Welsh writing has never quite shrugged off the image created by Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, which has been translated into thirty languages, never been out of print and was made into a Hollywood film. To the rest of the world, and even to some extent in Wales, it became fixed in people’s minds as the Welsh story, set in a small, close-knit world, where the community and chapel are more important than the individual and any change is viewed with suspicion.
So how accurate a picture of the Valleys is it? In the novel the miners are, ludicrously, paid in gold sovereigns, write poetry in their spare time, look you, and the local choir go on to perform for the Queen, there’s lovely now. This peaceful, god-fearing community is torn apart by a pit disaster, the murder of a child and left-wing demagogues from outside stirring up the chapel-going, mam-worshipping men. It was an archetypal story about a disappearing rural idyll, awash with nostalgia for a golden past, published at a time when it would resonate most, just weeks after the start of World War Two. To update it, we only need to have the pit or factory close, or the valley flooded in order to make a reservoir. It is as if Wales, geographically small, is also condemned in the popular imagination to be emotionally and intellectually small.
Llewellyn claimed to be a miner’s son born in St David’s who worked down the pits at Gilfach Goch, where he’d narrowly escaped death and where the novel was set. But this, too, was fiction. After he died it emerged that he was actually born in London, and in fact it wasn’t until How Green Was My Valley made Llewellyn a wealthy man that he actually spent any time in Wales. He bought a farm in Pembrokeshire but rarely used it, preferring the comforts of his suite in Claridges. Other novelists who were born and lived in the Valleys, such as Jack Jones, Gwyn Thomas, Rhys Davies and Lewis Jones, arguably offered more authentic portraits of its mining communities, but it was Llewellyn’s which captured the popular imagination.
The 1941 film further compounded the distortions in the novel. It was made in California and directed by the Irish-American director John Ford. He built a replica of a mining village on a ranch and constructed a mine on top of a mountain. There was only one Welsh actor with any significant role — instead, Ford used American and Irish actors whose Welsh accents unravelled within minutes. Nevertheless, it beat Citizen Kane to win the Oscar for best film in 1941.
I didn’t know any Welsh speakers when I was growing up in Newport, an industrial town forty minutes’ drive from the border, never visited a chapel, joined a choir or went to watch rugby. My parents were Irish; many children in my school came from Italian, Asian or Polish backgrounds. For someone like me there are passages in How Green Was My Valley that make for uncomfortable reading. Marxist trade unionists and immigration ruin the valley, and threaten the purity of the Welsh race. When a young girl is sexually abused and murdered, the minister decides to take justice into his own hands and forms a band of vigilantes. They immediately head for ‘the three rows of houses where the half-breed Welsh, Irish, and English were living’. The narrator’s father tells his son he’d no need to listen to foreigners, because Owain Glyndwr had said all that needed to be said about Wales hundreds of years before, i.e. that Wales was for the Welsh.
So if it’s debatable whether the author had any Welsh blood and the depiction of Wales is so clichéd, why is it still so popular with some in Wales? It’s useful to draw a parallel with The Quiet Man, another film made by Ford in 1952. Though often ridiculed for perpetuating Irish stereotypes, it was hugely popular in Ireland. The actor Gabriel Byrne offered a clue as to why this might be when discussing its legacy: ‘I had grown up in a country where the depiction of ourselves in cinema was so rare that I remember once being at a film, which was preceded by a short documentary about Dublin. And it was so rare for Dublin to see itself on the screen that when it came on…it got a round of applause.’ The same sentiment applies to How Green Was My Valley: films or novels about Wales that make an international impact are very thin on the ground and there’s a reluctance to criticize anything that puts such a small nation on the map.
Wales lacks the physical infrastructure and august institutions that underpin Scottish identity, so there has been a tendency to ask where you come from in Wales as a way of gauging if you are very Welsh, very Welsh just for the rugby, or not especially Welsh. This might seem a neurotic attitude to some; however, at a time of growing populist nationalism this sceptical, hesitant approach to national identity should be welcomed. It also makes Wales a very interesting place to write about.
Attitudes to Welshness in Wales have changed a lot over the last twenty years or so, and there’s much less friction between Welsh and English speakers, an issue often used to suggest how divided it was. The National Poet of Wales alternates between appointing poets who write mostly in Welsh and those who write in English. This in itself is a sign of a much greater willingness to accept and embrace a wider, more fluid and inclusive definition of Welshness. Although Wales is depicted as insular in Llewellyn’s novel, there has always been a strand of Welshness that is internationalist; for example, in the 1930s several hundred Welsh joined the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and Basque Children’s Homes were opened in Wales after Guernica.
Two recent Welsh TV series, Keeping Faith and Hidden, epitomize two different versions of Wales. Keeping Faith, a drama set in south Wales about woman called Faith whose husband suddenly disappears, was highly emotional, filled with loquacious characters, and sometimes sentimental and overwrought. Hidden, set in north Wales, was bleak, the dialogue sparse and taut, the community portrayed as sullen and insular. But there were similarities too. Both had strong and complex female lead characters who’d had to leave Wales to pursue their ambitions but had returned home. Both featured characters with mixed backgrounds, migrants and people of colour; both used English and Welsh dialogue. Neither struck me as in some way attempting to define Wales, but both offered versions of particular parts of Wales at a particular time as seen by the writer. Isn’t that all we can realistically ask of our writers? Every now and then someone asks who will write a novel that speaks for Wales now. My heart always sinks when I hear of a new book described as ‘a state of the nation novel’. It generally signals someone seeking to provide answers rather than setting out to ask questions.
Most Welsh writers don’t set out to do anything as grand as write a state of the nation novel, but to capture something essential about their corner of Wales. John Williams wrote a trilogy of novels set in Cardiff that explore the city’s underbelly, featuring pushers, prostitutes and assorted Jack the Lads, and the kind of white and Caribbean characters he hung out with in his youth. The Hiding Place, by Trezza Azzopardi, set in Tiger Bay, focuses on the Maltese community, a population who’d only ever figured as shadowy low-life characters in crime novels in British fiction before. In My Family and Other Superheroes the poet Jonathan Edwards offers a nuanced and affectionate portrait of small valleys’ life, with lovely touches of absurdity and moments of unexpected beauty. My corner of south Wales has been the setting for much of my own writing, including two novels and many short stories.
So no, there is no novel that epitomises Wales, how could there be? I once attended a reading by Hanif Kureishi, which sparked a lengthy conversation about race, Englishness and authenticity. Someone asked Kureishi, ‘So what does it mean to be English?’ He replied ‘Actually, this conversation is what it means, that we’re still working it out.’ We’re still working out what it means to be Welsh, so please, give us a break from How Green Was My Valley.