New Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories

Richards, Alun ed.

Here we can find twenty-eight stories by twenty-eight authors sourced from both of the literary languages of Wales.

The anthology should be considered as an addition to rather than a substitute for the original Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories, which was based around an older generation of writers. Only one story is carried over into this more recent volume. The Penguin short story collections of this type represent a continuation of a great tradition of accessible literary culture and thought from Penguin Books, a key educational and mind-broadening instrument in its heyday.

Highlights include a story by that Chekhov of the Welsh sitting-room, Kate Roberts, with her extraordinary sense for objects and places and her frequent demonstration of emotional absence or unexpressed feeling in Welsh lives dominated by practical considerations and the quest for respectability. As her ageing protagonist puts it in ‘The Condemned’: ‘looking back at their life, what had they had? Only a cold unruffled life’.

Rhys Davies’ ‘Blodwen’ is something of a Welsh D.H. Lawrence expedition, about a girl whose ‘blood’ calls out to a rough mountain lad — ‘He was of the Welsh who have not submitted to industrialism, Nonconformity or imitation of the English. He looked as if he had issued from a cave in the mountains…’ — rather than to Oswald Vaughan, the solicitor’s boy, ever so nice, that her mother would dearly like her to marry, thereby expunging the taint of a coalminer granddad.

In Gwyn Jones’ ‘A White Birthday’ two farmers struggle with ‘the unmalignant but unslacking hostility of nature’ searching for new lambs in the snow on a cliff-face as the author gives us a sense of folk with sheep-husbandry in their line for generations.

‘Oscar’ by Gwyn Thomas is a pretty ironic piece about a certain Oscar who ‘owns a mountain’ and ‘drinks a bit of it every night in the pub’. This is a good antidote to the piety of some of the older Welsh-language authors, for here appear the wastrels, the serial imbibers and the kind of young lady ‘who has been steadily preached against ever since preaching started, which was a long time ago’. As a rich man Oscar has various employees, including his charmless live-in housekeeper Meg, of whom the narrator tells us ‘around her face the time was nearly always night time’. Of novella length, this story carries a convincing reek of decay and decadence in a tatty city set in a polluted landscape. Its larger-than-life characters seem also grubbier and tawdrier than life.

A standard anthology of Welsh writing has to contain some Dylan Thomas and here it is an absolute classic fittingly entitled ‘A Story’. This is elemental Dylan celebrating a joyous charabanc outing in his inimitably festive and free language, where perhaps, as in the case of a similarly gifted writer, Osip Mandelstam writing in Russian, the English language is an exciting new toy tossed about enthusiastically, vigorously and without restraint. Mandelstam, similarly influenced by another ‘background’ tongue (Yiddish) played with Russian prose with astonishing results, for example, in ‘The Music of Time’.

In Alun Lewis’ ‘The Orange Grove’ there is an utter contrast in both language and spirit to Dylan, with a report distilled ‘from the dust of a hundred villages’ of an Empire fracturing around its protagonists, a couple of Welsh servicemen, who are as war-and-empire-and-bullybeef-weary as you could wish for; a story with an ending where empire and empire-builder — Kipling’s essential indefatigable soldier — join together in the trackless immemorial rhythms of transhumance. This may be the best and most unsentimental piece about the British Empire in India you will ever come across.

Glyn Jones’ ‘Wat Pantathro’ has an astonishing picture of a town’s streets and pavements bedecked with horses as a fair proceeds.

As one soon discovers, reading Kate Roberts, in the Welsh-speaking heartland of north Wales, the quarry was the employer par excellence and Dic Tryfan’s ‘Good-for-Nothing’ is set amongst quarrymen and the harsh realities of their lives. While Caradoc Evans has a dig at Nonconformist piety in ‘A Father in Sion’, detecting a degree of callousness behind the strict moral façade, in the delicious ‘Mecca of the Nation’ by D.J. Williams we meet a wonderfully ghastly and calculating boarding house landlady awash with little tricks to increase her revenues from her hapless clients: ‘She would be at it all day. . .  then late at night making sure that no water-tap or electric light bulb was being wasted’. One of her boarders is the trimmer Dogwell Jones QC who, though rather fearsome on Welsh rights, is also a realist: ‘His livelihood, after all, depended on being in favour with little conservative-minded solicitors, as unimaginative as their documents; fearful, colourless jurymen; and as much as anything on being in the good books of icy English judges for whom Wales was nothing more than a place to dine and a breeding ground of liars, offenders and pheasants’. This is a wickedly well-observed picture of some scions of a minor elite.

‘A Fine Room To Be Ill In’ is by the famous cultural critic Raymond Williams, who shows himself here to be an interesting chronicler of the social atmosphere of middle-class Britain in the post-war period. Islwyn Ffowc Elis’ anthologised story is both a glimpse into a writer’s life and its struggles and a reflection on the crisis of the Welsh language in the same period.

Editor Alun Richards’ ‘The Former Miss Merthyr Tydfil’ invites us to witness the folkloric recreation of working-class Britain as a sentimentalised lost continent of thankless freaks, while contrasting this ‘London NW3’ art-gallery version with another view of working-class life in the persona of one of its denizens, the Former Miss herself. Its crafty satire on cultural politics makes it one of the most thought-provoking stories in this collection.

