Michael Sheen’s masterclass to politicians

Welsh actor Michael Sheen was trending today due to a couple of video clips. But it led me to a 90 minute speech he gave for the Raymond Williams Annual Lecture in 2017 which revealed someone with a far higher intellect than we might otherwise appreciate in the performing arts. Scroll to the bottom of the above-link to download the transcript as it is a very long lecture – but so powerfully and compellingly delivered that time flies by.

The rest of this post links to various thoughts I’ve had in response – including on the recent Demise of the Crown, and also a recently-trending video on the Duke & Duchess of Sussex’s experience of racism and harassment at the hands of the print press.

“What got Mr Sheen trending online?”

The first is to do with the looming and controversial World Cup 2022 taking place in Qatar.

And the second (below) is to do with the history of the title “Prince of Wales”

But his hopes were dashed as the new King’s announced that his son, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge would immediately become Prince of Wales. This was in the new monarch’s first televised broadcast to the world.

We take it for granted that the title of Prince of Wales granted by the monarch to their eldest son – Edward VIII, George V, and Edward VII all having been invested in the title and serving as royal princes of Wales since the reign of Queen Victoria. Watch the video of Charles being invested as Prince of Wales by his late mother, The Queen.

There was also a brief mention in the new King’s remarks about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex making their new lives overseas. As a result, this interview he did with Oprah reveals just how bad things got with the tabloid press.

“My mother was chased to death by the media because she was in a relationship with a man because he wasn’t White. It all comes back to the same people, the same business model, the same industry.”

The Duke of Sussex, 2021

The last independent Welsh Prince of Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. On the eastern side of England we never learnt much at all about the subjugation of the Welsh (See here on HistoryHit). We learn about the historical castles dotted about Wales and the West Country in tourist magazines and documentaries, but precious little about how these castles were weapons of war and subjugation – just as Castle Hill was in Roman and Norman times in Cambridge.

Yet despite that violent history, whenever I’ve been to Wales I’ve always been more struck by how friendlier the country is compared to the Cambridge that I grew up in. My childhood/teenage visits to wales were to the town of Bala in North Wales to stay with some longtime family friends of my late grandparents.

Above – the working farm of the late Ted and Joan Best from 2009, following a lifetime of work all over the world, during which they met my late grandparents who lived a similar life.

Joan, a teacher by profession during her lifetime learnt Swahili whilst in East Africa, and learnt Welsh when she retired to North Wales – much to the pleasant surprise of the locals. My last visit there was in 1999, just before I left Cambridge for University. I made most of the journey by train. Cambridge to Wrexham. And back.

I’m not going to claim that I know a huge amount of Welsh history any more than I know about Scottish history. With the latter, all I remember at school regarding Scotland was

  1. Macbeth
  2. Mary Queen of Scots / James I of England and VI of Scotland
  3. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s uprising that got as far south as Derby before the Battle of Culloden.
The real fires of the industry, and the mythical flames of dragon fire

When I went to a university open day at Swansea – also in 1999, I remember driving past Port Talbot along the motorway and seeing the blast furnace from a distance, horrified that the entire industrial site was about to become a sea of flames. Every so often a giant flame would shoot out of one of the large buildings. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a flame so large. It’s not the land of dragons for nothing! It was also the time one of my Irish uncles was telling me about the decline of the heavy industries and the miners’ strike of 1984. He worked for British Gas and was in the GMB Union.

At primary school in my early years there we had a teacher who told us about how Christian Saint George killed the Welsh Dragon to rescue ‘the lady fair’. And as Al Murray put it, the fact that he wasn’t from England and there are no such things as dragons wasn’t actually mentioned to us. So throughout the 1980s this concept of knights in shining armour are good, and dragons are evil, was perpetuated. It was only when I got to university that I found out that the Crusades were far more bloody and violent than we were led to believe – which severely compromised the church I was brought up in during my childhood in Cambridge. Furthermore, I learned about how in other cultures dragons were creatures that represented so many other things – including wisdom. Which is where in a therapeutical yet farcical attempt at fiction writing, the concept of Puffles the Dragon Fairy emerged as one of the characters in the early 2000s. Hence learning the hard way that many stories are meant to be written, but not all are meant to be read!

It was also a time when at university there were various human rights campaigns kicking off – something we were never taught about at school. By the time the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted, I had just finished by A-levels. The only time we heard about human rights before then was in a negative context in the media – about ‘bad people’ not being punished because of PC-laws.

