If you forgive more than a hint of oxymoron, there is something innocently deceptive about this novel. You can be fifty, sixty pages in, thinking this is just a well-wrought and clear-eyed series of reminiscences, memory’s cinema show of past times rekindled and revivified, when you slowly realize how deft are the writerly touches, how delicately is the book’s fabric held together by bright threads of truly lovely language. The four-twenty train slides down the incline ‘with all its windows aglow, it was a quick-moving chain of light.’ A lark rises ‘out of the bracken and made a ladder out of its song.’ Towards the book’s close a preacher asks the young hero of the book what he’s going to do when he grows up:
I answered abstractedly, unresponsively, too deep in the warm promise of the present to think of what would happen in three or four or even one year’s time. Today is all. Now is the maying.
Those last four words might act as watchwords for the novel as a whole, as it is a quiet and elegant celebration of childhood, of that seeming springtime of life. It chronicles a simpler time when Halloween was about apple bobbing not trick or treats, when Monday was about a line full of washing and Friday night, if you were lucky, involved a trip to to the pictures.
Yet, just at the point when the reader settles into the easy rhythm of quotidian life, Evans jerks him or her out of complacency, nowhere more than when the whole novel moves from realism to magic realism and a series of dreamlike incidents that might have graced a Gabriel Marquez novel. The moon lands in Jenkins the Milk’s green field. Various groups suggest ways of dealing with it, with some plumping for preaching at it! And then they roll the moon to the sea…
This fantastical writing sits surprisingly easily among the grittier material, the accounts of men and their hard labours, and the womenfolk’s travails, too, not to mention the strike and the soup kitchens which starve the kids and steal dignity from their parents.
Abercynon-born Evans became well known for his pioneering skills as an oral historian, a rural remembrancer who captured the changing lives of East Anglian countryfolk, having settled there after the war. His biographer, Gareth Williams, put it like this in a volume in the series Writers in Wales:
Eventually it was oral history that, from the 1950s, became for George Ewart Evans a means of releasing that creativity as he developed a way of giving history back to the people in their own words. In recording the unforced rhythms and unadorned speech of his often unlettered informants, he believed he was restoring to the people a heightened sense of their own worth, making historic democratic activity.
Unlike works such as Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay and The Pattern Under the Plough this novel, The Voices of the Children – first published in 1947 – draws on Evans’ own history of growing up in a populous house in Abercynon, a village then both strikingly industrial and rural, where one encounters characters such as Ianto, the finest boxer in Three Valleys who would ‘fight with the devil’ if needs be and Mrs Lewis Opposite who lives, guess where.
George Ewart Evans gives us history’s detail, but also all the vim and vitality determined by a novelist’s sense of story. He tells us what childhood was like for him and thousands like him but tells it entertainingly, and with the warmest sense of companionship.
The rhythms of the rural world are beautifully captured. A day out on the horse and cart ends thus:
The steady rolling of the wheels was as soothing as a song. We unharnessed the horse just as it was getting dusk, and the rest of the day was like the small needless words at the end of a chapter.
This is a book with very few needless words, the language pared back and often spare as can be, but illuminated, nevertheless, with bright shards and quick insights. It acts almost as a companion volume to the previous title in the Library of Wales series, Jampot Smith, in chronicling the happy, halcyon days of childhood, with all its quotidian adventures, in that time of life before sex and its fearful complications comes to totally and utterly muddle every damn thing up.