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T. Rowland Hughes: Chwalfa (Out of Their Night)

Hughes’ main topic in his novels was the slate quarries in his native Wales and this novel is about a long strike in the slate quarries, dedicated to the men who fought to make conditions better for the miners. The translation was completed two days before he went into hospital. Though he survived for another two months, he never was able to read the translation before he died of multiple sclerosis in 1949.

The story starts with two teenage boys traipsing over the hills. They are Llew and Gwyn Evans. They meet various people but are hazy about their motives, though they are clearly heading for the copper mines. When they get there, we learn that they are looking for work. Gwyn had been working in the slate quarry but they are on strike, while Llew, aged thirteen, is looking for a job to help his family. Unfortunately, they get lost on the way back but are helped by Dick Shepherd, who is one of the more militant strikers. Llew and Gwyn are the sons of Edward and Martha. Edward is very much involved in the slate quarry strike and is one of the leaders. The bad feeling has been going on for some time, over working conditions and pay and has resulted in a strike, which has lasted some nine months by the beginning of the novel. Part of the problem is that some of the men who formed the committee that went to see the management about pay and conditions were sacked merely for being on the committee.

The problem that has arisen now is the problem of what Dick Shepherd and Edward Evans call the traitors. These are the men who have gone back to work – what we would call scabs – thereby jeopardising the success of the strike. There is naturally a lot of bad feeling between the two groups, as well as bad feeling towards the management. There has been some violence, both against the property of management and the traitors as well as towards some individuals. At the big meeting at the beginning of the novel, there are many constables brought in from outside to keep order. Dick Shepherd continues to get into trouble, by hitting opponents. The issue is seen clearly in the Evans household. The Evans’ daughter, Megan, has married Ivor Richards, as she became pregnant by him. He is a man of generally bad character, having been dismissed from two other jobs, partially for stealing. He then went to work in the slate quarry and, since the strike came out, he has supported the strike, though he spends much of his time in the pub drinking and playing dominoes. However, eventually, he goes back to work. Edward, normally a mild-mannered man, is furious and throws him out of the house, even though Martha pleads with him to let Ivor stay, for Megan’s sake.

Apart from the development of the strike, there is not much of a plot to this novel. Rather, it tells of the effect of the strike on the people involved. With one minor exception, this means the workers and their families. In the Evans family, we see Dan, who had been going to college, forced to give up his dreams. He finds a job on a newspaper in a nearby town, with a colourful editor, and tends to associate with people his family would not approve of. Llew and his friend smash windows and then, to escape the law, they run away to sea, with Llew going off to Brazil. Other works leave their hometown to find work in the mines in the Rhondda Valley, including Dick Shepherd. For those that remain, times are hard, as the strike drags on but more men go back. We see fights between the children of traitors and non-traitors. Hughes clearly has a fondness for his characters, who are all lovingly portrayed, at least if they are on the side of the strikers. The strike does go beyond the town, with many supporters from outside, including Keir Hardie, offering their support.

Overall, it is a superb novel about the grim working conditions of the Welsh slate quarry workers and the hard effects of a strike on a community, The community is essentially broken up, as a result of the strike and, indeed, families are also broken up as, with the Evans family, there are traitor and non-traitors within the same family. This novel is now sadly out of print in both Welsh and English but is considered a Welsh classic.

Publishing history

First published 1946 by Gomer
First English translation by Gwasg Aberystwyth in 1954