Once, after staying with a school friend on the Mumbles peninsula of South Wales, I had been as distressed as William Blake by my brief glimpse of the hell-mouth scenes of the steelworks and coal-pits around Port Talbot. But now I realized that, just on the other side of the bright Bristol Channel from the lovely moors and uplands of my upbringing, there was a world as remote from my own as the moon, or as Joseph Conrad’s Congo.
Several aspects of this hitherto-occluded other Britain lodged in the mind. First of all, its inhabitants worked mostly under the ground, like the Morlocks in H.G. Wells. Second, they spoke a non-English language at home and at church, and considered themselves conquered and dispossessed as a nation as well as suppressed as a class. Third, they thought of going on strike as an act of unselfish solidarity and emancipation rather than as “holding the country to ransom.”
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In the annals of “good-bad,” then, I would put How Green Was My Valley in the same class as Uncle Tom’s Cabin: a work that leaves an ineradicable “scratch on the mind,” to borrow Harold Isaacs’s useful phrase.
* * *
My new school was in town, and in the ancient town of Cambridge at that, instead of out on some blasted heath where long and muddy cross-country “runs” could be inflicted on you and even the nearest manic-depressive hamlet was many furlongs or versts or miles away.