I am in some respects a Welsh exile. I grew up in Wales, moving there with my family at the age of 6 weeks and leaving to go to University in England at the age of 19. I have managed to love Wales while at the same time not being able to get out of the town we lived in fast enough. Now I live in London and have done for decades, but there is always the pull to go back. this ‘pull’ – what it is and why we experience it – is the basis of Petro’s book.
Petro is from New Jersey. During the l980s she came to study for a master’s degree at the University of Wales in Lampeter (Welsh: Prifysgol Cymru, Llanbedr Pont Steffan as we are told), and fell in love with the land of song, sheep and cloudbursts.
Primarily Petro’s book is a memoire but it is also an examination of her (and our) relationship with landscape. The book’s title – The Long Field – is a literal translation of the welsh word hiraeth or has been mooted as such by Welsh poet Menna Elfyn. There are always many possibilities in the welsh language. It is a language of many layers, complexities and traps for the unwary.
hiraeth is described as a ‘presence of absence’. In other words, I suppose, a consciousness of loss at the heart of our being.
There is a lot about this book I can connect with. It is so well written and at times Petro can be quite lyrical. ‘Passionate and precise’ says the blurb on the back cover.
Fast forward many years, due to a mix up at the border, Petro is refused entry to Britain. She is supposed to be teaching a creative writing workshop as part of the Dylan Thomas summer school; the Border Agency does not consider her paperwork to be in order and she is sent back home to the US.
“I thought, how will I keep breathing? Wales radical green clarity had become as vital to me as an essential nutrient. I could still have iron, potassium, sodium, sure. But the sleek, sculpting air – the ribboning hills – the far horizon – my friends. Wouldn’t my body die without these things? Didn’t the Border Agency know that?”
When I was at school, the Welsh language had been eradicated from the curriculum so I and tens of thousand of others like me never learned to speak the language of the place we then called home. Interestingly, but unsurprisingly when I signed up for a Level 1 Welsh language course recently, I discovered we were all there for the same reason: family living in Wales, or Welsh speaking family members. All of us trying to catch up very late on missed education.
I have visited Big Pit, the coal mining museum at Blaenavon, like Petro does, and stood in the pitch black, the cold of the grave, trying to imagine what it would be like to work a shift in a coal mine; failing miserably. I remember as a schoolchild the conversation I had with a lady, getting off the bus near my home in Newport one, still, cold day in October 1966 – the two of us gazing over to a red sun lowering behind the hills, an indicator of fine weather.
“I hope it keeps fine,” she said “for them, over there.” She meant the people trying to find the bodies of school children in Pantglas Junior School under a slag heap at Aberfan.
I have read Alexander Cordell, Richard Llewellyn, George Borrow, Jan Morris and the other writers that appear in The Long Field.
But none of those things make me Welsh.
It’s a matter of where you were born, where your parents and even your grandparents were born too. It helps to be first language Welsh. Maybe lack of Welshness is something that affects everyone – unless you are descended from an indigenous celtic tribe from the year dot and your family has farmed the land for centuries. There are such folk. A gentleman at the Hay Festival once told the audience that his family had farmed continuously nearby for 900 years.
Yet hiraeth is a widely known syndrome and there are words for it in other languages, so wherein its source?
Petro goes to a great deal of trouble to learn the language in the land where Dylan Thomas said ‘my fathers can keep it’. To the extent of doing an Wlpan course (I did the Hebrew one back in my twenties) and travelling with her partner all round the world trying to find Welsh people to have a conversation with. Sadly she says at the end of the book that she never mastered the language.
If you read Gillian Clarke’s autobiography ( a former National Poet of Wales) she too mourns the language that her mother didn’t want her to speak. It was not perceived as ‘the language of getting on’. That, of course, was English. Another poet, Menna Elfyn – a friend of the author – went to prison as an activist trying to protect and re-establish the use of the Welsh language as a currency of today – not for some mythological golden age of Princes asleep under hills, but for the identity, independence and self-respect of a modern nation. Petro knows and understands the ideological dangers inherent in looking back to some former arcadia, a mythical golden age in contrast to which the present seems limited and impoverished. It’s something folk in the US have seen working at first hand very recently – it was such mythologising that got Trump into the White House.
I enjoyed The Long Field very much but am not sure whether it achieves more than being a personal memoir, or whether it aims to achieve more than that. Also there is an element of shadow boxing, for example in the pages relating to Capel Celyn – we are told in no uncertain terms that what happened to the village of Capel Celyn in the Afon Treweryn valley in North Wales in the 1960s was A BAD THING. Does anyone think that dispersal of an entire welsh speaking community to the four winds and the drowning of a village to make a reservoir that Liverpool didn’t need, might be a good thing?
“So where are we going
We are not ready for drowning”
sang the Manic Street Preachers in their response to this particularly heinous piece of social clearance.
Maybe ultimately hiraeth, is about not being ready for dying.