Reading Welsh short stories for the #dewithon19 – Part 2

You might still be wondering, what is Cath’s favourite story in The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories? Seems like she may have been watching too many Netflix series, the way she slipped that tantalising hint into the end of her Welsh short stories post three weeks ago. Darn it, does this mean there could be more cliff-hangers?

No. Relax. This is a two-parter. Paula Bardell-Hedley’s excellent hash-tag dewithon 19 only lasts to the end of March. It’s been fun reading along, but for me, it ends today with Catherine Merriman’s, Barbecue.

The story was first published in The New Welsh Review, in 1992. If that seems a little dated, I should mention that The 2nd Penguin…Welsh Short Stories was published in 1993, so it was pretty contemporary at that point.

Here’s a gang of bikers, cruising the Welsh mountains in their leathers, all counter-culture and looking-like trouble. They’d certainly raise some wary hackles if they came cruising through most villages or small towns.

Not a soul on the mountain but we can’t open up the bikes for the hordes of sheep dawdling on the tarmac, bleating and giving us the idiot eye. They’ve got half a county of moorland to roam across, up here, but as usual they’re ignoring it. Mitch reckons it’s definite proof of over-civilization, when even the sheep are scared of getting lost.

Do you see that? Mindless thugs, or maybe not quite who we expected?

At the start it’s not clear where the story will go. There’s a barbecue being planned, ‘back at the field‘, by Dai. Earlier though, before the story started, Jaz was beaten up by a couple of lads from Tredegar who are after his Guzzi, as compensation for a bike-sale that went wrong.

Sharp little face, Jaz had, when they last saw him. Looks like a plum pudding now.

Then the other half of our narrator’s gang turn up. They’ve been staying in their bus at a festival, and got into trouble coming back through Bristol. The driver, Wayne, says:

‘This publican, he won’t serve us ‘cos he says we’re a coach party. So I backed over his fence, accidental like, on the way out. The cops had us for criminal damage. Got a conditional discharge.’

Jaz wonders how many hospital visits it takes to cure a conditional discharge and I tell Wayne how Dai….wants the bus back pronto.

The story is packed with information, coming in from all angles, but it’s clearly told. There’s a nice mix of conversation, description and action. So I settle on the back of the narrator’s Z1000 in the Saturday sunshine, taking in the scenery, as…

We set off up the mountain and at the top I’m in front, revelling in the way the Z1000 powers up the gradients, when I see a dead sheep, lying at the side of the road. Fair-sized corpse, but definitely a lamb, not one of the scrawny ewes.

I flag the others down. There’s no one else on the road.

‘This fella weren’t here when we came across,’ I say. ‘Did you see him?’

‘He weren’t here,’ says Mitch. ‘We’d have noticed.’

Jaz props the Guzzi and squats down to take a dekko. Barbecue, I’m beginning to think.

‘How long you reckon he’s been dead?’ I say.

Once the three lads have established how fresh it is (and really, you have to read that bit!), it’s only a question of how to get the body home without anyone noticing.

We can’t cruise into town with a dead tup behind us, even with a jacket on it won’t fool anyone.

Our boys may operate in the shadow of the law, but there are rules.
Wayne and the narrator seem to agree that something needs to be done for Jaz.

…it’s out of order to thump a lad, and want his bike off him as well.

Jaz, it turns out, is feeling rougher than we noticed.

He’s suddenly looking very weary. He’s holding his shoulders funny, and where the side of his helmet’s been pressed against his cheek-bone it’s made a dent in one of the purple bruises.

It’s not accidental that it’s taken until now for that to sink in. Our narrator has been delivering such a lot of other distracting material, all at the same time, that we may have become as complacent as he has been.

I’m not giving the game away if I say the two lads from Tredegar are perfect villains. They are focused on their goal, forcing our protagonists to act. I’m so caught up by the stylish narration, by the swift shifts in tone and the vivid dialogue I accept them.

This is a story where style carries us along. The narrative voice is chatty, and layered with humour.

The question of how to convey class or background through speech is tricky. Make it too colloquial and it creates difficulties for the reader, taking attention away from the story as we struggle to make sense of abbreviations and implied intonations. Merriman uses the arrangement of the sentences and some strongish language, rather than dropped consonants or vowels.

To tell you more would deliver spoilers. This is a tightly woven story, a mere ten pages long. It never falters. The pace slows and speeds, but doesn’t hesitate.

Have you tried reading pre-historical-fiction yet?

This is a genre that fascinates me. How did our very early ancestors live? What kind of value system did they use, and how did they communicate it? Author and blogger, Jacqui Murray explores these questions, and more, in the first book of her new Crossroads trilogy, Survival of The Fittest.

