The image of a lost golden past is as old as literature. Certainly as old as English literature at any rate, for the earliest Anglo-Saxon texts look backwards, haunted by a sense of vanished affection and security. But English is neither the only tradition nor the first language to have grown up within these islands. One of Raymond William’s polemical purposes in People of the Black Mountains, his final fiction, is to affirm that Wales has its own distinct identity, founded in unremembered time which reaches beyond written records. People of the Black Mountains is in part an attempted answer to a question which occupied Williams throughout his creative life. How is history made? ‘Actual stories are told by both winners and losers. Yet what becomes history is a selection by the winners. This is trustingly read back into earlier times.’ Questioning this trust, Williams constructs a different-kind of history. People of the Black Mountains seeks out the origins of the land in which he was born, from the ancient hunters moving across the landscape before the last Ice Age to an emergence in the 15th century into something we are able to recognise as the modern world. ‘The Beginning’ represents the first part of this long story, ending with the invasion of the Romans.
The book has become a monument to memory and devotion in one way that Williams could not have foreseen, for it was unfinished on his death in 1988, and has been amended and completed by his widow and family. The result is not historical writing in any academic definition. Nor is it quite a novel, though it begins as if a more conventional narrative is what is intended. Glyn, young and Welsh, takes his convalescent mother to stay with her father, Elis, among the Black Mountains. The old man, passionately attached to the local country and its past, has set out to walk through the hills, leaving a note for his daughter and grandson. His return is long overdue, and Glyn sets out through the dark countryside to find him. As he walks, he finds the bounds between himself and his ancestors begin to dissolve around him. He stands to muse near a stone landmark: ‘It was still hard, in some parts of the mind, to accept that men moving like oneself, but with quite other ways of seeing, had walked these tracks and stared at these dark ridges and had then set these stones as their own kind of marker. Yet sometimes, as tonight, the physical sense of their long presence became overwhelming.’
Through Glyn’s visions of distant times, Williams surveys the lives of succeeding generations of hunters, herdsmen, farmers, priests and fighters, focusing on imagined individuals and families caught in the movements of the past. The result is a confluence between the specific and the abstract, as particular incidents exemplify general movements in cultures changing over thousands of years. For the reader, this procedure is initially a touch disconcerting. Williams presents the joys and sorrows of his bygone protagonists in direct and emotional terms. But no sooner have we engaged with the graphically conceived situation of a group of men and women (will the baby live? what happened to the rash young hunters in pursuit of the elk?) than they fade into the extinction of time; other generations take their place.
Williams regards the remote past with an intensely felt nostalgia which, for all his acknowledgment of the hardships of famine, disease and cold, mark his narrative as in part a traditional evocation of that golden age before books, cities, wages and gunpowder were invented to corrupt us all. Only when he reaches the point of the arrival of more highly developed cultures, towards the end of his sweeping vistas of time, do cruelty, oppression and treachery begin to govern human behaviour. He sees the earliest peoples of Wales as innocent, though not primitive. Working in co-operation with nature and each other, they were motivated by compassion and a strong imaginative life. His very first family, hunting herds of horses twenty-five thousand years ago, shelter a crippled boy in their midst. The child’s disability is a burden and even a threat to the group as a whole, yet his death is greeted with fierce grief. Would this have been so? No one is in a position to say that it would not. But it is hard to avoid the feeling that Williams has imposed his own principles on his fictional histories, conceiving the first Welsh people in terms of a fusion of romanticism and socialism not unlike his own. That they should have settled among the wild mountains is important to this ideal: harder, somehow, to picture such virtue having been fostered among swamps.
As the shaped continuity in Williams’s piecemeal narrative becomes progressively clearer, however, an overall argument owing little to the rigours of archaeological research begins to emerge. An age-old Welsh culture, pastoral, pure and proud, was invaded and subjugated by alien peoples. But the ‘old ones’ were never defeated: their stubborn traditions, tied to reverence for the earth, continued in the face of oppression and, by implication, continue still. People of the Black Mountains makes it clear that Williams believes socialist struggle in Wales to have begun a long, long time ago.
Williams’ identity as a novelist has always been closely bound up with his work as a critic. Tony Pinkney has now edited a collection of some of his last critical pieces. Here again, fragments marshal themselves into a coherent argument. Williams had planned and partly written a book to be called The Politics of Modernism: this is the book that Pinkney has put together from papers, essays and notes, most of them published elsewhere in the last years of William’s life. Rather perversely, Pinkney has chosen to subtitle the book ‘Against the New Conformists’, though the chapter Williams intended under this intriguing title was never written, and it is by no means clear who the New Conformists might be. Solid independence of thought, impatient of fashion or pretension, is as evident here as it is throughout his published work. The book is full of suggestion and insight. More sustainingly still, in a dispirited world it is, like People of the Black Mountain, optimistic. William’s thought is rooted in an immovable faith in the final victory of a people who are as fundamentally good as his Ice Age hunters.
