Thursday, July 06, 2006

HOPE AND HEARTBREAK and an interview with Russell Davies.

One of the things I enjoy about writing literary historical fiction is the research. Some of this involves travel and some involves reading some very interesting books. For the novel that I am just finishing now Russell Davies's HOPE AND HEARTBREAK has proved invaluable. Its subtitle is A SOCIAL HISTORY OF WALES AND THE WELSH 1776-1871.

The book starts with 'a portrait of an era' by considering two famous events: the 1776 American declaration of Independence in which 16, perhaps 18 of the signatories were Welsh or of Welsh descent; and the famous meeting in 1871 of the missionary David Livingstone with the Welshman Henry Morton Stanley. These two incidents characterise the era very well and indicate that the Welsh were interested and active in the world at large during this time.

The book then considers the following themes: everyday life, the psychology of the people as they dealt with events like death, war, plagues, religious and social uprisings, the views on religion, love and lust, and the attitude to authority and the English. The chapters on these topics were interesting but there were three at the end of the book that I found especially fascinating: 'Love, lust and loneliness'; 'Worship and Wizards' and 'Happiness and Humour'. These gave an unusual but convincing view of the Welsh that complements the traditional picture of a dour, sombre, chaste and chapel-going people.

Some of the Welsh were indeed God-fearing but others were more reckless. In some parts of Wales there were lively and notorious brothels, some had a taste for the macabre (public hangings attracted huge audiences), drank themselves into oblivion and had fun at the fair - but on Sunday about half of them always went to chapel. Some signed the pledge but they also laughed and made fun of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders around them. Some believed that 'Y Tylwyth Teg' (fairies) could sour milk and break crockery but when cholera broke out most of them headed for the nearest chapel as quickly as they could to repent of their sins to a vengeful God.

The book explained a lot to me about my Welsh heritage. I know that several of my mother's relatives in Swansea had signed the pledge (not to touch alcohol) and would tut at people queuing to see films on a Sunday. They would go to chapel twice day on Sunday, and go to bible study groups and prayers meetings during the week. They knew the bible backwards and would quote chunks without any provocation. They were quietly and conservatively dressed eschewing jewelry or any hint of high living.

Then there were my mother's other relatives, also in Swansea, who participated in boxing, mixed with the crowd from the theatre and had regular parties in their own gymnasium.

And then there were my father's relatives in Cardigan - who liked a drink. In fact, looking back I would say that alcoholism was a disease that was passed down through the generations as surely as ginger hair and freckles. Since Cardiganshire was inconveniently dry on Sundays they migrated en masse to the more liberal Pembrokeshire on that holy day - perhaps after attending an invigorating Sunday service on the dangers of going to Hell unless you repented of your sins.

These were my Welsh relatives and this book explains their ancestry in an entertaining way. Chapter One begins 'Someone, somewhere, some time towards the end of the eighteenth century stated that "Wales is a country in the world's arsehole". Despite being so unfortunately located Wales attracted many travellers in the late eighteenth century.'

Russell Davies tempers such humorous writing with many fascinating facts. He tells us of the diet of 'cheese soup (cawl caws y flawd)' which was really bread, hot water and salt (I remember my grandmother (Mamgu) frequently indulging in a little bread and milk); that the privy in the new industrial towns sometimes consisted of ten holes which were shared by the street; that sailors were afraid of talking too loud on board ship and that they believed the Storm Petrel was the manifestation of souls drowned at sea. He tells of the popular country fairs where couples would meet, and then their subsequent courtship - in bed. Then there were the 'wise men' who were consulted on the best place to build a chapel - a location decided by where a black sow prefers to graze - and the qualified doctors who were also astrologers. When the doctor was too expensive there were quacks or folk remedies including the use of cow dung as a poultice and the sufferer's own urine as a cure for ear-ache.

Using these details Russell Davies gradually reveals a complete picture of a people: one in which superstition, humour and an appreciation of the good things in life lies comfortably alongside puritanical beliefs and a God-fearing lifestyle.

