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On Being a Writer in Wales: Brad Evans

31 Mar 2024 7 minute read
Brad Evans

Brad Evans

I am an author from Wales though I no longer live and breathe its dragon fired air.  I return from time to time and did find myself living there for a period as I began writing on its past.

Once again viewed today from beyond its borders, I do appreciate how the elusive word “home” is marked by a sense of both space and time.

Home, for me, was the Rhondda valley; it still is in so many ways, especially when concerning my geographies of memory.

But I am also troubled by a certain paradox, which I confronted when writing my latest book, How Black was My Valley that forced me to fall back down into its wounded depths.

Could such a book have been written were I to have stayed in the valleys of South Wales?

From as far back as I can remember, every person I met with the slightest glimpse of success in their eyes told that if I were to amount to “something”, there was a need to escape from its mountainous depressions.

What was invariably implied here was if being a somebody was an aspiration, then being a nobody was the start point for ones shared existence.

More than anything else, this default positioning has shaped the psychological life of the valleys.

Boy from nowhere

To echo the words of its town’s most famous cultured son, Tom Jones, when growing up I often felt like I was a boy from nowhere. A nobody living in a nowhere place.

And again paradoxically, while I went to considerable lengths to hide my geographical past when I finally made my educated escape into the promissory lands of the University – which to my mind was also inseparable from the shame of poverty and destitution I carried – I was equally perturbed by the fact that when I eventually told non-Welsh friends I was born into a land called the “Rhondda” they didn’t have the faintest idea to the what or the where I was referring?

Falling off the map

What needs to happen to a place, which was once at the forefront of so many important historical developments, including the birth of socialism and the British Labour party, not to mention how it literally powered the exploits of Empire and Two World Wars, it could literally fall off the map?

Did that properly reveal the magnitude of the violence of disposability?

I do wonder what it would take for somebody who never left the valleys to gain the courage to write a book about the place and also find a receptive voice with publishers and others who make such an endeavour possible?

Did I really need to leave so my own expertise and profile could develop sufficiently enough, before returning with the requisite accolades and qualifications setting me out as a bona fide voice who could finally reveal all those stowaway tales?

Outsider

And at what cost? Was I now an outsider looking back in, or somebody who could still claim to have an authentic voice? Maybe I have always been an outsider, which certainly does have its literary advantages.

While necessary, claims of authenticity are also fraught and subject to their own political assumptions. Should we decry Richard Llewellyn who wrote How Green was my Valley for not having visited and lived amongst the poor miners who saw the landscape swiftly painted black?

How many days can you vacate a land before the rub of authenticity is lost? Of course, you need to live and breathe the subjects you write about, but you also need to have a passion for the writing itself, which not everybody possesses or indeed has any inclination to know.

Escape

In sections of the book, I found myself forced to confront what advice I would give to my younger self and more broadly what advice would I impart to other wanting to follow the paths of escape today?

In terms of the former, what I found more interesting was to ask how might my younger dishevelled self-have look upon the writer I have become today? Would they find it all rather bemusing I was now narrating tales that for them were simply everyday valleys life?

Or would they be pleased those adventures and struggles, which made up the lived memory of my Wales, could finally glide above the rains and see new horizons?

And what of the writing process and what it means to become an author to begin with? We live in a peculiar post-modern age, where for the middle-classes at least, it is now common to tell children they can be whatever they want to be.

The truth is they can’t. They can be something but not anything. And how many times do we hear people say, “anybody can write a book” or equally “everybody is an artist”? (how might we react if we were to add to this, “anybody can be a neurosurgeon or “everybody can be a nuclear physicist”).

I understand the sentiment. We want lives to matter, as much as we want places to matter.

Struggles

However, just as there is a world of difference between daubing some colour on a sheet of paper and being called an artist, the same exist when facing the question of being an author.

The chances of a person writing a book, especially about life and its experience, is next to zero. This is not to turn the author into some heroic figure; but it is to recognise the struggles and battles required.

Just ask the aspiring author in places like the valleys today, who maybe cannot get the words to appear in the right order, who labouring without success on the final chapter, or who cannot get a publisher interested in their story, how easy this all is?

Desperate process

Writing brings no guarantees whatsoever, in fact the chances of failure are the most likely of outcomes. It is a desperate process, which is why some of us who lived in desperation can at least find some comfort in the prose.

What you can also be sure about is that writing about that place we call home will take you on a journey, which although you were sure you knew to begin with, will make you realise the past continues to change, as much as it fully reveals what people really think of you in the present.

And that is what we might call the real truth of the book. Something any author needs to be prepared for as much as embraced.

I would like to end on the importance of fabulation. While I aspired to write a peoples history of the South Wales valleys, staying true to our Celtic ancestry, it was important to me it spoke in a different language to conventional history books.

One notable outcome of this was the inclusion of specially commissioned artworks instead of photographs. Human stories should aspire to set the imagination ablaze. They should rage against the dying of the light.

Indeed if there is a political crisis facing how we deal with the post-industrial landscapes, it’s not because of the absence of knowledge or communication. It’s a crisis of the imagination.

Writers and artists have their own particular role to play in this, which to my estimation requires visiting that strange land we call the past, the strange lands of Wales, whose mountains speak of Myfanwy and the tragic romanticism of lost dreamers, so that its blackened poetic energies can be liberated and the future narrated in a different way.

Brad Evans’ How Black Was My Valley is published by Repeater Books and is available from all good bookshops.


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