‘There are two languages in Wales,’ claim editors Sian Northey and Ness Owen in their joint-authored, bilingual introduction to A470: Poems for the Road / Cerddi’r Ffordd, a new collection of poetry from Arachne Press. 

Their main point is to highlight the ‘very few poets who write in both [English and Welsh]’ and a lack of translation between them, but I can’t contain my visceral reaction to the opening assertion.

I blame Gwyn Alf Williams and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. If only the title of their famous television series on the history of Wales had been given a less catchy title. ‘The Dragon Has Two Tongues’ is one of Wales’ many oft-repeated myths, and among its most damaging.

The National Wales: Gwyn Alf Williams and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas who co-presented 'The Dragon Has Two Tongues' on HTV WalesGwyn Alf Williams and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas who co-presented 'The Dragon Has Two Tongues' on HTV Wales

By constantly underlining the bilingual duality of Wales’ official languages – often held up in one-upmanship over a perceived monolingual England – we consistently erase from our national conversation the languages, and therefore also the histories, cultures and very lives of that significant minority of Wales’ population for whom neither English nor Welsh is a mother tongue. And in neglecting some of us, we diminish all of us. 

According to the 2011 census, 3 per cent of Welsh people speak a first language that is not English or Welsh. In Cardiff the figure is 8 per cent. 

Although it is relatively well known that the Somali-Welsh – concentrated mainly in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea – are the country’s largest ethnic minority, Polish is actually the biggest linguistic group outside English and Welsh, its first-language speakers comprising well over 0.5% of Wales’ population.

A survey by CILT Cymru, the national centre for languages, revealed at least 98 languages are spoken by school pupils in Wales. Official data underestimates Wales’ diversity – and it is worth emphasising that beyond figures relating to first-language speakers, many thousands more Welsh citizens who have Welsh or English as a first language also speak one or more others. 

The National Wales: 'A470: Poems for the Road / Cerddi’r Ffordd' by Sian Northey and Ness Owen'A470: Poems for the Road / Cerddi’r Ffordd' by Sian Northey and Ness Owen

But the repetition of the tired old trope in the opening line of the book does not detract from the quality of the work or the neat concept of the collection: ‘fifty-one original poems translated in and out of Welsh… which explores where the A470 might take us.’

Ah, the A470. Another great Welsh myth, which the blurb neatly summarises: ‘Arguably the most famous road in Wales… 186 miles from shore to shore through the backbone of Wales, linking north to south.’

I wrote about this fifteen years ago, in a piece that was eventually to lend its title to my first collection of essays. Driving Home Both Ways was about being from Brecon and living in Cardiff, but even then I recognised the A470 as ‘a myth Wales needs’. I called it ‘a dot-to-dot of national identity’ and drew attention to the fact it was invented as an artificial way of linking north and south, strung together by renumbering parts of roads formerly known as the A438, A4073, A479, A44, A492, A489, A4084, A458, A487 and A496.

And A470: Poems for the Road / Cerddi’r Ffordd is simply the latest in a list of cultural endeavours that have maintained this myth. 

In photography there was a multi-artist exhibition at Oriel Mostyn in 2001, and much more recently Glenn Edwards’ Route 47Zero. In 2014, BBC Radio 4 produced a documentary on the road, fronted by Cerys Matthews and packaged for a UK audience as ‘The Welsh M1’. Its premise was the same kind of ‘in search of Welshness’ undertaken more recently – and controversially – by Jeremy Bowen

The road has lent its name to an S4C drama series, a song by Geraint Lovgreen, a football fanzine and the listings magazine of Academi, forerunner of Literature Wales.

In 2013, former Daily Post journalist Ian Parri published his anti-travel guide Nid yr A470, about how to avoid a road as famous for its seemingly interminable twists and turns and likelihood of getting stuck behind Mansel Davies lorries and Ifor Williams trailers as for its roadside burger vans, sites of historic interest and breathtaking scenery.

But Parri’s tongue-in-cheek humour provides a way out of our national habit of recycling cliches that lead us down the same old road in the same old way. Instead his travelogue takes us from Llanbrynmair past Staylittle and Llyn Clywedog, and over Mynydd Epynt to reach the south.

The National Wales: Welsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales by Darren Chetty, Hanan Issa, Grug Muse and Iestyn TyneWelsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales by Darren Chetty, Hanan Issa, Grug Muse and Iestyn Tyne

Another book published this spring offers ‘resistance to the idea that national identity can be based on a single story’. Welsh (Plural): Essays on the Future of Wales, from Repeater Books also takes the form of an anthology, not of poems but nineteen essays. 

