Becoming Welsh in ’99

 

The native name for Wales, ‘Cymru’ is related to the English word compatriot; the name the English gave ‘Wales’ comes from Latin for foreigner. Throughout centuries of complex history between two nations who have fought, according to one historian, ‘like cats in a sack’, two things have remained the same: the English have tried to keep themselves separate from the Welsh, and the Welsh wouldn’t have it any other way. For reasons geographical, historical and cultural, a huge part of being Welsh is being ‘not English’. And yet this is the story of how I became, or, as I’ll try to explain, realised I was Welsh.

The story starts years earlier than that, when, as a child growing up in rural Wales, miles from the nearest shop or pub or post office, I came across a book given to my dad – a Liverpudlian in exile – by his brother still living in Liverpool. It was a sentimentalized, nostalgic collection of black and white photographs and fragments of text evoking the people and places of a city half-forgotten. I loved looking through the book with its faded pictures of civic buildings , cathedrals and flat-capped football crowds. I loved especially the black kids peering out of shop doorways and the haggard faces of dockers and market traders, imagining them my ancestors. I listened to my dad’s stories of playing in ‘jiggers’ and bombed-out houses and thought it much more glamorous than sharpening sticks and making dens in the shadow of Pen y Fan.

I didn’t fit in. I was seeking something all the kids I played with had as birthright. There were Prices and Davieses and three families worth of Powells, none of whom were remotely related, so far as they knew. I was still English at this point (I’ve since had a nationality transplant) as a mum from Gloucestershire and a Scouse dad doesn’t give you much claim to being Welsh. Maybe perversely, I was seeking identity through being an outsider. As time went by, I came to realise that even if outsiderdom has its merits, a sense of belonging is a far more satisfactory type of identity.

By twist of catchment areas, I ended up having to travel twelve miles to secondary school, further into the identity hinterlands of border country. Some of my friends living the wrong side of the hills couldn’t pick up S4C, and Welshness – whether it was a language, an accent or support of a sports’ team – was seen as something to be rid of before it dragged you under. I won the Eisteddfod with a poem about the demise of mining, but that wasn’t our country, or our generation. The Wales of that poem, gloomily titled ‘The Wheel Doesn’t Turn Any More’ was old newsreel and hackneyed stereotype. We all dropped Welsh at age fourteen and turned our eyes eastward.

By sixth form, it was taken as inevitable that all of us – my clique of friends, bound together by academic prowess, a love of Blur and The Stone Roses and a mutual disdain for Mid Wales and its lack of hipness – would escape to far-flung universities to reinvent ourselves and never return. We decided, in the full-flushed arrogance of youth, that we would go to Oxbridge, drink Pimms, talk shit and become cabinet ministers. Four of us applied: three to Oxford, one to Cambridge. None of us got in.

There were different reasons for all of the rejections, I’m sure, but it was now obvious to me that the establishment did not exactly give two hoots  about scruffy-haired seventeen-year-olds from some backwater comprehensive school with a very-hard-to-pronounce Welsh name, especially those whose interview suit consisted of a fifteen-quid Oxfam jacket and a pair of old school trousers that had been worn out working in a fish-and-chip shop all summer, and who named John Steinbeck as their favourite author but had never read The Grapes of Wrath and tried to make up for it by lying and saying they had read Cannery Row. In the same week as my disastrous Oxford interview – the first week of December 1997 – I went on an Open Day in Cardiff, making up the numbers on my application form because it was the nearest decent English Literature degree.

Cardiff had, until then, only figured on the margins of my consciousness. It was the capital of Wales, but at that time – pre-Millennium Stadium, pre-Cool Cymru, pre-devolution – and from where I lived, it was just a big town to go shopping in, like Swansea or Hereford. The problem wasn’t its lack of glamour: I could cope without that. It simply lacked the mystique of other cities. But when I finally got there, in the autumn of 1998, after the inevitable rejections from elsewhere, it seemed the whole city was celebrating my arrival. Between receiving the letter offering me a place at Cardiff University and my first pint in the Talybont Halls of Residence, great Welsh music had taken over the charts, Graham Henry was hailed as The Great Redeemer and Ron Davies was in the process of delivering devolved government. They even built a stadium in my honour. Almost overnight, Cardiff came of age as Europe’s Youngest Capital and I discovered I was Welsh after all.

Nationality had suddenly assumed an importance I had barely ascribed to it before. Starting university is like appearing on a gameshow: people characterise you, pigeonhole you from three givens, on each of which you can be as truthful as you wish, depending on the extent to which you wish to reinvent yourself: your name; where you come from; the course you are studying. It is most easy to lie about the second.

