In 1999, on the eve of the new millennium, as we used to say back then, Dai Smith posed as a question for History, his native land: Wales. Gone was the unresolved note sounded by the collections earlier title Wales! Wales? (made all the more apparent in the theme tune to the television series, which shifted the harmonies of Gwlad, Gwlad) and in its place was a clearer intimation that whatever was meant by that ‘world of South Wales’ (Labour Wales, we remember) had slipped into the realm of reflection, and what was to come could only pick up the pieces and make a new jigsaw puzzle. Informed, yes; aware, absolutely; beholden – well, only if you knew it and there were (even then) few left who really did. There are fewer now. It was possible to know what once lay beneath, but next to impossible to properly articulate it with anything more than a knowing nod. History, after all, is a series of questions posed of the chaos of what went before, an attempt to understand but never really to know the history (lower case now) that was true. That which Gwyn A. Williams famously declared from the steps of Merthyr’s old town hall was
more than a page in a book, history is the buckle that bites your back; history is the sweat you can’t keep out of your eyes; history is the fear crawling in your belly.
Neither divine gossip about the past amongst gentlemen, then, nor a question to be answered in an essay but what you live or have lived.
There are more than enough nods and winks in that paragraph, and there are no prizes for getting them all, but they inform these stories quite as much as the literary influences and ideas that Smith employs. These range widely across both the American and British (and South Walian) canon. Alongside Hemingway and Faulkner, Vonnegut and the episodic pitch of interwar mobster noirs by Chandler and Damon Runyon, all of them deliberate, Smith positions Ron Berry, Raymond Williams, Lewis Jones, and Gwyn Thomas (above all). Gone is the magic mystique of Glyn Jones’s Island of Apples, gone is the plodding realism of Mena Gallie or Lily Tobias, gone is the spinning alienation of the current generation of Welsh writers in English, and in its place is a fiction that insists on the validity of the lived experience of the individual bound to (and up in) a collective world. We call it South Wales.
To articulate these forces, these spirits of consciousness, if you will, is not the job of History alone – of necessity that discipline must flatten out the lived experiences of the many in an effort to explain the contrapuntal rhythm – nor can it alone be the role of artists and writers who fuse colour to ideas where words can no longer tread, but for whom sentiment cannot explain. Words, truths, and images, bound together, on the other hand, are a powerful mode of expression. Collective expression, I hasten to add. It is surely why in Dream On, Smith’s earlier collection, and in this one, there are the fades to black – the end of transmission, the caesura in silence. That is the cinematic touch which reminds us that of all the great American influences, it is the cinema (and latterly cinematic television) that articulated mass experience, articulated the fusion of words, images, and meanings, articulated us even as the characters said I do. As Ron Berry put it, in discussion with Dai Smith,
Cinemas were a religion. You went to see a film and you spoke about it the following day and pretended to be different characters – Edward G. Robinson, you know, [James] Cagney, Cowboys. But they weren’t so much exterior, they belonged didn’t they. They belonged. They belonged.
The repetition reflects both the organic nature of the discussion and the insistence of the truth.
It is possible to begin this collection in one of two ways: in New York City in 1966, or in the Rhondda in November 1985. Two possible routes through a past that yield strikingly different results – the historian’s query is framed by what they wish to know and explain, after all. The first route, from 1966 forwards, is on that leads from a moment in time, a radical (potentially) spot along the path, leading to an ending which calls for a memory. When all else is gone, is that not what we are left with? The act of remembrance and the voice of the remembrancer? But travelled in reverse, from 1985 through those memories and back to 1966, the reader is confronted with a different meaning entirely – the agency of decay, alienation almost as a choice, a safety mechanism disappears before us and is replaced with the inevitability of decline. We know the end so the beginning must lead there. Not so much counter-factual History but counter-actual experience.
