In his classic study of working-class life, The Uses of Literacy, scholar and critic Richard Hoggart analyses the dilemmas of the scholarship boy. Too clever for the traditional labouring roles of his class but lacking the material resources (and social nous) to make full use of the opportunities afforded by education, he falls into the gaps that lie between social classes. Unhappily he is of neither where he came from nor where he appears to be heading towards. This is the central theme, as I see it, of Alun Lewis’s hitherto unpublished novel Morlais. Strongly autobiographical in tone, the novel considers the pains of a young hero who years to be more like everyone else, more working class, more “normal” as he sees it.
The novel opens with a butterfly trying against the odds to escape the downward pressure of gravity and the heat of the black schoolyard tarmac. It is a fascinating – poetic – metaphor for the scholarship boy and his particular kind of angst. And it is into the school that we, the reader, are cast as the familiar sounds of rote learning and the bustle of the yard echo through Lewis’s prose. Yet at no stage are we left with the sense that this is a happy scene. There are bullies, even the teachers seem oppressive, and the surrounding landscape, grimy and dirty as it is, evokes a bleakness from which it would be only to logical to want to escape.
We begin in the 1920s with an eleven year old Morlais about to sit the county scholarship exams. But when exactly? The tumult of the General Strike and Lockout, which marked Lewis’s eleventh year are absent from the story, which is itself curious. Nevertheless there are other distinct markers that allow us to position the novel with some chronological accuracy. The most straightforward of these, deriving from a passing piece of description, is the fact that Morlais’s brother Dilwyn takes shares in the local greyhound track (as does his brother in law). This track was located at the Ynys Field in Aberdare and opened – amidst some controversy – on Boxing Day 1931. The venture was encouraged by local grocers and Aberdare RFC. By this point in the story Morlais is sixteen: despite the absence of the lockout it is clear we are tracking Alun Lewis’s lifespan.
Thus Morlais’s early adolescence takes place alongside but not amidst the deepening economic turmoil of the Depression. Education has fundamentally altered his position in society and the effects of pit closures, strikes, blacklisting, and labour politics more generally, are all out of Morlais’s circle of knowledge until very late on in the novel. This is partly the result of Morlais being adopted by the local colliery manager and his wife at the end of the first act. Colliery business is barely discussed at home, it is for adults. But it undoubtedly also reflects Morlais’s own choices and decisions. He leaves the village by bus each day to go to school and maintains that separation by evading the streets where idle colliers would have hung about. Instead he gets about through the gwlis (or back lanes). “In the deserted lane”, the narrator observes, “there was nothing to remind him of himself” (p. 68). Or so he thinks.
It is a chance meeting in those back lanes that opens Morlais’s eyes to what is going on in the village around him. Bob Linton, who had terrorised Morlais as a child, now befriends the sixteen year old and they play table football, drink sarsaparilla, and talk politics together. Threat of closure hangs over the colliery and it has become a dangerous, neglected place to work. The Fed are pressing for 100% membership – an ancient battle- and the men are willing to take direct action if someone does not sign up. For a moment, with their drinks and games, Morlais and Bob appear to be one and the same. That is until they leave the bracchi and have a cigarette. In an attempt to be daring Morlais buys a packet of cigarettes, a packet of Player’s, the middle-class smoke of choice. A worker such as Bob Linton would have smoked Woodbines. The illusion of sameness is shattered, Morlais remains the scholarship boy.
In reading the novel, it is hard not to be struck by its utter authenticity and rootedness in the experiences of the valleys and the coalfield society that Dai Smith once called “the world of South Wales”. Names are shortened to a solitary syllable, just as we valleys folk are want to do, and the landscape can be walked with ease using the novel as a guide. Up over the mountain onto the plateau of Llanwonno from where you can gaze down into the Rhondda, the Cynon, and the Taff valleys, and on still further to the Brecon Beacons and the Bristol Channel. But Lewis was not a preacher, he rarely lays out the rawness of the 1930s in the way that Gwyn Thomas does in Sorrow For Thy Sons, for instance. Lewis hears South Wales in a different, but no less true, kind of way. Put together Thomas and Lewis provide a portrait of the world of South Wales that historians have long dreamt of writing. Well, okay, I have. For me Morlais is the perfect companion to those other classics of interwar Welsh writing in English, and in many ways is the superior novel with one exception: Sorrow For Thy Sons. Morlais and Sorrow capture the same space, the same anxieties, the same people. They were written just a couple of years apart. But the rhythms are distinct: rebellious, radical Rhondda; stoic, resilient Cwmaman and Aberdare.
Thomas and Lewis were remarkably alike. The former born in 1913, the latter in 1915, they both escaped their class through education and teaching, each enjoyed the creative fulfilment of writing, and each suffered from the hollowness of chronic depression. Thomas, of course, enjoyed a full life, dying just a few years shy of his three score and ten, but his work never burned quite as brightly as it did in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when society still appeared at least to possess something of its radical spirit, however weak and weary it was by the end of the 1950s. But Thomas never did evacuate his mind from the 1930s, from the sorrows that were suffered by those around him, by the stupidity of the political class, and the crushing reality that brute force can overcome love and valour. What more ought we expect we to expect from a man whose hero was Lewis Jones.
There is no doubt in my mind that Alun Lewis was just as political a writer as Gwyn Thomas – a point made by Harri Webb many years ago. But he died in 1944 aged 28 and it is therefore impossible to gauge with any real accuracy what sort of writer he would have become. Whether indeed literary fiction would have come to dominate his output. And yet I suspect his politics would have come to the fore in the pallid flimsiness of post-war Wales. Indeed Lewis’s politics lie deep under the surface of Morlais and they were undoubtedly socialist. The novel gives us a tantalising glimpse into what might have been.
And so, Morlais easily sits as one of the great novels of twentieth century Welsh writing in English. It is certainly the greatest novel to emerge from the Cynon Valley in any language. One of the most resonant and accurate portraits of interwar valleys life ever written, Morlais is surely only bettered by Gwyn Thomas’s early novel, Sorrow For Thy Sons. And even that is a matter of taste. It is an instant classic, the ideal antidote to How Green Was My Valley.