Sunday, August 14, 2022

if at first you don't secede

In the '70s, there was a lot of talk about devolution and separatism: regions and former nations long subordinated within federal or majoritarian dominance, now wanting to break away as independent states. A big thing was the resuscitation / protection / preservation of minority languages waning or on the verge of extinction. 

You had the Welsh independence movement which had its political wing and then its extra-parliamentarian front (blowing up holiday cottages owned by English people, a tactic of deterrence / retaliation against the effect of local property being priced out of reach of locals) alongside that big push for Welsh-language television. Scottish nationalism obviously (still with us, stronger than ever). But you also had a Free Cornwall movement, I seem to remember, also keen to save the Cornish language from disappearing. I can't remember if there were any other separatist movements within the UK (independent Manx - well, it's already pretty autonomous isn't it, The Isle of Man?). The Continent was rife with centrifugal tendencies as well - Corsica, the Basques, an independent Brittany movement, and a Northern Italy breakaway push (still with us in the form of Lega Nord per l'Indipendenza della Padania).

I found all this really fascinating as a teenager. It related to my interest in alternative history - just the idea that the present-day map could have ended up looking quite different (Burgundy as a kingdom into the 20th Century! *). Which in a way was just an extension of the non-alternative history fact that the map has changed frequently over the centuries (the Moors conquering most of Iberia, for instance... or the Ottoman Empire extending almost to the walls of Vienna). The interest in separatism also related to my passion for science fiction: for who was to say that the map of Europe wouldn't look quite different in the near-future? And that would actually transpire, in fact - e.g. the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the re-Balkanisation of the Balkans, which I don't think anyone expected in the 1970s (nor did we anticipate the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the whole Soviet sphere).  

In one of the newspapers around then (this is '78, '79) there was an article on all the separatist movements across Europe -  some of them pretty against-all-odds in their ambitions and hopes. I didn't save the whole thing but in my scrapbook of that time I glued in the somewhat crude-looking map that went with the story, plus some paragraphs that particularly caught my eye. 

The first one that particularly grabbed me was this Languedoc / Occitan  movement that didn't just want to break off Provence from the tentacles of Paris, but also wanted to absorb chunks of Northern Spain and Italy. **

In this next bit, I was taken not just by the idea of the Flemish separatists within Belgium, but the fact that should the Flems (?)  have succeeded / seceded, the Walloon remainder could then have been reabsorbed into France (if two parties in favor of that had had their way) or, even better, it could have been amalgamated into a sort of SuperFrance,  a kind of Greater Francophone Federation. This was being promoted by a bunch of nutters who also had their eye on the French-speaking bits of Switzerland as well as Walloonia. 

It's not clear to me if these breakaway Flems would have wanted to merge with Holland into a  Dutch-speaking Expanded Netherlands or been their own Flemish principality. 

I suppose what seemed amusingly outlandish and appealingly disorienting about all this (well, if you push out of your mind the blowing up of buildings and sometimes people) back in the '70s...  now takes on a more alarming flavour in this post-Brexit world of resentment-fueled entropy (c.f. all the talk of the USA possibly have to disunite and go its separate ways, a new Civil War, etc). 

Still, there remains something fascinating about these minority-interest creeds whose believers seem  to have imagined that all the problems vexing them would melt away if they could just have their own postage stamps, passports, and flags. (Okay that's a bit trivializing - there is a little matter of traditions getting erased, languages wiped out, or economic issues, the lopsided effects of metropolitan dominance....)   

I wonder how these tendencies inflect in terms of the right-wing / left-wing spectrum? There are probably sound socialist arguments for devolution. To an extent the movements towards independence for smaller geographical or ethnic units correlate with anti-colonialism (certainly Scotland, Wales, Ireland, those were the first inklings towards a British Empire, which is really an English Empire). Equally though these movements often seem to align with conservative, backward-looking tendencies. 

Often there seems to be an animus towards the central government and the feeling that your region is paying more than its fair share of tax, propping up the needier regions of the country, the scrounger provinces  - as with the Lega Nord in Italy, or that movement (which tickled me) for Alberta to secede from Canada because all its oil money was going to the federal government. Isn't the Catalan independence movement supposed to be somewhat bourgeois (I've heard arguments that the stay-in-Spain viewpoint is the socialist viewpoint)?  

But just the very idea of going back often seems to align with primordialist philosophies, a mysticism of the blood and the soil, of the mother tongue. There's also a restorationist impulse that links up with monarchist or otherwise authoritarian / socially hierarchical tendencies.  


