The anti-pastoral of Cynan Jones
I’m a Londoner through and through; a city person fascinated by everything the city is not. The rural worlds outside of mine are compelling, attractive, and occasionally frightening. I admit, as I head into my thirties, I feel the pull of an idea of being out in the country somewhere. Woods within walking distance, a hill containing the remains of some ancient fort, bird species beyond magpies and pigeons.
I try and resist the pull of that bogus fantasy of the British countryside, and focus, I hope, a little more on the realities. I feel the pull of the rural (I say rural because what is natural, in Britain, really?), but I know it’s not there for me to find solace in. I know it can be grim and violent. That forms part of the fascination. Blood, soil and human frailty, in a place I don’t fully understand.
I’m not the only one with this fascination. There’s an earthy, bloody, poetic and tough (often masculine, occasionally visionary) genre of British writing that focuses on the wild and the rural. It’s resolutely anti-pastoral. My first real exposure to this kind of writing were the novels of Niall Griffiths, specifically Grits, Sheepshagger and Runt (essential reading for anyone with an interest in landscape writing). This genre also includes the work of writers like Jim Crace (Harvest), Magnus Mills (The Restraint of Beasts) and Ross Raisin (God’s Own Country). This year I came across the work of Welsh writer Cynan Jones, a striking addition to this small but important canon. Jones’s fourth novel The Dig was published by Granta earlier this year. I was drawn to it not only by my interest in the specifics of place and contemporary British landscape fiction, but also by a glowing endorsement from Niall Griffiths, and, perhaps most importantly, the subject matter: badger-baiting in Wales.
I love visiting Wales: an archetypal London wanker clogging up public footpaths in too-bright clothing and gawping at sheep.
Within pages I was treated to Jones’ spare prose at its most brutal, and was hooked:
Its top lip was in a snarl and looked exaggerated and some of the teeth were smashed above the lower jaw, hanging and loose where they had broken it with a spade to give the dogs a chance.
I love visiting Wales. I imagine by some I’m considered an archetypal London wanker clogging up public footpaths in too-bright clothing and gawping at sheep. I was aware, on some distant level, that illegal blood sports like badger baiting persisted into the twenty-first century. It’s an issue I tried to push out of my mind.
In The Dig, Jones brings this brutal and anachronistic subculture into the light, in prose with a quality that approaches that of verse: beautiful but restrained. Jones bills himself as “a writer of short novels”; an interesting distinction for a writer to make. For whatever reason, length still seems to be equated with quality when it comes to fiction, in Britain at least. To find a writer tackling compelling subjects in a short, effective style is very attractive. Barely passing the 150 page mark, The Dig dives head-first into the nasty world of illegal badger baiting.
Taking place in an unnamed region of Wales, it follows the intertwining lives of the unnamed badger baiter (only referred to as “the big man” or “the big gypsy”, as archetypal a part of his landscape as the animals he hunts) and Daniel, a farmer suffering from a recent personal tragedy. This is a keenly evoked landscape, beautiful and melancholic, where the monstrous and the wondrous co-exist, and life and death are never far apart. Describing the arrival of the lambing season, Daniel reflects on “the ancientness of this thing he does, that he could be a man of any age”. This sentiment applies equally to hunter, farmer, and animal – each fulfilling archetypal roles in an ancient landscape. This is the reality of the countryside. These things happen whether we like it or not.
We think of lambs as beautiful, holy even. Children pet them in city farms, the BBC broadcasts the lambing season for all to see. Jones renders the reality of what can happen: “drowned in its own bag, the strange hernia of bag split and bulbing from the uterus, the dead lamb’s head magnified in the fluid of its failed birth”. It’s an echo the dead calf of his first novel, The Long Dry, where this beautiful horror is again rendered in unsettling imagery: “Emmy was by him now, looking at the dead black calf. It looked to her like a patch of wet tarmac on a new road.”
Like many novels that focus on hunter and prey (I was reminded at times of Julia Leigh’s phenomenal Tasmanian novel, The Hunter, in terms of both the terse poetic style, the brevity and the subject matter) The Dig suggests that, however awful his actions, the hunter understands this environment in ways that few others could. The refusal to bestow a real identity, a name even, to the baiter makes him seem an elemental being, something wild and unknowable himself, and as such, frightening. This ancientness Jones hints at is picked up here. The hunter is a product of this landscape as much as the badgers and the lambs. He is in context.
Jones presents a simple fact: the hunter that you find so reprehensible, knows far more about badgers and the landscape they live in, than you do. It’s an uncomfortable truth to accept.
Harsh realities are unflinchingly depicted in gorgeous prose in all three of Jones’s main novels, be it the disintegrating life of the family in The Long Dry or the very real, parallel economic hardships of Polish migrant Grzegorz and Welsh fisherman, Hold, in Everything I Found on the Beach. Other characters are again made archetypal, animalistic. The owlish man. The Scouser. The big man. Human sorrow and animal pain corresponding:
One phrase, that she said over and over, had stuck itself into his mind, and it was difficult to forget and like seeing the eye of an animal you are about to kill look right into you.
Critics have drawn comparisons with the muscular, masculine writing to come out of the USA, Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy especially. Certainly, there’s something of McCarthy in Jones’s dispassionate yet poetic descriptions tackling both the mundane realities of rural life and its shocking violence: the badger hunts, the breech births, the ‘glistening ropes of gut’ from a skinned rabbit. At other times, Jones’s style is reminiscent of Niall Griffiths, though quieter and more measured, and what it does is present a clear antidote to any rural fantasy the reader may have been entertaining; Deep Country it is not.
The Dig is, admittedly, a hard novel to read, sickening at times and guaranteed to anger.
There could be an argument made that these novels appeal to a kind of literary rubbernecker; staring at a different world, getting some illicit tourist kick and vicarious thrills from the pages of these books. The Dig is, admittedly, a hard novel to read, sickening at times and guaranteed to anger. Everything I Found on the Beach is bleak and melancholic, but filled with genuine humanity and love, a clear-eyed look at the desperation caused by poverty and the simple desire to do better for your family. The Long Dry is a gorgeous, heat-soaked account of a farming family’s disintegration over one drought-filled summer; a brilliant look at emotional isolation within family units.
Admittedly, this does all sounds a bit depressing. Why would someone want to read such writing? Cynan Jones doesn’t reassure or patronise the reader, he wastes no time getting to the point and is, in the end, true. This is landscape writing with nothing twee, no whimsy: just beauty and bleakness, side by side. It realises that we are, all, just products of our environment.
Cynan Jones – The Dig is published by Granta.
Image credit: Chris Frewin