We’ve just met. Hello. Hi. We share first names and tentative smiles, a handshake or a nod or the offer of a sausage roll. Like most first encounters there is awkwardness and goodwill in equal measure. A spirit of friendly endeavour. And then something happens.
There’s a question you’d like to ask. I can feel it forming in your mind. There was a word I pronounced oddly, or you noticed a sing-song quality to my voice. Maybe you wait until it’s socially appropriate. Maybe you dive right in. Either way, inevitably: “Where do you come from?”
I’ve heard this roughly once a fortnight for the past dozen years, but it’s an innocent query, and it’d be rude to not oblige. Here’s the answer I’d give to a geography teacher: I was born in Scotland, lived in a Forthside naval base until I was five, moved to Pontypridd, remained there for a decade, then lived in England, then Scotland, moved to London for university and forgot to leave. A decade vanished and here I am, eyeing the finger food and smiling politely. Hi. Hello.
So much early movement untethered my voice from its natural sense of place. All five-year-olds are basically incomprehensible, but I was particularly so, my Scottish accent so thick that teachers and classmates could barely understand me. When my preschool burr finally slipped away, it was replaced not with a Welsh accent but some confused amalgam that persists to this day. There’s something in me that’s essentially unsettled, and this uncertainty has spilled out into the way I speak.
An accent is something you carry around in your throat, an unwitting passenger in life. It can be scrubbed away with effort, but is the clearest biological indication of upbringing. You can only have an accent if you’re from somewhere. So what does that make me? Where do I come from?
Despite living in Pontypridd for my most formative years, I didn’t belong. I defined myself in opposition to Wales: its homogeneity, its questionable approach to vowels, its misplaced pride in Tom Jones, its marrow-deep rugby obsession. For an indoor kid with spaghetti wrists rugby was a weekly ordeal, and seemingly the only sport in existence. If the trite observation about it being the national religion was true, then I was an atheist, dragged to church in ill-fitting clothes.
My real home, I asserted, was Scotland, a country I had little ongoing connection with beyond a quenchless thirst for Irn-Bru and Glaswegian indiepop. There’s a term that articulates this feeling: hiraeth. It doesn’t have a direct English translation, but means “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” An etymologist would relish pointing out at this juncture that hiraeth is a Welsh word.
Since skipping Glamorgan at sixteen for a bedsit and bad poetry, my teenage friendships left to atrophy, I’ve told people that I’m barred from the country. There are pictures of me, I used to allege, stuck in the windows of the tollbooths that parenthesise the Severn Bridge. I started believing my own ruse, ignoring the hiraeth mutating inside me. I made London home and joined a community, but something was missing. Almost every new friend had also fled a small town of some description, but they didn’t recite elaborate analogies about being in exile.
Wary of nationalism, I’d also spurned any notion of tradition, culture or heritage that I might call my own. As I got on with the glacial business of forging a meaningful, happy life, some abstract part of me ached and I didn’t know how to stop it.
Until, that is, I read about a man jumping off a ferry.
. . .
On 9th October 2011, the rugby player Manu Tuilagi—possibly inebriated, definitely stupid—decided it would be a good idea to fling himself from a passenger ferry into the busy Waitemata Harbour and swim to a nearby pier. The ill-advised leap came as the denouement to England’s disastrous Rugby World Cup campaign, where dismay over their early exit had been compounded by reports of ill-discipline, drunken nights out and casual bouts of dwarf-tossing.
This baffling conduct passed me by until I skimmed a news story on Tuilagi and his overly symbolic tumble. As my long-held suspicions about rugby’s inherent boorishness were being confirmed, I caught an offhand mention of the contrast Wales provided to England’s indignities. My interest piqued, I delved deeper. Wales weren’t tossing dwarves; they were too busy having weekly choir practice instead. Article after article spoke reverently of their work ethic, commitment to training and support of one another. The men I read about seemed a world away from the swaggering clods of the frigid rugby pitches of my youth, those athletically unfearful boys who made life difficult because I spoke funny.
I’d certainly changed since leaving the country—I could now poach an egg—and I wondered if rugby had too. With the careful optimism of the frequently disappointed, I sat down a few days later to watch Wales’ semi-final, my bare feet padding across rock. And then it happened. I got it.
Rugby, I realised, is about the collective struggle to accomplish a shared goal. It’s a metaphor for socialism. No wonder the Welsh adore it. Co-operation is built into its genetic code: to take part in a scrum eight players bind together, sharing the weight of their difficult task. There are players who never even touch the ball: their job is solely to hold up or protect their teammates. Most pleasingly for someone who spent juvenile P. E. lessons dreading the changing rooms, it’s specifically designed so all shapes and sizes can play: if you’re tall you can be a lock, if you’re short you can be a scrum-half, if you’re heavier you can be a prop. No matter who you are, if you want to play there’s a role for you, like a choir that induces cauliflower ears. Within eighty minutes I’d converted to the national religion; I didn’t just enjoy rugby, I believed in it, struck sentimental by its egalitarian beauty.
. . .
It’s hardly worth mentioning that Wales lost. It didn’t matter. They were ferocious, indefatigable, large-hearted. They played as if rugby was all that mattered. It was only polite to reciprocate. I’ve followed them ardently ever since. Watching now inspires an unfamiliar sensation in my chest, huddling between the lungs: unembarrassed pride. Instead of viewing national identity as a tool used to exclude others and promote insularity, I appreciate it’s also a way to acknowledge history, both collective and individual, good and bad. It doesn’t negate the factors that made me yearn to leave in the first place, but I finally understand Pontypridd’s role in my life.
On the whims of circumstance I grew up in Wales—that underdog of a country, weird and funny and soulful—and it shaped me more than I knew. I’d been wrong for almost my entire life. The values it cherishes are my values. Its struggles are my struggles. When the television cameras cut to an excitable crowd dressed like daffodils and sheep, I don’t recognise myself, but that doesn’t make the feeling of affinity any less valid.
Wales belongs to me as well. Its history is mine. Its culture is mine. The coalfields and the valleys are mine. The Mabinogion is mine. Aneurin Bevan is mine. The Labour movement is mine. The miners’ strike is mine. The post-industrial hardships are mine. Even Tom Jones is mine, for whatever that’s worth.
Most importantly, rugby is mine. It always has been. My grandfather passed away a few years ago, and I can’t watch a game without thinking of how he’d run up and down the length of his sofa, shouting at the television in exultation or despair. I catch myself doing it now too, and in those moments I feel connected to him, to that lost place of my past. When Wales play rugby—and, heavens, when they play they’re magnificent—I remember every bit of him. I don’t have an accent, but I have that.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Five.