How Green Was My Valley

Learning to fight in How Green Was My Valley (1941)

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.

False Start

The first lark was heard last week and that was fine. But since then it’s been storms and hale watter on the windows such that the gutters are busted and feed bags blown like a riot in the loaning. 

I found a roe buck lying dead in the sodden field, and I rolled it over with the tip of my toe. Some bird had been pulling its arse and the grass was rank with grey pins and flat tapes of gut strewn about like an afterparty. There was no obvious cause of death until I saw the back leg with its skin peeled off and the broken stump-end gouged with mud.  

Knowing that trucks and buses rush past here on their way into town, it then seemed obvious that he’d been struck and run on, and the shock followed later. Perhaps he’d lain down to find his feet and instead found himself on the cusp of a darkening bruise so big the sky ripened his vision to blindness. His eyes were away when I found him, and the fuzzy cut of his unflustered velvet looked drab in the rain. What a waste, I said, and further up there were more bones from something older. Nothing looks worse than death in the rain, with the undercoat parted in ways that a living thing would never thole. 

That same rot’s stricken the living too, and my cows are a sorry sight in the rush of sleet and high water. It’s that bad, I’ve even stopped taking pictures of them. They hump their backs and patches of hair slip from their hides with lice and all the usual winter afflictions buffed up into a high sheen of horror by the rain and always more of that filth coming up Fastnet to Lundy and Irish Sea. 

Even where it’s warm in the hayshed, I was filling a trailer with bales and pulling them down from the rafters when I fetched a litter of pealing ratlets into the mud at my feet. Their mother had made a fine nest in the stack, and she never imagined that I’d be on my way. The hairless babies splayed and steamed like dumplings in the mud, and then a dog had eaten them and sent them dreaming home. 

So when five larks began again above the yard this morning, they came in a break in the cloud. It did me good to hear them, right enough, but rot’s been on a roll these last few days – it’ll take more than a moment’s birdsong to put that right. 

Expansion Reduction

Upper Glenkens towards Carsphairn

I’ve often felt uneasy about the expansion of forestry in Galloway. When I’ve written to explore that sense of unease, readers have agreed; the massive increase of commercial woodland is worrying, and in recent weeks, I’ve heard from people in Scotland and Wales who sympathise with Galloway’s plight. These people share the fears I have and the see signs of the same in their own places, but I have to stand back from these anxieties to see my own landscape in context.

What’s happening now in Galloway is not the same forest expansion that threatens to alter the balance of Wales or Perthshire. We’re in a different league of enormity here, and I don’t lay claim to more than my share of suffering without qualification. Since 2016, we’ve seen almost 14,000Ha of new softwood planting here. That’s double the amount of softwood planted in the rest of Scotland put together. It’s a shame that if you’re seen to complain about forest expansion of this kind, you’re accused of NIMBYism. But Galloway is uniquely entitled to express concerns because we don’t have a “Back Yard” anymore. It’s a spruce forest. 

When you look at maps which combine existing forest cover with current plantings and projected ones, it’s clear that some parishes will soon be covered from the lowest stream to the tallest fell-top. The damage is done; the canopy has closed across entire water catchments. It’s too late for these places, and we can never go back.

It’s telling that a handful of government-level land use strategists have recently woken up to the idea that we’ve gone too far and too fast. They’re worried. Reports and enquiries have been commissioned, but even the biggest big-wigs will be unable to turn this ship around in time to save us. We’ve never had to wonder what too much woodland looks like in Scotland. We all share a sense of national guilt for felling the ancient Caledonian Forest, so it’s hard for many people to approach the prospect of “too many trees” without some confusion. But that’s exactly where we are in certain parts of Galloway, and that would require little more than an adjustment of expectation if we weren’t “quibbling” between the words forest and plantation.

What alarms me most is that many of these changes have taken place with a minimum of consultation and only the slightest gesture towards a strategic overview. It’s simply an international feeding frenzy. Properties are being sold for eight, nine or ten times their agricultural value and planted with trees on a case-by-case basis without any coherent plan. If all your neighbours sell up to foreign investors one by one over many months or years, there’s never a single cliff-edge moment of change. You simply endure the accumulative impact of a thousand little losses until the world has vanished beneath your feet, and if the end result is death anyway, what do you prefer?

