Dai Smith and the Fiction of Autobiography

Dai Smith and the Fiction of Autobiography

In an in-depth interview which delves into his lengthy career, Dai Smith talks to Daryl Leeworthy about politics, fiction and the privilege of writing.

For more than fifty years, Dai Smith has been a major figure in the republic of letters. The leading Welsh intellectual of his generation, he is the author of nearly twenty books including the landmark The Fed: The South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century (1980) with the late Hywel Francis, the official history of the Welsh Rugby Union Fields of Praise (1980) with Gareth Williams, the essential biography of Raymond Williams, A Warrior’s Tale (2008), and a polyphonic novel The Crossing (2020). He has been an academic historian, a senior BBC executive, a documentary maker, television and radio presenter, Arts Council chair, and editor of book series such as the Library of Wales, which has restored to print dozens of classics from the canon of Welsh writing in English, and Parthian’s provocative, but perceptive, Modern Wales.

Smith was born in 1945 in Tonypandy in the heart of the Rhondda. He grew up there and in Barry, the town to which the family moved in the 1950s and where he was educated in languages by Gwyn Thomas and in history by Teifion Phillips. Smith left South Wales in 1963 to read modern history at Balliol College, Oxford, before postgraduate study on the writing of Joseph Conrad at Columbia University in New York from 1966-1967. Doctoral research brought him back to South Wales, this time to University College Swansea where, under the supervision of Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, he completed a thesis on the reconstruction of the South Wales Miners’ Federation after the general strike. A lectureship at Lancaster University was followed by academic posts at University College Swansea and University College Cardiff, ultimately leading to the award of a personal chair as Professor of Welsh History.

We conducted this interview at Smith’s home in Barry over the course of a spring afternoon with sunshine giving way to moody skies and heavy rain – just the thing to keep tourists away from the island. I mention my idea for the title of our interview, it’s one I’ve borrowed from Edward Said. Smith bounds off towards his study and returns a few minutes later after a furious examination of his shelves. He places a copy of Said’s Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966) in my hand. On the flyleaf there is a penned inscription. ‘David Smith, New York, 12 December 1966.’ I look up. “Just when in New York I was coming through the worst of it,” Smith tells me, “and setting out to find a way.” After coffee, we settle into armchairs in the sitting room and begin talking.

Daryl Leeworthy: Do you miss the Rhondda?

Dai Smith: No, I don’t think I miss the Rhondda. I contemplated the Rhondda throughout my life but not just because I came from there, I don’t think this is nostalgia or sentiment – although certainly affection and love would be part of it. It’s more that the Rhondda came to be emblematic for me of lots of the ways in which I wanted to understand the world and maybe had to understand the world. So, it’s more the Rhondda misses me in the sense that over such a long period of time, of change, it is a case of mutual bypass in the real world and constant interchange in the dream world of remembering, as in my memoir now.

Daryl Leeworthy: No chance of moving back to the Rhondda, then?

Dai Smith: Never far away though! We lived in Pontypridd for many years and before that in the Swansea Valley in Craig Cefn Parc, and before that in Aberdare, so in one way I see all of these as different sorts of Rhonddas. And even when we ended up in Barry, by family circumstances, I used to joke that I’d come to Tonypandy-by-Sea. So, I’ve never really felt that I left. Left the Rhondda physically, yes, but in terms of an intellectual and familial and emotional attachment, with all of those other things there – so if you substituted the words South Wales as I’ve understood it – I’ve always been a part of that, I think.

Daryl Leeworthy: Could you describe to us how you write?

Dai Smith: As anybody who knows me knows, I am a technophobe, I’m afraid. I don’t type with any proficiency, so I write everything in long hand, and I correct in long hand, and then I get it typed up, and then I correct again. I think the crucial factor there, was when I was writing the biography of Raymond Williams—which was a real, real task—everything was done on yellow pads and in pencil—for some reason I turned to pencil—and I’ve kept up with that. I think maybe because I could rub it out with a rubber! But I find something physically satisfying about writing with an instrument: a fountain pen, a pencil, rather more than a biro. I’m encouraged by the fact one of my great heroes Hemingway did the same thing.

