We’ve got a small Welsh mining community, in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era; and the story is told, in English but with Welsh idioms/speech patterns, from the viewpoint of a boy called Huw as he grows up. On the plus side, Huw’s part of a loving family and a close community. On the minus side, the mines are terribly dangerous and fatal accidents are common, wages are low, the community is divided over union membership and strike action, and the tyranny of the chapel is like something out of the Netherlands or Geneva at their most Calvinistic. Any young woman unlucky enough to get into trouble is hauled up before the entire congregation and berated for her wickedness – whilst her boyfriend, natch, gets off scot free. However, no-one seems to have an issue with the two gay boxers who run one of the local pubs, so at least that’s something.
There are various romances involving Huw’s many siblings, including a love triangle between one of his sisters, the Methodist preacher (who’s actually very nice when he isn’t berating girls in trouble) and one of the mine owners. And we hear all about Huw’s schooldays – he’s all set to get a white collar job and escape poverty, but then he gets expelled just before his exams.
It’s a lovely book in many ways, but Huw is really rather annoying. The reason he gets expelled from school is one of the many fights he gets into. OK, lads get into playground scraps, but Huw beats up the teacher, so badly that the police get involved. The teacher did ask for it, but still! And then Huw’s girlfriend disappears. To be fair, he does ask her brother where she’s gone, but he can’t get an answer. He doesn’t twig to what’s going on until his sister-in-law tells him that she’s been sent away … hopefully to a place with no chapels. After that, she’s never mentioned again, and he doesn’t seem to give the baby a second thought. It’s a bit silly anyway, TBH. Surely the girl and her family would have tried to make him marry her?
However, despite the fact that Huw isn’t a very appealing protagonist, it’s really a very interesting book. No dates are actually given, but, from references to the Diamond Jubilee and the Boer War, we can tell that it starts off in the late 1890s. Strangely, even though everyone is a devoted royalist and they all get incredibly excited when the choir led by one of Huw’s brothers goes to sing in front of Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, Victoria’s death’s never actually mentioned – we just suddenly start hearing about “the King” rather than “the Queen”! As is often pointed out, the late Victorian/Edwardian period’s seen as a Golden Age which was destroyed by the Great War; but, for people in working class communities, and especially for women, it really wasn’t that great. But then there were these very close communities, and that’s something that we’ve pretty much lost now.
This book’s been criticised for being maudlin and sentimental (especially as the author claimed that it was about his own experiences, until it transpired that he’d actually grown up in London!) and that’s certainly what the title suggests – oh, everything was so wonderful back in the day, the sort of thing we’ve been hearing right back to when William Blake moaned about dark satanic mills. But I didn’t read it like that – the book did not pull any punches about the conditions in the mines, the struggles by some families to put food on the table, the treatment of “fallen women”, the teacher who got angry with any pupils who spoke Welsh rather than English at school, and so on. But nor was it a misery memoir like Angela’s Ashes. Nothing’s all good or all bad, and that’s what this book shows. Not bad at all!
Now … do I buy the three sequels, and add to my already ridiculously high book mountain? Still thinking about that!