Review: Off The Track by Dai Smith
Subtitled ‘Traces of Memory’, Dai Smith’s new 407-page brick of a memoir Off The Track pulls at some of the same threads as In the Frame: Memory in Society, his ‘alternative history’ of Wales (also published by Parthian, in 2010).
That book’s memory mosaic swirled around its cover photograph, taken of striking miners in Tonypandy in November 1910. The image, captured by Levi Ladd, catches Dai Smith’s grandfather within the gathered throng, and in so doing fuses the historian’s personal history to his socio-cultural and political mission a full 35 years before his own birth.
‘Caught’ is how Dai Smith describes himself in a chapter title of this new book too. As he told the interviewer at Balliol College, Oxford, by way of immutable explanation at the age of eighteen: ‘I come from the Rhondda Valley in South Wales.’
That locus, the mid-Rhondda specifically, but South Wales (with an outsized capital ‘S’) has of course been the world that has informed, inspired and – only occasionally – impeded Dai Smith’s work for more than half a century.
And that ‘Dai Country’ is the subject if not the content of Off The Track. Smith has been a standout working class schoolboy, an academic constrained by the culture of universities, a table-turning BBC executive and university director, a Chair of the Arts Council and founding Series Editor of the Library of Wales, perpetually an upstart-visionary with a talent for overhauling – and oftentimes inventing – institutions, challenging the groupthink that has so often been the dominant strain in Welsh public life, especially in ‘Labour Country’.
Above all, however, and this piece of praise will no doubt please the author most, Dai Smith is a writer. Without doubt one of Wales’ best.
Off The Track is sometimes self-indulgent, even egocentric at times, but it is never dull. From its first paragraph almost to its last, Smith’s precise, luxuriant prose style dazzles in its ability to simultaneously set off syntactical fireworks and marshall precisely into shape the considered thoughts of a lifetime’s intellectual curiosity and self-reflection.
‘I reeled in an almost drunken fashion,’ writes Smith of his discovery of American literary heroes, ‘spun around by incantatory wordplay, from the nouns Hemingway placed like polished pebbles in the push-pull currents of his short stories to the adjectival clinchers scattered like glitter across Fitzgerald’s sad and brave prose opulence.’
All this, and a litany of other greats besides, while studying for a Modern History degree, demonstrating the penchant for pathbreaking the author always possessed, despite that in all the important ways, Off The Track shows his trail to blaze was marked out in advance.
The book’s magnificent opening set-piece takes place at the titular Track, the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground, in 1954. Smith writes that he ‘would be, in another sense, running around all that the Track had signified for the rest of my life’.
That photograph again, ‘a spectral diorama of the history of industrial South Wales’, was taken here, where half a century later the 9-year-old boy ran. Destined not to be a collier, instead Smith would be mining the area’s social, cultural and political meanings for more than half a century to come.
‘This, I saw, was how to do it,’ writes Smith, glimpsing now in his undergraduate years the path that would take him forward through five decades of running ‘off the track’ in various ways: ‘To plot a route through the thickets of overgrown fact and the tangle of events by a cool analysis of culture and all the wider factors which willy-nilly fashioned styles.’
One of many articulations of the evolving David Smith project as it evolved into the recognisable Dai-ism familiar to anybody within Wales’ pint-sized intelligentsia.
The author’s course is set not only by voracious, motley and expansive reading but by a constellation of lodestars, followed first as mentors before becoming very often colleagues, co-conspirators of various kinds, and sometimes friends.
From Gwyn Thomas, seen by Smith as the premier novelist of the coalfield he was to make his own imaginative territory, who taught the youngster at Barry Grammar, through Christopher Hill, Maurice Keen and Richard Cobb at Oxford.
And on through Raymond Williams and Eric Hobsbawm who set agendas for the Left globally, but who whose work had particular resonance, reference and rootedness in Wales, to the South Wales novelists Smith would personally plant as cornerstones of the nascent Library of Wales – Alun Richards and Ron Berry – and a new generation of public intellectuals like Gwyn Alf Williams, who brought, along with Dai, the question marks to Wales in the age of colour television.
Off The Track is not, therefore – despite occasional glimpses of domesticity and the constant steadfast and supportive presence of Smith’s wife Norette – an autobiography. His children get hardly a mention.
In its latter stages the book gets a bit bogged down in behind-the-scenes machinations as Smith’s career zigzags in and out of universities in Swansea, Cardiff and Treforest and into the corridors of the BBC in Llandaff and Crickhowell House in Cardiff Bay.
The book is, however, a moving exploration of male friendship, particularly the kind that overlaps with intellectual development and professional life. The dedication is to two of Smith’s great friends, Hywel Francis – with whom he wrote The Fed – and Chris Reynolds, who tragically died in a road accident in 1972, and whose spirit has clearly lived on in Smith’s life and work ever since.
Tellingly, a proud boast about ‘gender balance… geographical spread, ethnic diversity and linguistic equality’ arrives on page 395 of a 407 page book, after a tale told almost exclusively about the men who dreamed up modern Wales. Perhaps that says as much about Wales in the post-war period as it does about Dai Smith, perhaps not. What is certain is that other histories are available.
Against the charge that industrial South Wales was a bastion of ‘patriarchal masculinity’, Smith offers the weak defence that: ‘Maybe I was lucky in those I knew closely across generations and genders’.
He claims: ‘My personal memories have no recall of gendered bullying, nor of submissive women, nor posturing machismo’. And yet the coalfield’s ‘Varied leisure’ is said to run a supposedly wide gamut ‘from card playing to rugby watching’.
But despite these problematic dimensions, Off The Track is a monument to a life’s work fully realised – ‘I wanted to write, meaningfully, the collective backstory and individual lives of the people and places from which I had come’ – with passages evoking the South Wales of the late twentieth century as resonant as the essays of Orwell are to the England of the middle third of the same.
Its sweet coda – swimming in the sea now, rather than running on the track – also suggests the sense of ending. The world that Dai Smith wrote about has already passed out of existence, but there is no doubt that as one of its leading chroniclers, Dai from Dai Country did his monumental bit.
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