The only trick that I think I learned from Hemingway is that when I was having a really hard writing day, let’s say the Raymond Williams stuff and I was writing for hours and hours and hours on end, I would be exhausted. I would always make sure that I’d written the sentences of the next day at the end of that day so that when I went to the desk in the morning there was something there for me to pick up. Not just threads but certain forms of energy and I don’t get that feeling with the typed word, or electronic devices. I think it’s an age thing, frankly.

Daryl Leeworthy: So you always start in the middle of something, rather than begin at the beginning?

Dai Smith: Yes and no – and I go back to the Raymond Williams biography, which was a continuous, linear chronological account. A proper biography, in the sense that my memoir is not a proper autobiography. So, if I take the memoir, I think there are discrete chapters or episodes there and I probably would end or would have ended a chapter, my manuscript would show, and not worried about what was going to come the next day because it was a new start. But with the Raymond Williams thing it was more a question of pulling the threads and keeping going in that way.

Daryl Leeworthy: More of a marathon, than a short run around the track?

Dai Smith: Yes. Absolutely.

Daryl Leeworthy: Hemingway comes up a few times there, which brings me on to thinking about the other side of the equation. In other words, your reading influences rather than your habits of writing.

Dai Smith: I think I have to confess straight away that most of my literary influences, if I can call them that, are, or would be now considered, quite old-fashioned, or maybe just not in fashion. I tend to re-read lots of people. Conrad, of course, a real lodestar for me, as was for a time D. H. Lawrence, though too exhaustingly perverse to like too much. And then there’s William Faulkner whom I revisited during Covid and who reveals, I think, how fiction can unpick lived history to be revelatory of structural meaningfulness in lives. I mean that by never allowing the concept of the past to be actually past he makes the present as we live it something vital and connected. But so many lessons in so many places. I had a long period where I read Scott Fitzgerald endlessly, who is pretty different from Hemingway but part of the same sort of conspectus. Not a year goes by when I do not pick up and marvel at the depth in his short novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), my desert island choice!

When I was in New York, at Columbia when I was twenty-one, I read Jane Austen from cover to cover and Evelyn Waugh. Both of those writers I’d sort of ignored beforehand or felt they weren’t going to be for me, only to start something and realise how wonderful they are. Even if they’re writing about places and people, and have attitudes, that you yourself don’t know of that experience or share those attitudes. So in terms of influences, then I’d start ticking off almost all the so-called American literary giants of the mid twentieth century, and that does, yes, I’m afraid pigeonhole me a bit. I’m not too fond of magic realism and never have been, I certainly hate myth and fantasy, and I’m still not too keen on what I’ll broadly call solipsistic, narcissistic novels of identity, discovery, an endless first person present tense. No depth. Tolstoy will last, Hilary Mantel will not. But I’m nothing if not prejudiced against much of contemporary taste and clatter.

Daryl Leeworthy: You once told me that you had never read any John le Carré.

Dai Smith: I haven’t. I haven’t! I don’t know why exactly because I love thrillers and I love crime novels, and I’ve even read quite a few spy novels. I tried reading le Carré a few times. I found him very stodgy. I found the writing rather building block. Unless there’s something in the sentence – an adjective, an adverb, an emotion, that actually lights me up – I find it hard to go on. I felt le Carré was a bit like doing a crossword puzzle and I don’t like crossword puzzles.

Daryl Leeworthy: So not an Inspector Morse fan, then?

Dai Smith: I used to quite like John Thaw but no I’ve never read Colin Dexter. I watched John Thaw because I thought he was a good actor – I haven’t liked the subsequent series as much. No, I’ve never read a word of Colin Dexter and I’m not too fond of that kind of style of English whodunnit or police procedural. I’d have to go back and say it’s Raymond Chandler, it’s Dashiell Hammett, it’s Ed McBain, it’s certainly Chester Himes, and a few who have come along since then – with great chunks of James Lee Burke. It’s those sorts of writers that have taken me in and comforted me.

