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.
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.’
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.