Let us take the forward path, whose outcome we do not know, and begin in 1966 with Bernard Jenkins. This borrows quite obviously from Smith’s own life – having completed his BA at Balliol College, Oxford, he then studied at Columbia University in New York City. A few of the characters, too, notably Saul Kellerman, have real comparators, although nothing is ever entirely the same. Kellerman – keller being the German for celler, a Dickensian naming that doesn’t need further explanation – has his own secrets to disguise and like his real life equivalent used them as fire for a certain kind of social conscience. Bernard, by contrast, learns to wear masks – an activity that pervades this collection of stories. This is a remarkable story which conveys not only the act of masquerade but also the cultural displacement of American Wales from both its inheritances. For Bernard Jenkins, who is to a certain degree both a reality and an avatar, symbolises exactly this dilemma. Who is he? Who are we? He is also confronted with his lackadaisical use of political inheritance, and so are we. Buried in this story are two deliberate observations about the art of politics. One from Bernard, the other from Saul Kellerman. From the American is the revelation, contra Robert Caro, that Lyndon Johnson was the real hero of the 1960s political establishment. It’s a consideration that draws neatly both on the truth (he really was) and on something that Smith has written of Aneurin Bevan: (I paraphrase) his socialism was idealist practicality. Bevan, like Johnson, did what had to be done to advance the cause.
This jars with modern ideas about the Kennedy-Johnson dynamic, derived as I say from Caro’s character assassination (it has prompted rebukes from Richard Nixon and Robert Dallek amongst others), but it is entirely in keeping with Smith’s own political instincts. For politics is about actions not perceptions – it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest this entire section is really about today’s Labour Party rather than 1960s America but let’s not get too far into the realm of speculation. The other tip of the hat is to Aneurin Bevan – the radical avatar of South Wales – whose politics everyone needs to relate to. Or do they? For despite earnest desire for connectivity, a mask presented by Bernard Jenkins here too, whose radicalism was (and is) really on show when that act is performed? Smith concludes with a lamentation: ‘perhaps it had never been 1968’. Perhaps it had never been 1984 or 1926 or 1910 for that matter either.
This segues nicely into the story Counteractual, with which Smith skewers the perception of the Valleys as a backward place lacking in the cultural characteristics normally talked of either in relation to the urbane bilingual elites (yes, we have them in Wales too) of Danescourt or the Romanticised neo-gwerin of Cardigan Bay. ‘Thick is it, butt?’ this might have been called or even ‘Satellite City’. For it is in the vein of Boyd Clack’s genius comedy series, commissioned by Smith, and ground-breaking when he did, that this story proceeds. In truth, this isn’t a realistic portrait of ‘the Valleys’, for Valleys kids who do read Dickens or, heaven forbid, Marx, or something in that vein, are liable to get their heads kicked in or have a litany of abuse hurled in their direction (spoff, bible basher, gay, as a flavour of it), but that isn’t really the point of this particular fictional polemic. Culture, Smith argued in his valedictory address to the Welsh Arts Council, has to speak with (not for or at) the people, it must sound like them, not sound like the ‘them’ they imagine. A culture of purpose, not of jollies to Patagonia for artistic experience amongst a people ‘like us’. Yes, that really happened.
There is a certain irony, again skewered by this impressive tale, that there is greater representation of the North of England, London, and the Welsh-speaking ‘bro’ on Welsh television screens than there is of the English-speaking Welsh who comprise the majority of the people of the valley. And when they do appear on screen, how complex a representation is it really? Nuance, it seems, is what other people bother with. The kebab stick runs through the stereotyping of people and places, on the one hand, and the writing for and about those people and places on the other. One of the consequences of the current identity-culturalist turn (about which more here, and for an example of it here) is the decline of a history that writes with the people it is about. The lament that The Fed and similar works were/are too coalfield and too masculine always missed the point of that book, which was to establish the validity of coalfield history at a time when it really didn’t exist and to lay the foundations for other work to build on. The gaps invited further work and some of that did happen to be written before it stopped and the lament became the only noise in town. That it is now possible to write ‘the complete, rounded social history of South Wales we plotted and carried in our heads for years’ is because somebody bothered to get the cement mixer out in the first place.
