An acute case of hiraeth

This piece was first published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Five. You can buy the issue We’ve just met. Hello. Hi. We share first names and tentative smiles, a handshake or a nod or the offer of a sausage roll. Like most first encounters there is awkwardness and goodwill in equal measure. A spirit of friendly endeavour. And then something happens.

I’ve heard this roughly once a fortnight for the past dozen years, but it’s an innocent query, and it’d be rude to not oblige. Here’s the answer I’d give to a geography teacher: I was born in Scotland, lived in a Forthside naval base until I was five, moved to Pontypridd, remained there for a decade, then lived in England, then Scotland, moved to London for university and forgot to leave. A decade vanished and here I am, eyeing the finger food and smiling politely. Hi. Hello.

An accent is something you carry around in your throat, an unwitting passenger in life. It can be scrubbed away with effort, but is the clearest biological indication of upbringing. You can only have an accent if you’re from somewhere. So what does that make me? Where do I come from?

Despite living in Pontypridd for my most formative years, I didn’t belong. I defined myself in opposition to Wales: its homogeneity, its questionable approach to vowels, its misplaced pride in Tom Jones, its marrow-deep rugby obsession. For an indoor kid with spaghetti wrists rugby was a weekly ordeal, and seemingly the only sport in existence. If the trite observation about it being the national religion was true, then I was an atheist, dragged to church in ill-fitting clothes.

Since skipping Glamorgan at sixteen for a bedsit and bad poetry, my teenage friendships left to atrophy, I’ve told people that I’m barred from the country. There are pictures of me, I used to allege, stuck in the windows of the tollbooths that parenthesise the Severn Bridge. I started believing my own ruse, ignoring the hiraeth mutating inside me. I made London home and joined a community, but something was missing. Almost every new friend had also fled a small town of some description, but they didn’t recite elaborate analogies about being in exile.

Until, that is, I read about a man jumping off a ferry.

On 9th October 2011, the rugby player Manu Tuilagi—possibly inebriated, definitely stupid—decided it would be a good idea to fling himself from a passenger ferry into the busy Waitemata Harbour and swim to a nearby pier. The ill-advised leap came as the denouement to England’s disastrous Rugby World Cup campaign, where dismay over their early exit had been compounded by reports of ill-discipline, drunken nights out and casual bouts of dwarf-tossing.

I’d certainly changed since leaving the country—I could now poach an egg—and I wondered if rugby had too. With the careful optimism of the frequently disappointed, I sat down a few days later to watch Wales’ semi-final, my bare feet padding across rock. And then it happened. I got it.

. . .

On the whims of circumstance I grew up in Wales—that underdog of a country, weird and funny and soulful—and it shaped me more than I knew. I’d been wrong for almost my entire life. The values it cherishes are my values. Its struggles are my struggles. When the television cameras cut to an excitable crowd dressed like daffodils and sheep, I don’t recognise myself, but that doesn’t make the feeling of affinity any less valid.

Most importantly, rugby is mine. It always has been. My grandfather passed away a few years ago, and I can’t watch a game without thinking of how he’d run up and down the length of his sofa, shouting at the television in exultation or despair. I catch myself doing it now too, and in those moments I feel connected to him, to that lost place of my past. When Wales play rugby—and, heavens, when they play they’re magnificent—I remember every bit of him. I don’t have an accent, but I have that.