Review: Fury of Past Time – A Life of Gwyn Thomas by Daryl Leeworthy
Gwyn Thomas once wrote that ‘in the darkest night of the spirit, laughter is the signal that we are fully and unconquerably still there.’
Through his novels, short stories, stage plays and broadcasts he sent out innumerable such signals, finding ample humour in his own life and in the lives of the people of the south Wales valleys, even though he had been brought up in an age when those valleys were wreathed in the dark shadow of the Depression.
His childhood coincided with what his biographer Daryl Leeworthy dubs ‘the locust years’ while the rest of his life resounded with the great ruptures of modern Wales, of deep industrial slump and sharp social need.
Leeworthy set out to write a biography which fully reflects the complexity of Thomas’ life, especially foregrounding ‘the political character of Gwyn’s character and creative output’ but he does so much more, expanding the reader’s knowledge by giving us not just the life but also the times.
Thus we get the anti-communist witch-hunts of the U.S or the desperate economics of a period when people left the Welsh valleys in droves, seeking employment in England and elsewhere.
The town of Porth, for example had four thousand people signing on the dole in the summer of ’34. Half of those had been out of work for over a year, a situation replicated throughout the Rhondda where a quarter of all the male workforce were without work.
These were the social and political condition of his age, which Thomas sought to both chronicle and understand, this place both gifted and deprived, glorious and absurd,’ as he put it.
Gwyn Thomas had a lot of jobs in a super productive life. He was a teacher, and an inspiring one at that. He was, of course, a superb novelist and no slouch when it came to short stories. He wrote for newspapers from the Daily Mail to the Western Mail and for the Empire News, Wales’ first Sunday newspaper, which is an interesting story in itself.
Then there were the magazines from the prestigious ‘Punch’ through ‘Vogue’ and travel mag ‘Holiday’ to glamour magazines such as ‘King.’ And there was the broadcasting, from tv’s Brains trust and documentary scripts to onscreen punditry where his sharp mind sparkled.
He also was a feted playwright, repeatedly compared with Sean O’Casey. Thomas’ domestic drama ‘The Keep’ had critics in raptures, saying it was as ‘sparkling as a glass of champagne’ and it certainly made audiences fizz with delight at the Royal Court.
Thomas did all this and more this despite being prone to depression and having to deal with illness, yet managing to communicate with audiences as far afield as Moscow, Berlin, London and New York.
As Leeworthy notes, through his artistic reach, along with his involvement in the American Civil Rights movement and his ‘engagement with both sides of the Cold War; and the popular interest in his work all over the world, he appears as a compelling window into the twentieth century.’
His books, translated into several European languages, contribute to that ‘silent intercourse’ between writer and reader that Thomas described as ‘incomparably the most precious element in human existence.’
Not that he was po-faced in his writing, even if he had a seriousness of purpose, giving the meaning of individual experience ‘ a full literary expression in periods of great historical confusion and pain.’
Which means this sterling, solid and deeply considered account of his life is full of excellent gags, often no longer than a single line.
A play by Kingsley Amis puts Thomas ‘in mind of Hamlet trying to find a credible role in a Z Cars charge room’ while a TV review of Gerry Anderson’s ‘Space 1999’ has him imagining how, ‘with the progressive withdrawal of buses I hope one day to board the last Dalek to Pontyclun.’
Or a miniature wisecrack of the late 1950s which had someone in the Valleys bemoan the fact that ‘I’d have a twenty-four inch tv screen but I’ve only got a twenty-three inch room.’ And then there is the cutting way he dismisses a question about how he got to Oxford? Answer: ‘I got on the wrong bus at Bargoed.’
Thomas – or Rhondda’s equivalent to Damon Runyon – was a penetrating TV critic for the Western Mail for many a long year and he clearly enjoyed watching the small screen in what might have been its heyday. Sometimes his opinions were withering, such as that of The Old Grey Whistle Test, dismissed as ‘the worst idea ever conceived for tv.’
But he reserved the greatest ladles’ worth of opprobrium to pour over such subjects as Welsh nationalism which he described as ‘the politics of the puddle’ and the Welsh language, an ‘offensive weapon’ in his opinion, because he bristled at the idea of the its ‘imposition in areas which were overwhelmingly Anglophone’ as his biographer puts it.
These attitudes to Wales and Welshness meant that Thomas – as his fellow writer Glyn Jones said – fell short ‘of being a completely representative figure.’
Thomas’ abiding subject was south Wales, a ‘place of struggle, it is the richest field any author or politician could wish for…’ But the bleakness of conditions there meant that he could only deal with it, as Dai Smith has observed, ‘through melodrama, through anger, through brute realism.’
This punchy portrait of a real Welsh literary heavyweight hits home with the brutal realism of Thomas’ jabbing prose and mordant wit.
It also shows the biographer and his subject to be supremely well matched as he foregrounds the politics of the man before the sardonic humour of the writing.
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