There’s no such person as the ‘other’

Posted on July 10, 2015 in Essays

‘Landeg’. The Portuguese receptionist hesitates. I pass her my bilhete de identidade, and she copies it out, a letter at a time. Sometimes, my wife spells it out – with an el, an arr, an enn, a day, an ay, and a jay.   Occasionally, puzzlement overtakes politeness. ‘Landeg, what kind of name is that?’ It’s Welsh, I tell them. This resonates. Like Wales, Portugal is a small country, overlooked by its powerful neighbour. More, we have Celtic words in common. More too, Wales’ powerful neighbour happens to be Portugal’s oldest ally, in another marriage of unequals. By this stage, I’m well on the way to being embraced.

This hasn’t happened to me since 1950 when, at the age of 10 my parents moved from the Wirral to Cambuslang, on the outskirts of Glasgow, and I was placed for a year in Westcoates Academy. The Stone of Scone had just been liberated from Westminster Abbey and nationalism bristled. David and I joined the class the same day. At the milk break, we were challenged. ‘I’m English’, said David, and was promptly beaten up. ‘I’m Welsh’, I said truthfully, and was spared. I felt badly about this, and David and I never became friends. Welshness felt like moral betrayal.

Years afterwards, in Trinidad, I could I suppose have tried the same tactic. I went there to teach English Literature at the University of the West Indies. This was two years after independence, and people who looked like the former colonial rulers were accepted on sufferance. In one of my first published poems, I tried to equate plantation slavery with Welsh mining (‘Coal or sugar/Which crime was bigger?’), but I couldn’t continue the theme with any conviction, least of all in a poem of personal angst. It was much easier to win friends by sloughing off the ‘Britishness’ assigned to me than by pretending to some regional absolution.

Moving on to Malawi, this time to teach just ‘literature’, I was given a card by immigration – name, date of birth, nationality, race. Race? What was I? I wracked my brains, and wrote ‘Caucasian’. At the desk, the officer looked me up and down. ‘What’s this Caucasian? You’re a European, aren’t you?’ So, at the behest of a black official in the bizarre divisions of apartheid southern Africa, I began to be what I am now, a citizen (of sorts) of fortress Europe. Consolidating that, however, had a double edge in Malawi. It gained me a wife and sons, and an enduring friendship with a fine poet. But something or other about my performance got me deported.

So we went together to Sierra Leone, to the historic Fourah Bay College where ‘Eng. Lit.’ was still marketable. A sad country, rent by rival nationalisms, and already on the skids to its present genocide. Two absurd memories, out of many. Of my posting a notice, explaining the cancellation of a lecture due to lack of books, paper, pens, chairs and a lecture room, with the words ‘Thy hand, Great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;/And Universal Darkness buries All’ (a student told me later it read like a poem). And of a violent quarrel with the Creole housing officer who, having met my mestiça wife, accused me ever after of ‘passing for White’. Through all my years in Zambia and York, on those post-colonial forms requiring me to state my ethnic affiliation, I’ve written ‘Passing for White’. My wife has habitually ticked ‘Other’.

But now in Portugal, a word has caught up with me, ‘Landeg’. Not ‘Lan’, the nickname used since their childhood by my sons, but ‘Landeg. What kind of a name is that?’ This has never happened before. Now it happens two or three times per week. ‘It’s Welsh’, I say, and feel bogusly placed.

A word is appropriate here about my wife’s so-called ‘identity’. Her paternal grandfather was British, a Nyasaland district officer with family connections to the head of the Burma Office and the headmaster of Westminster school (and hence a friend of Philby). Colonial Office circular ‘A’ made that link invisible by banning ‘Concubinage with Native Women’ and hence all official record of her father’s birth. Her maternal grandfather was an Indian migrant worker from Mauritius, and her two grandmothers Yao and Sena-speaking Africans. Born in Nyasaland, where her parents were on holiday, she was taken at two weeks back to her mother’s home in Mozambique where her father was working, and raised as the one ‘British’ child in a family of seven ‘Portuguese’. In Mozambique, she is regarded as White, in Britain she is coloured, and in Texas, where we once considered working, she was unambiguously Black. By marriage, she is once again ‘British’. But our household is one in which nationalism does not easily find anchorage. All the versions she has personally encountered, in seven countries on three continents, pointedly exclude her and our sons.

I was born in Taffs Well, near what is now a flyover on the M4. My father was a minister in the Welsh Baptist church, and my mother the bi-lingual daughter of an Aberdare miner. My earliest memory is of throwing a cinder into the River Taff beside the railway line behind our house, while my parents called me from the towpath bridge to hurry up. This memory is fixed as just before my third birthday because soon after we left Wales forever. Their journey took them to the Wirral, to Cambuslang and Rutherglen, to Birkenhead, to Boreham Wood and back to Glasgow, always following ‘calls’ within the Baptist church. Mine has brought me to Alcabideche, just outside Lisbon, via Trinidad, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and York.

