Alis Hawkins talks about the burning question that lies behind her historical crime novel None So Blind.
Write what you know. That’s the advice quoted at writers ad nauseam.
Thing is, I’ve never been very good at taking advice.
Admittedly, there are a couple of strands in None So Blind which I might reasonably be expected to know something about:
It’s set in the Teifi Valley. I grew up there.
Most of the dramatis personae are farming folk. I grew up on a dairy farm and went to a primary school where the majority of the children were also farm kids.
But that’s pretty much it.
The book’s set in eighteen fifty-one and, though I may not officially qualify as spring chicken, I wasn’t even thought of in nineteen fifty-one.
My two central characters are men. I’m not a man.
I’ve never been a man.
One of the men, Harry Probert-Lloyd, is visually impaired. He has Stargardt’s Disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration. I don’t. Fortunately, neither does anybody in my family.
But it was in the book’s central theme – the Rebecca Riots – that my not knowing peaked.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know about the riots. I knew quite a lot, having read everything I could get my hands on for the last twenty years. I’ve wanted to write a novel set during the riots for a long time.
Not, as you might think, because I have any personal link with events in 1841-2; the Welsh half of my family comes originally from the Rhondda not the South West.
Nor – as you might suspect of a novelist – because the Rebecca Riots were, indisputably, the most picturesque manifestations of unrest in the mutinous century and a half which spanned the coronation of the first George and the turbulent first few years of Victoria’s reign.
It wasn’t even because of the riots’ fascinating cultural roots in the sinister carnival of the ceffyl pren.
No. I wanted to write about the Rebecca Riots because I wanted to know the answer to a simple question. Why are they not better known? Why, when I was learning about the rise of Methodism and the South Wales coalfield in Welsh history ‘O’ Level, did I not hear a single word about Rebecca or the dire social circumstances which sparked the riots? Why are the heroes of the riots not celebrated?
Apart from the odd commemoration event on significant anniversaries of the riots’ outbreak, there’s a big, echoing, national silence.
The Rebecca Riots is Wales’s best kept historical secret.
Why don’t we celebrate this collosal act of civil disobedience from a class of person – the Welsh farmer – not noted for his rioutously anarchic tendencies?
Why, in an area where tourism is so important, isn’t every second pub or seasonal business named after a gate or a Rebecca hero?
Where are the information boards telling the story of Rebecca? (If you’re reading this in St Clears you’ll be shouting ‘Here!’ but your town is a praiseworthy exception to the rule.)
Why are there no bus tours of Rebecca sites with breathless tour guides telling stories of daring nocturnal sorties, daylight protest meetings of thousands, authorities powerless to quell the unrest?
And why, in Carmarthen, is the last cavalry charge on British soil – against Rebeccas who were bent on storming the workhouse – commemorated with nothing larger or more impressive than a rather battered blue plaque?
The Rebecca Riots have become little more than a footnote in our history when they should be one of the headlines.
Before the publication of None So Blind, I was very excited to learn that 2017 was going to be Visit Wales’s Year of Legends. With huge anticipation, I clicked on the accompanying Land of Legends website to see that there was a page headed ‘Rebels, Outlaws, Rioters and Uprisings’. Yes! Here, at last, I was going to see the celebration that Twm Carnabwth, and all those who followed in his footsteps, deserved.
The Rebecca Riots don’t get so much as a mention. Nothing. Nada. Dim.
The ‘rebels’ featured in Land of Legends range from the utterly legitimate and expected – Owain Glyndwr – through various members of the literary awkward squad, early feminists and the Tonypandy and Merthyr risings, to the frankly criminal – Twm Sion Cati (West Wales’s not very convincing answer to Robin Hood), Barti Ddu (most flamboyant amongst Wales’ coast-ravaging pirates) and ‘most notoriously charming drug smuggler’ Howard Marks.
Let me repeat that last one, using the correct term. Drug dealer, Howard Marks, aka the self-proclaimed ‘Mr Nice’ is celebrated as a nationally noteworthy rebel. I mean – what?! A drug dealer gets an approving nod whilst the farmers of West Wales – made so utterly desperate by social and political injustices that they rioted in spectacularly successful fashion, caused questions to be asked in Parliament, saw the ‘embedding’ of the first investigative journalist (Thomas Campbell Foster of The Times), thwarted the yeomanry, the regular army and a contingent of metropolitan police officers over three counties for the best part of a year and gave rise, inadvertently, to one of the most influential events in the political history of Wales – the Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales or ‘Brad Y Llyfrau Gleision’ – don’t get so much as a mention?
But it further illustrates my point. We don’t celebrate the Rebecca Riots. For the most part, we don’t even talk about them.
And, at the risk of repeating myself again – why?
It took me twenty years of sporadic research, the writing of a whole novel and the exercise of a good deal of what you might call historical empathy to come up with an answer that, if it satisfies nobody else, at least satisfied me.
I’m neither lawyer nor scientist. The burden of proof, for me, lies in a feeling – that chime with something deep in your subconscious – that you’ve drilled down to a truth more profound than empirical evidence. And the conclusion I came to allowed me to describe the culture of shame, fear, guilt and suspicion that acts as the backdrop to None So Blind. The original silence about Rebecca.
Harry Probert-Lloyd, my blind investigator, comes up against this silence as he tries to discover the truth about the death of dairymaid, Margaret Jones. And he tries to explain it to his London friend, Gus Gelyot, who is utterly baffled.
‘Why?’ Gus asks, ‘Is it [the outbreak of rioting] a deep, dark secret?’
And his question opens Harry’s eyes.
‘He meant it in jest but, in truth, the riots had assumed the status of communal secret, as if the collective shame of three counties had taken physical form and hidden people’s past from their own view.’
Here’s Harry again.
‘As anybody who has lived through a period of insurrection knows, once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately…’
It’s that indiscriminate wielding of power that lies behind the murderous events in None So Blind. And the shame they inspire.
The murder and the particularly sinister enforcement of mob rule surrounding it in the novel aren’t real; I made them up.
But I hope they have the force of something that’s truer to life than simple historical facts could ever be.
None So Blind is available now from Freight Books.