Why is one of Wales’ greatest cultural heroes being ignored on his 100th birthday?

Emyr Humphreys. Picture by Bernard Mitchell

M. Wynn Thomas, Professor of English and Emyr Humphreys Professor of Welsh Writing in English, Swansea University

Today, a distinguished author celebrates his hundredth birthday. Is there any precedent for such in the very long history of Welsh culture? I know of none.

So the celebrations on Monday, 15 April of Emyr Humphreys’ landmark birthday should also be unprecedented in scale. But will they be? I doubt it.

Wales has long specialised in ignoring its greatest cultural heroes. (Don’t whisper the dread word ‘Philistinism’ of course….)

Ever since his post-war emergence on the scene, Humphreys has steadily grown in stature as novelist, short-story writer, poet, documentary-film maker, cultural historian and all-round man of letters.


Back in the early fifties, he was the toast of the Chelsea literary scene, a protégé of Graham Greene, friend of C.P.Snow, youthful colleague of the artists Patrick Heron and Terry Frost, familiar with the likes of Huw Wheldon.

But then he suddenly turned his back on it all, determined to return to Wales and to devote himself to the service of Welsh culture. Even while steadily developing into Wales’ leading Anglophone novelist – he ended up as author of over two dozen novels – he was simultaneously working for an influential period developing drama for both radio and television in Wales.

This involved him intimately with the likes of Richard Burton, Huw Griffith, Sian Phillips and Peter O’Toole. It was also a period of fruitful collaboration with Saunders Lewis, with whom he shared not only a political vision but also a burning desire – partly deriving from his own wartime experience in Florence – to turn Wales’ attention towards Europe.

Throughout his long life he has been one of the most ardent of Welsh Europeans.

Nor were his energies confined to literature and broadcasting. He was a tireless activist, whose campaigning for the rights of the Welsh language even led to a very brief period of imprisonment in Walton jail.

No wonder that he has always considered himself one of the Dissenters of the modern world.

Overlooked

Humphreys’ masterpiece, Outside the House of Baal, remains in the eyes of many the greatest English-language novel yet to have been produced in Wales. His novella A Toy Epic, about three very different boys growing up in the 1930s in the north-east corner of Wales, won a prestigious British prize and has remained a particular favourite among readers.

His seven-novel sequence, Land of the Living remains a remarkable tour de force, encompassing almost the whole of Wales’ twentieth-century history.

All that (and there is very much more) should have assured him a royal acclamation by his own people on the occasion of his hundredth birthday – and ‘royal’ in a much deeper and more important sense than a telegram from the Queen, which he is unlikely to cherish.

But will it? Well, we’ll see. At least some attempts have been made by devoted individuals to ensure this truly historic event is not shamefully overlooked.

The University of Wales Press has published an astonishing new collection of poems by him under the title of Shards, as well as a study by myself on his life and work.

And Swansea University organized a one-day conference on Saturday, which was opened by the Minister for Culture, Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas.

It is the very least that the most distinguished of our living authors could have expected from the Welsh nation to whose cultural well-being he has made a truly unique contribution.

Pen blwydd hapus iawn ichi, Emyr.


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