Was your first interest in Galicia as a place or as a culture?
I was vaguely aware of Galicia as a corner of Spain from the late 1980s and early 1990s, from my studies at school and into the summer of 1992 before I went to university. I can remember reading Ian Gibson’s Fire in the Blood and seeing a beautiful colour photograph of the bateas in some ría, probably Vigo, and thinking how beautiful the image was. Within months of starting the degree at Birmingham, we had all identified David Mackenzie as some sort of Galicianist ambassador. He seemed to be permanently escorted everywhere by two Galicians, who were lectores rather than bodyguards in the employ of the Xunta, and was always making references to that quirky, rainy place up there by the Atlantic. I was encouraged to spend my Erasmus year, or third year of my undergraduate degree, in Santiago de Compostela by my best friend, who then as now knew me better than I knew myself. I went to Salamanca instead, because of love. Only that love didn’t last, and into 1995 I had more time on my hands, and so with the same best friend drove up to Santiago one bright February day. The photograph of us stood outside the cathedral as the last rays of the autumn sun strike its facade is a cherished possession, and memory. I think it was then that I fell in love with at least one love of my life. A brief three-day tour followed, and we wound our way down through the Rías Baixas, leaving Galicia via Vigo. I knew that something had irrevocably changed in my life. Back in Birmingham to finish off my degree and hopefully launch into doctoral research, a meeting with Derek Flitter, who by then I am proud to say had begun to play the role of an intellectual mentor, furnished my first contact with Ramón Otero Pedrayo. And barely an hour after that meeting I met a girl from Vigo with whom I fell in love, and that took me through my years in Oxford under the kind, wise and generous guidance of John Rutherford. Galicia, more than any other place with which I have been associated in my life, has provided me with the greatest number of moments when you are undoubtedly aware of your life changing in front of you, as you speak, xa! It’s what I call ‘accidental destiny’, and I am proud to be a sufferer.
How much does the cultural thinking of people like Castelao and Ramón Otero Pedrayo bear on the Galicia of today?
I think a lot less than their champions would have us believe, and a lot more than their critics would care or dare to recognise. They are a reference point, to state the obvious, and cannot be ignored. They constructed, literally and literarily, the cultural coordinates for an updated reading of Galician identity, but did so of course through the medium of their own aesthetic and political codes of preference, and prejudice. We owe them a great deal, but it is healthy to deconstruct all things, and they should not be an exception to that rule: modern Galician culture will be all the more robust for casting a cold eye upon sacred cows, and possibly for making the odd parrillada out of one or two.
What is the role of Galician Studies in places like Cardiff?
Wales is a periphery, and Cardiff its capital. The presence of Galicia, another Atlantic periphery, in the university and the city is testament to both the appeal of Galician culture, and the need for broad representation of the cultural and linguistic diversity to be found under the umbrella of nation states. Wales and Galicia have much to learn from each other, and I am delighted to play an ongoing role in that process whose promise is immense.
What do you hope can be achieved during your time as president of the International Association of Galician Studies?
We seek to make the AIEG a truly international and multidisciplinary organisation in all aspects: membership, practice, scope and of course ambition. As the only overarching association centred upon Galician Studies in the world, the AIEG needs to embrace and champion all intellectual activity that takes place through the medium of Galician, or which relates in some form or other to Galician reality, past, present and future. On a much more practical note, we are carefully revising many of the AIEG’s internal mechanisms and processes, to ensure that the foundations are laid for the organisation to function to the best of its ability throughout the XXI century. One such measure, which may not seem so important, but which has allowed us to communicate with a large amount of people in a short space of time, is the AIEG Facebook site. Finally, I would like to say that if the formidable team that is the current AIEG executive fulfils but half of its goals, then it will have done a magnificent job. The conference in Cardiff, September 2012, will be a celebration open to all.
If you had to choose a Galician town, book and dish, what would they be?
‘And what would yours be…?’ The trickiest question comes at the end, and it’s one of the trickiest that I have ever had to answer. I’m doomed to failure with my answer one way or another, because many friends will be put out with my choices. I love Ribadeo, Betanzos and Vigo passionately, and am increasingly enjoying my time spent in A Coruña. But there can only be one, and all roads lead to Santiago. The book has to be Sempre na Galiza, a ramshackle collage of an opus which is truly unique, if only for its often brief but moving passages about the author’s love of his lost homeland, and its overwhelming moral argument for the right of anyone or anything to determine its own destiny. The dish, to be very specific, has to be polbo á grella in the Dezaseis. I try to go there once every time that I am in town.
Thank you for talking to us!