Saturday, 19 February 2011

Penguin no. 57: The Black Diamond
by Francis Brett Young

"Over the border in Wales, where many dark and violent things are born, a sultry flame had been kindled about this time in the heart of a Weslyan local preacher named Evan Hughes...He spoke the dialect of his fellow-workmen; his words were ludicrous and pathetic; but the fire that scorched his heart was in them, so that men and women rode over the mountains on their ponies to hear them and many professed themselves converted. Why, or to what they were converted it would be hard to say, unless it were that the isolation of their lives laid them open to long broodings on sin and salvation, and knowing, as all men know, that they were sinful, they could not be happy in solitude till they were saved."

This is a long book for an early Penguin. Instead of the frequently encountered 256 pages, it runs to 352 with a font so small it was difficult to read without glasses. And although I enjoyed reading the book, it seemed unnecessarily long and descriptive. It was almost as if the author was unsure of his primary intention. Sometimes it seemed to be the story of Abner Fellows, a coal miner from Halesby, who finds it necessary to leave his hometown and then heads to Wales, working as a rural labourer. At others, it was as if the author wanted to tell the story of this specific time and place, this specific region of England, and the life that was lived in it. The story of Abner then seemed simply a literary device to achieve this end. With these two competing purposes it took a lot of words to tell Abner's story.

We meet Abner in childhood. He lives on the outskirts of an industrial town with his miner father, whose interests are restricted to drinking, football and whippet racing, and do not extend to his son. Abner has no great ambitions for the future, and expects to join his father down the pit in time. But he excels in playing football, and so he is provided with an easier job above ground, and earns the respect of his father. He is a man of his class but with his own sense of what is right and what is wrong, and he looks after others irrespective of the cost to himself. He never compromises, but endures the private trap in which he is ensnared by events outside his control. Eventually he finds a release, but fate conspires against him, and he finds himself repeating the past. Different town, different woman, but the same problem. It is an interesting storyline.

This is a regional novel, set in the West Midlands,  referred to as the Black Country, and in the Severn Valley. There is the sense that these areas are distinctive, different from each other and different from the rest of England. This idea is reinforced by the characters; they are defined by the area in which they live, the type of work available, their attitudes, customs and interests, and their suspicion about people from other areas. No doubt it is also reinforced by the manner of speaking, but this book does not focus on that, and very little dialect is used. When it is, the characters of D.H. Lawrence come immediately to mind.

The author clearly loved the rural landscape near Severn Valley. Every aspect of it is described in minute detail. But there was always this sense that the words and descriptions were not written for the benefit of someone who had never seen it, but rather for someone who had. It was as if the author's primary intention was to open the eyes of the local inhabitants to the beauty in their midst, so they could see it in a new and intense light, and perhaps experience the joy of recognising their own world captured in someone else's words. And so I read it as an outsider, aware that there were probably levels of meaning denied to me by my lack of local knowledge.

And I thought I'd quickly show a copy of the paperback I've been reading. In general, I never worry too much about the state of the Penguin paperbacks I buy (as long as they have all their pages) because I buy them to read. In fact I like it even more when they contain little clues about their history, such as a previous owner's name and  address or bookshop stamps, or even better: old bus tickets or postcards used as bookmarks. But this seems such a pity: an antiquarian book seller has covered what was a perfect orange spine with this disfiguring tape. It was obviously placed there a long time ago as the phone number only has 5 digits, but not to repair any damage because the spine and cover are both intact. They are damaged now though, because the glue residue under the tape is permanently adhered. It's not the only one I own like this, and so I wonder if the bookseller wrecked every Penguin which came his way.

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