Craig Austin recommends Ron Berry’s So Long, Hector Bebb as the next contender in our search to find the Greatest Welsh Novel.
This Wales of ours is going to rack and ruin. I tell you, brawd, what’s wanted is a bloody revolution. Wipe the slate clean, start all over again as if we’d just lost our bloody tails.
Ron Berry’s 1970 Valleys masterwork So Long, Hector Bebb is a great Welsh novel, maybe the great Welsh novel, because much like its ultimately doomed pugilist of a protagonist, it defiantly refuses to play by the antiquated rules of its predecessors. This is no work of dewy-eyed, verdant-valleyed whimsy; there are no heroes here, no bleeding hearts of solid Welsh gold, no ultimate redemption, or hackneyed working class valour. It is a work ultimately defined by fatalism and claustrophobic conditions, and given that it was written in the raw aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, by a former coalminer no less, one wholly devoid of the voices of children; an entire generation erased in a single moment of unfathomable catastrophe.
Though ostensibly a story about a boxer, and boxing itself, Berry’s novel nobly resists the trite notion of ‘triumph over adversity’ that besmirches so many of its oeuvre; if ‘oeuvre’ is even an appropriate term – this is no sports book, despite its contemporary marketing. If anything, Bebb endures, defiantly and assuredly, as the anti-‘Rocky’, a granite-hard thriller entirely bereft of romance; a story underpinned by an unholy ragbag collective of lumpen, wanting men and duplicitous, disillusioned women. Masterfully, Berry utilises fourteen different interior monologues to cumulatively plot the preordained destiny of Hector Bebb, a mercurial Valleys prize-fighter who punches, and inadvertently kills, the man who has been openly having an affair with his sexually frustrated wife, a woman long-since resigned to her warrior of a husband never being able to replicate his athletic prowess within the conjugal bed:
You’d think him terrific. Ramping-tamping for a husband is what I mean. The shock came first and no improvement ever since. Dead loss very nigh. Hardly any resemblance to himself inside the ring when he’s up against some fella trying to knock lumps off his face.
The all-pervading influence of sex is writ large throughout the Rhondda village of Cymmer (its suggestive pronunciation not lost on the author), aggressive, ugly, mechanical sex. Sex as the pre-emptive weapon of choice, the principal currency of a community that – boxing, excepted – has long since ceased to dare to dream.
I’m not selling this to you, am I? It’s OK, I can tell. And given exposure to the brutally industrial language that punctuates Berry’s prose like ’80s hedgerow pornography, you may grow to like it even less. But what language! Berry’s dialogue – the sound of the English language having gone 12 brutal rounds with the Rhondda valley – is the real thrill here. Words mangled and disfigured by razor-sharp tongues and broken teeth to create a brutal beauty of indeterminate virtue. Even the swearing, and there is plenty of swearing, has its own deliciously delightful appeal, its vulgarity achieving an almost Chaucerian level of ingenious creativity. The ‘faaqen’ phonetics of the White Hart pub imbued with a vibrant authenticity that positively reeks of stale beer and cheap perfume. Here’s Bump Tanner on the untimely death of Emlyn Winton:
What Millie Bebb does is fling her what’s-it at him for Em to touch up her clout. Em sticks his hand there in open public! Like I say, God stone me cold, the man isn’t born who’ll take such. He was always on about Mel Carpenter’s bad luck. Luck, by Christ. They reckon you could hear Emlyn’s head smacking the counter from outside the Transport Café. LUCK! Em’s mouth spilling the old tomato sauce.
Berry is no interloper, no opportunistic cultural tourist. He refuses to sit in judgment or to cloak his characters in mawkish sentiment. Though left-wing by nature, these characters are far more driven by hedonism and self-gratification than they are by either politics or religion. Here is a writer embedded at the core of his community and one not shy about airing its seismic imperfections alongside its admittedly fleeting moments of kindness. These voices ring true, and the fact that they don’t conform to clichéd museum-piece images of rolling hills, kindly hearts, and earnest noble toil only adds to their aggregated impact upon the reader. Or as the author’s Tommy Wills would have it;
I suggest it’s time we members of the general public came to realize that life isn’t a monastery garden with nightingales hopping about in the bushes. It’s us as we are. It’s you and me. It’s one and all.
It has been said that So Long, Hector Bebb is the Welsh Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and whilst this book shares a number of common themes and tropes with Sillitoe’s significantly more famous work, this is where the comparison between books and authors should ultimately end. Whilst Sillitoe’s landmark work acted as a springboard for a lengthy and highly successful career, Berry’s output ultimately waned after the release of his artistic triumph and – much like Bebb, alone and on the run – he simply disappeared from view. So Long, Hector Bebb, in common with its author, could, and should, have been a contender, and over forty years after its initial publication it is once again. Back up off the canvas, its jaw jutting defiantly outward, inviting you to give it your best shot. Berry’s book stands resolutely as Welsh literature’s ‘Bill Grundy’ moment, its artistic year zero and a clarion call to those who sought to follow in its gritty, uncompromising path; a pair of nicotine-stained fingers flicked defiantly in the face of Richard Llewellyn’s sugar-coated fabrication: How Mean Was My Valley.