In one of the most interesting of the essays collected here, ‘Cinema and Socialism’, Williams argues that socialists must be prepared to acknowledge a range of experience which is not confined to the paradigms of political and industrial action: ‘For if we are serious about even political life we have to enter that world in which people live as they can as themselves, and then necessarily live within a whole complex of work and love and illness and natural beauty. If we are serious socialists, we shall then often find within and cutting across this real substance – always, in its details, so surprising and often vivid – the profound social and historical conditions and movements which enable us to speak, with some fullness of voice, of a human history.’ This is the creed of People of the Black Mountains. William’s generous acknowledgment of the local roots of his socialism leads him to celebrate the diversity of human existence: but it is always formed and determined by the groundswell of history. What we have in common – with the people of the past, or those of other countries – matters more than what divides us. In placing his faith in a shared and redeemable human nature, the moral value of the mass, Williams is sharply at odds with the Modernist artists he contemplates in these essays. It isn’t simply that the historical is more interesting to him than the personal: the point is rather that he is actively hostile to the idea that the real substance of our lives may be unique. Pinkney refers to Williams’ novel Loyalties,where the Communist Emma Broase puts the point briskly: ‘You see ... it is this Freudian stuff. Subjectivity before class, it’ the whole post-war rot.’
Suspicious of the tentative uncertainties and obscure passions of the inner life, Williams conceives human experience in terms of schematic forces larger than any single situation. Life in his characters, contemporary or primeval, is confined by their illustrative function within the ideological framework that supports his creativity. The decided outlines of his novels give no sense of otherness, no sense of the unpredictable or foreign.
Why should that matter? Williams might have argued that our hunger for the strange is based on nothing more than curiosity. Margaret Drabble, taking this distracting appetite as the central theme of her confident and marvellously accomplished new novel, gives full weight to the price we pay for our attempts to satisfy curiosity about the unknowable. Like Raymond Williams, she broods on the origins of things. Liz Headleand, one of the trio of women whose lives Drabble has made emblematic of the Eighties, confesses to curiosity as to a weakness:
‘Actually’ says Liz. ‘what I do suffer from is curiosity. I want to know what really happened.’
‘At the beginning. When human nature began. At the beginning of human time. And I know I’ll never know. But I can’t stop looking. It’s very frustrating. When occasionally it comes over me that I’ll never know, I can’t quite believe it. Surely, one day, I will find out?’
Liz’s curiosity could be seen as professional: her work as a psychotherapist leads her into painful contact with what has gone wrong with human nature, and she is not the first (‘this Freudian stuff’) to wonder whether a world without violence might be created if only the whole thing could be reinvented from infancy. But her unsatisfied inquisitiveness is shared, in varying forms and with different results, by all the characters of the novel. Curiosity, too, is likely to be a motive for many of those who will read about Liz, for she and her family and friends were the subject of Drabble’ last novel, The Radiant Way, and Drabble is right to suppose that we like to know what happened to people. She has established a kinship with her readers (this is her 11th novel) that is relaxed and obliging, a camaraderie that enables her to offer occasional friendly instruction about how she wishes us to read her work: ‘This is not the Headleand saga. You do not have to retain these names, these relationships.’ But the suggestion of sophisticated cosiness – known middle-class novelist, writing for a known – middle-class readership – is belied by the development of the novel, How much can we really know? We learn that Alix Bowen, kindly teacher of literature, has moved North, where she is pursuing an uncomfortable obsession with Paul Whitmore, a mass murderer who recently dispatched one of her pupils. What pushes people to murder? Where does evil come from? Whitmore has been asking questions of his own, making a study of the clash between archaic British cultures and the invading Romans. His conclusions about human nature in its most ancient manifestations are as far from Williams’s vision of peaceable shepherds as could be imagined. Whitmore’s quest for history leads to hidden violence and destruction, as he models his decapitating activities on the severed heads of old Celtic religions. His murderous fantasies are seen to be symptomatic of a fragile society, for Liz and her cultured friends inhabit a world in which squalor and despair perpetually threaten to engulf their humane values.
Alix, unwilling to believe that Paul was born with wickedness in his blood, embarks on research that enables her to arrive at some sort of saving explanation for his mania. But nothing can be verified. Alix ponders:
So, I haven’t proved anything. I’ve just confirmed my own prejudices about human nature. I’ve been travelling around a closed circuit. A closed system. Me and my murderer together. It wasn’t a theorem, it was a circuit.
If we simply find what we expect to find, our deepest perplexities can never be resolved. ‘What help from the letters of the dead’? Some help, no doubt: Drabble recognises the need to know and honour the past. But we can never hope to comprehend our history in a way that will define what is to come. In Drabble’ fiction, this is a frustration that hardly seems worth lamenting. What she shares with Raymond Williams is an irrepressible belief in the future. Out of the dark spaces in orderly lives flow surprises. People die unexpectedly, run off, propose improbable marriages, or emerge from obscurity revealing secrets.