When I was accepted to do my MA at Swansea University in 2006, I have to admit I didn’t really know where Wales was. Was it part of England? Was it a separate country like Scotland but part of the United Kingdom? What was it like and how big was it? Were the Welsh like the English? Here is what I would have told myself then that would have helped me cope a bit better (not that I had a hard time, but it’s always easier with hindsight).
Wales juts out to the west of England, a bit north of Devon and Cornwall and just over the Bristol Channel from, well, Bristol. It isn’t a very big place, relatively-speaking, and much of it is rural and not highly populated (like New Mexico, in fact). The population is centered around the capital city, Cardiff, which is ironically one of the most Anglicized places in Wales, which is also home to the Welsh Assembly Government and a host of other interesting things, and is where all the money goes. Swansea is the second city, an hour west of Cardiff, and there, too, the New Mexico parallel holds, as Swansea has until recently been the more working-class of the two though Cardiff claims all the artistic and cultural superiority (just as Albuquerque and Santa Fe parallel; nyeh to Santa Fe).
I know south and eastern Wales pretty well by now, but the north is more of a mystery to me. Though throughout Wales all the signage you encounter will be bilingual, few people in south Wales speak Welsh on a regular basis (it gets more “Welsh-y” the further west you go); North Wales is where you should go for more bonafide Welsh speakers (and a peculiar accent all their own)—though this is a generalization and there are always exceptions. The Welsh accent is difficult for me to describe; sing-song-y, yes, but slightly different in each region and full of a vocabulary unique to its origins. I suggest for a taste of it you read Richard Llewellyn’s excellent (and I’m told, very accurate) book How Green Was My Valley, about the Rhondda in southeast/mid-Wales at the end of the 19th century.
Of course, if you’ve watched Torchwood, you’ve got a pretty good concept of the Welsh accent (and in general, the Welsh national character) from Rhys, Gwen, and Ianto. Rhys is written very typically Welsh, and I love Russell T Davies for writing him that way—his best and worst points were exposed in “Children of Earth” along with Ianto’s and his family’s. If you know of Rob Brydon, Gavin & Stacey, Tom Jones, Rhys Ifans, Ioan Gruffud, Shirley Bassey, Bonnie Tyler, Anthony Hopkins, and so on, you’ve also encountered Wales through the filter of show biz. Catherine Zeta-Jones comes from Mumbles, but you have to strain pretty hard if you want to hear her Welsh accent (at least on TV; maybe when she comes back to the Mumbles area it becomes prevalent once more?).
I will leave off the Welsh pub/club culture that is shown in Torchwood for when I talk about pubs and clubs (hopefully) later, but I will share an interesting insight. In May 2007, when I had been living in Wales for nine months, I went on a touristic trip around the UK with my mom and sister. I asked our tour guide (very southern English, very posh) about all the drinking in Wind Street (we’ll ge there) and its prevalence in Wales (though I haven’t had the experience to know whether it’s the same everywhere in the UK). He suggested it might be down to rugby! Why rugby should influence drinking culture more than football (ie soccer) I don’t know. But rugby is big in Wales. I have never been to a match, and while I’ve been coerced to watching some on TV (my Wisconsin counterpart Al loves rugby and this is some common ground, at least, that he shares with his girlfriend Jo; he likes American football to some extent but not soccer/football), I just can’t drum up any enthusiasm for it. I’m not a sport(s) fan anyway, though I did see years’ worth of soccer games that my sister played in, from age six on up through middle school, and I saw some of her basketball games as well (and have sat through American football games because she played in the band . . . you see what lengths I go to in order to support her?). I admire rugby players’ ability to run around in tiny shorts and with funny old-fashioned, medieval-style cowls on their heads and dive into “scrums,” but that’s the most I can say on the subject.
On the strange flip side of the national obsession with rugby is the bardic tradition in Wales. It is ancient, and though by bard you may understand me by the Druidic/semi-invented tradition that now forms the National Eistefodd, I have a more general meaning in mind as well. I like the G K Chesterson quote that goes, “The Irish are the race that God made mad / for all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.” Indeed, I think Ireland and Scotland have a remarkable historical record for producing great writers and poets in such geographically small areas. But Wales, too, seems to abound, for its size, with poets of every description, and poetry and the bardic tradition have a populist tone, too, as you will find when you read impossibly complex Welsh poetic forms on the gravestones of ordinary folk. Welsh is a difficult language to learn from an English or Romance language perspective; it has an ancient-ness inherent in it, as evidenced by how many of Tolkien’s place names come from Welsh roots (Breton in north-eastern France is the same and the two share some similar vocabulary; in Perros-Guirec they loved us in the Celtic bar because we came from Wales). The poetic forms we were taught during the MA (our tutor is Welsh and a proponent of forms, including the old Welsh ones) were diabolical, but I’m especially proud of my Doctor Who englyn.
Still, most people are hard-pressed to name any Welsh authors, except perhaps Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas has become a huge part of my life, firstly because I decided to do my MA in Swansea, which is his hometown (the Uplands where I live is where he lived as a child; the Tav is one of the places where he used to drink). Dylan (yes, we are on first-name terms; my friend Martha and him are “involved”) is famously to have said “Swansea is the graveyard of ambition,” which isn’t actually true—which makes people think that he had a world-weary dislike of his hometown. Actually his feelings were ambivalent, a similar state for many of us who have lived here: “the lovely, ugly town” (updated by a modern Swansea poet to read “the pretty, shitty city”). I admit I didn’t read much of Dylan before I came here; by now I’ve been able to form an opinion, and for the most part, I really like his stuff. It is unlike anything else you are likely to come across, and if you’ve lived in Wales, a lot of it will resonate.
I also owe a lot to Dylan because I work in one of a few “museum”-type environments devoted to his memory, and a lot of important events in my life have happened in and around this place. I’ve met lots of important people through the Dylan Thomas Centre. The first poem of mine that was ever published talked about how a woman in Killay thought Dylan was a “drunken sot” and didn’t deserve all the hype; to each her own. I also have him to thank for winning the Rev. Eli Jenkins’ Five and Country Senses Award last year. Wind Street seems to have a ghost of Dylan (I mean this figuratively!) in it; maybe that’s why the poem appealed to them, as the “steps to nowhere” are in this street. In any case, I’ve since discovered a lot of other talented Welsh poets such as Idris Davies, Dannie Abse, Peter Finch 0:-), Jeremy Brooks, the surreal Selima Hill, R. S. Thomas, Nigel Jenkins, and so on. I think in general it’s Americans who admire Dylan Thomas the most (though there are tons of European, Asian, and Australian tourists who come through the DTC)—without them, I’m afraid to say his memory might have been allowed to decay even more than it has.