At the centre of the story is Xhosa, a young tribes-woman. ‘”Females weren’t warriors”, but Xhosa has hidden skills and a driving ambition, and in a world where only those who are strong survive, that’s just as well…

Five tribes. One leader. A treacherous journey across three continents in search of a new home.

Chased by a ruthless and powerful enemy, Xhosa flees with her People, leaving behind a certain life in her African homeland to search for an unknown future. She leads her People on a grueling journey through unknown and dangerous lands but an escape path laid out years before by her father as a final desperate means to survival. She is joined by other homeless tribes–from Indonesia, China, South Africa, East Africa, and the Levant—all similarly forced by timeless events to find new lives. As they struggle to overcome treachery, lies, danger, tragedy, hidden secrets, and Nature herself, Xhosa must face the reality that this enemy doesn’t want her People’s land. He wants to destroy her.

Question about the book for Jacqui: How did Xhosa count?

Xhosa and her People also had no need for counting. This is true even today with primitive people. Many count only to two (which is the method I’ve adopted for Xhosa). Beyond that, numbers may be described as handfuls or how much room they occupy in relation to something else. Counting people was unnecessary because all Xhosa had to do was sniff, find everyone’s scent, or notice whose she couldn’t find.

Book information:

Title: Survival of the Fittest

Series: Book 1 in the Crossroads series, part of the Man vs. Nature saga

Genre: Prehistoric fiction

Cover by: Damonza 

Available at: Kindle USKindle UKKindle CAKindle AU

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for TeachHUB and NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Quest for Home, Summer 2019. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

I’d like to recommend: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.

Sadly, my title is not a new form of weather forecasting, it’s the title of a Julia Strachey novella, first published in 1932. It was republished by Persephone Books in 2009, and I admit that it was for that reason I pounced on this one when I spotted it in the charity shop. In my experience, Persephone seek out interesting literature for their re-prints.

Otherwise, I might have hesitated about that title. One thing I’m not keen on is sentimentality, and in my experience that’s what wedding plots so often are. Still, it’s a short book, only a hundred and fifteen pages with wide margins, and since I’ve learned that I don’t have to finish every story I start I’m happier to take reading-risks, so I bought it.

Which brings me to the first lesson I’ve been reminded of since reading this. Never jump to conclusions about a title until you’ve had time to think about it from several angles.

It’s tough getting titles right. Good ones create a balance between suggesting what might be included, and never quite pinning down where the plot will take you. Strachey, it turns out, created a peach of peaches with this one. The more I think about it, the more shades of irony I perceive.

Take that adjective, cheerful. Isn’t it an unusual choice to go with weather? Particularly since the morning opens, we’re told on the first page, ‘grey and cold’. Oh yes, it does get sunny later, but the setting is early spring.

A kind of brassy yellow sunlight flooded all the garden. The arms of the bushes were swinging violently about in a really savage wind. the streaked ribbons from a bush of pampas-grass, immediately outside the door, streamed outwards in all directions. this bush remained squashed down as flat as a pancake to the level of the gravel terrace in a curious way, and it looked unnatural, as if a heavy, invisible person must be sitting down on top of it.

If there’s one thing I like in a story, it’s contradictions between what’s being said, and what’s shown. This is a story that is layered with misdirection. Oh, there is a wedding organised for that day. The opening paragraph gives us a little more information than a notice in the Times would have:

On March 5th Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her eldest daughter, Dolly, who was twenty-three years old, to the Hon. Owen Bigham. He was eight years older than she was, and in the Diplomatic Service.

On the surface, this is straightforward information. We are looking at the middle-classes.

Here though, is lesson number two: the wedding might be the main event, but the first character we meet is not the bride, it’s her mother. I knew, right then, that I was going to enjoy this narrator.

What this straightforward manner delivers is the between-the-lines bits that any socially aware reader of the paper would have known. Mrs Thatcham, I perceive, is a force. The Hon. Owen is a ‘catch’ and I’m immediately wondering why Dolly is marrying him.

The next paragraph reveals that ‘It had been a short engagement, as engagements are supposed to go – only a month’, and now I sense secrets. That these two do marry, I have no doubt, since the narrator is using the past tense. But something, I soon realise is to be learned between five minutes past nine, when the story starts, and ‘Dolly, on her way through the drawing-room to breakfast, ran into Millman, the middle-aged parlourmaid‘ and the actual ceremony.

What happens, and doesn’t happen, in the course of a few hours is beautifully described. Here is economical writing. It reminds me of a Katherine Mansfield story, The Garden Party. The detail is precise, and illuminating, the characterisation light, and yet devastating. This picture of middle-class respectability is not kind, though it is subtle.

In the preface, Frances Partridge says that Strachey admired Chekhov, James, Proust and Groucho Marx. Yes, I can see how that works.