Leslie Norris’ ‘A House Divided’ is a Carmarthenshire pastorale of ‘that fertile and timeless place’ where one found ‘the round flat cakes full of currants that were baked on a thick iron plate directly above the open fire’, but this is a rural Eden with a snake in it, a lawyer amazingly enough.

B.L. Coombes’ ‘Twenty Tons of Coal’ is a moving story from ‘two miles inside the mountain’ to reveal the true price of coal measured in human lives, a price being paid these days in China’s unsafe but Party-profitable mines rather than in Wales. This is, however, still a valuable piece both for its well-told detail of mining practice and for setting out the reasons why the inherent danger of the industry was increased by the system of accident compensation and insurance in place before nationalisation.

Emyr Humphreys’ ‘The Suspect’ captures the mood of the 1960s very well in a story of marital infidelity and the small-town way of dealing with it. Dannie Abse’s ‘Sorry Miss Crouch’ is another atmospheric story, but a bulletin from an insouciant childhood rather than a disturbed marriage partnership.

‘November Kill’ by Ron Berry is from a harsher world where marriages don’t last beyond the birth and early years of unfortunate children who then grow up, in this version of things, into awkward and dissatisfied adults living in narrow worlds of beer, mates and dogs. But somehow Berry nevertheless finds human (and canine) heroism in all of that. Jane Edwards’ ‘Waiting for the Rain to Break’ demonstrates a sprightly kind of writing in Welsh, free of its moral-laden traditions as two young girls make their mocking, laughing way round a small town, while Penny Windsor’s ‘Jennifer’s Baby’ is a poignant bit of domestic bleakery involving an unemployed man feeling useless and also landed with a rather witless wife. ‘Do you remember Jamie?’ is by the prolific Eigra Lewis Roberts, who has also recently begun to publish in English. It very sensitively explores a marriage and a woman’s heart after a long but frigid relationship, showing insight into how rather different people can end up together. Inside this fairly short piece large themes and large emotions are hinted at as much as demonstrated, in classic short-story style.

Duncan Bush’s ‘Hopkins’ expresses a lovely bit of class/national resentment: ‘Like in the army. It’s officers and men. They use the same tone, people like him, that same, English voice. And, you can tell, they just love to hear it

out of their mouths. They know they only got to open their mouths to put you in your place and keep them in theirs’.

Glenda Beagan’s ‘The Last Thrush’ is a poignant little piece about dying but the book ends on an entirely different note with the beautifully funny ‘Barbecue’ by Catherine Merriman, the Rabelaisian adventure of Jaz and Dai, biker boyos of Wales.

The anthology is a mixture of Welsh- and English-language authors and is a significant showpiece for writing from Wales, but as it was published in 1993 there are several authors here who are not active today. On the other hand what can we understand of this nation and its writers without some historical depth? The collection also contains stories by Geraint Goodwin, Harri Pritchard Jones and Clare Morgan. RK


Stumbling up the track in the half-light among the ragged garish gipsies he gradually lost the stiff self-consciousness with which he had rst approached them. He was thinking of a page near the beginning of a history book he had studied in the Sixth at school in 1939. About the barbarian migrations in prehistory; the Celts and Iberians, Goths and Vandals and Huns. Once Life had been nothing worth recording beyond the movements of people like these, camels and asses piled with the poor property of their days, panniers, rags, rope, gramm and dhal, lambs and kids too new to walk, barefooted, long-haired people rank with sweat, animals shivering with ticks, old women striving to keep up with the rest of the family. He kept away from the labouring old women, preferring the tall girls who walked under the primitive smooth heads of the camels. Alun Lewis ‘The Orange Grove’ 145

I’m glad I had my boyhood before the war, before the ‘39 war, that is. I’m glad I knew the world when it was innocent and golden and that I grew up in a tiny country whose borders had been trampled over so often that they had been meaningless for centuries. My home was in a mining town fast growing derelict, in Wales, and the invincible scrawny grass and scrubby birch trees were beginning to cover the industrial rubbish that lay in heaps about us. Leslie Norris ‘A House Divided’ 292

I was staying at the time with my uncle and his wife. Although she was my aunt, I never thought of her as anything but the wife of my uncle, partly because he was so big and trumpeting and red-hairy and used to ll every inch of the hot little house like an old buffalo squeezed into an airing cupboard, and partly because she was so small and silk and quick and made no noise at all as she whisked about on padded paws, dusting the china dogs, feeding the buffalo, setting the mousetraps that never caught her; and once she sneaked out of the room, to squeak in a nook or nibble in the hayloft, you forgot she had ever been there.

But there he was, always, a steaming hulk of an uncle, his braces straining like hawsers, crammed behind the counter of the tiny shop at the front of the house, and breathing like a brass band; or guzzling and blustery in the kitchen over his gutsy supper, too big for everything except the great black boats of his boots’.
Dylan Thomas  ‘A Story’ 121