Wiliam Owen Roberts

Wiliam Owen Roberts speaks to Transcript
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Wiliam Owen Roberts
Transcript met Welsh novelist Wiliam Owen Roberts at Aberystwyth's Rich Text Festival to discuss Paradwys (Paradise). Roberts spoke of two conflicting views of history which sustain the tension in the book, and of the realisation that the industrial revolution in North Wales was fuelled by money from Jamaican sugar plantations.
How did you develop an interest in the late eighteenth century?

As part of my degree in Aberystwyth, I read the history of the Renaissance, and of the sixteenth century. At the time I found the Morris brothers in seventeenth century London very engaging. So, the novel started out as the story of the London Welsh of the time, but grew and expanded through a series of different drafts. The problem with the Morris brothers and their entourage was that they were politically insignificant, cogs in the machinery of the century, not the motor driving events which defined the century.

Is this when the idea of a novel inside the citadel of power emerged?

Yes. In Wales we never write about the English. We have no literature which examines the English.

No, the English are often distant in Welsh literature, aren't they, even when menacing?

Yes, and I thought it was high time for us to have a look at the English and to do that through the medium of Welsh, why not? To tell the truth, I wanted to have a go at English nationalism, the combination of church, military might, and the whole aristocracy thing, royalty, their holy trinity. I wanted to have a good go at that. They've got away with it for long enough.

Paradise is similar to your previous novel Pestilence in as much as both books deal with the advent of a new era, but it's written from a different perspective.

Pestilence was written from a Marxist point of view. But I thought, what's the point in repeating that? That would have been too easy. So I thought, alright, why not write it from a rightwing point of view? From a capitalist, racist perspective. And I find, good God, these people, their values are awful. And they can justify them, and live like that.

Was it unsettling for a radical Welshman to ape the speech of the capitalist and take on the persona of Earl Foston.

The most unsettling thing is the truth in these peoples arguments. Early in the nineties, speaking of apartheid before it fell apart, Thatcher said something like: "If apartheid is brought to an end those who suffer most will be black not white". I thought, phew, that's what others were saying at the end of the eighteenth century. I enjoyed writing from the right, but also it was a good experience to write something in a way totally removed from what I believe myself.

How much fact and fiction co-inhabit the novel, how much is historically accurate rather than assumed or imagined on your part?

I trawled the senate reports of the time, and there were arguments there for and against slavery. Two men, Penrhyn and Gascoigne were at the head of the West Indian Lobby, and they were incredibly powerful. So, in a very real way, Earl Foston's politics in the book are the politics of Lord Penrhyn. And this in a way is the starting point of the novel. I wasn't aware until then that the money which fuelled the industrial revolution in Wales, the quarries that is, was money made from the sugar plantations in Jamaica. I thought it a story worth telling. The same people built the A5 roadway connecting North Wales to London and talked of philanthropy. But the money came from Jamaica. Some of this is in the letters of the Morris brothers. Lewis Morris of Holyhead writes of a Captain, Hugh Wilias I think - all these people were Welsh-speakers - "bringing a shipload of sugar and plants for me from Jamaica, including a type of seaweed". And I thought, all those tons of sugar, and how many people were crushed just for that.

Paradwys is one of the longest novels which has been written in Welsh, and an earlier version was much longer, a sort of big baggy monster, as you say. But the published novel is dynamic and taut. What unifies the novel, do you think, what makes it so dynamic?

Ultimately, the novel is about two texts. If you look closely at the book, it is the struggle between these two texts. One is the official biography which Earl Foston has commissioned. The other is the book his twin-brother is writing. These two biographies present differing views of history. In the end, the doctored text wins out and becomes the accepted view of history.

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