DOWN IN THE VALLEY : SOME WRITERS FROM SOUTH WALES

                                                                      JIM BURNS

In 1921 Sir Alfred Zimmerman, writing about his impressions of Wales, thought that there wasn’t one Wales but three – “There is Welsh Wales; there is industrial or, as I sometimes think of it, American Wales; and there is upper class or English Wales”. He was of the opinion that: “These three represent different types and different traditions”. He went on to say that: “Of American Wales, the Wales of the coalfield and the industrial working class……let me only say……for the benefit of those who are apt to sneer at South Wales as a ‘storm centre’, what a joy it has been to pass a too fleeting and infrequent weekend among men and women who really care for ideas and love the search for truth……”

It’s not my intention to discuss what happened in terms of the decline of the coal industry and the resultant effects on South Wales communities. They were obviously devastating. What I’m concerned to do in this essay is to draw attention to several writers who grew up in “American Wales” and reflected aspects of it in their novels and poems. Raymond Williams, writing in The London Review of Books in the 1980s, was of the opinion that: “the industrial Welsh by-passed the muted tones of English culture for their version of the brash expansiveness of North Americans….From Welsh-language Wales this was often seen ……..as a vulgar, Anglicised betrayal of ‘Welshness’.  Yet Anglicised, at least, it was not. The work of the English-language writers of industrial South Wales is unmistakeably indigenous; its English in tone and rhythm is not an English literary style……In these writers and in the everyday speech of the valleys…..a distinctive culture is using that diverse and flexible language for its own unmistakeably native writing and speech”.

It might be asked why, besides the reference to the “brash expansiveness of North Americans”, it was thought that South Wales had some similarities to the United States. I would guess that the rapid industrialisation in South Wales in the late-19th century reminded people of what happened in America when the Civil War ended. Mines and mills developed and towns and villages grew up around them. People moved into these areas, looking for work, and along with them came social problems. Conditions in the coalfields were harsh and class conflict was a part of everyday life. There may not have been violence in South Wales of a kind comparable to American industrial relations, but strikes and other forms of protest were always present.  And the mixture fed into the novels and poems that were produced by writers who had direct experience of life in “American Wales”.

Lewis Jones wrote two novels before his untimely death in 1939. The first, Cwmardy, was published in 1937, and the second, We Live, in 1939.  Jones was born in 1897 and went to work when he was twelve in the Cambrian Combine Colliery. He was present when there was a strike in 1910/11 which led to a riot in Tonypandy and troops being called in to aid police. A miner died during the riot, possibly from being clubbed on the head by a policeman, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support allegations of miners being shot. It’s probable that the events in Tonypandy became confused with an incident in Llanelli in 1911 when troops did fire on striking railwaymen, causing two fatalities. Lewis Jones has a riot at the centre of Cwmardy in which several miners are shot by soldiers, but it is fiction and has no real basis in fact.

The 1911 strikes took place against a background of the spread of syndicalist ideas, advocating direct action and workers’ control, in union circles, and especially among members of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (the Fed, as it was popularly known) and activists like Noah Ablett. He was one of the driving forces behind a pamphlet, The Miners’ Next Step, which circulated in the coalfields and appealed to union activists, if not the great mass of union members. There have always been differing views about how many people actually read the pamphlet. Most miners were more than likely to have been interested in the usual reasons for strikes – shorter hours, better pay, working conditions, and other practical measures - than in theories about syndicalism. 

Jones’s We Live continued the story of life in the valleys and the struggle to survive during the dark days of the Depression. But Jones himself had almost burnt out. He had been blacklisted from the mines, joined the Communist Party in the early-1920s, and involved himself in local politics. He was active in the Unemployed Workers Movement in the 1930s and led several Hunger Marches from South Wales to London. When he died of a heart attack in 1939 it was following a day when he was said to have made around thirty or so speeches in support of the Spanish Republic.

