Just over the mountain from where I live stands 24 Aberffrwd Road, Mountain Ash. An innocent, unremarkable terraced house in which resided two very remarkable people: Elaine Morgan and her husband Morien. Back in 1975, Elaine delivered the Annual Lecture on BBC Radio Wales which she titled Women and Society. Inside the printed version of the lecture is a potted biography which sets out the following:
Elaine Morgan was born in Pontypridd and educated at Pontypridd Intermediate Girls School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Her husband Morien Morgan is Head of Languages at Coedylan Comprehensive School; they have 3 sons and live in Mountain Ash.
How straightforward. How much it masked. Elaine came from the Hopkinstown district of Pontypridd, which lies, for those unfamiliar with it, on the road that leads up towards the Rhondda. It’s the part of Pontypridd wherein stands Capel Rhondda, where that perennial favourite, Cwm Rhondda, was first performed. Whenever anyone asks what the true capital of the valleys is, they need only be pointed in the direction of Pontypridd. But that’s another story, for another time. She was born almost exactly 95 years ago on 7 November 1920. Eleven years later she sat for the 11+ which was, in 1931, ‘the great divide’ (her words). Most of her friends went on to the Secondary School in Mill Street, destined to leave in a few years; Elaine went on to the Girls Grammar School ‘and entered an entirely new world’. Most of those who were there came from the more prosperous families of the town and its surrounding areas. What better lesson in the implications of the class system than watching most of your classmates hand in their dinner money envelopes whilst you sit down and don’t pay a penny because your parents have no work. Because your parents were too poor.
At age 18, Elaine Morgan went up to Oxford. That was in early September 1939. War hung over her entire time there. In contrast to other South Walians who went up to Oxford in the 1930s – Gwyn Thomas, for instance – Elaine’s experience was laced not with complete disillusion but with the obvious inequalities of gender. ‘In some of the lectures we attended’, she later wrote, ‘alpha male dons pointedly addressed their mixed audiences as “Gentlemen”’. Perhaps not surprisingly it was partly this experience that steadily politicised the young Elaine and she joined the Democratic Socialist Club alongside Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins. Elaine followed both as the club’s chair. A remarkable group!
But politics was not Elaine’s vocation, though she held strong socialist views all of her life. First she turned to teaching with the adult education movement, taking a job as a tutor in Norfolk. It’s striking to note just how many prominent writers and thinkers of the period did this – E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Gwyn Thomas, Alun Lewis, Richard Hoggart, to name but a few. Ironically, it was a political meeting of sorts that brought her into contact with her future husband, Morien. Morien Morgan had gone to fight in Spain with the International Brigades and been captured by Franco’s forces. His release early in 1939 brought with it tales of the horrors of fascist prisons and a range of meetings to hear his experiences. He was still in demand as a speaker by the time of the Siege of Stalingrad and in the summer of 1942, Elaine went along to a ‘Beds for Stalingrad’ rally at which Morien spoke – he was already teaching French in his old school, Pontypridd Boys’ Grammar (it later became Coedylan Comprehensive School – my old school!). They were married shortly before VE Day, 1945.
By the early 1950s, we find Elaine winning prizes for essay competitions – notably in the New Statesman and in the Observer (not, of course, the venerable Pontypridd Observer, the other one!) Shortly after Christmas, 1952, she won third prize from the Observer for an essay on eyes. The reward was £50. The newspaper received 4856 entries which were eventually whittled down to 200 and to the shortlist of 23. A potted biography of Elaine appeared in the newspaper (along with her essay, ‘The Only Talisman’). ‘Mrs Morgan’, the newspaper reported, ‘has done some article writing and book reviewing and has broadcast in Woman’s Hour’. Those appearances had come the previous year, beginning on 24 April 1951 with a piece entitled ‘My Embarassing Half-Hour’ which described an occasion when the young mother had taken her children to a restaurant. She followed that up on 18 December 1951 and on 11 March 1952. The latter occasion offered insight into life on a remote hillside in Wales, to which the Morgans had recently moved to live. The essay itself is an eloquent rumination on the fundamental power of the eye and what it can do. She writes: ‘in human eyes alone the power to sap the courage is barbed, it sticks in the memory and destroys at leisure. Daylight is no defence against it. The only talisman is the same as it always was […] its wonder does not diminish’. Wonderful writing, isn’t it?
