Write what you know. That’s the advice quoted at writers ad nauseam.
But I’ve never been very good at taking advice.
Admittedly, there are a couple of strands in None So Blind which I might reasonably be expected to know something about:
It’s set in the Teifi Valley. I grew up there.
Most of the dramatis personae are farming folk. I grew up on a dairy farm and went to a primary school where the majority of the children were also farm kids.
But that’s pretty much it.
The book’s set in 1851 and, though I may not officially qualify as spring chicken, I wasn’t even thought of in 1951.
Then there are my two central characters. They’re both men.
I’ve never been a man.
Harry Probert-Lloyd (one of the men, see above) is visually impaired. He has Stargardt’s Disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration. I don’t. I don’t actually know anybody who has macular degeneration. Not personally.
But the biggest thing I didn’t know about was to do with the book’s central theme: the Rebecca Riots.
I’d always wanted to write about the riots but not because I have any personal link with the riots – the Welsh half of my family comes originally from the Rhondda not the South West.
It wasn’t because the Rebecca Riots were the most picturesque manifestations of unrest in the unquiet, riotous century and a half which spanned the coronation of the first George and the turbulent first few years of Victoria’s reign.
It wasn’t because the riots have a fascinating cultural history in the sinister carnival of the ceffyl pren.
It wasn’t even because the Rebecca movement represented the most concerted and longest-lasting period of rebellion in the Principality since Owain Glyndŵr tried to wrest Wales from Henry IV and his son.
No. I wanted to write about the Rebecca Riots because there was something that had bugged me ever since I first learned about them (via the entirely unrepresentative Shoni Sgubor Fawr and Dai’r Cantwr) at school.
I didn’t know – just could not understand – why nobody talks about them.
Why are the Rebecca Riots not better known? They’re barely known in Wales (try asking anybody under 30 in Cardiff and see their response) let alone in the rest of the UK.
Why are they not celebrated?
Why isn’t every second tourist outlet and pub in the riots’ heartlands named after a gate or a hero of the movement?
Why are there not bus tours of Rebecca sites?
Why, in Carmarthen, do they commemorate the last cavalry charge on British soil – against Rebeccas who were bent on storming the workhouse – with nothing larger or more impressive than a rather battered blue plaque?
This year is Visit Wales’s Year of Legends and it has produced a beautiful Land of Epic brochure which names heroes from Arthur to Michael Sheen. In terms of history we get St Dwynwen – our own answer to St Valentine – because ‘her home, Llanddwyn, is one of the most wildly romantic spots in Wales’; Owain Glyndŵr – fair enough, needs neither explanation nor introduction; King Arthur and St David. Two saints, a prince and a semi-mythical figure.
You’d think Wales wasn’t so much a real country as a fairy-story land populated by legends. Where are the representatives of the real Welsh people, y werin? Why aren’t we celebrating the participants in the Merthyr rising? The Newport Chartists?
The Rebecca Rioters?
The Rebecca Riots went on for months, caused questions to be asked in Parliament, saw the first investigative journalist to be ‘embedded’ (Thomas Campbell Foster of The Times who later went on to report on the Crimean War), thwarted the yeomanry, the regular army and a contingent of metropolitan police officers over three counties for the best part of a year and gave rise, inadvertently, to one of the most influential events in the political history of Wales – the Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales or Brad Y Llyfrau Gleision.
In the TV ad for the Year of Legends, four characters from the Mabinogion are mentioned and two criminals: Wales’s not very convincing answer to Robin Hood, Twm Sion Cati, and the most famous amongst many Welsh pirates, Barti Ddu.
The Rebecca Rioters offer more genuine romanticism than any of them and, as an added advantage, they were real and their exploits have not been embroidered endlessly.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? They’ve not been embroidered because – and I’m sorry to have to repeat myself here – nobody talks about them.
It took me a year of research, the writing of a whole book and a great deal of imagination to come up with some kind of answer as to where this perplexing silence comes from. I’m not a lawyer, nor a scientist, so the burden of proof for me is emotional, it resides in that subconscious feeling that you’ve drilled down to something deeper than empirical truth. The conclusion I reached satisfied me and it’s allowed me to create the culture of defensiveness, guilt and suspicion that acts as the backdrop to None So Blind.
I’ll let Harry, one of my two viewpoint characters, put it into his own words:
‘..as anybody who has lived through a period of insurrection knows, once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately…’
It’s that indiscriminate wielding of power that lies behind events in None So Blind.
They’re not real events; I made them up.
But I hope they have the force of emotional truth.