Reading Welsh short stories for the #dewithon19

The hash-tag-dewithon19 is a month long celebration of Welsh writing organised by Paula Bardell-Hedley on her Bookjotter blog. Being Welsh is not part of the criteria for joining in, which is just as well, because I have always lived on the English side of the border.

I’m a neighbour, the kind who gazes over the fence, or should I say, river, and admires the differences that a few miles makes to point-of-view. I’m a visitor, who drifts through towns, cities, villages, valleys and beaches wondering what it must be like to inhabit such communities full-time, and then finds some of the answers between the covers of The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories edited by Alun Richards.

These twenty-eight stories span the twentieth century, and a range of Welsh landscapes and experiences and story techniques. Together, they begin to provide answers to a question I often ask myself, what makes a nation?

In Good-For-Nothing, by Dic Tryfan, a story translated from the Welsh by Dafydd Rowlands, Harri Huw wakes up at five in the morning in the quarry.

…there was no one in the quarry except him. He shouldn’t have been there either, but when a man wakes from a drunken stupor at the roadside, before the world has roused itself, he naturally goes to the place he loves best. And Harri Huw’s idea of heaven was the level at the bottom of Coed Quarry.

Photo by Taff George, on Wikimedia

The story was first published in 1915, but I only found that out much later. The events, and the characters, are timeless. When his young workmate arrives, their exchange is economical and telling:

‘You’ve been at it again, haven’t you?’ said the lad reproachfully.

‘Yes, Dic bach,’ answered Harri, with a touch of remorse in his voice.

‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’

‘Yes, I am, boy.’

‘You’re worse than a pig.’

‘Yes I am, aren’t I?’

‘Yes, I’ll say you are. Go home and change your clothes. You’ve torn your jacket. Your mam will be angry.’

‘Yes, she will, won’t she?’

When I get stuck working out a story, I turn to stories like this and learn again how tightly woven a great short story is. No word is wasted, yet the humanity and tension contained in seven pages wrings my heart-strings.

Blodwen, on the other hand, by Rhys Davies warns us never to take anyone for granted. First published in 1955, it’s small-town setting examines the trappings of respectability. Blodwen, who is a ‘fine, handsome young woman of twenty-five, all her body handsome and well-jointed,’ is engaged to Oswald, the son of a local solicitor. ‘He came to her as though to a meal.

All is set up for a good marriage. Their parents approve, and no one seems to mind that Blodwen is generally bad-tempered, except Pugh Jibbons, the grocer who brings fresh fruit and veg to town on a cart pulled by a donkey .

He was a funny-looking fellow. A funny fellow. Perhaps there was a gypsy strain in him. He was of the Welsh who have not submitted to industrialism, Nonconformity or imitation of the English. He looked as though he had issued from a cave in the mountains.

It’s a story with a plot, but it’s predominantly an examination of character. That’s the lesson of all the stories in this collection. There are plots in abundance, dealing with a full gamut of emotions, from rebellion to love, from remorse to jealousy to isolation, but at the heart of each, are rounded, breathing, complicated characters.

Just in case we miss that point, there’s A Story, by Dylan Thomas, told with beautiful excess by a child narrator:

I was staying at the time with my uncle and his wife. Although she was my aunt, I never thought of her as anything but the wife of my uncle, partly because he was so big and trumpeting and red-hairy and used to fill every inch of the hot little house like an old buffalo squeezed into an airing cupboard, and partly because she was so small and silk and quick and made no noise at all as she whisked about on padded paws, dusting the china dogs, feeding the buffalo, setting the mousetraps that never caught her…But there he was, always, a streaming hulk of an uncle, his braces straining like hawsers, crammed behind the counter of the tiny shop at the front of the house, and breathing like a brass band…

It’s not, perhaps, a style to emulate without great care, and yet to read it, to give oneself up to the excesses, is like entering one of those warm, noisy Welsh pubs where all of life is lived at full speed and volume. Although it’s titled, A Story, the narrator begins with a disingenuous disclaimer: ‘If you can call it a story.‘ he says. ‘There’s no real beginning or end and there’s very little in the middle. It’s all about a day’s outing, by charabanc, to Porthcawl, which, of course, the charabanc never reached, and it happened when I was so high and much nicer.’

1927 charabanc

Do not be misled. Our wide-eyed narrator is playing us for fools. There’s smoke before his mirror. This sense filled picture of early twentieth century Welshness is a glimpse into another age and culture, by another age and culture. Which just goes to prove another valuable point, never underestimate the importance of a title.

There, you see? Each time I dip into this lovely selection I discover something valuable about writing short fiction. No wonder it holds it’s place in convenient reaching distance of my office chair, and I haven’t even mentioned my favourite story, yet.