Gwyn Thomas: 1913-1981

Gwyn Thomas was born on 6 July 1913, making today his 100th birthday. Although Gwyn has been dead over thirty years, his writing and his ideas are increasingly coming back in to fashion, partly because of the magnificent decision to republish some of his greatest work in the Library of Wales Series. For regular readers, this blog accompanies one posted a few weeks ago on John E. Morgan. This is a long post and it forms part of a developing study into what I call Wales’ unofficial historians. I hope it encourages some of you to go and read his work, whether in recovered paperbacks from old bookshops or in the wonderful new editions provided to us by the Welsh publisher, Parthian. Some is even available in Spanish, Russian, Romanian, Norwegian, German, and many other languages, so you don’t have to limit yourself! But, for now, let’s get on with the story.

A Few Selected Exits

In early April 1933, Gwyn Thomas arrived in Spain. Travelling to what was, by then, a deeply divided country had not been his own choice; it was, as he recorded in his autobiography A Few Selected Exits, a requirement of the language degree he began at Oxford in the autumn of 1931. ‘Had it not been’, Thomas wrote, ‘I would not have stirred’. The twenty-year-old from Cymmer in the Rhondda was in the midst of ‘spinning alienations’ having been thrust, poor and ill, into an environment of privilege, abundance, and gowned scholarly rituals for which he had no taste. ‘I met no one who could sing in tune,’ he remembered in typically metaphorical fashion, ‘and the lack of close harmony hurt like hunger’. The landscapes of Spain, particularly the glimmering Guadarama mountains which entranced the young student, made up for the ‘eroding humanity … found at Oxford’ by bringing Gwyn into direct contact with a people and a landscape he considered to be much like his own.

The streets of Madrid were not free, however, from the snobbery and looks-down-the-nose common to Oxford, nor were they anywhere near as safe. Two years before Gwyn Thomas arrived, Spain had ‘shaken off the nightmare of the Middle Ages’ and declared itself a republic. Almost immediately, right-wing opinion steeled itself against the new government believing that its destruction, along with its leftist and liberal supporters, was necessary to restore the country to its true Catholic purpose. Sat at a table in a café on the Calle de San Jerónimo in the city centre, Gwyn Thomas experienced a full blast of this rhetoric and incitement to violence. ‘Of course it will have to be destroyed’, thundered a Spanish army captain, ‘this peasant government, this system of ideas … cataclysmically destroyed … [by] the guns that won South America’. The words left the young Welshman in no doubt about what was going on around him: ‘I could have anticipated’, he later reflected, ‘all the explosions from Madrid to Stalingrad in the conversation of this man’.

By this time, the Spanish Republic was in deep crisis; the alliance between socialists and liberal-republicans was unravelling and elite pressure, whether in the form of conversations had in street cafés or open violence and murder, was growing in force. Throughout the early 1930s, violence had been endemic in Spain and the government seemed unable to stop it. Brutal suppression of strikes, declaration of martial law in Barcelona, and, during the municipal elections of April 1933, the murder of four men and one woman on the streets of the southern Spanish town of Hornachos by the Civil Guard. Writing from Madrid to the bursar of St Edmund Hall in May 1933, he set the scene:

Everyone sits about, looking sweaty and political, praising or cursing the Republic according to the position of the sun … I am not at all pleased with the enthusiasm with which the Spanish nation takes to the delights of bomb throwing. They almost make it a winter sport … they have set up civil slaughter as a rival attraction to the public dispatch of bulls.

Gwyn was a keen observer of his times, even as a young man, whether it was in his capacity as a novelist, playwright, or inveterate keeper of notebooks. Scribbled into his journals, which he maintained from the mid-1930s onwards, was ‘a rich succession of news items and editorial expressions of opinion’ many of them gleamed from the Daily Worker. Here, he laid out the tortured passion of the Depression and, in later years, the clear sense of loss that he felt for its passing. ‘The Wales of my childhood, the libertarian noon’, he wrote in the early 1940s, ‘was intelligent, altruistic, passionate, aglow, a place of strong-voiced dreamers and comedians. All gone’. This fuelled his other capacity, which, by virtue of his post-war public persona and personal engagement in the 1930s, rendered him one of the observed. From the decline of the Welsh language, to the pandemic infusion of socialism into the world view of the people of the terraces, to the getting of the joke, he was a man whose own life story told (and continues to tell) historians much about the changing nature of South Walian society.

