Christopher Hitchens is a writer, journalist, polemicist and prominent public intellectual. A longtime contributor to The Nation, he now writes for Slate, The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair. Amongst his many books are The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Orwell's Victory, Regime Change and Love, Poverty, and War. Christopher writes below about Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley.
Christopher Hitchens on How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
Your formative books, Christopher? Well, hmmm, let me see. Crime and Punishment of course, and Darkness at Noon. Then Swann's Way, War and Peace, The Eighteenth Brumaire, some of the more telling excerpts from Gramsci's Prison Notebooks... Need one add Mr Midshipman Hornblower, A Tale of Two Cities and the classic noir of Peter Rabbit as contrasted with Pale Fire? I can only trust that you admire my eclecticism, combined as it is with my humanistic depth.
In fact, when posed this question by Norman Geras, I decided to shed all pretence and say that Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley was a book that changed my life in two ways, or possibly three. When I first took hold of it, at the age of about fourteen, I was seeking that span of writing that connects boys' books to adult reading - in the same way that one 'took on' Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene at about the same period. The book was long, and it was a sort of triumph to have addressed and mastered such a hefty text at all. But that cannot be the reason why I read it and re-read it until the paperback fell to pieces, or why I got to the point where I knew every scene in the book and loved it all the more for its certainty and familiarity.
The cover of that paperback, which lived on long after the actual pages had turned to confetti, may have had something to do with it. It depicted a family in shawls and clogs, with some sort of hilly yet industrial landscape in the background, and it had a slogan or some other superscription which described it as 'the enduring best-seller of the war years', or a form of words very like that at any rate. I had been born in 1949 and in my neck of the woods a novel about 'the war years' should have had at the very least a portrait of Winston Churchill somewhere on its cover, or a patch of ocean corresponding to the Battle of the Atlantic (The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monserrat, being the only other novel of remotely comparable length that I had got by heart).
I don't have the book beside me now, but I do remember what it taught me. If you were brought up in a conservative rural area of England in the 1950s, you were taught history as a pageant - mainly of Englishness - and you were given to understand that it was the trade unions that impeded national recovery after the glorious years of 1939-1945. And here was Huw Morgan, a boy-narrator of about my age who lived among coal-miners and who was wickedly beaten at school for speaking Welsh. (It did not hurt that he also managed to provide the first plausible account that I ever read of the experience of losing one's virginity.) The life he described was one of solidarity on the part of a defeated nation and an oppressed class, and it had all taken place within a very short distance of where I lived. The battle honours of these people were not the naval and regimental ones on which I had been schooled, but when years later I heard some Tory describe the National Union of Mineworkers as 'the Brigade of Guards of the Labour movement', my thoughts flew back to the book that had first opened my eyes. And when the Aberfan slag-heap buried the school and the village in 1966, I felt that I had read about it in advance, as the weight of the mine's refuse pressed down harder on the cottage of the Morgan family.
Some moments of it will always be with me: the father made to stand in the rain 'like a dog', so that the bosses can humiliate him in front of his children; the bare-knuckle boxing-match; the older brothers' revenge on the sadistic sell-out of a schoolteacher; the colliery accident; the astonishing emphasis on food in both its plenty and its absence; that moment up on the mountainside with the girl. And then the introduction to Welsh names and idioms, and the shock I felt when one of the brothers declares his intention 'to fight against the bloody English'.
Years later I was very interested to learn that the author, Richard Llewellyn, was in fact a political conservative. I supposed I must have imagined him, as I groped towards politics, as some kind of a Bevanite. But in retrospect I can see what moral the book might have been intended to inculcate. The solidarity of the characters is very much a solidarity of the family and of the chapel and the choir - musical events playing a large part in the narrative, and the minister, Mr Gruffydd, acting the role of moral hero. The true theme is one of individual attainment - Huw manages to get his ticket out of the valley by means of a scholarship, and two of his brothers emigrate to America. The class struggle goes on all right, but it is 'mediated', if you like, in this way, and by emotional nationalism as well. (Llewellyn's next book, Up Into The Singing Mountain, was an account of the Welsh emigrants in Patagonia, and I never opened it for fear that it would not belie the sentimentality of its title.) Nonetheless, it still strikes me that a book that dares risk having the opposite effect on a young reader must in some way have a claim to be a work of art.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]