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Friday, 4 February 2011
In 1992, fourteen-year's-old and living on the Penrhys Estate, I attempted a consumer survey in a teenage magazine in exchange for a free tube of shocking pink mascara. It was the mascara that was important; I was paying little attention to the questions, until I got to this: 'Do you consider yourself, A) British, B) European, or C) a mixture of both?' It was the first time in my life I'd been asked to reflect on that most critical of things; my own identity. Of course there was nothing in those multiple choice answers that came close to a true definition. I didn't consider myself British. To my mind Britain was England; a Royal family, a Conservative prime minister. Wales wasn't represented on mainstream television, (that's where my worldview came from at the time). It wasn't represented in the Union Jack either, but I knew I was Welsh because I'd dressed up as a Welsh lady on St David's Day at Junior School, plus my vocabulary was peppered with words my mother's English boyfriend couldn't understand, 'cwtch,' and 'bard' and 'ych i fi.' I crossed out British and wrote in 'Welsh'. I'm not sure I understood the meaning of 'European,' I had yet to encounter a Spanish holiday or the taste of pizza, but there was something other than 'Welsh' that I wanted to proclaim, some feeling I couldn't quite classify there and then.
In the south Wales valleys we've always been proud of our immigrant heritage. We are not simply Welsh. We are Italian-Welsh, Irish-Welsh, in my case Cornish-Welsh, here because of the 18th Century Industrial Revolution and the discovery of the coalfield. In 1921 anthropologist Alfred Zimmens claimed that the industrial society of south Wales could, because of its cosmopolitanism and industrial dynamism, be called 'American Wales.' We were outward-looking, non-Welsh speaking, and proud of it too. The valleys are a place that bred, as Pontypridd author Alun Richards would have it, 'champions of the world, not bloody Machynlleth.' Even as I was growing up in the economically-depressed Rhondda valley of the 1980s, fragments of this audacious attitude prevailed. Mining was dying but Tom Jones was on the telly, getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We were still out there somehow, performing on the world stage, citizens of the planet. It is this attitude that former Pontypridd MP Kim Howells was referring to in a recent BBC Wales documentary, A Valleys View of the World
. On accepting a place at Hornsey College of Art in 1965, he said: 'I was ready for London. I felt I could out-draw, out-paint and out-sculpt anyone there, as well as out-run 'em and out-fight 'em.'
For people like us, self-proclaimed internationalists, the extension of law-making powers for the National Assembly is thorny territory, as is devolution. Does agreeing to it conclude that we are indeed merely Welsh, confined to a very small country, a language that we failed to inherit, and everything else which those things entail? However we like to think of ourselves, the truth is that the south Wales valleys is a very different place to the one it was in 1921, devastated by Thatcher's eleven-year reign and facing savage cuts from the current Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition; Merthyr Tydfil known only outside of Wales as the fifth worst place in the UK in which to live, the fire in our bellies replaced with steadfast apathy. In A Valleys View of the World
, Kim Howells also mentioned how annoyed he is with the victim mentality we have harvested here in south Wales. It's easy to blame Thatcher and Westminster for our misfortunes, and harder to take responsibility for ourselves. I agree with him to an extent. Where our thought processes part ways is on the referendum itself. He says he feels ambiguous and confused and will vote no, whereas I believe the only way to instil a renewed sense of pride in our young people is by giving their country full law-making powers. I'll be voting yes. Not because I want to wave my Welsh flag in London's face, but because I think the south Wales valleys deserve to be governed by people who understand its history and unique geography. Iain Duncan Smith's recent disingenuous comments about the unemployed of Merthyr are evidence of Westminster's naiveté and unfamiliarity with the south Wales valleys, and the specific issues that affect them. And Roger Lewis is right when he says further powers will create a no-excuse culture for Welsh politics. Let's stop harping on about Maggie and learn to believe in ourselves again. This isn't about patriotism, for me it's simply about identity. So, let me just rephrase that opening eighteen-year-old question for myself: 'Do you consider yourself, A) Welsh, B) International, or C) a mixture of both?' Easy.
(Originally published in Celyn
Posted at 12:03 |
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