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Why my accent is non-negotiable

Lush studio team member Meg James discusses growing up in South Wales and recognising modern-day cultural suppression.

I’m 18, embarking on an exciting career in stage management in London, far from my home and family in Aberdare, Wales. And I’ve just been told by a lecturer, someone meant to educate and inspire me, to drop my strong Welsh accent. Their simple – even ‘well-meaning’ – advice tells me that the days of Welsh cultural suppression, enforced by years of English rule, are far from over.

Welsh is one of the oldest languages in Europe, but you won’t walk around my hometown and hear people speaking it. In the 1800s, a tablet called the ‘Welsh Not’ was given to any child overheard speaking Welsh. If more children dared to speak in Welsh, it was passed around the classroom. The last child with the tablet at the end of the day was punished, as English was deemed to be the only language suitable for learning. It seems like lifetimes ago, but this was the beginning of Welsh oppression.

At my English-speaking school in Aberdare, I studied Cymraeg from the moment I arrived until I left when I was 18.  Every year we had our school’s version of the Eisteddfod: a festival of literature, music, and performance where culture and poetry are featured heavily. At 16, I left home for the first time and attended a residency with the National Youth Theatre of Wales, working on a play about 20th century Wales. Immersed in my country’s history and surrounded by Welsh people from all sorts of backgrounds, it was here that I was able to delve further into something that directly affected my own family: the Aberfan disaster.

At 9.15am on 22nd October 1966, a coal tip collapsed and fell on to Pantglas Junior School, killing 28 adults and 116 children. It was the last Friday before the half-term holiday. The responsibility lay with the National Coal Board (NCB) for not clearing up the tip despite multiple requests from local residents. My mother was five years old and attended Pantglas. She doesn’t remember much; she described the noise as “like a plane landing” and the next thing she knew, she was being carried home. My grandfather was part of the relief efforts, digging through a mountain of debris looking for lost children. My mother’s older cousin had bunked off school that day when the majority of the coal had slid onto his classroom. A memorial fund was set up and raised around £1.75 million, but a large portion of the money was taken by the NCB to clear the tip. Too little, too late. The damage was done. 

I’d been told about Aberfan growing up, but it was only through researching it further that I was able to comprehend the gravity of it. I learned that it wasn’t an isolated incident, among other stories told were the flooding of Capel Celyn to make a reservoir for Liverpool City Council, and the Senghenydd colliery disaster in 1913. And yet, here I was all these years later, celebrating a culture others had tried to repress through the medium of storytelling. I’d never felt prouder to be a Valleys girl.

Upon leaving school, I moved to London to study Stage Management at a prestigious drama conservatoire. The stark contrast of my sleepy hometown to London’s business district didn’t hit me for another couple of years, but it was immediately clear to me that I was the odd one out: a working-class Welsh girl surrounded by students with scholarships and affluent backgrounds. 

Six weeks in, it was suggested to me that I have vocal coaching to change my accent to one more “normal”. This, I was told, would make me more hireable after I graduated. I refused, explaining that my Welsh heritage was important to me, but it’s only now that I’m able to realise that I spent the next three years subconsciously toning it down. The longer I stayed, the sadder I got. I was treated like a rebel when in reality I just wanted to get on with my job. I couldn’t escape it - even students from outside the UK were treated more inclusively than me. Was I doing something wrong? 

My accent is more than just what I sound like; it’s who I am and where I come from. In the summer, coaches arrive on Poole Quay filled with summer travellers from South Wales. Occasionally, I’ll walk past a group of old ladies and hear a snippet of their conversation, their melodic accents floating in the air like a song. It both warms my heart and sends a shiver down my spine. It’s a fleeting familiarity that disappears as quickly as it arrives, and it takes all my strength to not interrupt their conversation and ask them where they’re from. Despite living away from home, I’ve kept my accent. It’s my statement to the rest of the world.

My parents were, understandably, appalled. They told me every day, “You can always come home.” My dad sent me postcards every week, detailing funny things he’d overheard on the bus or walking around my hometown. He sent one every week for four years. Sometimes I’d read them out to my flatmates, others I’d take it to my bedroom and sob over it, thinking of home. It was the true definition of ‘hiraeth’: a Welsh concept of longing for home. It has no direct translation into English, and it’s more than just sadness or longing - it’s an emptiness that can’t be filled. It’s rooted in Welsh identity, the very thing I was suppressing, but I felt it so strongly. I moved back to my family four years later, exhausted from the pressure I’d been under.

Going home was like a fresh start for my identity. I had nothing left to give, but Wales welcomed me back with open arms. Through my part-time job, I met so many people from different backgrounds and never felt like the odd one out. All were welcome, always. It was so refreshing. That part-time job led me on a five-year journey to where I am today, sat at my desk at the Lush R&D Studio in Poole, Dorset.

Nowadays, my Welsh identity is much stronger thanks to the openness of Lush and my past experiences. I’ve lived in Dorset for just over two years and I feel like I’ve found balance. I go home and immediately feel warm inside, but can’t wait to get back to wandering the streets of Branksome in the sun. My two best friends grew up in small Welsh towns and now live in England, and we’ll moan about people asking us to say, “What’s occurring?” or provoking us on rugby days. But we also talk about how beautiful Bournemouth beach is, or how London’s energy is so invigorating, or about the hauntingly quiet corners of Frome. We’re all proud Welsh speakers, taking any opportunity to use our language and culture to enrich our lives in England.

So while you won’t hear any Welsh in my hometown, don’t be surprised if you see me walking around Poole recording a voice note in Welsh. 

Croeso i pawb, wastad.

Comments (3)
3 Comments

angela.clark1981_6948196

about 1 year ago

Remain proud of your roots, they are you. They will not hold you back in life :)

carasian5_6964299

about 1 year ago

Erthygl hyfryd! Diolch :)

erylhobson_6963867

about 1 year ago

Da iawn Meg! This is lovely. You have included the most important things in this article. Never lose your accent! I remember being told to change my pronunciation when I was practicing for a viva voce in my midwifery training! (Before your mother’s time). I didn’t mind speaking more clearly and slowly, but held on to my accent. I’m sure my daughter can relate to this article as she is living in London and has lived in Liverpool. Well done once again, llongyfarchiadau!