I have quite an interest in the reactionary / misanthropic / jaundiced-eye / curmudgeon mindset, which overlaps with this whole area of nationalist / nativist cranks and crackpots... One of my "favorites" out of these types is is the Welsh poet /dramatist / activist Saunders Lewis, who was involved in the formation of Plaid Cymru. 

Lewis believed that Wales should be independent and Welsh-speaking. In fact he was firmly against  bi-lingualism (rather like the Quebocois in their antipathy to English signage etc)

"If we wish to fight at all for the Welsh language, we must fight seriously for the continuance of the monoglot Welsh-speakers. There is only one method of ensuring a monoglot Welsh people, and 
that is to create a monoglot Wales. Nothing else is practicable. Nothing else is consistent with the aims of our party. We wish to free Wales from English grasp. We wish to de-anglicise Wales. ... We cannot  
therefore aim for anything less than eradicating English from Wales.

Yet he was also a monarchist, who thought Wales should somehow remain loyal to the English throne!  

""Monarchy in England is better for Wales than a republic... Wales's links with the English throne are centuries older than its link with the House of Commons ... the English Parliament is Wales's arch-enemy... What we want is to base our union with England on the basis of the throne, and have a separate parliament for Wales. We are wholly prepared to swear an oath of loyalty to the King [but] we must be able to swear an oath in Welsh, in a Welsh Parliament on Welsh soil."

On top of all this, Lewis was also a fervent convert to Catholicism. Memories of a TV doc about him have left me with the sense that he believed Wales (despite being choc-a-bloc with Methodists and non-conformists) should rejoin the Church of Rome! How that would square with loyalty to the Queen or King of England, who is the head of the Church, who can say...  

I don't know if Lewis had any other adherents to his creed, but that seems like rather a large number of hurdles to be jumped there before you get to a Restoration of the Golden Age.

That's what Lewis was seeking - the Lost Totality. This would further necessitate the de-industralisation of  South Wales, the re-pastoralisation and re-Medievalizing of the entire country:  

"The whole of  Wales's old life and culture was also Catholic to the root, and to the ground underneath it, and that's a very high wall between us and them. Moreover, society in Welsh Wales always took an aristocratic form, but  the Welsh today believe aristocracy to be an oppression upon the people 
and the poor. ... And without a deep appreciation of these things, tradition in mind and art, Catholic Christianity, and an aristocratic society ... Welsh literature ... cannot sufficiently be understood to live upon it and accept it as a homeland and as succour for the soul."

So a bit Tolkien-y, with a whiff of T.S. Eliot (including some anti-Semitism it's said). He was also a fan of Yeats, which figures. And an admirer of dodgy French monarchist party Action Française. (Celine interestingly had an obsession with the mother tongue, with language as the bulwark of the 

Here's an essay by Darryl Jones on Lewis's politics and aesthetics. It is aptly titled - using a quote from Lewis himself - "I Failed Utterly".  

(Interesting perhaps to contrast "linguistic extremists" like Saunders Lewis and the inventors of new languages designed to unify all humanity, dissolve national divisions and make misunderstandings impossible... Esperanto, famously, but there were others, including the #2 contender, the Betamax to Esperanto's VHS, whose name I forget....  

Burgundy - in one alt-history scenario (Third Reich wins WW2), Burgundy makes a 20th Century comeback. It was a pipe-dream of Himmler that the Waffen SS be bestowed a chunk of Eastern France to create its own perfect Aryan state

There is a Creel Pone reissued dedicated to Occitan-language musique concrete - Cants dels Trobadors

Creel blurb: 

The Ventadoorn label was set up in 1970 & released over 100 LPs & EP's over the following decade, all centering in on some facet of Lenga d'Oc / "Old" French language & culture. Some of you may be familiar with the 1980 Henry Fourès / Luc Ferrari "Folclòre Imaginari" set - later reissued on Adda as "Ce Qu'a Vu Le Cers" - as one of the label's final releases, but a year prior they issued this absolute masterpiece of a record, merging Occitan folk forms & instrumentation with extended drone-psych flourish & substantive Synth & Electronic crackle, all expertly framed within a Musique Concrète context.

Spearheaded by Thierry Lancino - if the name rings a bell, it's likely due to his mid-90s Wergo "Computer Music Currents" volume, shared with Composer & K & K Musiktheater member (alongside Anestis Logothetis, Günter Schneider, Dieter Kaufmann & Gunda König) Tamas Ungvary - the 5-piece band run through an arsenal of modes, all captured with substantial nuance by Jean-Jacques Palix, in one of his first recording credits. In spots reminiscent of the commune-psych lurch of Algärnäs Trädgärd, others the subtle resonant tweaks of Hans Otte's "On Earth". The frame drum, Rebec, and Vielle parts all give this an unusual signature, with Lancino's Electronic treatments & seamless tape-collage flourishes completing the sonic arsenal. 