For years, ‘Welshness’ seemed a negative inheritance. Overwhelmingly, it was chapel black, my grandmother muttering ‘language!’ every few minutes as I listened to Othello on the Third Programme. ‘Drink’ and ‘language’ were her obsessions, and I came to think of my grandfather as being parched and speechless as he coaxed Handel’s Largo out of his wheezy harmonium. That satire, though, was projected backwards after his death, in my teenage irritation with his widow. Trying hard to think what I actually recall, it is his boots working the pedals while I sat on the floor as the music soared above me. But I don’t know if this is a real memory, or something adapted from Lawrence’s poem about ‘A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings’.

For years, too, my puritan background seemed to be something to be overcome if I was going to transcend seeing the countries I was visiting as merely ‘exotic’. A couple of years back, Simon Armitage got a grant to visit Brazil and write poems about the rain forest. The trouble was, he reported, rain forests are just that – lots of rain and trees, no poetic material there. So he wrote instead about the various jabs he needed in order to travel there. Armitage is a rooted, intelligent poet, but there must be something unsatisfactory about a poem which locates itself, Yorkshire fashion, against its ostensible subject This recording of ‘difference’, for better or worse, is emphatically not the strategy I’ve followed. My own poetry of travel takes off from the moment when the strange becomes ordinary, when (to quote the poems from PW 35/3), ‘faces cracked into separate smiles’, or when Mamadu, at home in the rain forest, exclaims, ‘Far … from WHERE?’ As another poem in the same sequence concludes, ‘Until what’s/familial startles, you haven’t embarked’.

It strikes me as I write that this is recognisably a Welsh story, and that whatever may still be Welsh in me is not worth much unless it can face up to the discipline of serious encounters in depth with other peoples and other cultures. If Welshness exists only as a stay-at-home virtue, then forget it. If it needs an enemy to define itself, then purge it. If it supplies a kit for travelling, for looking outwards, for learning and growing, then it’s worth cherishing. Perhaps its bloody-mindedness, its constant sense of being off-centre, is precisely its virtue. All the countries I’ve chosen for living and working – Trinidad, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and Portugal – have been small, beleaguered and impoverished. Most of them have sent their nationals abroad in search of work.

In 1998, after publishing my translation of Camões’ The Lusíads, that epic account of the intellectual excitement of ‘discovery’, I wrote a kind of a verse autobiography. It would be preposterous to claim that Traveller’s Palm (which may one day find a publisher) is a Welsh book. The landscapes it celebrates are Caribbean, African and Portuguese, and the palm tree of the title is praised as an economical, without baggage., and beyond cultivating.

But I was aiming at a colloquial purity of language and form that I derive consciously from the hymnody of my childhood. I still have these LM and CM quatrains marching word perfect through my head, and I still pause in my channel-hopping when Songs of Praise occupies the screen. Closely observed facts, precise diction, and a direct style seem right for someone visiting after empire, all-too-well-aware of the mis-reporting of so many of my predecessors. I would love to write like Derek Walcott, in his guise of Adam allocating names in the Garden of Eden. But I don’t have his talent and, if I did, I couldn’t claim the passport of such privilege.

Meanwhile, my radicalism, directed to post-colonial causes, finds firm anchorage in my grandfather’s trade unionism and his years of victimised unemployment. First world miners and third world plantation labourers are indeed exploited within the same system. A recurring image of T.P. is of being ‘baptised’ into ‘a new birth’, ironical when applied to a failed marriage and to the constant reinvention made possible by travelling, but truthful enough as a metaphor for re-discovery.

Then there’s our land. We’ve bought a plot here, and for the first time in my life I’m responsible for bricks and mortar, for dry stone walls, for some vines and vegetables, and for sixty-odd trees. The impulse behind this is my wife’s urge for some substitute for two hectares she was forced to abandon in Malawi. When we bought it, her first act (she being ‘A modern sceptical woman/Trousers and shirt immaculate’) was to pour a libation of flour and beer to her distant ancestors.

While she was doing this, I was wandering round the overgrown plot and found a drain – a basin, and stone tunnel and, opposite, a pan-tile archway where the water descends to the next allotment. It’s Arab work, a thousand years old, dating from when this was the northern border of a kingdom whose south was the Senegal River. There’s a Arab poet, Ibne Mucana (d. 1068), who was born near here and who, after a career in Seville and Granada as magistrate and court poet, returned to his home village to ‘harvest thorns’ with his ‘sharp and agile sickle’. He’s remembered as the first named inhabitant, and for his advocacy of windmills:

He grinds with the winds,
Spinning the cog-wheeled poetry of his freedom
In this all-man’s–land, neither Europe nor Africa,.
Tonight, as October’s sickle moon sprints
Through marbled rain-clouds, his windmills sigh.

I don’t know whether this practical, thrilling, utopian urge is Welsh, and frankly I hardly care. The lawyer who processed our various documents was baffled. So the lady’s British, Portuguese-speaking, born in Malawi, brought up in Mozambique. And you, sir? ‘Landeg’ we said in unison, ‘It’s a Welsh name. El, arr, enn, day, ay, jay.’ Show her’, said Alice, ‘your bilhete de identidade’. And so, rather past the middle of our lives, we’ve found purchase.

First published Poetry Wales, Summer 2001.