Remembering the taeog

D.A.N. Jones

  • People of the Black Mountains. Vol. II: The Eggs of the Eagle by Raymond Williams
    Chatto, 330 pp, £13.99, August 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3564 6
  • In the Blue Light of African Dreams by Paul Watkins
    Heinemann, 282 pp, £13.99, August 1990, ISBN 0 09 174307 9
  • Friedrich Harris: Shooting the hero by Philip Purser
    Quartet, 250 pp, £12.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 7043 2759 7
  • The Journey Home by Dermot Bolger
    Viking, 294 pp, £13.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 670 83215 4
  • Evenings at Mongini’s by Russell Lucas
    Heinemann, 262 pp, £12.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 434 43646 1

Rightly admired as a critic, an interpreter of ‘culture and society’, Raymond Williams was disappointing as a writer of fiction. The Eggs of the Eagle is the second volume of ‘People of the Black Mountains’, his uncompleted ‘historical novel’. There are 17 short stories or sketches, rather dismal slices of life in south-eastern Wales, between the Wye and the Usk: they are set in six different centuries, from AD 82 to 1415. There is a thin linking narrative about a youth in the 1980s who meditates on the history of this Welsh border-country, while searching for Elis, his grandfather, lost and injured in the mountains. The author had intended to continue the historical trail through five more centuries, concluding with Elis’s service in the Second World War. Perhaps Raymond Williams identified himself with poor old Elis.

It was an ambitious plan, but Williams was an unskilful storyteller. One tale (set in AD 490) begins: ‘When the teyrn feels the frost, he remembers the taeog.’ No doubt he does ... Hand me the dictionaries. In AD 1356, we read that Ieuan’s land might be ‘subject to escheat’, were it not that ‘this is land of the gwely. It passes only in ach ac edryf.’ Such rarities of language disconcert the reader, especially when mouthed by thin characters. Still, the 1356 story is more interesting than some. It concerns a bondman’s wife who dislikes her son: when the bondman dies, it is revealed that the wife was raped by a free man and therefore her unloved son can go free, like his wicked father. The tale has, at least, human interest.

This book may be compared with other century-hopping collections, published just before and just after the First World War. There were Kipling’s vivid stories of Sussex life through the ages, and then there was John Buchan’s The Path of the King, tracing ancestral virtues and vices from a Viking prince to Abraham Lincoln, taking in the depravities of Titus Oates. Even before reading these quite gripping books, we were vaguely acquainted, through schools, comics and movies, with the periods and principalities commemorated, and we were pleased to see them so imaginatively ‘brought to life’. We also had some idea of what Kipling and Buchan were driving at, their tribal and imperial values. None of this is true of Raymond Williams. We do not know what he is driving at. He is not at all tribal: the Welsh lords and masters are just as beastly as the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. He does not celebrate any of the ancestors, nor does he bring them to life. That AD 490 story of ‘teyrn’ and ‘taeog’ (roughly, ‘lord and tribute’ or ‘landlord and rent’) is an underdog’s complaint against a Romano-British tyrant, Artorius, whom Williams seems to identify with the original King Arthur.

There is an incursion of the Vikings, the ‘black gentiles’, in AD 896: they fight the Cymry according to the rules of war – and a lower-class local is angry to see his leaders chatting, in sportsmanly, fair-play style, with ‘the Black Northmen’. He wonders: ‘Was this how the uchelwr really saw the alien invader, as lord to lord?’ – and he contrives a sneaky assassination of the Vikings’ leader. Moving on 300 years, Williams tells of the fairly notorious William de Braos, the Lord of Brecon in King John’s time: he was said to be always prating of God and putting on pious airs, but he invited the leading Welsh princes to a party at Abergavenny and killed them all, sending men out afterwards to kill their wives and children. Williams’s characters moan fruitlessly about these Macbeth-like events, and in the next generation there is a similar moaning about the bad results of the alliance between Simon de Montfort and Llywelyn the Great, the loss in battle of ‘the sons we raise in love that this cruel order destroys. And to understand that this is so is the final bereavement.’ There is a book-list – over eighty books and periodicals, from the Mabinogion to When was Wales? – to provide the ‘known facts’ for those whose imagination has been stirred. The ‘known facts’, the legends and the theories are often fascinating, but Williams’s stories make them seem dull and obscure. Probably he compressed too much: he might have stayed with one period for a longer space, adding long footnotes, in the manner of Walter Scott.

