Hay. Hay-on-Wye. Y Gelli Gandryll. North-east of the Brecon Beacons, south-east of the River Wye. North of the Black Mountains, where Brycheiniog meets Maesyfed and Cymru meets Lloegr. Y Gelli from the Welsh celli for woods. Hay from the Old English hæg, a ‘fenced area’ or an enclosure in a forest. Castles, bookshops, mountains, woods. Border country.
Earlier this week at the Festival, Michael Sheen and Leanne Wood discussed with Daniel G. Williams the continued relevance of the work of Raymond Williams in understanding the Welsh psyche. Williams hailed from Pandy – a five-and-a-half-hour trek down Offa’s Dyke from Hay.
For the great cultural critic, whose work includes the novels Border Country and People of the Black Mountains, the uncertainty and complexity of a border sensibility was key to understanding self, community and nation. Williams also wrote Keywords, a classic work that traced the complex histories of concepts such as ‘art’, ‘culture’, ‘nature’, ‘originality’ and ‘work’ through cultural criticism rather than etymology.
But even a cursory search throws up contradictory ideas about ‘border’. It can be a noun – to mean ‘frontier’, ‘boundary’, ‘partition’, ‘dividing line’ – but its verb splits off in two directions. To border can be to ‘surround’, ‘enclose’, ‘edge’, ‘skirt’, ‘fringe’ or ‘flank’, each with its own connotations and peculiarities. But ‘to border’ can also denote something quite different: to ‘touch’, ‘neighbour’, ‘adjoin’, ‘connect’, ‘meet’ or ‘reach’.
It’s this latter sense that I explore in the novel I’ll be talking about at Hay on Wednesday 2 June. Many Rivers to Cross is set in a world dominated by borders: partition lines drawn up by colonial powers, fences erected to keep out refugees and migrants, and the barricades all of us erect to structure our sense of who is ‘them’ and who is ‘us’.
But my hope is that it demonstrates other possibilities: small but significant disruptions within this world we are all doomed to navigate. Moments of connection, of neighbourliness, of reaching out across walls and fences and the cold, hard frontiers in our own hearts and minds.
Hay, of course, is a great place to consider borders. And so, too, is Newport, where I live and where the novel is largely set (although fittingly for a book about crossing both many rivers and other kinds of borders besides, it is also set in Addis Ababa, Lampedusa, the so-called ‘Jungle’ camp near Calais, and the Mediterranean Sea).
In this short excerpt, two of my characters sit looking across the Severn Estuary, another piece of the Wales-England border country Williams describes, the type of place – metaphorically at least – that is everywhere now:
“That day we sat on the seawall, a miles-long barrier of concrete raised above the level of the fields, where the land ends and the sea begins. Selam had brought with her a packet of chips wrapped in thick sheets of white paper. We dangled our feet over the edge of the wall like children, enjoying the feeling of being close, although our coats were thick and the wind was strong.
The tide was out and beneath us the flats stretched out toward the distant river like a desert. It was as if I saw the past in diorama. The way the mud had been shaped by the water – its gentle inclines, rivulet trickles and the pock-mark footprints of the wading birds – made it seem like we were inside a satellite looking down at the Earth.
When I told Selam what I was thinking she laughed and shook her head as if talking to a crazy person, so I didn’t tell her that from here it seemed to me that Wales was the coast of Africa, and that the other side of the wide river where we could see the houses of England in the glinting sunlight was Europe.
Instead I let her speak and she told me the place was called Somerset. I heard it as summer set, like the disappearance of the sun or the end of the season, and so I suggested we stay until the time that it would start to go dark.
Moisture had come right through the paper that wrapped the chips and so we opened the packet to release the steam while bits of wet paper floated into the wind like ash. It wasn’t raining exactly, but the wind was strong and kept changing direction, and every now and again it would contain little droplets of water that you couldn’t tell if they had come from the sky or the sea. In the distance we could see the bridge, wide H-shaped stanchions supporting miles of cables holding two countries together.
Downwind and downriver a flag was waving – flashes of green and white, a dragon with a tongue of fire. For a moment, I considered talking about flags, and nations, but I can’t bring myself to mention politics when it might jeopardise love.
Instead I sighed, and lowered my shoulder hoping Selam might rest her head while we waited for the sun to go down. A group of birds crossed the sky in formation, making a V, taking turns to lead.
When we were full from eating chips, we scattered the remainder for the gulls. That was the last time I ate chips with Selam.”
Dylan Moore is a former Hay Festival Creative Wales International Fellow, visiting and writing about Hay's global festivals. His first book was Driving Home Both Ways, a collection of travel essays. He teaches English at Llanwern High School, Newport and edits The Welsh Agenda, a current affairs magazine. Watch the event of Sunday 2 June 2021 again on Hay Player. He also interviewed Mererid Hopwood, this year's Cymrawd Rhyngwladol Cymru Greadigol Hay Festival 2020-21/Hay Festival Creative Wales International Fellow on Sunday 30 May 2021. You can watch that here