Dai Smith is research chair in the cultural history of Wales at Swansea University and series editor of the Library of Wales, a Welsh Assembly government initiative designed to bring back into print classic writing about Wales written in English. The series is published by Parthian Books and the first five titles, all with new forewords by prominent contemporary Welsh writers are:
So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry (1970)
Border Country by Raymond Williams (1960)
The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas (1946)
Cwmardy and We Live by Lewis Jones (1937; 1939):
Country Dance by Margiad Evans (1932)
“Of course, it’s not Dylan’s fault that his bible black and ugly lovely, hymned and heron-priested (omigod the word-spinning virus has already struck) suburban and sunny (that’s better) Wales has become everyone else’s.
After all he did say “Land of my Fathers! My fathers can keep it”. Only, admiring American ex-presidents like Jimmy and Slick Willy don’t listen and troubadours from Minnesota called Bob take on his name as did bucktoothed magic rabbits and now, already branding a Welsh ale and a literary centre, it is to grace Britain’s newest literary prize – oodles of dosh if you are under 30 and write from anywhere in the world in English with an SAE to Swansea – so it’s time for us Welsh to put him in his place. Or rather to tell the world, as he well knew, that the Wales of the last century – industrial, modern, secular, immigrant, befuddled and rebellious, big shouldered and short-arsed – was something more than Cwmdonkin Drive and adolescent wet dreams.
Writing from Wales in English has been as distinctive and complex as England’s nearest and least understood neighbours, the Welsh themselves. So, new readers, start here and remember, if you enter the Milk Wood you will not Pass Go.”
1. Dai Country (1973) and The Former Miss Merthyr Tydfil (1976) by Alun Richards
These are two wickedly astringent collections of short stories by a master craftsman. Alun Richards (1929-2004) cast a baleful but knowing eye on the snobbery and pretensions of the Welsh middle classes – the self-styled crachach – as he sallied out from his hometown of Pontypridd to eviscerate professional peddlers of false culture and self- aggrandisement. The Welsh language media world, heirs to a bankrupt nonconformist tradition of teachers and preachers, get it in their richly deserving necks. Hilarious and invigorating.
2. In the Green Tree by Alun Lewis (1948)
A post-war compilation of the letters and stories of the lost leader of Welsh writing, Dylan’s (1914-53) near contemporary, Alun Lewis (1915-44). Mostly known as a war poet when he died in Burma by his own hand, Lewis, like his younger admirer Alun Richards, came from the epicentre of modern Wales – the South Wales valleys – and his unfulfilled fate, glimpsed here in these stunning stories, would have been to become its greatest chronicler as a novelist. The new Library of Wales series is now reprinting this volume, with the original woodcuts of John Petts, and a new foreword by Owen Sheers.
3. In Place of Fear by Aneurin Bevan (1952)
The fragmentary but filigree political testament of Wales’s most vital political figure of the last century, Aneurin Bevan (1897-60). He had resigned, on principle, from the Labour government just the year before his credo’s appearance and he never held office again but the flash and crackle of these insights and asides leave no doubt that he had indeed imagined a better Britain. And could have led it. You can taste the confidence of that Welsh working class world of which he was the finest representative.
4. A Few Selected Exits by Gwyn Thomas (1968)
This resembles an autobiography in the way Tristram Shandy looks like a novel. Gwyn Thomas (1913-81), however, never wrote anything conventionally – he once said his work was like “Chekov with chips” – and his models were Damon Runyon and Groucho Marx more than any sentimental epic of proletarian life. All of which helps to explain how he managed to write the most savage comedy about some of the most socially ransacked coal gulches on earth. You’ll only stop laughing to man the barricades of revolt.
5. The Selected Poems by John Ormond (1987)
John Ormond (1923-1990) moves effortlessly from ballad-tales about his artisan ancestors from Dunvant to lyrics of personal love and painterly desire. He knew Dylan – all too well, he once concluded, as he burned his own first efforts – and had to shake off the young ranter-at-the-moon to find his particular voice. When he did again, in the late 1960s, it was humane and warm with no false grace notes of sentimentality. A poet to explore, and to return to again and again.
6. I Sent a Letter to My Love by Bernice Rubens (1975)
This is one of the letters of love, or at least of compassion, Bernice Rubens (1928-2005) addressed to Wales. Or, perhaps, it is more a return-to-sender epistle of the yearning which the Cardiff-born novelist felt about Wales. From Anglophone Cardiff and a Jewish family she was decidedly, still, not English. And so she was indeed Welsh. But. And in the ambivalence of the conjunctions lay her puzzled attachment. Also Wales’s only Booker prize winner. The first, indeed, in 1970. Oh, and I liked her a lot.
7. Fields of Praise by Gareth Williams and David Smith (1980)
This is here because I had the cheek to include it and because Frank Keating thinks it is the best book on a team sport ever written (ta, Frank) and because you cannot understand how modern Wales is the way it is without understanding the social, class and national significance of rugby to its cultural history. Besides, I (b. 1945) only wrote the adjectives and verbs; Gareth (b. 1945) did the nouns.
8. Flame and Slag by Ron Berry (1968)
Not a poor Welsh remake of Burt Lancaster’s superb socialist swashbuckler Flame and The Arrow but a Faulknerian tale of settlement, growth and slow community decline in industrial Wales told in a memoir diary and by a fast-forward narrative. It has all the verbal pyrotechnics and structural leaps of Berry (1920-1997) at his very best and, as Library of Wales readers of Berry’s boxing novel So long, Hector Bebb now know, that is a very good indeed ‘very best’.
9. Strike for a Kingdom by Menna Gallie (1959)
This is both a detective story and a social panorama of a village in west Wales during the 1926 general strike. Menna Gallie (1920-90) was a sensitive chronicler who is, thankfully, in print with the Welsh Women’s Press, Honno (itself a wonderfully complementary adjunct to the Library of Wales). The recent Honno edition has an incisive introduction by one of Wales’ best historians, Professor Angela John.
10. Chivalry of Crime by Des Barry (2000)
It starts with a migrant Welsh boy in Colorado who dreams, via dime novels, of the breathtaking subversiveness of the gun-toting Jesse James into whose life and times we are convincingly flashbacked. It won Best Western New Novel of the Year in America and its author, Merthyr-born Des Barry (b. 1955), has gone on to establish himself at the head of a marauding gang of young Welsh writers, men and women, who could easily extend my list of 10 on and on until we could afford to include the real Dylan as one of them and, of course, one of us.