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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Everything I Found on the Beach

Everything I Found on the Beach

This was a very strong thing in Hold: his belief that a thing should not die or be hurt without purpose. – Cynan Jones, Everything I Found on the Beach

What would you do? It’s a simple enough question. When we watch films and read books we read what other people ended up doing. But what would you do? That’s the question that kept ringing in my ears as I read this book. If this was me, if I’d been asked to do what Grzegorz was asked to do or was faced with the opportunity that landed in Hold’s lap what would I have done? I can ask that question because like Grzegorz and Hold (short for Holden) I’m just an ordinary guy. I’ve had a mostly ordinary life and done mostly ordinary things. There’s nothing that special about me. I live my life, watch my P’s and Q’s, mind my own business and generally get on with it.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve not had opportunities. We’ve all had opportunities. Do I go left or right? Do I go out with this girl or not? Do I cheat on this test? Do I tell the truth no matter what? Do I hand the wallet I’ve just found on the street into the local police station. Loads and loads of opportunities to do the right thing. Or the wrong thing.

If only right and wrong were as simple as they used to be. Stealing is wrong. I doubt there is a society anywhere in the world where stealing is not regarded as a criminal act and probably an immoral act, a sin, but is it always wrong? Are there extenuating circumstances when it would be okay to steal? What if you or your family is starving? Would it be okay to steal then? It would still be a criminal act, it would still be a sin, but that’s why the law takes into consideration the circumstances that lead up to someone acting unlawfully. And most people would agree that starvation would be an extenuating circumstance. But what if you’re not starving? What if you’re just hungry?

This is the fundamental problem that both Grzegorz and Hold have to face – independently, they don’t know each other – and I’m afraid they both make the same decision.

Grzegorz is a Pole who, like many of his countrymen, has moved to the UK – in his case Wales – along with his family in order to try to make a better life for them all. A farmer in his homeland he now works in a slaughterhouse. The job has few pluses but one is ‘free’ meat. Of course it’s not free but the British are squeamish when it comes to butchery and not all the edible parts of the animals are used:

He thought of the feet, the cow’s lips, all the slow-cooked things of his upbringing, with the better cuts being sold. He saw the unwanted organs thrown into bins and dye tipped over them, things perfectly good to eat.

But even though these parts are only going to be discarded taking them still amounts to theft. It is something all the Poles do, however, as a means of supplementing their diet and in the hope that by reducing the amount the family has to spend on food they can put aside a little for the future.

Grzegorz’s wife has just given birth to a son and at the start of the book we see him bringing his wife and the newborn home to where he lives. But they don’t have the luxury of their own place, far from it:

He'd waited at the door for a moment, as if getting his breath, letting his wife go in with the baby to the initial greetings. ‘This is not right,’ Grzegorz thought, ‘it is not right to bring a son into this. He should have a real home, a place better than this.’ He stood in the doorway of the bleak place and looked blankly at the artless graffiti that went across the broken brick wall in front of him. Polish out.


He did not know they would be there for so long, stuck, suspended somehow in this no-man’s-land between Poland and what they had held as an ideal new world. It was more than a year now. The baby, product of that first new vibrant energy, a momentous piece of life that they felt was a sign of the newness and change of everything, came now not with celebration but as an extra weight.

With a poor grasp of English and still suffering from culture shock, Grzegorz is dependent on the agency and his fellow displaced country folk most of whom are in the same state as he is:

‘They are good people; we’re all in the same boat here,’ he thought. ‘All reliant on the agency still, as if they held us in some grip.’

The agency is keen to keep that grip tight providing only the absolute minimum and manipulating the system to their advantage whenever they can, hence the three-week lay off to ensure the workers wouldn’t have a full twelve months’ unkroken work which would make them eligible for benefits and enable them to move out of the overcrowded accommodation (twenty-eight people share the agency house they currently live in) into a place of their own.

The work is unpleasant and poorly paid. To earn a little extra Grzegorz digs for cockles:

cockle-pickersHe could handle this. This was outdoor work. It was backbreaking, working quickly in the gap of the tide, but against the ache he could always look up from the rucked wet sand and to the sea far out, catching the light with this sense of massive space. It was like the flat fields of home, just this endless, empty plain. It was nice to be amongst things that did not belong to man.

