As I was writing this blog post, I learned about the sad death of Dannie Abse, a poet, writer and doctor, at the age of 91. His book Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve happened to be the last book we read this academic year in our book group.
Abse was born on 22 September 1923 in Cardiff. He studied medicine at Westminster College and at King’s College, London. He qualified as a doctor in 1950. Although he was best known as a poet and playwright, he was a specialist at a chest clinic for thirty years. His brother Leo was MP for Pontypool and Torfaen from 1958-1987. His brother Wilfred, was a psychoanalyst. Abse was senior fellow of the humanities at Princeton University between 1973-74. His 2002 novel, The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds & Dr Glas, was long-listed for the Booker Prize.
On 10th September the book group met to discuss Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse. Often, mislabeled as an autobiographical novel, it is the first of Abse’s novels, but it is only partly inspired by his life. The book is set in Cardiff, where Abse grew up and both Michael’s brothers, Wilfred and Leo are modelled on Abse’s real-life brothers.
The novel begins in 1934 and is a buildungsroman. It follows the childhood of Michael, a young Welsh-Jewish boy growing up in 1930s Cardiff. In this respect, it reminded me of another bildungsroman the book group read about a year ago – Glyn Jones’ The Island of Apples. The book interweaves private and personal themes; Michael’s story of his coming of age is set against the backdrop of the widespread unemployment, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini and, later, the Second World War. However, because of the fact that Michael is only eight when the book starts, we get a very child-like view of those events. The book is divided into sections rather than chapters, but the narration jumps around in time.
There is very little thematical connection between the individual sections. aside from each one being an event from Michael’s life. With regard to this fragmentation of the text, the book reminded me of Charlotte Williams’ Sugar and Slate. However, in this case, the collage-like structure is not used to reflect Michael’s fragmented Welsh and Jewish identities. There is a very little mention of Jewishness in the book apart from the boy’s comments in the playground. Rather, I would argue, the interweaved scenes from Michael’s personal life and ones in which there is an awareness of the historical events, illustrate how both contributed to the development of Michael’s character by the end of the book. Nevertheless, both Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve and Sugar and Slate contain one scene which exemplifies the protagonist’s wish to fit into the mainstream society by altering their physical appearance – using hair oils and creams to smooth one’s hair.
Critics sometimes point out that despite being a poet, Abse does not use flowery descriptions and metaphors in the book. However, there is certainly a sense that he is a poet as I did find some descriptions of places almost lyrical. Overall, this book is a nice read, very funny and one of its very strong points is that Abse managed to capture the language used by the boys as well as South Welsh dialect extremely well.
The book of our August meeting was a Welsh classic – Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts. The novel was originally published in Welsh under the title Traed Mewn Cyffion, but we read it in English translation. The book group agreed that although the musicality of the Welsh language isn’t carried over, the newest translation of the novel by Katie Gramich is the best one so far.
The book is set in North Wales and spans the period of about forty years from 1880 into the First World War and because it covers such a long period of time, it gives an excellent portrayal of life in Caernarfonshire at the turn of the twentieth century. The theme of the novel is the hardship of the slate mining community, but unlike other industrial novels from this period, such as Cwmardy or Black Parade, Roberts’ book focuses more on the impact of the terrible economic working conditions on an individual family rather than the whole village. Moreover, because the novel spans such a long period of time, we’re not only shown the harsh realities of life at the time, but we are also constantly reminded of what things could or used to be like.
There is no single most important event in the book around which the narrative revolves; you might think a particular even will be important as you’re reading, but you’re always proven wrong. In my opinion, what makes the novel particularly bleak isn’t the hard life in the quarries and the widespread poverty, but the conflicts and back-biting within one’s own family; unlike other novels written during this period, the domestic sphere in this book doesn’t provide the safety that is traditionally associated with it.
The book group also agreed that the excellent portrayal of the relationships within the Gruffudd family had to do with Kate Roberts’ being a short story writer. The individual chapters of the novel are often little vignettes and stories in themselves. Roberts is particularly good at choosing touching stories which drive a point across. An example of this is a scene in which little Owen wins money in his Sunday school competition and as he’s coming home he’s expecting his mother to be proud of him and be happy that he wants to buy book for his money rather than sweets. However, when he gets home, his mother takes his money away from him because the family needs it and even delivers a clip round the ear when he starts sulking. When his older sister Elin hears him crying, she comes to comfort him, but it is that night that Owen becomes aware of the poverty his family is living in. By giving an example of a concrete impact on an individual, Roberts is able to show the effects of poverty in a way that is more palpable than showing a large-scale impact on the whole community.
Dogs aren’t just for Christmas and Welsh literature isn’t something that should just be celebrated on one day of the year. As a primary school pupil I loved St. David’s Day. It meant dressing up, playing my violin at the school Eisteddfod, singing and thinking up bardic names for the poetry competitions.
I was lucky enough to have an education that taught me the riches of Welsh culture but the 2011 Welsh Omnibus Survey by the Arts Council of Wales shows that the older you are the less likely you are to attend an arts event in Wales:
Around nine-in-ten 16-24 year olds (89%) and 25-34 year olds (91%) attended an arts event once a year or more often and this level declines as we move through the age groups with the lowest level being recorded by those aged 65+ – 58%.
Whilst Welsh Writing in English is actively researched by students and academics it is vital that the tradition and its authors are accessible to the general public and to people of all ages. By encouraging a more diverse readership this creates a broader range of ideas and opinions about Welsh literature and (most importantly!) encourages Welsh writers to continue writing in a country that historically supports its creative arts.
It wasn’t until the influence of heavy industry in the South Wales Valleys that English language fiction really developed into what we consider Welsh Writing in English today. A variety of factors including the development of English language education, immigration and the effects of industrialisation led to an upsurge in English language writing.
Many writers who form the basic canon of WWiE came from this first wave of writers in the 1930s. Although writers like Dylan Thomas and Gwyn Thomas spoke Welsh at home, it was English that was taught in school and the language in which they choose to express their experiences of Wales.
As the Welsh valleys experienced sudden anglicanisation, a variety of writers emerged telling stories of life in the mining communities of South Wales. Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939) became the ‘exportable’ version of Wales sold all over the world – seen in the success of the book’s 1941 film adaptation. These visions of Wales defined early perceptions of Welsh Writing in English – Llewellyn’s depiction of Gilfach Goch was for many non-Welsh readers the only English-speaking Wales they had encountered in text or on-screen.
These images of Anglophone Wales are important to understanding the country’s industrial history, yet through my blog posts I aim to write about lesser-known authors of WWiE – those who have been marginalised, particularity women writers who have been neglected but whose work has much to say about Welsh experience.
Defining the texts that could be considered ‘Welsh Writing in English’ can be difficult and some texts are easier to define than others. Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas are perhaps some of the most well known authors in this tradition, however, there are many other writers to uncover.
Let’s take Lynette Roberts for example – born in South America, educated in Bournemouth, yet her most important modernist poetry was written whilst she lived in rural Carmarthenshire during the Second World War and the influence of Wales in her work is undeniable.
In one sense, Welsh Writing in English texts are those written in the English language by Welsh authors. However, the tradition branches out further – to include authors with Welsh parentage, connections to Wales or those who currently live in Wales. The authors’ backgrounds are diverse yet they all have one thing in common – a passion to creatively express what it means to be Welsh.