South Wales and Spain, then, hand in hand gave Gwyn Thomas his sense of the possible and of failure. While the immediate social, political and economic context of the Rhondda during the Depression was always foremost in his mind, and in the future direction of his writing and public activities, his ‘second home’ gave him an outlet for his internationalism and a bonfire on which to throw all of his hatred for puritanical dogma. ‘The Spanish War’, he wrote in 1942, ‘was a basic war waged around the eternal problems of human society […] a victorious democratic outcome in Spain in 1939 would have brought unassessable benefit to Europe, so a victorious Fascist regime contributes powerfully to the forces of oppression and backwardness throughout the continent’. Throughout the long years of Franco’s dictatorship, he continued to believe that was the case, even as popular opinion shifted, dazed by the sun on the beaches of the holiday resorts of the Costa del Sol.

History on the Dole

When Gwyn arrived home to the Rhondda in 1934, with an upper second degree in his hand, he settled once again in the valley for which he had yearned ever since the train journey in September 1931 that took him away. It was a place caught in the midst of political and economic turmoil; the old institutions, traditions and the people themselves withering in the unceasing hell of unemployment and grinding poverty. Not even an Oxford degree was a ticket to a job in the days when school leavers faced enormous odds against finding work. Here’s a report from the Pontypridd Observer in 1928:

Number of school leavers  – 110 boys, 101 girls.

Number leaving with employment in view – 10 boys, 8 girls.

Number leaving with no employment in view – 98 boys, 89 girls.

Shocking, yet so very real, isn’t it.

The contours of Gwyn’s post-Oxford world are traced, at times in thinly-disguised autobiography, in his first (and famously, until the 1980s, unpublished) novel Sorrow For Thy Sons. Written, ‘as fast as my sixpenny fountain pen could travel’, as a submission for a competition run in the mid-1930s by Victor Gollancz to find the best new proletarian novel, it was rejected on the grounds of being too grim, too unrepentant, too real for the Left-Liberal audience that Gollancz books typically appealed to. It is possible to imagine a late-1930s foreword to the novel, written by the publisher, which sets out that ‘these chapters really are the kind of thing that makes converts’. That’s a real one, by the way, provided by Victor Gollancz for The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell.

His hometown of Porth was no better off in 1934 than it had been three years earlier and, like so many in the terraces around him, Gwyn experienced lingering unemployment, the ‘new leisure’ as it became known for a time. In between searching for jobs at the Labour Exchange, wherein he met men such as Will Paynter, a future commissar in the International Brigades in Spain, president of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, and General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. He spent hours, too, reading the Daily Worker and wandering around the Rhondda with friends including Lewis Jones, the dominant communist figure in South Wales in this period and author of Cwmardy and We Live, and he went regularly to the fleapit cinemas of Porth and beyond where, he wrote later, ‘seats were cheap [and] one could indulge oneself endlessly’. The cinema provided distraction and opened a window onto a different kind of world. From the darkness of the Central Cinema on Hannah Street, for instance, New Deal-era Hollywood’s  ‘gravelly truthfulness’ intermingled with cheap domestic productions and the creaking glory of newsreels.

Out on the streets, where Communists scribbled notices on the pavements in chalk – they were often too poor to pay for printed handbills – and made speeches from any patch of ground where an audience could be guaranteed, the tumult that gripped 1930s Rhondda was obvious. In the aftermath of the 1934 Unemployment Act, with its provisions that threw the already desperate out on their ear, the people of the district rebelled. Tens of thousands marched in the Rhondda, Aberdare, Pontypridd, and in the Eastern Valley. On 20 January, as many as 60,000 marched from across the Rhondda to a protest on the De Winton Field in Tonypandy; a few days later, on the 24th, at least 12,000 gathered on Cooks Field in Pontypridd. Amongst those on the march to Tonypandy was Gwyn Thomas who later wrote of his experiences that ‘we marched almost as a way of life’. The protests of 1935 revitalised the political spirits of the valleys that had been broken in the failure of the General Strike and the bitter recriminations and debts of the Miners’ Lockout that followed. They ushered in, for all it was a brief moment, a popular front similar to the contemporary governments of France and Spain.

