It is a tradition in the review sections of the newspapers for personalities to pick their books of the year. In keeping with that tradition, this last post of 2012 offers a list of the most important books that I’ve read this year. They weren’t all published in 2012 but together, I think, they stand as a worthy summary of what exactly has happened to the world this year.

The 1960s cover of Ron Berry's brilliant novel of youth.
The 1960s cover of Ron Berry’s brilliant novel of youth.

The Full Time Amateur – Ron Berry

Written in the mid-1960s, this novel captures the spirit of a young lad fighting his way through a system that’s left him to his own devices. It has sex, drinking, and crashed scooters proving once again that Ron Berry was the master observer of a society rapidly changing into something quite different. It’s hard to get hold of now but that’s what libraries are for. Beg them to get it off the reserve stock shelf and revel in a Welsh novel rather like any other.

Flame and Slag – Ron Berry

Two years after The Full-Time Amateur, Berry published this novel which turns its attention to the social decline and fragmentation of the South Wales Coalfield. Within the pages of its story-within-a-story, the novel tells the rise and fall of one pit village and the people who made an industrial settlement into one of the most vibrant communities in the world. We are told that the 1960s were a golden age – usually by people who really only awoke in the 1970s – but here, in this novel, we have a different image of that decade. The subtitle might even have been: a people hung out to dry.

The Alone to the Alone – Gwyn Thomas

Whatever may be said of the style and thematic content of Gwyn Thomas’s writing – his comedic wit, his genuine affection for the voters of the terraces (as he called the working class of his native Rhondda), his recoil at puritanical authority – his work is the most important to have emerged from Wales in the second half of the twentieth century. The Alone to the Alone was written in the early 1940s by a writer who had only recently come into the financial security of teaching. Published in a remarkable year that saw Gwyn Thomas rise from obscurity to three-book fame, the novel tells the story of the dark years of the 1930s. Its lessons are plain for us today.

The Library of Wales Edition of The Alone to the Alone

Sorrow For Thy Sons – Gwyn Thomas

I first read Sorrow For Thy Sons in 2008 just as I was starting my PhD research at Swansea University. It immediately grabbed my attention putting down in fictionalised narrative form the major events that I was researching in the newspapers. Written for a competition organised by Victor Gollancz in the late-1930s but not published until 1986, the novel shows us exactly what happens to people, to a people, when the poverty of unemployment combines with the wanton hostility of one’s own government to grind away the last slithers of hope. The message? To stay behind and fight alongside one’s own class is the right and honourable thing to do.

The Spanish Holocaust – Paul Preston

Most of my ‘favourite’ historians are now dead. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this save to consider that maybe my historical tastes are a bit old fashioned. Of those who remain alive, Paul Preston is by far the finest and most engaging. His work on the Spanish Civil War and Spain in the twentieth century has earned him plaudits and awards numerous enough not to try and catalogue here. This book, published this year in English but last year in Spanish and Catalan, is almost certainly his magnum opus. It records in unflinching detail the human tragedy of the military coup of 1936 and makes for difficult reading (and by all accounts difficult writing). It is a model of history writing.

The Richard Burton Diaries – (ed.) Chris Williams

My first encounter with Richard Burton was as a young child watching Zulu with my grandparents, though he never makes an appearance on screen. Over the years, I’ve caught up with his most important films from Cleopatra to the Spy Who Came In From The Cold to his last performance in 1984. Welsh voices on screen weren’t all that common – they still aren’t – and so Burton’s rich baritone with an accent similar to mine was quite important growing up in a world that didn’t really seem to take the Welsh all that seriously. We couldn’t even win on the rugby field! Richard Burton, of course, is one of the giants of acting with a biography plagued by demons like drink and (I’m tempted to say) Elizabeth Taylor. What the diaries reveal, beyond the booze, booze, booze, booze, booze, booze, booze, is an fiercely intelligent individual capable of achieving a great deal. I don’t normally read or buy diaries and biographies but this fine edition, brilliantly edited by Chris Williams, may just have changed my mind.

And the winner? For the sheer quality of its writing and gripping account of a people tortured by their own government, my book of the year is Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust.