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27 March 2000

Another country

New Statesman Scotland - Travelling through Britain with English and Welsh colleagues, Tom

By Tom Morton

England, or at least the M6, unrolls behind my Japanese wheels as Dundee’s own Eddie Mair sets the day’s news agenda on Radio 4: David Blunkett was, according to the Sunday Times, “only joking” when he told Labour’s assembled acolytes to “read his lips: no selection . . .” Like some mordant ringmaster, Mair sets up Roy “aged but much loved” Hattersley to spray spittle down the line and rip Blunkett apart. Minutes later, an agitated Education Secretary is on the line, eerily tetchy, exuding something like the wrath of a small-time god. Not a joke, he insists; a parody. Then he deposits a heap of steaming obfuscation on Mair, which the Dundonian, silkily bored, sweeps aside, holding his nose. You can hear his fingers clamping his nostrils as the signs read Morecambe and Lancaster, Preston, Wigan and Warrington.

It is strange to realise that the media you depend on to filter the world for you have been left behind. The Ayr by-election barely exists; Scotland has vanished as Mair departs and drawling Oxbridge fills the airwaves. Then the poisonous and despicable hayseed porn which is The Archers, Middle England’s bucolic fantasy-turned-nightmare, brings the first nausea of a trip which has already included a topsy-turvy 14-hour sea trip from Lerwick to Aberdeen.

Birmingham’s sprawl brings a rash of BMWs, heading east along the A14. Range Rovers begin to breed, and the police play stupid intimidating games with motorbikes and turbocharged Volvos. Soon, an alien landscape unfolds: flat, lush and appallingly neat. Then there is chemical farmland, around Newmarket, laid out with rails like one giant livestock market. Horses, cosseted and invisible, are somewhere centrally heated.

Nine hours after leaving Aberdeen, I’m navigating the border between Suffolk and Norfolk, all hammerbeam churches, renovated weekend cottages and the whiff of redneck desperation. Gissing Hall near Diss is a fading manor, filled with odd art. I am the only guest, and the chef is off duty. Diss for dinner, then.

Diss is an up-and-down town of superficial charm and quaintness. It reminds me of Auchtermuchty, the real place, not Sir John Junor’s mythical creation, only much more gentrified, and richer. On a Sunday night, it is as dead as Wick. Only the takeaways are open. From pizza, kebab, curry or Cantonese, chips and chicken, I choose a Turkish chickenburger. The coleslaw tastes of Dettol as I sit next to the church, munching while red-robed priests huddle behind vestry windows.

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The Englishman and the Welshman arrive on Monday morning, and off we set for a week’s filming. I am presenting a Discovery Channel series on ecological housing, and in five days we are going to visit ten examples. At least. It has all been planned by the Welsh producer to end in the vicinity of Cardiff, in time for him to attend the Wales-Scotland rugby match on Saturday at the Millennium Stadium. This is what is known as intelligent scheduling.

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But Wales has just entered a week of wailing, gnashing of teeth, weeping and wondering where various rugbyesque grandfathers came from. The Welshman thinks that it is a disgrace, but the Englishman and this Scotsman find it so hilarious that they spend much of the next few days rubbing salt in the producer’s genealogical wounds. The thing is, rugby long ago left me behind, when it turned into a cross between ice hockey and American football, full of stupid rules and abnormal physiques, so dangerous that no sane parents would let their children play it. I’m happy, though, to claim a psychological advantage for the Scots in Saturday’s match and indeed a good-natured slagging of all things Welsh ensues.

“Scotland and Wales,” muses the Englishman from the back seat. “Who cares? We own both countries anyway!”

In Palgrave, all ponds, ducks and twisted brick, the wonderful wooden climate-change house has a two-seater composting lavatory and a picture of Ken Livingstone taped to the wall. The owner is planning a move to Norwich. Local radio reveals rioting in Northampton, between local youths and Kosovan refugees. I tell the Welshman that I once penned a stupid, rabidly anti-Welsh column that the Western Mail republished on its front page, screaming racism. “Good newspaper,” says the Welshman. “I was its political correspondent. I’ll phone and tell them you’re coming, if you like.” As we wander over an earth-sheltered community deep, literally, in Lincolnshire, I mutter that it won’t be necessary.

A brutal drive, which includes one of those patented, still-frozen Little Chef microwave meals, ends at 11pm in Cirencester. I am neither driving nor map-reading, and all I know is that I am somewhere in England. Deep, deep in warm darkness. It is spring here. There is an overspill of Cheltenham race-goers in the bar, talking, with debt- driven intensity, of horseflesh and jockeys. Florid men in blazers park Jags while crinkly blondes recline in the Connolly leather, and a bunch of surgeons discuss the trickiness of a “four-inch operating depth . . .”. Local TV news leads with a story of a man from Shepton Mallet who has been killed during a battle re-enactment. The bar, mysteriously, sells Laphroaig whisky from Islay, but we are all too tired to drink.

