NWR Issue 89

Here and There

When I took the helm of New Welsh Review in 2008, many trusted sources of wisdom and hard-won experience told me I was mad. Of course, at the time I more than half believed them. I was a London-based poet and critic. I wondered how it could be done, this career on the move, and, back then, I wondered - more than I perhaps should have, on reflection - how it would be regarded by others. So it was with a high degree of trepidation that I took my first journey from Euston to the beautiful West - and all that lay before me, the UK rail infrastructure being what it is: fast through the grids of Milton Keynes and leaving Coventry, past the canals, the derelict, graffiti-tagged breweries to Birmingham, and on to Shrewsbury, and the slow shunt into Wales. Then, back again. A rhythm that has defined my life and determined my dreams.

But it's not entirely new, all this. The journey is, in many ways, a literal traffic of my own fluid sense of where I belong, if, indeed, I actually belong anywhere. Identity is important, of course. It's that convenient catch-all for nationhood, for language, for creed, for social mores, for mutual, seemingly (we can fool ourselves) preternatural understanding, But, in a deeper sense, it carries a huge emotional freight. Of belonging. And belonging is how we define ourselves allied with, and in contrast to, others.

My accent, modified, by years of living here and then subsequently living there, often prompts the question: Where do you come from? At which point, I pause. I was born and spent my earliest years in the Valleys in the 1970s, but grew up in Swansea West, a stone's throw from the roads that thin to the Gower through a one-car pass and the high hedgerows. Then I went on to live in Bristol, Vienna and York, until I settled in London, where, by accident or design (I can never be sure), I became a writer. And so I hesitate. What makes us? And makes an identity? Where we come from? Where we are going? Or perhaps everything that lies in between or beneath?

I am part of that generation that has experienced the world at once grow, and yet curiously grow smaller. Globalisation. Education for all, cheap airfares, the internet and the age of Facebook. Increasingly, our ground is shifting sand. My own experiences and prevarications, coupled with this new world - its doors flung open to the wonderful noise and chaos - mean that I have developed a deep suspicion of over-attachments to identity. In practically any form. Identity can provide comfort, but it can also, when allowed to dictate its own terms, give rise to provincialism and, of course, the very worst in history.

I hope this suspicion has proved healthy for the magazine over the years - I am one of many editors who, for various reasons, have held it, too. But I have come to see the landscape I pass, as I proof or panic on that four-hour long haul, as having a particular significance for the magazine in such a now unclassifiably large and, at times, unmanageably various literary output. I like to think that the changing view from my window has played its part in framing the culture.

This year's Wales Book of the Year proved to be especially interesting with regard to the matter of identity. The three shortlisted authors were Terri Wiltshire for Carry Me Home, Nikolai Tolstoy for The Compilation of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi and Philip Gross for I Spy Pinhole Eye. On the night, the prize was scooped by Philip Gross. Neither the winner nor his fellow companions on the shortlist were born in Wales. Those who had lived in Wales - Wiltshire and Gross - had come to this country as adults, bringing with them new perspectives and responses, just as the country prompted new perspectives and responses from them. As all good writers and critics know, it is not where we come from or where we are now that dictates the work. Rather, the whole of a life is poured into the shape of the work. Including all that lies in between, and beneath. Any hackles raised at the first shortlist in the award's history to not contain a Welsh-born writer - and I might add that I more than missed Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger, for my money the finest book of the year - should be eased with the thought that Wales still finds its way, somehow, some way, onto these pages.


previous editorial: Our Life Stories
next editorial: Redux


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