It would be hard to read Gwyn Thomas’ 1947 novel The Alone to the Alone and not admire his ability to conjure up phrases and sentences that dazzle with the kind of wit that can be biting and savage one moment and warm and endearing in another. This is a novel that displays his trademark prowess with language to the full and in which there is scarcely a page that doesn’t ooze with black comic hyperbole.
And yet this isn’t meant to be a novel purely of entertaining comedy. Thomas crafted it to illuminate the experience of life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. Set in a village community he calls simply The Terraces (a reference to the layout of housing in this part of Wales), the novel features the adventures of group known as The Dark Philosophers. They’re four unemployed men who have nothing else to do but to sit on a wall each day to chew the fat. There are few subjects upon which they don’t have an opinion: religion, imperialism, the profit motive, socialism; heredity and the vexed issue of Jonah and the whale are all topics upon which they feel equipped to pontificate. But love? Ah that’s a different matter.
When a plain village girl called Eurona seeks their guidance on how to win the attention of the village idol (otherwise known as Rollo the bus conductor), they’re both dismayed and stumped.
That pricked us for we were proud of the little stocks of wisdom that life had battered into us with its bare knuckles. …. we were prophets of a sort whenever the discussion was about things of which experience and book reading had taught us much, particularly in discussions about the Slump. We were the oldest sons so to speak of the Slump…
Even so, they rally around when Eurona gets a job as a domestic help outside of The Terraces and needs new clothes “because wealthy folk who hire other folk to do their dirty work are kept so busy organising a cleaner world that they have no time for anything other than first impressions.”
Their attempts to help and to put her life back on track lead invariably to confusion and some magnificent set pieces including one when these philosophical giants end up plastering every conceivable wall and lamppost with advertising posters for a grocer with aspirations to build a whole chain of stores throughout the valleys. As they rest in the midst of their labours one afternoon a purplish, glowing path materialises around the corner: Eurona’s father proudly parading in a new suit and bowler hat many sizes too big.
It must, without any need for tape measure or question, have been the biggest bowler in the Terraces. … His ears appeared to be closing in on him for they were large and made larger by the fact that when Morris was baffled beyond endurance, he had two of his children take one ear apiece and pull to make room with his skull even for the small simple thoughts that ached to have done with him as they tripped headlong in the narrow alleys of his prickly awareness. To fix the bowler at a point above his eyes he had stuffed several sheets of newspaper into it. This stuffing had been done in haste and clumsily. One strand with a legible headline about the birthrate came down over his brow as if to provide him with some quiet reading in the intervals of being admired and fainting from the strain of holding up on so slight a head a hat of such weight and size.
Such moments of humour offset the depth of Thomas’ satirical take on the limits of human aspiration in a society so deeply deprived that beauty itself has been suffocated. For as one of Thomas’ philosophers comments: ….”when men consent to endure for too long the sadness of poverty and decline, beauty sees no point in staying, bows its head and goes.”
Gwyn Thomas was himself a native of the kind of valleys community featured in The Alone to the Alone. Born the youngest of 12 children to a coalminer, he managed to escape a life underground as a coal miner with the aid of a scholarship to study Spanish at Oxford University. Struggling to establish himself as a writer in the 1930s, he began teaching and lecturing. Success did not come until the early 1950s after which time he became a regular chat show participant and broadcaster.