Which got me thinking about what the tale of George and the Dragon would look like if dragons had similar legal rights.

“The Welsh Dragon was the victim of an unlawful killing by a violent religious fanatic!”

Bear with me on this!

  • There was absolutely no evidence presented to the lawful authorities to indicate that said dragon might have been guilty of capturing the lady fair
  • No warrant for the arrest of the dragon was issued by any lawful authority
  • George did not have any legal authority to carry out such an arrest
  • No attempt was made by George to gather up anyone with such authority to arrest the dragon, nor was any attempt to arrest the dragon
  • The dragon was denied the right to independent legal representation
  • The dragon was denied the right to a fair trial in front of the dragon’s peers in an open court accessible to the press and public.

Therefore, with no legal grounds to act as he did, George is guilty of the unlawful killing of the dragon and should be held to account for such violent actions!

Above – Welsh dragon Puffles (from Tregaron in South West Wales) has some questions!

If you’re wondering what the badge says, it says “Arch-I’ve Remembered” – archivists at the Cambridgeshire County Archives gave it to Puffles nearly a decade ago when the county archives were stored at Shire Hall in Cambridge. (They are now in a new facility in Ely).

With Irish history it’s a little bit different because in 1998/99 I did A-level history at Long Road Sixth Form College and one of our modules was about modern Irish history. The negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement were the backdrop to this, and prior to that my entire childhood had a daily national news bulletin from Northern Ireland – sadly about the violence, with both Denis Murray and John Cole being familiar voices from the 1980s & 1990s, just for the wrong reasons (i.e. having to report on deaths and injuries).

“If we are to have any kind of a future, then we must face the reality of our present – and that means a reckoning with the legacy of our past.”

When you hear Michael Sheen say it, it’s far, far more powerful. Have a listen here.

Which sounds familiar to what the Duke of Sussex said earlier.

“One of the biggest lessons that I’ve ever learnt in life is that sometimes you’ve got to go back and to deal with really uncomfortable situations and process it in order to heal”

The Duke of Sussex, 2021

“[Raymond Williams’ article is] saying that the place where we meet and share who we are, what we dream of, where we’ve been, what we suffer, how we find joy, it’s that place that is the ‘more profound community’.”

Michael Sheen, 2017

One of the reasons why that above-phrase hit me like a ton/ne of bricks is because since lockdown – and even in the run up to it, I can’t think of a place where I meet with a group of people on a regular basis to share who we are, or have those shared life experiences that we have say at school or in our formative years.

Which is why I no longer have a sense of belonging in the city that I grew up in.

I lost it a decade ago following my first major mental health breakdown where I ceased to be able to work and function full time. Once you lose that, your ability to interact and socialise with people becomes much, much harder irrespective of whether you are in work or not. The capacity that I once had when I was younger suddenly vanished. I then read about the 65-year old living in a council house-share, pondering whether a similar future awaits me.

“My housemates are all single men, like me, in their 40s and 50s. I’m the oldest of the group, but age doesn’t make much difference here, we all keep ourselves to ourselves.

“You would have to be blind not to see that this is a direct result of the slow, deliberate erosion of the welfare state. If you’re a single person who has never been able to afford to buy your own home, then perhaps you’ll end up here, too. What is the alternative?”

Anon – The Guardian 24 Aug 2022

And yet going back to my late teens in the 1990s, on offer was ‘middle class respectability’

Michael Sheen again.

“When the promise of British respectability and the fruits of individual opportunity were offered up to me, as they were to those in the 19th century, I took them.
And without a second thought.”

Michael Sheen, 2017

My understanding of the above quotation to my own personal history is about the promises made by those institutions. The promise of Middle Class is Magical that was offered up to me throughout my childhood as something very transactional. You do X, you’ll get Y. You pass your exams, you get to go to this prestigious institution where these good things will happen. And in the mid-1990s I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

Those who got left behind by that system were ‘not my problem’ so I was led to believe – again by the institutions. Except for charity. Only in later times did I learn about the limitations of that mindset – and how the development of the welfare state was in response to those limitations of Victorian-style charity.

The concept of failure was never discussed except in the concept of shaming. Failure is only something that we’ve recently started acknowledging and accepting as an essential part of life. It’s one of the reasons why this was a core part of my Fast Stream Assessment Centre back in 2006 in the 1-2-1 interview: Too many senior managers did not want ‘failure’ on their CV so did not shut down failing projects early enough – so they snowballed and ended up on the front pages.

