Who is the greatest writer to have emerged from Wales in the last 100 years?
For those of you who fell asleep during school geography lessons, it might be helpful if I first explained where you will find Wales on the map. It’s a small country and often — mistakenly — labelled as England. But make that error on the day when England and Wales meet on the rugby field and you could find yourself in deep trouble with the thousands of fervent Welshmen and women in the stands. There is good reason why the national colour is red and our national symbol is the fire-breathing dragon — both capture the essence of our passionate nature.
So here is where you will find Wales. It’s the bit to the left and as you can see quite distinct from England.
Now to my question: who is Wales’ most esteemed writer? If I were to ask the question even within Wales, the answer invariably would be Dylan Thomas, that hell-raising man with the golden syrup tongue who authored the play for voices Under Milk Wood and a myriad of intensely lyrical poems in between downing pints of beer at his local pub. Even if you have never read anything by him, there is more than a fair chance you will recognise some lines of his:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Or the opening lines spoken by the narrator of Under Milk Wood
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
You can expect to hear much more about this “roistering, drunken and doomed poet” over the next months as the country celebrates the centenary of his birth.
Despite his fame (more like notoriety) and undoubted skill, he was never a commercial success to anything like the same extent as another writer whose centenary is actually this year: Gwyn Thomas.
You will most likely never have hear of him. And yet during his life time he was esteemed by writers like William Faulkner and his novels sold a phenomenal number of copies in North America.
He wrote about the community he knew well, the coal-mining valleys of South Wales where he grew up as the twelfth child of a coal miner and where he experienced both the desperate poverty of the area and the heartache of his mother’s death when he was five years old. There were typically only two choices for boys in that area in the 1940s — if you were bright, you might just get to train as a teacher but if not, you followed your dad down the mines as soon as you were 14 and spent your days in the dark, breathing in coal dust. Thomas was one of the lucky ones who escaped through a scholarship to Oxford university.
But he never forgot the experience of his youth which sowed the seeds of his socialist beliefs and his complete disregard for authority. Both came through in novels like All Things Betray Thee, his autobiography A Few Selected Exits and his television and radio broadcasts in which he displayed a virtuoso talent for sophisticated humour mingled with satire and a deep appreciation of the human effect of industrial change.
If you’ve never read him before now, 2015 could be the time to begin.