Thursday, 21 June 2012

Penguin no. 980: The Heyday in the Blood
by Geraint Goodwin

For the routing of a policeman had some hidden, far reaching significance. It was as though an invader had been beaten off and discomfited; something from the outside that had been set going. The battle, fought often and often, was between staid and unalterable authority and the native cunning. It was, in its way, a game and a delight. The old man would continue to serve drinks out of hours as long as he could stand upright - simply because he could not help himself. He would risk his licence for a complete stranger and for a trifling farthing profit, rather than conform. Twmi's instinct - the Welsh blood in him - ran to poaching as a duck to water: it was innate. 

The title is taken from a line in Hamlet, where it refers to youthful passion and romantic love. This may be what Geraint Goodwin is intending to convey here, for his young protagonist Beti must give up everything she cherishes if she is to follow her heart. And yet the strongest passions described in this book seem to be not for others, but for a way of life, and for a culture, and for the countryside of the border region in the northern part of Wales. Geraint Goodwin tells the story of its rural inhabitants at the moment in time when their traditional way of life is becoming unsustainable.

The threat they face is from the modern world, and it can never be ignored, for they hear its approach in the distant sounds of motor cars and steam trains. They experience it like a slow and creeping invasion. The author portrays village life as stable and unchanging, as something which has always been, with its rhythms determined by the seasons, and by long-standing traditions such as market days and fairs. It has existed entirely unto itself, with the local region providing everything the inhabitants required, such as food, flour, beer and cloth. But it is the 1930s, and the traditional methods of manufacture cannot hope to compete with the new mechanised industries and cheaper products from England, so businesses are closing, and people are without work. Their way of life has become a tourist attraction, a quaint novelty for day-trippers. Despite the deep affinity they feel for their region, the young understand that getting away and escaping to London is the only chance they have.

And yet even as he regrets what is passing, you get the sense that Geraint Goodwin wants to celebrate what has been, as though he is determined to capture and record every detail of rural Welsh life before it vanishes. Beti's story seems to take place almost in the background, and instead his focus is on a portrayal of village life: he describes how the Welsh think, feel and talk, and what they value, and how they differ from the inhabitants of the towns, and from their English neighbours. He describes their industries, their attitudes to religion, their foods, and their feuds. And he doesn't make his portrait mawkish or mocking, for the men he portrays can be coarse and quick-tempered, full of scorn, and not always appealing; he doesn't pretend they are better than they are. But his attachment to this way of life is strong, and that is what you read on every page.

Geraint Goodwin was born in Newtown in Wales in 1903, and began work as a trainee reporter for a local paper when he failed to earn a place at University. He was ambitious, though, and moved to London to work as a journalist in 1923, returning to Wales a few years later when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He began writing fiction, but died from his illness at the age of 38. The Heyday in the Blood is his best known work.

He seems to have given some of his own traits, and some of the details of his story, to the two young men interested in Beti.  Evan and Llew appear to have little in common, apart from their shared Welsh heritage, and their affection for this young woman. Llew, Beti's cousin, is from the town but he has an affinity with the rural life. He is red-haired, strong, proud, and hot-blooded. He loves to be the centre of attention, to take a risks, and to be admired, and he has all the traits that will earn him respect amongst the men of the village. Just like his uncle Twmi, discussed in the passage quoted above, he will take these risks irrespective of the consequences (and to read about him is to want to step in, and save him from himself). In contrast, Evan the Mill is a poet, unsuccessful in his business, and more of a loner. He shares none of the enthusiasm for hunting and poaching which so fires the other men. The story being told is of Beti growing up, moving beyond the yearning for her father's approval, and choosing to make her life with one of these two men.

For much of the story I was a little confused: I couldn't understand the way these characters thought, and much of the dialogue seemed baffling. Perhaps he was conveying that much is communicated without words, with the meaning in the tone and the attitude, and in what remains unsaid.  Certainly, until the end, no one showed their feelings overtly; with respect shown by the tilt of the head, and affection through derision. And yet I loved the book, and I loved the way it was written, because the author's passion for his subject was so evident. The people he describes feel deeply, and seem helpless in the face of their passions. This drive and determination and hot-bloodedness seem to be the essence of the phrase captured in the title; it is this that I think he alludes to as the heyday in the blood.


  1. It makes me want to read this Welsh novel. Thanks Karyn !

    1. Hi Olivier,

      I hope you can find it (and I will keep a look out in case I come across another copy). I think it is definitely worth reading.



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