Daryl Leeworthy: And always in English, or are there other languages as well?

Dai Smith: Well, I read French fluently and I read Spanish, and when Covid happened I resurrected both languages. All of the writers you’d think of in terms of my kind of age and time: obviously Camus and Sartre, Maupassant and Gide, and in school we did the Alain-Fournier Le Grande Meaulnes, which I read and re-read and which I think a wonderful piece of work. Then amongst the Spaniards lately Javier Cercas, Javier Marias, and some others that would go back into the Spanish Civil War times.

Daryl Leeworthy: There’s one absence within that cohort of writing: historians.

Dai Smith: Oh. When I was a child there were Blackie’s histories of the nations and, like lots of children, I just loved all those tales of adventure and heroes. They tended to be Robin Hood or Hereward the Wake. There was Twm Shon Catti and some Welsh equivalents as well, so I had a sense of history as an unfolding, cinematic, Errol Flynn-ish sort of thing. But if we’re coming on to talk about the serious reading of historians, the sort of history you were taught in school, and I’m going back now to the 1950s, was textbook and boring. I would say that was true until I came across – and it would be my great schoolmaster Teifion Phillips who would have pushed these things my way when we were doing Tudors and Stuarts – J. E. Neale’s Queen Elizabeth (1934) and G. M. Trevelyan’s seventeenth century stuff, both in Penguin. Looking back, it’s slightly odd that I took to both of those writers, but that’s the point really it was as writers rather than as historians.

I remember reading Trevelyan’s English Social History (1942) and suddenly it wasn’t actually the content it was his style, even if I don’t think I’d like his style now, but in those days, I was attracted by the empathetic way in which he tried to create a specific sense of place and time. I remember the Neale book begins with people riding to tell her [Elizabeth] that she’s going to be the Queen, so we’re suddenly into adventure stuff again. Then at Oxford I did a special subject on slavery and secession, the American Civil War, and there were multi-volume histories around at that time. A lot of the deep understanding of slave life was only just coming out but Allan Nevins wrote this conventional multi-volume history and I remember picking up – knowing no American history – this volume which begins in 1850 and what struck me straight away was a wonderful word picture of that continent bracing itself. It’s very romanticised and accepting of the epic manifest destiny of America. But it brought me directly into a wide social ambience of the time rather than the individual life stories that I was picking up in novels.

Daryl Leeworthy: The individual and the collective at the same time.

Dai Smith: Yeah. Sort of. It just gave you a sense of where people lived and how they lived. You can obviously write about that in statistical terms and historians were doing that. You can write about it in political and descriptive terms. But I was suddenly coming across – we’d now call it social history, but it wasn’t quite that – a way of manufacturing a sense of a society that some writers had simply because of their ability to write.

Daryl Leeworthy: A Dickensian or Balzacian mode.

Dai Smith: Yes. Literature as an open sesame not history as an enclosed field. I was torn by this choice in school. It was made plain in Barry Grammar that if you were going to try for Oxford then you had to do Latin. Entry requirement to Oxford. Now I resented the fact that if I did Latin and History and French, which is what I did, that I had to drop English. So, I didn’t, and I spent a couple of weeks, not quite a term, doing four A Levels. What put me off, frankly, in the end, was the choice of books that the English master chose – Laurens van der Post was one of them and George Bernard Shaw – so I gave up. But the desire to do English and History stayed with me. I compensated for it by increasingly looking at works which allowed me to see how literature could be used to expose or explicate history but not in a background way. Most of the historians who used literature in those days did so only for illustrative purposes and we still have some historians, actually in Welsh universities too, doing the same thing, as if literature is somehow proper evidence. It isn’t proper evidence at all, it’s a way of discovering, to quote Raymond Williams, a structure of feeling.

