Identity Crisis

In which The Author ponders an existential question

At the height of World War II, a Nazi intelligence agent was dispatched to the South Wales Valleys. His mission was to feed information about the coal industry, the steelworks and the railways back to Berlin. Together with the docks at Cardiff and Barry, they formed a vital part of Britain’s war machine. The German High Command didn’t want to destroy the infrastructure – because they’d want it intact after the planned invasion. Instead, they were determined to organise wildcat strikes, sabotage machinery, and generally disrupt production by using a cellular network of Fifth Columnists across the coalfield. All of this would require careful co-ordination, and they’d already located a Nazi sympathiser who would be their ideal man.
On his arrival at a small village high above Bridgend, the German agent sought out his contact, who had already been doing much of the research. He immediately found himself trapped behind the language barrier. The signposts didn’t make any sense, and the vague map he’d been given was no help. After wandering around the narrow terraces for half an hour, he decided to ask at the post office.
‘I wonder if you can help me,’ he said to the postmistress. ‘I’m looking for a Mr Evans.’
‘Oh, bach, that’s not much to go on,’ she replied. ‘Everyone round here is an Evans. Could you narrow it down a bit?’
‘What do you mean, “everyone round here is an Evans”?’ he said, somewhat taken aback. ‘How on earth do you tell people apart?’
‘Well, it’s like this, see. My husband is Evans the Post. Next door is Evans the Bread, and opposite is Evans the Butcher. That woman just passing – she’s Mrs Evans the Milk. If you came up on the train, you’ve met Evans the Station already. Then there’s Evans the Shop, Evans the Greengrocer, Evans the Pub, Miss Evans the School, Dr Evans up in the big house, Evans the Chemist, Constable Evans, Mr Evans Chapel, Evans the Voice – nice man, leads the choir – and Evans the Garage. Last time there was a rugby match at the school, all thirty players and the referee were Evanses.’
‘Good grief!’ said the German, totally confused by now. ‘Well, I don’t think any of them are the Mr Evans I’m looking for. I believe he’s a retired solicitor, very interested in history and politics, doesn’t really go out much…’
The postmistress’s eyes lit up as the penny dropped. ‘Oh, why didn’t you say, bach? That’s Evans the Spy – Number 3 Station Street!’
Even in 2012, many people in Wales still choose to define themselves and each other by what they do, rather than who they are. In the Valleys, especially, one often gets to exchange pleasantries with a friend one hasn’t seen for a while. The question will almost invariably follow: ‘What are you doing now?’ It may be a side-effect of the high unemployment rate, or maybe the old joke I’ve just related has a grain of truth about it.
Some friends of mine even choose to define themselves in terms of their religious faith. One old friend is a great example. I’ve known Jazz for over twenty years. He’s led a varied and fascinating life. He’s been a miner; he’s done a bit of time for minor offences back in his younger days; he’s had books of poetry published; he’s a passionate and vocal advocate for people with mental health problems; he gives up his weekends to take part in soup runs for homeless people in Cardiff; before Xmas he took part in a Sponsored Sleep-Out to help raise money for food and blankets for rough sleepers. He loves music and reading and politics. But, of all these achievements and aspects to his life, he chooses most often to describe himself as ‘a Christian.’ It seems a very odd thing to choose to label oneself as. After all, when our fictional German agent was looking for his contact, the postmistress never mentioned ‘Evans the Christian.’
In the 2001 census, most of the people in Wales professed to be nominally Christian.¹ I think I ticked the ‘no religion’ box, personally. I was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church, but have only set foot in a Catholic church four times in as many decades, as I recorded in Meet the Parents. I freely admit that I don’t obey all of the Ten Commandments. Neither do I regularly break all of them (chance would be a fine thing!) I’m no more or less religious than most of the people I encounter every day. But nobody would ever call me ‘Steve the God-curious Catholic apostate.’
I was talking about this very issue with a friend about a week and a half ago. We were discussing the basic beliefs of Existentialism. I’ve never studied it in depth, but as I understand it, it holds that each person faces a steady stream of choices throughout one’s life. One’s personality and identity are in a state of constant flux. The only time that anyone can truly describe anyone else is after the latter’s death. As you often read in catalogues and on websites, ‘We operate a policy of continuous improvement. Product details and specifications may change without prior notice.’ That’s probably a good phrase to append to a birth certificate, come to think of it.