The book has an extensive notes and index - invaluable for research, but also useful for anyone with an interest in Welsh history or even someone just looking for an entertaining interesting read.

I discovered on the back of the book that the author is Marketing Manager at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, so I contacted him there and he kindly agreed to answer some questions. He can also be 'met' here - explaining a little more about his book.

General Questions

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
RD: Only when they overtake me in the garden.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
RD: Completing ‘Hope and Heartbreak’.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
RD: Not so far.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
RD: Blair and Bush justifying the war on Iraq.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
RD: I’d be more organised.

CD: What is happiness?
RD: A state we yearn for but never realise when we actually achieve it.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
RD: Yoga exercises.

Book- Related Questions.

CD: The book contains a lot of fascinating information - how long did it take you to research the book and where?
RD: It took about 4 years to research in libraries all over Wales, mainly the National in Aberystwyth.

CD: Did you find any particularly unusual sources of information?
RD: Gravestones are probably the most unusual.

CD: Are there any parts that stand out for you as being particularly difficult to find or you were particularly pleased at finding?
RD: Chapter 5 on Love, Lust and Loneliness. As everyone knows, the Welsh in Victorian times were so pure, they never had sex lives.

CD: In the book you present an alternative view to the steroetypical Victorian Welsh person (in my view a God -fearing, tee-total, dour humourless individual) to give a much more rounded view of society. Was it important to you to do this? Why?
RD: Yes. The whole point of the book is to provide a wealth of evidence to challenge commonly held assumptions and generalisations about Welsh society. The picture which emerges from Hope and Heartbreak is, I believe, a better portrait of the Welsh people in Victorian times.

CD: Do you think any aspects of the Welsh Society of Victorian times or the character of these times persist in Wales today?
RD: I think that all ages are an amalgam of opposites and that in reality many of the features which I portray can still be seen in modern society.

CD: What do you think were the most important influences on the Welsh culture of this time?
RD: Religion was undoubtedly a major force, as was the family, but the extent of their influence on Welsh people have been exaggerated.

CD: Why did you write the book?
RD: Because I wanted to write it since being an undergraduate in the 1970s.

CD: What are you working on next?
RD: I’m working on a second volume on Welsh society and people that will cover similar themes and look at the period 1872 – 1948. The provisional title is Pain and Pleasure. With a bit of luck it could be out in 2008.

CD: Have you had any interesting feedback to the book?
RD: The response has been very flattering to date. Most readers appear to have enjoyed the book, which is encouraging, and some have praised it lavishly, which was enjoyable.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That book looks fascinating Clare and thank you for bringing back some memories from my childhood again as well giving others a clearer focus.

I wonder if you've ever been to "St Fagan's: National History Museum"? The site has some 40 buildings taken from places all over Wales and reconstructed at the museum to show what life was like at various times in Wales's history. I went there on a school trip as a child. Reading this wonderful post, I want to go back again.

Fri Jul 07, 07:12:00 am  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

Thanks for all that intriguing info. Loved the interview - are Welsh non-loquacious by nature? Still there's nothing wrong with being succinct - and we are told all we need to know!

Sat Jul 08, 08:15:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crimeficreader: yes, it is a fascinating book - packed with the sort of information you feel compelled to tell people - I kept talking about it all the time at Lampeter.

And yes, I went to St Fagins last year, was completely amazed by it - and was talking about that too to everyone when I came back. I was surprised to find that few people had heard of it. My favourite was the row of terraced houses dating from the mid nineteenth century (I think) and each one furnished as it would have been at intervals of every forty years or so, so the last house looked like it would have done in the 1970s.

They have recently relocated an entire church - a rather large one - and are working on that.

Chiefbiscuit: Ha, as you can see from the above - some Welsh people (ie yours truly) have rather too much to say for themselves, so we need people like Russell Davies to be succinct so the rest of us get plenty of time to say nothing!

Sun Jul 09, 12:00:00 am  

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