Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Just a Little Bit of Green

I have just finished reading How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn.

Given the author's name, the subject of the book, and the renown in which the book is held, together with the fact that I originate from the Rhondda Valleys, I felt I should read the book and would enjoy doing so.

Big mistake.

What a strange book it turns out to be, with the author offering a strangely twisted view of life in a coal-mining community around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Llewellyn seems to have the timing of the story all wrong, with lush pastures and clear streams abounding in an area apparently full of mines, but where houses still have to be built along the valley sides. By the time of his tale (never specifically stated, but identifiable through references to Victoria, the Boer War and other temporally confused events), the Valleys were already blackened with coal tips and coal dust and the mine owners had already crowded the floors and sides of the valleys with row upon row of crammed houses (now quaintly referred to as cottages, for some inexplicable reason). The rivers that cut through the valleys were already dead and blackened, unlike the trout-filled, green-sided river of Huw Morgan's valley.

If Llewellyn's timing is off, then his representation of the Welshness of his characters is just as far from the mark. The author's attempt to emulate the way they speak borders on the comical. By the time of the story, little Welsh was still spoken in the Valleys, wiped out by English overlords and the influx of outside workers, yet all of Llewellyn's main characters (and there are many of them) are depicted as doing so through the means of supposedly direct translation into English, which merely results in nonsense: "my little one" is simply no substitute for "bach", but that is just a drop from the ocean of rubbish that Llewellyn pours into his pages of conversational interchange.

The characters themselves are good enough, as is the basis of the story, but the whole is a great disappointment.

But if you're looking for disappointments, try John Ford's 1941 film of Llewellyn's tale. Unbelievably, in 1990, How Green Was My Valley was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The Americans must have a very warped idea of any of those three categories. The film makes a total mockery of Welsh (and, more particularly, Valley) culture, is historical hogwash and aesthetically a bizarre mixture of inaccuracies. Any research prior to the film being made must have been minimal at best: the geography is wrong, the accents are wrong, the houses are wrong, the location of the mine is wrong (at the top of a mountain, would you believe!)… The film is, quite honestly, a load of tat and deserves to be flushed down the great sewer of cinematography, rather than praised as anything significant at all. There seems to be only one genuine Welsh accent in the film (there are Irish, English, American, and, I'm sure, even an Austrian accent), but the owner of this accent, the character Dai Bando, is portrayed as little more than a buffoon, very different from the book's interpretation. The mountains are wrongly shaped, there is even something approaching yodelling at one stage, the houses are like palaces, massive places, quite out of keeping with the reality of the time. The Library of Congress would do better to classify it as a poor parody, insulting to the Welsh, and both culturally and historically inaccurate. Nonsense, the whole thing, and best left to one side.

The book is bad, but the film is infinitely worse. Indeed, the film attempts to condense the ten years or so of the book's tale into what seems to be no more than a year: it is neither convincing nor successful.

A far more accurate depiction of Wales in general and the Valleys in particular, as they were in the first part of the 19th century, can be found in George Borrow's excellent book, Wild Wales. An online version of the book can be found here.

(Thanks to for the use of the photo, showing part of Treherbert, in the Rhondda Valley.)

1 comment:

  1. I read the book some 22 years ago, and rather enjoyed it. But after reading your review, I don't think I'll read it again.

    The film was OK, once I got past the idea that it was supposed set in Wales and about Wales...