Paul Watkins’s book is more like a historical novel, more of a storyteller’s work. In the Blue Light of African Dreams is an offputting title: it sounds like a Modern Jazz suite or a Proms first (and last) performance. However, Watkins has justification for it. His hero is an American airman in North Africa, badly scarred from fighting (on the French side) during the First World War: this man, Charlie Halifax, is being punished, forced to serve in the French Foreign Legion during a futile war with the Arabs of Abdel Krim (who are secretly assisted by the Spanish). When Halifax contrives to get out of the Legion, he determines to return to America by winning a competition to fly the Atlantic, accompanied by another ex-Legionnaire (a White Russian). These events take place in the Twenties: since Paul Watkins was born (to Welsh parents) in the Sixties, he has had to use his historical imagination. In America he has been compared with Hemingway, and the compliment is well-deserved.

There are two stories here: in both of them Humphrey Bogart might have starred. The first is about Halifax being compelled to smuggle guns to Abdel Krim’s rebels: the guns come from the Spanish and are flown by Halifax to Tuareg middlemen in the desert. Any cheating in this game is horribly punished. Halifax has to take part in this disloyal anti-French racket because he has been ordered to do so by his disloyal, French superior officer, the only man who can get Halifax released from his Legion service: he must be outwitted. There is another French officer, called Garros, who has come out to investigate the mystery of Abdel Krim’s armaments: he seems only a silly boy – 21, while Halifax is 28 and feeling a duty to protect Garros in this den of scorpions. All the Europeans and the American Halifax are very hot and tense, often courageous, slightly mad and sometimes funny: the Arabs are more mysterious, no less credible.

The second story goes at a different, slower pace – very well-managed. Halifax is obsessed with his desire to make his return to America triumphal, and the reader can see why he is in this mood. He is in France, among a rather frivolous set of people, struggling to get airborne in a competitive aircraft, with his unreliable Russian co-pilot. There are many obstacles, notably from the silly boy, Garros, who is not grateful to Halifax for saving his life but rather hates him. Sometimes I was reminded of Hemingway’s collection, Men without Women: there are women in Paul Watkins’s book but they are generally involved in the episodes of half-comic relief, grim or pathetic, which help to enliven this engrossing novel. It would be interesting to know if many women appreciate it as much as men – and also if it will be plausible to future readers, or will appear a boyish dream from the 1990s. Historical novels rarely seem to stand the test of time: they are almost like painters’ forgeries, like Van Meegeren’s imitations of Vermeer, soon recognised as expressing the mood, the period, of the artist and his contemporaries, rather than that of his subject-matter.

Philip Purser offers a different kind of plausibility in his costume-drama, Friedrich Harris: Shooting the hero, set in the Forties, a period the author well remembers. It is presented as a memoir by Herr Harris: half-German, half-Irish, once a Nazi film-maker, working for Dr Goebbels. He was employed to suborn or assassinate Laurence Olivier, while the actor was making the film Henry V in neutral Eire. It is claimed, on the dust-cover, that Purser met Friedrich Harris in California in 1979. This is, presumably, a blague, but the book is a plausible imitation of published memoirs by dubious characters, real-life autobiography by a real-life liar. The Harris adventure is funny, in a rather horrid way: we had better take it as pure fantasy.

Purser is probably knowledgeable, certainly knowing, about film-making in the Forties, whether in Nazi Germany or the British Isles. We know enough about Olivier’s Henry V to appreciate Purser’s account of the difficulties and accidents in its making. It is easy to believe that the accidents were organised by Herr Harris, working as a film extra (on horseback) assisted by enthusiastic but incompetent loons in the IRA. Harris is a funny foreigner who speaks English well, idiomatically, but somehow gets everything wrong, even England’s enemies in Ireland. He is something like Brigadier Gerard, the Napoleonic officer in Conan Doyle’s tales, proud of himself for swearing ‘The curse of Crummle!’ and ‘Be jabers!’ (learned from some Irishman on Bonaparte’s side): ‘ “Many a time,” said Gerard, “I have seen the English smile with pleasure when they have heard me speak so much like one of themselves.” ’ Herr Harris is not such a decent chap as Brigadier Gerard: he coolly murders his British girlfriend in the course of his Nazi duties. Yet he cannot bring himself to kill Olivier, for they are both citizens of ‘the Filmworld’ and Harris must not ‘shoot the Hero’. If Harris were real, he would be a suitable subject for discussion by Mrs Thatcher and her team of historians, in some ethnopolitical seminar. But then, perhaps Friedrich Harris is real.

