Key landmarks and traces of the industrial history of Tredegar are written into the story. Keith is trying to understand history through topography, distinguishing between natural features and industrial formations and he begins to translate Welsh language placenames and signs which are another key to understanding his past and present. The Sirhowy Iron Works are mentioned right at the start of the novel by the character O, though it's easy to miss this oblique reference.

This plotline follows Keith's research into the industrial history of Tredegar. It begins, then, not with the iron works, but with the town – the houses of the ordinary people.

Old Rows


With some blank paper and a pen in his pocket, Keith spent the afternoon walking the length of the town. He didn't much care for the northern end with its estates and feeling of flatness as the hills and valley thinned away into high moorland, but this was where he went first. He walked out along the straight wide road that some people still called the Dram Road, though there were no longer any rails.
At a place where several streets met, he paused. A stony, reddish stream was piped under the road and along the back of a terrace. He looked around at the houses. Behind him, two bungalows. Modern. At the left, a terrace of fair sized houses. About 1910ish? And the stream terrace? Those houses were very small and all the building at the back was haphazard. Before the 1850s anyway, he thought. Down a lane on his right, too narrow for a car, he could see the ruin of some shops on a raised pavement. Two smashed up. One lived in but no longer a shop. After the 1850s, those. Something about them. Just a bit too grand. The yellow brickwork round the windows. And in front of him, climbing the slope of the mountain, some modern houses. A cluster of pensioners' bungalows and three rows of low rise flats. He remembered the original Three Rows, the condemned tenements. And then on the left past the 1910 terrace, the Lion. Hard to place. Pubs get so mucked about. A house set back, the other side of the pub, on its own patch of land. Old. Farm perhaps. He could see its name on the gate at the side of the Lion. Henfelin. And up there, up behind the new three rows, a flat wide patch running north to south along the hill. He followed it with his eye north to the moor and thought of the limestone quarries, and then south where it disappeared round the curve of the mountain.
Keith took off his glasses so the picture blurred slightly, and tried to focus his mind back through time.
Building demolished in Tredegar during the 1960s
A building demolished in during the 1960s, Tredegar, Wales. Photo courtesy of the Tredegar Community Archive.

Old Furnaces

Keith walks to the old iron works, founded in the eighteenth-century. The iron works would expand into other areas of the town and multiple coal pits, coke yards and other industrial works would expand the town's industries.

Knowing where to start was the problem, he thought, as he worked his way up onto the track above Three Rows and began to walk southward along it. The cold wind sliced through is coat. Rounding the curve of the hill, he saw below him the partly excavated remains of the furnace arches – they were later of course – and the few tumbled blocks that were left of the first furnace. It stood in the little horseshoe gap in the grass covered coaltip, a few dozen yards from another row of houses. He could see in a hollow near the river several hundred yards away the big house Moonlow had built for himself, Ty Mister.
He tramped down to the ruin and stared at it, conscious of his looking, like a viewer at an art gallery wondering what to think p. 17-18.
Tredegar Ironworks Arches
Tredegar Ironworks Arches, Tredegar, Wales. Photo courtesy of Coflein.
Tredegar Ironworks Arches
Tredegar Ironworks Arches, Tredegar, Wales. Photo by Notthenewsreader (Own work) under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.
Old Furnaces at Tredegar Ironworks
Old Furnaces at Tredegar Ironworks, Tredegar, Wales.

Library

Keith visits the library, seeking some kind of contact with Moonlow – the fictional industrialist. Through the library window he can see the grassed over tip of Number Seven and the new police station roof.

He whiled away the last minutes by leafing through part of the tower of books. One was about the Workmen's Welfare Institute. He came across a photograph of the Workmen's Library Foundation Committee. Three rows of moustached faces from the 1890s. The library they had founded no longer existed. The collection they'd started had been broken when the new building went up. As he looked at the photo, he thought that libraries, like museums, stultified what they tried to keep. p. 64
Tredegar Library
Tredegar Library, Tredegar, Wales.

Kitchen Research

Keith is grappling with his papers. Sometimes he seems to come closer to the valley's history via material objects: the iron rails of the cholera cemetery, derelict buildings and their contents, and in this scene, a truck-shop coin. But he really wants to look 'away from the glare of the furnaces, towards the places where the people lived'. Away, that is, from the focus on the masters and economics, and towards lived experiences of ordinary people.

