Reviews

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Border Country by Raymond Williams
reviewed by Sarah Morse
Williams is a writer better known for his work in literary and cultural studies than his fiction, but his often over-looked novels are important texts nonetheless. Border Country, Williams’s first novel and part of a border trilogy, is the story of the experiences of Matthew Price, a London-based lecturer, on his return to his family home in Glynmawr in the Welsh Marches. His visit is prompted by his father’s poor health, and his return home causes both characters to (re)consider aspects of their lives and their relationship. Their exploration of their shared memories – especially those of the 1926 General Strike – reveals both personal histories and the social history of the mid-twentieth century Welsh nation.Borders are a central motif of the novel – it was completed at the end of the 1950s, a time when the boundaries between literary and cultural theory were becoming more permeable. Indeed, the novel itself can be seen to occupy a boundary as it stands between fiction, reality and theory – it is strongly influenced by Williams’s critical work. This is most evident in the exploration of the socialist movement in the novel – the accounts of the General Strike and the disagreements between Harry, Matthew’s father, a railway signalman, and the local entrepreneur. Further, the novel has near autobiographical elements as Matthew Price’s position as an intellectual with working-class roots echoes that of Williams himself. The novel negotiates the dilemma of such individuals: are they ‘organic’ intellectuals, emergent from their from that society who work for that society, or are they exiles, outsiders who are distanced from the political influences of their past? The position presented by the novel is that the past of the intellectual undoubtedly influences their work, but that they must write of the present of their communities from a distance. The liminal position of exile-returned is reflected in the novel in a matter central to Matthew’s identity – his name. He was registered by his father as Matthew Henry Price, despite his mother’s wish that he be named William; thus, over time Will becomes his Welsh identity, Matthew his intellectual, professional and English name.

The other significant border that permeates the novel is that between Wales and England – both the physical border as defined by maps and the metaphoric and cultural differences between the two nations, illustrated by Matthew’s experience. The importance of identity in the region is further emphasised as the Welsh Marches is a marginalized area of a marginalized nation. This, as well as Matthew’s research on migration in the nineteenth century Welsh coalfield are used by Williams to reveal how Welsh identity and social history are continually oscillating.

Although Border Country is a deep engagement with the role of the intellectual, the nature of history, Welsh identity and social change, the novel is primarily an affecting and moving consideration of the relationship between father and son and an exploration of the space between the people we once were and the people we are now.

Sarah Morse

‘HE SAT DOWN, TRYING TO BREATHE EASILY. ABOVE HIM ON THE COMPARTMENT WALL WAS THE FAMILIAR MAP. WALES, IN THIS DRAWING, LOOKED MORE THAN EVER LIKE THE HEAD OF A PIG, WITH THE EARS UP AT PWLLHELI, THE EYE AT ABERDOVEY, AND THE LONG SNOUT RUNNING OUT TO FISHGUARD, WITH PEMBROKE DOCK FOR A MOUTH. PIG-HEADED WALES THEN, IS IT? AND US AT ITS THROAT. STUBBORN, SELF-WILLED, BLIND, I’M LEAVING? NOT REALLY. NOT ALTOGETHER. WHATEVER IT IS, IT GOES WITH YOU AND COMES BACK WITH YOU. THE LINES ON THE MAP RAN OUT INTO ENGLAND, AND HE FOLLOWED THEM .’ 388-89

The Babel Guide to Welsh Literature, September 29, 2005

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So Long Hector Bebb by Ron Berry
reviewed by Sarah Morse
Ron Berry’s vivid and often brutal novel tells the story of a fictional British Champion boxer, Hector Bebb, whose life is unravelled by violence. A snapshot of 1960s Cymmer, South Wales (complete with dialects) where the people are hard-working, hard-drinking, and hard-fighting, the novel traces the effects of violence and savagery – that which is legitimised by war and by the boxing ring, as well as that which is not tolerated by a civilised society.We join Hector in training for his come-back fight, following a year long suspension for biting an opponent. His story is told through a variety of perspectives – as well as Hector’s voice, there are thirteen other narrators including his trainer and mentor, his manager, his wife, and other amateur boxers, past and present. Woven into the story of his preparations therefore, are memories of how Hector started to box, accounts of fights through the years, and an exploration of the relationships of those connected to Hector and the other members of the White Hart Boxing club.

Hector’s obsessive preparations pay off, as he wins the British Champion Middleweight title. However, the following night, Hector’s fists rob him of glory as he punches, and kills, Emlyn Winton, his wife’s lover. With the police looking for him, he says ‘So Long Hector Bebb’, adopts a new identity and becomes an outlaw like the heroes of the pulp-Western novels he reads. The violence of the boxing ring is replaced by the savagery of survival on the hills above Cymmer and Tosteg. This existence is made increasingly difficult as the landscape is undergoing a process of industrialisation – and taming – itself, by the planting of swathes of Forestry Commission conifers.

The juxtaposition of the celebrated violence of the boxing ring, and the Coldra Café punch-up is startling, and Berry uses it to reveal the fragility of social conditioning. The reactions to the assault are divided – but no-one condemns the violent act; some characters believe that Hector should have struck his wife, while others think that the act was a legitimate husband’s revenge. Each character sees violence as the only solution, revealing that they too are not as civilised as they seem. The reader is encouraged to question this standpoint through the portrayal of those who are victims of ‘legitimate’ violence, most significantly Mel Carpenter, a boxer left brain-damaged after losing a fight to Hector, and Prince Jenkin Saddler, a maimed war veteran, physically and psychologically scarred by his experience of battle. Both are now distanced from society – one in a mental hospital, the other by his solitary existence farming on the hills.

In Hector’s situation, the reactions of the community, the haunting memories of a maimed war veteran and the violence of the boxing ring, Berry illuminates the fine line that separates the supposedly civilised from the savage and demonstrates the fragility and hollowness of modern social conditioning. The barely cloaked greed, want and lasciviousness of many of the characters reveal that Hector is not the only ‘trained animal’.

Sarah Morse

‘NOW, WHEN THESE PAPERS SPLASH HECTOR’S FACE ALL OVER THEIR FRONT PAGES, CALLING HIM A BRUTAL MURDERER, I SUGGEST IT’S TIME WE MEMBERS OF THE GENERAL PUBLIC CAME TO REALISE THAT LIFE ISN’T A MONASTARY GARDEN WITH NIGHTINGALES HOPPING ABOUT THE BUSHES. FALL BACK ON POLITICS, ON RELIGION IN ANY KIND OF ARGUEMNT, AND STRAIGHT AWAY YOU FALL BACK ON MURDER. IT’S US AS WE ARE. IT’S YOU AND ME, IT’S ONE AND ALL. WE CAN DO FOR MEN, WOMEN, AND KIDS WITH PUNCHES, WITH BULLETS, BOMBS, OR BY SIGNING AUTOGRAPHS.’ 123

The Babel Guide to Welsh Literature, September 29, 2005