My relationship with my home country is complicated, and it always has been. Growing up in the Swansea Valley, I was always aware that I wasn’t entirely Welsh, not in the way my school friends were anyway. Mum came from Lancashire and I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about how I romanticised our holidays to see my beloved Gran in Rochdale. Mum has determinedly hung on to her original accent, despite the fact she’s now lived far longer in Wales than she ever did in Lancashire, and I inherited some of her sounds and phrases. We weren’t a welsh-speaking family (my lovely (Welsh) Nan carried on a sort of pidgin effort, but she didn’t really speak it either) and the local comp was not a welsh school. As an adult I took the chance when it arrived and left quick sharp; last year was significant in that it marked the fact I have now lived in England longer than I have lived in Wales. For the first ten years I felt a guilty sense of relief – I wanted to root myself in a larger place, one where I wasn’t known by everyone in the bloody village. But, and I suspect this is a fairly common reaction, I now feel more intensely attached to my country of birth and, perhaps perversely, more Welsh.
And so receiving Sinclair’s book about his own return visits to the Gower was a joy this Christmas. We were heading down to Mumbles for our annual visit home and the book leapfrogged several others, just so I could read it in the right place. I had wrongly assumed Sinclair was a Londoner, born and bred, but it turns out he’s from Maesteg and he too has a complex relationship with the valleys he grew up in, and the Gower landscape he holidayed in as a teenager.
‘Swimming was about not belonging, confirming the years I had travelled away from those Horton holidays … I had forfeited all those advantages of birth, walked away from a bankable heritage.’
He maps out walks on the Gower that he has done before, and which become a part of his rediscovering his past self. In 2004, a Guardian article suggested he felt there was little for him to return to Wales, now that his parents were dead, but this book suggests that that has changed – he immerses his reader so fully in the walks he undertakes with his wife, Anna, and in the cultural world of artist Ceri Richards and poet Vernon Watkins. It is with a sense of shame I realised that I have read writers from all over the world – but I haven’t read the work of Welsh writers (I’m rectifying that now).
He may well be uncomfortable with the term ‘psychogeography’, but this does best explain the way he uses walking in a chosen landscape as a mode of internalising and interpreting the relationship an individual has with their context. It helps that he is re-walking routes he took as a younger man, allowing this book to become something of a memoir too. It’s a fascinating look at a place which holds more of a fascination for me now I no longer live there.
I’ve wanted to read something by Sinclair for years – it’s just never felt the right time to try and tackle his famously complex, poetic prose. My favourite sections of Black Apples were those which were rooted in the welsh landscape, and those which discussed the work of Richards and Watkins. He was also funnier than I had expected, with a sharp wit to puncture both his own youthful ambitions and to offer commentary on political news. He describes George Osbourne presenting his pre-election budget ‘with all the slippery relish of a corrupt school prefect dodging the bullet by blaming voiceless victims.’ For this one statement alone, I suspect he would find a warm welcome again in his homeland. What I was left with, at the end of the book, was a strong sense of his love of the Gower landscape, and a concept only the Welsh could create: Hiraeth.