By Jane Fraser
The South Westerlies was the natural title to give to my first collection of short fiction published by SALT in June 2019. All eighteen stories (edited down from the original twenty-three that I submitted for my PhD at Swansea University in 2017) are given cohesion by the geographic location of the Gower peninsula, south Wales, and the dismal tone of the prevalent rain-laden south-westerly wind that blows across its shores, affecting everything in its path. Perhaps even its people.
The Gower peninsula is my home patch, my milltir sgwar (square mile) in Welsh: latitude 51 degrees north, 4 degrees west, an administrative part of the City & County of Swansea, south Wales, and the UK’s first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And it is indeed beautiful – sandy beaches, dramatic limestone cliffs, marshes and moorlands, ancient churches and castles, and soaked in myth and folklore – all within a compact and accessible finger of land stretching out into the Atlantic at Wales’ western edge. It is no surprise it is much vaunted as a tourism destination.
But my experience of living in Gower for almost fifty years had shown me another side of Gower, a place once referred to as ‘too beautiful, perhaps, for its own good’. A place that when the sun stops shining, and the tourists have left, it often rains on the horizontal, and second homes lie empty, and farms and farmers struggle, and an out-of-season feeling hangs heavy in the dank air.
For the purpose of my fiction in this collection, this was my perspective, and where I deliberately chose my gaze to fall. My stories therefore aim to convey what I feel are real glimpses of lives lived behind Gower’s pasteurised façade and its highly marketed tourism product.
Of course my stories are not real, but they reflect the thinking of the American academic and short story writer, Lorrie Moore, who once said that in her short stories she wanted “to create something that doesn’t exist exactly in the real world, but exists in a kind of parallel to the real world.” I think that too, and so my stories (though not autobiographical) are rooted in the reality of personal experience.
Central to that personal experience in making the fiction of The South Westerlies was psychogeography, a methodology my much-missed, PhD supervisor, the Welsh poet and essayist, Nigel Jenkins (who died in 2014) urged me to employ. He told me that if I really wanted to meet my objective of putting together a collection of stories where the experimental writing functioned as research in an attempt to know place, and for the stories themselves to reflect the complex dynamics between people and place, I would have to work hard on the ground.
After his death, the words he left behind in his poem ‘Advice to a Young Poet’ gave me the impetus and the framework for my research which led to the collection:
Know your place.
What legends and myths
have had their shaping here?
What stories, novels, histories?
And who have been denied a voice?
What songs, here,
await their singing?
And how, in this place, worker of the word,
might you make yourself useful?
So my psychogeographic moochings, on the hoof, were the starting points for the stories – ‘the songs that awaited their singing’ – that grew organically out of Gower’s DNA and landscape from the ground up. As a hybrid psychogeographic-fiction writer, tramping my own backyard on a daily basis afforded me a creative larder to plunder and the experiences fed into all the senses: visual, aural, tactile and kinaesthetic.
Researching my place on foot revealed marks other than those that could be seen with the eye: a reconnection with the past and a resurfacing of personal memories that left imprints deep in my mind. They also revealed images so strong that they wouldn’t disappear until I’d written them away. For example, the rotting carcass of a horse that would later appear in ‘The Grey Mare’; a discarded bus-pass in a bare blackthorn hedge that would find its place in ‘The Gower Explorer’; furniture from my first home in the village of Llangennith which I saw in the house I now live when I was drawn to look through the window by the For Sale sign outside. This gave rise to the title story, ‘The South Westerlies’.
This intimate method of researching my home patch was central to my writing of the stories and also served to endorse what I feel, but find difficult to articulate: the uncanny link between walking and creativity.
But observational facts were frozen and static and so later, when I sat down to write and be a ‘worker of the word’ I had to recast the frozen facts in imagination and time in order to make fiction.
When I walked for the purpose of Psychogeography, I walked alone. Though I have never thought of myself as ‘lonely’ or consciously felt ‘loss’, when I later sat to write, I felt drawn back into that very intense and lonely space that walking had brought about, and I created characters who seemed to carry an inner loneliness.
This feeling fed into my character, Colin, the eldest son in a farming family in ‘Leave the Light on for Me’, rooted to the ground in Gower, his feet almost stuck in mud. And then there’s a young man, Jamie, left behind the bar in a village pub when all his friends have gone off to university – their feet walking them away – in ‘Out of Season’; and the young mother, Rosie, trapped in a caravan in a lonely relationship with a violent farmer in ‘Everything Around Here is Turning to Rust’.
The stories explore a wide range of characters and their relationship with the place they call home. Most are anchored to the land and pulled by the invisible magnetism of landscape and the threads of history – what Lawrence Durrell termed, a rapport of ‘identity with the ground’. Others cannot wait to break free, and for their feet to walk them to somewhere new, though many carry a range of conflicting attitudes to the place of their birth and the notion of belonging, as my twenty-something professional woman discovers one Christmas in the story ‘Christmas Crackers’.
The stories most often started with a walk, an object found, a memory stirred, a conversation overheard. Some have arrived half-formed, on waking from a dream. Portends, sharp-beaked and evil-eyed; some have been urged into being by a rapping at my bedroom at dawn; and as messengers of joy, they have held my gaze with their heart-shaped faces and amber-eyed stare at dusk. Images have ignited and burned in the imagination: the partial eclipse of the sun over limestone cliffs, the lone surfer at sunset, and the wasps; always the wasps.
It has been said that The South Westerlies are dark and unsettling stories. I believe this to be true, partly because of what I have outlined, and also because of my state of mind at the time of writing. Like the south-westerly wind, my mood infused the tone of the stories, seeped right into their being as it was a dark and unsettling time for me personally. I was involved in a near-fatal car accident on my own drive which involved an air-lift to hospital; my husband fell off a ladder and injured himself badly; my son-in-law crashed off a 90ft Austrian ski slope and ended up in intensive care, and my daughter lost more babies than she gave birth to. All part of life’s rich tapestry and the experiences later were explored in stories such as ‘Everything You Need to Keep You Buoyant’ and ‘Just in Case’.
I am delighted that the stories found the best home I could have wished for in SALT. It has enabled not only my voice to be heard for the first time, but importantly, the voices of a wide cast of characters from the UK’s western edge who might otherwise ‘have been denied a voice.'
Jane Fraser lives, works and writes fiction in Gower in a house facing the sea. By day she is co-director of NB:Design along with her husband, Philip. In 2017 she was a finalist for the Manchester Fiction Prize. In 2018 she was placed second in the Fish Memoir Prize and selected as one of Hay Writers at Work. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Swansea University.