OPINION Huw Lawrence

NWR Issue r6

Steel, Social Justice & our Literary Tradition

I visited William Glynne-Jones, or Glyn as he was to all who knew him, at his modest, first floor flat in 10 Ossian Road in north London, in 1966. (The pen-name was to avoid confusion with his fellow novelist and friend, Glyn Jones.) Maybe I arrived early, for there were plates on the table with kipper bones from breakfast. Glyn and his wife Doris both worked. Glyn had an exhibition of paintings showing in a local library. I’d had no idea he painted. I remember him from that visit as an unassuming but unexpectedly emotional man capable of sudden, vociferous bursts of humour. I was a hopeful practitioner of fiction, visiting a writer friend of my father’s. My father and Glyn had worked for many years together as steel moulders in the Glanmôr Foundry, called Bevan’s Foundry in Glyn’s two autobiographical novels, both published in 1950. They were books that opened my eyes to my father’s rarely mentioned early life.

Farewell Innocence takes you into every department of the foundry. We see the crusher crushing silica bricks to be milled in the compo shed for making cores in the core shop. We visit the smithy and the fitting shop and the canteen. We see the casting process. We get a feel of how everyone had his own little preserve to defend and how everyone knew what everyone else’s job entailed. We see the slack, the ways the men eased off by sitting on the lavatory or hiding in sheds. We hear conversations, wise, ignorant, ironic. We see the apprentices amusing themselves, cruelly using living animals to make moulds of frogs or rats for casting in lead.

Glyn mixes up street names and juggles locations in the town he calls Abermôr, but it is unmistakeably Llanelli, full of Llanelli-like nicknames for characters whose speech often makes for an odd kind of English, being direct translation and a reminder that the language of the Glanmôr Foundry and of Llanelli was Welsh. It was not the language of the ‘County School’, which became the ‘Grammar School’ I attended. The town in Glyn’s books is certainly the one I grew up in, greatly changed though it is now. Tony Marasiano’s shop was Brachi’s, and I recognise the Park Surgery with its row of bells and emblems bearing the doctors’ names. The park is People’s Park. The sanatorium called Calon y Nôs would be Cilymaenllwyd. The ‘Monkey Parade’ was still going strong in my day, the walk around Stepney Street and Broadway (now demolished) where teenage boys and girls gazed at each other and sometimes talked or even made a date. I remember, too, the Llanelli acknowledgement when you passed someone on the street, ‘a quick, sideways toss of the head’. I remember the status accorded the front room, or ‘parlour’. The class system, too: ‘Like one of them boys from the cold rolls you are. No manners, no respect and no brains.’ In my day the girls who worked in ‘The Stamping’ – the tin-stamping works referred to in the book – were called ‘common’. Their appearance was very much as described by Glyn. They were the salt of the earth.

I remember the hooters. The tin-workers’ ‘crys bach’ was worn by my grandfather. I would walk as a young child past the Old Lodge and the still operating Marshfield tinworks on my way to my grandmother’s in Glanmôr Road, in what Glyn calls ‘the dingy houses grouped outside the boundary wall of the foundry.’ My father had no more than a few yards to travel for his first day at work. Nor did my grandmother have very far to go just nine years earlier when, as I was told, she ‘picked up her skirts’ and ran with other women to the station gates to see if her husband had been shot. Six men died in 1911, in the so-called Llanelli Riots, two of them shot. My father was five and Glyn eight months younger when five thousand men came out in support of five hundred rail workers who worked a seventy-two hour week for less than £1. It was not an isolated event. From 1910 to 1914, troops and police were used by government in massive and combative confrontations with industrial workers across Great Britain. The Great Unrest, fuelled by deprivation, hunger and injustice, was only halted by the Great War of 1914 to 1918.

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Glyn wrote about the period that followed on: the interwar era when industrial managers again took to seeking more work for less pay, just as if the Great Unrest had never happened. Some of that prewar momentum reared up again in the form of the 1926 National Strike. Glyn and my father were nineteen, obviously involved. Real improvements in working class lives would only come after the Second World War ended in 1945. In Farewell Innocence an old foundry worker tells Glyn’s protagonist, Ieuan Morgan, how improved things are since his youth. Yet, covering the years 1923–1925, Farewell Innocence describes a part of town where rat-infested houses flood and the furniture is made of tea chests, though the rents paid to chapel-going landlords were still high. He describes a wretched young couple making their way towards the workhouse, their paltry possessions piled in a pram. While this clearly happened in my home town, I find it hard to believe that only one generation separates me from what Glyn records. Did I reflect when I was young how lucky my generation was that a new socialist government had emerged to gift us the NHS, the Welfare State and the education denied to Glyn and my father? No, we all took it for granted! Looking back, I see this to be the main difference between me and that friend of my father’s whom I visited in his small flat in 10 Ossian Road.