Dermot Bolger’s novel about Ireland, The Journey Home, is evidently in earnest. It begins with a youth and a girl hiding in a ditch, hearing the boots of policemen above their heads: they are on a journey of escape, and we might fancy them to be members of the IRA, but this book, though politically-minded, throws no light on that problem. There is just one passage which seems relevant to the IRA. The escaping youth, Hano, thinks: ‘England was the place to go. It always had been. The enemy which gave refuge ...’ Hano considers Leeds and Bradford, ‘the digs and building-sites his father had flitted between, dreaming always of returning home’. However, Hano is not heading in this direction. Nor is he bold enough to try for the European continent, like so many Irishmen – ‘the young Europeans, fodder now not just for factory floors but for engineering and computer posts’. Nor is he attracted by ‘the green card and holiday visa’ for the United States, to join other Irishmen, ‘illegal immigrants melting into the streets of American towns’. Hano and the girl, Kate or Cait, are trying to find a ‘home’ in rural Ireland, away from the lurid and corrupting suburbs of Dublin. It is not till almost the end of the book that we find out why they are escaping, why they fear pursuit, what they have done: the story is told in flashbacks, well-handled.

The period of the novel is about ten years ago, when the concepts of permissiveness and sexual liberation began to obtrude upon the Irish Republic: there is some profitable dealing in addictive drugs, and male homosexuality (though still illegal) is a pressing temptation. Hano is rather shy about his sentimental feeling for his lost friend, Shay, a more dashing and adventurous youth. The girl, Cait, is believed to have been Shay’s mistress, but when Hano manages to curl up with her he finds that she is a virgin. Cait tells him about the asylum in her home town, where prosperous citizens used the retarded girls as prostitutes, rewarding them with packets of Smarties. The villains of the story are respectable-seeming Irishmen, prosperous and corrupt. There are three members of the blessed Plunkett family, one of them a cabinet minister, with his brother a smartly-suited businessman (the employer of Hano’s obedient father) and a younger Plunkett (in expensive leather among other lads’ grubby sweatshirts) who has employed Shay as a drug courier. One of these Plunketts, we discover, has homosexually seduced Hano, another has drawn Shay into an obscene coprophilous activity and the third is responsible for Shay’s murder, which Hano and Cait have avenged. The story, realistic in conception, is more implausible than intended, but details and dialogue often ring true: the book is a vigorous complaint about the condition of Ireland.

Evenings at Mongini’s is Russell Lucas’s first collection of stories, but his name is well-remembered by those who were addicted to the literary competitions of the New Statesman, twenty to thirty years ago: his entries were often winners, devilishly knowing, surrealistically erotic, the wit too morbid to make me laugh. Much the same is true of these ten stories, set in his home town, Bombay. Most of them worked on me as the comedies of Beckett do, prompting dire feelings about the futility of life. An exception to this effect is in the least realistic of Lucas’s stories, ‘Nets’, a fantasy about levitation, rather like a moralistic folk-tale. A boy and a girl are walking through the forest: he is a cricketer, she a dancer. They meet a yogi, ‘embedded in a pool of black slime’, who explains that he is a holy hermaphrodite and ‘an adept in the art of levitation’: the cricketer and the dancer both benefit from his wise instruction, but only the boy retains his purity of soul, while the girl becomes ‘a terrible demon filled with suffocating hatred’, eventually ‘anchored to the stage like any other dancer’ and frustrated in her efforts to destroy the cricketer by having him thrown from a 15th-floor window. This is a rather charming fable.

The other stories are equally well-told, in a hard, bright style which makes them seem horribly true. There are very rich and very poor characters, Indians, Anglo-Indians and Eurasians, tragic or heartlessly casual adulteries, a woman seeking a pederastic husband, suicide in a lunatic asylum, lesbian affairs for married women, a market watchmaker jammed ‘in a portable teak box, sufficiently capacious to accommodate a fairly small but not unduly restless manager, provided he was able to sit cross-legged throughout the working day’. Some of the stories, particularly the title-story, remind me of Ronald Firbank. Freni and Pherosa, in wartime, go to Mongini’s Restaurant where they sip gin and Italian, dance to the Latin American medley and pick up Russian chauffeurs. ‘When the Bunty Kadoorie Ladies’ Quartet played the first seductive bars of “La Paloma” ’, we may hear not only Firbank, but the rhythms of Noel Coward, ‘in a bar at the Piccolo Marina’, where life came to Mrs Wentworth-Brewster.