Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve

As I was writing this blog post, I learned about the sad death of Dannie Abse, a poet, writer and doctor, at the age of 91. His book Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve happened to be the last book we read this academic year in our book group.

Abse was born on 22 September 1923 in Cardiff. He studied medicine at Westminster College and at King’s College, London. He qualified as a doctor in 1950. Although he was best known as a poet and playwright, he was a specialist at a chest clinic for thirty years. His brother Leo was MP for Pontypool and Torfaen from 1958-1987. His brother Wilfred, was a psychoanalyst. Abse was senior fellow of the humanities at Princeton University between 1973-74. His 2002 novel, The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds & Dr Glas, was long-listed for the Booker Prize.

On 10th September the book group met to discuss Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse. Often, mislabeled as an autobiographical novel, it is the first of Abse’s novels, but it is only partly inspired by his life. The book is set in Cardiff, where Abse grew up and both Michael’s brothers, Wilfred and Leo are modelled on Abse’s real-life brothers.

The novel begins in 1934 and is a buildungsroman. It follows the childhood of Michael, a young Welsh-Jewish boy growing up in 1930s Cardiff. In this respect, it reminded me of another bildungsroman the book group read about a year ago – Glyn Jones’ The Island of Apples. The book interweaves private and personal themes; Michael’s story of his coming of age is set against the backdrop of the widespread unemployment, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini and, later, the Second World War. However, because of the fact that Michael is only eight when the book starts, we get a very child-like view of those events. The book is divided into sections rather than chapters, but the narration jumps around in time.

There is very little thematical connection between the individual sections. aside from each one being an event from Michael’s life. With regard to this fragmentation of the text, the book reminded me of Charlotte Williams’ Sugar and Slate. However, in this case, the collage-like structure is not used to reflect Michael’s fragmented Welsh and Jewish identities. There is a very little mention of Jewishness in the book apart from the boy’s comments in the playground. Rather, I would argue, the interweaved scenes from Michael’s personal life and ones in which there is an awareness of the historical events, illustrate how both contributed to the development of Michael’s character by the end of the book. Nevertheless, both Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve and Sugar and Slate contain one scene which exemplifies the protagonist’s wish to fit into the mainstream society by altering their physical appearance – using hair oils and creams to smooth one’s hair.

Critics sometimes point out that despite being a poet, Abse does not use flowery descriptions and metaphors in the book. However, there is certainly a sense that he is a poet as I did find some descriptions of places almost lyrical. Overall, this book is a nice read, very funny and one of its very strong points is that Abse managed to capture the language used by the boys as well as South Welsh dialect extremely well.

Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts

The book of our August meeting was a Welsh classic – Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts. The novel was originally published in Welsh under the title Traed Mewn Cyffion, but we read it in English translation. The book group agreed that although the musicality of the Welsh language isn’t carried over, the newest translation of the novel by Katie Gramich is the best one so far.

The book is set in North Wales and spans the period of about forty years from 1880 into the First World War and because it covers such a long period of time, it gives an excellent portrayal of life in Caernarfonshire at the turn of the twentieth century. The theme of the novel is the hardship of the slate mining community, but unlike other industrial novels from this period, such as Cwmardy or Black Parade, Roberts’ book focuses more on the impact of the terrible economic working conditions on an individual family rather than the whole village. Moreover, because the novel spans such a long period of time, we’re not only shown the harsh realities of life at the time, but we are also constantly reminded of what things could or used to be like.

There is no single most important event in the book around which the narrative revolves; you might think a particular even will be important as you’re reading, but you’re always proven wrong. In my opinion, what makes the novel particularly bleak isn’t the hard life in the quarries and the widespread poverty, but the conflicts and back-biting within one’s own family; unlike other novels written during this period, the domestic sphere in this book doesn’t provide the safety that is traditionally associated with it.

