Wednesday 18 January 2023

Being Welsh is Like a River


The place to start is at the beginning. For me that was on a mountainside in Eryri, the land of the Mabinogion, one early morning late October. I was born in a tiny shack with two rooms: one up, one down. You couldn’t get there by car so the midwife had to find her way with a torch through the howling wind and hailstones. She was joined by a two other women, a friend of my mother's and a local grandmother who saw lights on and came to investigate. It was there, in this warm company of characters, that I entered the world. 

It’s hard to imagine a beginning more rooted. My ties to Welsh land are literal, visceral. My first breath gulped in the cold, crow-laden air; my placenta buried on Cnicht, the Matterhorn-shaped mountain that protects Croesor valley, my home. My sense of being Welsh, however, has never been straightforward. Neither of my parents are Welsh, for a start. My mother is from former Yugoslavia - she moved to Britain as soon as she started hearing the whispers of war. My father is from Bristol and settled in Meirionnydd when he found a gardening job in Plas Penrhyn, former home of Bertrand Russell, near the surreal Italianate village of Portmeirion.

I’ve often wondered what it was like for my mother, who, after divorcing my father, was left alone with me as a baby in this remote slate-mining village, so far from her own roots. What she remembers most is the kindness she received. Everyone welcomed her as a new member of the community and she soon learnt the benefits of living in a tight social pocket, with all its familiarity and security. On my first birthday, for example, she invited the whole village. Photos show everyone piled into the sparse living room, crowded around a cake, and me, hovering above it in my mother’s arms. Like my birth, what this shows is an involvement, the experience of being part of other people’s milestones. No pomp or ceremony, just being there, witnessing, knowing the ins and outs. 

I started learning Welsh from an early age when I was looked after by our neighbours. One of my first phrases was ‘Sia bia!’ which I used to proudly point at objects and claim my dominion. I spoke Welsh in nursery, then school, so it was never something I questioned, it was just something I did and always had done. Because we didn’t speak it at home, though, my commitment started to waver. The heavy, definite sounds made strange shapes with my tongue - it felt awkward. Borrowed. Not mine. In typical rebellious fashion, I began discarding the language, avoiding it wherever possible, and focusing instead on my Englishness, which felt more international and full of promise. 

It was only after travelling to the Peruvian Sacred Valley in my twenties, where many of the locals still speak the indigenous language Quechua, that it struck me how lucky I was to speak a similarly ancient, precious and endangered language. When I came home, I vowed to re-learn Welsh, working in a bar in Blaenau Ffestiniog, one of the most Welsh-speaking towns in the country. I enjoyed shocking people who presumed I wasn’t local due to my English accent, asking, ‘Tisho peint?’ As well as the language, one thing I valued moving back to Wales was the wildness. I don’t just mean the landscape, I mean the people. Not a misty-eyed mysticism, but a guttural, mad, romantic-with-a-capital-R sort of wildness. So many poets, musicians, teachers, philosophers - professional and not. So many hard drinkers and howl-at-the-mooners. We certainly know how to party and it is wholesome, it is magic (and not just because we go picking in the hills every autumn). 

I remember reading once about the psychology behind celebrity. Apparently, what drives people to be famous is an evolutionary need to be recognised. In ancient times, when communities were smaller, to be recognised would be a given - an intrinsic part of life. Since many of us have sprawled out into cities, moving from one place to the next, it’s more common to be anonymous, or at least have that option. I used to crave being that mysterious stranger who appears and disappears, who has no past or future, coasting on an eternal present. Sooner or later, though, we desire context. We wish to wrap its downy warmth around us, sink our toes into its inviting earth. By context I mean finding yourself in the pub, and sitting to your right is the partner of a woman who babysat you, and to your left, a teenager who you remember being born. It’s people knowing your name without an introduction. Like a homing pigeon, I, like so many of my peers, returned. 

As an adult with experience of living in different countries, settling back home has been a process of reclaiming. From the ungrounded hedonism of travel and a capricious sense of identity, I have come full circle, landing back in a community which has now shifted and grown to include my schoolmates and their children: a generational resurgence. It has taken me years to accept my place here. So much of my youth I felt a split in my heritage. I wasn’t as Welsh as my school friends, whose Nain and Taid we’d go and visit off the school bus, who’d feed us cheese and jam sandwiches with our panads. I wasn’t English like my cousins who lived in cities, and I certainly wasn’t Serbian like my Baba Rosa, who came from a different world entirely, whose everyday life felt so painfully foreign. 

I may not have the claim of ancestors here, spanning back for centuries. I may not have a Welsh name, or even an accent. What I do have, though, is my beginnings, memories of the landscape stitched into the very core of me: the familiarity of bare tree on craig, wool torn on barbed wire, fresh tinkle of stream freshly thawed from snow. I have the physical fact of playing in my neighbour’s farm, exploring the labyrinthine sheep pens. I have the experience of attending Croesor primary school, now closed, that was set up for miners’ children and housed no more than thirty pupils at a time. I have the secret of smoking my first cigarette in an abandoned barn where it was rumoured a woman had hung herself due to a scandalous affair. I have the pain of facing teenage trials, shameful mistakes aired out in public.

Now I understand more and more that Welsh identity is of an ungraspable nature. It is inseparable from place, and therefore each county, town and hamlet has its own version of Welshness. I know my community’s flavour and I recognise it in myself: a radical focus on eachother’s needs, a fiery fuck-you to cookie-cutter conformism, an unpretentious understanding of the seasons and an unwavering respect towards the land. It is the stirring pride when you see the Welsh flag, a giddiness in knowing how slight, how impossibly tucked-in we are geographically, and yet how deep our myths are planted, how old the words we still utter. I feel part of something worthy, now especially, with the ever-more pressing need for ground-level action, and the increasing focus on smaller, truer entities - such as the village shop, such as the granular rallying for social change. 

Speaking about national identity can border on the nostalgic and the quaint - especially, I feel, with Wales. So often we are regarded as a tourist attraction, a time capsule that can be accessed for a fee. Welsh cakes and daffodils and choirs, etc. What cannot be sold in a gift shop is the tangible connection between people, story, and place. It’s not always pretty, it’s rarely simple. In my case, an identity wasn’t handed over, but rather, I had to mould it myself. The clay was there already but it was up to me to shape it into something that fits and captures all of me - my foreignness included. Perhaps what I have experienced is a journey all of us take - a journey back home. Let’s not discard our complexities along the way - through contradiction healthy tension arises, and then, movement. Change.  

Being Welsh is like a river - running from the same source yet branching into a thousand streams. Fluid, elemental, it takes many forms, joining the estuaries of something bigger, the wider world, the sea.