I’m afraid I’ve never been able to take Wales seriously. My troubles begin, shallowly, with the bilingual road signs, which are funny if the Welsh is very different from the English (Please drive carefully – Gryywch yn ofalus) and even funnier if it is similar (Millennium Stadium – Stadiwm y Mileniwm). I can never quite shake the sense that upon crossing the Severn Bridge I am entering a sort of parody-England, a schoolboy’s piss-take of England. You think England is small? Well check out Wales’s even smallerness! You think England has a lot of rain and sheep, look at this lot! You’ve got London as a cultural and political capital, here’s Cardiff! It has an Assembly! We’ve still got a Labour government, only they’re not even New Labour – they rejected the idea of Academies and now our education is the worst in the UK! Our M4 around Newport is a mickey-take of your English motorway hell. We will charge you £6.40 to use it.
I don’t deny the egregiousness of this English superiority complex. It’s the same attitude that Londoners have to the rest of England, and that Americans have to the rest of the world. We’re the real deal, you’re toy-town. You’re quaint. And the awful thing is that despite my best efforts I fear I don’t quite manage to hide it when amongst the Welsh. No wonder they detest us. None of which alters the fact that your Welshman really is a weird creature. The rain has shaped him, the rain and the soggy mountains. The ceaseless drizzle has rounded his shoulders and blotched his cheeks and flattened his black hair into a slick and made a pessimistic moustache sprout like a moss beneath his nose. He is burdened by hereditary glumness. When he thinks of his lot he mumbles gloomy magical curses and dreams of burrowing underground with the trolls and dwarfs – his kinsmen – safe and far from the bleuddy inn-glish and their sharp edges.
Such a man was David Owen, who from his window watched me as I footled around in my grey English suit and brown leather English briefcase trying to find the secret door to his office in Cowbridge. “Who is this English c***?’ he doubtless said to himself, echoing Kingsley Amis on Tony Benn. When at last we shook hands and spoke he found himself caught between suspicion and an instinctive desire to ingratiate. Barely in control of himself he lurched from awkward bonhomie to clumsy bumptiousness. He saw right through my half-arsed efforts to hide my superiority complex. My praise for the picturesqueness of Cowbridge (did I accidentally say ‘Cowdenbeath’?) he dismissed as blatantly insincere. My voice became ever more shrill, brittle, cut-glass, English. Was that in my imagination or his? Glowering, framed in the dimness of his window, he watched again as the Englishman left and he muttered his bitter magic spells.
I was relieved to cross back over the bridge to a land less blighted by resentment. It is only the men of Wales; I say nothing ill of Welsh women, who are the nicest in the world.
Mrs B took the girls up north for a couple of days; my task in their absence was to paint the upstairs landing and stairwell white. That sounds simple enough. I resolved to get it all done before the Grand National at 4.15pm. For the highest corners I had taped a brush onto a mop handle, and had dug out a rusty old extra-long roller from the garage. The first three walls went well. At about 3.25pm the head of the long roller detached itself from its moorings while I was swishing it extravagantly betwixt the fourth wall and ceiling. Down it plummeted, one bounce on the sheet I’d laid to protect the middle stairs, then one two three splodgy caresses to the uncovered carpet of the lower stairs. Climbing down from my precarious position on the bannister to swear, I stepped backwards onto the upturned paint pot lid, then hopped across the landing, spreading painty footprints across more acres of unprotected floor. Tired of this private Mr Bean episode, I forced the lid back on its pot, whereupon it spat further gobs of paint onto what was left of the unpainted carpet. Before I went to Homebase to buy some WD-40 (remarkably effective for removing paint stains), I watched the National. One of my horses refused to start, the other three fell before the halfway mark. Turning off the telly, I thought of David Owen and his black magic curses, and I felt a chill in my English bones.