This blog was originally based around happenings at my grandfather’s farm, The Chayne. In the current climate, that property is now theoretically worth almost nine million pounds – an increase in value of around ten times since this blog began in 2010. That figure is theoretical because it will never be sold for forestry – however, I don’t blame my neighbours for selling up. This is a hard place, and money from a corporate investment company is like a lottery win for a generation of farmers facing retirement. It’s the system that’s broken, and the open secret that you can do things in Galloway that you’d never get away with elsewhere. My heart is still broken for this place, not least because we never had the opportunity to think about what we wanted. Other people made decisions on our behalf, and the floodgates opened. It was inevitable that sharks would ride in for the scent of blood.

I’ve thought long and hard about how I can justify turning down a lottery win of my own. Why not sell up and have done with it? The prevailing financial climate makes me look like a lunatic; mailings drop through my letterbox once a month addressed to “the landowner”, asking me to consider forestry “for the future”. Resisting this, my use of words like “responsibility” and “custodianship” sound pathetically whimsy. But I’m not just being a stick-in-the-mud. Sentiment aside, I genuinely believe that the world will be better served by a new generation of hill farms providing food, carbon storage and biodiversity. I don’t resist the change for negative reasons. It’s not because I don’t like forestry; it’s because I do like a thousand better options which vanish forever as soon as you hand over the keys to investors from Denmark or Texas.

If you’re worried about commercial plantations in other parts of the UK, it’s not for me to belittle your fears. You’re right to take it seriously and push back where you have to. But I need to be clear that you have hope where I do not, and what’s happening here is a storm of its own.

Calibration

Do you ever look up from what you’re doing and find you’re in the very heart of your own life? And no matter what it was that occupied your mind until that moment, you’re suddenly, wholly glad to be present with yourself on a sunlit day when the clouds and the light race in bars to the far horizon; where snow’s wreathed in the corries and the plum-line birks are boiling under black destriers of cloud heaped out to the west and Ireland like ever they did in the olden days.

And when that happens, are you better able to breathe cleanly again, remembering that some things (not many, mind) lie forever beyond harm’s reach?

On the Tideline

You can walk to the island when the tide goes out, but it’s a mile or more to the shore and the mud’s all scored with reefs and quicksand. I wouldn’t make the trip lightly, and I’d time myself to start and come off carefully between the tides. For thirty years my grandfather walked his sheep to this island for summer grazing, and even he was caught by the heels in the sea once and had to swim for the nearest beach. Then he walked five miles round the coast to a neighbour’s farm and shamefacedly asked to be driven home dripping. We laughed but it’s not a game, and he was lucky.

Heading down through the hazels above the bay last week, I saw a figure far out on the edge of the tideline. It was little more than a speck in the backlit horizon, but this is a quiet place and it’s odd to see another soul here. I reached for my binoculars and saw it was a dog in the distance, walking on its own towards me. At first I looked for its owner, but there was nobody to be seen on the flats. And as I watched, I began to feel the hackles rise on my neck, because dogs don’t walk and wander at once. They blunder and caper, rollicking in the novelty of false freedom. The animal I saw was used to the world, and acclimatised to its own decision-making.

Foxes are on the move at this time of year, but it was clear that this one had made that trip to the island a thousand times before. There are rabbits out there after all, and sometimes dolphins dead and spoiling on the shore. It’s worth the walk, and while I was surprised to see him in the bay, I suppose the only strange thing was that he’d make the trip in the bright enormity of broad daylight. He was allowing himself to be seen, and I find it hard to make sense of that given that I’ve spent so long chasing these animals across great distances, expecting always to be rumbled and evaded. A fox will never make it easy for you to find him, so it’s puzzling when you see him laid bare out of context, and I’m likewise puzzled when you pass a fox on a street in the city and he doesn’t give a damn that you could strike him with a stick.

Resolving from a speck to a figure like the first arrival of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, this fox approached the coast where I was standing. As he came near the shore he began to bump birds feeding in the creeks and ditches. Curlews rose up wailing to land behind him; oystercatchers squalled in a gang to catch the wind and away. The boldest complainants were redshank which screamed and flew above the walker like sirens. He’d struck upon a hornet’s nest, and soon the idle crows dropped down off the rocks to mob him too. They’d been picking the kypes of kelts washed up on the shore, and they welcomed a distraction.

