It’s not where you’re from / it’s not where you’re at / it’s not where you’ve been / it’s where you’re between
From ‘The International Language of Screaming’, Super Furry Animals
The moment I became a writer was the moment I became Welsh; the two things are wrapped up in one another. It sounds egotistical in the extreme to describe one’s own work as ‘seminal’, but I have always subscribed to George Orwell’s view that all writers are ‘vain, selfish and lazy’. Especially vain. The sense that your own ideas are worth recording and sharing with others is perhaps the first step to becoming a writer. But quite apart from this a writer also needs a subject, a concern.
Primarily, my concern has been Wales. The ‘seminal’ essay to which I refer is ‘Becoming Welsh in ‘99’, the centrepiece essay of my first foray into self-publication almost a decade ago. Looking back now, it is easy to see CFUK, as I titled my self-styled ‘litzine’, as my own search for a voice. That first issue featured fiction, reviews and a critical essay about the new wave of ‘urban’ writing that was coming out of Cardiff at the time – all written by me – and an interview with Lloyd Robson, who was responsible for suggesting the lead essay’s title. Before Lloyd’s intervention, I had planned on calling the piece, more prosaically, ‘This is My City’.
Now I am an expatriate writer. In the usual sense of the phrase, Cardiff is no longer my city, the adopted home I felt it so strongly to be. Now I live in Valencia, a port city and quasi-capital that shares much in common with Cardiff; it is comforting to live in a city whose maps show a familiar fan-shape radiating out from the port toward the old town a mile or two inland. But even discounting the climate, Valencia is very different. The river Turia, for example, far wider than its Cardiffian counterpart, was drained after a flood in the 1950s and has been rerouted; rather than the Taff’s dirty trickle, Valencians enjoy a few miles stretch of open parkland, sports arenas and other leisure facilities. At the port end, the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias dwarfs the Millennium Centre in terms of size, but lacks the intimacy and community of Cardiff Bay. And making these superficial equivalencies does not help my writing. My concern is that I have lost my subject; away from Cardiff, I am without my muse. How can I continue to write for the Wales Arts Review, about Wales, when I am no longer within its physical environs?
As a writer, and reader, I find it impossible to separate my life from those of the writers I admire. Packing up my library of books to be transported to my parents’ house for safekeeping – until, perhaps, the date of my uncertain return – I found myself thinking of Jonathan Raban’s move from London to Seattle, around which so much of his writing swirls. Arriving in Valencia, I could not help be reassured by the trail blazed by Ernest Hemingway, the most celebrated Hispanophile from the English-speaking world and perhaps the ultimate example of the expatriate writer.
In literature, of course, there is a great tradition of exile. Each case offers singular perspective on the experience. Joyce, for example, famously wrote Ulysses in Paris-Zurich-Trieste, all the while obsessing about Dublin. Conversely, D.H. Lawrence’s writings from Italy and Bavaria, New Mexico and Ceylon find him discovering decidedly less English worldviews and senses of himself. Both writers found new perspectives in the between-spaces of expatdom.
Hemingway was from the Mid Western United States, yet he is far more closely associated with the various places in which he settled. A Moveable Feast is one of the most celebrated books about Paris; Death in the Afternoon is certainly the most famous about bullfighting; the very titles of many of his masterful short stories are evocative of his varied and colourful life, from ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and ‘On the Quai at Smyrna’ to ‘Wine of Wyoming’. It is perhaps appropriate that the last uncollected story published in Hemingway’s lifetime was titled simply ‘A Man of the World’ (1957).
His last major work of fiction, The Old Man and the Sea, directly concerns ideas of exile and acculturation. Santiago, a Spaniard, adopts Cuban religious, linguistic and working habits to ward off his lifelong feeling of expatriation. I am excited to discover what kind of an expatriate writer I am going to be. I hope I can, in time, become immersed in the local culture to the extent that I can gain something of an insider’s perspective, but I am not naïve enough to believe I can ever ‘go native’; nor would I want to. Perhaps, recognising that this is the key to some of the greatest literature ever written, the very thing I seek is the sensation of being caught between two worlds.