On Tuesday, after checking out the all-singing, all-dancing Integer eco-house near Chippenham, we begin to gravitate Waleswards. I am at ease with the rolling landscape around Ledbury, and as we traverse the Marches, the Welshman lectures me about Hereford, Owen Glendower and how he longs to return to live and work in his homeland. If only he spoke Welsh, the siren song of S4C would be singing in his ears. And suddenly we are in Wales.

We stop for a quite superb meal, served with great style and friendliness in a pub called the Cider Mill, which the Englishman claims is “the best in Wales”. It is also the first Welsh bar I have ever been in. “It’s all right, owning Wales,” says the Englishman, “if it’s all like this.”

In a petrol station near Crickhowell, I am paying for my fuel when the man behind me says suddenly, “Well, not much point in standing here to pay if I haven’t put any petrol in my car, I suppose”, and leaves. Nobody turns a hair. The Welshman buys a Western Mail like a recovered alcoholic having his first dram in years. The splash reads: WELSH RUGBY A LAUGHING STOCK. The Welshman can just about muster a pained grin, as the number of supposed Welsh players who are actually about as Welsh as kiwi fruit escalates. There is horrified talk in the paper about an abandoned plan by the national coach to offer rugby scholarships to talented South Africans. “What message is that sending to the youngsters in Neath?” fumes the Welshman. Wherever Neath is.

At midnight, we arrive in Cardigan. I can smell the estuarial mud. On the TV, an amazing Welsh investigative programme called The Ferrett, presented by a man who makes Roger Cook look svelte, rights double-glazing injustices across the land. And Max Boyce is to receive an MBE from Prince Charles, not for comedy, which would be ridiculous, but for services to Welsh rugby. The Englishman and I get a laugh out of that one.

On Wednesday, it is revealed that Matt Cardey can play for Wales (the Western Mail reproduces his grandmother’s birth certificate over seven columns of its front page) and that the Virgin Mary is buried in Anglesey, possibly. This in a week when it has been claimed that Guinness is Welsh, and we have been frequently reminded that St Patrick is Welsh, too. Meanwhile, I am sitting in Tony Wrench’s hand-built turf-and-tree house hearing how the community of Brith dir Mawr is facing a public inquiry into its sustainable houses, built without planning permission in the middle of a National Park and spotted from the air (the solar panels were a dead giveaway) by an anti-New Age traveller patrol. Apparently, they have such things in Wales.

I begin talking to Welsh people other than The Welshman. Humour abounds. At least, I think it’s humour. “Coming out tonight with us, boy? We got some petrol and there’s a few empty cottages we could have a look at?” I make my excuses and have another pint of brains. Sorry. Brains, the bitter, not the bitterness of Wales. Conversation turns to the Assembly, where the advent of Saint Rhodri seems to have signalled an upsurge in enthusiasm for the body and a confidence that more and more power will be devolved Cardiffwards. The Welsh I meet are a bit mystified by my cynicism about the Confederacy of Dunces at Holyrood. And eventually I begin to feel just a tad ashamed.

More houses. Underground houses that stay warm without heating. Beautiful houses made of larch and pitch pine with Kilmarnock-manufactured wind generators. The truly wondrous Centre for Alterative Technology. In Cardiff a taxi driver informs me that he has been drinking with some Scots supporters.

“Great lads, great lads. Some of them came in the club last night, you know, the Liberal Club in Canton. What a great night!” What about the chances of a ticket for the game? “Oh, no chance boy. It’s all those women, you see, who go to the matches now. No room for us.” Meanwhile, Alun Michael is creeping back to Millbank, and Wales rejoices.

Gareth Kiff, an English-born Welsh-language activist, is happy to poke fun at local politicians (the local assembly coverage on BBC TV, called The Point, is attracting a statistically insignificant 2,000 viewers; it has been relabelled What’s The Point?) but is clearly brimming with confidence about the future’s potential for political change. Digitally repatriated, I talk on Radio Scotland about the Welsh predilection for pop groups named after mental illnesses (Catatonia, Manic Street Preachers) and the awfulness of Tom Jones. “Ah,” Gareth responds, “but did you hear that the Virgin Mary is buried in Anglesey? Apparently, even she was throwing her knickers at Tom Jones.” Ex-Scotland international John Beattie tells me that Scotland will get beaten by Wales, despite Grandfathergate. “All that youthful pride and passion,” he ruminates. MICHAEL TURNS HIS BACK ON WALES screams the Western Mail over three broadsheet pages. “It is as if he had never existed” is its last, joyous, triumphant word.

I flee, too, across the Severn Bridge to my sister’s house. I have abandoned the Englishman at Parkway, bound for London, and the Welshman in Chepstow, dreaming of victory on the morrow. “I like Wales,” I tell him. “It’s a more positive place than Scotland.”

“You sarcastic bastard,” he replies. “I think you lot are going to win tomorrow. Don’t phone me to crow.”

But we don’t. And I don’t call the Englishman. Instead I gracefully accept the commiserations of my Devonian brother-in-law, and head north as the darkness begins to fall on England, Wales and Scotland too. The Tories have won Ayr. It’s only Holyrood, I tell myself. And then I remember that suppressed sense of enthusiasm in Wales, and wonder.