In Balliol I was asking my tutors if I could write essays about literature and society and Christopher Hill put me on to L. C. Knight’s Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937) and then crucially I read Kathleen Tillotson’s Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (1954). That was a revelation to me because it was not literary criticism but an understanding of the context within which those writers – Dickens, Mrs Gaskell, Thackeray – wrote, in order for them to make sense of their societies. Then there was a clutch of Americans because they were, in a sense, ahead of the pack, and for me Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore (1962) was a clear example. So, I was already caught up in what we would now broadly call – and they didn’t then – cultural studies. That was what I enjoyed reading and that’s what I enjoyed writing about, and I think that’s been the most important intellectual pathway.

Daryl Leeworthy: It allowed you to bridge the two elements, then, history and literature.

Dai Smith: Or as I would prefer to see it as getting into the water. There’s a stream beneath the bridge here, these elements mix and mingle anyway. It’s where my great teacher Richard Cobb comes in because I mean he was idiosyncratic and maverick, but he did write about the dispossessed, the impoverished, the drunk, the suicidal, the victims, using real archival material but a novelist’s technique, or a novelist’s tricks to make past life three dimensional, and I think in one way or another I’ve been imitative of that in most of what I’ve done or tried to do.

Daryl Leeworthy: This brings us to the memoir. What sort of book is it? Is it a history book? Is it a memoir in the traditional sense? Or a culmination of those things that you have been talking about?

Dai Smith: It came about, not intentionally as these things often do happen, partly because Covid came and locked us all up, and also because I had a mountain of papers which had grown over the years stored and untouched. Professional and personal papers held in various deposits in Swansea University, in my room there I mean, and here at home, and I started clearing some of these out with so much time on my hands as we were confined. Lots and lots of letters from friends to myself appeared, lots of which I hadn’t read for a long, long time. Some of them from dear friends who have died and it began to form into my mind as to whether I could, could I do anything with this stuff or should I indeed do anything at all with it. My initial thought was no I was not interested in writing an autobiography, and then I began to wonder whether there was a way of contextualising a life, in this case my life, within a stream of wider society. Do almost a cultural study of myself. I wasn’t keen on an autobiography in a sense of Postcards from Panama to Pontypridd or how and when I went to lecture in Denmark or France or Spain, or the honours I was given, or whatever it was – and I haven’t done any of that. I didn’t intend to name everybody, so there’s no index. It’s not really about close family because again it’s not an autobiographical, day-to-day, diurnal thing. So I wanted it to be a memoir but I also wanted the memoir bits to be episodic, to be shaped by whatever meaning I could derive from an encounter with others or any crisis in my life emotional or intellectual.

I’ve stolen the actual writing concept from Lionel Trilling, one of my mentors in New York. Trilling intended, so his wife tells us, to write an autobiographical memoir, but he didn’t. He intended it to be about the way in which his life had been caught up and then swirled around by broader historical, cultural, social forces, even personalised forces, so that he would remember these things within that kind of context rather than him telling a blinkered story, or a biographical story. So it becomes an autobiographical memoir. The autobiography is a means to get into the memoir, the memoir is a means of trying to say, I hope, broader and more meaningful things about the passage of time. Not only for this individual but also for the other individuals and groups with whom I interacted.

Daryl Leeworthy: Trilling recalls something present not only in Off The Track but in your career more generally, namely the process of working out whether your heart lies in America or American Wales. Let’s unpick that a little bit. Could you tell us what first drew you to the United States?

Dai Smith: Well, I think there are layers to this. I finished my first degree in 1966, so there was the glamour of America, or the pull of America, which had been there since the Fifties, obviously much to the distress of many left-wing intellectuals at the time. Boys and girls like me were being attracted by Hollywood and all sorts of things that were corrupting us, it was thought. So, there was just the sheer excitement about the notion of going to America. But I didn’t intend my going at that stage of my life, I was twenty-one, because of that glamour, it was much more of an intellectual pull for me because of all the stuff I’d been reading in Oxford. The history and increasingly the literature of America as well. If I was going to do some sort of academic work, as I thought, or research, then I wanted it to be in American literature.