He wonders if he and his family could make it on their own just digging for cockles:

‘This could be the thing,’ thought Grzegorz. ‘You wouldn’t need much. You’d just need a rake, a bucket, some transport and someone to buy the shells off you. A man on his own probably couldn’t do much, but if there was a group of us. Four of five people, two carloads maybe.’

And then he gets an offer he feels he can’t refuse.

Hold is a fisherman. He shoots the odd rabbit or two from time to time but fishing is his main source of income. He used to work with his friend, Danny, in the fish factory, but when Hold takes the blame for something Danny did (locking a guy in the blast freezer for a laugh) he now lives a quiet, frugal existence:

Danny had the wife and family. There was a lot of seasonal stuff about, but work wasn’t easy round here. It was better that Hold took it on.

He doesn’t own his own boat and so, much like Grzegorz, the bulk of Hold’s fantasy life revolves around a time when he can afford his own vessel. In the meantime he works for a man who basically doesn’t know one end of a boat from the other but that is just fine for Hold.

His friend had died three years ago and left a son, Jake, and, Cara, his wife for whom Hold feels a certain responsibility. He has a genuine fondness for the boy, who he takes under his wing, but also for Cara, except guilt stops him doing more there even though he thinks about her in that way from time to time:

He gave up the bedsit and went into the caravan. That suited, with the work they were trying to get done on the house.


The house had been Danny’s grandparents’, and as they had aged they had sold off the land and the bungalow they had built on it but had kept the old house. […] The dream in the family was that one day they could rebuild it and move into it in a kind of reclamation, and it had been Danny’s great hope that he would be able to do this.

Then Danny died. And Hold feels in some way duty bound to finish it for him. As he sat by the bed of “his wasting friend seeming to desiccate before him” he resolved to do that for him:

Since then, any money he had he put into things he needed for the house, and it was coming, bit by bit.

The catch was that Danny’s sister now needed her share of the money from the place. She’d hung out while Danny was alive but following her own divorce she finds she can wait no longer. Hold tries everything even submitting a business plan to the bank but the bank had turned him down flat:

You have nothing. We can’t lend with that risk.

So, like Grzegorz again, Hold is desperate and his back is against the wall. And then his opportunity appears. He’s been out shooting rabbits – he had said he would take Jake but being unable to rouse the boy from his sleep he goes out alone – but it’s not a particularly good night for it and after bagging three he heads off to the beach to check his nets.

Whenever he stood here, he felt some sense of affinity. The shapes [of sea-smoothed fallen shale that stretched under the cliffs to the point] were amazing in that strange light. It was an affinity of place and time. Some gentle sense that he was simply part of a process. Then he felt it, and it was very brief. That he was being watched.

He stopped and listened. Just the sea. The hollow boom of the rocks it moved as it broke and sucked at the beach. The trinkets of sound where the water sheeted down the cliffs, running spare off the fields above. Nothing. Just the white sense of it.

He tends to his nets – there’s a mullet, a bass and a crab – and then he hears something:

He heard the rubber hit the rock, the strange, stretching sound like a creaking floor, and he felt himself fizz with electricity. It could be someone come to poach the nets.


The inflatable was spinning slowly by the rocks. The army of grey of it full and neutral at the edge of the torch beam. It looked unmanned, but it was in the end of the beam, as if it consumed the light. Like something circling the edge of a clearing. He saw a flash of engine, some red perhaps as the boat swung. And then a heap. A dark mass in the belly of the boat and he knew immediately it was a man.

The man is dead. This is no surprise to us readers because in the book’s prologue we see the police discover the body:

The sergeant was on the beach and looked down at the body and the younger policeman. Morgan was with him and it was the first time for him, seeing something so severe.

The body had most of the fingers of one hand off and there was a big wound to the face and out through the back of the head.

What state the man is in when Hold discovers him I am not saying, but he’s not a poacher. Seeing what his cargo is he concludes that the man is a smuggler. The question is: what is he going to do?

Hold is an ordinary bloke like you or me, basically a decent chap suddenly faced with a load of contraband. What’s he going to do? I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t know how to get my hands on an illegal firearm or some drugs and I certainly wouldn’t know where to fence some diamonds. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’d be at least tempted by the prospect of a quick few thousand pounds. And Hold is not only tempted he grabs the goods and makes his getaway.

Which brings us to the big man. That’s all he’s ever known as although as his mother is called Mrs Gleeson it seems reasonable that that’s the big man’s name too. The big man is a criminal. But he’s a criminal in a changing world. As the blurb on the back of the book says, “he’s struggling to keep up, longing for the days when all you needed were a code of honour and a reputation.” He lives, as I’ve implied, with his mammy surrounded by “silly little shamrock ornaments and leprechauns” and symbols of Catholic familial love and national pride.

