Saturday, 12 June 2010

How Wide Is This Country?

How big is Wales? Our size makes a good media simile. “A region on Mars about as big as Wales”. “The fast approaching oil slick covers an area about the size of Wales”. “The Ganges Delta, a flood plain about the size of Wales”. Wales, of course, used to be much bigger than it is now. Check the Welsh sounding villages that riddle Herefordshire. Visit Catterick, once named Catraeth, home of the Gododdin, the earliest Welsh text. The whole of the north of Britain lapping into Scotland was once Yr Hen Ogledd, the Old North. Can you imagine how many Gogs there were then?

The size of Wales today, naturally, is readily defined. You can see the country’s shape incorporated into logos, t-shirts and the sides of builders’ vans up and down the land. What’s much harder to discern is the nature of the Welsh who live here (or elsewhere for that matter). How do you become Welsh? Be born here? Have Welsh parents? Speak the tongue. Have an uncle who visited once in 1910?

The more you delve the harder definitions become. For every rule there always turns out to be a valid exception. In the end you conclude, as Prof Tony Curtis once did in his hunt for a definition of poetry, that you are if you say you are. A poem is so because its creator has decided it is. In our massively mobile world so, too, it seems with identity.

At the Wales Book of the Year Prize, awarded for the best creatively written works in English and in Welsh, we’ve gone through a similar process of definition. Things are easy with the Welsh language. If the work is in that tongue then it’s considered. With English things are much tougher.

What should we do with significant writers, born elsewhere, but now entirely at home in Pontypridd and contributing to our culture? Or those who have lived and worked all their lives in Wales but now reside retired in, say, Orkney? How about Tynesiders, with accents to match, who have lived in Wales long enough to master the language and win Eisteddfod prizes?

How wide should our embrace be? As wide as possible. Are we not a welcoming country? Book of the Year stretches the borders. Nikolai Tolstoy, the Anglo-Russian historian and UKIP candidate from the English midlands is in. His book is about the Mabinogi, how much more Welsh can you get than that? Jasmine Donahaye, English, Jewish, but now living in Swansea and the new editor of that eminent Welsh journal, Planet. She’s in. So too is Philip Gross, Cornish, Estonian, but now at the heart of Welsh creativity in Glamorgan.

Watch out for the results. Wales Book of the Year Winners will be announced on 30 June 2010.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday June 12th, 2010. #151

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