During 1926 Ystradgynlais was community dominated by the presence of the numerous coalmines in the area; that is, dominated in the social sense that most of the village's inhabitants were connected with the industry in some way, as well as in the physical sense that the presence of the mines and their tips dominated the physical landscape.
Ystradgynlais was also, for a time, the home of the well-known Polish expressionist artist Josef Herman. Herman lived in the village for eleven years between 1944-1955, having been exiled from his homeland during the Second World War. Herman's iconic paintings immortalised the village, its landscape and community. Below is an image of a miner set against the backdrop of the village.
Up on the Tips
It is significant that we are first introduced to the novel's main characters picking for coal on the colliery tips. During strikes, it was common for miners to pick for scraps of coal on the tips, which were formed by the piles of waste material removed during the mining process. The tips in one sense symbolize the desperation of the miners at this difficult time; unable to work in the pits, the men are forced to pick for scraps on the waste-heaps of the mining process. The image below depicts a group of miners picking for coal in Trehafod in the Rhondda during an earlier strike, the 1910/11 Cambrian Combine Strike. The image depicts the colliers struggling in wintry conditions to carry coal off the mountain.
Yet Gallie emphasizes not the hardship but the camaraderie of the 1926 strike. In Strike for a Kingdom, the tips are a space in which the miners, despite their destitution, demonstrate their communal spirit.
Up on the tips there were clusters of people, with bags and sacks, picking bits of coal. On the rowdy tip, they shouted and teased, strikers on holiday, mufflers and flat caps, working boots and fine, new, ladies' hands. The strike began in May and they'd been hungry many times since, but this was August and Carnival, Carnival Wednesday after August Monday, and their bellies were full of Soup Kitchen dinner. p. 5
Not only this, but describing the perspective of the tips, the novel portrays picturesque colour of the village in the summer sunlight:
From the top of the tips Cilhendre was a little huddle of pigeon-coloured houses following the curves of the River Tawe, which plaited its way among them, with the road and railway for company. The sun polished the walls of the houses. They were built of river stones, lavender grey, cloud grey, sea grey, pink and purple. One side of the valley faced the sun and was golden and pink in the warmth. The hills on the other side were in deep shadow, deeply blue. p. 5
As was the case in most south Wales mining villages, workers in Ystradgynlais lived in close proximity to each other in houses tightly packed together in terraced rows. Many of the characters in Strike for a Kingdom seem to live on the same street – 'Mafeking Terrace' – on the "island" of terraced houses situated between the River Tawe and what would have been the Swansea Canal (now the A4067).
The image below shows some of the "island", but with the terraces out of view.
We have located Mafeking Terrace at Pelican Street, according to the description on page 46:
Gough Street leads of course to the canal bank as well as to those […] streets called after the South African Campaign.
Gallie occasionally depicts this close proximity as oppressive: in one scene, D.J. has to 'clamber over his own garden fence to get home without seeing anyone' p. 23. However, the prevailing sense in the novel is of a close-knit community in which people support one another. Whatever the closeness, the miners' streets are characterised by warmth, laughter, and mutual support:
The two women came out of the house and stood together at the front door; crinkling their eyes up in the sun, enjoying the warmth of gossip, shared complaints and sunshine. p. 8
Similarly, the interior of the houses of working class characters are characterised by warmth, noise and communality. Inspector Evans and P.C. Thomas visit the home of Williams the Road to make enquiries, and they are greeted by a bustling, clamorous scene as the family welcome the men in for a meal:
The back door stood open and a considerable amount of jumbled noises came through it. […] The kitchen was a big room, but it seemed to overflow with people and noise. […] Williams got up and motioned the policemen to come to the table. He seated them opposite the visitors on the only vacant chair (except for the chair that was waltzing), and before the inspector had answered that, yes, indeed it was a nice day if rather warm, basins of broth had been put before them and they were encouraged to eat. […] Broth, when very hot, is noisy stuff to drink, but in that Babel the embarrassing sounds were drowned and the inspector decided to accept the situation with as good a grace as was in him to muster. p. 89
This warm and friendly hospitality is in stark contrast with that offered at the Nixon family home in the Finding the Body plotline.
The Village Square
Marches have been a form of social protest in Britain since at least the era of the Chartists. Strike for a Kingdom depicts the unemployed miners of Cilhendre and the surrounding regions attempt a march across to the adjacent valley, to the house of a local coal owner, in an effort to draw attention to their plight:
The strikers in Cilhendre were to meet on the Square, the old village green, and there to wait for the miners from the Amman and Swansea valleys. Together they planned to march peaceably across a common, a sort of rift valley to the other side of the mountain, where one of the coal owners, still independent of the hated Combine, lived in his large fine house. They hoped to speak to him personally, to put their case to him so that he might speak for them to the other owners. p. 25
The miners of Cilhendre meet at the Square to begin their march over the common. John Nixon, the pit manager's son, looks on and imagines the scene to resemble Rembrandt's The Night Watch or Syndics of the Drapers' Guild.
