Adrian Masters casts a critical eye over Griff Rhys Jones’ journey to explore his Welshness in his latest book, Insufficiently Welsh. Available from Parthian.
After rushing around Wales experiencing thrills and spills in the air, on the water and under ground, Griff Rhys Jones swaps his waterproofs and hard hats for a dinner jacket and (borrowed) bow tie to enjoy the glitz and glamour of the Welsh BAFTAs. On the red carpet outside the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, he is asked by a journalist how he rates his chances in a category which pits him against ‘a proper Welsh presenter.’
Naturally he bridles at the implication just as he has all his life. After all, he is ‘Griffith Rhy Jones, son of Elwyn and Gwynneth, scion of Megan and Ieuan and Evan, spawn of Betws-y-Coed, Penmachno and the Rhondda, dark of hair, thick-thighed and round-faced’. But it is a question he is asked himself before. If someone is born in Wales, has Welsh parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties and cousins and has been brought up with all those connections but has lived their whole life in England, are they, themselves Welsh? It is a big question and there is an answer of sorts, as you will see. But strangely it does not come as a result of the activity, or rather hyper-activity, the telling of which forms the bulk of the book.
It is a curious beast. A hybrid of travelogue and (sort-of) memoir, it is part coffee-table book – and it is a beautifully produced book with gorgeous photos – part existential-musing and part TV-tie-in. In fact, whether or not you watch the TV series it accompanies, you will learn much about the practical reality of making a television programme. Jones is explicit about it: ‘I was out, running about on this ideal beach on an ideal June morning in the name of television artifice’. And, ‘…We were doing this abseiling sequence to add a bit of “jeopardy” to the film…’ He says that he can ‘act’ abseiling and ‘act’ horse riding. ‘It’s a fake,’ he writes. The cameraman, sound man and director are characters in the text, offering their opinions, their own memories and, more often than not, getting Griff to do something again for the purposes of filming it.
He can be a bit defensive about that artifice though. After recounting the story of the drowned village of Cantre’r Gwaelod, he reveals that, for filming purposes, the crew persuaded one of a group of boys swimming near by to ring the sea-bell on the jetty to make it sound like the legendary ghostly bells. Jones then adds that, ‘…our television viewers enjoyed both a lovely evening half-light and the legendary storm-bell clanging its clapper. Is that cheating? Probably. So go on, expose us to the papers. We don’t care.’
Sometimes the text’s origins as TV script can make the experience of reading it as a book a little frustrating. The episodic nature means it starts examining subjects but does not pursue them. For example, in Hay, Richard Booth begins to reveal his concerns over the impact on the town of the now-famous festival and related questions about the rôles of Welsh Government and Sky TV, but he is ‘ushered outside’ and we never return to the topic. Elsewhere, Jones begins an interesting discussion about the language but is soon off, canoeing up the Wye. The hyperactivity so necessary in TV production proves to be limiting in the written word.
There are fragments of memoir, mostly of childhood visits to Wales, the odd Welsh word used by grandparents and glimpses into what it was like growing up the child of Welsh parents living in Essex: his father eating cockles which the children called ‘little chickens’ and being forced to sing in church and school choirs despite a lack of vocal ability, just because he was ‘Welsh’.
He reveals himself to be a bit moody and snippy at times, or at least defensive. Mostly, however, that manifests itself in a kind of amused scepticism at some of the dafter explanations he is presented with, for example the ‘evidence’ that the famous Nanteos Cup is the Holy Grail. In that instance, he plumps for the positive and decides that mid-Wales is a ‘country that likes stories. It was, thankfully a lot less prosaic than Middle England and I was grateful for that.’
Despite that occasional chippiness, Jones is an affable and amusing guide. He confesses that, soon after learning some Welsh he begins to see the language everywhere, even thinking that the word ‘manned’ on the Severn Bridge toll booths is a Welsh word, ‘mannedd’.
He has a lovely, and often surprising, turn of phrase, describing basking seals as looking ‘like nudists surprised by interlopers’, and a group of twelve-year olds whose lack of fear highlights his own trepidation in a tree-top training ground as ‘lemurs’ while he is ‘the sloth’. For most of his life as the child of exiles, Wales is the ‘land of my aunties’.
There is some impressive writing too. Here he is musing on the piles of slate at Blaenau Ffestiniog which he describes as a ‘dreadful scarring but a magnificent one: No doubt tons had been cloven, chipped, smoothed and carried away, but the stuff left behind, the jagged residue, the blocks, shards and wedges of black or grey stone, are piled up in mountainous heaps like frozen black fountains.’
Along the way Jones sprinkles fascinating facts, some of them new to me. I learned about the Anglesey origins of the Land Rover; that Brecon Carreg water comes from wells, not springs, and that ten per-cent of the UK’s oak trees are in Wales.
The trouble is that, fascinating and eye-opening as his journey and his made-for-TV ‘challenges’ are, the Wales he is seeing is a kind of Visit Wales version of the Grand Tour. He gets glimpses of the real Wales, but for the most part it is a manic tour of the quirky, the unusual and the impressive: gliding, coasteering, zip wires, Portmeirion, the Ffestiniog railway. It is like seeing Wales from the outside, which is why he still feels like an outsider at the end.
However, he is fully aware that his made-for-TV journey of artificial challenges and interesting, quirky visits does not get him any closer to answering that question. Swimming in a freezing mountain lake, he writes, that
I wondered, as I splashed about and completed this ‘Celtic Challenge’, whether this really did link me with my Welsh roots. Surely not many of my fellow countrymen, lurking in the shopping centres of the post-industrial Welsh hinterland, actually swim in wild water?
In fact the answer is that it does the complete opposite and marks him out as a privileged visitor:
And that’s what swimming in a Welsh mountain lake did for me. An unappealing sense of my own specialness alongside my pallid dugs in the black water. I think Shelley and Alan Clarke probably felt much the same.
That self-awareness is what won me over. He is not trying to claim a misplaced ‘authentic’ Welshness; he is all too aware of a lack that is no fault of his own. I laughed when he joked about his performance in Mine All Mine, the Russell T. Davies comedy-drama set in Swansea. He writes that, during one speech, his accent ‘… set off on a worldwide expedition, visiting Mumbai and Northern Ireland before coming to rest in Windsor Davies – “insufficiently Welsh,” I fear.’
I was rooting for him after that.
So to that question of identity. It is a question posed during a failed pitch to a BBC Wales Commissioner who describes a putative presenter (and Jones himself, he guesses, by association) as ‘insufficiently Welsh’. It rightly stings him and he holds it in mind throughout his TV ‘journey’ even if that does not answer the question for him. No amount of ‘film fun,’ as he describes it, even if it is exciting, entertaining and enlightening is enough to plug the gap created by the simple fact of not being brought up or living for an extended time in Wales. ‘I have missed something essential. I have not spent enough of my life in the Land of My Fathers. I must always remain the outside Welshman, the backdoor Cambrian, the would-be boyo.’ Then he says something rather splendid:
In the end I can say that I think I am rather privileged to be a dispossessed Welsh person and a perpetual outsider in Wales. As a result I need take nothing for granted. I still have a lot to master. Good.
This is not a serious book. It is great fun and easy reading. But it does, unusually for a TV tie-in make rather a profound point. The challenge that this ‘insufficiently Welsh’ man lays down to those of us born and brought up here is to stop taking the country we live in for granted. Perhaps we all need to see it with the eyes of an outsider.