Many of my very favourite writers were and are suspended just thus. Albert Camus, writing at the time of Algeria’s struggle for independence from France, was able to reach the memorable piece of moral logic that ‘I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice’ precisely because this was a choice he faced in the real world. Although Camus was by this time a famous French intellectual pontificating from Paris, his mother was still living in Algiers where she could easily have been a victim of a bomb placed on a tram. Likewise, Orhan Pamuk readily admits that much of his novelist’s wisdom, and also the characteristic huzun, or melancholy, that suffuses his work owes a debt to Istanbul. The city itself, poised on the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia, tradition and modernity, religion and secularism, is, like the work of so many novelists, a centuries-old embodiment of an existential divide. Paradoxically, Pamuk is rendered an expatriate in his own city.
It is not only writers. The most interesting of their creations also share this duality, this dividedness, this being-out-of-place. Christopher Booker’s ‘seven basic plots’ can be distilled into one: fish out of water. In order for there to be a story, Odysseus must go to war, Philip Pirrip must leave the Forge, Bilbo Baggins must leave the Shire. Here at the outset of my own adventure, it is important to reflect on the fact that such homes exist. Characters, like writers, who despite their laziness, selfishness and vanity are nevertheless still people, need to belong.
I find myself bestowing as title for this current essay a phrase that previously appeared in its spiritual predecessor. ‘Becoming Welsh in ‘99’, that first open expression of identity, ended with a crystallisation: although Wales is ‘not in my blood’, I argued, ‘it’s in my heart.’ Now the phrase echoes in two languages I only partially comprehend. Cymru, en mi Corazon. Siempre.
When I wrote ‘Becoming Welsh’, I claimed that ‘they even built a stadium in my honour’. ‘It seemed,’ I wrote, ‘as if the whole city was celebrating my arrival.’ My going to university in Cardiff had coincided with Welsh bands taking over the charts, the hosting of the rugby world cup and, of course, devolution.
I wrote about how my first vote, for Plaid Cymru, had been cast ‘in a fit of stupidity and rage’. It was, truth be told, a protest vote against the then still ‘New’ Labour, a party I had unquestionably considered my default political home, but whom even then, and even at the tender age of eighteen, I had already seen through. Now, almost fifteen years later, Welsh democracy itself is entering teenage maturation. Having left the country, it strikes me that if and when I return to the country I find myself increasingly referring to as ‘the UK’, as a subtle correction of the much more common but totally inaccurate ‘England’, that entity itself may no longer exist in its present form.
In my barrio Russafa, a kind of Valencian Roath with Pontcanna seasoning, the flyposters ask ‘Catalunya Independent… El Pais Valencia Que?’ It is a question that translates itself immediately, not only idiomatically, but situationally to Wales. ‘Scotland independent, Wales what?’
For even if the referendum scheduled for next year in Scotland, as is expected, returns a No vote, how long until the next one, given the seemingly inexorable direction of travel and the unignorable fact that history stands still for no-one? If Scotland leaves the union, where does that leave Wales? Fifteen years after my ‘protest vote’, I find myself drawn to the vision and energy of Leanne Wood’s leadership of Plaid. I am still not a ‘nationalist’ in the traditional sense, but the Party of Wales does seem to offer the two elements lacking across almost the entirety of the wider British political landscape: integrity and ideas.
Another huge part of my ‘becoming Welsh’ was bound up in sport. Scott Gibbs’ try at Wembley as a key moment in my ‘nationality transplant’; then, a single victory over ‘the old enemy’ was a cause for unbridled celebration. These were the days of BBC Wales adverts featuring Kelly Jones singing ‘As long as we beat the English’. Nowadays, it seems that nothing less than supremacy over the northern hemisphere will do. We are in the midst of another Golden Age for Welsh rugby. Grand Slams, Lions and being robbed in the World Cup semi-final.
And in football, lest we forget our ‘second sport’, we have witnessed perhaps the greatest year in our history. Gareth Bale became only the third player to win the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year Awards in the same season. He is still only 23. When I began training as a teacher at Whitchurch High School in 2002 – a brief period I mention in passing in ‘Becoming Welsh’ – Bale was in Year 8. Now his image adorns the cover of Futbolista in the window of my local newsagent on the Avenida de Peris y Valero. On current form, Bale is destined to be a global icon on the scale of a Messi or Ronaldo.
But the really impressive thing about Welsh football in 2013 is that the success stories are multiple. We do not have to make them up, exaggerate or fawn embarrassingly over one star player. For the first time in their hundred-year history, Swansea City won a major trophy, the League Cup. In their own centenary year, and 25 years after relegation from the Football League, Newport County returned in style, at Wembley beating Wrexham, who themselves had earlier won the FA Trophy. Closest to my own heart, Cardiff City returned to the top flight; next season they take their place, alongside Swansea, in an English Premier League that will be, for the first time ever, ten per cent Welsh.