On his final approach to the land, the fox had to cross a deep saltwater channel running parallel to the rocks. His resolution failed. He dithered and walked up and down the water’s edge with a sour expression curling his lip. Until this point, his journey had been easy, but even when the tide is right, a person still needs wellies to make it home.

He stepped slowly into the brine to the height of his belly, holding his tail up crooked like a cat that’s just had the thing dry-cleaned. The water was deeper than he’d have liked, and the rocks a little further than he thought at first. Reaching a mid-point almost to the height of his chin, he sprang in a desperate jump for the shore and landed with two front paws gripping the barnacled stone and his brush lashing the water like an outboard. He was eighty yards away from me with the sun behind him, and the redshank decked yelling above the spray like an audience in the balconies. It looked like he might fall back upon himself, but from there he was able to climb onto the rocks and immediately he’d vanished into the wracks of seaweed and driftwood.

When I later looked for his footprints on the shore, I couldn’t find any sign that he’d crossed back from the island. That could mean the mud’s too firm or sloppy to hold a mark for long, and anyway the tide soon rose to cover the bay again, and the walkway held its breath beneath three metres of water.

Two Festivals

I read about the Celts, and I think hard upon their religious observances. Now is the time of Imbolc, the ancient festival which marks the end of winter. I try to observe that day myself and hope it will provide some focus to the changing seasons. But Celtic time is cyclical, and each year is coiled precisely on the loop that went before it. It’s hard to jump aboard a roundabout that’s already turning, and lacking any all-important sense of precedent, I’ve tried to make my own.

Five years ago, I looked to celebrate this day by walking to the grouse on the hill by the house. I flushed them in a dozen against the rising sun, and that was a fine way to mark the end of winter. I told myself that’s what I’d do in every following year, but I knew it’s also chancy work and grouse are getting hard to find. I didn’t like to build those birds into my routine for fear they’d let me down, so on ensuing Imbolc days I’ve walked the woods to find more reliable markers like thrushes in full song; I’ve stepped up the riverbank listening for dippers and each cast has shed new light upon the day and the turning season. But I’m still dissatisfied – Imbolc’s not an easy ride; I haven’t found the thing I’ll do, although perhaps the thing I’ll do is keep on reaching for some fixed sense of renewal as winter dies and the soil boils with molework.

Before the dawn of Imbolc 2022, I went to the merse at the farm’s foot. Even in that early darkness, I could hear wigeon calling above the mud. Herds of curlews turned unseen above the whinbanks, and above these birds I was strongly impressed by a tangle of ash tips and chestnut branches high above me in the mild and unlit sky. These were good things. I was ready to feel the seasons change, but as I came to the shore I disturbed a dozen redshank. 

Half-seen in the bleak horizon, one of these birds rose up to a height and for no good reason he began to sing his display song in a lapping, monotonous chant like twelve birds singing at once. It’s a sound that used to hang above me at primary school and the short walk home from the village to the farm in the days when redshank were common breeding birds here. I heard him dribble his lust in the darkness and recalled this place as it was in the early 1990s; the harbour packed with cockle boats; the pub spilled with folk and the scrapyard grumbling under the playpark, knowing that all of this has gone now or changed beyond recognition. It made me laugh to hear that song again as if all these recent failing times had only been a dream.

The bird sang for ten seconds, then he fell into the more realistic wail of wintersong. Because just as a village can falter in the space of three decades, redshank don’t breed here anymore. A few will sometimes sing like this out of season, but that male will fly north or south or somewhere else to breed for real. When the time comes to sing full song and cover his mate, he’ll be many miles away from here, and what I’d heard was no small titbit of spring to come; more a blunt reminder of springs that have gone and won’t be back.

There are some species we refuse to go without. Talk of losing swallows or curlews and people sit up sharpish. But even those who lead the charge for famous birds agree that ground is lost between the beacons. I love these redshank dearly, but I couldn’t tell you why they’ve gone from here. I suppose it’s some of all the same old troubles combined. Big areas of the merse have been drained and some of it planted with trees in the last three decades; trees which redshank abhor. The richest ground has gone to silage crops which kill the chicks before they’re born; the best fields near the village are covered in people walking their dogs, and let’s not forget that we have badgers now in ever-bulking numbers. There are many reasons why the redshank have gone, but even if there was a single act that might restore them, I rather doubt we’d perform it. It’s hard to think of anyone who even knows that “redshank”‘s what they’re called, much less fight for their survival.

