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Morlais

ISBN-13: 
9781781722800
Publication Date: 
Thursday, July 23, 2015
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Morlais is Alun Lewis’s unpublished novel from the late 1930s. The Lawrentian story of a young boy growing up in the poverty stricken industrial valleys of south Wales, it also reflects Lewis’s own experiences, particularly his search for self-knowledge and his conviction that he would be a writer.

Miner’s son Morlais Jenkins is already being educated away from his background at grammar school when he is adopted, on the death of her own son, by the wife of the local colliery owner. Morlais’s parents recognize the opportunity for their son to make a better future, but they must all pay a great price. Stifled by middle class life, his adoptive mother recognizes that Morlais will be a poet and encourages him to be neither working class or middle class, but true to his talent.

Full of vivid descriptive passages of life in the fictional mining valley, and centred on the conflicted character of Morlais and the decisions he faces over his two families, his two social backgrounds, and his desire to be a poet, the novel is an enthralling journey through the life of a young boy becoming a young man.

Alun Lewis (1915-1944) was the outstanding writer of World War Two and Morlais, written in his mid twenties, is an early indication of the talented writer he would become just five years later. This edition is accompanied by an Afterword by Lewis’s biographer, John Pikoulis.

REVIEWS

Review by Paul Binding, New Statesman

Friday, January 8, 2016

“I want to come home with you, that’s all I want,” says the 16-year-old Morlais to his mother. For years, he has seen her only rarely and he has just encountered her in a household mourning a young man who was killed in the nearby mine pits. Her reply is woundingly unequivocal: “ ‘Don’t be daft,’ she said curtly. ‘We don’t want you.’ ” This exchange stands thematically, spiritually and literally at the centre of Morlais, the novel that Alun Lewis (1915-44) worked on throughout 1939 but never published. The situation behind the boy’s request and its snub not only provides the novel’s most powerful emotional drama, it constitutes its governing, resonant metaphor.

Morlais Jenkins’s father works as a haulier at the local colliery, while his mother manages an increasingly straitened household. These are desperate times in South Wales, the difficulties intensifying with the advent of the Depression in the 1930s. At school, as a boy of 11, Morlais had befriended David, the gentle and much-teased son of Denis Reames, the colliery manager. During a visit to the Reameses’ house, the boys played a daring game that ended in David’s death. Already David’s mother had taken a liking to the intelligent and responsible Morlais. The day after the accident, she descended to the Jenkinses’ house – no figure of speech, for the Reameses’ house, The Elms, is situated high above the mining community of Glannant – and offered to adopt him. Her proposal was accepted.

Morlais’s removal from his roots is compounded by his winning a place at the selective county school outside Glannant. For five years, he scarcely encounters his blood family or old mates, and the most important person in his life is not his “Mam” but “Mums”, his refined, beautiful, educated foster mother. She gives him security, comfort, affection and intellectual stimulus. Yet she has also half-knowingly appropriated his burgeoning male identity so that he interiorises his passions.

But however lofty geographically and culturally The Elms may be, it can’t but be affected by the prevailing economic climate. Denis Reames, renowned as a hard taskmaster, is forced by his board to make cuts in expenditure, with devastating effects, including fatalities, on the miners. William Jenkins, Morlais’s father, becomes first spokesman, then victim, and his elder son can no longer keep himself apart.

Though Alun Lewis had had stories and poems published ever since his schooldays, Morlais antedates the works that, shortly after the novel’s completion, earned him considerable admiration: Raiders’ Dawn (1942), poems of men waiting in wartime to serve, so many of them in love or newly married, and The Last Inspection (also 1942), disquieting and sympathetically penetrating short stories of army life, with a remarkable ear for vernacular speech. The pressures leading to the creation of these books – Lewis, though a pacifist by conviction, enlisted in the army in May 1940 and married Gweno Ellis in July 1941 – were no doubt responsible for his abandoning Morlais for projects that confronted more directly the ever-demanding present. But he must have known its artistic distinction. The novel is not a linear Bildungsroman but original in construction, with provocative narrative breaks that force imaginative revision of the protagonist and his predicament. The tumult within Morlais counterpoints the turmoil inside a community of rising unemployment, while the accounts of his experiences on the mountain above Glannant provide context for the human troubles below and remind us of the ceaseless struggles within nature.

That Morlais was nurtured by Lewis’s life becomes clear when we examine the book biographically. John Pikoulis has now added to his already canonical Alun Lewis: a Life (1991) a fascinating and invaluable revisiting of his work on the author: Alun, Gweno and Freda. Lewis grew up in Cwmaman, near Aberdare; his parents were schoolteachers there, educated and better off than others in that town of colliers. This, together with his selective education, led in Lewis to feelings of social guilt closely akin to those of the riven Morlais.

Lewis’s life after the gratifyingly successful publication of his first two books demands further elucidation. In October 1942 he was posted to India, where the injustice and poverty appalled him. He fell passionately in reciprocated love with an older, married woman, Freda Aykroyd, while continuing to write tender, richly evocative letters to Gweno which she later published. The psychological strains become unendurable. In February 1944 Lewis was sent to Burma. On 5 March he was found shot through the head outside the officers’ latrines, revolver in hand. Accidental death was the official verdict, but fellow soldiers (who greatly respected him) were convinced that he had committed suicide, as was Freda. And so not is Pikoulis, whose grim biographer’s duty it became to help Gweno adjust to the reality of her husband’s lover and the likelihood of a self-sought death.

Lewis’s posthumously published books exceed their predecessors in scope and accomplishment – the poems of Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (1944), the stories and letters of In the Green Tree (1948). Darker, more openly metaphysical, they nonetheless connect back to Morlais, which presents its subject matter sub specie aeternitatis, irradiated by the charity of the author’s inclusive socialism. The novel points forward to the later split in Lewis. His last letter to his wife declared: “The sun is bright and gay and everything sparkling and scrubbed, and if it were ten years ago or ahead I’d have a very gay scrubbed heart as well.” But, only months before, he confessed in his journal:

Last night I was singing and there was death quite clear and familiar at last after all the groping and revulsion and I sang…Did she be close unto thee, Billy Boy? Billy Boy? Yes she lay close unto me as the bark is to the tree and me Nancy tickled me fancy oh my darling Billy Boy.

REVIEW by Daryl Leeworthy

Saturday, August 1, 2015

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.

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