It was nearly quite dark as the strikers gathered that night on the Square. They came slowly and doubtfully, not sure now that it was right to have their demonstration. They came with their friends, their butties, and stood about in the patch of open ground that was used for auctions and small fairs on the Square. Acetylene lamps had been fixed to posts and these hissed and flared and lit up men's faces. Gold faces and black clothes; deep caverns of noses and pits of eyes; water bottles catching high-lights. John Nixon, who was watching them […] thought the scene was like an Old Master, painted in a wild enthusiasm for chiaroscuro. The Night Watch, he thought, or the Syndics of Cloth Hall. p. 49
Watch Professor Angela V. John read the above excerpt from Strike for a Kingdom in the video below.
The Mr Nixon's House
The first port of call for the marching miners is the house of the deceased Mr Nixon to pay their respects to his family. Here Gallie emphasises the humanity of the miners, and the capacity for the community to put aside class differences even at times of social strain.
They set off quietly and sedately, they might have been going to chapel. Word was passed down that they would go first to the Manager's house, to sing a hymn, to show their sympathy and that there were no hard feelings. "The days of man." They straggled along, heavy-footed in working boots, and packed the road outside the house. There they stopped, took off their caps. […]
"The days of man are as grass, for he flourisheth as a flower of the field. For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more." p. 51
The Railway Station
As the miners make their way past the houses on the outskirts of the village, they pass by the railway station. At the height of industry, this would have been a site teeming with busy activity, trams bustling through, loaded to the brim with coal. However, taking place during the strike, the scene in the novel is one of lifeless stasis.
They passed the last houses in Cilhendre, passed the Railway Station, trucks on the siding empty and hollow. The flaring lights trapped the white painted names and passed on – Powell Duffryn, Crynant Colliery, Amalgamated Anthracite, Brynhenllys, Seven Sisters. In the lights, the grease boxes on the trucks burned golden and oozing, the labels there washed blank by the sun. p. 53
Towards the Common
In contrast to their joviality as the march begins, when the miners 'talked and teased and grumbled and sang as they walked' p. 53, the mood becomes peculiarly unsettled as the march leaves the safety and familiarity of the village. The landscape seems vaguely threatening, and there is talk of the ghost that haunts the common.
After the Railway Bridge were no more houses. The road began to climb and twist, hung with heavy August trees. There was no singing on the hard hill, breaths were preserved to help the tired feet. The coughers walked slowly and stopped and lost their places.
The top of the climb brought them out on to a strip of common and moonlight, a rift that joined two valleys. Here the road ran between high banks grassed over. On either side were open spaces of rough, reed-like grass crossed by a few thin brooks. There were leeches in pools in these brooks and watercress and a ghost haunted the left-hand bank of the road. p. 53-54
Gallie herself lived, at various times, in both of these valleys, and in a manuscript titled The Two Valleys, held at the National Library of Wales, she writes about her fondness for the area:
I do not see the valleys, I only know them, am part of them, bone of their anthracite bone, flesh of their ribald flesh; I was nursed to sleep in a Welsh flannel shawl to the tune of Sospan Fach and Dies Irae, and if I can't have a tidy funeral, with hymns and crying somewhere between Ystradgynlais and Crynant, I swear I'll come back and haunt the Common there. And when you think you hear the curlews whistling over those fawn and golden hills, don't kid yourselves, it'll be me.
On the Common
The miners eventually reach the top of the common that separates Swansea and Dulais Valleys, and stop for a break before continuing. However, as they progress, the miners are halted by a troop of policemen, who demand the marchers turn back. A brawl breaks out, and the police prevail:
They swung their truncheons, fought, met little resistance, and succeeded in scattering the colliers. The colliers were afraid of policemen and especially of truncheons which were outside their experience. They turne and hurried back, appalled. The constables followed, carried away by a new-found sense of power. […] Those whom they had knocked out, they revived and bundled into the two old boneshaker buses which had carried the constables to the place. The buses were driven off, complaining, to Neath; to the cells. p. 58
Neath Police Station
Following their encounter with the police on the common, a number of the marchers spend a night in the cramped cells at Neath Police Station. In 1926 Neath Police Station was situated on Windsor Road; the building is now a pub named the David Protheroe, after the town's first policeman. The narrator emphasises that the marchers are not criminals but respectable men, and that the police station was for them an unfamiliar place. The only miner who has seen a cell before is D.J., in his capacity as Justice of Peace.
