In an interview on the BBC News earlier this month, the singer Bonnie Tyler was interviewed by Katty Kay and Christian Fraser, usually an intelligent and benign pair of individuals with whom I have no axe to grind. The interview was standard early evening fare, and the three chatted away, getting along famously. Then, at 4’18” — if you click on the link below — you will hear Ms Kay ask the singer: ’Do you ever sit back and think, Bonnie Tyler, not bad for a girl from Wales?’
What does this seemingly innocent utterance actually reveal?
I would suggest that it comes from, and taps into an unconscious prejudice, something so deep-seated in the English mindset as to be understood — presumably — without further explanation.
Kay doesn’t say ‘a girl from Skewen’ (the village where Tyler was born) — but identifies her country of origin. What, by contrast would it mean, to say ‘not bad for a girl from England’? Nothing at all, presumably, because a ‘girl from England’ could be anything at all. The utterance would be meaningless. It can only be compared with a statement such as ‘Not bad for a girl from Scunthorpe’ or Middlesborough, or Blackpool (towns with the some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England) or ‘Not bad for a girl from (insert name of any rundown estate in east London).’
Why then is ‘not bad for a girl from Wales’ so offensive?
It can only be because ‘Wales’, in the minds of so many English people, is a backwater, and can only very rarely be expected to produce individuals who rise above the murk and mire of their place of origin, a dim and misty bogland somewhere to the west of the Severn — sorry, the Prince of Wales — Bridge, suitable perhaps for holiday homes, and for off-colour jokes about sheep, but hardly a place likely to offer up a stream of talented individuals who rise to the top of their professions on the international stage (omitting of course, such exceptions, in the world of theatre and show business, as Richard Burton, Siân Phillips, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones; in the business world, names such as Charles Rolls, Frank Wright and Laura Ashley; in the literary world, David Jones, R.S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Lynette Roberts, to name only poets; in the world of the visual arts, Richard Wilson, Thomas Jones, James Dickson Innes, Augustus John, Kyffin Williams, Gwen John, Shani Rhys James; photographers such as Phillip Jones Griffiths and David Hurn; countless first-rate musicians, entertainers, scholars, scientists and sportspeople, I don’t need to list them – and realise I’ve missed out lots of names. So actually, considering the population of our country, I’d say we punch well above our weight . . . )
I am sure Katty Kay does not view herself as a racist, and her slip was almost certainly not malicious. But it reveals an attitude that goes far deeper. Despite all the debate about unconscious prejudice with regard to people of colour, or towards the LGBTQ community, these small indicators of the ways in which the ‘other nations’ of these islands are regarded by the ascendant group — the English — continues in much the same way as it has for centuries. In my youth, overt racism was displayed toward the Irish — I can remember the pubs in London with signs reading ‘No Dogs No Tinkers No Irish’. In recent years, animosity towards the Irish has shifted towards the remaining British Celts, and is expressed, sometimes relatively mildly, as with Ms Kay’s remark, and sometimes far less so (see the recent sacking of a senior Iceland executive for calling the Welsh language “gibberish” or even the Telegraph’s article opining that the Wales rugby team would be the Six Nations’ ‘worst ever Grand Slam winners’, were they to win their deciding match against France last night).
Prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, is of course much easier to identify in others than in ourselves, but the bias against Wales and the Welsh certainly has a long history.
Which brings to mind the story of Parsifal, or Perceval. In the first full account of the Arthurian legends by Chrétien de Troyes, in the twelfth century, Perceval is identified as ‘the Welshman’ (li Galois), and it should be remembered that Perceval, after facing ridicule at Arthur’s court as a country bumpkin — as befitting someone from Wales — surpasses the deeds of all the other knights by finding the Holy Grail, and in the process healing the wounds of the Fisher King. As the mythographer Robert Johnson writes: ‘He is born in Wales, during that time a country geographically on the fringe of the known world and a cultural backwater, the least likely place for a hero to appear . . . Who would ever think of Wales as possibly producing an answer to our suffering? Myth informs us that our redemption will come from the least likely place.’
