We inhabit a fictional country. The photograph lies. EMBAJADA DE GALES means ‘Embassy of Wales’ in Spanish. It was on a banner displaying the sponsors of a poetry festival in Central America. Reference to such an entity proves beyond all reasonable doubt that we come from an imaginary country, something like Ruritania.
But what, I ask you, gentle reader, distinguishes a real country from an imaginary one? When I was last at Buenos Aires airport in 2005 there was a huge display in the arrivals lounge announcing ‘Argentina – un país de verdad’ (Argentina – a real country). This was not long after the collapse of the Argentine economy and the massive devaluation of their national currency. Who, other than those in a state of serious self-doubt, needs to proclaim to the world the status of their own reality?
Argentina needn’t have worried. But we in Wales are used to such a predicament. We are never sure whether or not people in the rest of the world believe in us or not, so we are permanently checking our self-made reality gauges. It is well-documented by academics that the Welsh are sociolinguistically more Welsh the further they travel from Yr Hen Wlad. There is even a Welsh proverb to that effect. But does that mean we become less fictional when we travel, or more?
In most of the world, if they have heard of us at all, we are ‘a part of England.’ I have also heard that Wales is ‘in Scotland’, and on ‘the other side of Ireland’ and once ‘in Finland’. These assertions, while showing a frail grasp of geography, do in fact have a whiff of the truth, placing Wales somewhere on the periphery of something else.
Frequently of course, there is a situation where an individual Welsh celebrity has raised international awareness of our existence. A footballer – Mark Hughes in the 80s, followed by Rush, Giggs and now Gareth Bale – will assist bar-room conversation. In rugby-playing nations a Welsh identity usually provokes commiseration, and pitying remarks of how a once-proud team can now only compete in the second tier. Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Catherine Zeta Jones and Charlotte Church have done their bit. Among literary types (other than specialists) only Dylan Thomas ever seems to pop up.
While no one has yet suggested to me (as apparently George W Bush did) that Wales was one of the states of the USA, our provenance and exact status remains a mystery to the great mass of the world’s population, but our invisibility has one overriding benefit: no one has had the time to form a negative impression of a place they have never heard of.
To come from a land with nominal but invisible embassies, with a government but without a constitution or a state, with a fictional creature on its flag and a population whose sense of national identity grows in direct proportion to distance from the homeland, now that is what I call a wondrous paradox. We are the ghouls of historical destiny, forever seeking ourselves in the space left between a phantom nationhood and other people’s perceptions of us. All compounded by the concept of everlastingness – Cymru am byth – so that when all the planets have been sucked back into the sun, when the dust of what was once our solar system is distributed at random across the vast wastes of the universe, the idea of Wales will live on.
Walking out yesterday with the brother, daughter and dog, this sign might have taken us by surprise, had we not been Welsh, and therefore accustomed to such wonders. Whether or not Being Welsh is perceived as a blessing in the general run of things, when it comes to going out of a Saturday and walking a country mile, coming across a sign such as the one in my photo – and I assure you it is not a set-up – only serves to remind us of our inordinate good fortune. Consider the topography: a field dotted with sheep; an unmarked road – little more than a lane – overgrown hedgerow and fern; a sky not threatening rain. And a home-made sign pointing up the road, indicating that in this direction the traveller will find a restorative musical experience. In Wales we too are suffering the crisis effected by the bastard bankers, but here, at least, we have fresh duck eggs, border collie pups, a few bags of spuds and a MALE VOICE CHOIR.
The first sentence of Tristan Hughes’ new novel goes like this: “ I was casting out from the eastern shore of Eye Lake, opposite the second island, when I snagged the top of my grandfather Clarence’s castle.”
Imagine the past is a lake. Then something happens, maybe the feeder river is diverted and the lake very slowly begins to empty. The past is being revealed, almost imperceptibly, with every inch that the lake recedes, but the people in the town by the lake are mostly either too blind or too absorbed in their tired, meaningless lives to notice, or to care. Something like this happens in Eye Lake.
