Boyd Tonkin: Whatever unites the UK, it is not – and never has been – a common language

The Week In Books

For all their lip-service to hard-headed pragmatism, Britain’s politicians love to plunge their people – or rather, peoples – into long bouts of navel-gazing introspection.

With one referendum on Scottish independence due next year, and another on the EU further down the line, we can look forward to a full half-decade of existential angst over national identity. Now, I know David Cameron is the greatest Smiths fan in public life. But surely even the most fervent admirer of bedroom-bound Morrissey misery might want to shun the political equivalent of an endless wet Sunday in Salford. Country in a coma, anyone?

The yawn-inducing prospect appals. Tired old union-flag jingoism on one side; rusty liberal clichés about welcoming diversity on the other – for years on end. Both nativists and cosmopolitans, however, will tacitly agree on the idea of once-monolithic national culture which incomers have either enriched or corrupted. Here is the fantasy we need to nail. Hybrid, fragile, composite, Britishness has been cobbled together out of wildly disparate elements over many centuries – a theme shrewdly spotlit last year by the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor in his show, series and book on Shakespeare’s Restless World.

In literature, the British story does not even begin in any language that could be called English. It starts in the one now known as Welsh - a tongue spoken, at the time of the earliest bards such as Aneirin, over most of what now counts as “England” too. The slightest acquaintance with the 1400-year tradition of Welsh writing within the island of Britain should be enough to shatter the illusion of an ancient Anglo identity – a myth cosily propagated by Euro-zone pundits and Ukip militants alike. Not even language – especially not that – has ever united the UK.

Last weekend, I had the chance to see that indigenous plurality of expression in rude health. For the second time, the writer Richard Gwyn - who teaches at Cardiff University – brought Welsh and Latin American authors together in Cardiff for a “Fiction Fiesta”. Among them was Angharad Price, the remarkable Welsh novelist whose The Life of Rebecca Jones (MacLehose) ranks – as I wrote when its English translation (by Lloyd Jones) re-appeared last year – both as “a touching, tender human document and as a thoroughly artful exercise in storytelling” that can “claim a place on the shelf beside Berger, Sebald and Ondaatje.”

In the voice of her great-aunt Rebecca, born in 1905, Price transforms into fiction her farming family’s history in the valley of Maesglasau, and the genetic twist of fate that left three great-uncles blind. Paradoxically, as she says, the special education available meant that these sightless sons of a “monoglot Welsh rural Nonconformist family” left their hill farm, travelled to England as migrants, and later suceeded in English-speaking professions. Price’s Welsh original, O! Tyn y Gorchudd (“Part the veil!”: a hymn by local writer Hugh Jones), took the top prize for prose at the National Eisteddod – that festival when, as writer Jon Gower put it, “For one week alone, a minority language feels like a majority language”. It has since won the sort of wide acclaim rarely accorded to works within Britain’s oldest literature. Trippers even visit the farm. “Suddenly, it was public property,” says Price, “and my family were characters in a work that was partly fiction. I still feel ambiguous about the whole enterprise.”

Rebecca comes to think of her own sense of self as a “patchwork quilt of memories”, and of her identity merely as “the act of sewing the seams”. As with individuals, so with nations too. Allegiances and affiliations in this island were never spun from a single thread but stitched from just such a richly patchworked quilt. Don’t ever forget that, in the looming battle of the British bores.

Obscure no more: the BM’s objects of desire

From the same-sex acrobatics of the Warren Cup to the god-meets-goat encounter in Pompeii, the British Museum takes a gleefully frisky view of humankind’s erotic past. Now its Press has come up with the perfect present for a rebellious Tory MP. A Little Gay History, by RB Parkinson, scans the museum’s collections for objects that show the complexity of desire in world cultures. From Indian gods to Emperor Hadrian, it proves that, if you swear by ancient tradition in matters of love and sex, you’ll end up in the queerest spots.

The Man Booker American Prize?

The outcome of the biennial Man Booker International Prize leaves me with distinctly mixed feelings. In many ways, it’s excellent that Lydia Davis should win: she’s a genuinely original short-story writer, and beyond that a fine translator from the French, above all of Proust and Flaubert. Yet, after victories for Philip Roth (2011) and Alice Munro (2009), this seems to have become a prize for North Americans alone. So much for the linguistically far-flung shortlist this time, from UR Ananthamurthy (Kannada) to Intizar Husain (Urdu) and Yan Lianke (Chinese). Several finalists were represented in English translation by only a tiny proportion of their work. The prize seeks to honour an “overall contribution to fiction on the world stage”. But it fails to offer an equal opportunity to shine. Before the North American bias becomes endemic, this award urgently needs a radical re-appraisal.

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