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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'