This year is the centenary of the birth of George Ewart Evans who was born in the Welsh Valleys mining community of Abercynon. Evans is now best known as the pioneer of oral history in the UK with his groundbreaking work after the war, collecting the stories and memories of the working class community in rural Suffolk where he eventually settled, his best known work amnogst many being perhaps Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay. However, Evans was also a writer of poetry and fiction and Voices of the Children is his semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in a large family in the Valleys between the wars. First published in 1947 it has now been republished, with an introduction by George Brinley Evans (another writer and ex-miner from the Valleys who first met Evans when he was interviewed for an oral history about mining), as part of the excellent new Library of Wales series, edited by Dai Smith and published by Parthian.
The strength of this book is not its narrative – of which there is surprisingly little – but its description of everyday life in the Valleys through the eyes of an adolescent. One hesitates to call it a novel as such, it is more of a fictionalised memoir, but it is a book about growing up and, as the title suggests, Evans captures the voice of the child, whilst retaining the perceptiveness of the adult. Evans’s own experiences as an adolescent and a young man in Abercynon led him to become a lifelong commited communist and the social and political context is never far from the narrative here, although there is nothing heavy-handed about it.
Most of all the writing is beautifully evocative of the era and, as might be expected, Evans is particularly expert in capturing the everyday speech of the characters. It is a very affectionate piece of writing and Evans’s own hiraeth, his longing for the Valleys, is very evident. In part it is the nostalgic writing of the exile, but it is nonetheless beautifully written and Evans writes with convincing authority – you know he knows what he is talking about. If you want to find out about the culture of the Welsh Valleys, then there are worse places to start than The Voices of the Children.