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Emyr Humphreys: A Toy Epic

This relatively short novel tells of three boys who grow into men, who come from different backgrounds and who, together and separately, grow up. Humphreys gives us one or more paragraphs from the point of view of each one in turn, so that we build a picture of them in their own environment and together, over the years.

Albie lives in a council house with his parents. His father is a bus driver. Albie is exposed fairly early on to the labour situation in Wales, when the bus drivers go on strike. Albie’s mother tries to go down to the bus station with the young Albie to dissuade her husband from striking but ends up with Albie fainting in the crowd and finding her husband injured in the fight. However, Albie develops well, growing tall, being the brightest child in his class and being very good at football. He applies for a scholarship at the county school, where he will meet the other two. Michael is the son of a parson but he is the most rebellious of the three. It is he that steals, he that is friends with the more unruly elements in town (including Albie’s cousin, which is where he gets to know about Albie) and he that does not really try hard at school. He is also somewhat snobbish, looking down, particularly when young, on those less fortunate than him. Iorweth is the son of farmer and lives on a ninety acre farm. For him the key elements in life are farm and chapel. He enjoys the country life but is also very religious and well-behaved.

All three take the scholarship exam and all three pass, with Michael just scraping through. Despite their differences, they become friends, though Michael is all too often off with the unruly crowd. Iorweth will not do anything that is contrary to the school rules, while Michael tries hard to break all the rules. However, Michael has charm and wins over many people. Initially, he looked up to Albie, because of his height, brains and sporting skills but then, when Albie grows, becomes spotty and too large, feeling uncomfortable with himself and insecure, the roles are reversed. Albie, in fact, develops a homosexual crush on Michael, though keeps it to himself.

As they make their way through school, they all apply to university and, not surprisingly, things do not quite work out the way they had at the county school. They also have other issues to confront – the opposite sex, of course, but also politics, aging parents and, most importantly, the imminent war which their different political views make them approach in differing ways. It is an interesting novel but what I found slightly disconcerting is the way the boys changed quite a bit and more than once during the course of the novel. First one is the intelligent one and then another; first one has a positive outlook on life and then another one; first one is a leader and then another one. Of course, that could happen in real life but, in such a short novel, it does not always seem terribly convincing. Humphreys, of course, is trying to show how the different backgrounds influenced the three boys in different ways, despite the superficial similarities, while at the same time they all face similar issues – school, career, their sexual lives and parents. But he writes very well, getting into their thoughts and worries, and giving an often poetical view of Wales in the 1930s.

Publishing history

First published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1958