Both of Jones’s novels follow a traditional narrative pattern, and there is nothing to indicate that he may have been influenced by any of the shifts in prose styles – Hemingway or James Joyce, to call on two examples - in the 1920s. I would guess that what he had to say was of more importance to him than any stylistic innovations.  The narrative drive is straightforward, and when the characters speak they do so in a way that Jones intended to represent the common parlance of the everyday. It may be that contemporary readers would find the writing slow, with its attention to detail, but it has a cumulative power and pulls the reader into the story in an emphatic way.

Jones had lived through the turbulence of the 1920s when, in 1926, the General Strike took place, and after it was called off the miners stayed out for several more months. So had Idris Davies. He was born in 1905 in Rhymney and left school when he was fourteen to go down the pit. He was injured in 1926, losing a finger, and the fact of the strike and his doubtful future prospects as a miner, encouraged him to train to be a teacher. In 1932 he was teaching in a London primary school and publishing poems in magazines. One of them, “The Bells of Rhymney”, was set to music and became popular among folk-singers. There are recordings of it by Pete Seeger and others. In the early 1940s he began writing The Angry Summer : A Poem of 1926, a book-length work which Faber published in 1943.

It comprises what are, in effect, fifty short but linked poems. A poem-sequence, in other words. The opening lines of the first poem begin to set the scene: “Now it is May among the mountains,/Days for speeches in the valley towns”, and it then moves through the various stages of the miners’ bitter struggle as their spokesmen “plead and plan and fight/For those who toil without a name/And pass into the night”. There isn’t what might called a set scheme to the structure of each poem. Some are longer than others, some have a rhyming pattern, some not. And though the thread running through them all is the strike, and its consequences in terms of poverty and hunger, there is still time for occasional flights of fancy and moments of romance: “Hywel and Olwen lie warm in the fern/With passionate mouth on mouth/And the lights in the valley twinkle and turn/And the moon climbs up from the south”.

The strike was lost and the miners driven back to work, apart from those who had been prominent in picketing and general agitation and found that jobs in the mines were no longer available to them. Idris Davies continued to write and publish poetry. His collection, Tonypandy and Other Poems, was published by Faber in 1945. It’s worth noting that T.S. Eliot, who hardly shared Davies’s social and political views, spoke highly of his work, and said that it was: “The best poetic document I know about a particular epoch in a particular place”.  Sadly, Davies died of cancer in 1953.

The works by Lewes Jones and Idris Davies that I’ve looked at so far leave one in no doubt that the events of the 1920s and 1930s had a major effect on life in South Wales, particularly among the mining communities. And unemployment and poverty are always present in Gwyn Thomas’s two short novels, The Alone to the Alone and The Dark Philosophers. But there is an element of humour present at all times in the storytelling, The principal characters around which the narratives revolve are survivors and determined to preserve their humanity and individuality come what may.

Thomas was born in 1913, one of twelve children fathered by a miner who was often unemployed. That fact may have been in his mind when it’s said of a character in one of his novels who has been out of work for years, but has several daughters, that love-making is just a way of keeping warm in a house without heating of any kind. Thanks to scholarships, one of them from the miners’ union,  Thomas managed to get to university and to study in Spain, but when he graduated and returned to Wales he was without work for long periods. He eventually obtained employment in the educational system and taught at Barry Grammar School for some years.

It was his wife who pushed him into publishing some of the writings he’d been doing. In 1946 the short novel, The Dark Philosophers, appeared in print, to be followed in 1947 by The Alone to the Alone. Both feature the same central characters, a group of four unemployed middle-aged men who sit on a wall and exchange ideas about life, politics, and whatever else crops up during their conversations. Their politics are never clearly defined, but all seem to be ex-miners and lean to the left, if not in any clearly-specified fashion. There is some talk of syndicalism, which is interesting because Thomas’s novels are both set in the 1930s and, aside from the Labour Party, many activists by then chose to relate to the Communist Party. But direct action, and nationalisation, if not outright workers’ control of the mines, were potent factors in the policies of the FED.