The book group also agreed that the excellent portrayal of the relationships within the Gruffudd family had to do with Kate Roberts’ being a short story writer. The individual chapters of the novel are often little vignettes and stories in themselves. Roberts is particularly good at choosing touching stories which drive a point across. An example of this is a scene in which little Owen wins money in his Sunday school competition and as he’s coming home he’s expecting his mother to be proud of him and be happy that he wants to buy book for his money rather than sweets. However, when he gets home, his mother takes his money away from him because the family needs it and even delivers a clip round the ear when he starts sulking. When his older sister Elin hears him crying, she comes to comfort him, but it is that night that Owen becomes aware of the poverty his family is living in. By giving an example of a concrete impact on an individual, Roberts is able to show the effects of poverty in a way that is more palpable than showing a large-scale impact on the whole community.

Jill by Amy Dillwyn

Amy Dillwyn was arguably one of the most remarkable women of her age. She came from an accomplished family, being the daughter of Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, an industrialist and MP for Swansea, the niece of John Dillwyn-Llewelyn, a pioneer photographer, the granddaughter of Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche, a geologist and the great-great-granddaughter of William Dillwyn, an abolitionist. You can read more about the Dillwyn family on the Dillwyn project website run by the CREW centre at Swansea University.

However, Amy Dillwyn wasn’t only an author, but also a well-known public figure, one of the first female industrialists and one of the first women to stand for election to a borough council. After the death of her brother and father she took over her father’s spelter works which were on the brink of bankrupcy, gave up the family home to run the family business and eventually managed to save over 300 jobs. The book group agreed that given her accomplishments, Amy Dillwyn’s work is not as well-known as it should be and the discussion revolved around the novel as well as more generally the fact that women are often airbrushed from history.

Jill is Amy Dillwyn’s fourth novel and was published in 1884. It is a bildungsroman as well as a feminist manifesto. Here’s a video of Kirsti Bohata from Swansea University, the editor of the book, talking about Jill.

The main character is a feisty young woman coming from a well-to-do family, who after her father’s remarriage runs away from home and finds work as a maid in London. In one of her positions she meets Kitty Mervyn with whom she falls in love, but her love must stay unrequited both because of their gender and lower social class which Jill takes on. Later on in the story she is injured and ends up in hospital where she befriends the head sister of who she also becomes very fond of. Shortly after being discharged from the hospital she learns about the death of her father and the fact that she had inherited the family home. She returns home, settles down and takes on the role of a lady squire.

Jill as a character however is not a straightforward heroine. Dillwyn has managed to create a three-dimensional character that is both believable and has a very strong presence. She is tomboyish, strong-minded, extremely manipulative and willing to do almost anything to achieve what she wants. Despite the fact that Jill’s life after running away from home is very eventful, at times her personality is so strong that it overshadows the narrative.

Amy Dillwyn wrote that she ‘abhorred domestic novels’ and books with ‘too much love in them’. There are no strong male characters in Jill, while there are three very strong independent women.The novel reminded me of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in that the main protagonist also struggles to get along with her relatives and after coming of age decide to leave home (or, in case of Jane Eyre, a boarding school) and look for employment. Jill may well have been a rewriting of Bronte’s novel and reaction to and a critique of traditional plots and gender relations of 19th century novels.

Next month we will be reading Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts. Those of you that have read it, please let us know down in the comments what you thought of it. One of our readers found it rather bleak. Would you agree with that? What do you think of the new translation by Katie Gramich? In what ways does the original Welsh version differ from the translation?

The Dig by Cynan Jones

On 14th May the Reading Wales book group met to discuss The Dig by Cynan Jones. The book juxtaposes the stories of a farmer during the lambing season and a badger baiter. Jones describes himself as a ‘writer of short novels’ and although The Dig is categorised as a novel, the book isn’t driven forward by a conventional narrative. One of our members described the book as a prose poem, but whatever genre you decide to assign to it, the greatest achievement of the book is its style and tone. In terms of style, Cynan Jones has been compared to Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.

