One of the key themes of Border Country is the idea of journeys between and across borders – emotional, political, social and geographical – and the differences between the lived experiences of different places. It is therefore apt that the novel begins with a journey: Matthew's return home to Glynmawr from London. Set against the tradition of Welsh writing in the English language, this is significant. As Professor Daniel G. Williams noted in his interview with Literary Atlas, much of Welsh writing before Border Country was concerned with journeys out of Wales.
It is on Matthew's journey home that we see something of the difference in experience between his life in London and his life in Glynmawr.
Consistent with the novel's theme of journeys, the novel opens with movement: Matthew runs to catch his bus home from work. It is through this movement and the encounters it brings that the novel captures Matthew's experience of London.
As he ran for the bus he was glad: not only because he was going home, after a difficult day, but mainly because the run in itself was pleasant, as a break from the contained indifference that was still his dominant feeling of London. The conductress, a West Indian, smiled as he jumped to the platform, and he said, 'Good evening,' and was answered, with an easiness that had almost been lost. You don't speak to people in London, he remembered; in fact you don't speak to people anywhere in England. p. 5
While on the bus, Matthew reflects on the fact that his profession as an economic historian, while allowing him to understand social and demographic change in the abstract, does not allow him to see the differences in “substance” and experience between places: 'the ways of measuring this are […] outside my discipline' p. 6. He can only experience the anonymity of living in a major city in contrast with his experiences of the close-knit Glynmawr: 'The man on the bus, the man in the street, but I am Price from Glynmawr, and here, understandably, that means very little' p. 6.
Upon his arrival home from work, Matthew receives a phone call informing him his father has suffered a stroke. He catches the first train back to Wales, and it is on his arrival at Gwenton Railway Station later that evening that he notices the first changes in his experience of Wales. As the train approaches the station, Matthew notices 'the rhythm [change], as the wheels [cross] the bridge' p. 8. He appears to feel alone and alienated upon his arrival at Gwenton: “he stood alone on the dark platform, looking around' p. 9. His attempt to smile at the porter in a friendly way is shunned ('the porter looked at him strangely' p. 9), to which Matthew responds by reflecting that he is not at home here any more: 'You come as a stranger: accept that' p. 9.
Being now a stranger in the area, Matthew must walk the long road home to Glynmawr from Gwenton alone. Yet before he has the chance to do so, he is surprised by Morgan, who has come to pick him up. The gesture suggests the different sense of community in Glynmawr, where such acts are offered without ceremony. Yet Matthew seems vaguely unsettled by this, suggesting his difficulty in adjusting back to village life and its conventions:
'Come on, mun, get in.'
'Oh, I see,' Matthew said. […]
'You thought we'd leave you to walk then?' Morgan said, looking across at him.
'I expected to walk. Nobody knew the time of my train.'
'I've got timetables. Get in, Will. Don't stand in the wet.'
On the ride back to Glynmawr, Matthew reflects on the different sense of community experienced in Wales: 'It is like that, this country; it takes you over as soon as you set foot in it.' p. 11
The car journey back to Glynmawr provides the backdrop to Matthew and Morgan's reacquaintance. As the novel is set in the 1950s, before the construction of the A465 bypass, they drive back to Glynmawr on the old road through Abergavenny town. Matthew's experience of the journey, despite his familiarity with it, seems to correlate with his own feelings of discomfort on his return home.
Nothing moved […] except the bare trees in the wind. Again, in the town, the narrow main street was deserted, as they turned past the Town Hall to the market, and then up the long pitch to Glynmawr. p. 11
The desolate quiet of the town on this rainy night seems to match the initial unease of the conversation between Matthew and Morgan, which is stilted and uncomfortable.
'How are you then, Will?'
'Not bad, thanks. And you?'
'This is bad though.'
'Yes.' p. 11
The two sit 'in silence until they were into Glynmawr.' However, their arrival among the familiar features of the village, where 'in the headlights, along the road, every feature came up in its remembered place', a corresponding sense of familiarity seems to return between them:
It was easy at last, and enough had been re-established. They relaxed as the car slowed […]. p. 12
The arrival back in Glynmawr marks the beginning of Matthew's reconnection with his past.