He’s known as the big man not because of his position in the criminal fraternity but simply because of his bulk: he is a big man. But he still lives in his da’s shadow:

In his da’s day, early on, there had just been the pickpockets and burglars. It had been altogether sleepier, old fashioned. But they took it ahead a level, in the seventies, with the police caught up in the Troubles. They moved it up to armed robbery.


You couldn’t be a so-called Ordinary Decent Criminal any more.

The big man doesn’t feel that big though:

‘I feel like a big crashed down tree floating in the ocean. It’s just too big out here. The world’s too big … I’m floating in it and I have no idea what to do unless someone tells me.’ He knew underneath he was an instrument. He knew ultimately he was one of those men to be wielded, not the arm behind those men.

So we have three men, an Irishman, a Welshman and a Pole. If the three of them could go into a bar they might sit down and joke about the futility of their lives. But that’s not what’s going to happen. And you know it.

long dry webThere is a slightly truncated quote from Sarah Waters on the cover to this book. In full it reads:

Jones's sense of place is acute, and his passion for the landscape – for its colours, its creatures, its textures, its scents – is absolutely magnetic. – ‘On the home front’, The Guardian, 13 June 2009

Although she was referring to his debut novel, The Long Dry, when she wrote that, it also applies to this work. He describes everything in great detail whether it comes to extricating a fish from a net or paunching a rabbit.

paunch (third-person singular simple present paunches, present participle paunching, simple past and past participle paunched)

To remove the internal organs of a ruminant, such as a hare or rabbit prior to eating.

This attention to detail does slow down the action but this isn’t exactly a fast-paced book. For me though, even at only 229 pages, it did feel a little on the long side but regular readers will just have to excuse my intolerance for long descriptions. I’m sure most people won’t be troubled by them and, in fact, relish Jones’s way with words.

In an interview on the BBC Wales site Jones said:

Key to what I write seems to be a sense of place, or else of displacement. So belonging is certainly a major theme. – Mid Wales, BBC

This is certainly true of this new book since none of the three main characters are especially comfortable where they are in their lives trapped by circumstance. I don’t think there will be many people who won’t be able to relate to something about these men. They all end up doing bad things but are any of them bad men? Or have they simply given in to determinism? It was inevitable that Grzegorz was going to accept the offer he was made. He might have kidded himself he was thinking it over but he wasn’t and Hold knew as soon as he saw the contents of the dinghy that he was going to take them just as the big man is reconciled to his role as . . . what shall we call him? . . . let’s go with ‘the muscle’.

There is a lot we never get to find out in this book which may frustrate some but it is realistic. I particularly enjoyed the way the story was told. We jump between the three characters’ stories but also, and it wasn’t until I was well into the book, back and forth in time. I probably should have spotted that earlier but I didn’t. After finishing it I was left with a feeling that each man’s destiny was written in stone and that what happens to the three men was exactly what one would have expected, that any other solution would have been a cop out, but that’s the question that you’re left with at the end: could any of this really have been avoided?


Cynan JonesCynan Jones was born in Wales in 1975. His first novel, The Long Dry, was published in 2006 and went on to win a Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors. The book has since been translated into Italian, Arabic and French. Italian translations of a further two novellas are to follow. Other short work has been variously published, and the author was selected as the Hay Festival nominee for the 2008 Scritture Giovani project.


Elisabeth said...

I'm captivated by this review, Jim and the question you pose, what would I do in the circumstances, what would someone else do?

I don't believe in the fixedness of fate per se. I think we have a degree of free will. Most of us as adults at least are able to make choices, but I can see too that there are times and situations where things seem inevitable, especially in situations of poverty and deprivation.

This is another of those books i think I'd like to read if time and circumstance permit, but again I rely on serendipity as to whether I actually do so.

Jim Murdoch said...

One of my favourite quotes from my own poetry, Lis is this:

        No, I don't believe in destiny
        but I do in inevitability.

It is something I believe in strongly. I get tired with people talking about some mysterious power controlling our lives. Only writers have that kind of control over the characters in their books and stories. Free will is an important concept and it’s often one the religious forget about. Adam and Eve were not predestined to sin. They chose to. My dad told me once that the only difference between a perfect man and an imperfect one was that a perfect man’s natural inclination was to do what was right whereas an imperfect man’s would be to be selfish (at least I’m attributing my dad with having said this, I actually have no recollection of him saying any such thing). Adam only thought of himself when he accepted the fruit from Eve.

