My father was brought up to use the telephone as if announcing a concert party on a pre-war radio. He’d lift the Bakelite lump from its cradle in the hallway, straighten his back and address the caller as if from the other side of a canyon. “Hellooo,” he would declare. “Who am I speaking with?”
His usual faux Home Counties tones would swoop into a musical lilt. We were back in the valleys. My father became Welsh on the telephone, God bless him. Even in Epping, Wales was my homeland.
“The valleys”? Ah, but here I show my own ignorance. We were Welsh all right. My mother came from Ferndale, in the Rhondda (which is, I believe, a proper valley). But my father emerged from a gloomy red house in the suburbs of Cardiff, which was more of “a slight hill” than a valley. Every single relative I have seems to have been vehemently Welsh, but I do not mean that they came from “the valleys”. I am making wild, clichéd, outsider generalisations already.
I was born in Cardiff but we moved away when I was six months old. I left a legion of aunties and great aunties, grannies and nans encamped across the lower West Country, from Tonypandy to Pontypridd. It gave us our identity, in English Essex. We had to watch The Rugby. I was dragooned into the choir. Sometimes we went to Dagenham to visit fellow Welsh exile doctors, who smoked and cackled a lot and had an easy, soppy familiarity that I came to associate with proper comfortable Welshness.
But, in all honesty, nobody did care that I was Welsh. I am not really included in Wales by the Welsh. How could I be, with my hybrid accent – part Essex tough junior school, part posh Sussex kindergarten?
I often went to Wales when I was tiny, by the long one-way system that went through every traffic light in Britain. In Cardiff we stayed with the forbidding Nain (North Walian Welsh for “nan”). She had no idea when we might arrive, so never cooked. Wales meant imprisonment for hours in that Morris Traveller and then salad, ham and hard- boiled eggs – and I hated salad.
When I worked on Smith and Jones I was gently upbraided by an elderly uncle. “You don’t want to make fun of Wales in those sketches of yours, what?” That realisation took me aback. Because, like all of us, I have been fed the clichés. I know the Welshness of coal mines and choirs. What Londoner doesn’t? But Wales is much more than truncated witches’ hats and bardic chairs, though even those have their fascination.
When I threw off the shackles of my yearly sketch show and was given a new life in TV, as a middle-aged man going “oh how beautiful” in travelogues, I was taken beyond Cardiff. I started to range about the Principality. I climbed mountains and I canoed rivers, I walked sea fronts, and plunged into valleys, I went from the crowded cities to what, I finally understood, were the most remote and beautiful places in Britain. Eventually, I became totally rootsy and bought a patch of land and a ruined farmhouse on the wild, unearthly coast of Pembrokeshire.
But it is time to take stock. There is no one totality of Wales. Instead of waking up to eat salad and then going straight to bed, like I did when I was eight, I am off to linger and explore and find out what is distinctive. I am making eight forays into some of the most beautiful parts of Wales to get me closer to my own cultural roots. Am I sufficiently Welsh? It’s quite an adventure. It’s a great Welsh adventure, in fact.
A Great Welsh Adventure with Griff Rhys Jones is on tonight, 8pm on ITV