Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo is now eleven months old.
I wish I was Welsh.
Now, there’s a phrase you don’t see or hear very often. So, I’ll say it again.
I wish I was Welsh: I really do.
I lived in South Wales for seven years in the 1990s and fell in love with the place and people – the heart-on-the-sleeve passion; the grudges and dark rivalries; the secret, silent expanse of the sandy beaches and deserted cliff-tops; the haunting grey-green rolling hills; the unlovely towns; the terraced homes stretching squat and house-proud through the valleys; the raw wet cold.
It’s a place of light and shadows, of sun and rapidly gathering clouds, where the past is never far away.
And if I close my eyes I can still hear Wales because, of course, it has its own soundtrack – a soundtrack made up of a lilt and love of savoured words, of soft-breaking waves and falling rain, of ready tears and self-deprecating laughter.
And of song: inevitably song. From the bursting swell of the old Arms Park to the sudden rising of a single tenor voice that reduces a beery working man’s club, deep in the Rhondda, to warm remembering tears.
I envy the people of Wales their sense of place, their longing for home – even when they’ve never left – and their burgeoning pride in the rebirth of their capital city. Cardiff: a great nostalgic city, now fit and eager for the modern world.
And I envy them too that they can sum all of this up in a single word that only they can truly understand – hwyl. It’s something about passion, ecstasy, inspiration, belonging. In a much older sense, it’s a word that derives from the sail of a ship – and you can picture it, can’t you? A sail filled with all the gathered winds of the past giving direction, purpose; pulling to the future.
So, it’s true. I want to be Welsh. Proper Welsh. I want to come from Merthyr or Treorchy or Pontypridd.
Or, if I can’t be Welsh, I want to be like my grandmother and come from a small faraway town deep in County Cork where everyone knows your name and business: a close claustrophobic place from which you’d have to flee, to escape – but to where you’d also keep returning, drawn irresistibly, magnetically home.
It would be a town of no more than two thousand souls – where you would grow up knowing every scabby-kneed child of your generation. And in knowing them, you would quickly come to know too their brothers, their sisters, their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins.
It would be the kind of place where, from the beginning, you would understand without asking how everyone is joined together – who is connected to whom and how – where a chart of the town’s tangled web of relationships is somehow absorbed into your memory with the misty air you breathe. Where you are all woven together from the start. Part of the tight fabric of the place.
That would do for me. That would be just fine.
But, if I can’t be Welsh or Irish, I want to come from Grimsby.
I spent two years there in the 1970s as a junior reporter on a weekly newspaper; felt the icy unforgiving blast of the east wind; saw the rusting hulks of the dwindling trawler fleet at harbour; met hard men who lived hard lives; lived on next to nothing in a squeezed terraced house. And yet I was made to feel briefly part of it – a soft lad from the south, forgiven his posh accent and southern ways, and welcomed in by generous people, fiercely proud of their town.
Or perhaps I could come from Scunthorpe?
I went there after Grimsby, edited a newspaper, witnessed the quiet dignity of a community torn apart by the strikes and closures of the local steelworks that the town depended on.
Wales, Ireland, Grimsby, Scunthorpe. Any of these would do.
But instead, I come from nowhere.
I was born in Margate in Kent – and, let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with Margate. If it was good enough for Dickens and Turner, then it’s certainly good enough for me. But I left there very young and have hardly a memory of it. So I don’t feel as if I come from there, belong there, understand it; it doesn’t anchor me, define me in any way, draw me back.
I have no history with it.
Thinking about it now though, Margate would have done, would have fitted the bill.
If I had truly come from Margate, I would have been able to take pride in its heritage, it’s great Victorian age; to share in the sorrow of its relentless decline; to summon up a grim optimism at each new stirring of progress, each new illusory dawn. I would have been allowed to make jokes about it, feel angry and disappointed with it, feel fiercely protective towards it. It would have been part of me.
But the truth is, I’m afraid, I don’t feel anything about Margate. Except perhaps regret.
Nor – as I wrote not so long ago about finally finding my house of belonging – have I stayed long enough in any town or city to claim it as my own. After a few years, I’ve always moved on. An urban gypsy.
So, I have no roots, nowhere that tugs at my heart.
And I have a sense that this has been a great yawning void in my life. If I had truly come from somewhere, I would have been, I think, a different person.
Not just different – better, perhaps. Because a long and enriching relationship with anyone, anywhere, anything is bound to make you better, isn’t it?
And that brings me to my hope for you, Theo.
That you will come to know what I have never known. That you will stay still long enough to have friendships to last a lifetime; to be proud, despairing, knowing, caring about a place where you truly feel you belong.
That your town, your history, your roots will be in the town of your birth; in Brighton.
(Or rather – as they always say where you now live – well, Hove, actually.)
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