Dai Smith offers a convincing account of why he believes Raymond Williams’ Border Country should be crowned the Greatest Welsh Novel.
In a prefatory note to the first publication of his novel, Border Country (1960), Raymond Williams wrote ‘I know this country’. He meant, in a specific sense the Welsh border country between England and Wales, and even more particularly Pandy where he was born and raised, and Abergavenny where he went to school before Cambridge in 1939. Yet, more generally we can also take that professed ‘knowledge’ to encompass his understanding of the inter-relationship of countries of the mind, of culture as given and community as lived, between generations, across what is settled and that which is in flux; in short the nature of living in a world where time and space, here through industrialisation, have to be re-negotiated generation by generation if they are to function for us rather than to make human beings the ciphers of their functioning.
Is this novel that profound in intention? My answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. Does it succeed by bodying out its chosen time and space with such an undeniable skill of characterisation that its fictional lives carry such a weight onto the page, and on into our consciousness? Another thunderous ‘Yes’. And as for Wales, if the novel form, above all others, cannot convey the textual stitching of the individual life and the collective world of working-class society then it does not speak for the forces that shaped most of us most of the time and all of us some of the time during our turbulent last century. Border Country does all of that, and more. To the escapology of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers our own greatest 20th century intellectual figure counterposes the demonstrable commitment which validates values across generations, as in Border Country, and forever links those who have been to those who will be.
The son in question here is Matthew Price, or Will as he is known at home, the only child of a railway signalman and his wife, Harry and Ellen, who has become a University lecturer in London. His research work is ‘on population movements into the Welsh mining valleys in the middle decades of the nineteenth century’. His concern is that the measurer may indeed learn how to measure, but that to measure is not, in itself, sufficient if lives, and how they were lived, are themselves the real question:
The techniques I have learned have the solidity and precision of ice cubes, while a given temperature is maintained. But it is a temperature I can’t really maintain; the door of the box keeps flying open. It’s hardly a population movement from Glynmawr to London, but it’s a change of substance, as it must also have been for them when they left their villages. And the ways of measuring this are not only outside my discipline. They are somewhere else altogether, that I can feel, but not handle, touch but not grasp. To the nearest hundred, or to any usable percentage, my single figure is indifferent, but it is not only a relevant figure: without it the change can’t be measured at all. The man on the bus, the man in the street, but I am Price from Glynmawr, and here, understandably, that means very little. You get it through Gwenton. Yes, they say the gateway of Wales. Yes, border country.
And that will be Williams’ justification for his writing a novel as a part, an essential but related part, of his whole work project: to restore the consciousness to working class communities who were shaped by cultural and social, political and economic, factors beyond themselves but who responded with individual dignity and collective creativity. In Border Country we are shown the why and the how of it in the lives of de-racinated Matthew Price and the settlement Harry and Ellen have made. After Matthew, now become Will again, is called back to the bedside of a terminally ill Harry, the novel takes us via flashback to the first arrival in Glynmawr of the newly married couple after the First World War. As a signalman Harry will be at, and precisely so, the junction box between industrial and rural Wales, passing coal-laden trains through into England, in communication via this technology, even from an idyllic rural spot, with his work-mate peers elsewhere. At the heart of this, and of Will’s growing up and schooling, will be the General Strike of May 1926 and the unprecedented support from the whole of the organised working class which was accorded to the miners in their national strike and lock-out. The social significance of this event, the nearest thing to a revolution which 20th century Britain saw, is re-told by Williams with quietly insistent subtlety as he plays off the instinctive fellow-feeling of Harry, and others, for the cause against the more overt, politicised demands made by a fellow-signalman, Morgan Rosser. Harry will lose his job. Rosser, fire-breathing socialist, will become an entrepreneur in soft fruits and jams. Williams uses incident and dialogue to point up tensions, not to deliver sermons. Lives continue to slower rhythms after the strike but there is no mistaking the tow of the undercurrent the strike has released. Matthew’s later career, in post-war Britain, is an unspoken echo of the earlier generation’s cultural triumph even in political defeat.
Raymond Williams brilliantly sets what is tumultuous, and life-changing, against a background that is, in landscape terms, lyrically evoked:
In the spring of 1926, in Glynmawr, the green of the meadows was fresh and cool, and the blossom was white in the orchards, and on the thorns and crabs in the hedges. Along the banks of the roads the violets were hidden in overgrowing leaves, but the primroses were out, though not so thickly as on the banks of the railway, where they flowered most richly, as if the cuttings and embankments had been made for them. All over the valley, and far up on the mountains, innumerable birds sang and flew. The Honddu was high, as it had been since midwinter. The low-lying cottages near the river had already been flooded.
Here was the ordinary history of the valley, sheltered and almost isolated under its dark mountains. But now, with this May Day, a different history exerted its pressures, and reached, with the railway line, even this far. The troubled years of strike and lock-out, which had affected the village only slightly, moved now to their crisis, and touched this valley under its lonely mountains… Up beyond the mountains, little more than ten miles from this farming valley, lay the different valleys, where the pits and the colliers’ houses were crowded. At dusk, above Darren, the glow of the steel furnace spread up each evening into the sky, and many turned now to watch it more seriously, and to think of the black valleys that lay hidden beyond. There was the trouble, that the eye could almost see, and in the papers the trouble was recorded, to be read in the sun of mid morning among flowers and blossoming trees.
The whole novel is a rebuttal of pastoralism as any kind of comforting genre, and in Welsh terms as a far too frequent literary companion. Everywhere, in its almost complete absence of simile and metaphor, it eschews efflorescence in its prose and fantasy in its steadily paced narration. Yet it shines with descriptive luminosity of place and tender empathy for the inner lives of its characters and their fraught relationships. With Harry’s death, Mathew will return to his work, and to his necessarily new and different life, but the knowledge he will now have, from memory and from experience, of ‘this country’ will indeed inform all that he is and all that he will do. He tells Susan, his wife in London:
‘…I remember when I first left there, and watched the valley from the train. In a way, I’ve only just finished that journey.’
‘It was bound to be a difficult journey.’
‘Yes, certainly. Only now it seems like the end of exile. Not going back, but the feeling of exile ending. For the distance is measured, and that is what matters. By measuring the distance, we come home.’
Raymond Williams’ first, and best, novel had taken him over a decade to write and several versions to complete. He finished it in 1958, the year he published his path breaking critical work Culture and Society. He always considered Border Country’s appearance in 1960 as a delayed twinned birth. As I showed in my biographical study of his life and work, Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale (2008), he was right to insist upon that and upon the bridge that connected the general or universal to the specific or local. He wanted both to explain and to show how men and women, caught in the great climate of events, also made their own weather by giving expression to their individual identities and common humanity in the places and over the times in which they lived. The ambition, make no mistake, was huge. The triumph, no less. This is a novel which in its implicit comparisons reaches out from Wales to the wider world. Its grasp of its subject on the ground of the page translates, from Wales, for that world of readers which Border Country has found, the meaning for individual human lives of the deep patterns he had discerned through his ground-clearing intellectual enquiry. It is both the reach and the grasp that makes Border Country, and pre-eminently so, the Greatest Welsh Novel, and a consummate work of art.
This piece is a part of Wales Arts Review’s ‘Greatest Welsh Novel’ series.