For years now, there’s been something missing in Wales. Other small nations seem to have found it in abundance, but not us. I mean, of course, the historically engaged, critical literary novel. We used to be quite good at them: Gwyn Thomas made you think as he made you laugh; Ron Berry made you think as he gave voice to the frustrations felt in the 1960s; so did Raymond Williams in his own way; and Mena Gallie and Kate Roberts cut the heavy masculinity and stifling patriarchy of the place to remind us, to show us, that Wales has always had another mask to wear. But for a generation, or so, this alternative route into the pasts and possibilities of Wales has been missing, gone walkabout. The appearance of historian Dai Smith’s debut novel, Dream On, is timely.
The book describes itself as ‘a black comedy, a flashlight noir, a meditation on the lives and stories that connect up the frayed wires in the business of living’. It’s an honest appraisal, to which I would add some other of those blurbic buzz words that ad men like so much: authentic and filmic. As a Valleys boy, it would have been difficult for Smith to escape the language, the rich idiom, of the terraces. Out go, for instance, the ‘pumps’ of modern day commercial conformity, replaced with the thoroughly South Walian ‘daps’. A restoration that needed to happen! There’s no parody here, Smith employs his realism directly free of any need to conform to the post-modern or post-post-modern traits of contemporary Anglo-Welsh literature; he has inherited the voices of Gwyn Thomas and Ron Berry. I don’t say that out of hyperbolic praise. Dream On is firmly rooted in the valley – for it is the Rhondda Fawr, let’s not mistake that – that gave their inspiration, their characters, and their landscape.
This is a novel that wears its society and its past like a treasured jumper or woolly scarf knitted by your granny. The narrative is peppered with references to the history and collective memory of twentieth-century South Wales, to people and to places that mattered to us, if not the world beyond the Brecon Beacons and the River Severn. So if you’ve never read a history book about the place, there may well be people and themes that defeat you. Archie Lush and Bill Paynter don’t have the presence that they did in the 1960s or 1970s. But that’s as it should be: none of us pretends to get every single allusion in Ulysses or War and Peace. We can and do look them up. It’s at these moments that we’re reminded the novelist is one of Wales’s leading historians. No, strike that, the leading historian of the last thirty years in a career that has given us 90% of the defining books of industrial South Walian history – Wales! Wales?, The Fed (with Hywel Francis), Fields of Praise (with Gareth Williams), Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales, Wales: A Question for History, and 2010’s In the Frame. This lifetime of research fuels authenticity and the sense of South Wales that jumps off the pages of Dream On is a very real one indeed.
Amongst those thousands of pages lies a clue to the filmic, noirish qualities of this book. Go on, read it with the soundtrack to Chinatown playing in the background, it makes all the difference. Smith is a fan of Raymond Chandler and in Aneurin Bevan you’ll find an essay on the American. His work makes an appearance early on in the book as we explore the post-war world and the rising tide of Americanisation. What Eric Hobsbawm once referred to as the western world’s other homeland, the imagined community of American popular culture. Here we are in the cinema:
The doors swung silently open and shut releasing and stifling as they did so, the murmur of American voices.
The Royal was on no major circuit and few of the money-spinners came its way. So there was a diet of films other cinemas chose to ignore […] They were, anyway, always American and in the Royal no fluting upper-class English accents or cod Welsh ones or rollicking Scottish were ever heard on the screen.
And to finish off the filmic qualities of the novel, each episode literally fades to black at its end. It’s a classy touch – thanks Parthian!
At the heart of the traditional noir is a crime, a murder (merdah as we would say in the Valley) but Dream On contains no obvious death. Instead we’re offered a glimpse at what went wrong in the second half of the twentieth century, at the moments when we could have, should have chosen the road less travelled and did not, at the effects that had on the generations who were formed by such choices – the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and my own Generation Y. On the road to Tonypandy, somewhere up from Pontypridd, lies the white outline of South Walian idealism, you can hear Detective D. Smith, P.I. saying, murdered by cynicism and the gutting of the promise of our society. Has anyone noticed it? The moment of revelation comes in the episode called ‘No Photographs Of Crazy Horse’, the longest and most impressive part of the novel. Here’s a sense of it:
He told them, again, of what Bevan had said in 1951, when the moment was still there to seize: that even in the ‘30s, with three million out of work and ingrained poverty everywhere, they couldn’t guarantee majorities for Labour even in the worst hit areas, that building socialism was not about pressing buttons.
This is, then, an angry novel, it’s a work of history, and it’s a handbook for a generation alienated from the idealism and promise of the moment that was there to be grasped with both hands. Above all, Dream On is a dazzling debut and a piece of literature that Wales, particularly South Wales, has been waiting for, for a long time.