So much has happened since the Champions League Final held in Cardiff on June 3rd: the London Bridge attacks (that same night); the general election; the Grenfell Tower fire and the Finsbury Park attack. A football game is a mere trifle. But the issues that struck me on the evening of the European Champions Final in Cardiff are perhaps not entirely irrelevant, and the corporate, globalised nature of top-level football – along with its often incorrigibly corrupt officials (stand up Michel Platini) – raised some questions of identity and alienation, even in this anecdotal form.
What is in a name? Walking through my home city towards the Principality Stadium, once the Millennium Stadium, and renamed the National Stadium of Wales at the insistence of UEFA for tonight’s event, I could feel myself, just like the stadium itself, undergoing an identity crisis.
I have been overtaken by a sort of acute cognitive dissonance, in which the knowledge that, while I am in my own city, in a street I walk down every day on my way home from work, I am at the same time elsewhere, in a city of strangers, all of them football fans – which I am not – in a parade (typically, if not stereotypically) of shouting and gesticulating Italians, all adorned with shirts and scarves of the Juventus tribe, followers of the fortunes of the football club that will shortly be pitched against the might of Real Madrid, their ‘Spanish’ opponents. They are passionate in their support, and many of them would do almost anything – and have already done a great deal and paid a lot of money – to travel to this game.
My overall neutrality is a serious marker of difference, here amongst fanatics. I am both a native and a neutral, and it feels as though I have entered a parallel world, in which my familiar surroundings have been ripped away and replaced by a replica city, in which I am the alien. And I am walking down Wood Street the wrong way.
Normally, in order to enter this end of the stadium, I would leave my home in upper Grangetown, cross the bridge at the end of Tudor Road and, turn left. This evening, though, Wood Street has become a one-way system for pedestrians, and we are channelled up towards the railway station, underneath the vast and towering construction that will soon be the new home of the BBC, doubling back down towards Wood Street from the Mary Street end. It is a small matter, but one which adds to the general sense of being cast adrift within familiar surroundings. And the fact of being herded the wrong way down this road, surrounded by strangers, seems laden with metaphoric possibility. I am a little disoriented, to say the least.
But as I have started thinking about my own identity in this huge crowd of fanatics, and felt the painful onset of anomie, and an almost total disconnect from my surroundings, I begin to think, in turn, what it means to support a football club. We all know, nowadays, that support of a particular club has nothing at all to do with geographical or even cultural affinity. The reasons for supporting a club can be as fleeting as the colour of their strip or the design of their logo, or a schoolboy crush on a particular player. It isn’t like in my grandfather’s day – that’s how far you have to go back – when the players in a side were actually from the place they played for. Nowadays these specimens are rare – Stephen Gerrard of Liverpool was a notable recent case, along with Rooney when he played (briefly) for Everton, and I’m sure there are a few more, but they are not plentiful, and certainly not in the Premier League. Such characters are invariably local heroes, until they move to a bigger, richer club.
So, the notion that supporting a club may have anything to do with affiliation by country or culture or geography applies equally to playing for such a club. How many of the Juventus players starting tonight come from Turin? And how many of the Madrid players are from . . . As I write this, I realise it is not a remotely original question, but let’s check, starting with Juventus.
There is not a single player from Turin or even thereabouts in the Juventus team; of the four Italians starting for Juventus, three are from Tuscany and one from the Lazio region. I find it interesting that the actual Italians are, true to form, all defenders, as though the back line must, at least, live up to the Italian reputation for ruthless, murderous defence, and therefore be comprised of those most loyal, even at a distance, to the Italian (though strictly speaking, it should be Lombard) cause. There are even fewer Spaniards in the Real Madrid side: of the three starting, two are Andalusians, and there is one, yes one from the autonomous community of Madrid, Dani Carvajal (also a defender). I like the way the nationals (Ramos, too, is a defender) make up the defence, as if to say “we at least are loyal Spaniards/Italians and will defend the goal-line to the last”. A nice touch. There were, in total, 4 Brazilians (two apiece), 4 Italians, 3 Spaniards, 2 Germans, 2 French, 2 Croatians, 2 Argentinians, and a single representative of Bosnia, Portugal and Costa Rica out on the pitch at the start of the game.