So as this morning lightened and the sea slipped slick between the channels, I was struck again by another realisation of tragedy. I hate to read myself and find I write in nasal and complaining tones, but that’s all I seem to do nowadays. I should find something brighter to recall which touches more than solastalgia, but in writing to mark my devotion to the land around me, I’m never far from putting my foot in some new reminder that we’re a long way from home. Perhaps that’s another reason why I’ve found it hard to lean my weight on Imbolc; a festival based on cyclical hope. The poor idea was meant for continuity – it’s horrified to come full circle at the end of the year and find it’s left with less than it had when it started.

If I’m really keen to find some way of making sense of the season’s change, I might do well to wait two weeks and place my faith in the Roman festival of Lupercalia instead. At first glance it seems like a straight swap, one for the other. Lupercalia is turned towards continuity too, but that’s where the similarities end. Because sensible Rome insists upon time that is not coiled but linear – a small change perhaps, but one which laid down precedents for progress and this final, desperate career into crisis otherwise labelled as Now.

So I blame you, Rome, because the only reason why Lupercalia improves upon the failings of Imbolc is because it caused them. And for all those Roman gods imposed a sense of order, there’s something frantic and panicked about Lupercalia. It’s an urgent, fearsome festival which charges up-front for sexual extras in a currency of dog’s bodies and goat blood. You wouldn’t act like that if you were confident that all would turn out well in the end. Lupercalia lays a single-minded insistence upon renewal funded by destruction, and that’s pressing now because yes, we’re almost spent, and what we’ve bought will take us somewhere that we’ve never been before. I chose Imbolc by instinct, but all five of my senses insist that Lupercalia is far more fitting for nature in modernity.

Wigeon Cries

Say Wigeon, I said as I sharpened the knife and pulled skin away from the bird’s breast. He tried, then I revealed the meat and asked him how it felt to press the tip of one small finger to the slackened muscle. Cold he said, and he leaned on the table top with one leg propped above the other like his grandfather does when he’s listening.

Then off with the head and snap to the wingbones, Snap! Snap! and sustaining sound, I prattled on and told him how these birds had first seen daylight in Russia; how the sound of them reminded me of Lindisfarne and Strangford Lough; places he’s never seen and even our own beloved Solway Firth is still beyond him, and only The Sea. Then recalling Heaney’s lines for Paul Muldoon, I cut the bulb from the cock bird’s throat and placed it wet beside my lips. I blew into that translucent shape, making my own small wigeon cries as his eyes widened beside me. 

I offered him the chance to blow, but he didn’t care to. Besides he was distracted by a twist of green material which burst out strandily from a hole in the crop-skin. I pulled it out and unpacked the bundle, saying Eel grass, aren’t we lucky? And that’s what this bird’s been eating in the dark and the wonderful moon! We’ve talked about the moon before, and holding this bundle of grass to the light, he teased it apart like the weavings of string. Eel grass, I said again, and Isn’t that something? But he only said Moon and left those fibres to make their own connections. 

And after that then up came guts in blue and interlapping coils. Clots of blood flopped out like jam from the wrecked interior, and I said simply Guts because I’ve learned that he will take my lead. And knowing if I curl my lip and make this seem disgusting, he will see me. A thousand times I’ve felt him watching even tiny gestures; gleaning information which allows him to pursue that misguided desire to copy me above a world of better men.

So I make pretend that this is everyday, because we learn to be disgusted. It’s not in us at birth, and it adds nothing to the richness of our days. Protected from disgust, work like this is free to be familiar. If I can play my part and play this down, perhaps in time he’ll turn flesh into food for himself without thinking twice about it. And relaxed in that acceptance, he’s more than usually available to the shock of joy when, looking down upon his own bloodstained hands, he’ll see there stained some honest memory of the moon; of the eelgrass and the smell of down from the mud.

It’s not for me to flag this work as a miracle. He must discover that himself, and find in this ordinary task a sense of continuity that was ancient here before his oldest ancestor ever held a name.

Widgeon

for Paul Muldoon

It had been badly shot. While he was plucking it

he found, he says, the voice box –

like a flute stop

in the broken windpipe –

and blew upon it

unexpectedly

his own small widgeon cries.

Seamus Heaney, from Station Island, 1984