The house being empty, after work on Monday I decided that rather than going straight home I would pop into the Vue cinema and catch one of the last showings of The Grand Budapest Hotel. When I bought my ticket the youth asked me if I wanted to sit at the back, in the middle, or at the front. “The middle”, I said. Nobody checked my ticket so I walked straight in to screen 3. And do you know, I was the only person in the theatre. I sat and watched the adverts alone, then the trailer, then the movie, and nobody else at all came. I’ll be frank: it was a little bit spooky. I kept having to check the dark corners for humanoid movement. The adverts also took on a strangely personal quality; I got most indignant when a cure for premature ejaculation was touted. Solipsistic questions troubled me. If I hadn’t turned up, would they have shown the film to an empty theatre? If so, would it have been the same film? Indeed, watching alone, was it even true to say that I’d even really seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, or was that as meaningless as Wittgenstein’s private language? But then the film started and it was so brilliant and funny that I stopped worrying about such nonsense, and settled back into the Luxury Seat which I had rebelliously commandeered and had one of the best nights at the cinema of my life.
We’re currently enjoying the second season of House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as a villainous Democrat politician loosely based on the original Francis Urquhart. The first episode, brilliantly, refrained from using one of Spacey’s direct to-camera monologues until the very last scene, so that we’d forgotten he did it. The effect of his sudden address to the viewer was almost as shocking and pleasing a busting of the ‘fourth wall’ as Vladimir Nabakov’s “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings”, which Frank Key has praised as ‘the greatest sentence ever written’.
The only negative of House of Cards is that it plays to the prejudices of conspiracy theorists who think that a cabal of corrupt politicians and oligarchs control every jot and tittle of human existence the world over. But that’s America for you. The original Ian Richardson villain seems a bit provincial by comparison, a tale of village life in the village of Westminster.
When people talk of the ‘Westminster Bubble’ they generally have in mind the obsessive bickerings of career politicians over arcane Parliamentary matters of no import to the British public. But really, if there is a Bubble it consists of the kind of people who talk about Westminster Bubbles, which is to say, professional political pundits. Two such Bubble-blowers – Danny Finkelstein and John McTernan – appeared on Newsnight following the televised Farage v Clegg debate about the European Union. Finkelstein and McTernan were attempting to explain why Farage had so trounced Clegg in public opinion polls, with over two-thirds of viewers declaring him the winner.
I watched their analysis with mounting disbelief, and by the end I had a powerful urge to don Guevara bandana and head to London to throw crude explosive devices not at Parliament but at Fleet Street (or whatever remains of it). Because amongst all their theories (Farage exudes a sort of bluff ‘common-sense’ which plays well on television; Clegg can’t play the ‘trust-me card’ following the tuition fees U-turn; Clegg can’t play the ‘outsider-card’ he used to such good effect in the pre-election leader debates now that he’s Deputy Prime Minister; Clegg used too many scripted jokes etc), not once did either pundit countenance a theory which Occam’s Razor would surely suggest deserves at least a mention.
Which is that, whatever people think of Clegg or Farage personally, when the latter makes such arguments as that the European Union is a undemocratic superstate which has enlarged itself by stealth without reference to the public and which nobody feels they can hold accountable, or that the EU enforces too many laws on us, or that EU immigration rules mean that we have no real control over how many people enter the country, or that large numbers of immigrating low-paid workers may bring benefits but they also depress the wages of the indigenous working class and put pressure on local public services, or that subsidised windfarms benefit wealthy landowners at the expense of the poor, lots of people agree with him.
In the farm shop the farmer, John, had rigged up an antiquated record player. While his wife was selling me a sausage roll he put on an LP. Dancing Queen by ABBA blasted out, and he instantly began leaping around with an absurd goon’s grin on his face. His wife shook her head in mock despair. “What do you think of THAT?” he demanded, pointing. I peered at the record player. It seemed to date from about 1742 and be carved from fine old English oak. “Is that an original machine or some sort of clever replica?” I asked. “It’s an ORIGINAL!” John bellowed in triumph. “Still sounds pretty good,” I said. “It’s still GROOVY!” he shouted. Laughing shrilly, brittly, Englishly, genuinely, I waved goodbye and marched into the heartwarming Spring sunshine a-munching on my sausage roll, and the daffodils were all out in clumps of gold, and the birds were shrieking with laughter and the sky was striped white and blue and all was well in England as I descended the hill towards my office. The barman is looking at me as if he’s wondering if I’m ever going to stop typing on my laptop and finish this pint.
Brought to you by Dabbler Editions – original e-books for Kindle. Buy Blogmanship: The Art of Winning Arguments on the Internet Without Really Knowing What You Are Talking About now.
Dabbler Diary is taking a short holiday and will return in early May. Happy Easter all!