The Golden Road [I Hela Cnau]

Eames, Marion

Two recent events have revived Wales’ love–hate relationship with Merseyside. One was Liverpool City Council’s apology for the flooding of Tryweryn’s Cwm Celyn river valley and its community in 1965 for the sake of the city’s water supply. The second was Liverpool’s slightly less controversial proposal to stage the National Eisteddfod as part of its European City of Culture programme in 2007.

Marion Eames’ The Golden Road shows the roots of this symbiotic relationship in the 1860s, when north Walians escaped rural poverty to start a new life on Liverpool’s facing shore: Birkenhead. Lancashire mills created Merseyside’s wealth — mills fed by American cotton picked by slaves and shipped from its new docks; all this was threatened, however, by the American Civil War, despite some ship-owners continuing the trade with the Confederates using falsely-registered ships.

Welsh migrants spilled into the city: domestic workers like The Golden Road’s protagonist Rebecca scattered into wealthy households; others worked in shops or as stone-setters, their living quarters squeezed into a slum area. The area’s chapels mushroomed into a formal ‘Welsh Connexion’, big enough to support a four-day Whit festival.

Migration is Eames’ fictional speciality. She is pragmatic and free from that Welsh pathology, hiraeth (homesickness). On this novel’s publication in 1978, the London Welsh were still probably our biggest external community.

Portrayals of exile, opportunity and guilt would have appealed to the far-flung Welsh in the capital and elsewhere. Although internal exile is not so poignant, when the brain drain of rural youth switched from London to Cardiff during the 1980’s, these themes were still current.

Her grandmother’s shop in Birkenhead inspired Eames’ delightful portrait of Rebecca’s grocery. It is a showcase for female independence, as were many such ‘Emporia’ within male-dominated communities from London to the Valleys. They were also, like today’s Asian corner-shops, a visible expression of migrant enterprise.

Yet the superficialities of Rebecca’s shop window display points up the dangers of pride and material temptation, as does Rebecca’s quest for exotic, forbidden fruit. Rebecca grows from tongue-tied monoglot to a Becky Sharpe (Vanity Fair) figure, profiting from the shop-owner Mr Newell’s alcoholism, her acceptance by the chapel and her rising attachment to the use of English.

Danny’s story also holds a lesson. A Llŷn immigrant who starts as a carpenter, his profits from fitting out privateers establish him as a corner-cutting speculator who keeps his respectable chapel face. However, this is no morality tale inhabited by paper cut-outs. He is Rebecca’s love-interest: a risk for the author, considering his sadism and later rape of Rebecca’s childhood friend, Emma. Rebecca is a similarly complex character, whose mean spirit towards the neighbourhood’s poor is shown up by Mr Newell. The latter, meanwhile, is a (not necessarily latent) paedophile whose sympathetic portrayal raises eyebrows today but Rebecca persuades herself to tolerate him by comparing their relationship with that of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Eames’ fiction shows a fascination with manipulative relationships; despite the apparent dangers Mr Newell poses to Rebecca, she emerges the stronger partner, indeed she inherits the shop. Nell, Rebecca’s love-rival, seems a PC-er than thou paragon, but she is actually a sexually repressed bipolar type, consumed by anti-Catholic prejudice. Nell and her friend’s hot-and-cold relationship, with its shifting power balances — Rebecca’s maid to Nell’s cook, Nell’s waif to Rebecca’s businesswoman — is another example of manipulative dependency. So is the way Rebecca and her friends manipulate Emma’s rapist Danny into marrying her.

This denouement is unsatisfying (especially for poor Emma). Another weakness is Mr Newell’s shunning of nubile girls — while young Rebecca is actually in residence — in favour of poetry.

Nevertheless, The Golden Road is a novel whose excitement about migration’s opportunities is infectious. Eames is equally upbeat about opportunity’s helpmate, adaptation. The novel closes with Simon, one of Eames’ quiet,

ethical men who always get the girl. The scene is a cosy Birkenhead hearth. ‘“You’ve been walking too far,” [she tells Simon.] “You’d better take your shoes off.”’ Perhaps it’s time for us to forgive Liverpool. GD


And then the door was ung open and the owner lumbered in to the shop. His shirt was unbuttoned and his trouser belt unclasped. Drops of whisky from the glass he held in his hand splashed down his coat to join all the other stains. With great diculty Horace Newell focused his eyes on the visitor, then raised his glass in greeting.

‘Thou that to human thought art nourishment…’.

He stepped slowly towards her. Susie turned frightened eyes on Rebecca.

‘Take no notice of him,’ warned Rebecca under her breath, as though referring to a dangerous dog. Susie was backing towards the door.

‘Depart not as thy shadow came…’.

In the silence that followed, Horace Newell continued to stare drunkenly at Susie Hughes. Then, carefully, he bowed deeply, nearly toppling over. Gathering the rags of his dignity about him, he turned and tottered unsteadily back to the kitchen. 115–116