This is our truth, tell us yours
In a small bookshop on Shudehill in Manchester sometime in the 80s I picked up a thick, leather bound tome, the size of a ledger. Inside was a bound collection of Welsh language newspapers from the turn of the twentieth century. Each edition was carefully dog-eared at the page that had the hymn tune of the week written out in tonic sol fa, the harmonies available to even the least tutored of ears.
That find, along with a few biographical details written on the book’s flyleaf, started a minor passion for the history of the Manchester Welsh community and their churches. They’re still there, if you look hard enough, conducting their services in Welsh and holding a gymanfa ganu annually. Incidentally, if you don’t know what a cymanfa ganu is, take a look. Recordings of some of the great cymanfa from the past were a staple of my family’s record collection, growing up, and mixed beautifully with Paul Robeson singing spirituals or Elgar and Haydn.
|Even God had a Welsh name:
We spoke to him in the old language;
He was to have a peculiar care
For the Welsh people
R S Thomas
The Welsh churches of Manchester were part of a refusal to fully integrate, an insistence on keeping alive the traditions and culture of the homeland that became intrinsic to Welshness. Even if you spoke English all day at work, even if you spoke English in the shops and the markets, you could retreat to the chapel or the church on Sunday, and be utterly, entrenchedly Welsh. There’s a handy list of Manchester’s churches in 1871 here which provides a powerful reminder that people pray in their native tongue.
Spinning off from that constellation of churches was that very Edwardian institution the civic society – Manchester Welsh society, with its talks and concerts and social arrangements. Integration might have been a fact of life, but remaining Welsh was a condition of living well, even if it meant one too many illustrated lectures about Patagonia.
And the relevance of all this?
Louise Casey is concerned about integration. There are, apparently, too many places in the UK where migrants gather together, speaking to god in the old language, speaking to each other about the old recipes, their old homes, the places that make them smile with memories and comfortable with each other. All of this is, apparently, a bad thing.
Many of the Welsh churches of Manchester are gone now. Some have simply vanished; some like the Welsh baptist chapel on Upper Brook Street served other congregations, other purposes before surrendering to property developers. Others, like the unprepossessing Welsh chapel in Moston now still serve other congregations, other migrants.
Integration happens not because of an edict from above, but because of the reality of everyday life. One of the weaknesses of the British model of integration, espoused by Casey, is that it starts from a British perspective, but not the perspective of being a British migrant, even though the great internal migrations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have utterly shaped and re-shaped our cities..
No-one ever discusses integration by asking what it’s like to be a British migrant worker abroad,or an internal migrant within the UK. When I moved to London as a teenager I knew the well beaten paths of a Welsh migrant in London, from Grays Inn Road to Old Deer Park. Does Louise Casey care about all that history, all those experiences? Does she compare the behaviour of migrant workers in London, to, say, the behaviour of British migrant workers in Jeddah or Dubai, with their compounds and their parties and their British nights?
If we take that historical perspective, that perspective that looks at how British migrant workers have behaved, the behaviour of migrant workers in the UK becomes entirely comprehensible. Louise Casey is, as in so many other things, a thoroughly unreliable guide.