He picked up the truck shop coin. It was thick and rimmed, the size of a crown. The obverse was blank and on the face was stamped in thick, seriffed letters:

S. M. 1818

Even the fullstops were squares balanced on one corner like diamonds. Ordinary people only appeared momentarily in the gleam of the coin and then their faces were bored, he thought, as his must have been in the slabyard the night before. p. 116

The Truck System was operated in Tredegar from the foundation of the Iron industry into the 1830s (Parliament eventually outlawed the practice). The Truck System involved payment in goods or tokens which could only be used only in company shops. Prices were often high in these shops and debts run up in stores could be deducted from wages. The system was highly unpopular.

Penny Token Tredegar Iron And Coal Company from 1812 Penny Token Tredegar Iron And Coal Company from 1812
Penny Tokens from the Tredegar Iron And Coal Company, 1812. Top and bottom photos courtesy of the Tredegar Community Archive.

Buchan Row

Keith visits the condemned houses in the northern Scwrfa area of the town. As the author, Christopher Meredith, has commented, many buildings have been pulled down in Tredegar over the years, some of them documented in the images below.

Bowen Terrace before demolition
Bowen Terrace before demolition, Tredegar, Wales. Photo courtesy of the Tredegar Community Archive.
Houses to be demolished
Houses to be demolished, Tredegar, Wales. Photo courtesy of the Tredegar Community Archive.

Keith goes into one of the houses, finding amongst the detritus objects that signal a jumble of parallel and interconnected histories. There are the imperial echoes of a book entitled 'With Gordon to Kartoum' and the 'England's Glory' matchbox. The domestic magazines – a pile of Titbits and a copy of Good Housekeeping, along with the abandoned furnishings, signal something of the women's lives that passed in this place. And Keith finds a card – printed election notes on one side, on the other, handwriting 'in a language that was his own, but that he could not understand' p. 127.

Albert Terrace
Albert Terrace.

Cholera Cemetery

On the mountain above the town, not far from the estate where Judith and Keith have their imaginary house, is the cholera cemetery, known as Cefn Golau Cemetery. Next to the cemetery is Grib pond – which was created around 1800 to supply water to the Tredegar Ironworks. From this upland vantage point one can look down on Tredegar and around the surrounding hills.

Watch a video of Trevor Fishlock's visit to the cemetery:

Both Keith and Jack spend time at this location as it provides both historical and personal vantage points for both characters.

Cholera victims from the 1832 pandemic through to the 1850s were buried here, away from the township. Many of the gravestones date from the 1849 outbreak which claimed between 150-200 lives in Tredegar (and 52,000 across Britain).

The cemetery itself is now bounded by modern fencing, but until recently, there was only the remains of the original iron rails put up when the cemetery was first created.

For Keith the place is bound up in his understanding of the multicultural history of the town, with gravestones in Welsh and English, listing natives and incomers. He also remembers it as a place he took Anne, a girlfriend whose memory seems associated with all the main locations he visits.

For Keith the place is bound up in his understanding of the multicultural history of the town, with gravestones in Welsh and English, listing natives and incomers. He also remembers it as a place he took Anne, a girlfriend whose memory seems associated with all the main locations he visits.

Listen to Christopher Meredith reading an extract from Keith's visit – on a cold April day – to Cefn Golau cemetery.

Christopher Meredith Reading from Shifts in Cefn Golau
Christopher Meredith Reading from Shifts in Cefn Golau

Cefn Golau is also an important location for Jack and for the author. Listen to Christopher Meredith talk about the significance of the cholera cemetery in interview.

Cefn Golau Cholera Cemetery
Cefn Golau Cholera Cemetery.
Cefn Golau Cholera Cemetery
Cefn Golau Cholera Cemetery.

Bedwellty

Bedwellty House is closely associated with the history of the town, from being the home of a wealthy industrialist, though to council chambers (where Nye Bevan regularly spoke), and now a public venue.

It is here that Keith gives his local history talk, unnerved by the presence of both a professional historian and the formality of the venue.