The "present" timeline in the novel charts Matthew's return home to Glynmawr after many years away. But Matthew's reconnection with his parents triggers the flashbacks that constitute the second timeline, which tells the story of Harry and Ellen building a life in the village. The first of these flashbacks begins with their own arrival in Glynmawr. Their journey into the village allows us to get a sense of the geographical and social character of Glynmawr.
Harry and Ellen arrive in Glynmawr as a recently married couple, after Harry secures a job as a signalman at Glynmawr railway station. They come from villages on either side of the border: Harry from Llangattock, and Ellen from "Peterstone", which we have located at Walterstone, given the novel's suggestion that the village is north of Llangattock, on the other side of the river 'that is the border with England' p. 28.
Despite origins on either side of the Wales-England border, the novel seems to suggest that the border region is its own territory with its own identity, a place where national differences are blurred. Therefore 'To Harry and Ellen, this was not strange country' p. 28. The main difference between the two appears to be the accent:
Across the river, in Peterstone, the folk speak with the slow, rich, Herefordshire tongue, that could still be heard in Ellen. On this side of the river is the quick Welsh accent, less sharp, less edged, than in the mining valleys which lie beyond the Black Mountains, to the south and west, but clear and distinct – a frontier crossed in the breath. p. 28-29
Harry and Ellen arrive in Glynmawr by train. Significantly, their first encounter with the village and its people is the railway station. This proves to be a key location in the novel: it is the site at which several of the novel's narrative tracks meet and intersect. The station brings Harry and Ellen to the village, providing Harry with salaried work, and is where the two meet some of the friends and colleagues that shape their life. It is also a location that, as Professor Dai Smith notes in his interview with Literary Atlas, defines the social and political character of the village, providing the link between Pandy and the rest of the world.
At Glynmawr station, Harry and Ellen meet one of the signalmen, Morgan Rosser. Morgan has recently lost his wife in childbirth, and, having space at his cottage, he offers the couple a place to lodge. Harry and Ellen follow his directions to their new home, a walk that enables them to take in the geographical terrain of the valley. The narrator describes the surroundings with considerable detail:
Once they were up on the road, Harry and Ellen could look out over the valley and the village in which they had come to live. To the east stood the Holy Mountain, the blue peak with the sudden rockfall on its western scarp. From the mountain to the north ran a ridge of high ground, and along it the grey Marcher castles. To the west, enclosing the valley, ran the Black Mountains: mile after mile of bracken and whin and heather, of black marsh and green springy turf, of rowan and stunted thorn and myrtle and bog-cotton, roamed by the mountain sheep and the wild ponies. Between the black ridges of Darren and Brynllwyd cut the narrow valley of Trawsfynydd, where the ruined abbey lay below the outcrop of rock marked by the great isolated boulder of the Kestrel. Fields climbed unevenly into the mountains, and far up on the black ridges stoof isolated white farmhouses and grey barns. p. 28
Describing Harry and Ellen's walk through the village, the narrator reflects on the scattered nature of the village of Glynmawr. In contrast to the densely populated industrial villages of the south Wales valleys, where rows of terraced houses were built to house the huge numbers of workers required to extract coal, or English farming communities, where villages were clustered around a church, here in the border country villages are thinly populated, scattered between small farms. Williams once described this characteristic in an interview:
[Pandy] is a classic example of a dispersed, rather than nucleated, settlement – the characteristic pattern not only for rural Wales but for much of Western Britain generally. The immediate parish was three miles one way and four miles the other. About three to four hundred people lived in it. So the farms were about a quarter of a mile apart, although there were small clumps like the house in which I grew up which was one of a group of six. Politics and Letters, p. 21
This description of Pandy corresponds closely with the description of Glynmawr in the novel:
Within its sheltering mountains, the Glynmawr valley lay broad and green. To a stranger Glynmawr would seem not a village, but just thinly populated farming country. Along the road where Harry and Ellen walked there were no lines of houses, no sudden centres of life. There were a few isolated houses by the roadside, ad occasionally, under trees, a group or patch of five or six. Then lanes opened from the road, to east and west, making their way to other small groups, at varying distances. […] The village was the valley, the whole valley, these scattered groups brought together in a name.
