Gary Raymond reviews the latest documentary series from BBC Wales, Great Welsh Writers, which seems to struggle with the term ‘greatness’ itself.
It’s been a tough old year for the BBC. Scandal after scandal, resignations, public apologies, Vichy-style cap-doffing to the Murdoch-friendly government. The BBC has been victimised, demonised and belittled. And now, it seems, it has had its dictionary stolen. BBC Wales responds to a growing murmur amongst the Welsh cultural scene that it is negligent in its coverage and homage of the arts, by airing a series entitled Great Welsh Writers. A short series, you may wryly suggest. But it is amazing what a producer can get away with when ignorant of the meaning of the words in the title of his or her programme.
Let us begin at the beginning and take the first subject of the Great Welsh Writers series, Leslie Thomas, and the first word of the series’ title: Great. I would immediately struggle, if asked in some word association parlour game, to pair that name and that word together; as, it seems, from watching this episode, would Thomas himself. He comes across, interviewed in his Salisbury home, as a truly pleasant gentleman, with no airs or graces, and few pretensions when it comes to his work. He admits that the title he gave his début novel, The Virgin Soldiers (1966), was ‘the best three words I ever wrote’ (in his decidedly warm South London accent). The reason being that the novel was a punt from a jobbing journalist, and it was the title that gave him his sales, gave him his career, which by following the logic of this programme, gave him his Greatness. The popular taste in literature during the sixties, when The Virgin Soldiers was published, was for under-the-pillow salaciousness, such as what Updike provided in Couples, Nabakov in Lolita, or even, recently back in the public domain, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Good company. Even Great company. (Only not really Thomas’ company. Thomas’ books could never hold a light to even the most unloved of those writers’ works). The Virgin Soldiers sold in enormous quantities on both sides of the Atlantic largely due to its title. It secured Thomas an audience who knew what to expect from him – fast, funny, saucy novels. The stuff of Greatness?
Great Welsh Writers struggled to line up public figures to attest to Thomas’ Greatness, though. They found a grand total of no-one willing to use the word in connection with his name. But rather talking heads such as Frederick Forsyth and Tim Rice semi-passionately supported a writer who did what he did very well, who churned out 40-odd novels in a long and successful career, who went about his work with an amiable workaday attitude, with a journalist’s relationship to word count. Forsyth offered his heartfelt opinions on Thomas’ work. He admired Thomas, admired someone who had an eye for a story, a talent for turning things that happened to him into fiction, a talent for humour, and, he adds as an afterthought, ‘he could write a bit, which helps.’ Greatness?
Let’s think for a moment: what if the English were to make a documentary series called Great English Writers, and the first subject was Forsyth himself, with Leslie Thomas singing his praises from a wing-backed armchair in his study? We would laugh at them, wouldn’t we? Because it would be laughable. Nobody in their right mind would dream of saying in public that Frederick Forsyth is a Great Writer, regardless of his sales figures, or, indeed, how enjoyable his books may be.
Forsyth at first seems a peculiar face to pop on to the screen – an author of big-hitting political thrillers. But what Thomas was, as is intimated in the programme, was not a novelist at all, but a fictionaliser of journalism. He added to this his own wide and wicked sense of humour, but he never really stopped being a journalist. Forsyth’s 1973 best-seller, The Odessa File, is dedicated ‘to all press reporters’, an insight perhaps that what Forsyth admires in Thomas is a special kind of talent for turning experience into semi-fiction. But for his Greatness? Think a little further into it and the relationship between Thomas and Forsyth becomes even more entwined. Forsyth is in fact praising Thomas, not as a writer, but as someone who is also in the business of ‘mingling true with “false facts”’, to quote Gore Vidal. This is not the same as what Proust did when he wrote his opus on the nature of memory. Forsyth, who in several best-sellers, mingled his own fiction with momentous historical events, such as an assassination attempt of Charles de Gaulle or the aftermath of the Holocaust, is actually commenting on the quaintness of Thomas’ subject matter, on the modesty of his ambitions. Thomas wrote of what he saw and what he experienced – many things that would fit happily into comic fiction but would not make for a newspaper article – be it the bawdy grit of life as a sailor or a suburban faux pas. (Let’s not forget in both instances Thomas was not, and would never claim to be, Joseph Heller or John Updike). Forsyth wrote enormous best-sellers that enveloped history, anti-history and, most importantly, looked fundamentally to cinema, not literature, for its reference points. When you realise this about Forsyth, you understand a little more the reasons for him being on the programme. He sees Thomas as a brother-in-arms, but in a much less significant branch of the journalist-turned-novelist fraternity. Forsyth is the self-important warrior-lion paying tribute to the serf who mixes the gruel and polishes the armour. What the makers of this programme have managed to achieve is to falsely claim that Leslie Thomas is a Great Welsh Writer before inviting on a second-rate low-mid-brow writer of bluster and TV movies-in-novel-form to patronise him for his slightness and urbanity. On their own programme! Here in succinct microcosm is the perfect metaphor for Wales’ self-imposed cultural relationship with England, and England responded with a white-toothed grin. We seek meagre pats on the head from England’s second-raters and call the recipients Great! (Isn’t this all BBC Wales is anyway? A pat on the head from the BBC?)
The point here is not, then, a semantic issue surrounding the word ‘great’. That a nation produces Greatness is one of its most significant core values, one that brings pride to its people, money to its economy, and life to its soul. To reach for it where it does not exist is demeaning. To call Leslie Thomas a ‘Great Welsh Writer’ mocks the whole of Wales.