  • Sixth form college
  • University
  • The Civil Service

On paper, I succeeded in all of them. But in my head and heart? Anything but. Which is why when politicians and business people local and national talk about the success of Cambridge, whose success are we talking about? Because the supposed economic success of Cambridge doesn’t feel like something I or others seem to be sharing in – for example the people who are dependent on food banks and community food hubs. Or our rivers and environment suffering from water stress due to over-abstraction and pollution by water companies.

Strangely enough it was only this year – through Sheen’s speech and also from an introduction session with the Community Union Cambridge Acorn that people have been able to explain to me the concept of Class and class consciousness in a way that didn’t make me want to switch off, fearing a dreary Marxist diatribe full of long words containing lots of syllables – in an almost identical manner to the church preachers citing chapter and verse of who said what and when, and taking it as a given that such quotations gave a huge moral authority over anything that might be said in response.

Community action is hard work – with no guarantee of success either

“You have to learn how to listen.
It’s not just a question of standing there with a clipboard and asking questions with the right look on your face.
You have to show up.
And stay around.

You have to let go of your assumptions and your biases and your agendas and your prejudices.
It’s really hard.
Speak to the people who are on the frontline of working in communities.
The ones doing the really tough work of giving support where it is desperately needed.
Where their resources are getting smaller all the time but the need for what they’re doing is getting greater every day.
Ask them about listening.
Because they’re really good at it.
But they’re also the ones who’ll say that they’re not being listened to.

Michael Sheen, 2017

One of the inevitable shortcomings of local student activism in Cambridge (despite the best efforts of the Cambridge Hub) is the system prevents them from sticking around. For example the limited opportunities to stay in Cambridge outside of term time because their college accommodation is used for the conferencing industry. And how do you avoid the risk of ‘poverty tourism’ where students from affluent backgrounds are taken around deprived estates ‘to see how poor people live’? Whether in Cambridge or whether abroad?

In an era of low job security, the disincentives to get involved in community action are huge – especially if you work in an area that means you have to move significant distances to seek new employment when an existing fixed-term contract comes to an end – such as in academic research. With more people in Cambridge renting (unable to afford their own homes in the face of international buyers, Air BnB, and buy-to-rent), in my view we’ve gone beyond the point where the city is now so destabilised there are too few able to stand up for its interest. By that I mean so many are acting in their own private interests to. the economic, social, and environmental expense of city (and district surrounding) that Cambridge cannot even function anywhere near the sum of its parts, let alone be greater than. These are institutional and systemic problems. You can complain about one developer behaving to the detriment of the city but if that developer was not there, someone else would be there doing the same thing. The system incentivises it. In the meantime, Parliament is not even meeting to debate these issues because of Court Mourning – despite demands for Recalls of Parliament over the summer.

The founder of Save the Children, Eglantyne Jebb also taught me something about community and political activism in something she said in 1910 when campaigning against the Conservatives in Cambridge.

“I was a long time realising that the social reform on the part of the Conservatives is like charity in the hands of a Lady Bountiful – everything to be made nice and pleasant, but the ‘upper class’ is to be respected and obeyed.

Eglantyne Jebb – Cambridge Independent, 08 July 1910

Which explains why in recent years we’ve seen MPs posing for photographs at food banks in their constituencies – and being criticised for voting through measures in Parliament that has made more people dependent on charity than less. And that is both the party political, and cultural divide between the party in government, and their immediate opponents in the Commons.

Michael Sheen’s final remarks

“As so often in Welsh history, there is a special strength in the situation of having been driven down so far that there is at once everything and nothing to lose, and in which all that can be found and affirmed is each other.”

“We must affirm each other.
That is where our future lies.
That is where we build from – each other.
Use what voice we have in the service of each other.
Whenever we can, join our voices together to help create a Wales that is our ‘own world’, as Williams described it.
A world that can argue, and challenge, and question, and explore.
A world that can encompass multiple histories, and diverse experience.
A world that does not avoid its past or ignore its divisions.
A world where our difference can become the source of our strength.
Confident enough to take control of our own energies and our own resources.
Connected to each other and taking responsibility for ourselves.
That is how we build our dragon.
Put real flesh on its bones.
And hope that, one day, it will fly.
Thank you

Michael Sheen 2017

Replace the word “Welsh” with “local”, and “World” with “a city” and you could say the above could apply to a future Cambridge.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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