Experiencing the world of Raymond Williams’ Border Country for the first time
In the second of our articles marking Raymond Williams’ centenary, Gaynor Lloyd visits Border Country for the first time.
‘Where we live when we are growing up moulds our lives. We carry it with us wherever we go. It shapes us, deflects us, half-blinds us…We may have to leave home to free ourselves and see clearly, but we cannot tear ourselves away from our roots.’
I’ve come late to Border Country, Raymond Williams’ semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1960, two years before I was born. I find it remarkable that I’ve never come across it before, as its themes of journeys, political change, nature, landscape and ‘Welshness’ are ones that I embrace. Taking it at face value, it’s a simple tale, so what makes this ‘simple tale’ resonate so deeply?
The story is set in a small Welsh town, Glynmawr, which lies near to the Welsh/English border – the so-called Border country. It follows the journey, physical and emotional, of Matthew Price, a university lecturer living in London, who is researching into the movements of the population into the Welsh valleys in the nineteenth century. Matthew returns to his childhood home in Glynmawr, after his father Harry suffers a stroke, this return causing him to re-evaluate the relationship he has with his father and his ambivalent feelings towards the place in which he was born. ‘It is like that, this country; it takes you over as soon as you set foot in it.’
There are two timelines; Matthew’s perspective, as he returns to the village to visit his dying father, entwined and layered with the back-story of his father, Harry Price, who arrived at the village in 1920 with his wife, Ellen, to start a new job as signalman on the railways. We follow Harry through the birth of his son, Matthew, until he leaves for university in 1938, a timeline that includes the repercussions of the General strike of 1926, and the death of his own father.
Boundaries and journeys are a theme that weave throughout the novel: the town is situated between Wales and England, a literal and cultural divide; Harry, in his role as signalman, sits in the junction box in the County town where the trains cross between the two countries; the contrast between rural and industrial – ‘On the near side the valleys were green and wooded, but beyond that line they had blackened with pits and slagheaps and mean grey terraces.’ ; the moving up into a different class, exemplified by Harry’s friend and co-worker Morgan Rosser, a secretary of the National Railway Union, who, disillusioned, after the General Strike, sets up his own food delivery business, and by doing so, crosses over to the ‘capitalist’ side, something that he himself finds difficult, ‘It’s a different class, see Harry. Different altogether.’
Matthew’s own name echoes these divisions. Although his mother wished for him to be called William, his father christened him Matthew. He remains Will throughout his childhood years but takes the name Matthew when he travels to England. On his return to the village however, he’s still known as Will.
A premise running through the story is how we can all have various ways of experiencing the same place, and how these perceptions can alter over time and when you return. As Matthew thinks on his return, ‘He realised, as he watched, what had happened in going away. The valley as landscape had been taken, but its work forgotten.’
Landscape in all its forms, is a backdrop throughout the story, just as the mountains are a backdrop to the village. However, there is no wallowing in sentimentality, no well-worn cliches just for the sake of it. ‘…mile after mile of bracken and whin and heather, of black marsh and green springy turf, of rowan and stunted thorn and myrtle and bog-cotton…’
There is no romanticising about life either, no nostalgia for times past. Amongst the descriptions and dialogue, there’s an almost air of detachment, which allows you to see the landscape and the people for as they are, not how one might perceive or want them to be. It is what it is.
The moving relationship between Harry and his son, is the thread that binds everything together. Harry’s love for him, and his sense of doing right by him, is non-judgemental, unshakeable and as immutable as the red sandstone that the mountains are made of. It’s something that’s hinted at and because it’s written so subtly, with innuendos of feelings, it’s made more stronger, somehow. This love for him is something that Will finds difficult to recognise; when he passed his exams, his father becomes ‘extraordinarily excited,’ and he ‘… himself valued most his father’s excitement; he had never before seen him quite like this.’
When he returns to help look after Harry, he is bemused by the fact that both parents seem so grateful, and maybe surprised that he has come. And initially, he feels uncomfortable with emotions not normally spoken of, ‘his whole mind seemed a long dialogue with his father – a dialogue of anxiety and allegiance, of deep separation and deep love.’ and which Harry tries to put onto words, ‘I can’t say all I want Will. But I want you to know it’s made a world of difference, you coming.’
So why does this story hold so much appeal? And what is it about it that makes me want to read it again? Is it the story? The language? The feeling of nostalgic resonance? It’s deeper than that, I think; perhaps there’s something that appeals on a subliminal level. We’ve all journeyed, physically or mentally, and borders of many descriptions are all around us. And affection and love – which is shown and not told and could be considered another boundary or journey – is something that the Welshmen of my memory found hard to express, just like Harry and Matthew. They can cry whilst watching rugby, sing the most exquisite songs such as ‘Tydi A Roddaist,’ which brings tears to your eyes with the melancholic beauty of the notes, but saying words of love is a different thing.
Do you have to be Welsh to appreciate the nuances of the book? No, of course not; we can all have a place we feel emotionally or spiritually connected to, which may or may not be the place you were born in. For me, however, part of the pull is the ‘Welshness’ that resonates. That, and recognising at a deeper level, the people and the landscape. Williams wrote, ‘I know this country.’ and that’s what I feel too. I feel I know the people – they were the ones who coloured my childhood, and I know the landscape – although mine lies on the other side of the Black Mountains, ‘another history, and another border,’ the landscape of the Ironmaster Richard Crawshaw, whose body, under the epitaph of ‘God forgive Me’ lies alongside my own family. My parents were married from this very church, one I was named after, and my father left his village as Will did, hoping for a different life. My memories know the wind that helped to mould the same mountains, the mists of purple heather that envelope the slopes, shielding the buttercup-yellow stars of Tormentil that push their tiny way through the mat of sheep-pruned grass, the call of the returning buzzards, caught on a quarried breeze.
Maybe the story carries with it that feeling of hiraeth, that indescribable feeling of nostalgia, and longing and homesickness that since I’ve moved back to Wales, I don’t get anymore or maybe it’s just because it’s a story that’s well told, like a picture painted with words, not brushstrokes, by a great artist. All I know is that it’s a book that I’m grateful to have read, and if you haven’t read it yet, I envy you.
Other books to read in a similar genre –
Running for the Hills – Horatio Clare
On the Black Hill – Bruce Chatwin
The Citadel – A.J.Cronin
Or for something different –
The Owl Service – Alan Garner