The title of Christopher Meredith’s 1985 debut novel refers to both the monotonous patterns of working class life and the changes to such routines that remain forever beyond the control of the people whose lives come to be defined by them. In a country famous for coalmining, and a Heads of the Valleys region more famous in the literary world for the romances of Alexander Cordell, Shifts is the novel of the declining steel industry. Moreover, the year of its setting – 1977 – confirms its ostensibly undramatic events as a kind of full stop, the last dregs of the industrial South Wales that had existed for at least a century and a half, about to turn into something else.
Focusing on four characters bound together by the closure of the steel plant in the town – unnamed but quite possibly Meredith’s native Tredegar – Shifts is a study in how men and women are forced by circumstance to take control of their own destinies, even if sometimes it seems they are determined to let life pass them by. Jack Priday is the protagonist; recently returned to Wales after some years spent in Norfolk and Lancashire, he is attempting to rebuild his life a couple of valleys over from his original home, like a ‘salmon coming home to spawn.’ Jack lodges first with Connie, a middle-aged widow, but then settles with his workmate and former schoolfriend Keith, a local history enthusiast now married to Judith, herself seeking a new way forward when familiar routines are dislocated. And then there is Rob – known mysteriously as ‘O’ – bullied at work and seeming to symbolise the great emptiness in all of the characters’ lives; it is O who both opens and closes the novel, forcing us to consider issues of circularity and time, life and death, being and nothingness.
Meredith’s achievement is a significant one – easily ranking as a Great Welsh Novel – not only because of the skilful way that he combines these grand themes with humour and pathos. An unshowy understated quality marks the prose throughout and despite its depth and complexity, Shifts is a down-to-earth book in keeping with its humble environs, great also because of Meredith’s fine ear for dialect and the basic ingredients of character, setting and plot. Keith’s interest in local history is just one way in which the author subtly layers the humdrum events of the actual story with resonance and complexity; here too is Meredith’s chance to explore the shifts at the beginning of the industrial age and with a deftness of touch play the birth of the town out against what seem to be its death throes.
It is no wonder that the New York Times Book Review said of Shifts that ‘the prose is spare and poetic, at once plain and rich, musical in its rhythm of speech and clear description.’ It is a perfect critical encapsulation of Meredith’s style that also belies the essential Welshness at the book’s core. Like very great novels, the power of Shifts is to evoke universal themes in a believably rendered microcosmic reality. When Jack talks of his former life in Accrington, it seems to Keith like ‘the ends of the earth’. He and Judith cannot afford to heat the house; some of the central storyline’s persistent sexual tension arises from their getting changed in front of the two-bar electric heater in the living room. Meredith captures perfectly the reality of life in what many might be tempted to call late 1970s working class Britain. But his canvas is not nearly so wide. It stretches, geographically, from the steelworks to the unheated house, from the town’s pubs up onto ‘the tops’ where the long-dead victims of cholera and poverty lie undisturbed by time or memory; timewise, it lasts a single season: as the plant closes down, the winter thaws.
Shifts perfectly approximates the precise sub-dialect of Blaneau Gwent. It is all ‘en’ for ‘isn’t’, the redundant auxiliary ‘do’ and frequent use of ‘bastard’ as an adjective. In addition to accent, and the mercilessly cruel and foulmouthed banter of the workplace (‘bastard’, I can assure you, is mild), Meredith draws on his own experiences as a steelworker to deliver a strikingly realistic picture of a world we rarely see in fiction:
…the blast furnaces, the open hearth, the scrap bay, the coke ovens, all recently shut and decaying, and then the parts still working; the hot mill, slabyard, galv, pickler, cold mill, tinning lines, and all the other departments servicing these; boiler shop, sling shop, shoe shop, medical centre, garages, offices, railway lines, bridges…
But Shifts isn’t simply a work of gritty realism, nor is it a kitchen sink drama (although there is plenty of careful detail that paints a picture of the everyday); there is a thread of symbolism running through the novel that lifts it, wholesale, out of the read-once-and-always-remember category of classic to the lofty position I am claiming for it today. As Richard Poole points out in his ‘Afterword’ to the Seren Classics edition, beneath the text’s ‘seemingly plain skin beats an ambitious symbolist heart’; it is a novel ripe for academic interrogation not only because of its historical, cultural, psychological and linguistic specificities – its brilliantly evoked microcosm of time and place at a (dis)juncture in the region’s, and the nation’s history – but also because of its rich, highly patterned, subtext. Apart from all of that, it’s a great, engrossing, read.
So, if as a nation we seek to venerate a book that helps us understand ourselves and our circumstances, and that uses the novel’s power to investigate the psychological fallout of socio-historical trauma while at the same time being skip-along readable and viciously funny, let’s stop the search here. The book is Shifts.