In the hedonistic atmosphere of a first term at university, I learned little about Shelley or Defoe and lots about why I was professing Welshness to all and sundry. I remember wearing one of those shirts – ubiquitous at the time – emblazoned with an oriental dragon, to Clwb Ifor Bach one night and being accosted by a drunkard with a single question: ‘Are you Chinese or Welsh?’ Like there was no other option. The answer was easy now, especially after Scott Gibbs went over the line at Wembley, me leaping off the pool table waving a flag around my head, whooping and wailing, baiting the English majority with the rest of the Welsh, to the great surprise of friends down from Brecon who’d seen me do a similar thing when Michael Owen scored for England against Argentina less than a year earlier.

So what, why, how? When, where, why was this nationality transplant taking place? I am constantly confronted with howls of outrage against my choosing a national identity like I choose what music I listen to or what books to read or what clothes to wear or what breakfast cereal to buy. I realise how hollow it sounds. A cynical manoeuvre: becoming Welsh in 1999. Nationality is not something you buy into, chop and change, choose because you like it. It’s a curse or a blessing. A given. Like your gender or the colour of your skin, it’s not something to be messed about with. But I did not become Welsh in Cardiff in 1999. I discovered I am Welsh, had been all along. My main line of defence – against understandably confused and outraged people from all over the British Isles – in frequent interrogations about my Cymric credentials, is that I arrived in Wales the week after my third birthday and have spent virtually every day of the intervening two decades here. In official speak, I am Welsh By Residence. But this is not why I have a St David’s cross hanging on my wall or why the words of the anthem send a shiver down my spine or why I care what they mean or why, once, in a fit of stupidity and rage, I voted for Plaid Cymru.

I am not a nationalist of any hue, and recognize the huge problems nationalisms have caused all over the world. I remember a poem by Patrick Jones beginning ‘You Sinn Fein fascist, Serb sadist, Welsh nationalist,’ which made me kind of regret voting Plaid, mun, and being damned (as another Welsh poet had advised). But for a short period at university, all the confused anger that comes with being young, intelligent and uninformed became distilled in the question of national identity. I realized – as soon as I heard them – that I hated English attitudes towards Wales: disdain, ignorance, mild indifference or a patronizing love of a valleys accent. I hated them all equally.

I have always held strong views on the important issues of life, sometimes changing my views and sometimes the issues themselves, but whatever views I have, I hold them strongly at the time. So I could not quite believe, or accept, that supposedly educated, supposedly intelligent individuals had come to university with no intention of broadening their minds, their horizons or their experience. There were people enrolled to study sciences with no interest whatsoever in the world around them; literature students with no interest in books; law students with no interest in politics . . . the list went on. And for some reason, all of these people, at least the ones I came into contact with, came from England. Correction: middle class, Middle England.

On the other hand – and there is obviously a large degree of arbitrariness to all of this and many subsequent exceptions to prove the rule – the Welsh students I met were like me. They were at university to get wasted too, but also they never slept in for lectures. They appreciated the fact they were enjoying a privilege afforded to the very few in our country. Many, like me, craved new experiences and loved having their assumptions challenged. Many, like me, were the first in their family to go to university. And I, like them, and unlike those from ‘Middle’ England (which is actually the south-east) did not think I came from the natural centre of the civilized world. We realized we came from a small, dark, damp corner of a small island on the edge of the Atlantic.

I found I shared a heritage; that I did belong; that I was Welsh after all. And Cardiff, with its new-found sense of pride and confidence, its architectural rejuvenation, its cultural renaissance and new political importance symbolized everything I was feeling. And soon, of course, the city became familiar, its buildings and streets and sights and sounds and smells entwined with my life: the puddles of beer on the dancefloor at Metros, the five o’clock in the morning pigeons after a night shift at Queen Street’s Burger King, the Big Issue sellers, the slow colouring of leaves along Ninian Road, the dust on the shelves in Albany Books, the Clarks’ pie and chips from XL Fish Bar, the hospital ward up in the Heath where my son was born, his first steps across the living-room of an upstairs flat in Monthermer Road, feeding the swans together at Roath Park, sitting on the bus to Whitchurch next to the kids I was teaching, the chill wind across the river, the filthy language in the pubs and on the street, the roar from the Grange End, the incessant rain, the tears and the laughter, the bad times and the good.

And nowadays this is my city. It’s yours too, and everyone’s and no one’s, because all great cities are, and although this is not a great city, it’s a good city and although it’s not in my blood, it’s in my heart.

 

This essay originally appeared in CFUK issue one, in 2005.