The Past Persistent
by Madawc Williams
Raymond Williams: People of the Black Mountains, Chatto & Windus, 357 pp., £13.95.
When people look at the past, they tend to look at a few dramatic events, and from the viewpoint of the rulers and the privileged. This is not easily avoided –
those are most of the written records we have. But archaeology has been tending more and more to look at the everyday lives of the ordinary people. This book expresses the same thing as a series of interconnected short stories. It goes from the most remote human past to the Roman occupation – the point where a lot of conventional histories begin.
Starting with hunters before the last ice age, around 23,000 BC, the book describes the sort of lives those people might have lived in a single area, the region of the Black Mountains in South Wales. Around 5400 BC, when climatic changes mean that ‘the trees are eating the people’, we see a youth work out the beginnings of agriculture – yet fail to get his kin to accept such a drastic change in their way of life. In 3400 BC we see shepherds coming in from the European mainland, with sheep that looked more like modern goats, and the trouble they had getting hunters to understand that these animals were not to be hunted. We see the fringes of the culture of the people who build Stonehenge. Later – from 650 BC – we see the early Celtic upper class. Readers will probably be surprised to see them presented as a sort of cross between Punk Rockers and Hells Angels – but the records we have indicate that this is just what they were like in those distant times. We also see Caesar’s invasion of Britain as the Celts might have seen it, and the first stages of the later Roman occupation. Interwoven with these are chapters that give the background – geographical, climatic and historical.
Historical novels are the easiest way to get a sense of history without reading large numbers of heavyweight academic books. But the sense of history is sometimes a false one, or at best limited. Writers identify with the upper class and ignore the rest. Or they concentrate on something like the building of Stonehenge and ignore the context in which it was built. The Black Mountain communities would have been typical of the actual basis of the societies that created such things. The exact history will never be known. But fiction based on a good knowledge of archaeology can fill the gap and give us an idea of what the ancestors of the British were doing. (Most of the cultures shown were spread across the large parts of the British Isles, and indeed over large parts of north-western Europe.)
This is the first volume of the work. The author’s plan was to take it right up to the present day, but he died before completing it. The second volume will have the rest of what was completed – going right up to the time of Owain Glyndwr.
This article appeared in November 1989, in Issue 14 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. For more, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/