The Bluebirds were another huge part of my becoming Welsh, and are represented in the essay amid a litany of Cardiff sights, sounds and smells by the simple phrase ‘the roar from the Grange End’. The affinity I formed with the club over many afternoons singing and chanting on the terraces of Ninian Park was a huge part of my beginning to feel truly Cardiffian, as opposed to just another somebody who had stayed around after university. It is why I am looking forward to sampling the atmosphere at the Mestalla, where Valencians express their passion for a club and a city. It is also why I feel so strongly, like so many other Cardiff City supporters, about the club’s ‘rebranding’.
Even before I moved to Spain, I stopped attending City’s home games. Like many others, I found the club’s change of crest and colours an affront to tradition; replacing the bluebird with a dragon and blue with red, supposedly to sell more replica shirts in Malaysia, was a cynical act, symbolic of everything that is wrong with sport in the age of money. ‘You sold your history’, the followers of opposing teams sang gleefully; they were right. The problem was, of course, on the pitch, where City swept all before them. There was no traditional end of season collapse or play-off heartbreak; Cardiff won the Football League Championship at a canter, promoted with eight points and three weeks to spare.
Now I find myself in a strange position. I had thought that, as much as it pained me to admit it, I had fallen out of love with the club, even as they were at long last promoted. I had subscribed to the view that the club had died last summer and been replaced by a franchise with no link to the club’s occasionally glorious but mostly ignominious history. But, already, being here in Valencia has provided me with a new perspective. At first I faced the irritation of every Welsh person abroad, the problem shared with Canadians and New Zealanders of being in the shadow of a big, self-important neighbour. Then there was the double irritation of having to endure football conversations with knowledgeable Spaniards who know all about Swansea and Michu.
Then Cardiff were promoted. It is not just the city council and The Western Mail peddling the line about Cardiff City’s promotion giving the city and by proxy the nation of Wales a global profile. I had never believed that kind of internal hype resonated beyond Bridgend, let alone Barcelona. Living among people who have barely heard of the Pais de Gales, I now know it to be true.
Next season, Cardiff games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Swansea (‘El Clasico de Gales’, anyone?) will not only be screened in cafes across Spain, but in Irish pubs in New York City and the bars of Kuala Lumpur. Now, I positively look forward to seeing the Welsh dragon – as long as it is alongside the bluebird – being established as a global brand. But knowing myself as I do, I will watch with what I imagine to be the dewy-eyed nostalgia of the expatriate. ‘Ah,’ I will say, when City record a first victory at the Emirates or Etihad, ‘but it’s not like standing on the Bob Bank in the rain.’
I have an equivalent feeling about Wales Arts Review. ‘Why,’ I have been asked, ‘are you leaving just as the Review takes off?’ For a start, I might answer, I am not leaving; I have merely gone away. But the real explanation lies in the way the world has been globalised. Wales Arts Review is online. It exists in a self-evidently post-national space; and anyhow, it was never intended to be solely a Welsh enterprise. Its creators are Welsh and so is much of its content. But if Wales is to grow culturally, we are going to have to get used to the idea of more and more of our writers and artists living and practising in other places.
Lloyd Robson, to take one I mentioned earlier, now lives in New York. Sian Melangell Dafydd edits the Welsh-language journal Taliesin from Paris. The theatre world will soon have many more moments like the NTW sojourn in Japan. Soon the global franchise that is the Hay Festival will arrive at the near-legendary Welsh outpost in Patagonia; yet another circle may be squared if Bob Dylan plays in Swansea to celebrate the centenary of his namesake. If it happens, it will be just one more example of how, culturally, Wales has become part of the world.
And as that world shrinks, wherever we happen to be, we experience the effects of globalisation every day. When Hemingway arrived in Valencia to drink with the fishermen and hang out with matadors, there was not a Starbucks on every corner and an iPhone in every pocket. The stirrings we see in Scotland and Catalunya are the product of historic nationalisms but also a symptom of a growing wave of localisms. There is not a total resistance movement toward the globalisation of culture, just some ideas about ways of working within it.
Wales Arts Review is a part of that conversation; a space where Wales meets the world and the world meets Wales. And while there are many things that I already miss about life in Wales – chicken-off-the-bone, curry, rice and chips; rain that is properly wet; people saying ‘thanks Drive’ when they get off the bus – I would maintain that there has never been a better time to be an expatriate writer.