  1. I find this stuff fascinating but I recognise that it's difficult for me as a monoglot speaker of the my country's main language to understand what's it like to have to live with someone else's. And it is wild to me that Klingon has more speakers than a large number of endangered minor tongues:

    The ebb and flow of secessionist movements reminds that nation states are impermanent and contingent and "imagined communities". They are neither eternal nor rational.

    What is noticeable in just the last few years is the rehabilitation of nationalism in the West - esp. on the right - e.g. books like "the virtues of nationalism" and the "national conservative" movement in the US, Hungary, and Israel. These movements are explicitly reactionary (often strongly religious, xenophobic and anti-queer) and anti-internationalist (e.g. the EU and the UN are equated to Nazis and Imperialists). They studiously avoid talking about secessionism tho - as nascent sub-national identities within nations don't fit into their "nationalism = good" frameworks very well.

    I think your point on the complex politics of secessionist movements is well made. They can be straightforwardly liberatory but they can also be opportunistic and bigoted in their own ways.

    Also: - "The lyrics are often in a reconstructed form of the extinct ancient language Gaulish"

  2. Interesting looking at that list of endangered languages, that Walloon is actually a language, which I didn't realise - it's not just French that they speak there.

    I don't think I saw Ladin on there - the Tyrolean tongue that Giorgio Moroder grew up with. When I interviewed him, he said growing up in that part of the world you could skip between Ladin, Italian, German all in the course of a single day. And that he would still speak Ladin when talking with his brothers.

    Must be wild to be genuinely bilingual or trilingual.

    The battles over language... I remember studying the Austro-Hungarian Empire at college. A unique political arrangement. While the Austrians were relatively (by standards of time) liberal with their subordinated peoples, the Hungarians were a dominating bunch. Language was the prime arena. So in subject nations, an increasingly huge proportion of the school week was devoted to lessons in Hungarian for kids. Court and other official proceedings had to be conducted in Hungarian. But the subordinated peoples fought back - I seem to remember in Congress there was this huge protest, the MPs or whatever the equivalent was, from Slovenia or wherever, just slammed the lids of their desks cacophonously all day long.

    My tutor broached an alternate history scenario: what if the Austro-Hungarian Empire had managed to modernize / liberalize / devolutionize and had evolved into a sort of Eastern European Community, a federal republic. Would that have been a better scenario?

    1. It would have led to a different map, that's for sure.

  3. I remember that quote from your interview with Moroder. Ladin is on the Guardian list (between Kham and Lepcha) and marked as "definitely endangered" - which is a bit of a bummer. According to some estimates, about 60% of the world speaks more than one language, so I suspect that experience of speaking different languages in one day is more normal than some of us realise. Someone once told me that the true sign of fluency is that you dream in that language.

    As for Walloon, where something is a "language" or a "dialect" is often a political question more than a linguistic one - "A language is a dialect with an army and navy" (a quote that, poignantly, was made in the context of Yiddish).

    A thing I find intriguing are dialect continuums (another nuum) – e.g. the next village along speaks slightly differently (but intelligibly) but each end of the continuum are completely unintelligible to each other. You get this in the Balkans (between Slovenia at one end and Bulgaria at the other). In a sense, this is a spatial version of what also happens in time – e.g. We can understand English from 100 years ago fairly easily. 400 is trickier (but still doable). 1000 is completely incomprehensible. Similar to what happens with musical genres I suppose.

    An alternative history where Austria-Hungary is a central European EU? Well, it’s more interesting that Germany winning World War 2. It might even be a counterfactual mod in Hearts of Iron 4 (a which my child is a big fan of). You may not have the immediate trigger of World War 1 but you still have the military and economic might of the German Empire reshaping the Europe to the West, the Russian Empire to the East as essentially an unstable failed state, and nationalists in surrounded countries like Serbia and Romania. I don’t see it being very stable. Altho there was a whole conference on this topic a decade ago so what do I know:

    Those central European lands were very ethnically mixed until World War 2. Tragically, the destruction wrought by the Nazis and the nationalist ethnic cleansing after the war ended all that (the exception being Yugoslavia – where this was delayed until the 90s). Tony Judt’s Post-War describes this process (as well as being a great book overall).