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What a topsy-turvy world we live in. And what a June to remember. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to lose national dignity once in a week could be regarded as misfortune, to lose it twice looks like carelessness. No sooner had we voted to leave Europe with Brexit, than we were literally kicked out of the European Cup by tiny Iceland. Why, it seems hardly a day has gone by since the Iceland Britons were most familar with comprised a chain of frozen food outlets. Frozen cod fillets will never taste the same again.
But hold up there, as many a Johnny Foreigner can testify, we Brits have more than one face.
Besides English bums, crumbs and the odd coin or two, you can discover all sorts of surprising stuff festering in and on English sofas. Following centuries of hating the stroppy buggers, millions of English football fans discovered a love for the Welsh they never knew they had, while sitting on their sofas in front of the telly last night. After decades of smirking at Welsh defeats with the round ball – as opposed to the oval one – they found Britishness can mean embracing Welsh success on the football pitch as their own. To call tiny Wales’ defeat of the team ranked second in the world behind Argentina a ginormous thrashing would be an understatement. It was far more than that. The three-one victory over Belgium counted as the the biggest shock the world of international football has seen since as long ago as the beginninng of last May when, against odds of 5000/1, Leicester City clinched the English Premier League. Having been born in Leicester the joy of that triumph was just starting to fade when I was jolted awake by Williams’ unbelievable header in the 31st minute. For the Welsh wizards to put away two more was Christmas come early three times in one evening. Even better was the dawning of the realisation I could take some national pride in Wales’ fantastic achievement, having been made an honorary Welshman back in 1964.
In the 1960s the Hemming family used to spend its annual summer holiday camping in North Wales. While Tom Jones remained the main protagonist of an 18th century novel by Henry Fielding, Wales was chiefly famed for its grimness and continuous drizzle. That, and its inhabitants’ miserable outlook on life. And Ivor Emmanuel singing Men of Harlech in Zulu, of course. Not the language, the film.
I think our father was trying to teach my three sisters and I a lesson by taking us to Wales. The very first lesson we learned was how foreign the Welsh were. So foreign, many of them insisted on speaking their own impenetrable foreign language. Even worse, they saw us as being foreign. In what was, after all, more or less, our own British land. The cheek of it. Back in the 1960s, however far away we ventured from our green and pleasant land, we English were never foreign. Foreignness was something that began beyond the shores of England in foreign lands. It was something foreigners brought with them when they came to England.
Not long after crossing the English/Welsh border in our bottle green Thames Dormobile caravan the landscape changed dramatically. Gentle, rolling hills turned into forbidding, rocky mountains and happy, babbling brooks became raging torrents. For those having to read maps out loud place names became unreadable. Turn right at Cynfronydd, Dad, then follow the signs to Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwnfa. We should be able to see Betws Gwerfil Goch just over the brow of the next hill. No point in attempting to ask a local where the hell Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwnfa was. Luckily, our first holiday destination was the lovely seaside town of Barmouth. At least I was able to tell my friends where I’d been once I got back without causing irreparable damage to my tongue.
After spending several holidays in North Wales learning about the men and women of Harlech, the wonderful beach at Morfa Bychan and the slate mines that roofed the world at Blaenau Ffestiniog. After numbing our feet to the bone by dipping them into the ice-cold mountain streams of Snowdonia, where tiny sheep managed to cling to sheer mountainsides without falling off. After driving from the Welsh mainland to the small island of Anglesey across the first suspension bridge in the world. After learning it was built so island farmers could drive their cattle herds to market without losing half of them to the unpredictable, swirling waters of the Menai Straits. After learning all that, we discovered Oxwich Bay on the Gower Peninsula in the south of Wales. Its equitable climate meant, unlike North Wales, the clouds often parted to allow the sun to shine all day long, so we could lounge about on the beach instead of learning stuff in the teeming rain. Nevertheless, for a restless and bored teenager, mostly interested in learning more stuff about the female body, lounging about the beach with Mum and Dad was about as interesting as learning that the first suspension bridge in the world was designed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1826.
The best thing that happened that year was when Dai and the twins, Owen and Thomas, introduced themselves. From that moment the four of us became inseparable. By day we spied on girls sunning themselves on the beach in their swimming costumes, while trying to imagine the interesting stuff they concealed. By night we drank Coca Cola and smoked Gold Leaf cigarettes serreptitiously in the only little café the village possessed. Run by a pretty young art student and her mother it became the exclusive haunt of pubescent males after dark, when Mum disappeared upstairs. Spending all our pocket money on tobacco and Coke, profits boomed.
The boys made me an honorary Welshman the day before we went to see The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night at Swansea Odeon. In their eyes this was the highest accolade an Englishman could ever receive. Deep inside I wasn’t so sure. I felt a bit like a traitor, as there was little love lost by the between the brother nations.
I could never have dreamt a day would come when I would be proud to be Welsh. But that day finally arrived yeterday. Dod ar Gymru! as we Welshmen say.
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