Jones manages to, very sensitively, juxtapose the brutality of the badger baiting with the tenderness and poignancy of the farmer Daniel taking care of his sheep. It is precisely this beauty and brutality set side by side, which in the world of the book also take place in close proximity to each other that has such a strong effect. The book group particularly liked the descriptive writing associated with farming and the fact that the descriptions of landscape are never romanticised or picturesque, but there is a strong sense of the hardship of everyday farming life. Likewise, the book’s themes: isolation, death and mourning are presented in a very convincing ways and never sentimentalised.

The book group also discussed the division of the narrative into very short paragraphs. We thought that while it would be possible to join several paragraphs together and preserve the meaning, the ‘pauses’ in the text created by the blank lines serve a very important purpose. They force the reader to stop after each short chunk of text rather than let him or her rush through it.

For me personally, one of the most touching scenes was one in which a young boy goes badger baiting with his father and some other men. Before the action begins, we learn that he is bullied in school and when the others pick on him he takes pride in the fact that he had broken his own dog to rats. Later on in the chapter, when the badger comes out the boy has to force himself to develop a hatred for the badger to justify to himself the violence that will be inflicted on it and at the end ‘it was the badgers non-engagement that did it’. A bullied boy here becomes a bully himself and gains a sense of belonging through being united in violence with the men. This scene illustrate the perpetuation of the cycle of violence, but also the thin line between brutality and kindness.

We find a variation on this theme in another scene in which Daniel who’ll go to great lengths to protect his lambs is forced to kill an unborn lamb, albeit unwillingly, to save the ewe. It is this capability of brutality and kindness within one person which is for me the more haunting rather than the violence itself.

The Small Mine

On 2nd April Reading Wales book group met up to discuss The Small Mine by Menna Gallie. At the heart of the story is the death of a young miner, Joe Jenkins, working in a small, privately owned mine. One reader suggested that many events in the book bore resemblance to the Gleison mine accident.

The book is set in the 1960s, long after nationalisation, at a time when many such small mines were in operation. The mine-owner Ben asks Joe to work an extra shift on his own on a Sunday so that the men can get on with their work the following day. An ex-fireman in the mine, Link, whom Ben had made redundant shortly before decides to have his revenge on Ben by showing a tram full of coal down the mine, not knowing that Joe is working in the mine. Although the book primarily criticizes the lack of safety precautions in the mines, the way in which Joe’s death affects the whole community is presented as the real issue.

The people on whom it has the most impact are the three women in Joe’s life. His mother, whose life revolves around Joe, becomes stuck in the past through the meaningless repetition of formalities with the neighbours who come to show their respects. Sall, Joe’s lover, whose unfaithful husband left her, trades friendship and intimacy for sex with the local men and cannot publicly admit her relationship with Joe by going to the funeral. The book criticizes double standards towards men’s and women’s sexuality where her husband’s affair with another woman is accepted, while she must not make not any demands on the men or expect any ‘empty words’ from them. Cynthia, Joe’s new girlfriend, finds herself in a limbo state where their relationship has not been officially accepted by their community yet, while at the same time it being public knowledge. As a result, the community does not know what attitude to take towards Cynthia’s loss, who does not want to be treated as an object of pity. She hates and finds stifling the ‘prescribed form of grief’ her mother as well as others show and decides to move to Nottingham because the future in Cilhendre holds nothing for her.

Joe’s death, however, has a wider impact. As Raymond Stephen puts it: Menna Gallie’s novels are haunted by the desire for the good of the community. While the enquiry is being held into the causes of Joe’s death, Ben’s mine is temporarily closed and all the men who work there are without jobs. Therefore, Joe’s friend Stephen, who often acts as a mediator whenever a conflict arises, decides not to reveal what play Link’s revenge played in Joe’s death. He knows that doing so would only lead to prolonged unemployment of the men and that Link is tormented enough by his bad conscience and will have to live with the knowledge for the rest of his life. Over all these events hovers a concern that Joe’s father voices when he first learns about Joe’s decision to work in a privately owned mine over a nationalised one. Is such an act a betrayal of the community and its values?