My original proposal was to go and look at the rise of the provincials in American literature, by which I meant primarily Scott Fitzgerald. Trilling, in the meantime, had come to Oxford as the Eastman Professor in 1965. I met him in a very perfunctory way, I didn’t know him at all, but I was reading all his stuff and I was more and more attracted by his intellectual poise, and getting more and more caught up in reading Joseph Conrad. But why? America and Conrad didn’t fit at all. I mean that it was more a question of what I was sensing as a really significant literary figure in Conrad – in my callow youthfulness – and in Trilling because of the quality of his mind and what he had written and in the feverish sixties here was irony, morality, consciousness. More signalling for me. Everything, in a sense, fell into place.

But there’s a further thing, which was crazily—aspirationally—ambitious, and also slightly mad, I guess, which is that I was potentially seeing myself as a writer, a novelist, a fiction writer, and maybe, too, that I wasn’t able to let go of the lifebelt of these other things academic and secure. There were choices. I was headhunted for the Foreign Office by spymasters…which is quite funny really because so was my friend Howard Marks. In his case they sort of succeeded!

Daryl Leeworthy: But out of that experience did come the shaping of a career, or was there something else at play?

Dai Smith: I can honestly say in career terms, that I’ve never been ambitious in that sense of a design or a shaping. I remember saying to a senior lecturer at Lancaster University when I’d just been appointed there in 1969 and we had both been at an extraordinarily pompous departmental meeting that an extraordinarily pompous professor had conducted, and I said oh my god how can anybody ever want to be a professor! A look of horror came over his face and I suddenly realised he very much wanted to be a professor. I didn’t have those sorts of desires. I had grand ambitions, but they were more about carving those things out in a personalised way. And that takes us back to American Wales, which I didn’t think of as American Wales at the time, because I found, paradoxically, that historical research, discovery, drowning in those waters, was actually the way to float to the surface, to bob up as a different writer.

Daryl Leeworthy: Ironically, it seems to me, Conrad was the way through because he understood this world of South Wales in a way that Scott Fitzgerald, had you followed that path which would have been more logical, I expect, would not have done – at least not in quite the same way.

Dai Smith: I don’t know about that. I think Scott is much more historically attuned than you’re claiming there, attuned to sensitivities of the zeitgeist, and he had a deep sense of the historical America from which he emerged. But you’re right that Conrad – and I was reading at that stage not just his novels and his fiction, but also his life and letters and all the rest of it – Conrad had this deeply pessimistic, ironic, self-conscious grasp of the frailties of humanity and their heroism as well. His Polish aristocratic father raising up against the Russian Empire in the 1860s, going into exile, but thereby killing hundreds and thousands of peasants as a result of a hapless idealism of revolt. So, Conrad was for me a fascinating figure. The consequences of action, the act of withdrawal.

If I look back to my twenty-one-year-old self, I think there were two Dai Smiths at that point. One was a very over-educated, bright, intellectually fixated, willing to argue the toss character, who had read a lot and knew a lot. The other was an emotionally and socially immature twenty-one-year-old, who didn’t know really what to do with any of those things. So, I was ahead of myself, if you like, and I was behind myself in other ways. I actually had to discover what we’ll happily call American Wales – classic South Wales – for myself in order for my intellectual tools to be of any use to me. If I hadn’t, then I suspect I wouldn’t have written about anything worthwhile.