What lies below the lake is of very great concern to Eli, the narrator of the story; Eli, whom everyone considers rather simple, and whose quiet, steadfast manner and gentle integration in the outdoors life of the northern woods renders him little more than a feature of the landscape to the other inhabitants of Crooked River (population 2851 and falling, the cover blurb informs us). As the story progresses we begin to ask ourselves whether Eli’s ‘simpleness’ is not rather a simplicity of vision, an unsullied quality of pure, unprejudiced observation. Eli sees things as they are, rather than in ways fashioned by prejudice or the moribund acceptance of received knowledge.
This book is about the presence of the past, and about absences – great rifts, in fact – within the present. There are three disappearances, and something – we are not told what, of course – connects them. The lake is drying up, and with it, the soul of the town. This invites a different reading of the past, in a last attempt to save the town’s soul. Tristan Hughes has said in an interview that “the past doesn’t just inform the present: it deforms it”, and he has admitted to being slightly obsessed by the notion, something with which readers of his previous three novels will probably concur. The Tower, Send My Cold Bones Home and Revenant are all set on Anglesey, the island off the coast of north Wales where Hughes grew into adulthood on his father’s farm, having spent his early childhood in North Ontario, in a place very similar to Crooked River. The landscapes of these two settings are remarkably different, but both possess a quality of removedness from any centralizing or ascendant point of view, both breed a sense of self-containment or detachment from the concerns of a cluttered, metropolitan perspective. But despite the space or scale that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any easier to breathe the air there, or in these books, either. Each one of them is beautifully crafted; they flow with a sparse, melodic prose, evincing and yet just fighting shy of a sense of the epic. They contain fine, controlled writing, and a deceptively mellow yet insidiously menacing quality that is both arresting and disarming.
Hughes has cited as influences writers as diverse as William Faulkner, John Cowper Powys and Caradog Prichard, author of the Welsh-language classic One Moonlit Night. Such information is only partly helpful: there is a hint of the Gothic in Hughes’ writing, but it is never overt, far less overbearing. And, as another reviewer said of Send My Cold Bones Home, if Hughes is in the tradition of Powys, it is in the sense in which Malone Dies is in the tradition of Ulysses.
Someone said there are only two myths: the one in which the hero sets off on a journey, and the one where the hero stays at home. Hughes has commented that growing up on a small island instils both myths: its occupants seem torn more than ever between a desire for home and for elsewhere; of staying still or lighting out for the territories. The irony of a place like Crooked River – itself a sort of island – is that it was founded by a man who was lighting out for the territories but within a couple of generations had become a place in which its population is irrevocably trapped.
Do not read Eye Lake if you are looking for racy action or a lot of thrills. But if you value skilled, understated writing that worries its way below conscious thought, or are in the habit of waking up at four in the morning with a vague sense of having forgotten something crucial, this book might just be for you.
Walking in the Black Mountains I find a dead lizard, belly-up on the gorse. What is it doing here? It is a surprising lizard. I am walking along a long ridge of moorland, with the Ewyas Valley to my right and the Grwyne Fawr reservoir (see picture) to my left.
I have never seen a lizard here before, and I grew up nearby, and spent much of my childhood and teen years tramping around these hills. Are they even indigenous to this part of the world, to these islands? In my mind the lizard should live in more southerly zones.
These mountains lie beneath international flight paths. Is it possible the lizard was hitching a lift on an aircraft, lodged inside a crevice in the undercarriage or wheel-well, and was dislodged during the flight, falling many thousands of feet to land in a heap of gorse on the wide stretch of moorland marked on ordnance survey map 161 simply as ‘Y Fan’? Did it climb on board in some sunny lizard-friendly country only to be cruelly ejected over Wales?
