On Being Welsh

(In A Land Ruled By The English)


On Being Welsh


I am the all-seeing eyes at the tip of Worm's Head;

I am the teeth of the rocks at Rhossili;

I am the blackness in Pwll Ddu pool

when the sea-swells suck the stranger

in and out, sanding his bones.


Song pulled taut from a dark Welsh lung,

I am the memories of Silure and beast

mingled in a Gower Cave;

tamer of aurox,

hunter of deer,

caretaker of coracle

fisher of salmon on the Abertawe tide,

I am the weaver of rhinoceros wool.


I am the minority,

persecuted for my faith,

for my language, for my sex,

for the coal-dark of my thoughts;


I am the bard whose harp,

strung like a bow,

will sing your death

with music of arrows

from the wet Welsh woods;


I am the barb that sticks in your throat

from the dark worded ambush of my song.


To Be Welsh in Gower


To be Welsh in Gower is to spell it funny

and pronounce it worse: Gwyr.

It's to know how to say Pwll Ddu.

It's meeting the cows in the lane to Brandy Cove

and knowing them all by name and reputation,

which one kicks, which one gores,

when to walk in the middle of the lane,

and when to jump for the safety of the hedge.

It's to know the difference between the twin farmers

Upper Jones and Lower Jones.

It's to recognize their sheepdogs, Floss and Jess,

and to call them with their different whistles.

It's knowing the time of day by sun and shadow;

it's knowing the tide is in or out

by the salt smell in the air

without ever needing to see the sea;

and now, in this far off land,

it's hearing your stomach growl for crempog orteisen lap

whilst memory's fish-hook tugs at your heart

like your father hauled at salmon bass

in Rhossili, Pennard, and Three Cliffs.


To be Welsh on Sunday
(This poem should be read out loud, fast, and in a single breath!)


To be Welsh on Sunday in a dry area of Wales is to wish,

for the only time in your life,

that you were English and civilized,

and that you had a car or a bike and could drive

or pedal to your heart's desire, the county next door,

wet on Sundays, where the pubs never shut

and the bar is a paradise of elbows in your ribs

and the dark liquids flow, not warm, not cold, just right,

and family and friends are there beside you

shoulder to shoulder, with the old ones sitting

indoors by the fire in winter or outdoors in summer,

at a picnic table under the trees

or beneath an umbrella that says Seven Up and Pepsi

(though nobody drinks them) and the umbrella is a sunshade

on an evening like this when the sun is still high

and the children tumble on the grass playing

soccer and cricket and it's "Watch your beer, Da!"

as the gymnasts vault over the family dog till it hides

beneath the table and snores and twitches until "Time,

Gentlemen, please!" and the nightmare is upon us

as the old school bell, ship's bell, rings out its brass warning

and people leave the Travellers' Rest, the Ffynnon Wen,

The Ty Coch, The Antelope, The Butcher's, The Deri,

The White Rose, The Con Club, the Plough and Harrow,

The Flora, The Woodville, The Pant Mawr, The Cow and Snuffers

-- God Bless them all, I knew them in my prime.


To be Welsh in Swansea


To be Welsh in Swansea is to know each stop

on the Mumbles Railway: Singleton, Blackpill,

the Mayals, West Cross, Oystermouth, the Mumbles Pier!


It's to remember that the single lines turn double

by Green's ice-cream stall, just after the Rec,

where the trams fall silent, like dinosaurs,

and wait, without grunting, for one to pass the other.


It's to read the family names on the War Memorial

on the Prom; it's to visit Frank Brangwyn

in the Patti Pavilion and the Civic Centre;

it's to talk to the old men playing bowls in Victoria Park.


It's to know that starfish stretch like a mysterious constellation,

at low tide, when the fishnets

glow with gold and silver, and the banana boats

bob in the bay, waiting to enter harbour,

and the young boys dive from the concrete pipes

without worrying about pollution.


But when the tide turns, the Mumbles Railway

has been sold to a Texan, the brown and yellow busses

no longer run to Pyle Corner, Bishopston, Pennard, Rhossili;

sweet names of surf and sea, where my father still fishes

for salmon bass, casting his lines at the waves

as they walk wet footprints up the beach

to break down the walls of the castles I built on sand.


To be Welsh in Castell Coch


To be Welsh in Castell Coch is to call the storm crow Bran

and to hail King Arthur in his suit of feathered armour.

It's to know you're in Annwyn when you descend to the dungeons.

It's to see Merlin's eyes, trapped forever in an oaken jail.


It's to watch rain clouds sweep in from the sea;

it's to see black armies gather in the valleys

when storm clouds wage blithe battle;

it's to feel the arrow's sting,

as hail rattles through the window.


Cloud battalions, invaders from the coast,

march towards us over the Wenallt

and down Caerphilly Mountain.


Now, from the highest tower, you can see Taff's Wells:

but can you taste the coal grit in your teeth

as the river flows out to Blackweir and the sea?


To be Welsh in the Rhondda Valley


To be Welsh in the Rhondda Valley

is to change busses at the roundabout in Porth;

it's to speak the language of steam and coal,

with an accent that grates like anthracite --

no plum in the mouth for us;

no polish, just spit and phlegm

that cut through dust and grit,

pit-head elocution lessons hacked from the coal-face

or purchased in the corner store at Tonypandy.


And we sing deep, rolling hymns

that surge from suffering and the eternal longing

for a light that never breaks underground

where we live out our lives and no owners roam.


Here flame and gas spell violent death.

The creaking of the pit-prop

warns of the song-bird soon to be silent in its cage ...

... and hymn and heart are stopped in our throats,

when, after the explosion, the dust settles down,

and high above us the black crowds gather.




Wales is whales to my daughter who has only been there once on holiday,

very young, to see her grandparents, a grim old man and a wrinkled woman.

They wrapped her in a shawl and hugged her till she cried herself to sleep

suffocating in a straitjacket of warm Welsh wool.


So how do I explain the sheep?

They are everywhere, I say, on lawns, in gardens.

I once knew a man whose every prize tulip was devoured by a sheep,

a single sheep who sneaked into the garden the day he left the gate ajar.


They get everywhere, I say, everywhere.

Why, I remember five sheep riding in a coal truck leering like tourists

travelling God knows where bleating fiercely as they went by.


In Wales, I say, sheep are magic. When you travel to London on the train,

just before you leave Wales at Severn Tunnel Junction,

you must lean out the window and say "Good morning, Mister Sheep!"

And if he looks up, your every wish will be granted.

And look at that poster on the wall: a hillside of white on green,

and every sheep as still as a stone, and each white stone a roche moutonnée.


In the Cave
Brandy Cove, Gower


No: I do not understand these things.

I have had few visions;

no bush has actually burned for me.


Though I have sat in this cave for many a day

there has been no thunder, no earthquake,

and no thin, small voice has called my name.


I have only heard the wind and the waves

and the sigh of the sea-birds endlessly flying.

Who set the curlew's cry between my lips?

Who dashed the salt taste from my tongue?

I will never forget the wet sand foaming between my toes

nor the cracked rock crumbling under my hand...


... yet I never fell,

nor was I trapped by the sea below.


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