Hidden in The Fed, in plain sight, of course, and always forgotten about, is an integrated discussion of the importance of women to the moral battles that the South Wales Miners’ Federation fought. Those white-shirting avengers of the valleys, if you like, who were there on hunger marches, who stormed unemployment offices and confronted the police, who educated and were educated, and who had to confront the often nightmarish men who brutalised them, are there. They move into the foreground in the writing of Deirdre Beddoe, Angela John, and Ursula Masson, to be sure, but it would be wrong to suggest that the world of South Wales was not one in which women laboured and participated. In fact, the stories in Smith’s latest collection that foreground women in this way are an effective riposte to many years of antagonism, a lot of it in the academic world, which lifted a particular reading of The Fed and Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales (which is easily understood as a book about masculinity) and more recent works, too, and insisted that they left women out of the story. Such a complaint makes most sense if, having recognised that the relationship of women to the campaigns of the Federation do form part of the story, we then move to ask what it was like for women in such a world. These stories are, in part, an answer. Now, will they be comfortably received as feminist literature? Probably not. But do they bring to the fore the subtle current of gender awareness evident in Smith’s wider writing – let us hope so. I suspect the stereotype is too well entrenched now, though.
This draws me finally to the novella, What I Know I Cannot Say, the tour-de-force conclusion (or introduction) to the book. If Wales is a question for history – and by this he / I / we mean (s) the industrial, primarily Anglophone coalfield and its emporial outerlands – then this story insists that we think carefully about what it is we wish to know, and how we go about conducting our survey. The past was not structured in the same vein as History and we should not, therefore, squeeze the lives of those who experienced the past entirely into those artificial boxes. Or flatten them out, to maintain the metaphor I adopted earlier. The big events happened, to be sure, and men really did assault Monte Cassino, really did march through the streets to protest hunger and cuts, really did go to fight in Spain, really did earn nicknames like Killer. But what did it mean? And what does that meaning convey to those whose minds are fixed on the present or, indeed, on the future? It is one thing – one vital thing – to know the who, what, when, where, how, and why, of something, but entirely another to translate that into a function of society. Into culture. This is what all the great novelists of South Wales have grappled with. What all the great historians of South Wales have sought to understand. And what all the great artists of South Wales have tried to represent. Some get closer to an answer than others. But whether they can reveal their answer without sidling obliquity is another matter.
Historian Raphael Samuel once quipped that there are certain myths that we live by, myths that are grounded in a version of the past. In his own way, this is what Smith is driving at, I think, in this novella. As his protagonist responds to his BBC interlocutor, you’re only asking me about those things because you’ve picked them up from a book. He is the sort of character for whom Gwyn Thomas’s A Welsh Eye would have been a vital text. Think you know this place called Wales, well think again sonny Jim! ‘History’, wrote Smith in Wales: A Question For History, ‘had made the Welsh a secular, rational and de-mystified people’, but then in the 1970s, as the Wales that had given birth to that secular, rational people crumbled, ‘those who had always detested the “distortion” […] moved to propagate an alternative world, one that had been made marginal but could now compete for the spoils’. The crumblier the world of South Wales got, the easier it was to dismiss it as ‘too coalfield, too masculine’ and to disregard both its remembrancers and those who believed in its ideals. If you want to understand the underlying politics of this novella, and of this collection, then this is where you must start.
I’ll end this review with one final idea. If this book were to have a subtitle, it would surely be folk tales from the post-modern Welsh, an homage to Gwyn Thomas’s important work of 1946. For like that earlier collection, these are stories that can be enjoyed both on a surface level and by those who understand what lies beneath. But those who truly ‘get it’ will know what it is that cannot be said, will laugh and cry, and may even be moved to act. That is the choice that befalls those who know – to respond with emotion or to respond with endeavour. It is no surprise, really, that this is the choice once more exposed by Smith, since it was the choice that confronted the people of South Wales in the twentieth century. At different times, those people chose one or other of the options. It hardly needs saying which they chose recently. This is a must-read collection of stories, not only because this is genuinely literature written with the people of South Wales, not for or at them, but also because it is the world of South Wales with the batteries put back in for a little while. Such energy – and the counterpoint it enables – won’t last forever, though. That much, at least, we do know and can say.