Gwyn Thomas – Wales’s Greatest Novelist?

Since the launch of the Welsh Government’s Library of Wales scheme six years ago, over thirty classic and important novels have been returned to print providing a new generation with the chance to savour the delights and talents of twentieth-century Welsh literature (in English). They enable us to think again about who is the greatest Welsh writer of the modern era – I can’t decide between Ron Berry and Gwyn Thomas (more about them both in a moment) – and to show to the rest of the world that Wales isn’t just about Dylan Thomas and his dalliances in the pubs of West Wales and the United States. The voices in the series are different, recognisably so, from those that can be found, for instance, in a library of Irish literature, wherein James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett stare knowingly and critically at that man Yates, or in the twentieth century English canon with its Woolfs and Murdochs, Lawrences and Orwells. For Welsh, an encyclopedia might once have written, see proletarian.

The first novel published in the series was So Long Hector Bebb, written by a son of Blaencwm in the upper Rhondda. Through a chorus of voices, Ron Berry’s violent and occasionally stomach-churning story tells of a boxer whose life is transformed by a tragic chain of events. First published in 1970, Hector Bebb was the last in a remarkable series of novels that Berry published during the 1960s giving voice to a society on the cusp of traumatic and long-lasting change. To read Hector Bebb alongside the recently re-issued edition of Flame and Slag (1968) is to understand the 1960s not as a time of heroic rejection of the staid temper of the 1950s (as so many of the popular histories would have it) but as a time of anger and reaction: the foundations of the turmoil of the 1970s rather than the high watermark of post-war socialism. ‘I was bent to a shitty job when I left school’, remarks Rees Stevens in Flame and Slag, ‘Thousands of miners like myself, and we stuck our lot. Right then, Daren’s a scrap-heap and I’m on it’. In recession-hit South Wales, even the post-industrial scrap-heap has been made redundant.

The theme of being taken for a ride by those in power is also very much to the fore in Lewis Jones’s diptych of life in the Rhondda from the time of Boer War to the events of the Spanish Civil War. Here are fictionalised accounts of the Tonypandy Riots, of mining disaster, and community activism. Cwmardy and We Live were written by an avowed Communist, an organiser for the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (he was made unemployed in 1929 and never worked again), a leader of hunger marches and protests against the Means Test, and an orator of renown. For Lewis Jones, literature provided the opportunity to set the record straight and offer a worker’s sense of their own history. There are better written novels of the subject, certainly, but Cwmardy and We Live came right at the beginning of the opening up of literature to genuinely working-class writers and set the foundations of much that came after.

‘It was a daft, hallucinated year’, writes Gwyn Thomas of what I consider to be the greatest of all Welsh novels (alas not yet reprinted by the Library of Wales). Sorrow For Thy Sons was written for a competition run by Victor Gollancz for the best novel on unemployment. It did not win – Gollancz felt it too stark and bleak to cheer its likely readership – and lay unpublished for fifty years until appearing in 1986 with a foreword by Dai Smith. A flavour of its quality, and its anger, can be gleaned from sentiments such as ‘in the days of wealth and plenty, there was life enough in this valley; raw, real howling life to change not on the valley but the entire universe’. For the 24-year-old Gwyn Thomas, not long graduated from Oxford University and destined for a bout of unemployment in his native Rhondda, realism was yet to be wholly morphed into the angry black comedy of The Dark Philosophers or The Alone to the Alone. Instead we hear voice familiar to readers of Ron Berry’s 1960s and Lewis Jones’s 1930s but unlike both. Sorrow For Thy Sons, despite its setting in the thirties, is effortlessly timeless and illustrates what happens when three brothers – a bitter, unemployed miner, a rebellious scholarship boy and a status-seeking grocer – are subjected to the full blast of economic collapse and the effects of long-term poverty. It doesn’t need me to explain why this stands relevant today.

To the crucial Rhondda trio of Lewis Jones, Gwyn Thomas and Ron Berry, it is necessary to add Alun Richards of Pontypridd, Menna Gallie of Ystradgynlais, and Raymond Williams of Pandy in Monmouthshire. All three, in their own right, stand in the front tier of Welsh literature shedding light on squabbles and prejudices of the metropolis of the valleys; on the experiences of women amidst strikes and coalfield heartache; and on the epic pivotal character of 1926. Yet, they do not speak to me in the same way as the Rhondda trio and I think this is because what sets this group apart from Richards, Gallie, Williams and modern authors like Rachel Trezise, is the sheer anger of their writing. They knew something was wrong and said so; or, to put it another way (and lean on the words of Dai Smith), they got the joke and said so.

Welsh history has taken a long time to catch up with the novelists I’ve mentioned here and in many ways literature still stands in advance of what we historians are thinking about. Perhaps that is because historians endeavour to balance their own anger – and Welsh historians tend to be angry and committed people – with their scholarship. Novelists, after all, can get away with a greater imbalance of the former over the latter. But perhaps it also says something about who gets to become a historian today?