This logic makes it possible for a perfect man to sin and a sinful man not to. It’s a matter of choice, going with or against your nature. In my review I write, “I was left with a feeling that each man’s destiny was written in stone and that what happens to the three men was exactly what one would have expected,” but I’m not talking about destiny-with-a-capital-d, I’m talking about inevitability: it was inevitable that these men, under these circumstances would do exactly what they end up doing.

In my novel the More Things Change I explore this. I take a man who is a failed writer and give him exactly what he thought he wanted only to see him (unconsciously) do everything in his power to get back to where we found him at the start of the book. This is why women whose husbands beat them wind up with other men who beat them. It’s not destiny. And it’s perfectly evitable if they go against their natures.

As you say, a fascinating topic. I did not expect this book to be quite so thought-provoking.

Elisabeth said...

The other notion here Jim, that relates to what you call inevitability is called the 'repetition compulsion'.

Battered wives might well find other husbands to batter them after they've left the first because they are repeating history.

It has links to childhood trauma perhaps and also a wish to make it different this time by selecting someone who is roughly the same - namely a man with a propensity to violence, and an inability to otherwise deal with his anger - only this time with the hope that it will be different, which it often isn't.

Thanks Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Repetition compulsion fascinates me, Lis, although I’m with Benjamin Franklyn there – “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” – but what this book is really about is natural propensity. I was brought up to believe that stealing was wrong. Put me in a situation where I have an opportunity to steal and the odds are I won’t. That doesn’t mean I haven’t. I’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided that, if not exactly the right thing to do (I’ve never tried to delude myself) that the justification to steal was sufficient to override my conditioning. To be honest on occasion the excuse was simply to experience theft. Theft is a low-level crime – I wouldn’t kill anyone simply to experience murder – and so I’ve reasoned that, to properly understand it the only way would be to do it. Needless to say guilt followed and lingers after over thirty years. I think it’s fascinating how we rationalise with ourselves: stealing from a bad guy or from someone who can afford it isn’t as bad as stealing from someone who can’t afford it. And then there is always the old the-end-justifies-the-means rationale which is employed in this book by at least two of the characters.

Dave King said...

Picking up Elisabeth's point, I do believe that repetition compulsion is very important in all our lives. Much of any unwanted behaviour that we may have is but the repetition of childhood behaviour that didn't work. The tantrums didn't have the desired effect, so we're still trying them in the form of a short temper. That sort of thing.

Like you, Jim, I find myself asking "What would I have done?" in the face of this sort of temptation. But other questions too: What sort of man would do that? What would drive such a person? etc etc.

My view of the book would depend in part upon how convincingly such questions were addresed - not necessarily answered.

Jim Murdoch said...

We all come face to face with that one, don’t we, Dave: What kind of man am I? I am, of course, a variety of men depending on whose set values you choose as your measure. I was a disappointment to my parents and even though I no longer share their standards (if I, if I’m being honest with myself, ever did) I still find it hard not to share their disappointment. I have never codified my principles. Were I to then they would read more like a legal document than the Ten Commandments and, of course, everyone tends to conveniently forget the 900-odd other commandments that comprised The Law. At the core my personal code of ethics would rest on a single phrase: ‘it depends’. I think there are few things, if any, that you can slap a blanket ‘that’s wrong’ sticker on: you’re the last man on earth and the last woman (there’s always a last woman) just happens to be your sister – what do you do, start frantically studying cloning?

I’ve never worried about being a good man. I’ve always been content not to be a bad one. Don’t ask me what distinguishes the one from the other but ‘not bad’ is not the same as good.

Elisabeth said...

To quote you Jim: "‘it depends’. I think there are few things, if any, that you can slap a blanket ‘that’s wrong’ sticker on: you’re the last man on earth and the last woman (there’s always a last woman) just happens to be your sister – what do you do, start frantically studying cloning?"

I endorse this notion, Jim. Everything is understandable in context and every deed has a contextual basis and a history when you look into it. Therefore simply to judge a deed on its content alone is misleading, as you say whether it's good or bad, right or wrong, it depends and even then it's complex. Most deeds have mixed motivations behind them and mixed consequence within.

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