They were sitting in a meeting chamber of what had been the council offices before the Tories reorganized local authorities. The building, in the middle of the town park, was old and had once belonged to an ironmaster. p. 144
Bedwellty House, Tredegar
Bedwellty House, Tredegar. Photo by Timelapsed under Creative Commons

Ebbw Vale Steel Works

The steel works in Ebbw Vale was spread over a huge site. From its founding as an ironworks in the eighteenth century, it became the largest steel works in Europe.

Ebbw Vale Steel Works
Ebbw Vale Steel Works. Photo by Ian Taylor under Creative Commons
Ebbw Vale Steel Works in 1969
Ebbw Vale Steel Works in 1969. Photo by Peter Benton under Creative Commons

The novel begins and ends in the steel works, with 'O' clocking off. Listen to Christopher Meredith reading the opening paragraphs of the novel.

Meredith and his family had worked in the steel works:

I'd worked as a steelworker briefly while I was a student for a few months. My father was a steelworker, er, my younger brother was a steelworker for three or four years. He was a crane driver. And I, I, I was a steelworker for about a year myself. Even my older brother worked in the steelworks briefly as well. So I mean, it's, it's kind of a given you know, it was what I, it was stuff that I knew. It was stuff that I knew, and I, and I'd worked in, in the hot mill in Ebbw Vale, er, during its last year of operation. I'd also worked in a department called the open hearth before that, which doesn't figure in Shifts at all actually, but er, you know, so I knew that too, but I mean, you know, I, it was stuff that I, I kind of knew a bit about, so, you know, you, you make work out of what material there is and it was, it was what, what material there was.

This is how Jack sees it towards the end of the novel:

It was June and hard sunlight displayed all the details of the works. It was spread below them on the other side of the railings. Jack swept his eyes along it south to north, the full two miles from the south gate past the converter shop, the blast furnaces, the open hearth, the scrap bay, the coke ovens, all recently shut and decaying, and then the parts still working; the hot mill, slabyard, galv, pickler, cold mill, tinning lines, and all the other departments servicing these; boiler shop, sling shop, shoe shop, medical centre, garages, offices, railway lines, bridges. He had begun to understand how the place worked, or had worked, so that it no longer seemed, as it had at first with its ruddled stacks and rusting cathedrals, like the nightmare version of an utopian city, though a kind of city it was p. 181-2.
Ebbw Vale Steel Works in 1970
Inside Ebbw Vale Steel Works in 1970. Photo courtesy of People's Collection Wales under Creative Archive Licence

In Shifts workers are being kept on short contracts, managing the reduced production or decommissioning of different sections. It finally closed in 2002.

On O's last day he looks back again at the straggly trees outside the works:

After he [Clarry] had gone, O looked at the straggly, nearly dead trees on the bank. The slab mill was gone and the pulpit and the rest now. A nice, solving blank space. Perhaps there would be more leaves. (p. 214)
The site of the demolished Ebbw Vale Steel Works in 2005
The site of the demolished Ebbw Vale Steel Works in 2005. Photo by Peter Benton under Creative Commons

Listen to Christopher Meredith talk about on the gradual closure of the works. The novel is set in 1977 but the steelworks were not fully closed by the time the novel was published in 1988.

You can learn more about the history of the steel works at Ebbw Vale and see more pictures in these blog posts by Marnix Roels:

Inside the Steel Works

Inside Ebbw Vale Steel Works in 2005
Inside Ebbw Vale Steel Works in 2005. Photo courtesy of People's Collection Wales under Creative Archive Licence

Keith's efforts to understand the foundation and development of the iron town is set against the slow closure of the steel works in the neighbouring valley.

Keith has seen traces of a Welsh-language community in the town, and there are some traces inside the steelworks too – a motto on the wall in Welsh, significantly mis-identified as latin in the quote below.

Listen to Christopher Meredith reading an extract from the novel which describes the routine jobs the men take on, from the perspective of O.

The roller in the strip mill in Ravenscraig steelworks in 1985
The roller in the strip mill in Ravenscraig steelworks in 1985. Photo by Dave Wilson under Creative Commons

At times the interior of the steel works in Shifts recalls something of the cathedral-like scale of industrial workspaces is captured in early industrial imagery such as Penry Williams's 'Cyfarthfa Ironworks Interior at Night'.