I put it in my pocket, and when I get home its tail has broken off, which is upsetting. I place the two parts of the lizard on a sheet of paper to photograph, and try and put the broken-off piece of lizard back where it belongs, but you can see the crack in its tail. Checking out the website ‘Reptiles and Amphibians of the UK’ I discover that ‘you may find one almost anywhere from gardens, heathland, wooded glades, disused railway tracks, open meadows to the banks of ditches and along hedgerows’. They are also a protected species, and it is therefore an offence to kill, harm or injure them, sell or trade them in any way.
I have to confess, that my lizard bears a close resemblance to the male viviparous lizard (left) in the illustration below:
The viviparous or common lizard is one of the three lizard species native to the UK, the other two being the sand lizard and the slow worm, but it is with some reluctance that I abandon the lizard-stuck-to-the-undercarriage-or-trapped-in-the-wheel-well of a plane theory. Does this reflect a need always to prefer an obscure or exotic explanation when a more straightforward one is available?
Imagine my surprise, on a crisp and cloudless day in March this year, sitting down to lunch outside a restaurant in Toledo, when I discovered that the young couple at the next table were speaking Welsh. I was skiving off from a rather dull conference in Madrid, and Toledo, less than an hour away, seemed an ideal distraction. It was one of those moments of apparent disconnect, when you need to make a quick inventory of your surroundings, pinch yourself, do some sums, listen doubly hard to make certain you are not hallucinating the sounds. We fell into conversation – this is almost inevitable if you happen to speak a minority language, however badly, and meet compatriots in foreign parts – and the talk came around to Welsh cinema. The film Patagonia had just been released: I had been away from Cardiff and unable to go and see it.
So I finally got around to watching it last night, and, on balance, I enjoyed it. Although I had reservations about the script, including the rather cheap trick of withholding vital information that undermines our response to the central protagonists’ relationship, the cinematography and acting were excellent. Nia Roberts gave a strong performance as a woman who wants more from life than she can reasonably expect; her boyfriend Rhys (Matthew Gravelle’s irritatingly dour and uptight photographer) goes through a minor epiphany on finding the body of a dead dog on the road, and later, in a redemptive act, befriends the dog’s shambolic, alcoholic tramp of an owner. Matthew Rhys, as their Patagonian guide, is an effective and powerful presence onscreen, subtly pitched the right side of brooding. This Patagonian part of the story comes close to being Big Cinema, but somehow just falls short. It was the Welsh adventure of the young Argentinian, Alejandro, cajoled out of his virtual life of sci-fi novels by his elderly neighbour Cerys (played by Marta Lubos) that most captivated. For both myself and Mrs Blanco, Alejandro (Nahuel Pérez Biscayar) was the star turn of this film, and we were most entertained by the scenes in which he appears, even his puppyish romp with Duffy, with whom he is improbably reunited after first meeting her when she passes out at a Cardiff nightclub.
But why do I always endure that nervousness, or painful sense of resistance, whenever Welsh artists (and that includes many of our writers, visual artists and film-makers) attempt to make a statement about contemporary Wales or any articulation of ‘Welshness’. However hard they try, there always seems to be some frantic element at work, as though we, as a nation, still have something to prove to the world. No one is interested. Certainly no one outside of Wales gives a shit, and many of us who live here just want to get on with our work without having to make continuous self-reflective reference to our Welshness. As if a Swiss writer had to pepper his stories with references to cuckoo clocks and dairy milk chocolate. So there seems to be something desperate about having to bring Blodeuwedd into the story as kind of smash and grab raid on the Mabinogion. It’s like stating outright: ‘Look, we have these early medieval antecedents, this embedded narrative mythology.’ I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t wash, and nobody cares anyway. And if you’re going to do it, do it in such a way that isn’t bloody obvious. Likewise the farcical pseudo-Celtic water burial ceremony awarded to Marta Lubos, poor thing – Health and Safety would have been down on that like a ton of bara brith.
Given my own self-confessed prejudices, I ended up enjoying this film far more than I had intended to. Er, four stars?