I have followed the discussion about Wales, Welshness and her culture in past issues of Wales Arts Review with interest, always considering when, how and especially if I’d participate.
My Welshness is a very personal thing. I suppose, politically I am a nationalist, but my nationalism is defined by me and not by the threat of a mysterious ‘other’. The imagined community argued by Benedict Anderson seems very abstract sometimes. I hardly consider that my nationalism provides transcendental explanations of human suffering. Simply put, a lot of my Welshness comes from a feeling, from deep inside and it can sometimes be very hard to make political points based solely on how one feels.
Then there is rugby and my Welshness. They have been linked for as long as I can remember. There was something magic – still is – about settling down to watch Wales play, first in the 5, and now, the 6 Nations. The large colourful crowds, the noise, the singing and the warm safe embrace of Bill MacLaren’s commentary. Like now, people talked about the game in the week leading up to it – it was, and is, an immersive and intense experience for anyone who wants to be involved, no matter how much you care or the depth of your knowledge. Going to school on the Thursday before the game, I used to look out of the bus window with envy at the men at the bus stop on the main square in Fishguard. On their way to Cardiff or the other capitals in the competition, they were instantly recognisable in their Welsh tops, flags and scarves, but most of all I was jealous of the easy friendship they had, their laughter and of course the beginning of their adventure. I wanted to grow up and be them because it looked like so much fun. I learned the National Anthem specifically so I could sing at my first international. I remember the preparations and trepidation before it. It could only be surpassed if I was running on that pitch myself rather than watching it from the steps of the East Terrace.
With the playing of rugby comes the singing afterwards. Clichéd, absolutely. Enjoyable? Equally so. The mixture of, say ‘Father Abraham’ and ‘Cwm Rhondda’ meant that I was not only taking my first look at the culture of rugby but being part of the enduring death throes of Welsh nonconformity. The songs we hear reverberating around our stadium have been reduced to hymns and arias, ‘Delilah’ and a chorus of ‘Bread of Heaven’, but if you played rugby in Wales in the ’80s and ’90s you had a repertoire as deep and solid as the congregations of the Bethels, Hermons and Ebenezers of slate grey, chapel Wales.
So I do not think that you would be alone in being surprised that I write the beginning of this submission over a delicious American breakfast of eggs over easy on top of a chilli beef hash and a cup of coffee in the opulent dining rooms of the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas. This is not, for me, the literature infused, culture-centred trips to the American south so loved and cherished by my fellow Wales Arts Review contributor (and more importantly my wife) Cerith Mathias. No, my first tentative steps into Welshness – well, other people’s aspects of Welshness – will begin amongst the noise and neon of Sin City.
My quest, I must admit, is on the periphery of the two main reasons for this visit. It is a trip to celebrate the big four-o of a good friend, who needs good company of a like-mind with whom to grow old disgracefully. The second is that the birthday bash was planned to coincide with the American leg of the HSBC World Sevens, a seven-a-side rugby series with 16 countries playing nine tournaments from Australia to Scotland, this leg being the fourth in the series and the first of 2014.
We have already had a day here. The renowned debauched destinations of the fun-seeking skimpily clad in Wales – such as Wind Street in Swansea and St Mary Street in Cardiff – are wild enough to get a blush out of the most open-minded citizens of Sodom or Gomorrah, but this place, Las Vegas, makes our strongest efforts look like quiet cobbled streets from Camberwick Green.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman is set in an America where its immigrants, throughout history, brought their gods with them on the journey to the new world. Their consequent abandonment meant they were stuck, forever to exist in a place that had replaced them by Americans who had new gods to prostate themselves before. It is a novel I love and when I think about the previous expeditionary night I find it a shame that no Roman explorer had travelled so far to reach these shores because Bacchus would have bloody loved it here. (The whole place is a towering temple dedicated to him and it is little wonder that when I write notes over here, the words Bacchanalian and Dionysian are ones I find myself using.)
Even as I sit here, the noise of the slot machines just outside from where I am having breakfast also reminds me that the Goddess Fortuna is equally worshipped in this place, although I see little joy in the faces of her zombified followers, feeding the slot machines with the monotonous functionalism of an automaton. Even when Fortuna smiles, it is fleeting, the win at most enough to refill the plastic cups that hold her tokens and then the ritual begins all over again.
My quest today begins with Welsh expats. Mark O’ Callaghan is originally from Llansawel in West Glamorgan and now lives in Calgary, Canada while Rob Jones from Ammanford has travelled to Las Vegas from his now home in Charleston, South Carolina. We have been friends for many years. Rob has managed to bring a little bit of Wales with him and now runs a business selling football and rugby gear to local teams. A relationship brought him to America; opportunity and lifestyle made him stay. I was surprised when Mark said he was moving to Canada because I could not think why someone would want to go somewhere where the weather was worse but he tells me he would rather the snow than the continual rain of home. The drizzle is something he does not miss, along with traffic congestion. They both miss rugby and both miss international weekends. 6 Nations has never been about a Saturday for any of us. There is no mythology about these weekends for our families and friends, as we lived them. It is never been about eighty minutes, but about shared events and about new and continued friendships. Neither can put their finger on their Welshness now they live abroad; both say that they just are. Again, how can you argue with that?
