The Mortymer Trilogy by Alexander Cordell

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Do people get a bit parochial about the protest movements of the early to mid 19th century?  *We* talk about Peterloo, the Great Chartist Meeting on Kersal Moor and, later, the suffragettes.  People in the East Midlands might talk about the Luddites, people in Dorset about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and so on.  Maybe we should all be paying more attention to South Wales – the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the Newport Rising of 1839, the Rebecca Riots of 1839-43, and a succession of sometimes violent strikes thereafter: the last of these three books takes us right up to the early 1870s.  Even going into the 20th century, there was the Taff Vale legal case, and, later, the Tonypandy Riots and the Llanelli Riots.

They’re not exactly the most cheerful of books, because most of the characters seem to end up being killed in mining accidents, dying of cholera or being transported as convicts – although the author does try to lighten things up a little by providing extremely long descriptions of drunken nights in the pub or trying to move house by barge whilst accompanied by an incontinent donkey.   However, there’s plenty of interest in them (although I wouldn’t really include the pubs and the donkey in that).

The three books are Rape of the Fair Country, Hosts of Rebecca and Song of the Earth, and we see the Mortymer and Evan families at various times working in coal mines, ironworks, as barge workers, on a farm (in order to cover the Rebecca Riots, which were mainly protesting against rural toll roads) and, finally, on the railways.

The author, despite being English himself, is rabidly anti-English, which I must say I could have done without.  He keeps making the point that a lot of the coal mine/ironworks owners were actually Welsh, and also that miners in England were treated just as badly as those in Wales, and also that some of the miners in Wales had actually come from England, but then going back to slagging off “the English” again and again.  A lot of this involves complaining about the Marquess of Bute – who was actually Scottish!   There are also a lot of anti-Irish comments, accusing Irish immigrants of accepting low wages and therefore undercutting the Welsh workforce, although those are more from the characters than the narrative. So don’t read these if you’re easily offended!   He keeps having a go at the Church of England as well.  I’m no fan of religious organisations and I would definitely have been backing disestablishment, but I’m not sure how the Church of England was to blame for miners being underpaid.  And what exactly did he think the mines in Wigan or Barnsley or Newcastle were like – a bed of roses?!

Anyway, to get back to the point, we do see a lot of English, and in particular Irish, people living in South Wales at the time, and also some Spanish people.  We see Nonconformists – including a lot of references to religious Revivalism – , Anglicans, Catholics and, perhaps surprisingly, Jews.  It’s certainly quite a mixed population – and, as so often happens, that perhaps weakened the workers’ movements, with people not always working together.  We also see splits within the families over unionism and strikes, as in How Green Was My Valley.

There’s some romance, and there are some nice descriptions of the countryside, but the mood of the books is generally angry and everyone constantly seems to be arguing, especially in the final book.  Don’t read them if you’re looking for something light and comfortable, but they’re well worth reading if you don’t mind something hard-hitting.

 

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

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Yes, I know that this book’s over 80 years old, and, yes, I know that it was made into a film during the war, and has been adapted for TV; but it was new to me!

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!