The conversation reared its head again on Saturday night, when the same friend and I were out after the rugby. Earlier on, she’d introduced me to the pastor of her church before going off to chat to him for a few minutes. I didn’t mind – I potched about with the crossword until she came back. When we moved to another table, Amanda N. spotted us as we passed her table. She came over to say ‘hello’, and I introduced them. Amanda and I had a brief conversation before she went back to her drink.
Immediately my friend started to protest that I hadn’t introduced them. I replied that I had. On many occasions with one person in particular I’ve been left standing around like a spare cock at an orgy while she dives into conversation with someone she knows, without my presence even being acknowledged. It’s common courtesy to at least allow the new arrival know the other person’s name. But does it need to go any further than that?
After all, if you’re sitting with someone in a pub, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re friends. It’s hardly necessary to say, ‘John, this is my friend Fred.’ Or am I wrong? Is there really any need to summarise the person’s whole biography when they’re only making a fleeting acquaintance?
So I asked her how she’d have liked me to have introduced her to Amanda. As my non-girlfriend? As a Christian? As a beautiful woman whom I’d like to sleep with? As a pisshead? Or as someone with a life-threatening illness which preys on her mind but which doesn’t define her in my eyes? I asked her if that’s how she chooses to define herself. She got angry because I’d raised the subject of her health – even though I don’t think we’ve ever had a conversation without the topic cropping up. I told her I hadn’t mentioned it to Amanda, because there was no need to.
She obviously isn’t happy with her own identity, because just being identified by her first name (and therefore implicitly as a friend) had upset her too. I asked her if she was jealous because I’d been talking to another woman. She got tearful then, and started making extremely personal remarks about me. It was clear that I was in a no-win situation. I drank up and left her to her own devices.
Strangely enough, earlier in the day I’d spoken to C— for the first time since she failed to turn up for our trip to Pontypridd. Actually, let me rephrase that: we had a discreet but rather bitter argument when she walked into the pub. She told me I shouldn’t have said the things I’d said in Not Born Beautiful. She said I didn’t know her friends, and wasn’t in any position to make judgements about them. I replied that not only did I not know them – I didn’t want to know them. Don’t forget, I knew plenty of people like them twenty-five years ago, when I started drinking in the Carpenters. I haven’t seen any of them for years. I know for a fact that a good percentage of them are dead. We were never friends. They were just people I saw around town. They were never a part of my life, and it makes no difference to my life to know they’re no longer around. Now, there’s a whole new generation of lowlife in town. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
So, on Saturday night, back in my local, I deleted and blocked these two self-styled Christian women from my Facebook Friends List. I don’t think we’ve got any more to say to each other any more. I put a status update to that effect on there as well. I was half-expecting my friend the poet to take issue with me the following day, but he didn’t say anything. It doesn’t matter to me. My own sense of personal identity is secure. People who don’t know me can draw whatever conclusions they like. I don’t need to label myself. There are enough fuckwits around who do, without knowing the first thing about me. Leave them to it. Maybe in years to come, one of my friends can make a decent stab of writing my biography. But please don’t even think of doing it before that before the ink’s dry on my death certificate.

¹  2001 Census of Population: First result for religion. Statistical Bulletin 34/2003 (Cardiff: Statistical Directorate, National Assembly for Wales.)


One thought on “Identity Crisis”

  1. There’s an amusing postscript to the whole Welsh nicknames issue, which occurred to me this morning. I need to tell it in reverse order for it to make sense.

    There’s a middle-aged chap in Aberdare (I know him by sight) who used to drive a real old-school Morris Minor, with the two flat panels of glass at the front, instead of the curved glass which was introduced on later models
    Anyway, I was in the pub in Aberdare a few years ago with some older pals, when the chap walked past the window. Deano nudged Mike and said, “Look – there’s Malcolm Split Windscreen.”

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