Armchair tourism: Wales, with Dewithon 2020

There was a bitter, arctic wind cutting across us on Sunday morning. The sun was shining, but better enjoyed from behind glass.

Our garden, just waking to spring, is a limited, but refreshing pallet of colours. The winter has been grey with rain, but now we have blue sky, bright young grass, and a patch of daffodils.

These are not golden, they’re more like the dainty Welsh ones. Wales is out-of-bounds, at the moment. Britain is in lock-down.

Well, have books, can travel, and these are the last few days of the 2020 Wales Readathon, the month long celebration of Wales related literature, instigated by PAULA BARDELL-HEDLEY on Book Jotter. I turned to my shelves, and the first thing I saw was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewelyn. It’s been there for several years now, as I’ve wondered whether it was a threat or a promise.

I’d been put off by memories of the 1941 film version that I remember disliking, years and years ago. I can’t give you any specific reason for my reaction. When I checked on-line, I discovered that it is considered an American Classic, so maybe I should take another look.

Then again, I’m loving the book so much, perhaps I won’t take the risk. I’m now on chapter 18, which is about half-way, and can hardly bear to be away to write this, despite my desire to share it with you.

The setting is a mining valley in South Wales. The time frame is towards the end of the nineteenth century. It charts a time of political and social change, but the centre of the story is a family, and their loves, songs, faiths and betrayals.

It is a beautifully shaped novel. Opening with the adult Huw describing his preparations to leave his home for good, and then slipping back through memories to describe his childhood in that house, and community. It’s rich with detail, and yet not bogged down with it.

Take the description of buying toffee from Mrs. Rhys the Glasfryn:

She made the toffee in pans and then rolled it all up and threw it soft at a nail behind the door, where it stuck. Then she took a handful with both hands and pulled it towards her, then threw the slack back on the nail again. That went on for half an hour or more until she was satisfied it was hard enough, and then she let it lie to flatten out. Hours I have waited in her front room with my penny in my hand, and my mouth full of spit, thinking of the toffee, and sniffing the smell of sugar and cream and eggs.

My mouth was watering too.

I love the tone and timbre of Huw’s voice. There are moments when I seem to hear him, rather than read the words, such as the section near the beginning when he describes how his parents met:

…she was sixteen and he was twenty. He came off a farm to make his way in the iron works here, and as he came singing up the street one night he saw my mother drawing the curtains upstairs in the house where she was working. He stopped singing and looked up at her, and I suppose she looked down to see why he had stopped. Well, they looked and fell in love.

Mind, if you had said that to my mother she would have laughed it off and told you to go on with you, but I know because I had it from my father.

So far, the story of Huw’s life is full of incident, and he’s only just reached his teenage. I’m captivated by this bright innocent who’s always watching, asking questions, and taking part.

Another draw is the setting, an idyllic green Eden, lyrically described in relation to Huw’s childhood. As he grows older, the shadow of the slag heap increasingly encroaches in a metaphorical and literal form. The industrial revolution happens at a domestic level, impacting on every layer of the family.

This historical novel, published in 1939, seems to offer a warning for our times, as well providing me with an antidote to this strange, restricted moment.