Clearly, then, in this globalised era of sport, what these fans are following are brands, not to be confused by loyalties of birth or geographical affiliation. And the notion of 76,000 fans baying on behalf of a brand that in reality has nothing in common with themselves as a defined cultural group from a defined place (Madrid, Turin) is a distinctly postmodern notion.
As if to prove a point, I am in the company of a Mexican and an Argentinian (invited to Cardiff to take part in Fiction Fiesta events on football and literature) and both have declared their allegiance to the cause of Juventus, while I myself am strictly neutral. A., the Argentinian – who lives in Granada – is an Atlético Madrid supporter, and therefore despises Real on principle. J.’s family on his father’s side is originally from Barcelona, and he has lived in the Catalan capital for extended periods, so he is even more contra Madrid than A. And me? Despite my protestations of neutrality, I lived in Barcelona myself for a while in the 1980s, and I am loath to see Real Madrid win anything, but there is the Gareth Bale factor, and even though Bale is not in the starting line-up, he is, after all, a Cardiff boy, and may come on as a sub (which he does, late in the game, but to no great effect). So, you see, one can get caught up in this nonsense even if one doesn’t really care. But the brand thing? The gazillions spent on players’ salaries, the products, the strips; the millions of little girls and boys who dream of getting a Messi 10 shirt in their Christmas stocking, or whatever . . . what the fuck is this all about?
Earlier in the day I had picked up our Argentinian friend, A., from his hotel. J. and I had waited in the foyer. A group of men were on their way into reception from their rooms, also on their way to the game. There was about them a brashness, and a brittle sense of propriety that seemed presumptuous, here in a foreign city. They exuded insider knowledge and, I suspected, the potential for extreme violence. They wore sharp suits to match their hatchet faces. ‘Romanian Mafia,’ J. muttered to me; ‘they turn up at every big match.’ J. would know; he is one of the world’s great football writers. The renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes, once said: ‘If you want to know about soccer, go speak to J.’ So if J. says these guys are mafia, I’m pretty sure they are. And it seems to be almost as if these guys are at the bloody heart of globalised football: the obvious crooks, milking the UEFA machine (on this occasion) – though it might as well be FIFA or any other of its world tributaries – for personal profit in whatever deals come in this event’s trashy wake. And they are only one step away from the ones we might consider the ‘insider’ crooks – the repulsive Sepp Blatter and his cronies.
As we approach the turnstiles, the tension mounts. We have to pass through three separate rungs of security and ticket checks. At the third turnstile, a young man attempts to flash a pass, or a ticket, at security, and this is found wanting. He has no ticket. The guard immediately calls for help and the guy is ushered away by two uniformed colleagues. I wonder how on earth he got through the first two levels of security. Two weeks prior to the match, we had to provide details of our passports and – in my case – national insurance number. The form from the Welsh FA stated that this information would be shared by the South Wales and Greater Manchester Police forces. We received this request four days before the Manchester Arena bombing of 22nd May. This was odd. Why did Greater Manchester Police need our data? Did they have intelligence on a likely attack? It would seem so, and I haven’t been offered any other explanation.
The game itself, even for a non-fan, offered a great spectacle. I am used to attending rugby internationals at the Millennium stadium, so the atmosphere was not a shock, but I did admire the extraordinary skills of the players, their control of a ball moving at speed, their balance and precision of movement. The Juventus goal, an overhead strike by the Croatian, Mandzukić, was a staggering piece of athleticism. I was particularly entranced by Ronaldo, a man with possibly the strangest skin colour on earth, after Donald Trump. And he was certainly the most reviled player on the pitch, which was fun. We were seated pitchside – our complimentary tickets were excellent (thank you, Nick) – near the Juventus fans at the south end of the stadium, and every time Ronaldo had the ball, a terrible hissing began. On a couple of occasions he was near enough to be spat upon. This radiantly dark orange gladiator ignored the taunts in magisterial fashion, peacocking his way across the pitch and, after his opening goal, embarked on a trademark piece of preening, flexing his muscles in a comically macho pose after first dashing to the corner to answer the taunts of the Juve fans with shaking fist. Great theatre, I guess, but such an odious fellow. I remembered reading somewhere that Ronaldo never celebrates the goals of his team-mates with them, but demands their adoration when he scores himself. If true, which I suspect it is, it struck me as the most incredibly narcissistic gesture, in what is, after all, a ‘team game’. But, then again: perhaps Ronaldo is simply being true to himself. Why would narcissism, a trait which defines contemporary celebrity culture, be out of place here, in a game that obediently tows the global capitalist line of cynical identity manipulation and idiotic self-love? It kind of follows that in such a relentlessly competitive and cash-driven arena, you wouldn’t really give a shit about anyone else in your team – even to the point of resenting them the smallest taste of glory. Team spirit? What have you got in common with these guys other than your obscenely inflated pay packet?
