Like many Scottish writers, I was brought up in the shadow of an English thundercloud. In cultural terms, England gives us something to push against, and although there are positive ways to define a feeling of Scottish nationality, many are grounded in a more negative sense that “well, we’re not English”. That tickles me, and reading beyond my own niche encourages me to place Scotland in context. I’ve recently become obsessed with Welsh literature, not least because it reminds me that we have no exclusive claim on “little-brother status”. Many of the pressure-points which arise from having a powerful neighbour have played out in different ways elsewhere, and I start to see that Scottish Nationalism makes no sense in isolation.
Following this line to Cymru, it’s been hard to ignore Richard Llewellyn. The man’s a landmark, and his 1939 book How Green Was My Valley casts a long shadow in Wales. I finished the book last night, and now as I use my notes to fuel a number of essays and articles in progress, I can’t resist posting a quick reaction to the book on this blog, where I’m sure it will stand out like a neatly painful thumb.
Because How Green Was My Valley is both enormous and tiny. Its enormity stems from a tremendous depth of emotional experience; the tininess from a sense that it’s little more than a catalogue of tremendously deep emotional experiences. It’s the same game played on repeat for four hundred and fifty pages; edging for lachrimony in a bid to wring heartfelt emotion from every small happening. I can’t immediately understand how it works. Technically, it’s rubbish – but as it thunders across the finish line in a bluster of blood and daffodils, it’s obviously a triumph.
How Green is My Valley sets out to express the pride implicit in a Welsh identity; a sense of self that’s based on family, religion, history and belonging. Threats to that identity are frequently identified as English, and there’s a clear resistance to what Seamus Heaney called the “gormless routines and civility of Albion”. Measured against that stable archetype, Llewellyn’s Welsh characters are free to be mercurial, expressive and passionate. Fair enough, but we mustn’t ignore the fact that there aren’t any English characters in this book. We hate the Saxons, but as pressure grows, all fractures are internal. The Welsh fight only each other on issues of language, religion, politics and class. Anglocentrism has infiltrated the characters to a point beyond literal geography, so that the worst “baddies” are Welsh men who have turned traitor to their own country by adopting English habits.
It’s fascinating that this book was written by an Englishman who lied about his Welsh ancestry, and it’s telling too that it found such traction amongst British propagandists and the Hollywood machine during the Second World War. There’s far more to unpack in here than I can handle in a brief note, not least in what seems to the paradox of ultra-nationalist Anglo-Welsh identity, found at its complex and contradictory best in R.S. Thomas’s autobiography Neb. It’s all so wildly interesting, and my own saltire glows with anticipation at the prospect of more reading like Bilbo’s sword as the goblins approach.
But the reason I wanted to throw down this note in brief was the staggering enormity of a single scene towards the end of the book- Chapter 37; the prize fight between Dai Bando and Big Shoni. All the best parts of this book collide here in a chaos of intensity; all the wondrous idioms, the homespun practicality, the sing-song folk mysticism surge from the page as one man is punched by another so hard that he is blinded by the impact. It’s extraordinarily vivid and intense. Dai is felled by the blow, but somehow he is able to rise again from the floor, groping with his hand for some navigational point of reference. Finding Big Shoni’s forearm, he measures his position by touch alone and exacts his revenge by delivering an unsighted punch so powerful that his opponent is floored.
That chapter is one of the strongest pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and all the many failings felt elsewhere in this book fade to nothing in its wake, as if everything else was just the mount and frame of that moment. Dai Bando and his friend Cyfartha often stand on the edge of stardom in How Green Was My Valley. In a clunky, episodic narrative structure, these two men are peripheral characters – but for me they become the focus. As their relationship develops, there’s even space to imagine that these two rough-and-tumble men might be at some level in love with each other. You could blow that notion out of all proportion and reread the book with new eyes, or you could argue instead that real human experiences like these elevate How Green Was My Valley to be something far more substantial than a list of emotional gut-punches.
As I read this book, I was frequently aware of my own Scottish identity. I don’t belong in Wales, and while I’d urgently love to explore that country, I’m an outsider. How Green Was My Valley frequently held me at arm’s length, but this episode jumped up from the littleness of the nation or the province to speak in a language that’s profoundly, deliciously universal.