A little research tells me that murenger is an old word for an officer who would have been in charge of a town’s walls and their repair. In Gower’s story the reference is actually to an old, landmark pub of the name – happily still trading – in the centre of the city of Newport in the county of Gwent.
Reading this entry in the collection very much brought to my mind the story-writer and son of that shire, Arthur Machen. Although perhaps known chiefly today for his darker writing, Machen was a lover of good inns and, if fortunate, the good company that might be had in them. And there is the clear sense here that Gower, nowadays a citizen of Cardiff, has passed some pleasant evenings a short way east, within the walls of Newport’s Murenger.
Whether Gower’s account of the pub is a short story in the strictest sense of the term is open to question. It is perhaps really a portrait by way of those explorations that tend to be termed psychogeography, and some imaginings of his own. But I found this narrative – with its references to herbs, gardens and hidden rooms – the most pleasing in the whole collection: a lovely, calming, generous read, very much of a piece with the non-horror material essayed by Machen and that other, unknown world that Machen (left) felt to be all around us.
‘Some Killing on Cydwell Flats’, the other stand-out entry, is much more hard-boiled. It concerns gangsters and gruesome goings-on at a vegetable farm on the Welsh coast. A ‘beet boiler’ plays a grim part.
As is perhaps befitting of a graduate of Cambridge, a former Arts correspondent for the BBC and a university lecturer (under whom I once studied) who’s authored more than thirty books, Gower is familiar with some pretty big and noted tomes. He has, I think I’m right in saying, ‘done’ the complete Dickens. Contemporary writers such as James Lee Burke, the American, also find space on his bedside table, however. And ‘Some Killing on Cydwell Flats’ is quite a little shocker.
Gower’s collection closes with ‘Bowing Out’, a story which, because its subject is Brexit, is likely to please some and displease others, in the way that Brexit does. Here the author unashamedly wears his heart on his sleeve, and it’s a wounded heart at that. The story is very much a lament or requiem for the UK’s departure from the European Union. The thread is a musical performance by an unlikely group of players who find themselves overnight stars in a way that shocks them.
Forgetting politics completely, I find myself questioning the over all strengths of this last story a little. It’s the collection’s longest and seems just a little too diffuse after the directness that has gone before, adrift from Poe’s dictums about unity and point. Perhaps that was Gower’s intent, or grief.
There are good lines even so, such as this (when a young girl recommends the skills of a drummer): ‘He could play really quietly. He could make the sound of a mist rising from a river…’
In terms of comparisons with other writers, it’s possible to see connections in subject and style with three 20th century Welsh writers of note: Ron Berry (author of the boxing novel So Long, Hector Bebb, which deserves to be much better known) and the story-writers George Ewart Evans and (left) Gwyn Thomas (albeit that Thomas and Gower would very possibly be in conflict politically over the Welsh language and the issue of independence: ironic because Thomas (1913-1981, a son of the Rhondda) strikes me as the writer who Gower, whose mother tongue is Welsh, most resembles in style).
Gower, from a more south-westward and more Welsh-speaking part of Wales, isn’t quite as rooted in the (once) industrial Welsh valleys of that Glamorganshire trio, though he does have a spiritual connection through his grandfather, who mined coal under the Burry estuary near Llanelli.
Sufficient to say that Gower is his own man and brings his own voice to the table.
A feature of this collection is the warm and thoughtful foreword by his friend, the Welsh novelist Owen Martell.
A curio is the series of still-life photographs by S. Mark Gubb, interleaving each story. On examination, it can be seen that these connect with the various tales. (I was pleased to spot – and connect – a Battenburg cake.) These little images are a lovely touch, of a kind one feels sure Machen, given his literary discourses on tobacco, culinary dishes and cheese (to name but a few) would have admired.
Martell writes – accurately, I think – of Gower being like a pilgrim, passing through life with a kind of ‘awed reverence’.
I would go further and say that Jon Gower is someone who is clearly a lover of life. Publishers Three Impostors put together this collection in celebration of his first sixty years. Here’s to his next sixty!
*The Murenger and Other Stories by Jon Gower is published in paperback by Three Impostors press, 177 pages, retail price £10. For more information and to order through their website, visit here: threeimpostors.co.uk
Reviewer Matthew G. Rees is the editor of Horla and is the author of, among other works, the story collection Keyhole, also published by Three Impostors. He has a PhD in Creative Writing.
Credit: photo of Jon Gower by Emyr Jenkins