What can Australia teach Wales about creating a newly minted independent nation?
In Stephen Sondheim’s classic Ladies Who Lunch the singer, a lady of a certain age and a colourful past, declares that she and her friends – the other lunching ladies – keep house while “clutching a copy of ‘Life’, just to keep in touch.”
In the case of the diaspora, while home is as far away as it ever was its, its ladies and gentlemen can keep in touch in myriad ways.
There are websites, video-streams (the legal and the not so legal), radio on-demand and the lure of online shopping. Rainbow Ddraig Goch anyone?
Then there’s social media. Oh lordy, there’s that.
Long gone are the occasional care packages of S4C highlights on a VHS or a few copies of the local paper or literary masterpiece stuffed in an envelope at Eisteddfod time.
Par avion was distinctly below par if you wanted the keep up to date with back home from your new home. At best it was a comfort blanket, but there was always a feeling that the ties that bound were inevitably weakening.
Now, it’s all in real time. But how real can that really be?
I, along with countless others, check-in from thousands of miles & kilometres away: noting political events; observing successes by young folk whose parents were college contemporaries; feeling buoyed by sporting endeavour; and getting sucked into the latest Rod Liddle-esque outrage on Twitter.
But even with all this “in the moment” stuff of our technologically shrunken world, the diaspora remains a tricky place in which to dwell.
You hold far away (and often long ago) firm in your heart, while observing it from a comfortable & insulated distance.
And you are at grave risk of hypocrisy in the first degree. And by ‘you’, I mean ‘I’.
Back in the day the Eisteddfod’s Cymry Ar Wasgar ceremony with its mumbled rendition of “Unwaith Eto Cymru Annwyl” was derided by this eisteddfodwr pybyr or stalwart. ‘What a ridiculous spectacle,’ I confidently opined.
But as life advances you risk being hoist on a petard or two.
In my case, I departed in the late 1980s in a combo of les affaires de coeur and the grind of Thatcherism.
Both of those are long gone and I am now the proud bearer of a Seniors Card for the ACT, but Wales is not.
Poet T. H. Parry Williams understood exactly what Wales can do to the soul of a woman or man when he wrote “Hon”. Its last line is a humdinger: “Ni allaf ddianc rhag hon” which I would translate as ‘I just can’t shake this place off’.
So the sight of the burgeoning Yes Cymru movement has been both heart-warming and a little guilt-inducing.
What to do? Keep your head down and your mouth shut? Assuage any remaining guilt with a telegraphic transfer or two? Or extend a careful helping hand of sorts?
As the UK edges closer to a defining constitutional moment I am screwing my courage up and offering the third option. More some observations, as I would never use the word advice!
Australia and the development of its own particular national character offers a striking steer about how a newly minted nation can form as it emerges from the shadow of another.
And Oz is still a relatively new nation. Federation was in 1901 and geographic enormity militated against the creation of a truly national identity for decades.
There was a shared heritage, but precious little else in common.
Parochialism based on arbitrary boundaries – with the exception of the island state of Tasmania – flourished.
Each state-operated its own economy with unique brands in every jurisdiction – especially those involving beer and soft drinks! And baked goods, of course.
The unifying force of the railways, so powerful in other parts of the world at this time, didn’t help one iota as states went their own idiosyncratic ways in terms of gauges: standard, narrow and Irish.
So, it was down to a couple of things to frame the Australian nation: the single national pastime of cricket and the all too regular calls to war.
The most English of games and military encounters in foreign fields shaped the Aussie. Not ideal, but at least both were understood in every corner of the continent.
So where does that experience leave Wales as increasing numbers of its population ponder a new start?
Geography is unalterable. Though tiny in size compared with Australia, Wales has its own challenges when it comes to creating a united nation. And that is compounded by an infrastructure developed for and by “our friends in the east”.
Then, there’s the fate of the language. And the north-south thing. Not to mention Cardiff versus Swansea.
I think it is not unkind to posit that the Welsh can be a little fractious at times over these, and other, the differences between them.
So, perhaps the lesson I should offer from 12,000 miles away is a pretty straightforward one: seek out the things held in common. However small they might be in number.
With a firm foundation the complexities that need to be addressed, debated about and even fought over, from a safe and shared place.
What might those commonalities be? They have to be simple and deep. Unshakeable.
The strong sense of community beyond the built environment which encompasses people, food and drink, schools, places of worship and play of all kinds. It’s a local thing whose essence is replicated up and down the country and underpinned by the glory of the broader landscape to create a truly national tapestry.
There’s the joy our sports teams bring when they take to the international stage or fight against the odds. There’s no north & south divide then, so let’s not get bogged down in debating what’s the national football code. There are many more sports beside the obvious and their teams carry the banner into battle with the same pride as the usual suspects of the eleven and fifteen a-side variety.
Then there’s Wales’ love of words. Be they in poetry, prose or hymns and/or arias. I say words rather than language because there is a precious crossover here. There are words from both Welsh and English which the vast majority of people understand and relish in hearing them. And many of them are emotionally based – take Cymru and cwtch as examples.
Place, representation and sound.
That’s a trifecta to reckon with.