Jon Gower revels in the filmic qualities of Cwmardy and We Live, two novels by Lewis Jones, as part of our Greatest Welsh Novel series.
Cinemascope. Technicolor. Panavision. Full Dolby. If you want movie technique and scope in a novel here’s the place to come. Buy some popcorn, then settle back to enjoy Jones’s fantastically filmic novels. The former collier who went underground for the first time at the age of twelve, then became a full time worker for the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement – now there’s an irony – penned books which seemed to say watch this, this is life, pulsing, passionate and problematic. He writes with uncommon brio and panache, although there’s always an undertow of anger as he rails against unfairness, inequality and exploitation. Ok, so it’s a bit of a cheat to argue for two novels as one, but that is the way they are packaged in the Library of Wales series, so that’s my excuse.
Talking to my academic friend Claire Connolly one time we found ourselves discussing Lewis Jones’s novels and she introduced me to the term ‘sensational realism’ and I thought how perfect, how extraordinarily apt.
Cwmardy is nothing if not sensational: it’s like one of those Brazilian telenovelas where one action-packed, or emotionally-soaked incident follows on from another and all at a breathless lick. In Jones’s blockbuster (the first of two vivid works showing the vibrant, testing lives of people in the coal mining communities around and during the General Strike of 1926) there is hardly a page without something happening, which makes it a page turner comparable to any airport thriller. There are accidents underground, heedless coal barons, thwarted love, militancy, police truncheon charges – and when those don’t work soldiers with bayonets – not to mention explosions, unexplained murders and almost nightly fist-fights. It’s a tough world, and even a first day at work is not without its terrors. Strike that: it’s full of terrors for young Len, the young hero at the heart of the book:
Once inside the cage, Len held his breath and waited. He heard the knocker clang three times, and the tinkling of a bell far away in the engine-house. Then suddenly he felt the floor of the cage press against his feet as it lifted off the stanchions that held it to the pit-head, and in another second the breath was torn from his lungs by the sudden drop as the cage plunged its way into the depths of the pit.
The novel’s main focus is Len and his brawling, Boer War veteran father Big Jim and tough-because-she-has-to-be-mother Sian, although there are plenty of other principal characters walking across the Cinemascope screen of the book. There’s miners’ leader, Ezra, whose ideology finds itself at loggerheads with Communist Len, as he is increasingly drawn into a public roles and speech making on makeshift stages. There’s Ezra’s daughter Mary, who loves her father so much that she finds herself conflicted when Len courts her and eventually marries her. There’s the dastardly Mr. Hicks, overseer of the misery at the pit. And there’s the Strike itself, a huge dark character, who can drain the marrow of your bones through nothing more sophisticated than the the act of starvation.
Hywel Francis, in his introduction to the books, maintains that Jones, a ‘people’s remembrancer’ who had also contributed actively to the people’s chronicle’ was ‘unique in the political culture of Wales in the twentieth century, standing alongside only Saunders Lewis (and what an intriguing contrast) in combining political activism with literary aspirations and, indeed, with literary achievement.’
Lewis Jones’s novels are not without their flaws but they are pre-eminently readable, often grippingly so, keeping you up at night when good sense is telling you to sleep. The energy that kept him addressing audiences all over the place as he drummed up support for the Spanish Republic, and which probably contributed to his early death at the age of forty-three from a heart attack, is the same energy that galvanizes his books. They are huge slices of life, lived with dignity through so much despair. In that they are DIY manuals, showing us how to live, by telling us how others lived theirs.
If its predecessor volume Cwmardy is an example of sensational realism then Lewis Jones’s follow-up novel We Live dollops out plenty more of the same. Our hero, Len, is by now a fully committed Communist, and the book, if anything, is about collective struggle, of the workers, the unemployed and their families against the iniquities of the class system, where the coal owners seemingly own the police and the army and also control the justice system. Furthermore, men such as Lord Cwmardy and dastardly mine manager Mr. Higgs are bent on destroying the Federation of Miners, replacing it with a non-political union, and beyond that they are doing their utmost to reduce wages. Individually a worker could feel insignificant, powerless, an ant to be crushed under heel. But standing together, as Len finds out during a mass demonstration, quite the opposite is true:
Len momentarily felt himself like a weak straw drifting in and out with the surge of bodies. Then something powerful swept through his being as the mass soaked its strength into him, and he realized that the strength of them all was the measure of his own, that his existence and power as an individual was buried in that of the mass now pregnant with motion behind him. The momentous thought made him inhale deeply and his chest expanded, throwing his head erect and his shoulders square to the breeze that blew the banners into red rippling slogans of defiance and action. Time and distance were obliterated by the cavalcade of people, whose feet made the roads invisible.
Despite the strength offered by such solidarity it is not enough to dispel the general poverty and suffering which has the whole community in its grip, nowhere more devastatingly exemplified than in the the tale of shopkeeper John and Maggie who find out their son – well educated despite his parents’ poverty – is getting involved with the ‘Bolsheviks’ and take their own lives: he taking a razor to his wife’s throat before hanging himself. Yet this domestic bloodbath, albeit being very affecting, is also an example of one of the book’s weaknesses as the consequences of these desperate acts on their son Ron, and on the wider community are barely touched upon.
We Live wasn’t finished by Lewis Jones, but rather, it is believed, by his partner Mavis Llewellyn, so that the final chapters are tenderer and the action switched to the killing fields of the Spanish Civil War. It also details the love between Len and his wife Mary, a relationship based on that between Lewis and Mavis. The change of register and novelistic terrain does not mar the novel, and after so much brutality and suffering, news of Len’s death, conveyed in a letter, is delivered with compassion.
His story, and that of his companions and family, is one of light and dark, nowhere more so than when the miners orchestrate a lock-down strike, refusing to come to the surface at the end of a shift. There the darkness is terrifying, ‘more dense and heavy than black ink.’ The strikers have to fight in the dark, when fellow miners come down to take over, they have to sleep in the blackness and go without food and water. But their indomitable spirit, individually and collectively, eventually wins the day. It is the same indefatigable spirit that imbues Lewis Jones’s titanic achievement in shaping the tumultuous, teeming cinematic canvasses of Cwmardy and We Live.