The Genre of Frontiers by Math Bird

Math Bird

In this so-called era of globalisation, we don’t have to look too far to see the increasing significance of borders. From Brexit to He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s controversial wall, globalisation, ‘despite being commonly associated with a “borderless world,” has produced more rather than fewer borders, increasing rather than decreasing their complexity.’[1]

Growing up in the northeast corner of Wales, borders have played a significant part in my understanding of place. Most of northeast Wales lies on the border between England and Wales. Neither fish nor fowl, it’s an in-between place. Arguably, this could apply to most borderlands and cross-border territories—each a curious amalgam of social and cultural landscapes. Place plays a significant role in our lives. Our sense of it, and whether we feel ‘in’ or ‘out’ of place affects who we are, what we were, whom we might become.

Crime and noir fiction provides an excellent vehicle to explore notions of belonging, ‘inhabitant’ or ‘outsider’, social and geographical borders, the conflicts between the rural and the urban—the periphery and the centre. And, there are many crime, noir, hardboiled novels based in, and centred around Wales and its regions, that explore such notions; however, this article focuses on three.

What these novels share is the exploration of what Ralph Harper, in his book The World of the Thriller (1968), refers to as the ‘the literature of boundary situations’.[2] The boundaries to which he refers to are, of course, moral and legal boundaries—as set by society and the law, ‘special situations,’ such as murder, greed, fate, jealousy and guilt, which force individuals to cross these moral and legal boundaries. However, as we shall see, these boundaries can also be cultural, geographical, spatial, and ideological, too.

Raymond Williams’s The Volunteers depicts an imagined 1980s set against the backdrop of the striking coalfields of South Wales. The story’s narrated from the viewpoint of its main protagonist, Lewis Redfern, a cynical investigative reporter of Welsh extraction. Redfern, a former left-wing political activist, now works for the Insatel Global News Corporation as a ‘consultant analyst’, reporting on the political underground, using ‘his knowledge of subversive political groups to point his colleagues towards the juiciest, most lucrative stories’.[3]

Redfern has parallels with Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, and Raymond Chandler’s ‘crusader/knight’ Philip Marlowe, and Williams uses the archetypal hardboiled protagonist to good effect. Redfern is an investigator whose sole activity is ‘exposure,’ who ‘not only enquires into entrenched power structures but engages in combat against them’.[4]

Through Redfern’s investigation of a mysterious group of political activists, known only as The Volunteers, Williams’s exploration of borders takes a more ideological approach. He focuses on margin-centre conflicts, the tensions between striking miners and local government. He also views Wales not only as a subset of the United Kingdom but as a region of a much larger, global dominance.

More significantly, he explores how neo-colonial forces, such as globalisation and mass communication, affect regional identity, and local cultural traditions. As illustrated, when, following the attempted assassination of a government minister at St. Fagan’s folk museum in Cardiff, Redfern is sent to investigate and observes:

What this place offered, after all, was a version of the life of a people: a version, characteristically, that attracted official visits.[5]

What claims to be the history, stories, and cultural variations of a given region, is, in fact, a conditioned response, a regional narrative that is reshaped by, conforms to, and is decontextualised by the dominant, homogeneous narratives that are purveyed.

Through The Volunteers, Williams’s notions of displacement are explored through ideological border spaces. What I mean by this is, like his region, Redfern is stranded between the cultural and political affiliations of his past and the disconnected, cynicism of his present situation. Through Redfern’s investigation of, and final reckoning with former Labour minister, and leader of the volunteers, Mark Evans, Redfern questions and reevaluates his political allegiances, resulting in him crossing back over the ‘border’ into political activism, and, ironically, becoming a volunteer.

Another Cardiff-based novel, which explores centre-margin border conflicts, although focusing more on Cardiff and its burgeoning disconnection with the Welsh hinterland beyond it, is Duncan Bush’s brilliant noir novel Glass Shot. Set in 1984 against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, Glass Shot is narrated by its main protagonist, thirty-six-year-old Stew Boyle, a Cardiff-based garage mechanic of Maltese-Irish descent.

Recently separated from his wife and children, Boyle now lives alone. Known locally as Yank, American-movie-obsessed Boyle dresses like a cowboy and drives a 1957 Thunderbird, cruising around the capital and its periphery, where, as Tony Bianchi suggests ‘empty space and its open possibilities are always present at the borders of the known’.[6]

Places and interior spaces, in the form of bedrooms, living rooms, the city’s alleyways and streets, rural villages, and the Brecon Beacons National Park, are significant themes throughout the novel. Bush uses them to map out his region and its related borders and explore an alternative sense of place. It is ‘a sense of place that reflects a gap between the dominant ideological and aesthetic interests and the interests and stories of persons who reside in the locale’.[7]

Bush also explores themes of displacement as illustrated when Boyle drives to the Brecon Beacons to spy on his ex-wife, travelling to a place that is beyond the centre, still part of Wales, but separated by distance:

[…] one more dirty-looking, Welsh, played-out little village, don’t even ask me to pronounce the name of it. Just another place that grew up around a hole in the ground twenty miles from nowhere […].[8]

Interestingly, when Boyle eventually travels beyond the village, and into the hills and the valley beyond, he imagines it as another place, likening it to Montana and Wyoming; it’s ‘like a background you’d see in a film. Or some Shangri-La, another mountain land painted on glass’.[9] Such themes are reflective of the novel’s title:

Glass shot. A shot obtained through a glass plate on which part of the scene has been painted. This Special Effect can be used to simulate elaborate locations without the need to construct expensive sets.[10]

Such blending of fantasy and reality works on multiple levels. Through intermittent flashbacks we learn of Boyle’s violent history and that some of the sexual conquests he lists in his scrapbook are, in fact, his victims. What makes this even more unsettling is how Boyle tries to paint another picture. He justifies his actions, convincing himself that his victims were willing, and grateful participants.

