Speaking Volumes

September 22, 1995

Hywel Francis on Chris Evans's, Industrial and Social History of Seven Sisters.

There was a tense inquest at the Blaenllechau Radical Club. The committee was discussing the theft of the new colour television. One member provided his explanation: "You put it in a place where everyone could see it."

The layers of meaning seem to increase over time. But this valley's humour was lost in the translation, across the Atlantic back in 1979. Ivor England, humorist, raconteur, sage and miner from "radical" Mardy - "Little Moscow" - told the story to Barbara Angle, the miner novelist, and Myles Horton, founder of Highlander, that remarkable radical adult education centre in Tennessee. They listened with polite incomprehension.

The life of the late Myles Horton was recently celebrated in a published conversation between himself and Paulo Freire entitled You Make the Road by Walking. The book could easily have been entitled You Make the Road by Talking. The disappearing art of "story-telling" - could we even call them parables? - reminds us of the universal worth of a collectivist culture, whether rural or urban. I listened, not quite as an eavesdropping academic, to the transatlantic conversations of miners, women and men in the 1970s and 1980s. Some dreams but mostly fears for the future, often told through fictive stories. These are now invariably faint and haunting voices as the benign coalfield communities are destroyed and dispersed.

In recent times oral historians have "legitimised" and rightly elevated the importance of story-telling so that reflective learning is truly recognised.

The book that has had the greatest impact on me is very much in this oral tradition. Chris Evans's Industrial and Social History of Seven Sisters was written by one of the true organic intellectuals of the Welsh working class. I read it before leaving for university and, if ever there was a volume that legitimised my own experiences and those of my community, then it was this one. Here is a sensitively written history of an industrial community in the western part of the South Wales coalfield in which this retired miner had shrewdly brought together the anecdotes of an oral tradition of over a century of social development. To some extent his closing paragraph predicts the demise of all coalfield communities in the 1990s: "Hirfynydd bears the scars of forestry, the young saplings have taken root, in a few years' time the surrounding mountains will once more be covered with that dark green look. Will the village then be forgotten? Will it return to the days of long ago with nothing to disturb its peaceful surroundings but the murmurings of the streams, the braying of the beast and the sweet twittering of birds and the memories of old men?" I am now in the position of following the footsteps of the late Evans in writing a specific history of Seven Sisters: the centenary of its rugby club.

People like Evans were the forerunners of what is now known as participatory research, working in coalition with social movements and the powerless, although the people of Seven Sisters would not see themselves as powerless or disadvantaged.

I saw Ivor England again recently at the crowded funeral of the miners' leader Emlyn Williams. The air was thick with stories of our collective but disappearing past. I wanted him to explain the real meaning of that particular story of the Blaenllechau Radical Club. Typical of the organic intellectual he is, the reply was: "Which one of the stories do you mean?" Hywel Francis is professor of adult continuing education, University of Swansea.

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