So what is Greatness? If Greatness is anything it is incontestable. In the serious minds of reasonable people, we can nominate the Greats. Tolstoy, Keats, Dickens, Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, Rembrandt, Joyce, Einstein, Pele – no amount of revisionism or back-biting can demean the Greatness of the craft of these people. Does Leslie Thomas sit comfortably in this company? Not outside of an extremely ill-conceived fancy-dress party. (Actually, there is a moment in the programme when veteran journalist Peter Grosvenor says, ‘If you want to know about Victorian life you read Dickens; if you want to know about 1970s suburban England you could do a lot worse than read Leslie Thomas.’ You could do a lot worse. The cogitendi modos of Greatness across the globe. A ringing endorsement of transcendent genius! You could do a lot worse).
But is there something a little more cynical about the use of the word? ‘Greatness’ is not mentioned in the body of the programme. Leslie Thomas, amenable, personable, gentle, modest, seemed as though he would have cackled with laughter had the interviewer told him the name of the title of this profile piece. The fact that Leslie Thomas is a writer of David Lodge b-sides seems to be completely beyond the understanding of its makers. So the use of that word is actually a message to the people of Wales from the programme makers and BBC Wales itself: and the message is one of contempt. Who could have argued with a programme about Leslie Thomas titled: Welsh Writers? What would have been wrong with Wales and Its Writers? Or what if they had really ‘gone for it’ and tested the intelligence of a nation and called it The Gilded Leaf: a Journey through Welsh Letters. Oh, but what if some people didn’t know what ‘gilded’ means, and what if some people have no idea that a leaf can be the page from a book? They might think it’s a gardening programme. And gardening programmes do not fulfil our obligations to provide arts programming.
The word ‘Greatness’, then, applies not to Thomas, but inversely, sarcastically, to you, the viewer, who is only capable of dealing in clean brash stupid absolutes. I imagine other programmes titled, The Evil of Some Slightly Annoying Things, and The Eternity of Things That are Just Quite Old. It is insulting to Thomas as much as it is to the Welsh public, as it suggests the people investing in the making of this documentary have never read his books, or if they have, they are the only books they have ever read.
And while we’re here let’s have a look at that other debatable word in the title: ‘Welsh’. This has clearly played on the mind of the programme makers, as they have asked Thomas how Welsh he feels. ‘Whenever I come back to Wales the accent returns’. Fair enough. But it is often hard enough to get BBC Wales to acknowledge Newport as a Welsh City at all, and now it has given birth to one of the ‘Great Welsh Writers’ it seems, and is at the centre of what it means to be Welsh. Let’s forget for a moment that Monmouthshire was not strictly speaking, by law, a part of Wales when Thomas was born, but rather had an ambiguous governance under English Law (and occasionally Welsh Law) until the Local Government Act of 1972. (To make it clear: I was born in 1979, in Newport, so I am most definitely a Welsh writer. Leslie Thomas was born in Newport in 1931, and so was as much an English writer, if not more so, as a Welsh one). But that is pernickety. Later in the series we are promised half hour profiles of other ‘Great Welsh Writers’ such as Philip Pullman (born in Norwich) and Ken Follett, a writer who didn’t even manage to stay in Wales as long as Thomas did, migrating to London at the age of ten.
The claim on Pullman seems the most uncomfortable – he went to school in Harlech. Robert Graves and George Mallory used to go climbing in Harlech; I’m surprised nobody has claimed them as Welsh. At least Robert Graves would have a claim to Greatness for the transcendent profundity in his war poetry, an oeuvre that surpasses the work of Brooke, Owen and Sassoon. And Mallory went up Everest! Surely we could put him in the series Great Welsh Mountaineers. Nobody seems to ever have claimed George Borrow as Welsh, even though he wrote the seminal travelogue, Wild Wales (1862), and he, like Pullman, was from Norwich. Pullman lived for a while in Southern Rhodesia in the late fifties, and yet I can find no plans to include him in a series of Great Zimbabwean Writers. (I’ll be interested to see how the documentary makers traverse the rather bold and frustrating claim in the first line of Pullman’s Wikipedia page).
This all leaves a sour taste in the mouth, as being patronised and insulted by cynical, ignorant people often does. But I’m now interested to see where the coverage of Dylan Thomas takes BBC Wales next year, for the iconic poet’s 100th birthday celebrations. Is he a ‘Great Welsh Writer’, able to bash it out with the best of them like Leslie Thomas and Elaine Morgan? Or will BBC Wales have to introduce a new category for his like? Supremely Awesome Writers Who Most Definitely Were From Wales? They haven’t left themselves much wiggle room, have they?
(Actually, the second episode in this series, which takes Morgan as its subject, was a far more convincing and engrossing portrayal of a writer whose significance stretched far beyond her sales figures).
Let’s recline for a minute, and pretend that Wales really has a deep trough of genius from which to draw many great writers (I would argue there has not been any). Let’s produce a series of profile documentaries called Great Welsh Writers and let’s look at the life and work of Gwyn Thomas, Emyr Humphrys, Keidrych Rhys, Alexander Cordell, Rhys Davies, John Cowper Powys, and let’s begin a public debate on why these writers were great; or why they were not great; why they are important; why they should be recognised beyond sales figures; why they are all men! Let’s really talk about Welsh literature and bring the conversation to the living rooms of Welsh families with that miraculous educational tool of empowerment, the television. Because this Great Welsh Writers is disinterested, quota-filling, a sleepy-eyed glance into the hollow centre of a lazily-hatched commission, populated by émigré best-sellers, and it comes from the culture of those who commission it. BBC Wales has shown (yet again) that it has no head for writers (or for any artist), no understanding of Greatness, and, indeed, has very little concern for Wales at all.
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Gary Raymond is editor at Wales Arts Review. His latest novel, The Golden Orphans is available now.