Boyle’s disillusionment and his reimagining of social and geographical borders work well. Cardiff, like Boyle, focuses in on itself and tries to reimagine itself in relation to a more globalised culture. This positions the regions beyond the periphery of the centre into what Jeanette Leyes describes as, a ‘paradoxical border space’.[11] The paradox is that, as the social and cultural gaps grow wider, the centre identifies even more with a globalised mass-culture, which, in Boyle’s case, is American television and films.

Boyle’s reimagining of people and places is only a snapshot. The results of this, in reference to both Boyle’s delusions and the centre’s perception of what lies beyond its geographical borders, is that: ‘there is never a stable, unitary knowledge of reality: never the ‘whole picture’.[12]

If we look beyond the centre and travel west, we find another exploration of borders, in Niall Griffiths’s crime novel Stump. Like many of Griffith’s novels, Stump uses its main protagonists to explore the contrasts between urban, rural, cultural and geographical borders. There is a distinct reference to geographical boundaries.

Griffiths explores the Dyfi valley in west Wales, its surrounding forests and villages, and the town of Aberystwyth. He shows how the environment can influence regional consciousness, and how each character reacts to, and to some degree, is shaped by these settings. However, what’s more interesting is that he’s less concerned with how these environments affect the local inhabitants, but focuses more on the effect they have on the outsiders travelling through them.

Griffiths interweaves the story of its main protagonist (a Liverpudlian, one-armed, recovering drug addict who now lives in Aberystwyth) with the story of Darren and Ally (two small-time Liverpudlian criminals who have been hired to find him).

As Ally and Darren travel from Liverpool to Aberystwyth, the landscape becomes less familiar. The ‘earth swelling, beginning to bulge, […] into mounds and hills then higher still into mountains, dark shadows streaking across them as the weak sun is gulped by cloud and ancient earthworks’.[13]

Griffiths uses the notions of borders, and particularly the crossing of them, to explore regional determinism. For Darren, the land beyond the border is an unforgiving landscape. The wide-open spaces accentuate his sense of detachment. He feels vulnerable; he has less control when compared to the autonomy he feels on the urban, Liverpudlian streets. This alien landscape heightens Darren’s sense of inadequacy. He grows more agitated. His predilection towards violence proliferates as the landscape encourages his darker impulses.

The antithesis to Darren’s response is illustrated through his, long-suffering, sidekick, Ally. For Ally, crossing the border awakens a regional consciousness that, for most of his life has been subdued by a more strident, urbanised regional voice. The land has a more liberating effect on him, his regional affiliations, albeit briefly, are renewed.

What Stump and the other novels show, as indeed do lots of crime and noir fiction, is that there’s no singular definition of a given place or the borders that define it. Borders and places exist as many things and affect us in many ways. Moreover, thanks to the novels, novellas and stories from All Due Respect, Down & Out Books, Spinetingler magazine and many more, we can explore them from the comfort of our home. Allow our notions of them to evolve. Bear witness to the ill-fated souls who wander beyond those social and geographical borders, which, hopefully, we’ll never be foolish enough to cross.

[1] Popescu, Gabriel. Bordering and Ordering the Twenty-first Century: Understanding Borders (Human Geography in the Twenty-First Century: Issues and Applications) (Kindle Locations 3072-3075). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition
[2] Ralph Harper, The World of the Thriller (Ohio: Cleveland University Press, 1968), p. 51.
[3] Raymond Williams, The Volunteers (Wales: Parthian, 2011), p. x.
[4] Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) p.24.
[5] Ibid., p. 29.
[6] Tony Bianchi, ‘Aztecs in Troedrhiwgwair: recent fictions in Wales’, in Peripheral Visions: Images of Nationhood, ed. by Ian A Bell (Cardiff: Cardiff University Press, 2008), pp. 44-76 (p. 61).
[7] Marjorie Pryse, ‘Writing Out of the Gap’, in A Sense of Place, ed. by Christian Riegel and Herb Wylie (Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1997), pp. 19-34 (p.24).
[8] Duncan Bush, Glass Shot (London: Mandarin, 1993), p. 56.
[9] Ibid., p. 57.
[10] Ibid., p. x.
[11] Jeanette Lynes, ‘Is Newfoundland Inside that T.V.?’, in A Sense of Place, ed. by Christian Riegel and Herb Wylie (Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1997), pp. 81-94 (p.90).
[12] Bianchi, Peripheral Visions, p. 62.
[13] Niall Griffiths, Stump (London: Vintage,2004), p.55

Welsh writer Math Bird’s stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and Radio Wales, and appeared in magazines and anthologies. A collection of his noir and crime stories can be found in Histories of the Dead and Other Stories. All Due Respect Books will be publishing his novel Welcome to HolyHell in October 2018.