Saturday, 8 September 2012
A RARE BIT
The Welsh were invented by an ancestor of mine, a Pictish
chieftain called Cunnedda. Nothing very grand about that.
He is only an ancestor by marriage and I share him with most North Walians because Wales is not so much a country as a family. If they took the trouble most Welsh people could claim similar nobility.
It is said of the Welsh that anyone who can take his
ancestry back to the sixteenth century can prove a personal
flow of princely blood, so avid were our national forebears in matters of descent.
In Anglesey I had three neighbours. One, my landlord the Marquess of Anglesey ,claimed King Lear as an ancestor; the vicar's wife laid claim to Adam's son Seth - a less modest woman would have claimed Adam; whilst Sir Kyffin Williams, the painter, carried the blood of every Welsh prince you could shake a stick at.
What is more, all of us could all show you family trees to prove it. My own begins triumphantly with a sister of the Virgin Mary. Had there been a Booker Prize for Fiction in the Middle Ages it would certainly have been won by the genealogists.
The sad truth is that these ancient links are not my blood
kin. I am a professional alien. I shuffle through life with
the yellow patch of the stateless trusty sewn on my soul's
tunic. My name is pure Viking and my first recorded blood ancestor was brought from Normandy by Edward the Confessor to build castles on the Welsh border. His name was Ralph the Knight. When it became fashionable among the Norman men about town to have surnames, more often than not associated with their properties, he chose the name of a field at Dewchurch (then in Wales and called Dewichurch). The field was called Skudmer. No linguist, he did not know it meant Shitty Bog. .
Since then, more or less equal portions of Scots, English and Welsh have gone into mixing the substantial soup which is me. The fairies at my christening wore tall Welsh hats, tartan shawls and Lancashire clogs. I can always feel this mixed ancestry jostling me. Pushing me into dimly remembered loyalties; making me sing words I do not know to tunes I only remember by the curling of my toes.
Wherever I go I am a stranger. It is the proper condition of a writer, of course, but the fact remains I can call no country home; no patron saint mine. Living in my body is like driving a vehicle with three quarrelsome passengers, each of whom wants a different programme on the radio.
I am not Welsh by accident of birth but by choice. I am a volunteer. I chose to be Welsh because I detected in the Welsh those human qualities which I believe are important. They are: a dizzy infatuation with life and with words; exuberance; an ability to be dazzlingly bright and desperately dull, sometimes within the same hour; wit and the generosity of a drunken sailor with eight arms, full pockets and only fifteen minutes left of his shore leave.
Add to that a strong, sometimes crippling, sense of family. a respect for scholarship; but above all an indefinable quality which I can only describe as a sense of warm embrace. Going to Wales fifty years ago was like slipping into a pair of old slippers after a long day wearing tight shoes.
I do not think it an accident that so many Italians settled in Wales which Rene Cutforth called the Mediterranean in the rain. I believe this happy, talented, tempestuous race settled here because they found total compatibility.
I suspect this description of the Welsh might come as a surprise to readers on the other side of Offa's Dyke. The caricature of the Welshman printed on many Saxon minds is of a narrow faced, foxy hypocrite, dressed in a suit made from the covers of old prayer books, leaping from cottage to cottage, flaming torch in hand. Or coming up from the netherworld in a cage after a pit disaster singing Cwm Rhondda.
Useless to explain that in Wales hypocrisy is an art form, lovingly practised, and you get points for it on a sliding scale.
But it is not practised by every Welshman. Nor is every Welshman steeped in the Old Testament and lechery.
Another art form, which I suspect has its roots in the tribal past, is the ability to hate. Not just the English who are casually cast as the old enemy. The truth is that when Edward I marched into North Wales looting and slaying, the Englishmen in his army were outnumbered by South Walians three to one. North against South.
I know an editor of a South Wales newspaper who refuses to employ anyone from the North.