There’s one other thing worth stressing, which is – and I was thinking about this having completed the memoir and looking back. What more could I have said, stories and anecdotes and people I should have mentioned or could have mentioned. The big thing that I think I probably didn’t emphasise in quite the same way as other matters is the context of an intellectual vacuum. I came back, to Swansea University and started to do the PhD, as I say in the book, under the fraudulent pretences of being an academic historian, whereas I had absolutely no intentions of teaching and at that point I was definitely saying to myself, again in a naïve way, I need to find some material in order to write the great novel about the valleys. And the thing that leaps out – and obviously this was not just affecting me, this was a generational thing, other people were coming along as well – was that there was no historiographical context in which to be rooted. Ken Morgan’s Wales in British Politics (1963) ends in 1922, David Williams’s History of Wales (1950) had a perfunctory last chapter which ends in 1939. Almost nothing else. There were the earlier autodidactic historians of the South Wales Coalfield, but they were all out of print, and I didn’t know about them anyway. There were no “textbooks” or monographs and the articles, the literature, the smaller stuff, which did exist to an extent in the Welsh History Review, Gwyn Alf Williams and his early work on the Merthyr Riots as he then called them, so it was all very much the nineteenth century and Chartism.

There was nothing, really, on twentieth century South Wales at all. There had been, in fact, some attempts in the 1930s – Allen Hutt’s The Post-war History of the British Working Class (1937) – which did use South Welsh material and Ness Edwards’s attempt to write the history of the South Wales miners, but these were beyond our ken. There was no solid ground. At first, again, the feeling was of utter despair. It was a pre-digital world, so you literally had to go to newsprint. Or to the records and the materials. There were no records or materials. The Glamorgan Archives had collected things very sporadically and hardly at all in terms of letters and minute books and diaries, things relating to working-class history broadly and South Wales history largely, just wasn’t there. So, you were driven back to print and the newspapers. That was a very difficult task as well. What are you looking for? I want to know about, say, Troedyrhiw in 1935, January 1st. You’ve got to go to the Western Mail or the Merthyr Express and look that up. But there was no way then of having a whole social conspectus that would allow you to do broader things. I started out but, partly, initially by chance. My eye would be drawn to rumours of suicide, or murder, or rugby games, or pub affrays or photographs or mysterious circumstances of all kinds. Reading these other stories, one way or another, I think, allowed me to understand the conspectus of, say, Troedyrhiw and which took me back to the pinprick bit. I immersed myself in this stuff for years. I became, as a belated witness, a fascinated onlooker in the dark.

Daryl Leeworthy: Albeit with the lights starting to go on.

Dai Smith: Yes, but it was dogged, hard work. Notetaking, transcribing, not thinking as such. I was doing it because my inner ambition, still, was to write something that was a re-imagination and in fictional form. From Conrad I thought the fictive method was the way to get into the deeper structures of the society. That was still the ambition but I was overtaken again, firstly by the overwhelming nature of the material and secondly by my feeling that somebody had to be able to create these platforms, these openings that would allow others to come along afterwards and to have what I didn’t then have, which is the history of the South Wales miners or whatever it was, coalfield society and culture. So, it became almost a feeling of a kind of responsibility to create proper history in order for some of the other stuff to come along. Then we have to throw into the mix here the politics of the day because coming back into that South Wales at the end of the Sixties, obviously I’d been in Barry and then I’d been in Oxford, suddenly I’m in a coalfield society which is closing in on itself. The Labour government’s closing more pits than anybody else. There’s quasi unofficial strike action happening all around. I had met and was working with Hywel Francis. With Hywel’s contacts through his father, Dai Francis, the General Secretary of the South Wales NUM, we’re put in touch with people like Bill Paynter, and many others. Very soon, 1970, ’72, ’74, the great strikes would occur.

So, there was a sense that we were privileged to be mere scribes for this still refulgent political working-class movement and that’s what directly led us into the act of gathering together any and everything we could as research material. We went out into the coalfield and began to gather materials together; we became hunter gatherers of the materials that we had not yet learned how to cook or to serve up. That’s quite important, I think. We had no preconceived academic readiness. That we took on – and it’s Conrad again, in some ways – responsibilities, certainly ones that I hadn’t intended to have. The third thing is I met Norette, we married, and jobs came along, and suddenly I’m teaching American history and I’m becoming the academic that I had had no intention of being.