By the mid-1950s, Elaine was a relatively stable fixture on Woman’s Hour before making her BBC Television debut as a script-writer and dramatist in 1955 with a comedy called ‘Mirror, Mirror’ starring Bernard Lee – seven years later he made his debut as M in the James Bond films. By Elaine’s own admission (in her autobiography) it was not very good. As she writes, ‘Nobody knew what the actual viewers wanted to see. In this seller’s market, then, they took my play’. Nor was her second outing on TV very successful either. Imagined as a ‘sequel’ to the Taming of the Shrew, one critic called it ‘a little play in which the pompous dialogue, so near and yet so far from Shakespeare, rather flattened the idea of showing how Katharina and Bianca competed in taming their husbands’. Still, there was always radio. Two months after that second television flop, Elaine appeared on the Brain of Britain quiz show on the Light Programme. A comedy – Without Vision – for BBC Wales that summer was far more successful and soon Elaine’s writing was finding much more favour with the television critics. Her ‘Do It Yourself’, a comedy about a young curator of a museum in a remote country town who has a tete-a-tete with the TV Don Basil Wainright was judged a ‘very near miss’ (a step up from the previous flops). That was in May 1957; ‘Cuckoo’ which went out in September that year earned her significant praise. ‘Elaine Morgan showed once again in her play, ‘Cuckoo’, last night that she has an unusual gift for light drama on television’.
It was clear she was also extremely adept at more serious drama, too, particularly in a Welsh setting. Already in 1957 she had written a ‘dramatised documentary’ on the work of the Family Service Units but in 1958 she turned her attention to open-cast mining and the traumatic impact such pits had on the landscape. Black Furrow was broadcast on 4 March 1958 and used material filmed by the National Coal Board. Those in the community who came out against the open-cast mine were led by an ex-miner suffering from silicosis, how stark it must have been. As the Radio Times noted, ‘the action is set in Wales, but the problems and conflicts raised are common to all parts of coal-bearing Britain’. This Welshness bore particular fruit with ‘A Matter of Degree’ a semi-autobiographical six part serial – the lead character, Doreen Powell, goes from a mining valley in South Wales to Oxford – broadcast in the Spring of 1960. This was followed up in 1962 with ‘Barbara in Black’, a thriller set in the valleys once again in which a stolen package of Caesium 137 is hidden down a mine shaft after the crooks kill a policeman. Fun, no?
By the mid-1960s, Elaine was writing regularly for major television shows such as Maigret and Dr Finlay’s Casebook, adapting major literary works such as Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton, pieces by Oscar Wilde, and even building sequels to her own writing – as in the case of Lil, a TV serial broadcast in 1965 which provided further episodes in the lives of characters first introduced in the 1950s serial A Matter of Degree. But it was Welsh material that dominated. 1975 saw the broadcast of her adaptation of How Green Was My Valley in which she excised the fakery of Richard Llewellyn and incorporated the realities of life for her own family – particularly the Morgan family of Ynysybwl. Earlier in the year she had tackled Alexander Cordell’s Rape of the Fair Country for radio. Three years later she did Jack Jones’s classic, Off to Philadelphia in the Morning. When How Green was shown on PBS in the United States in 1976 it was introduced for viewers by Alistair Cooke and greeted as a truly authentic portrait of the ‘old country’.
In the middle of all this success she wrote a book which changed her life completely and set her on a different path. That book was The Descent of Woman published in 1972 and which reached the best sellers lists in the United States; it did so by presenting the theory that man had evolved from a semi-aquatic ancestor. She appeared on BBC Radio 4 and on BBC Two in a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary that followed her on a book tour of the United States. Its origins are humble. ‘When I visited Mountain Ash library, I would take out one novel, and a non-fiction book on the second ticket. One day I came home with Desmond Morris’s best-selling book The Naked Ape’. She was gripped by the idea that it – and books like it – was all nonsense. ‘They’re not thinking or writing about the human race, only about the evolution of less than half of the human race – namely, adult males’.
