Almost all of the time, I’m not Welsh, but on December 2nd, I was Welsh for the entire day.
I was Welsh walking the spaniels early with my sister-in-law by the sea. I was Welsh on the train with my brother and nephew from Llanelli to Cardiff amongst assorted Welsh fans dressed as leeks, daffodils and dragons. I was Welsh when I had the three feathers stencilled sparkling red on my cheek. I drank Welsh beer before, during and after the game against South Africa. I was Welsh when I sang Calon Lan, Delilah and Land of My Fathers (even though it isn’t). And I was really, really Welsh when we ran in three tries in the first half. The following morning I was English again, but with a Welsh hangover.
I moved to Wales from Buckinghamshire when I was eight, but to a household my mother was determined to keep English despite it being eighty miles the wrong side of the border. She succeeded enough that I was never able to see myself as from Wales, as of that valley. I’ve now lived in Sussex for thirty years but don’t feel fully rooted here either. Thanks, Mum. I forgive you. I can see that the need to keep your five kids all English was rooted in your own attachment to your English home, and probably the shock that your previously career minded husband (Dad) had dragged you to live on a small-holding on the edge of a Welsh mining town. But it’s a sadness for me to this day: not really belonging to anywhere.
So the joy of being Welsh for a day, no holds barred and all in, was wonderful. It’s pretty extreme when you think of it: the utter elation when your colour-coded team takes the odd shaped ball over the white line. I shouted to the heavens, beer was spilt. I slapped the back of the very large South African sat next to me. The need for affinity, to be tribal, is hard-wired into us.
I’ve studied the US Civil War for over twenty years. One of the hardest things to get my head around has been the loyalty of soldiers to their states, especially in the South. Most would have seen themselves fighting for their home state before the new Confederacy but I found that so hard to understand, especially in the western states which were so new. It’s important for a writer. How can you show someone’s motivation if you don’t understand it?
Patrick Cleburne was one of the most successful generals fighting for the Confederacy. His home was in Arkansas which was given statehood in 1836. Cleburne didn’t rock up until 1850 though, having emigrated from Ireland the previous year. Just eleven years later, when the war broke out, he was sufficiently enamoured of his young state to want to fight for it. It’s hard to credit. He was killed in the Battle of Franklin in 1864. He’s just the headline example. Many, many thousands of men died on both sides under the flag of their state.
From this remove, it’s hard to reconcile it with the America we see today: strongly nationalist, overtly so under the new ‘America First’ brand of Donald Trump. But long before Trump, when I was growing up in Wales, the America presented to me (mostly through WWII movies it has to be said) was certainly united; it was right there in the name. To a great extent that nationalism, that love of America, was reborn, rebranded almost, by the Civil War; certainly for white America. You have to reach back through those terrible four years to search for the affinities that were there before.
I find myself wondering if my need to don an old red sweatshirt and shout myself delirious with 65,000 other red, rabid rugby fans, is the same fundamental need that propelled men in young states to charge to their deaths across open fields into the killing sting of muskets and the violence of cannon. If so, is it so good for us? Is it simply just the desire to not be an outsider, the same need I felt at eight and finally gave into at fifty-two?