Monthly Archives: November 2007

Being religious, again again

The leader article in this month’s Third Way (‘that necessity for all thinking Christians with money to waste’, as its reviews editor once put it) is, lo and behold, the beginning of Rowan Williams’ Swansea University lecture.

And nestling at the bottom of the editorial is the footnote that the lecture transcript is now available on, which sure enough, it is, here. So given that you can now actually read what the man said, and given how close I’ve been to becoming a Low Anglican version of BBC Four recently, I faithfully promise this’ll be my last post about all this.

West is (still) best

At best, I’m agnostic when it comes to rugby. Yes, I know that doesn’t fit with me being raised in the Gwendraeth Valley, the secret location of Wales’ national fly-half factory as immortalised by Max Boyce. To the despair of my late father (a life-long Llanelli supporter, a lifetime debenture holder at the old Cardiff Arms Park) I showed neither the inclination, nor particularly the aptitude, to excel at the sport. At school, my father was briefly in the same First XV as Carwyn James, famed Scarlets and British Lions coach. In his teens and twenties, my dad played for Cefneithin RFC, a fearsome and respected local team. It’s fair to say that his rugby-playing genes passed me by. Suffice it to say you’re lucky if I can even catch a ball, ovoid or spherical, and asking me to run with it is really pushing your chances.

But even rugby-ambivalent me can’t escape paying tribute to Ray Gravell, who was buried today. He was more than merely one of the best centres Wales is ever likely to see. He was more than a double Grand Slam winner, or legendary member of that Llanelli side that beat the All Blacks in 1972 (a whole year before my birth, but still something that resonated through my childhood). He was a gentleman in the literal sense of the word, and as fine a broadcaster and communicator as he was a rugby player.

Most people who met Grav have a story to tell, so here’s mine: a long-suffering school friend and myself had taken it on ourselves to create a radio programme for a competition in the Urdd Eisteddfod. As part of that (and I’ll admit, the main reason we wanted to do it) I managed to wangle us a visit to the BBC studios on Alexandra Road in Swansea. It was a Wednesday in a 1991 half-term. We were there to interview Sulwyn Thomas, then a Radio Cymru equivalent to today’s Jeremy Vine. Over weekday lunchtimes, Sulwyn hosted a phone-in show and endured highly opinionated callers. Grav was in the Radio Cymru office, preparing for his next request show, having finished that week’s live broadcast a few hours previously.

It was coming up to the midday news, and Sulwyn had to end his spiel at precisely 11:59 and 54 seconds in order to leave a clear gap between him finishing and the time signal pips starting. His task was not to crash the pips. Crashing the pips, in radio, is regarded as something of a mortal sin. You should at all costs avoid it on live broadcasts but it’s sometimes inevitable (listen to the end of most Today programmes if you want proof). And sure enough, at 11:59 and 55 seconds, Sulwyn crashed the pips.

12:00 and 4 seconds it was, the news was coming from Cardiff, and the imposing presence of Grav had rushed into the control room. Sulwyn’s producer rolled his eyes. We hurriedly switched our microphone on and hit Record on our cassette deck. Grav crescendoed:


And then, he switched out of broadcast mode, had a genial chat with us both, wished us all the best for the Urdd competition, and was gone to madly career about Sulwyn’s studio for the rest of the 3-minute bulletin.

And that’s how I’ll remember Grav, because that’s what he was to me – receptive to people’s needs, a clown when called for, serious when not. I could go on and say how he lent his name to an accent, or how my mum still swears blind that we’re distantly related – our family were Grevilles from the same area as Grav, so she may well have a point. The rest of Wales may remember him differently, but I’ll remember him as the guy whose stream of time-signal-related consciousness helped us win that competition sixteen years ago, and I’ll appreciate him for that.

Without descending into soggy untheological cliché, here’s hoping that Grav is now somewhere where no-one ever crashes any pips. If they do, though, I’m sure he’ll be on hand for the entertainment.


When people meet me and realise I’m Welsh and that I speak Welsh, then once we’re past the jibes about rain, sheep, dirt and druids, they almost always say one of a set range of phrases.

1. “Oh. I thought Welsh was a dead language.”
Not much I can do about people thinking that, really. I’m not sure how those people would answer the question: if there’s a Welsh speaker standing in front of you, does that make the Welsh language a) dead, or b) alive? Please tick one box only.
Apart from that, and depending on who’s saying it, I might argue from census figures, from the existence of S4C, from the growth in Welsh-medium education, or the flourishing Welsh-language hip-hop scene. But unsurprisingly, I’m not sure any of that has persuaded the other person.

2. “Oh yes. I was on holiday in Snowdonia once, and I walked into a sandwich shop in Bangor, and everyone there was speaking Welsh!”
Yeah, I know. We were all speaking English before you walked in. We do it just for the tourists. Try the savoury cheese rolls next time, by the way – they’re very good.

3. “Welsh hasn’t got any swearwords has it? Apart from the ones it takes from English.”
Look, mate, you try broadcasting Dafydd ap Gwilym’s ruder stuff on S4C. Doubt it’d get past Compliance unless it was way after 10pm with dire warnings about bad language. And that was six centuries ago: fancy having a look at the Welsh Profanisaurus?

4. “Oh! So you speak two languages! Are you better at Welsh or English?”
No, not really. Or rather, yes, but I can’t tell you which, because it depends on the hour, the day, the people I’m talking to, what exactly I’m doing and the state of my brain.

I suspect that what most people want to hear in response to the last question is that I always think, dream, play and work in Welsh or in English. But the problem is, I don’t. I’m not aware that my brain has to go through any sort of mental gear change to switch from one language to the other. Most people who are fluent in more than one language don’t do that sort of thing. We switch frequently, often in mid-sentence, from one language to the other, and a lot of people do find this amusing. Or fascinating: the technical term for that is ‘code-switching’, and hundreds of academics around the world build careers around researching why and how it happens.

So what goes on inside the language bits of a multilingual brain? No one’s entirely sure, of course. I’ve been looking for years for something visual that explains it well, even to some degree. And the closest I’ve found is this, a gorgeous promo for the more technical side of what S4C does. Click here to see what the inside of my brain actually looks like.

Provided it’s not raining, of course.