Review: The Green Bridge is a milestone on the journey of Welsh stories in English

The Green Bridge. Background picture by Saffron Blaze.

Jon Gower

This collection of 25 tales first appeared a third of a century ago but now appears in brand new livery as part of the Seren Classics series.  Its editor, the poet John Davies suggests in the introduction that ‘A good story offers a past and future that aren’t there, a suggestiveness with particular resonance for a small country prone to self-questioning. Nor is there, was there – such are the sleights of mind from which art makes it realities – a Wales as it exists in most fiction.’

So Wales is a fleeting, elusive presence throughout these tales yet it possible to construct a geography of the country from its assorted angles and perspectives.  We visit the coal mines and valleys’ culture of the south Wales valleys in the work of the two Gwyns, Thomas and Jones, then visit mid-Wales in Leslie Norris’ road trip of a story ‘Sing It Again, Wordsworth’ to then scope mountains such as Aran Fawddwy looming into view in Clare Morgan’s teenage-rite-of-passage charting ‘Losing.’  In the stormiest of stories we even venture offshore, to Bardsey island in Brenda Chamberlain’s tempest-tossed ‘The Return’.

The writers chosen for this highly readable assemblage bear out John Davies’ further assertion that stories in what was then known as the Anglo-Welsh tradition steered clear of social realism, plumping rather for dreamscapes, accounts of fear and longing and the mythopoetic.  So we have Margiad Evans’s account of a woman whose best friend is the wind, the gravedigger antics of Caradoc Evans’ ‘Three Men of Horeb’ and the dark psycho-drama of Glenda Beagan’s ‘The Scream’ which is the verbal equivalent to Edvard Munch’s famous expressionist painting.

 

Diversity

Fear is certainly very much in play in Glyn Jones’ ‘Jordan’ which describes fly-by-night cheapjacks and scammers who turn into a dark duo much like Burke and Hare when asked to supply a corpse to a customer who has put in a macabre order.  The plan is that one of them pretends to be dead and after they’ve been given the money by the monstrous Jordan he should duly skedaddle.  But after he does so they find a big bald hole at the top of his head, suggesting he’s been unknowingly trepanned or worse.  And things do worsen and get really ghoulish in an unsettling story that’s best read during daylight hours.

Gwyn Thomas’s contribution has all of this ebullient author’s hallmarks, referring to Rhondda denizens as ‘voters’ and the valleys themselves as ‘gulches’ not to mention the humour that is itself a sort of narrative propulsion. It certainly drives his superb ‘Arrayed Like One’ which is simply about buying a suit in the south of Wales in the 1920s. Men’s suits of the period were ‘a forest of blue serge and, among the older men, suits of black material hard as teak and meant to outlast the earth.  After twenty years or so under a steady fall of rain and sermons the stuff went a deep green, and I have seen many a seatful of deacons that made the preacher look like Robin Hood…’

One pronounced difference between the period represented in The Green Bridge and now is the relative paucity of women writers represented, just 7 out of 25, whereas a comparable anthology today would pick freely from among a real plenitude of talent – the likes of Rachel Trezise, Carys Davies, Crystal Jeans, Jane Fraser and Jo Mazelis – just as one imagines an anthology in five years’ time would have a fuller ethnic diversity of voices.

But The Green Bridge successfully helps us cross into the past, with Dylan Thomas taking us to play in the snows of his Swansea childhood, Emyr Humphreys evoking the period when chapel ministers were willing to go to prison as part of the campaign for a Welsh TV channel and Alun Richards taking the reader into the world of rugby, albeit one where a famous fly-half, now gone to seed, has turned reminiscence and drink into a way of life.

Twist

In the one absolute bona fide classic in the collection, ‘The Raid’ Alun Lewis takes us on a tense trip into the Indian night and nascent nationality, as India prepares to throw off the British Imperial yoke. This is worth the price of admission just by itself, a stark, menacing account of a military mission to capture a man who has just set off a bomb in a cinema.  This is arguably the most realistic of all the stories contained herein, even as it crackles with tension and the snap of dry leaves under foot.

Gwyn Jones’ superb ‘The Pit,’ about sexual shenanigans and revenge in a coal-mining community has equal amounts of tension, even if the tenor of the storytelling is more Grand Guignol, a tad more operatic, all things heightened.

The Green Bridge fully deserved its place on the bookshelf back in 1988, when it was first published.  Its reappearance is a welcome one, being a definite milestone on the journey of Welsh stories in English, which continue to entertain and enthrall travellers who choose this bifurcating, twisting and ultimately cajoling path.

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