An aside to this it’s worth mentioning that Mountain Ash library was in the midst of a remarkable renaissance under the directorship of the district librarian, Harri Webb. It was he who transformed the stock and turned the library into something fit for the modern day: even today if you look at the older stock held in the Cynon Valley by far the most interesting material contains the sticker bearing the Mountain Ash library rules and that insignia: H. Webb, M.A. Librarian.
It was gender politics that prompted Elaine to write The Descent of Woman and it caught the zeitgeist. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch had appeared two years earlier and the entire question of society’s construction of gender was thrown into the open. Writing in the Glasgow Herald, Naomi Mitchison, feminist and author, reflected that the book’s treatment of the politics of sex were ‘the most sensible and responsible I have come across’. It was Elaine’s voice, though, that was heard on American television debating with anthropologists about the possibilities of the evolution of women. A lot of (male) scientists and anthropologists were appalled at the idea, didn’t believe that as a non-scientist Elaine could have any notion of what she was talking, and some women’s liberationists thought she didn’t go quite far enough. ‘When you start a revolution’, wrote one American reviewer, sardonically, ‘you have to expect a little resistance’. Or as another put it, ‘If this book doesn’t create a stir it will be surprising’. How right they both were.
Four years later she turned her attention to the question of socio-economic development in a book that speaks dramatically to our own age and its obsessions with anti-centrism, particularly here in Britain. Falling Apart: The Rise and Fall of Urban Civilization offered the conclusion that cities had grown too big and that centralism had become dangerous. Power and wealth she argued had gravitated towards the centre and singularly failed to redistribute that wealth to the periphery. The periphery bled money, people, and resources, enabling the metropolis and always suffering its impact. ‘If you are at the bottom of the league there is nobody you can work the wampum trick on’, she writes, ‘nowhere the underdevelopment can be created except in your own hinterland’. Cities heavily favour consumption and service over production, and that produces a hollow shell unable to properly to sustain itself. And so it continues to suck in people and resources; continues to emphasise the gap between haves and have nots. Poverty and richesse side-by-side: ‘hence crime, fear and despair’.
How Welsh a book it is, how Welsh!
As an editorial in the New Welsh Review put it nearly fifteen years ago, Elaine’s book stands with Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City as one of the most important contributions of Welsh scholarship precisely because it deals with the inter-relationship between the urban and the rural, the metropolitan and the provincial, the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’. But this is no Hechterian piece of nonsense so beloved of nationalists who can’t see beyond the end of their street; this is a book which insists on the universalism of the problem and the need, therefore, for a universal solution. It didn’t matter if the city was New York, Berlin, Buenos Aires, or Moscow, the impact was much the same. The more you read the book, the more you come to realise that there was another path out of the 1970s for Wales that was not taken. I don’t mean the absence of an assembly (what would have changed, really?) but rather the turn away from rather than towards political fracture which robbed us of any potential to rebuild (albeit for modern times) the politics of the earlier twentieth century. Speaking at Maerdy in 1981, Will Paynter insisted that the politics of the 1980s were, in essence, the politics of the 1920s – he focused then on jobs, but he meant a lot of other things besides. And so too, in Falling Apart did Elaine. It was a warning, but it was hardly listened to.
In the course of a long career, then, Elaine Morgan gave voice to her Wales on television and on radio becoming one of the great Welsh writers of the twentieth century. She did not publish a novel or collections of short stories, the fact of which has perhaps robbed her of her place amongst the canon of Welsh Writers in English which she deserves to be part of. Critics have to turn instead to material they’re not so comfortable with – television scripts, radio plays, scattered essays and reviews, and non-fiction. The Wales that she presented was similar to that of Gwyn Thomas, her near contemporary, but never quite the same, for her world was viewed through women, not men. Like Gwyn, Elaine was a fixture of grassroots politics appearing on peace marches, CND marches, and in support of Morien during election campaigns for the Labour Party. Elaine crossed paths with Gwyn only a few times, mostly during recording sessions at the BBC and it is with particular delight that they are reunited in the Library of Wales edition of The Dark Philosophers (Elaine wrote the foreword). I thought I’d end today’s blog with an adaptation of her introduction:
If the ‘us’ that she was part of has faded into history, that is all the more reason to be grateful that she was there to record the essence of it while it was still alive and kicking.