The second morning sees me eating breakfast in my usual place. Maybe I should write ‘attempting’. The big difference from yesterday is that I have had a rugby filled and alcohol fuelled twenty-four hours and therefore this breakfast has none of the wide-eyed optimism of the explorer, but the red-eyed hope for sleep and the blind-eyed prayer to any God, Goddess or pantheon of them, to make the thing go away. One and a half hours sleep is not conducive to writing (or to anything!) but I have forfeited sleep because we are on our way to watch the rugby. Before this trip I had only ever been in one limousine, but here it is so easy to get one that I have already been in three. It is just another example of how surreal this place is.
Okay, next comes the sports part so if you are not interested skip this paragraph now. I am sure that even for the uninitiated and uninterested the name seven-a-side rugby gives away the main difference between the sport and its fifteen-a-side big brother. It is fast-paced and manic, with games only lasting fourteen minutes (twenty minutes if it is a final). It is a simpler game with fewer rules of the fifteen-a-side so it is easier to understand, even for the first time watchers. With sixteen fewer players on the pitch there is space to run so, even with less time, there are usually tries a-plenty and end-to-end action. My international rugby career was killed off at an early age through a complete lack of talent, but I played rugby for twenty years and, during that time, I played in sevens tournaments. I can attest it is lung busting and it is frenetic. It does not allow you much time to think, and there is nowhere to hide … thankfully if you need to hide it is over very quickly.
Sevens began at the end of the 19th century in the borders of Scotland and spread quickly. It is now a global game, but it does not have the leagues or the dedicated supported teams of the fifteen-a-side rugby world. Sevens has created a culture that is all about tournaments and all about fun. Rugby people all have their favourites: for me you cannot beat the magic of the Newport tournament in Pembrokeshire for partying, good rugby and pubs that close only when everyone goes home. Back on the world stage, in 2009 the game was accepted for the first time as an Olympic sport, soon to take its inaugural bow in Rio, 2016. This is the big time; Olympics means funding and it means a global audience.
We arrived just in time to watch Wales lose. In fact, throughout the weekend Wales were pretty under par (I cannot use the words I put in the notes) getting their only win against the home side.
The Sam Boyd Stadium is a great open-air arena, the weather was balmy and the view behind the scoreboard of distant mountains of western Nevada looked like a backdrop from an old western movie. No matter how loud the crowd or exciting the play, you always found your eye creeping to the scenery. Over thirty thousand people were at the stadium but this is sevens, the free movement of supporters, the quick change-over in games and interest in them means it feels like double that. As with most sevens tournaments, there were plenty of people in fancy dress. In fact, there were so many Wonder Women in the stadium that I thought about coming up with some sort of collective noun for them (an Amazon…?). Hangover slowly disappearing into the ether, I took to the teeming sports village that had grown up outside the stadium to ask fans from around the globe about their views on Wales and Welshness. This highly scientific but significantly flawed poll reaped little reward on the essence of nationality, but as an overview and an opportunity to meet rugby supporters around the world it was invaluable.
It is important to note that this truly was an international event. The host team were of course well supported, but the amount of Canadians and Samoans who had made the trip was quite astonishing. Fijians and Kenyans were vocal, and visiting English dressed as knights and country gents also made up the crowd. What about us? Well, other than my group, there were small groups of Welsh people wherever I went in the stadium. For the most part though, the Welsh fans I met were expats living in North America and who had dragged their partners and friends with them. A former teacher from North Wales now living in Canada and a girl from Swansea living in Texas both told me that going to the Sevens felt like keeping a link with home alive, and the partners both indicated that hiraeth, our own form of longing for home, kicked in at the beginning of the 6 Nations like a form of seasonal adjustment deficiency for singing and drinking.
The usual sneers from our round ball cousins about rugby not being a truly global game I suppose holds water, but that was not evident here. At one point I was watching a game between Portugal and Spain picking up Portuguese swear words at a rate of knots from the supporter in front of me. Behind me were an Iranian, a German and a Mexican, which initially sounded like the beginning of what could be a very funny but generic joke. They all played rugby together for a team in Los Angeles.
‘So what do you know about Wales?’ I asked them. Surprisingly they spent the next five minutes listing off what would be quite an impressive word cloud of Wales. Again, they had learned about the country through Welsh team mates. This was the case throughout the weekend. These unpaid and unrecognised missionaries have been in the past, and are still to this day, doing more to promote a picture of Wales and an aspect of its culture then all the stylish but earthy promotions put together. It is a Wales I know and identify with. There is a touch of mythology to it and it’s unashamedly one-dimensional in its positivity. But then again, who wants to see an advert from Visit Wales saying ‘come to Wales, it’s pretty dour really and the locals won’t speak to you’? These missionaries pointed out their Wales and opened a doorway for others to explore.
Incidentally, the tournament was won for the second year on the trot by South Africa, whose captain was already talking up their chances for the Wellington leg of the tournament rather than basking in the glory of their victory in this one. Most stayed for the crowning, and the almost carnival atmosphere that infused the stadium from start to finish seemed to stay with the crowds that flowed out into the Nevada evening. One last night in the city of sin, and as I talked to a group of Samoans, Englishmen and team-mates from a rugby club in Boston about the night ahead, I realised that maybe this was not the quest for Welshness I had initially believed it to be, but a reaffirmation of mine and, more importantly amongst the pleasure palaces of Las Vegas, it was a chance to share my culture and get to learn about others amongst the imagined global community of rugby.