one of the oldest Muslim populations in Britain and is home to the first mosque built in the UK, in 1860, also has a historic Somali population of 8,000 tracing its roots to the 19th century. Salma Ali, 22, was born in Somalia as civil war raged and fled to Cardiff as a refugee aged six. "I see it as a positive thing, being Welsh and Somali," she says. "You get the benefit and contrast of having two countries. I think of both my countries as home." Globalisation might be a dirty word to some, but it has its benefits. As more people migrate in and out of Wales, understanding and knowledge of what and who we are will grow. And some people come not to live, but to visit the beaches and mountains, cities and villages.

Their demands for more luxurious hospitality have been met by growing numbers of acclaimed chefs, with Wales now boasting four Michelin starred restaurants in Tyddan Llan in Clwyd, Ynyshir Hall in Powys, and The Walnut Tree and The Crown, both in Monmouthshire. Bryan Webb, owner of Tyddan Llan in Llandrillo, moved back to his native Wales from London seven years ago. He is a Fellow of the Master Chefs of Great Britain and his restaurant has been named as The Good Food Guide readers' favourite restaurant in Wales (see page 18). He would like Wales to become a 'foodies' destination', but warns we aren't fully there yet. "Produce in Wales has improved immensely in the last 10 to 15 years," he explains. "Having a Michelin star will, hopefully, help make Wales a food destination and people will make a holiday of it.

"There has been a change in products available but Wales, unfortunately, has only got about 12 really good restaurants. "My Welsh identity has always been very important to me and I try to use that in my work. In London, I always used Welsh produce. One of our signature dishes was sea bream with lava bread." Stifyn Parri would like us to display our talents and produce to the world more effectively. "You see a lot of confident artists from Wales being internationally renowned. "But I still don't think that our Welsh produce gets as much applause abroad as it should do," he claims. And he thinks that Wales missed the opportunity to market itself more on the back of Cool Cymru. In the mid to late 1990s bands like Catatonia, Stereophonics and Super Furry Animals grabbed attention, while the nation grabbed headlines after voting yes for devolution. "I don't think we've become cooler since Cool Cymru, but we should be cooler," Parri says with regret. "There's been a surge of confidence in the last 20 years, but we aren't so confident at sharing our talents with the world as a nation.

"I always feel our language and deep rooted cultures are kept close to our chests whereas, if we were a different sort of nation, we'd promote them. "Llangollen International Eisteddfod opens its arms and says to the world 'come to us'. "But when you come to a lot of our Welsh-speaking cultures, such as singing, then there are very few events that happen for the world to see. They're usually done in a field at an eisteddfod in rural Wales. "Insecurity, lack of vision and lack of confidence are definitely still here." Parri cites boxer Joe Calzaghe, actors Matthew Rhys and Michael Sheen and singers Duffy and Marina of Marina and the Diamonds as those on the scene now who promote a 21st century image of Wales across the world. As an actor, Sharon Morgan realises the power of celebrity, but is adamant politics, not art, has made Wales more confident. She says we still need to be more self-assured, but believes this will come through law and tax making powers, not celebrity endorsement.

"Cool Cymru opened the door but that was limited to pop music. Things have changed since the Assembly," she insists. "When I was growing up Welsh identity was going to chapel, playing the harp or writing poetry. "If you didn't fit into that category, then you weren't Welsh. "Wales is now multi-faceted. We're still exploring that, but the Assembly has given us confidence and a sense of freedom. "We can be what we want. We are a democracy, not an appendage." She's proud Wales now has a national theatre in Welsh and one about to open for productions in the English language, and that campaigns led to devolution and the Welsh Language Act. "We've opened up.It's been a magical journey. Back in the 1960s, I could not have imagined how far we've come," she says. "Every time I see the Assembly building I can't believe it. It's incredible. "People used to throw bricks through windows with Plaid Cymru posters in the m.