But despite Ronaldo’s prima donna antics, he wouldn’t be a great player without the rest of the team, and most people – in football as in life – seem compelled to form teams, to take sides, however tenuous the commonalities they share. In many ways, football at this level is the embodiment of postmodern identity politics. It is compellingly entertaining, even if the structure that supports it is rotten.
The players, by origin:
Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Dani Carvajal (Madrid, Spain)
Rafael Varane (France)
Sergio Ramos (Seville, Spain)
Toni Kroos (Germany)
Luka Modric (Croatia)
Isco (Malaga, Spain)
Karim Benzema (France)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Gianluigi Buffon (Tuscany, Italy)
Giorgio Chiellini (Tuscany, Italy)
Leonardo Bonucci (Lazio, Italy)
Andrea Barzagli (Tuscany, Italy)
Alex Sandro (Brazil)
Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia)
Sami Khedira (Germany)
Dani Alves (Brazil)
Paulo Dybala (Argentina)
Mario Mandzukić (Croatia)
Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)
Variations on a theme by Calvino
When a man drives a long time through wild regions, his imagination begins to wander. No, that’s not right. Try again. When a man drives across the last continent at night, from south to north, he must pass the mountain plateau of Omalos. Oh please, not that. Once more? When a man drives a long time across the dry plains of Thrace, he begins to wonder at the migrations that have marked this wretched zone. Turks, Bulgarians and Greeks, with varieties of cruelty and facial hair, wielding curved swords at one another’s throats for centuries. Forced expulsions, exterminations, and the underlying terror that who you are, or who they say you are, is all a terrible mistake, merely circumstantial. And why, for that matter, are you not someone else? If only – you conjecture – I were someone else, and belonged to a different tribe, had a different shaped moustache or nose, the smallest detail of appearance and accent that matters beyond the value of a life. The Levant’s legacy, never yet resolved: Greek, Turk, Arab, Jew. I want to be friends with everyone, and yet know I must have enemies too, if only in order to maintain my friendships. What kind of crazy thinking is that? Salonika, Smyrna, Alexandria, Beirut. We edge into new territories, in which boundaries are differently conceived and yet still intact. How do we progress from here, to the next point, the next dubious epiphany? I feel at once as though we have been witness to a slow disembowelling, over many centuries.
First published in Poetry Review, Summer 2013.
© Richard Gwyn
As an afterthought to yesterday’s post, I was distressed to hear the foot soldiers in Tietjens’ regiment, the Glamorganshires, speaking a hammy stage Welsh. Their speech abounded with arcane and weird phrases such as ‘surely to goodness’ – indeed one poor fellow could say little else. I have leafed through the Madox Ford novel but have not tracked down the offending passage: could it be Tom Stoppard’s intervention, or does this extraordinary language represent how a certain breed of English person thinks the Welsh peasantry actually speak? ‘Surely to goodness; indeed to goodness; a good man he is; on the table the tea is; it is his beer he’ll be wanting.’ Do these phrases actually exist outside the heads of English writers trying to “do Welsh”?
The problem of transcribing the language of people who are speaking a second language is a recurrent problem for the novelist. It is related to, though not the same as, attempts made at rendering the syntax and word order of another language, but transcribed as though they were speaking English: Hemingway provides some hilarious examples of this in The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, with Spanish. For example, opening a page of the latter book at random, we find:
“Fernando,” Pilar said quietly . . . “take this stew please in all formality and fill thy mouth with it and talk no more. We are in possession of thy opinion.”