In an introduction attributed to all four, the book’s editors – Darren Chetty, Hanan Issa, Grug Muse and Iestyn Tyne – write about how ‘contemporary discussion about the future of Wales takes place in the political realm – whether through political parties, the various movements arguing for independence or the frenetic world of online debate,’ and how writers can pull back from the daily maelstrom and contribute instead to ‘the collective imagination’.

The book’s cover is based on the Wrexham Tailor’s Quilt, made from discarded pieces of felted woollen cloth, ‘carefully designed and stitched together over a decade. The editors write about how ‘it conveys a patchwork of experiences, from religious scenes to tributes to the industrial heritage of Wales’. Crucially, it also contains motifs of ‘giraffes, elephants and palm trees – souvenirs of Wales’ part in the conquests of the British Empire.’

And so we are presented with work from a wide variety of standpoints by authors from a patchwork quilt of backgrounds, revealing Wales as a country of hyphenated identities. 

READ MORE: 

Hanan Issa is a Welsh-Iraqi writer. Her essay ‘Have You Heard the One About the Niqabi on a Bus?’ explores and explodes an urban myth as a way into talking about Welshness and Islam. Another contributor, Durre Shahwar, is working on her first book, ‘about belonging as a Pakistani-Welsh person’. Shaheen Sutton, from Newport, describes how a childhood trip to Birmingham was the first time she was othered as Welsh rather than ‘brown’. 

But Welsh (Plural) is not about performative difference for the white gaze. The essays of Issa and Shahwar and Sutton sit alongside those of Niall Griffiths (Liverpool-Welsh), Mike Parker (Worcestershire-Welsh), Kandace Siobhan Walker (from the Brecon Beacons), as well as Marvin Thompson, ‘born in London to Jamaican parents and now [living] in south Wales’.

Where are you from? It’s never a simple or single story. 

The anthology presents a chorus of voices that not only sounds like real, modern Wales, but somehow – despite its wild variation – strikes a harmonious tone. From polyphony, insights and agreements emerge. 

All over Wales, old myths are taken to task. Poet Morgan Owen writes about the Welsh language in Merthyr Tydfil. Music journalist Andy Welch about the Rhyl accent in London. Professor Charlotte Williams imagines ‘little Charlotte being taken for a trip to Penrhyn Castle to understand how local landowners benefitted from the slave trade’.

The National Wales: Professor Martin Johnes of Swansea University specialises in the history of modern WalesProfessor Martin Johnes of Swansea University specialises in the history of modern Wales

In the essay placed at the head of the collection, historian Martin Johnes says his discipline ‘should remind us that nothing is ever simple.’ His encouragements – embracing complexity, aspiring to a Wales where everyone has ‘the right to feel they belong’, where we cherish our past but are not imprisoned by it, do not accept the status quo as inevitable – in one sense puts him in the front rank to succeed Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Gwyn Alf Williams.

But to trace such a lineage of Wales’ storytellers would be to invert Johnes’ message. Wales is not a country with a single story. Nor even a dual-narrative history told through the disagreements of two white men from different parts of the political spectrum. 

Our multi-coloured dragon has many tongues. 

The patchwork of personal pieces that make up Welsh (Plural) together amount to a necessary reckoning, a timely reminder that any ‘national conversation’ – curated in these pages or elsewhere – cannot be limited, like the constitutional commission, by political terms of reference.

The lives we live on this little patch of ground we have learned to call Cymru – or Wales, or something else entirely – are not beholden to the technicalities of our constitutional arrangements, but the human condition itself.

The National Wales: Rabab Ghazoul's 'Words That Scatter / How Are We To Heal' in 'Welsh Plural'Rabab Ghazoul's 'Words That Scatter / How Are We To Heal' in 'Welsh Plural'

And it is to this that Rabab Ghazoul speaks, in the beautiful, uplifting endpiece to the collection, ‘Words That Scatter / How Are We To Heal’. She addresses the nation directly, as if it were a person: ‘Wales. This place. This beloved. The one I decided to choose. Whose scale I could manage. Whose song I could hear.’ 

Wales’ future is bound together with the futures of all peoples, everywhere. The world is connected like never before. The A470 is not the only way. Cymru is an anthology of more than three million stories – what’s yours? 

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.