"In 1982 a Cardiff taxi driver thought I was speaking Norwegian when I was speaking Welsh to my son. "Well, that's turned right over now. "It's a caseg eira in Welsh (snowball effect) - the change has happened because of those campaigns. "We are a nation. All we need now is more law and tax making powers. There are lots of countries smaller than Wales." Professor Richard Wyn Jones, the director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, agrees that only devolution could have delivered the standing Wales has on both the world stage and at home. "Wales has changed, as anywhere would over time," he points out. "It's true there's a widespread belief Wales is more confident in its skin and devolution has been part of that. "The Senedd and Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay have both become physical representations of Wales in a way that was unimaginable 15 years ago." Jones says that Cardiff is now more of a magnet for young people across Wales, who might once have yearned solely for the bright lights of Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool or London, even though there is still brain drain to England .

"I seriously doubt this confidence could have come without devolution," he says. "If Scotland and Northern Ireland were devolving and developing and Wales had said no to devolution back in 1997, then Wales would have lacked democratic focus. "It would have been profoundly different and much less interesting." Dame Tanni Grey Thompson, 41, still isn't convinced that the Assembly could have done it alone. "Devolution is important to a fair number of people, but I'm not sure it's important to a majority," says the Paralympic multi-gold medallist. "If you look at how few people voted for it, it was less than a quarter of the population. "I think a lot to do with the change in how we feel is linked to regeneration. "When I grew up, there was a view of Wales as being dark and grey and grumpy. "My parents' generation didn't travel much, but people travel more now and get a truer picture. "I have friends who come to Cardiff and say they were surprised by how much they liked it.

"The Millennium Stadium has also helped. "I've heard many in England saying they loved coming down to it and what an amazing place Cardiff is." The Paralympic champion, who married an Englishman and now lives the other side of the Severn, flew both a Welsh flag and a Union Jack when she received medals, saying she felt British and Welsh. But she insisted on coming back to Cardiff to give birth to daughter Cerys, who's now eight. "I didn't want my daughter born in England. "I felt that she wouldn't be Welsh if she was born in England," she explains. For Carwyn Jones the place of birth is less important. "You're Welsh if you feel Welsh," he insists. "It doesn't matter where you were born or what language you speak." But he agrees that devolution would not have delivered the new confidence in Wales on its own. He says government that works, business and sporting success have been the winning triumvirate.

FEATURE "The fact the Ryder Cup is taking place in Wales later this year will provide a massive boost, not only to our confidence as a nation, but for our profile as a serious player in staging international events," he points out. But while we may be largely united on sport the many tensions in what truly represents Wales and being Welsh were highlighted in the 100 Welsh Heroes poll in 2004 when the public narrowly chose Aneurin Bevan ahead of Owain Glyndwr. Former first minister Rhodri Morgan recognised these differences in an interview about the impact of 10 years of devolution. He said then that Wales was a lot more confident as a result, but the country has a historically complex identity .

"There is a Wales of which we're very proud - the language, the Eisteddfod, the national flag - the only national flag that goes back to the first millennium," he said. "Then the explosion of the industrial revolution, which made Wales more like the USA in the 19th century. "We were importing not exporting population, so we became a much more cosmopolitan country." Perhaps, like all good things, Wales cannot be pinned down by narrow definition. As Stifyn Parri says, maybe we should celebrate what we are as a whole. Or, perhaps we should take a leaf out of Cerys Matthews' book. When she sang the words to International Velvet when in Catatonia in the midst of the Cool Cymru boom she said: "Every day when I wake up, I thank the Lord I'm Welsh."

GRAPHIC: Although traditional dress on St David's Day is important, some commentators say we as a nation need to move forward and present a more modern face to the world Cerys Matthews of Catatonia, the Manic Street Preachers, the Stereophonics and Catherine Zeta-Jones were faces of Cool Cymru the first time around (1-4)

TV's Gavin and Stacey and Doctor Who (5-6) have boosted the profile of Wales the new wave of Welsh celebrities include the likes of Duffy, Marina Diamandis, Rhydian Roberts and Lucie Jones (7-10)

Iconic buildings the Senedd, the Millennium Stadium and the Wales Millennium Centre (11-14)

Paralympic champion Tanni Grey Thompson (14), events promoter Stifyn Parri (15) and award-winning chef Bryan Webb (16)

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