Cyfarthfa Ironworks Interior at Night by Penry Williams
Cyfarthfa Ironworks Interior at Night by Penry Williams in Public Domain

Keith is there when the last slab is pushed through the hot mill, creating coil of steel that will be memorial tins. It is a predictably anti-climactic event. The grandeur of the industrial location, which at other moments recalls a cathedral in scale and perhaps awe, is not on show.

A pity there was no sun that day, no pars and shafts of light to make known to them the steamfilled space above their heads. Dinistr y deml, though not of course, diwedd y byd p. 211.

The words – dinistr y deml (destruction of the temple) and diwedd y byd (end of the world) – recall the religious notes handwritten on the card Keith had found in the condemned houses on Buchan Row. There is a tentative connection now between the Welsh-speaking past of the town and Keith's present. As he leaves the mill floor:

Climbing the steps to the bathhouse from the mill floor he noticed again the shield on the wall which showed a mill stand, square shouldered like a trilithon, and with a lightning bolt through it. Beneath was a motto:

ARWEINWYR YN Y MAES

He knew now that the last three words were Welsh for 'in the field' but did not know the meaning of the first. Taking the piece of blank paper and pencil from his boilersuit pocket he copied the motto. He would look it up p. 213.

The blank paper and pencil in his pocket recalls the earlier research trip to the north of the town. We are not told in the novel what 'arweinwyr' means, but if we follow Keith and look up the word, we will find that it means 'Leader'.

Jack is the most mobile character. He is returning, or possibly running away from, Accrington. His drive to return home is figured, ironically, as 'The old salmon leaping up the river'. At first he doesn't quite make it home, finding lodging in a valley to the east of the Steel Works. Eventually he finds lodgings with Judith and Keith. Nowhere seems permanent, and by the end of the novel he is off again.

Accrington

Jack seems to have left a girlfriend, possibly pregnant. The novel is suffused with images of childbirth.

Lodgings

Jack finds lodgings in a valley to the east of the steel works.

He was not yet, after all, back in his home town. After nearly two hundred miles, he had stopped exactly two valleys short p. 43.

Cholera Cemetery

Jack visits the cholera cemetery and lake on the hill above Cefn Golau estate. From this height he looks down over the town before he actually moves back to the valley of his birth.

Jack, near the top of the mountain, looked up as at the underside of a frozen lake. It was so clear that temporarily he thought that he had no hangover. Which was how it ought to have been, because this was journey's end, sort of.
Below him to the north east, his home town lay. A cushion of trees where the park was. A tumble of grey slated oblongs where the shopping streets followed the hill. The terraces opposite contouring the valley side. Gaps of demolition and the ageing-new estates. Far to the north where the valley disappeared into moorland were the factories. At the southern end, a tip, startling black in the hard light, in the process of being reclaimed. Above the terraces and a few posher houses on the eastern side of the valley were the pine plantations, much bigger than the Christmas trees he remembered, and above them the open mountain, frostwhitened. As a child he'd thought of the sea on the other side, or an endless tundra spiked with castles, but there was beyond the mountain the two miles' tangle of steelworks p. 69.
To the west slightly, saddled in a curve of the mountain he stood on, was the Grib pond, sheeted with a lens of white-grey ice. Grib pronounced grebe, like the bird. p. 69-70.
The Grib pond
The Grib pond.
Near the pond were the cemeteries.
Jack rocked back his head and looked at the sky.
A sense of space. Journey's end. The two sounded at odds, yet he felt them both. He felt, too, the blood move in his head. A full throb in his temples and pain in the eyeballs. Too much beer making a cramp in the head p. 70.

Places and sometimes events are seen from multiple perspectives in Shifts and the cholera cemetery and Grebe pond are important locations in Keith's plotline and important for the author himself.

Listen to Christopher Meredith talk about the significance of the cholera cemetery in interview.

Pubs and the 'Posh Hotel'

There are many pubs or social clubs in the novel and drinking is a central social activity, particularly for the men. In one scene, Jack and Keith go for a drink in a 'posh hotel', just off the circle where the clock tower stands. The modern incarnation of the hotel is unsettling and disconnected with its radical past.