Eventually Harry and Ellen reach Morgan's house – their new lodgings. It is within one of the few grouped clusters of houses in the village, set within a 'patch of eight houses' p. 30. The two are warmly welcomed by Mrs Lucas, Morgan's housekeeper. Harry immediately settles in comfortably to his new domestic surroundings:
He sat on the nearest chair, reached with his foot for the pear basket, and helped himself to a pear so yellow and soft that his fingers mushed in it as he held. He began to eat the pear, looking around, pleased. The baby gave a cry and then was quiet. The women, stepping heavily upstairs, talked but he could hear no words. He sat back, letting out his breath, and rested, easy. Across the valley a train whistled, running north from Glynmawr. p. 31
One of the central features of Border Country is its depiction of the historical development of a community and its connections to wider social and political forces. Aspects of this depiction are achieved through what Dai Smith has called a 'bodying out [of] its chosen time and place' through characterisation. In other words, the actions and behaviours of characters personify wider social and political trends. A central character in this respect is Morgan Rosser. Morgan's life journey can be read as a manifestation of the gradual weakening of socialist activity in Britain in the twentieth century. His personal life journey can be read in connection with a set of key locations in the novel.
Morgan's inhabitation of his house is depicted in striking contrast with Harry and Ellen's. As we saw in the second plotline, Harry and Ellen's Arrival, the couple, and particularly Harry, settles into the house immediately. However, Morgan is restless, and less comfortable with domestic life. He is a man with strong political convictions, and his activities in the National Union of Railwaymen and in Labour politics keeps him out of the house: 'his interests lay outside, and the house since his wife's death had been little more than a base.' p. 32
As secretary of the Glynmawr branch of the National Union of Railwaymen during the 1926 General Strike, Morgan takes it upon himself to 'explain and interpret the general issues of the strike' p. 85 to the other workers. In one important scene at the signal box, his firebrand attitude comes up against Harry's more restrained attitude to national politics:
'The country, Harry! We're the country. And mind you, if we come out, let's realize it's that we're saying. We're saying that we're the country, we're the power, we the working class are defying the bosses' government, going on to build our own social system.'
'I don't know about that,' Harry said.
'How many know it, I wonder? Do the union leaders know it? Have they got the courage? We're not miners see, Harry. We got no right to strike, only for the working class.'
'I'll stand by the miners, if it comes to it.'
Morgan looked at him, doubtfully, and then threw up his hands. p. 82-3
Morgan appears to mistake Harry's reticence for political passivity: 'You work here, you draw your money, you ride home and you dig your garden.' p. 84 Exasperated, he leaves Harry alone in the signal box, slamming the door. An interesting moment follows. Harry notices that Morgan has once again neglected to fill the lamp that hangs in the signal box:
As he had expected, it was empty. His look moved for a moment to the door that Morgan had slammed, and he smiled. It was the afternoon man's job to trim and fill the lamp, but again and again, in taking over from Morgan, he had found it empty. p. 84
The scene signals the contractions in Morgan's behaviour: his loud proclamations about worker solidarity, and his determination to 'look ahead' cause him to lose his cool and once again forget the small, day-to-day gestures of helping his fellow workers at the station.