Some of the events of January and February 1935 appear late on in Sorrow For Thy Sons and provide the backdrop to the difficult and deeply pessimistic climax of the novel. The beginnings of the protest movement impact on Alf and Hugh as they are preparing to go out for the evening:

 ‘Where are you going Alf?’

‘Things are moving.’

‘I see them looking still as usual.’

‘Don’t you believe it, boyo.’

‘There’s a rumpus blowing up. A hell of a rumpus’

‘What over? The Unemployment Regulations?’

‘What better reason for a rumpus than those bloody things? They’ve got people in a panic all of a sudden. Only know they are realising what the Means Test and the Labour Camps might mean to them. The march we made to London didn’t wake them up. …’

The meeting they attended took place at Cymmer Library in mid-January. On the dais ready to address the 450-strong audience were Labour figures including Councillor Mark Harcombe and W. H. Mainwaring MP. Alongside them were a number of ministers from Rhondda’s chapels. As in the novel, the meeting was partly disrupted from the floor by more radical delegates – implied in the press and the novel to be Communists – and resolved to form a central protest committee. The Committee, along with its equivalents in Pontypridd and the Cynon Valley, formed the organisational structure for the large protests that followed a few days after. ‘As one watched the huge streams of protesters pouring up and down the two gulches on their way to Tonypandy’, Gwyn Thomas wrote many years later, ‘one could have sworn the very blood of the place was on the boil’.

There was a kind of revolution in South Wales in those years: not armed like those of Russia or France nor quite so symbolic as those that took place in Eastern Europe in the late-1980s. It was, instead, a revolution of mind. A community coming together to support workers who undertook stay down strikes; a community that painted houses black to shun those who stepped outside the ethos of working together; a community that marched to the tunes of Cwm Rhondda and Men of Harlech or protested in their thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Then, as now, a far-away government didn’t listen and voters elsewhere always had the final say.

Unofficial Historian?

No other Welsh writer of his generation quite captured the sense of meaning and purpose that once existed in the South Wales Valleys, though several tried to do so. When I talked about John E. Morgan a few weeks ago, I spoke of a man who was there in the midst of it all and who thought about history as a way of summing up and passing on. Gwyn, however, was not a ‘doer’ in that sense, he was much more of an intellectual. An organic intellectual, if we can use that term these days. But he did share the same convictions – religion aside – as Morgan. ‘At the age of twenty’, he wrote in one of the ruffled notebooks he kept through his life, ‘I became a Marxist’. It was tempered, of course, by the fact that he was very much a Labour man – he joined the Oxford University Labour Club in October 1931 when it was in one of those high points and guided by the influential G.D.H. Cole. He also joined the branch of Mosley’s New Party, but only for the refreshments.

That last line, the black humour of it, is usually what people remember about Gwyn. It’s the trap that the BBC has fallen in when remembering his work and marking his centenary this week. But it’s a misunderstanding of Gwyn to focus so superficially upon the comedy. He was a political writer of the first rank, perhaps the greatest political writer that Wales has yet produced. His writing was couched in humour because that’s easy to swallow, it’s the sugar dulling the tongue before the medicine is gulped. Have a listen to this clip, recalling the 1926 Strike, for a clear example of that. It’s funny but it’s serious too, if you want to listen to that subtext.

Anyone seeking a truly alternative history of the Valleys, of the twentieth century as it battered, bruised, and scattered a people, should sit down with one of Gwyn’s books. And when you’ve finished take up another, and another, and then think again about the terraces and the valleys from whence he came. They look different, somehow, less put upon and sad. More like a community that was out there in front, thinking and doing for itself. Happy Birthday Gwyn!