It was uncomfortable. Keith preferred the bar of the Cefn. It could not have been so posh when the chartists had met there. People's clothes almost glowed in the dim alcoves. Without his glasses on, he saw their drinks catching the few lights as auburn or amber flares, people arranged in shifting groups around the shining circular tables like figures contorting around unreal fires. The cigarette smoke stung his weak eyes and the noise confused him.
He sweated in the press of standing people with Jack. There was an unnecessary arch made of old firebrick. Keith looked at the brickwork, old and cracked and roughly pointed, and build perhaps two years before to the brief of some consultant, no doubt with some concept like "characterfulness" in his notes. The name of the hotel was the only recognisible survival of its first days p. 86.

The 'hotel' is probably based on the Tredegar Arms, pictured here in 1970.

The Tredegar Arms Hotel, 1970
The Tredegar Arms Hotel, 1970. Photo courtesy of the Tredegar Community Archive.

This is the rather more down-to-earth Dukestown Working Men's club in Tredegar in 1976.

Dukestown Working Men's club in Tredegar, 1976
Dukestown Working Men's club in Tredegar, 1976. Photo courtesy of the Tredegar Community Archive.

Jack's Old House

Jack's journey home has been hesitant, stopping two valleys short of Tredegar, and then avoiding his childhood home. In this extract, read by Literary Atlas, Jack doesn't quite make it home once more. Paran Chapel is based on Siloh Chapel and Jack's house can be located on the now cleared land of Bridge Street.

Siloh Chapel, Tredegar
Siloh Chapel, Tredegar.
Bridge Street crossroads, Tredegar
Bridge Street crossroads, Tredegar.

Eventually Jack has to be told that the house has been pulled down.

Leaving

Jack has been the most mobile character. He rents a car and takes Jude on trips beyond the valley, to Gower and Hereford. At the end of the novel he leaves, hitch-hiking to some unspecified destination. The novel makes an ironic reference to How Green was my Valley?, published in 1939 by Richard Llewellyn and adapted for Hollywood in 1941.

This is Llewellyn's original:

I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley.
How Green was My Valley novel cover (left) and movie poster (right)
How Green was My Valley novel cover (left) and movie poster (right). Cover and poster from Wikipedia.

Jack's cynical narrative perspective is a witty parody which adopts and adapts the imagery of the original:

Not a wet eye in the head. Goodbye, goodbye, you stinking dugout. Mam have tied all my bits and bobs in a little blue cloth that she used to tie her hair in, or she might have done if she hadn't gone and died years ago, and there's glad I am not to look back at this hole in the earth. And it is holding my thumb out I am by this welshcake shaped roundabout while the small birds twitter in the September dawn and it is hammering past are the articulated lorries, the homely Welsh young exectives in their cosy company cars – see you them not? – and their suits of fine flannel at their heads tapping the tinted glass.
His blue rucksack was propped against a post p. 205.

In fact Meredith asserts that Jack can be an idealist as well as a cynic:

In Jack's case, I think, what we see, this is, this is my view, and other people might see it another way, but with Jack, what we see is, um, actually there's a metaphor of, of quest in, in Jack's thinking. You know. He's got a science fiction novel in the bottom of his locker, about er, this solving crystal at the far end of the universe, you know, in a cave, and if you can only go there and find this, every, all, you know, the, the problem of whatever it is will be solved. And er, for all his er apparent cynicism, um, Jack vacillates between wanting to make fun about looking at things, and actually perceiving, or wanting to perceive life as a pursuit, a quest, a search, um, an attempt at meaning, and er, he kind of admires Keith for having had an attempt, er, that idea of an attempt at stuff, um, but I mean, how real is, is what he, what he does. I mean, he's, he has this metaphor of quest, um, but actually there's a, there's a countervailing set of images of escape, of running away, and, which is he doing? You know, to what extent. Is he, is he, you know, er, looking for, moving towards some clarity. To what extent is he escaping from, from the nature of things?

Like much industrial fiction, the character's narrative life ends once they leave the valley, and we do not follow his journey.

Judith's world revolves around the town where she goes shopping and the estate on the steep side of the valley. These 'domestic' spaces often mirror the more 'industrial' places occupied by the men in the novel. Much of Judith's life is lived internally – her dreams, thoughts are often more prominent than her observations or actions. But hers is an important perspective, as Christopher Meredith points out.

Butcher's Shop

We first meet Judith in the butcher's shop, where she feels awkward and out of place. She is the opposite of the traditional literary valleys Welsh Mam. The space of the butchers, with its white-tiled walls, mirrors the waiting room of the steel works where we have just seen Jack trying to get a job and which Jack imagines as a waiting room in a doctor's surgery, short-term contracts handed out like prescriptions.

Judith waited at the back of the crowd in the butcher's shop. She knew that it was always a mistake to come out this late, even on a Thursday. Sprightly pensioners and smartly dressed plump women in hats were at the counter where thy elbowed one another for position and pursed their lips sceptically when the butcher or his assistant held up a prime cut for inspection. Judith couldn't stomach all that pretending and haggling. She preferred to walk to several shop windows and find something good on display, but this shop was the nearest and it was too late now to go on to the others, the January afternoon already growing murky. She would have to stand and transact with the shopkeeper. … She stared at the white tiled walls, listening to the hum of the black refrigeration machine on top of the coldroom p. 13.

Judith hangs back, 'haggling' with Maudie – whose husband is dying of cancer – over who is served last.

Finally Maudie put a bony hand on the glass counter and looked nervously at the assistant. 'Got any scraps, love?'
The assistant looked at the butcher and the butcher sighed, looking at the floor. He scraped together a few bones and some dripping for Maudie. She gushed thanks and traipsed her thin body away.
As Judith chose her cuts, she realized why Maudie had kept at the back p. 14.

Cefn Golau Estate

Judith and Keith live in a house near the top of Cefn Golau council estate. It is exposed to the weather, but offers spectacular views across the town to the valley on the other side.

The Cefn Golau council estate
The Cefn Golau council estate. Photo courtesy of www.tredegar.co.uk.

She walked the mile or so back to the estate. It was very cold, but she would get colder still if she waited for the bus. The estate was near the top of the mountain on the western side of the valley. They had been lucky to get the council house so soon after getting married, three years before, and although it was a cold place for most of the year she liked the view across the valley to the pine plantations and terraces, and she had begun to tame a small corner of the tussocky back garden. In the spring there would be crocuses and daffodils and before then she would try to do something with the grass. You couldn't call it a lawn yet. The previous summer in the heat wave, the scorched grass had been matted with deep rooted weeds, their straggling stems intricate with tiny leaves. And Keith of course barely knew that the garden existed p. 14.

Cefn Golau estate is slightly removed from the centre of town and though Judith is friends with some of the neighbours, her isolation and detachment are reflected in her view across the valley.

In the afternoon, from the livingroom window, she looked at the drenched mountains and felt elated. The cloud was high and the air seemed full of colour. She could see below in the valley a flight of starlings catching the light when they turned p. 164.
The Cefn Golau council estate
The Cefn Golau council estate.

Though Judith is reticent when faced with the gossip and stories of birth, children and death which are furnished by her neighbours. This video "Cefn Golau: We Live Here" by Made in Tredegar shows a more vibrant sense of society and belonging on the estate.

Mappa Mundi

Jack hires a car – a yellow Ford Capri he can't afford to buy. It's his for a week in July and he takes Judith on 'jaunts' to Gower and Hereford.

Jack and Judith visit one of the Gower beaches.

Nicholaston Woods at eastern end of Oxwich Bay
Nicholaston Woods at eastern end of Oxwich Bay. Photo by Peter Robinson under Creative Commons

Judith and Jack visit Hereford and view the Mappa Mundi in the cathedral. In this extract, read by Literary Atlas, Jack's choice of simile – seeing Britain like a 'wrinkled foetus' is just one of the many references or images of babies and childbirth which recur in the novel.

The Mappa Mundi
The Mappa Mundi. Photo by Bjoertvedt under Creative Commons
Hereford Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral. Photo by David Iliff under Creative Commons.

Homeward

One critic has said “Shifts explores a pre-feminist world.” He argues that Judith is a core around which men move and that her “fulfillment is to be gained by means of men or not at all.” Perhaps that is her expected role, but by the end of the novel she seems to see a future detached from men – or at least from Jack and Keith. In this scene, read by Literary Atlas, set in an unspecified area of farmland, between Hereford and Tredegar, watching a tractor that is uprooting a hedge (this was a time of agricultural as well as industrial change), Judith ends her relationship with Jack.

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