Given Morgan's frustration with Harry's rootedness, his resolute determination to 'settle here', to 'dig [himself] in' p. 84, it is hardly surprising that we find Morgan reaching out and making connections beyond Glynmawr. He finds the inactivity in Glynmawr 'difficult to bear' p. 119 and begins to visit union meetings at Tredegar. But it is during this time that his political convictions begin to mutate. Morgan's political activities in Tredegar and the South Wales valleys begin to extend from meetings alone: he takes it upon himself to deliver food parcels to the striking miners in these valleys. These charitable trips lay the foundation for his later activities. The following year, Morgan sets up a grocery business, selling produce from Glynmawr to customers in the mining communities. Before long the business is taking up most of his time. From here, his interaction with Tredegar changes fundamentally: no longer is it a base for union activity; it becomes the site of one of his stores p. 168.
Eventually Morgan's ambitions as a businessman result in him relocating from Glynmawr to Gwenton. He becomes engaged to Janie Priddy, the daughter of another local businessman, and shortly moves into a modern bungalow on the outskirts of the town. It comes as a surprise to those close to him; Eira, his daughter, is loathe to move to the new bungalow, and when Janie tells Ellen about the move, she is surprised to hear that Morgan is moving out of 'reach of the [signal] box'. Janie responds that 'no, he's giving up all that. There's no future, I told him, in that.' p. 165 His resignation from the railway allows him to focus on the expansion of his business. His next step is to take over a new building in Gwenton, 'partly as a depot and partly for bottling and jam-making.' p. 202 The geographical move out of Glynmawr and into Gwenton, in terms of both domicile and employment, marks Morgan's transition into the middle class.
From here, Morgan's attitude and social relationship to his community – and the land that community occupies – shifts profoundly. Morgan's new status and wealth means he can afford to make decisions not only about his own labour, land and property, but those of others. Morgan enters into a business contract with a local landowner, Blakely. Morgan and Blakely strike a deal whereby a few of the fields the latter had been renting to a local man would instead be used to grow currents for Morgan's jam business. However, this involves evicting one of Morgan's former colleagues, Jack Meredith. Rather than show solidarity with a fellow worker, Morgan goes along with the plan, and Meredith is evicted. The episode demonstrates how far Morgan's political allegiances have shifted, and the impact of economic relations on both interpersonal relations and on physical geography.
As we have seen, a central motif in Border Country is the act of crossing borders: geographical, social, emotional. One of the main narrative threads in the novel is Matthew's journey home from London to visit his dying father, and the emotional changes he experiences upon his return. But the novel also sensitively charts Will's journey out of the village during his adolescence. His experiences as he makes the journey into adulthood are profoundly connected to a set of important locations.
Will begins his education at the local school, 'Glynmawr non-provided', then a Victorian building in a state of some disrepair:
The entrance to the school, Glynmawr Non-Provided, was through an elaborate grey arch, which rose from the dirt playground to announce the porch. A cross was carved in the weathered grey stone, and below it the date of foundation, 1853. Above and below the cross were two scrolls, with the legends, Laborare est orare and Benedicite, omnia opera, but the carving was now barely legible, for it was filled with dirt and moss. The porch was narrow and dark. p. 157
In his final year at Glynmawr Non-Provided, Will sits the scholarship exam for Gwenton Grammar School. He and Harry work together in preparation, practising grammar and arithmetic together. Harry understands the importance of Will attending the Grammar School and the opportunities this will afford him. Just how much Will's eventual success means to Harry is revealed in a rare show of emotion when he discovers Will's results:
Will passed easily, with very high marks. Harry rode to Gwenton, to buy the local paper, and when he arrived back he was extraordinarily excited, throwing his bike at a run along the hedge under the holly, and shouting the news to Ellen and Will and the neighbours. Will was made a great fuss of by everyone, and several neighbours gave him presents. He himself valued most his father's excitement; he had never before seen him quite like this. p. 172
Will flourishes at the Grammar School, and in his fifth year there, Harry is called in to see the Headmaster to 'discuss future plans'. The Headmaster suggests the possibility of a university scholarship, and advises Harry to arrange for Will to talk with Pugh, the parish vicar, to help Will with his application for a university scholarship. Interestingly, it is during this encounter that Harry first refers to Will as "Matthew", signalling the change in name that accompanies his son's transition into a different life.