I am sure we could open this into a fascinating discussion, but I merely intended, in the first instance, to make a note that it would be very weird, in 2012, to hear a ‘typical Welshman’ saying things like ‘Surely to goodness’. The truth is that never, but never, have I heard a Welsh person say any such thing. And while I can speak about the Welsh with some authority, I must also confess that I have never heard a Yorkshireman say ‘Ee bah gum’, or a Irishman say ‘Begorrah’, (although this does not necessarily mean that these things never get said and so leads us into speculation). Representations of the other always have to be accompanied by some linguistic marker of ‘foreignness’. Welsh is a VSO (Verb-Subject-Object) language but this does not appear to have filtered into the English transcription of first language Welsh speakers attempting to communicate in English.
So, to return to Enid Blyton, and the seventeenth adventure of the Famous Five: Five get into a Fix. The kids go off to a place called Magga Glen and stay with a little grey haired old Welsh lady who speaks in the peculiar fashion I have described. She is, in many ways, a replica of another Mrs Jones (all Welsh people are called Jones, after all, and all their children run around barefoot, dressed in rags, stealing cheese). This other Mrs Jones runs the Inn in The Ragamuffin Mystery, another, lesser-known Welsh-set adventure by Blyton. There is an evil ornithologist (ornithologist was Blyton’s favourite long word, and she manages to get it into her stories with improbable frequency), and the lady of the Inn makes pronouncements such as: “He’s not bad is my Llewellyn, not wicked at all. It was those men, with their lies and their promises. They tempted my poor Llewellyn, they lent him money to buy the inn.” Note: in Blyton adventures ‘bad men’ are of two varieties: members of the ‘lower class’ and ‘foreigners’ (of indeterminate breed, but invariably unshaven and speaking ‘with an accent’).
And there’s the moral. Never borrow money from bad men, especially foreigner bad men, in order to buy a pub. Surely to goodness no.
Blanco was a big fan of The Wire, David Simon’s epic account of life among the drug dealers of West Baltimore, with its startling portrayal of a city going under the cosh as the forces of unrestrained capitalism are let loose on the poorest and the most vulnerable sections of society. Series 4, on education, has to be the most astonishing and powerful thing I’ve ever seen on television. The part taken by British or Irish actors is not insignificant either: Dominic West, Idris Elba and Aiden Gillen all have major roles in the show.
The other night I watched the first episode of David Simon’s latest offering, Treme, which we have had hanging around the house for months, but have not got round to viewing. It begins, like The Wire, in a wholly unintelligible manner (subtitles help, but not too much). Simon claims he does difficulty on purpose, so as not to appeal to the lowest common denominator: “Fuck the average viewer” is the precise phrase he expressed on a BBC2 Culture Show interview.
Anyhow, a few minutes into episode 1, a scene takes place between Creighton Bernette, a real-life activist played by John Goodman, and a TV journalist, who is supposed to be British, but whose enunciation leads me to think he is an American actor doing a bad British accent. Plummy, stuck-up, arrogant: the type that American audiences love to hate. There is a batch of them in Madmen also: the Bad Brits, the Redcoats, the Enemy. All of them sound like superannuated aristos on a whisky binge. They are coarse, creepy and cruel. I don’t get it. If this is the common perception of US TV producers, then this is the cultural stereotype that the American public most wants to see, and they clearly don’t like us much. So much for the ‘special relationship’. It also seems incredibly outdated, a bit like a British equivalent of grossly overweight and ignorant Americans wearing check trousers, chewing gum and driving enormous, gas-guzzling chevvies.
But the weirdest moment of all in The Wire is when old-Etonian Dominic West is required to do a ‘British’ accent (as if there were such a thing) in series 2 , because he goes to work undercover in an illegal brothel. It is hilarious, because West, rather than doing the accent naturally, enacts an American doing a Brit. Extraordinary. Here is the moment when the idea, as usual the brainchild of the cop played by Clark Peters (himself a British resident for many years) comes about: