Title: The Water Music and Other Stories
Author: Glyn Jones
Published: 1944, George Routledge and Sons
This is the first full collection of Glyn Jones stories I’ve read. Previous to this, my only experience of Jones’ writing was the short story Jordan from the Peter Haining collection Great Welsh Fantasy Stories (a quick aside: this title is from the 2000 edition of the anthology, whereas the 1974 edition has the slightly more evocative title of The Magic Valley Travellers: Welsh Tales of Fantasy and Horror… but that’s for another post).
I’m very glad I read Jordan in that anthology, as Glyn Jones has fast become one of my favourite Welsh writers. Born in Merthyr Tydfil (also my home town) in 1905, Glyn Jones was among the expanding collective of Welsh authors writing in English in the 20th century. My knowledge of this literary movement is severely lacking at the moment, but The Water Music and Other Stories has been an excellent introduction to Jones’ work. Published in 1944, The Water Music is Jones’ second collection of short stories. His first, The Blue Bed (1935) was published on the suggestion of his friend Dylan Thomas. His last collection of short fiction was titled Welsh Heirs (1977), and each of the stories from these three collections can all be found in 1999’s Collected Stories of Glyn Jones.
I admit that I expected Jones’ story Jordan to be a particularly dark and horrific example of his work, so that it would fit neatly into the previously mentioned anthology of horror fiction, but I did not expect that the darkness and horror would be found in The Water Music to the extent that it actually is. Each of the stories in this collection are dark and foreboding and unsettling in their own way, and are mostly enveloped in a Welsh, nonconformist belief system which gives way for an exploration of the hardships of the people (both individuals and communities) of South Wales in the inter-war years. At times it could be argued that the stories read as parables of the religious Welsh working class.
As a Merthyr Tydfil native, I could identify the surroundings of many of the stories as my own home town – something that no doubt added to my enjoyment of the writing. Other tales are situated on the Welsh coast, often in Carmarthenshire, but regardless of the geographical setting, what shines through in the majority of these stories are Jones’ descriptions of the (both spoilt and unspoilt, urban and rural, industrial and rustic) landscape of South Wales. Another element of Jones’ writing which was a great pleasure for me to read is his use of South Wales dialects and colloquialism. Before reading this, I can honestly say I had never read the word “twti” in a published book.
Jones was a Christian, and whilst these stories do not necessarily preach Christian values, there is a definite religious undertone to each of the tales. At times it feels as though Jones’ personal religious doubts and questions of faith are presented here within the text. Through the pastoral, frequently bleak and even sometimes surreal situations and locales, you can often experience a sense of redemption, and even damnation, through the texts. This made it an even more interesting read for me, as I’ve not previously read any Welsh writing in English that deals (albeit implicitly) with the concepts and themes of Welsh nonconformist Christianity, but it’s something I’d like to read more of in the future. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily place this under “Christian Literature” – the stories hold up very well without any kind of religious reading, but as I discovered more about Jones’ life and religious beliefs about half way through The Water Music, it certainly added a new layer of meaning to the stories.
The stories here deal primarily with youth and adolescence, which is an observation I regrettably did not make until the last two or three stories. In presenting the majority of the stories through the eyes of children, Jones can offer us difficult situations and crises within the community with an air of innocence and possibly good nature. Drowning, suicide attempts and pit explosions are all viewed through the eyes of schoolchildren, and so whilst the subject matter can often be harsh and difficult to process, it is sometimes softened by the way in which the reader experiences it in this way, which in itself can also be quite unsettling – something I am sure Jones was aware of when writing.
One of the most enjoyable things in this collection was Jones’ poetic and often surrealistic prose that runs through the whole of the book. The stories are deeply rich in detail and Jones frequently presents strange and unsettling imagery from the very start of each tale. The following quotation, taken from the first story in the book, The Apple-Tree, is a powerful section of poetic prose and also a great example of Jones’ unforgiving style:
“I saw the agony under forgotten grave-stones, and the cemetery tree eating the mourning child. I saw birth buried and the unearthing of death like treasure, the worm working at his thigh and the sovereign yellow in his teeth.”
The imagery is savage and violent, but there is also a stillness here. The above quote is taken from the first few pages of the first tale, but similar imagery is present throughout the whole collection, which can give the reader a sense of a tumultuous nation, not necessarily at war with itself, but certainly aware and accepting of the duality of its many facets – industry and agriculture, rural to urban, faith with doubt, and life over death.