There were proper cells at the Police Station at Neath. But they were few and it was not possible to give the strikers the very best accommodation. […] When the tea was finished, the men were herded into the cells, five or six to each cell, with chairs provided for those who had no room on the benches. They were very quiet in their indignity. Bewildered and bemused by the injustice and the pains in their heads. D.J. was the only one of them who had even seen a cell before. For the others it was another world beyond the pale; chaps like them and the chaps they knew didn't go to jail. It was as far from their world as Buckingham Palace or P.G. Wodehouse. p. 64
The Walk Back to Cilhendre
Following their night in the cells, the colliers make their way back to Cilhendre. As they walk through Neath – in 1926, in comparison to Ystradgynlais, a prosperous town – the colliers feel alienated and different, looked down upon by the "townsfolk". It is not until they reach the upper valleys that they begin to feel more at ease:
They set off to walk home together. They went quietly through the town before the shops and market were properly awake. The town was quiet like a church. The shops were full of impossible riches and the dummy ladies beckoned to them through the windows. A bed in a furniture shop was pink and seductive. D.J. wondered who bought such things; were there so many whores? They passed the railway station, that smelt of fish, and crossed the bridge over the River Nedd. […] The gulls made derisive noises at the colliers, telling the world they'd been to jail. The town straggled on in villas until it was another village; slowly the pattern of the valleys was asserted; village after village; climbing higher into the hills, deeper into the coal, further into the depression. The surrounding hills crept closer and warmer. The people no longer stood apart from the colliers with the superior, studied indifference of townsfolk. The colliers no longer felt clumsy and foolish, Taffy from the valley; their steps began to ring confident and home was near and perhaps praise. p. 82
Despite the poverty of these areas, this is more familiar territory for the miners. It is a place where the communal spirit and support for the strike is stronger. The miners' relief as they return back to their village reveals how closely community spirit can be tied to a specific geographical territory.
The death of Mr Nixon, the pit manager, is the key event in Strike for a Kingdom. It is this that of course ignites the "whodunit" plot. It is an event that affects every section of the community, allowing Gallie to highlight the ways in which the lives of people of this small Welsh mining village are interlinked, while at the same startlingly divided by class.
The death of Mr Nixon, the pit manager, is first discovered during the day of the August Carnival in Cilhendre. The Carnival in Strike for a Kingdom takes place on the Welfare Field, which we have located behind the Miners' Welfare Hall in Ystradgynlais. Carnivals were, and still are, important events in Wales, bringing together communities for fun and festivities. Here are some images of Welsh carnivals from the People’s Collection Wales:
They went down to the field in shy little clusters, trying to hide, waiting for the procession and the crowd to bind them, to dissolve them and submerge their identities. […] Confidence began to seep back as they saw their neighbours looking even more foolish than they felt themselves, and, suddenly, the Carnival was on. p. 13
Given Gallie's portrayal of the Carnival as a symbol of community spirit, it is significant that it is on this day that Mr Nixon's body is discovered. The death highlights the fact that the effects of the strike cut across all sections of the community. This discovery shocks the Carnival-goers, and spoils the jubilant mood of the day.
Suddenly the spirit of the carnival ebbed. People still hung about in groups, uncomfortable and embarrassed. They trickled out of the field, were aware again of how foolish they looked in their silly clothes. They felt like Sunday mornings after Saturday nights. They were not sure how to behave, over-anxious to behave properly. p. 36
A Body Under the Bridge
The body of Mr Nixon is found on the riverbank under the "new bridge" over the river Tawe, and D.J. is called from the Carnival to inspect the body. It is significant that the body is found here. This is a river of enormous historical importance in the area; it is the river that runs down to the city of Swansea, and was the mainline for industrial development in the Swansea Valley for centuries. It is a river that is particularly important to D.J.:
The River Tawe was almost sacred to D.J. It figured in most of his best poems; naively he had thought of her as the Maiden raped by the mine-owners. Now, when he saw the Manager fouling the river with his big, brown-suited, full, coarse body, he wanted to pull him out, to stamp on this beast, this enemy, but, as usual with D.J., wisdom prevailed and the poet gave way as he knelt on the river pebbles by the poor corpse. p. 21
Mr Nixon's body on the banks of the Tawe appears to symbolise the sullying of the natural environment brought about by industrial development, as well as the power of the pit owners over the people, though D.J. is wise enough not to allow this to cloud his judgement as Justice of Peace.
Mr Nixon's House
The death of Mr Nixon means that one of the local policemen must visit the man's house to inform the family. Gallie's representation of this space is one that contrasts starkly with the warmth and closeness of the miners' homes. Despite its apparent luxury, the Nixons' house is a detached and lifeless space:
It was a grand house by Cilhendre standards. A large, old farmhouse adapted to its new station in life by the insertion of two imposing bay windows and a flush lavatory. There was a lawn at the front, crazy paving up to the front door and, on either side of the door, two white urns in which red geraniums grew. The door was painted black and the walls whitewashed. p. 37
The house's interior is equally lifeless. In contrast to the bustling meal scene at the Williams' house – where, despite their differences, the policemen are invited in for a meal – the Nixons choose to eat hurriedly in order to avoid conversing with Inspector Evans. Mrs Nixon appears to enjoy the meal, despite the recent news of her husband's death:
They crossed to the dining-room which was heavy with mahogany and gloss, velvet curtains and etchings. The meal was an unhappy compromise between Mrs Nixon's upper-middle-class, moneyed background and her husbands studiously forgotten antecedents. It was a late high-tea which she called the evening meal, wishing she could say dinner.
She enjoyed the meal that evening. It was a conspiratorial, amicable, silent meal. p. 41
This depiction of the Nixon's house as an opulently decorated, yet emotionally detached, silent space, is in stark contrast to the warm, bustling mealtime scene seen at the Williams' small but inviting home.
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