A novelist whose best invention was himself

John Walsh ON MONDAY
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Indy Lifestyle Online
HOW INTRIGUING to find that Richard Llewellyn, author of that classic of cultural stereotyping How Green Was My Valley, was about as Welsh as Gandhi. The man who fixed an image of plucky mining communities, pit explosions and subterranean male voice choirs in readers' heads all over the English-speaking world, turns out to have been a colossal fraud.

His real name was Vivian Lloyd, he was born in Hendon, north-west London, became a dishwasher in Claridges hotel and found out about Welsh miners by hearsay, from listening to stories told by the three children of a Charing Cross Road bookseller called Griffiths.

The deception (which he maintained right up to his death in 1983) was discovered by a television producer called Arwel Ellis Owen who was making a documentary to mark the 60th anniversary of the book's publication in 1939.

No news seems complete these days without some revelation of literary fraudulence, some accusation of inauthenticity. A year ago, it was Laurie Lee's dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, about which a whiff of baloney still hangs despite Valerie Grove's able defence of her subject in her marvellous biography. PG Wodehouse got another drubbing in the press for being in the pay of the Nazis and not being Gussie Fink-Nottle.

We've had the tribulations of Frank McCourt. We've had the "Philip Larkin Not A Miserable Frustrated Loner Shock" headlines, and now there's a play to go with them. Rupert Brooke was revealed as a sexual bounder and not the sweet romantic soul as advertised (though it didn't come as a big surprise to anyone who'd actually read, say, "Jealousy" or "Libido"). Dick Francis's wife turned out to have supplied several of his plots, and the sex scenes, and was probably the one who rode the Queen Mum's horses as well ...

I love the undercurrent of outrage in these startling finds - that authors turn out to be unlike what we've turned them into. All century we've required Rupert Brooke to be a floppy-haired, shy, patriotic sweetie, despite all evidence to the contrary. We've wanted Laurie Lee to have drifted into a war zone armed only with his trusty fiddle, no matter how implausible that might be. We like to believe Larkin was an anti-social curmudgeon with no sex life, because his poems present him that way.

And now Llewellyn has let us all down, not by painting a picture of Welsh life that's idealised, untrue and full of new-minted cliches, but by not having lived it himself. How dare he make it up? How dare Llewellyn write, under an assumed name, a fiction about a place that turns out to be a fiction?

The point is surely that he turned himself into a Welshman - he bought a farm in Pembrokeshire and claimed to have been born in St David's - for love of the place. If he massaged the facts about his identity along the way, it's because the market - and the Hollywood dream machine - demanded it. When you're dealing in fiction, whatever it takes to get the book written seems fine to me.

Next week, stand by for more revelations. Raymond Chandler "secretly a Dulwich suburbanite" who "never actually shot anyone" probe. JRR Tolkien an academic who "never actually lived in Middle Earth" claim. Orwell's Animal Farm "not a real place" shock. And as for the Book of Genesis ...


THERE'S A rather jolly word game being played in the pages of the Washington Post. In its "Style Invitational" column, it invites readers to take a word, alter it by adding or changing one letter, and supply a definition of the resulting neologism. The results are hilarious, like the competitions in the New Statesman in its heyday.

Libido, for instance, becomes glibido, defined as "all talk and no action". Other recent winners are: reintarnation - coming back to life as a hillbilly; giraffiti - vandalism, spray-painted very high up the wall; hipatitis - terminal coolness; foreploy - any strategic misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of obtaining sex; inoculatte - to take coffee intravenously when you're running late; osteopornosis - a degenerate disease; sarchasm - the gulf between a sarcastic wag and his victim who doesn't get what he's talking about. My favourite is karmageddon, defined by some Beltway genius as: "It's like when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's, like, a serious bummer."

Excellent. My own paltry contributions would be: chantelaine - the proprietor of a stately home who sings torch ballads to the guests; internot - anyone who refuses all invitations to "visit" websites; Marlborot - a cigarette company that admits to damaging your lungs; craparazzi - people who make a living by photographing D-list celebrities; debragging - humiliating public schoolboys by persuading them they'll never be profiled on the South Bank Show; Nobserver - a famously radical Sunday newspaper which secretly sucks up to the aristocracy ...

Good game, eh? Would you like to join in? Send me your suggestions in a sealed brown envelope marked "New Definitions", c/o John Walsh, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, London, E14 5DL, and we'll publish the results. I'll send a just-in-time-for-Christmas bottle of Jack Daniel's for the most stylish entry.


ONE OF the most extraordinary portraits you'll ever see goes on display at the National Portrait Gallery this Thursday. It's a study of Nicolas Roeg, the great film director, in which you're given, not just the features, not just a likeness of the man who made Performance and Don't Look Now, but his brain, imagination and interior life as well.

To say it's three-dimensional is seriously to undersell it. You find yourself considering the piece (and Roeg too) from a dozen angles and points of view, and being tantalised by each of them.

The exhibit hangs suspended in a glass case. It looks initially like a gourd, with a flat face and a rounded back on which all kinds of nasty fetish objects are impaled or imprinted. Since the front carries a brilliantly vivid monochrome image of Roeg's face, you naturally regard the gourd as the remainder of his head, although it also rather resembles a pregnant belly.

And as you inspect the bits of horrible stuff that cover the, as it were, dark side of the artist - hair matted with blood, hypodermic syringe needles, lead fishing weights, - you start to think of it as an externalised imagination, like Richard Rogers' Beaubourg Centre in Paris with all its inner workings on display. You start to connect this wound here with the bullet that burrows into Mick Jagger's brain at the end of Performance, and that dangling plait of hair with the jungle voodoo of Heart of Darkness, which Roeg filmed in 1990, and all you're aware of is how much you're still missing.

The artist is Michael Clark, former habitue of the infamous Colony Room in deepest Soho, where he was taken up by the coprolaliac proprietress Muriel Belcher and her most distinguished guest, Francis Bacon. Clark has been pushing the envelope of portraiture for some time. Five years ago, wearied by the requirement that portraits must offer a likeness of their subjects (he can do the most eerily hyper-realist stuff himself, since you ask), he came up with anti- or meta-portraiture. His triptych, Some May Lose Their Faith was a boldly avant-garde rendering of Christ as three flesh landscapes with exploded wounds in livid pinks, oranges and bruised blues. Since, he reasoned, we can identify Christ's dead body only by the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, and of the spear in his side, don't the wounds themselves constitute a portrait?

The NPG didn't buy it, literally or figuratively. They said it was insufficiently representational, or some such thing. So hats off to them for letting an artwork of such weird originality as the Roeg head through their hallowed doors (it's hard not to be drawn into a ghastly pun about the place becoming Roeg's Gallery).

There's only one problem I can foresee. Clark told me that, when putting the finishing touches to the piece, he asked Roeg to write a secret down on a slip of paper and put it inside the "head". Roeg did so. Clark didn't read what he'd written, but he wrote a secret of his own on another slip, put it inside and sealed it up. Both secrets are inside the exhibit, unseen, and will remain so until the piece is dismantled. Or until some amusing performance artists decide to "demystify" modern art as they did with Tracey Emin's bed...


LAST WEEK, in the course of an article about the National Lottery, I wrote that the legendary entertainer Lulu had "just been dropped" as presenter of the BBC1 Saturday show, National Lottery Red Alert. I was horribly mistaken. The vibrant redhead is, au contraire, firmly in the programme's driving seat, picking up enthusiastic notices from even the most bitchy critics, and will continue to delight the TV lottery audience for the foreseeable future. I'm happy to clear up my grotesque blunder and apologise to the divine Ms L for any embarrassment she may have suffered.