Jasper Rees- Bred of Heaven
“Oes rhywun yma sy’n siarad Cymraeg” (= is there anyone here who speaks Welsh)? There isn’t a big stack of literary festivals at which this can be your opening gambit. “Oes,” came back a volley of voices. Yes there are. The event proceeded in English, but the subject throughout was Wales and Welshness and my book-length quest to swim upstream and turn myself into a Welshman. My father, born and brought up in Carmarthen, was sent to England to be educated and never really came home again. On the Severn Bridge heading back east we were urged from a young age to cheer as we re-entered his adoptive homeland. Once I’d grown out of this junior zealotry, I was never able to work out what Wales had done wrong. Hence the urge to defy the historical imperative and, as recounted in Bred of Heaven, reclaim my roots by doing a lot of traditional Welsh stuff.
It was one of Hay’s somewhat hotter tickets who gave me a sound practical tip on how to go about this. “If you show any enthusiasm towards the language,” said Bryn Terfel, “you will welcome here with open arms.” So it has proved. One of the things I’ve discovered about Wales is that the whole country is a village – maybe make that two villages – and the valleys dotted with Llans and Abers are its streets. Everyone knows someone you know. It’s how National Theatre Wales, who have been present all week in Hay via Dave McKean’s film The Gospel of Us, was able shrewdly to build its brand through an inclusive online community. Welsh interconnectivity is for me always underlined whenever I come across someone who had their teeth done by my grandfather. He was a highly active dentist in Carmarthen for more than forty years. People can always remember, often with a shudder, having surrendered whole rows of teeth to his pliers. Two hands in the audience went up when I popped the question here.
You get a higher class of question in Hay (though I can’t vouch for the quality of the answers). How can the Welsh Tourist Board persuade more people to come to Wales? What in the end is Welshness? This being a very literary festival, I chanced my arm and spoke/read quite a bit about the literary visitors to Wales who feature in my book, from Giraldus Cambrensis marching up the Vale of Ewyas on a recruitment drive for the Crusades to the Victorian curate Francis Kilvert flirting with young farm girls and luxuriating like a disciple of Wordsworth in the beauties of Radnorshire. After I lamented the sad fact that Penguin’s Kilvert anthology is long out of print, a lady who is high up in the Kilvert Society advised the room that you can join up and get a discount on the three-volume edition of the diaries for a relative song. Good advice.
Talking of song, and indeed good advice, I’ve contrived to acquire two tickets to see Bryn T tomorrow night. And then on Saturday morning Wales play Down Under. I asked Brian Moore, the Telegraph columnist and BBC pundit, for a prediction. He was still reeling from Scotland’s backs-to-the-wall defeat of Australia. If Scotland can do it, Wales certainly can. Edrych ymlaen iddo (= looking forward to it).