Christopher Meredith’s Shifts, was recently chosen as the Greatest Welsh novel by Welsh Arts Review. However, the book of our February meeting was his second novel Griffri.
Griffri is a historical novel set in the twelfth century, although not a historical novel in a traditional sense, as the book does not contain any dates.
The book is an autobiography of Griffri, a poet and storyteller ‘the keeper of memory’, to Morgan, the prince of Gwynllwg and later his brother Iorwerth. Griffri’s story spans fourty years and the narrative is framed by his retelling of the story to Idnereth, a Cistercian monk. The first part of the book depicts the twelfth-century Gwent as a violent contact zone due to the frequent invasions of the Anglo-Normans and shows the power struggle between the Welsh princes themselves as well as the members of Morgan’s family. The second part of the story is Griffri’s attempt to make sense of the events in hindsight.
Some critics see the choice of the setting – Meredith’s birthplace, Gwent – as crucial, and interpret the novel as his attempt to repossess the history of the area as essentially Welsh. Nevertheless, although some of the characters are real figures, the preface states that ‘all of the people in this story are fictional, including the ones that really existed’.
As well as being an autobiography of a poet, Griffri examines the role of memory and storytelling in creating identity both of individuals and nations. While memory is shown to be inaccurate and unstable – Griffri cannot remember whether he ‘remembers the story or remembers the remembering’ – in order to belong, to know ‘who’s us’ making sense of the past and imposing order on the memory, re-making it into a coherent narrative, is a necessary element in creating a nation’s history.
Deindustrialized Wales in the 1970s
Anglophone Welsh writing gained momentum in the thirties yet there is a wealth of more recent writing to discover. The industrial novels of Lewis Jones and Jack Jones explore the boom and bust of the early twentieth-century, whilst Christopher Meredith’s debut novel Shifts (1988) explores the harsh reality of deindustrialisaton during the seventies- something which changed the industrial face of Wales forever.
The stagnant relationship of unhappily married Keith and Judith mirrors the decline of their steel town in the valleys. Shifts tackles themes such as emasculation and issues that surround the changing economic face of Wales. Women are soon to become the breadwinners as the hard labour of the steelworks makes room for the ‘clean’ industry of the marshmallow factory.
Returning from England to his native Wales, no-good boyo Jack has left his English ex-girlfriend in the lurch and is about to embark upon an affair with Judith when he becomes Keith’s lodger. When Keith finds out about the tryst his reaction is not one you might expect from a man scorned. You’ll like this if you enjoyed Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Jack possesses the same Jack-the-Lad qualities of Arthur and both novels deal with the realities of relationships in working-class Britain.
A great read to compare against earlier industrial novels set in the valleys. Shifts as it title suggests deals with themes that are ever-present in Welsh Writing in English texts – industrial life and the passing of time.
Click here to buy ‘Shifts’ or browse other Welsh Writing in English texts at Palas Print.