In Farewell Innocence, Ieuan is an adolescent, observing, thinking and learning. ‘The conceptions and theories of socialism were still vague to him.’ In the sequel, Ride the White Stallion, he is an agitator, worrying his wife by publishing inflammatory letters in the local newspaper, as Glyn himself did. And, after a day’s work in the foundry, he was writing stories and attracting wider attention. His talent did not go unnoticed. His creed, though, was already formed. There is one piece of outside evidence as to Glyn’s politics, a letter of introduction in 1944 to the influential public figure Thomas Jones (TJ), president of the university at Aberystwyth at the time. It was written by an education inspector in Cardiff named WJ Williams. The letter states:
I think that this is eminently a case where we ought to try to do something if we can. The young man is certainly, decidedly ‘left’, if not communist, in his make-up, but he is none the worse for that.
William Glynne-Jones Papers, National Library of Wales

The two novels are somewhat sullied by mawkishness and maybe too much telling of what’s already been shown. Like other Welsh working-class novelists of his generation writing in English in this period, Glyn was mainly self-taught, and the inappropriate model available to them was the English middle-class novel, which focused on individual relationships rather than community. Yet our novelists produced biting political indictments of a Britain in which close-knit, Welsh working-class communities were repressed by ignorance and poverty. Rather than dwell on stylistic imperfections we should celebrate the few voices in our literature which managed to express the humanity they saw in the grinding work and domestic penury around them. Work, in pit, tin works and foundry, was life-giver and death-bringer in that almost forgotten Wales, which we should not forget but forever remember. Many books have been written about coal mining, but the only author I know who gives a detailed, intimate picture of a steel foundry – no less essential a part of our history than coal – is William Glynne-Jones.

A children’s book by Glyn, presented to my father in 1949, has an inscription indicating – and I know that it was so – that my father shared Glyn’s feelings about the foundry. But I suspect these feelings were stronger in Glyn, mocked as he was for a hare lip and speech impediment. Although his fictional protagonist is given no such impediment, Ieuan’s account is unrelentingly joyless and bleak until near the end of the book when he falls in love, and even that emotional release is portrayed as a threat to the matriculation he hopes to achieve through private study. We read of the remorseless pranks and bullying suffered by new apprentices, and of Ieuan’s relationship with the domineering mother who took him out of County School two weeks before his matriculation exams. Rarely in literature do we encounter such hatred from a son towards his mother. Farewell Innocence is the bitterest coming-of-age novel you will ever read. Yet, even so, the causes are finally presented as social, not personal. The bullying stems from the perpetrators’ resentment of their own wasted lives, and Ieuan understands that having to fulfil her domestic responsibilities with never enough money is what has changed his mother into what he sees as a hard-hearted nag. Neither Ieuan nor his author matriculated, but Glyn did escape the foundry, as did my father, via a teachers’ training course when he was forty.

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Glyn himself was not in fact plucked out of school, like Ieuan Morgan, just two weeks before his matriculation exams. According to a booklet written by his son Dennis, Glyn left school at fifteen to work as a tea-boy in a chemical factory. So, we ask, what is the relationship between fiction and truth in an autobiographical novel? Glyn uses poetic licence to bring Ieuan very close to a different future from the one he (like Glyn) is fated to live through at the foundry. It is in fiction only, though, that this future is lost by a margin of just two weeks. In so heightening the drama, the connection between any slim chance of self-improvement and potential education is underlined. A young worker says to Ieuan in the foundry: ‘If I’d had the chance of a County School education I wouldn’t be in this dump pushing a barrow.’ The point is that virtually no one who was working class had any real chance. Workers were kept in their place by being denied an education. The fictional message was more important, Glyn knew, than the autobiographical truth.

The same question arises in relation to the horrific accident described in the book. The true event was dramatic enough, but Glyn’s description is downright stomach-turning. In reality, the victim was a newly married young man who was doing my father’s job, having asked for his overtime. He was ‘splashed’ with molten steel according to my father, who visited him in hospital where the man screamed with his hands tied down to prevent him tearing at his bandages. Glyn’s version is even more dramatic and horrible, underlining what the Glanmôr Foundry could do to a worker.

Glyn made it to London in 1943, where he met and made friends with now well known Welsh writers, and built a better life. When I met him twenty-three years later he still spoke with a Welsh accent and revealed cherished childhood memories of Llanelli. Looking back, I don’t think he fully resolved the life he’d found with the one he’d left behind. His unpublished autobiography was called A Time to Seek. His own transplanting, as an individual forerunner, was perhaps less understood by him than by the generation that followed – my own. We encountered en masse (courtesy of the 1944 Education Act) both the benefits and uncertainties of this transition. For, effectively, it was a change of class and culture. Therefore, for those of my generation who stem from the industrial working class, books like Glyn’s help preserve our integrity, not only by providing the continuity that identifies us but by encouraging our sensitivity to a wider social justice, a belief in which was an essential part of the culture that formed our forefathers. In other words, these novels provide a felt understanding of the values embodied in the communities that have produced us, reminding us and those who will come after us, who we are and how we belong one to the other. That, I think, sums up the purpose and value of the Library of Wales series.

Huw Lawrence is the author of Always the Love of Someone, which was nominated for the Roland Mathias award and was published by Alcemi in 2010.

Farewell Innocence by William Glynne-Jones (T Werner Laurie, 1950; Pan Books, 1973) is published in a new edition by the Library of Wales (series editor Dai Smith) in March, while its sequel, Ride the White Stallion (T Werner Laurie, 1950), is republished under the same Parthian imprint this autumn. This article is an edited preview of Huw Lawrence’s Foreword of Farewell Innocence.


Etching, artist unknown, by kind permission of William Glynne-Jones estate


       


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