A little Welshness, the sort of carefully homoeopathic dose of Welshness administered by mixed parentage and eighteen years in Newport, seemed for a long time an interesting way of being different. I was all for being different; I'd been reading SF since the age of seven, and was assured that these small distinctions marked the world-changers. Not having eyes of different colours, better-than-flesh prosthetics, an amazing ability or even a commanding personality, I seized enthusiastically on being Welsh. This oppressed minority, with me at its head, against the world ... However, in Newport, my subtle distinction passed unnoticed. Everyone had it. Holidaying in the north and west of Wales, I found myself lumped with other outsiders, kept waiting in those tiny shops while the regulars chatted pointedly in Welsh, oblivious to my telepathed "I'm one of you dammit!"
("You're not really Welsh," sneered Leo. "You can't speak it, you don't sing or play rugby, you only live in Newport – that's not proper Welsh ...")
It would have been nice to speak Welsh, but at junior school I'd been marked as linguistically retarded: the problem was French. Appalling language. No sense to the pronunciation. Later, at Newport High School, I was "taught" French by one Cy Morgan, possibly the most repellent schoolmaster I ever encountered. His Welsh accent was so overpowering, even in French, that those who persevered in his lessons were permanently crippled as far as French pronunciation was concerned ... Being perhaps rather sensitive about this, he couldn't believe that skinny brat Langford's insolent cupping of ears, apparently anguished straining to hear, etc., could be anything but subtle mockery. Likewise my inferior hearing-aid, whose squealing feedback maddened him whenever his mumbling goaded me into turning the volume too high. Ah, he detested me, did Cy. Every lesson I'd be first on the list for summary chastisement, smartly blipped by the ruddy great stick he had fetishistically christened M'sieu George. "M'sieu George wants to speak with you, Langford. You can turn off your little machine ..."
I had a small revenge. Every morning there was Assembly – hymns, prayers, the lot – before the eager pupils of Newport High were permitted their daily ration of knowledge. Not having the courage to escape through a Declaration of Irreligion, I began most days in that hot press of bodies, pretending to sing the same bloody psalms that recurred each week, the tedium (Te Deum. A favourite joke back then) only broken when someone fainted and was lugged away by panting prefects. (It happened to me once.) On the way out we would file past the line of masters, and one day when my hatred for him was peculiarly intense, I stamped viciously on Cy Morgan's foot. I think – I hope – he had corns. The instant return blow almost knocked my head off, of course, but I smiled fixedly through the pain. There are few events at school which I used to recall with such a sneaking pride.
By the time I'd failed French O-level, it seemed a bit late to acquire Welsh. I had made one other assault on the mysteries of Language: German, which was pronounceable. After two years' study of German it was decreed that – though there was no way, ever, to avoid French – I'd better drop German as the school couldn't possibly teach both it and biology to the same person. I was very hot on sciences. Exit German. Years later, brother Jon was to find the same cretinous logic ("we can't arrange the timetable any other way") forcing him, whose only ambition was art, to spend alternate terms in the study of art and – bloody hell! – woodwork.
Not speaking Welsh was no longer an irritation. Leo, a good friend who could speak a bit and was utterly intolerant of "poncey Northerners", had taught me one of my few Welsh expressions: Twll d'un. He wouldn't tell me what it meant, but insisted that if snubbed by poncey Northerners who pretended not to speak English, I should say – audibly, but as though to myself – these magic words. My confidence was renewed. My imagination was quite fevered, until further research revealed the meaning to be merely "arse-hole".
Wanting to belong and wanting to be different: my synthetic Welshness, while it lasted; was composed of both. That, and an element of arbitrary choice. I prefer dark to light blue, so I cheered Oxford in the Boat Pace; and ended up as a student there. (I hope there were other reasons.) When Jon demanded that I choose a favourite football team, I glanced down the list and picked Scunthorpe, liking the sheer grotesquerie of the name. Years later, I was still defending Scunthorpe against all comers: "They're so sincere. OK, they have bad luck. The weather's usually against them ..." Sometimes I'd watch the TV league table to see how my team was doing; though even when they came to Newport; I never saw them play. Likewise, to irritate Jon, I adopted a position which he insisted was paradoxical – pro-Wales but anti-devolution. (When I came to argue about this, I found it made good sense, It still does.) At Oxford came a realisation of the falsity of being synthetically Welsh, not through any blinding revelation but from observation of my own apathy. I was ready to hoist a daffodil or leek and get drunk for St. David's Day; and that was all. Hell, I hadn't even fought to get into Jesus, the Welsh college! Somewhat later I came to appreciate that South Wales – and Newport – was special; not because it was Wales but because it was home,
And later still, I found myself with a distinction and a difference after all ...
A Sfinx writers' meeting was raging in Diana Reed's room at St. Hilda's College. (Sfinx is the OUSFG fiction fanzine; Diana was the editor then.) I had read a story to which everyone had displayed that careful kindness reserved for retarded children. It had been my first story. Slightly shattered, I walked to my own college (Brasenose) for dinner, returning full of dark resolutions to say nothing more and to refrain forever from further writing.
"Hello," said Diana as I burst back in. "We've been talking about you."
"Oh yes?" I said with intense distrust,
"Where do you come from?"
"Ah, that would explain it," said Diana as everyone nodded. "We were wondering about your accent, and decided it was slightly Welsh."
I was so inexplicably cheered by this that I said a great deal more that evening, and subsequently wrote another forty-odd (to date) stories.
It was around then that I met a certain aged uncle for the first time in years. And when I next went home, there was this letter he'd written to my mother: "David has not acquired the cultured diction which one would have expected from association with Oxford ... I was disappointed to find his accent so broadly Welsh," Silly person ...
Later, Dave Rowe was to credit me with an Oxford accent. What is truth? – and pass the loofah.
The mild irony is that I never recognise accents unless beaten over the head with them. There are a very few accents, like Pete Weston's Brummy, that do hit one over the head. For the rest, I've only just learned that anyone who sounds like Bob Shaw is probably Irish. Have to take other people's word for what I sound like, mind you, but until I'm told differently, the official party line is "slightly Welsh". For a sense of racial identity it's not much; but it's the best I've got.