Monday, February 18, 2008

John Summer's "Edge of Violence": Book Review

On the very short shelf of books about the nationalist campaign and republican activists in late 1960s and early 70s Wales, this remains an intriguing if erratic blend of fact and fiction, adventure and memoir. Originally published in hardcover by Leslie Frewin in 1969 under this title, it appeared a year later in a "revised and updated edition" as a pulp paperback in the New English Library as "The Disaster," excising a chapter; there may be more excisions or additions that will have to await my comparison. It's a relatively brisk-- pitched for a mass-market audience-- novelization of a London-based journalist's true-life involvement with the efforts to gain the charity funds held up from being distributed to the families who lost children in the 1966 Aberfan coal-tip collapse. 166 died when an enormous heap of slag buried a school. The pressure for Westminster to pay up comes from locals who, emboldened if not exactly connected to a shadowy Free Wales Army, threaten to blow up an abandoned factory tower if their demands for allocations of the funds sent from all over the world to the demolished village are not paid out.

The novel's pace ebbs and flows. Summers incorporates, according to an acknowledgement, portions of his earlier journalism that I assume covered Aberfan and the dam-destroying explosives set by the FWA. These remain the book's best sections. They energize with blunt eyewitness descriptions, terse dialogue, and vivid details. Similarly, the struggles of a seaman turned starving journalist ring very true; poverty and desperation both leap off the page dramatically and movingly.

As Summers writes for a wider British audience, however, the tendency of the now-successful journalist "John Parry" to play devil's advocate against the FWA does draw the narrative out more than necessary. He suspects the militants who "destroy the present to preserve the past." (183) Yet, the damage done to the "pre-stressed" dam represents, he admits grudgingly, a revolt against the numb world of "accidie," of complacent consumerism and what later we'd call a monoculture.

Parry sends up both the barstool patriot endemic to pan-Celtic rabble-rousing and the poison-pen press who denigrate any attempt by a people to redress past and present wrongs. His caricatures of Celtic one-man armies and his send-up of Pearsean rebel excess do make for intermittently easy targets, but Summers does attempt to inform a readership likely totally ignorant of Welsh nationalisms about its contexts, ideals, and rivalries within the context of flower-power revolutionaries and fiery 1960s rhetoric. The stand-ins for Dennis Coslett, Julian Cayo Evans and perhaps a few other flesh-and-blood Welsh volunteers may provide valuable contrasts with the actual figures that Summers knew-- for those in the know.

Eventually, Parry ensures that no violence documented by him will harm anyone by the FWA's actions; Summers fairly depicts Free Welsh efforts to damage property and not people that would distinguish them from certain of their Irish counterparts later in the Troubles. While he never becomes totally convinced of their motives, Parry learns to listen to FWA arguments for radical change. Honor, he learns, hinges on whether the FWA will or will not blow up the dam. Which would be more worthy a goal for their cause? At least, he reasons, the world will at last listen to Wales.

Parry laments the Welsh tendency towards bemoaning one's fate without acting to change one's predicament. He praises the FWA and the Aberfan fund drive for what Aneurin Bevan sought as an antidote "in place of fear." Yet, Parry himself seems but half-matured; the curious repetition of Parry's flings with not one but two spirited, sophisticated, and well-off Jewish women generous with their amourous favors does remain odd. Perhaps the now very-distant echo of the post-Six Day War romance in the West with Zionism may play a cameo role? Parry abandons his first paramour abruptly and cruelly, and I waited in vain for any later repairing of the damage done to her. Parry's not without his flaws, and perhaps Summers created him so close to the bone that his own perspective became foreshortened?

The real-world events that Summers labored to effect for Aberfan's recovery mingle with the protests by the FWA that also engaged the media at the same time. Therefore, the climax of the novel revolves around whether the legal effort to challenge the charity laws preventing distribution to Aberfan will succeed, or whether the threat of the destruction of the obsolete factory tower will arouse attention previously unpaid to the community. This novel, although at times awkward, does delve into a neglected nation's yearning for identity and equality in a decade whose own desires for idealism, equality, and peace inspired action rather than lassitude. Summers, for his real-life contributions as well as this novel, earned his place in righting past wrongs for the Welsh people he portrays here for the British audience.

Cover of "The Disaster" from an interview by Anthony Brockway with Summers:
Cover of "Edge of Violence" from a page linked to this interview with more on the novel:

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