Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Column, February 1, 2005

I WONDER when it was that Wales became the international yardstick of things that are quite big?
What did the ancient Greeks do when they stumbled upon another of their interminable islands and needed to report its size to their fellow citizens?
As Alexander conquered vast tracts of land how was their area expressed?
Until Wales was mapped and its size decided the world was stumbling round in the dark for a handy comparison.
It’s no use using the number of football pitches something is as big as, once you’ve got past half a dozen or so it’s meaningless.
No, when it comes to size, your object is only truly on the map when it’s been compared to the size of Wales.
I’ve mentioned this before, particularly the insidious creep of countries like Belgium as a measure of size – a step too far towards metrication and wholly to be resisted.
Reader Alison Jones e-mails with the latest use of the size of Wales:
“From time to time we see Wales used as a handy comparison to give an idea of the size of something. You, yourself have commented on this rather questionable habit. Why not turn it into a competition to see who can find the most ludicrous example. I would like to start the ball rolling with something heard on BBC2 last week. The programme was 'Sweeney Investigates.....Roman Abramovitch' Apparently, Siberia has an oilfield the size of Wales.”
A whole oilfield the size of Wales? Once the English discovered a coalfield the size of Wales which they exploited for centuries – ah, no, that was Wales.
It has to be said that at least Alison’s oilfield is something useful.
Usually the things that are the size of Wales are rather bad – such as asteroids poised to plummet into Earth extinguishing all life; or areas of rainforest that are burnt down every day; causing global warming which leads to icebergs breaking off Antarctica which are…you’re ahead of me aren’t you…the size of Wales.
The irony is that such is Wales’s success in cornering the market for expressions of ‘ooh isn’t that big’ that it is used the world over, often by people who could not even point to Wales on a map, never mind know how big it actually is.
So let’s look at few examples of just how useful Wales has become to people who have found an object 20,000km² but don’t know to tell people just how big that is.
Well as I said, bad news can dominate, so when an earthquake struck Gujarat in 2001, it was almost inevitable that the area affected, as GlobalEye, the website of the Department of International Development, confirmed, would the size of Wales.
The Environment Investigation Agency was very concerned a few years back when forest fires threatened Indonesia’s Orangutans, particularly given the area of forest that was burning down – yep, big as Wales.
The battlefields of Normandy covered an area the size of Wales.
In the USA, where they are a good deal more tolerant of GM crops than we are, an area the size of Wales is under cultivation growing mutant veg.
When the Government was spicing up its dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, much was made of the fact that Iraq was said to have enough chemical warfare agents to contaminate an area the size of Wales. That’s a lot of chemical warfare agent, strange how none of it was about when we actually invaded.
We do get our revenge now an then for being used as the bearer of bad tidings – the Campaign to Protect Rural England calculates that the tranquil countryside lost in England over the past 30 years is about the size of its neighbour.
But perhaps the use of Wales to portray the size of whatever nemesis is approaching, be it deforestation or asteroids, is all for the good. There is no such thing as bad publicity and the use of Wales keeps us there in the public consciousness. No-one after all, talks about icebergs the size of England now do they?
So perhaps we should embrace it and use it ourselves in our day-to-day measurements.
If you want to, the very handy website can help you do just that with an online calculator to tell you how many Waleses your object is as big as.
So let’s look for a bright side in all this.
Is anyone out there using Wales as a comparison with something good?
Well, historians looking for the fabled utopian land of Shangri La now believe it is a remote part of China that was once known as Muli, and you can guess for yourselves how big it is.
But my own favourite usage comes from the Scotch Whisky Review website which informs us that Diageo has some 7m barrels of the stuff maturing – enough to flood an area the size of Wales. What a way to go.

IT is, as I said last week, rather galling to be told a Welsh accent holds you back when most English people don’t know a Welsh accent in all its varied intonations.
But Jean Parry writes in with some encouraging experiences of her own:
“I enjoyed your article today in the Daily Post. Coming from Flintshire I have the same problem. Some people think I have a scouse accent, which is nonsense.
Some years ago we were on the Norfolk Broads and we visited Norwich. A lady stopped us she was doing some kind of survey.
Straight away she asked us were we from Flintshire, I was very impressed and then she said “You’re both from the Mold area.” You can imagine our surprise.
Apparently she was researching local dialects and she worked in Mold for a time and pinpointed us immediately.
That was a good experience because I knew then that we had a regional accent.
A similar experience happened to us in New Zealand last year.
When we were in Christchurch a waitress asked us which part of North Wales we were from and this occurred in another part of New Zealand.
It’s a shame that some people (English in particular) don't pick up these nuances.”

ONE of the delights of the world wide web is the truly barmy sites that get set up.
People who one had to confine themselves to shouting their lunatic views on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park now have a potential audience of millions at the click of a mouse.
And it is the backwaters of the Net that you find some of the strangest sites.
This week I was beside myself with glee to find a website that proves Jesus was Welsh.
Well, if not quite Welsh, because after all we know he wasn’t born here, then Welsh enough to play for Wales.
More of this, quite frankly, divine website next week.

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