Soon, Will begins meeting with Mr Pugh at the church. Far from discussing religious matters, Pugh introduces Matthew to new ways of thinking about the world and his place within it using science. In a moving and highly symbolic scene, Will accompanies Pugh to the top of the church tower to use the telescope. The experience enables Will to begin seeing the valley that is his home, and, by extension, his own place in it, in a different way.
Standing on the leaded roof, Pugh showed Will the major constellations. The first effect was a heightening of the quality of the valley. To see, in the winter sky, the great shape of Orion, walking above the ridge of Darren, was to move into a different dimension. To look up on the great starlit nights, and see shapes and patterns which he had not known, was a new and unlooked-for growth. p. 215
As Will advances through his education, he begins to mature and develop a new perspective. This development is dramatized through his new perceptions of familiar places. In one significant scene, Will walks alone up on to the mountain above the village. His experience is almost revelatory. The scene appears to suggest that Will is now at the limits of what he can learn from his experiences in Glynmawr and Gwenton; his physical inhabitation of a site on the edge of the village reflects this. No longer tied to the lessons of his parents or educators, he begins to develop his own perspective on his life, and the life of his community. The narrative voice in this scene alters into a stream-of-consciousness style, as though hearing Will's thoughts. He reflects on the way the village appears differently now, 'It was like coming back, after a long journey, to familiar country, yet the valley was still strange: an enclosing feeling had taken and changed it' p. 283. This sense of "enclosure" appears to parallel his new desire to leave for university. Indeed, he almost seems to have already left: looking down at the village, it is as though 'in its stillness, it was a memory of himself' p. 284. Tellingly, the church tower that had once elevated him to new heights of intellectual understanding, that had 'seemed so high on those cold nights', now seems small and insignificant, 'only a line, a brief movement, in the wide country' p. 284. He begins to anticipate his future, and the new possibilities for seeing and speaking in new ways: possibilities for 'deciding what you will see and how you will see it' p. 286, and anticipating 'a voice waiting to be learned.' p. 288
Finally, the day comes when Will must leave for university. In a moving scene, we follow Will on his train journey out of the valley, as he looks out at all the landmarks and places that had surrounded and shaped his life in Glynmawr.
Alone in the narrow compartment, Will looked out at the steep banks of the cutting. Then, as the banks fell away, he hurried to the far window and looked across at the Holy Mountain. The peak was only slowly clearing from drifting cloud, but the rockfall stood out clearly, and the grey church under it. Hurrying to the other window, he looked up at Darren, and then past the Kestrel into the mouth of Trawsfynydd. The gritted wind came sharply back along the side of the train. The long black ridge of Brynllwyd came into sight, and he crossed the compartment again and looked back across the valley. It seemed, for a moment, that he was seeing it for the first time. He saw the extraordinary richness of colour, too brilliant really to be credible at first: the red earth, the bright green of the grass, the white walls of the houses, the white of shirt sleeves as men bent in their gardens. He saw the movement in it, the sudden steeps and pitches. There, now, was Glynnant pitch, and then the bowling green and the school. The river curved, and there were the chapels, and the patch above them, and Ellen, out on the drying green, waving a paper. Will waved back and then crossed again to look up at Brynllwyd. The ridge was very dark, as dark as the Ship. Under it, white walls and the russet bracken and Parry's barn, low and open-pillared. He stared up until again the train curved away and went in among the woods. Still standing, he saw the river coming back to him, and then suddenly it was under the line, and way on the other side, and the border was crossed. p. 292-293
Years later, after he returns home to London, having buried his father and reconnected with his past, Will – now Matthew – is finally able to reflect fully on the journey he had taken as a young man. His feeling is that it now no longer a one-way, outward journey; he has now crossed the border both ways and come home:
'Glynmawr station is closing, but I remember when I first left there, and watched the valley from the train. In a way, I've only just finished that journey. […] Only now it seems like the end of exile. Not going back, but the feeling of exile ending. For the distance is measured, and that is what matters. By measuring the distance, we come home.' p. 341