Mike Parker,
Neighbours from Hell?
(Y Lolfa, 2006)

This odd little book with a funny title is about the history of English attitudes to Wales. It's written by one of those rare individuals who, having grown up in England, are attracted to Welsh culture and grow to appreciate and even love it.

Having grown up in Kidderminster, near Birmingham (the home of other famous Cymrophiles including Robert Plant), author Mike Parker always identified with the Welsh. He eventually moved to Wales and has written a number of books on Welsh issues and traveling in Wales.

Parker is also the co-author of the Rough Guide to Wales, avoiding some of the usual snarkiness about its subject that characterizes these guides -- though he does take a good run at Rhyl. But, as he admits himself, actually living in Wales is different from the picture-book Wales he described in his Rough Guide 20 years ago.

But in Neighbours, he takes a different tack, enumerating all the slights the English have directed against Wales in more than 700 years of occupation -- er, union. (The book rings true -- I too have often heard slights directed by English people towards the Welsh, some even by English people living in Wales!)

Parker seems to relish rhyming off all of these slights, demolishing all anti-Welsh sentiments one-by-one.

In one funny anecdote, the author had returned from his holidays to find himself in the centre of a major UK media blowup. He had earlier noted that many English-speakers moved to Wales to avoid more multicultural English cities (and they couldn't afford Devon). As incomers, many of these same English people often refuse to recognize the fact that Wales has a different culture and language, too. The author had accused these people of racism.

The media storm was based on the misunderstanding that Parker had accused the Welsh themselves of racism. When he explained what he had meant, the UK media weren't interested. They wanted to hear about the racist Welsh, not the racist English. The point is, as he says, "for every keen Welsh learner, there are many more (English incomers) who refuse to engage with their host culture."

He also recounts examples of what he calls the Colonial mentality, which is, according to one African journalist, "more firmly entrenched in Wales than any other I have been to." With the self-described national newspaper, the Western Mail, not even providing a correspondent at the National Assembly, it is small wonder. Or Tony Blair, complaining about the "f___ Welsh" not appreciating how much he had done for them.

This book is really about how living in rural Wales has changed one Mike Parker, who could write the kind of clever, post-ironic prose favoured in England, but who now sees the world through a different prism. That Wales of the Rough Guide is no longer of interest to Parker. The book his editors dismissed at the time as too political is today too tame, too superficial for its author. Neighbours is the book he has written now.

There is much more in this short book. It's a lively read, and a great defense of the Welsh way, so different, so unappreciated.

review by
David Cox

17 November 2007

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