The reading group enjoyed the book and found it an easy read. The humour of Menna Gallie’s books has been likened to the one of Gwyn Thomas and phrases such as ‘cough shook his body like a pneumatic drill’ do indeed remind us of Thomas’ Dark Philosophers. Despite dealing with a serious issue, The Small Mine is also a snapshot of the life in a mining valley in the sixties, and, as one reader pointed out: it paints a picture of not only the small mine, but also the small life, world and the closeness of its community.

Sugar and Slate

When interviewed for the website, Charlotte Williams concluded by saying that ‘there are different ways of being Welsh’. This idea is one of the central themes of her memoir Sugar and Slate. Williams’s Welshness, as a mixed raced woman, daughter of a white Welsh-speaking mother and a black father from Guayana, growing up in North Wales is very different form the kind of Welshness we are presented with in, for example, The Life of Rebecca Jones, where the feeling of belonging is based on Rebecca’s ancestors who had been living in the valley for a thousand years.

Williams’ identity is much more fragmented, which is reflected in the form of the book. It is divided into three parts: Africa, Guayana and Wales, although the individual parts do not describe exclusively the time spent in each place. Moreover, the book itself is made up of various kinds of genres: from a straightforward narration, through poems, songs and letters to newspaper cutouts.

The story is narrated from the lounge of the Piarco Airport in Trinidad. The choice of setting – an in-between space ‘between somewhere and elsewhere’ mirrors Williams’ feeling of hybridity and non-belonging. In the airport she strikes a conversation with Patrick – the rasta-man, as he is referred to, who catches her eye because he is wearing a t-shirt with a map of Africa in it, which sets her off wondering what ‘his Africa is like’.

Coming from the only coloured family in her area, with no black role models available to her, Charlotte Williams defines herself through non-identity – not being white and Welsh enough – and as a result grows up thinking that she is somehow ‘half’, ‘not-whole’ and ‘mixed up’. There are also social pressures concerning her appearance, as she ‘represents her people everywhere’. The book group, however, thought that her feeling of ugliness, caused by not being able to reach Euro-centric standards of beauty, has to do with not only her race, but also gender; had the book been written by a mixed-raced man, it is much more likely that he would not have been as self-conscious about his body.

In search for her authentic identity, Williams travels to her father’s native Guayana only to find out that what she has been looking for isn’t there. Yet again, not being familiar with the local culture, she feels out of place, and, finding herself among, on the one hand, English ex-patriots and, on the other hand, local community in which colourism is still an issue after a history of colonisation, this time she feels too Welsh and too white.

Interestingly, Williams draws a connection between Welshness and blackness. and goes on to suggest that ‘every Welshman is a black man at heart’. The blackness here refers to more than the colour of one’s skin. It symbolizes being victim to linguistic and cultural oppression, marginal position as well as economic exploitation.

Sugar and Slate, however, isn’t merely Williams’ memoir. It is hardly surprising that as an academic and a social scientist, she sets her personal story in a wider context of black history in Wales. Her journey from Wales to Africa, Guyana and back to Wales is interspersed with stories of black presence in Wales, which for the most part have remained invisible. They form Williams’ ‘elmina’ – a collective historical event, which ‘diaspora people’ invent to define their presence in inherited country. On the other hand, the book reveals the role Wales played in the slave trade of the British Empire. While the power relation between Wales and England are often seen as parallel to those of Negro slaves and plantation owners, Williams shows that this view is a simplistic one. She gives the example of Richard Pennant, a slave owner, who used the fortune from his slave plantations in Jamaica to develop the slate industry in North Wales and fund the building of the Penrhyn Castle. As Williams puts it: ‘out of the profits of slave labour of one empire, he built another on near-slave labour’.

Dissatisfied with not finding what was looking for in Guayana, Charlotte Williams returns to Wales, which she decides to claim as her home because ‘neither country would claim her’. Her Wales, however, is not the country of rugby players, black hats and choirs, but ‘it has to do with the twist in the dragon’s tail’. She gives up on trying to ‘find her roots’ and decides to create her identity. As she tells Patrick on leaving him, for people like them, their home is their story and it’s ‘a good place to be’.