On their website, Granta Books describe themselves as publishers of 'both literary fiction and upmarket non-fiction'. What makes non-fiction 'upmarket' is not explained. Perhaps it just means books that won’t be sold in supermarkets, or books that come with gold-tooled calf bindings. Or maybe it’s a euphemism for a sort of academic snobbery that implies that a book’s content would be high above the brow of the average tabloid reader.
Whatever it is, the publishers have not done this non-fiction book any favours with the design of the dustcover. An austere monochrome photo of a pile of nondescript grey rocks isn’t much of an invitation for a potential reader to look inside. Similarly the chapter headings on the contents page (Formation, Quarry, Mine, Headstone) are hardly compelling, even if the mood is lightened slightly by the title of the Epilogue: Happy Valley.
And in fact that’s where Ted Nield’s story starts, in Happy Valley, the park on the Great Orme at Llandudno. There are two photographs here in the introduction: one of Ted Nield’s father as a small boy standing on a boulder outside Elephant Cave in 1928, and the other of Nield himself as the small boy on that same rock in 1964. Both boys were fascinated by rocks and Ted went on to become that rare creature, a professional geologist.
Now some autobiographies, particularly of people involved one way or another in public life, can stimulate a reader’s interest merely by listing those life events, by revealing past secrets or just gossiping about other celebrities. For the rest though, if an autobiography is to attract anything but the narrowest of audiences, it has to deal with things other than just the day-to-day life of the subject. Nield extends his personal experiences and interests into more general aspects of social history, first as they relate to his stone-working and mining antecedents in Lancashire and south Wales, and then ultimately on to much wider concerns – the history of our planet, and its future. Inevitably some of this writing is technical but, as an experienced popular science writer, Nield doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too much abstruse terminology.
A particularly resonant thread in his story is Aberfan, where Nield’s parents and other ancestors are buried in the same cemetery as the victims of the infamous mine tip disaster. If his family hadn’t moved to Swansea before he was born, Nield himself might have been one of those children who lost their lives through the arrogance and incompetence of the men running the Merthyr Vale colliery.
The ‘lost landscape’ of the book’s subtitle refers to the change from a society where earth materials were extracted and used locally, to one of globalisation. We worry about ‘food miles’, but are unaware that the facing stone for a prestigious new building in London was probably quarried in India, shipped to China to be worked into the right state, and then transported back around the world to Europe.
Having begun this story with those old photos of small boys on that rock in Happy Valley, the Hollywood ending for this tale would be newer pictures of the boulder, occupied by Nield’s son or perhaps even his grandson. However, this is an account from real life and, though he does not labour the point, one of the sadnesses in Ted’s life is that he has no descendants to continue this small tradition. But this doesn’t deter him from emphasising again his underlying message. Each generation owes a debt of gratitude to its forebears and has an obligation to its successors to pass on blessings, rather than curses.
George Jones is a retired natural scientist living in Ceredigion.