Wednesday, 28 August 2019

'I'll Be The Brightest Star...'

This story demanded the fitting of the story of my father's family dating from the early decades of the 19th century into an account of life in rural Camarthenshire and the coal, iron and steel industries of the Welsh ‘valleys’. That ought to have been easy but I had a problem from the start - my father's early story was littered with inaccurate official dates and areas in which I lacked any records at all. Clearly the simplest solution was to abandon the project as history and write it as a novel.

Like my previous novels, this story existed under a number of titles before it was eventually published as I’ll be the brightest star... An earlier title, There’ll Be Grass Growing In The Streets (of Dowlais), was an important, accurate and relevant quotation given to me by my father. However, it seemed to me that while it captured the sense of poverty amidst inhuman conditions in South Wales, it omitted the positive eventual outcome. 

Since research is an important part of any creative storytelling, the preparation for this novel included a steep learning curve for me. One starts off any genealogical research with the assumption that official sources, especially those of relatively recent vintage are accurate. I was quickly disabused of this assumption by a most helpful archivist at Llanelli library. Nowadays census returns are completed by each householder. This was not always so; in the early 20th and 19th centuries census-takers called at each house, obtained the information verbally and completed the forms themselves. Since most census-takers were English-speakers, none of the spelling of names or addresses on Welsh census forms can be regarded as completely accurate. Equally, people giving the information often had a long-held reluctance to provide accurate information, notwithstanding the legal penalties for not doing so. For example, I thought I’d stumbled across a rare error or conflict in the census return for 1901 which appeared to record my father – a six-month-old infant – living with his mother at an address in Tredegar while she was also recorded as resident with her husband and their three sons – including my father (again) – at an address in Dowlais, two valleys to the west.  

To exacerbate the situation, being speaking only Welsh was still regarded by some people – including some Welsh people – as an indication of a person’s poor general intelligence. The Blue Books, published in 1847, exacerbated this belief. They were the result of a UK government commission, ostensibly an examination of the educational standards in Wales. The result, drawn up by three English-speaking Church of England ministers, was extremely critical of morals and social trends as well as educational standards in the principality. For many years, census forms used in Wales included a column which required the language/s spoken by each person on the form, to be recorded as Welsh, English or Dual. A combination of the long-term effects of the Blue Books and a general feeling emanating from central government that people speaking only Welsh were somehow inferior, led many people who did speak only Welsh reporting themselves to the census clerks as bilingual. 

Originally I hoped that readers would complete the book wondering which parts or characters in my story were real people and which inventions. Ultimately I decided to reveal those answers but I do wonder from time to time how many readers might guess which characters were real and which were my imagination. 

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