I read Alexander Cordell’s Rape of the Fair Country as I came into my teens. I had my first real job, labouring on the renovation of the cottage next door – a place I pledged to myself I would buy when I was older, and since have.
Work started early and I slept at the top of our garden in a tent. Other than being on the farm, which was different, it was the first time I’d properly been around a gang of grown-up men doing hard, physical work. I read the book in the tent, mostly by torchlight. So the stage was set.
If I read the book now, I doubt it would have the same weight. It’s nowhere near the best writing I’ve read. But that isn’t the brief. To pick a book of a lifetime I have to go back to a time when I was naïve enough to have favourites.
I was an avid reader. At 13 I would have been trouncing through Cussler, Forsyth, Wheatley and classic adventure stories. Rape of the Fair Country was the first book I read that happened in a place I knew, to characters I could realistically be. My grandmother lived in the Rhondda, and I was a short, dark, thick-haired Welsh boy. No submarines, African diamond mines, homunculi.
The book is about a family living in Wales doing physical work, steering through problems against the backdrop of landscape. It’s only after writing three novels that address something similar that I wonder how much influence the Fair Country had.
Furthermore, the book is essentially a love story. Morfydd became the girl against whom all girls were measured for years to come. It was Colin McAdam, author of the brilliant A Beautiful Truth, who pointed out recently something I hadn’t seen in my own work. That actually, I write love stories.
I’ve resisted the urge to go back and look at the copy that’s on the shelf and has been for near quarter of a century. A book, like anything else, can grow into a myth of itself. I read it at a time in my life when it affected me strongly, and the sense of it hasn’t gone away. I want to keep that intact. It is by no means the best book I’ve read, but perhaps it’s the one that quietly started something that took 20 years to surface.
Cynan Jones’s latest novel, ‘The Dig’, is out now in paperback (Granta)Reuse content