And now I'm writing about a book I read last November. These are the last of the pile that has sat patiently on that right hand table of my L shaped desk arrangement which runneth over with all manner of things.
The place where I put all the books I want to write about, snippets that have triggered blog thoughts, piles of books I might be referring to, my twirly tabletop book case, anything that is a work in progress, and slowly I've been mopping up last year's reading to make way for this year's and I'm down to the final two books of 2009.
The Small Mine by Menna Gallie and A Woman's Work Is Never Done by Elizabeth Andrews, with a foreword by Glenys Kinnock and both published by Honno Press, that independent Welsh Press publishing women's writing which I came to know and love last year.
Several times I've been tempted to shelve them unwritten about and move on, but each time I've picked them up I've known what a good read they were and what a shame it would be not to let you know that...so here we are five months on having a stab.
Born in 1882 near Aberdare, Elizabeth Andrews was the third of eleven children in a mining family, eventually marrying but remaining childless. Her father died of silicosis and it is the miner's cause that Elizabeth reveals with so much passion in A Woman's Work is Never Done, part autobiography, part memoir which provides the most revealing social history of the coalfield communities.
Central to Elizabeth's crusade was her personal motto 'Educate, agitate, organise' and in these days of the 'Every Child Matters' political theme it's interesting to see that we've invented nothing new. Elizabeth Andrews highlighted the needs and development of 'The Child' as central and paramount back in the 1920s.
The child's needs were indeed great.
The Chief Medical Officer of Health's Annual Reports said as much,
'...of two million toddlers between two and five years of age, 31 per cent were dull or very dull through preventable causes, and one million children became 'damaged goods' before they reached the age of five.'
Other local statistics were equally shocking.
Infant mortality, one of several indicators of a country's health status, was 105 per 1000 births in the Rhondda in the early 1920s (current figures for the UK stand at 4.8) and Elizabeth Andrews set about the authorities with determination in her campaign for pit head baths....there is a connection.
I had never quite realised the importance of pit head baths or the fact that without them the men went home in filthy, soaking wet clothes which all had to be washed and dried in an overcrowded kitchen and which 'played havoc with the health of young children.'
Elizabeth campaigned tirelessly on many other fronts... for clean milk free from TB, Diphtheria, Cholera and heaven knows what else... it must have been like drinking poison, for family allowance, nursery provision, improved sanitation and votes for women and I'm in full agreement with Glynis Kinnock,
'...a truly great Welsh woman who has sadly fallen out of our history...whose contribution as a socialist, an internationalist and a suffragist has never been given the plaudits or the acknowledgements which men, who made similar contributions to Welsh life , have received.'
I was bound to find all this fascinating and moving on next to The Small Mine written and almost certainly set in 1962, proved to be a perfect reading combination and a chance to identify how times may have changed, attitudes shifted and conditions improved. In fact Menna Gallie's book catches the whole community on the cusp of change with its themes of the Cold war, the underlying and ominous threat of a nuclear bomb and the unrest that prevailed within the mining communities after the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947.
As Jane Aaron highlights in her introduction,
'...to desert the Coal Board job for a job in a privately-run small mine is still seen in this novel as a form of betrayal of one's community and its values.'
And this is exactly what young Joe Jenkins, village beau, has done, but he's made some enemies along the way and with less stringent safety regulations in place in the private mine...
Joe and his girlfriend Cynthia represent the new generation and the inevitable schism between tradition and progress.When tragedy occurs Menna Gallie somehow pinpoints that moment with acute precision through the different versions of grief felt within this tiny, close-knit community and for me she encompassed it with one small act of rebellion.
'' - Drawing the curtains and trying to make me wear black, like a Victorian Miss. My life is not blighted, my heart isn't broken forever. I'm sorry I can't play up. He's dead. OK...'
Here is the new generation shaking off the old and Elizabeth Andrews has a view on that too
'The younger generation of today who are enjoying these hard won privileges and personal freedom get very impatient with their parents and older people when they relate past struggles. But it is from the ruins and sufferings of the past that we have built the present, and the future will depend on what we do now.'
Two more great reads from Honno.