The four men are by nature inclined to be sympathetic towards anyone they consider downtrodden, so when they encounter Eurona, whose father Morris is feckless and workshy, they decide to help her break away from the confines of The Terraces, the rows of small houses that wind their up the hillsides near the mine. As one of the men explains: “These terraces were put up so that people could eat and breed in between shifts and working in the pits. They were not put up with any notion of giving the voters a full and happy life”.

Their efforts are hampered by the fact that Eurona has taken a fancy to Rollo, a young man with prospects. He has a job as a bus conductor so stands out in a world where almost everyone else is unemployed. He also looks down on those without a job and is an admirer of Oswald Mosley’s fascist organisation. But the men persevere, guiding Eurona through the pitfalls of dealing with the Assistance Board and local charities which might give her money to buy clothes that will make her presentable to prospective employers. The chaos that ensues as various schemes come unstuck (the men are not against breaking a few rules when necessary) is humorously dealt with. But although humour is used adroitly we are always aware that in the background there lurks hunger. And poverty of both a physical and mental kind.

The slightly shorter The Dark Philosophers again has the four men at the centre of the story, with their well-meaning efforts directed towards helping two young people find true love. But standing in the way is the Reverend Emmanuel, a popular preacher who was at one time a radical, but has been seduced by the attentions of civic leaders and mine bosses into speaking out against strikes and social protest generally. The four friends have by this time obtained jobs, though not in the mines. The situation is complicated because the young woman in question admires Emmanuel, and he has obvious designs on her virginity. There is a comic factor at work, but as in The Alone to the Alone the stark social conditions are always present. The men are rough-and-ready types, but “sometimes showed the wisdom that springs up in the heart of any man who has seen a lot of hunger and hates it, and has met a lot of oppressive nuisances and despises them”.

Gwyn Thomas went on to become a reasonably well-known writer and produced novels, short stories, and plays for the theatre, as well as radio and television. He was also something of a media personality on programmes such as “The Brains Trust” and “Tonight”.  But he’s perhaps best-remembered now as the author of the two books I’ve referred to, and a historical novel, All Things Betray Thee. It might be relevant to quote what he thought about the role of humour when he said that the valley where he grew up had been “flung together in a series of swift, large immigrations and, like that other great creation of multitudes on the move, the East Side of New York, it produced a vivid, bright and often outrageous humour”. It might also be worth taking note of his comment that “Places like the Rhondda were parts of America that never managed to get to the boat”.

The Welsh academic, Dai Smith, has written perceptively about Gwyn Thomas and rightly pointed out how Americans responded more to Thomas’s work than did English critics who “mostly saw a stage-army of Welsh comic figures”. In America, Nelson Algren, Norman Rosten, Howard Fast, and Maxwell Geismar spoke positively about Thomas’s fiction in which they acknowledged how the humour was often a form of social criticism. It was like so much Jewish writing, a “survival humour”. Thomas died in 1981.

I have obviously been very selective in my choice of Welsh writers. They were out of a time and a place that is now long gone. Others will point to different writers as representative of Welsh literature, and perhaps play down my focus on South Wales and its industrial legacy. But it seems to me that the books I’ve dealt with have all withstood reprinting in recent year not only because they provide vivid pictures of their society, but also because of the quality of the writing. Fashions in literature come and go, but the genuine will remain.   


Cwmardy by Lewis Jones. Parthian, Cardigan, 2006

We Live by Lewis Jones. Parthian, Cardigan, 2006

The Angry Summer : A Poem of 1926 by Idris Davies. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1993

The Alone to the Alone with The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas. Golden Grove Editions, Carmarthen, 1998

Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales by Dai Smith. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1993

In the Frame : Memory in Society 1910 to 2010 by Dai Smith. Parthian, Cardigan, 2010

Climbing Mount Sinai : Noah Ablett 1883-1935 by Robert Turnbull. Socialist History Society, London, 2017

British Syndicalism 1900-1914 by Bob Holton.  Pluto Press, London, 1976

The Fed : History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century by Hywel Francis and Dai Smith. Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1980

Dockers and Detectives: Popular Reading and Popular Writing by Ken Worpole. Verso, London, 1983