Obituary: Alexander Cordell

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The Independent Online
Alexander Cordell was a popular writer whose novels were read by people who do not usually read novels.

He wrote 28 of them, mainly historical romances which came perilously close, in the view of some critics, to bodice-rippers but which, for his many admirers, were exciting and well-researched yarns with a good deal of contemporary social significance. Opinion divides sharply over their literary merit, a consideration to which the author always declared himself deeply indifferent, preferring to point to their large sales in both Britain and the United States and the esteem in which he was held by that most genial section of the book-buying public, the common reader.

He was born George Alexander Graber in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in 1914, the son of a soldier. Much of his youth was spent in the Far East, particularly China, about which he was to write in The Sinews of Love (1965), which is set in Hong Kong, The Bright Cantonese (1967), a spy story, and The Dream and the Destiny (1975), about the Long March of Mao Tse-tung. From 1932 he served in the British army and during the Second World War was promoted to the rank of major in the Royal Engineers.

Although he began to write shortly after demobilisation in 1946, his first novel, A Thought of Honour, was not published until 1954 and did not attract much public attention. He was, nevertheless, set on becoming a successful novelist and applied himself to the grind of writing with single-minded determination, keeping regular hours and letting nothing interfere with his schedule. Only rarely would he undertake journalistic work, though he was not averse, as his reputation grew, to giving younger writers the benefit of his experience and views, usually expressed trenchantly and with little sympathy for established writers. He was particularly scornful of poets, urging them to tackle "something more substantial" - such as a novel.

Cordell first settled in Wales in 1950, working as a quantity surveyor in the western valleys of Monmouthshire. It was there, mainly around the old iron towns of Blaenavon, Ebbw Vale and Tredegar, an area which was one of the cradles of the Industrial Revolution, and now known as Cordell country, that he discovered the grim landscape and Radical politics which he was to make the stuff of his highly coloured novels.

It seems that he was genuinely taken, too, with the democratically minded people whom he encountered while carrying out research for his books, and despite his very aloof, English, military manner, many warmed to him and became his loyal readers. Popular interest in the local history of industrial South Wales was given a huge fillip by the fact that Cordell had brought the past to life in his novels in ways which ordinary people could understand and find useful, whatever professional historians might say about their authenticity.

His best-known novel, and an international best-seller, was Rape of the Fair Country (1959), the first of a trilogy about life in early industrial Wales which also included The Hosts of Rebecca (1960) and Song of the Earth (1969, published in the United States as Robe of Honor). These books present romanticised accounts of the struggle for trade-union rights in the ironworks, of the Chartist movement which excited the author profoundly, and of the Rebecca Riots, a major social disturbance in west Wales which broke out in 1839 and took the form of attacks on toll-gates by armed gangs of men dressed as women.

The historical events depicted by Cordell are as vivid as the larger- than-life characters who act out their own personal dramas in his books. They include, for the most part, marginalised people, victims of their time and place, who nevertheless manage to rise above their circumstances and make their mark on the society by which they are oppressed, albeit as part of the anonymous, and unsung, crowd.

What has embarrassed some readers is his insistence on introducing romantic interest into his plots, at which he was not adept, and dialogue which, for Welsh readers in particular, is sometimes excruciating in its inversions, phoney idiom and pseudo-poetic lilt. As with Richard Llewellyn's How Green was my Valley (1939), Cordell's novels were controversial in Wales on account of the picture they gave of local society, morals and way of life, and few have been able to appreciate them for the fiction which they so obviously are.

Cordell was dismissive of any criticism on this score, nurturing an implacable suspicion that there was a conspiracy against him among literary critics in Wales, which extended to the Arts Council and the Welsh Academy (the national society of writers). He made few friends in the republic of letters, largely as a consequence of his opinionated antipathy towards fellow writers and his penchant for self-publicity in the press which endeared him to few.

When in 1971 the Welsh Arts Council invited the playwright Eugene Ionesco to visit Wales and receive its International Writer's Prize, Cordell dashed off a letter to the Western Mail complaining that it was scandalous to be giving money to a rich organisation like Unesco when it would have been better spent on writers. His attempts to persuade the council to establish a prize for novelists, to be named after him, was thereafter given a frosty reception for which he never forgave it.

Nevertheless, such was the success of his "Welsh" novels that Cordell was encouraged to write a second trilogy dealing with much the same subject- matter. In The Fire People (1972), about the Merthyr Rising of 1831, he told the story of Richard Lewis, a young miner known to history by his sobriquet Dic Penderyn, "the first martyr of the Welsh working class", who was hanged in Cardiff for the alleged wounding of one of the soldiers sent to Merthyr to put down the armed insurrection by the town's workers.

This second trilogy was completed with the publication of This Sweet and Bitter Earth (1977), which deals with the Penrhyn Quarry Lock-outs of 1896-1903 and the Tonypandy Riots of 1910, and Land of My Fathers (1983), which revisits South Wales during the Chartist period.

Those who tended to scorn the historical authenticity of Cordell's novels had to pause for reflection with the appearance of The Fire People. Dic Penderyn had gone to the scaffold protesting his innocence and there was widespread sympathy for the view that he had been made a scapegoat by the ironniasters. In his novel Cordell revealed details, found in official documents and subsequently confirmed, that, some 40 years after the rising, a man living in America had confessed to the crime for which Dic had been executed. For this, and for his firm grasp of the political realities of the day, the author earned the warm regard of Gwyn A. Williams, the leading historian of South Wales in its revolutionary heyday. Another historian of the same period, Dai Smith, has compared him with Howard Fast, author of the novel Spartacus (1951), in the painstaking detail and swashbuckling sweep of his narratives.

Cordell claimed that in the 1930s he had been a Marxist and he certainly remained on the political left for the rest of his life. A late statement of his Communist sympathies is to be read in To Slay the Dreamer (1980), a story set against the background of the Civil War in Spain, although there is ample evidence of his views in almost all his novels, including the trilogy (1971) for younger readers about the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland. His last novel, Send Her Victorious, was published last month.

Although he was not active on behalf of any political party, Cordell's long residence in Wales (interrupted only by residence in the Isle of Man during the 1970s) gave him a certain sympathy for the idea of Welsh self-government, and shortly before the general election of May 1997 he announced from his home in Wrexham that he had joined Plaid Cymru, having recognised in Dafydd Wigley MP, the party's President (at last, the cynics sighed), the kind of democratic socialism in which he had always believed.

The cause of Alexander Cordell's death has not yet been established. His body was found on 9 July in a stream near a disused quarry and is believed to have lain there for a few days; he was clutching family photographs. The police say that foul play is not suspected.

Meic Stephens

George Alexander Graber (Alexander Cordell), novelist: born Colombo, Ceylon 9 September 1914; twice married (one daughter); died near Llangollen, Denbighshire c9 July 1997.