Daryl Leeworthy: This is something that came across when I read your PhD thesis, ‘The Rebuilding of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, 1927-1939.’ It carries as its subtitle a phrase, which everybody knows from The Fed without perhaps realising that it originally came from your thesis, ‘A Trade Union in its Society.’ With that phrase, you’ve managed to start to square the circle. The thesis is completed in 1976, delayed partly out of those pressures you’ve just been describing, teaching, marriage, collecting the material. 1976 is the fiftieth anniversary of 1926, the year of the general strike and the miners’ lockout, the fallout from which gives you the general theme of your work. But you never settled down as a labour historian. There is no second volume, a further exploration of industrial relations, say, or a history of the Labour Party, or whatever it might have been. There’s some other pull, one that leads you towards biography, at least that is how it seems to me.

Dai Smith: With the thesis, it was literally that. My argument was that the institutions of the South Wales miners, which had to rebuild themselves after the destruction of the general strike, that this was the key institutional expression of a collective working-class society. That without that rigid – and I’ll say rigorous – institutionalism, beyond the politics of the Labour Party or the Communist Party, that there was no ability to form, or create, or succour, their kind of aspirational, collective society. Now, my supervisor, Professor Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, a great guy, thought that I was becoming a dull boy by doing this because I was emphasising minutes and conferences and all sorts of arcane rules and regulations which were taking away one of my literary gifts, were taking away the colour and the vigour of the writing. But I was convinced and still am convinced that I was talking about the most important thing which was how people had come together and found a way of opposing, creating not an alternative society as my friend Hywel would have said, but certainly creating an oppositional society to the one they had been given. The thesis was that and I stuck to it. That then simmered until Hywel and I brought our theses together in a circus horse sort of way in The Fed.

But, of course, out of that, two other things had happened. One was that I got asked, one way or another, whether I was interested in writing the official history of the Welsh Rugby Union. I thought about it because I was very interested in the ways in which sport could be expressive of significances within that society. I don’t think I had thought deeply about boxing at that point, but my father hand been a great aficionado and I knew various professional boxers through him. So the rugby thing was not a leap in the dark. Things were gelling.

Perhaps even more important — and this came out in one of my anni mirabileswas the volume I designed and edited A People and A Proletariat (1980). I had decided at this point, I had discovered, I think, that one of the reasons why there wasn’t working-class historiography, both in terms of the institutional history and of social history and of intellectual history, was that there had been a deliberate downplaying of the validity, the weight, of that culture. In material terms, coal actually did shape everything. Not just material life but all the other aspects of Welsh life. So in other words not steel, not tinplate, not copper, not slate, important as all those were. You know, sixteen thousand slate workers at the height, two hundred and seventy thousand miners. What was coming at me was why hadn’t these things been looked at by Welsh intellectuals or in the Welsh language?

My own essay in the book, really, was a way of saying that the world I had been investigating had been ignored and look this is the way they had caricatured it, this is the way they had despised it a la Saunders Lewis, and so it was a very polemical, very political moment. All these things were banging away. I had said what I wanted to say about the trade union in its society. I now wanted to say things about the whole society, and I had to find ways of doing that through sport, through biography, and largely through looking at landscape and assessing literature.

Daryl Leeworthy: I was going to pick up on literature because it is in this field, I think, more than with The Fed, more than with labour history even, that you’re able to kickstart the whole gambit of research into Welsh writing in English in the mid-1970s. There was, obviously, Glyn Jones’s The Dragon Has Two Tongues (1968), but that was very much an Anglo-Welsh survey, an older generation’s idea. You come along in the 1970s writing essays in Anglo-Welsh Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Listener, and go hang on a minute, we’ve missed Gwyn Thomas, Lewis Jones, Rhys Davies, the fictive voices of American Wales, and then off you go into a whole other field. You press the starting button on all that, don’t you?

Dai Smith: In terms of the study of literature at the time, in the University of Wales in the 1970s, there was hardly anything. You did have great literary figures like Gwyn Jones and R. George Thomas who worked on Edward Thomas in Cardiff, but nobody really took seriously English language writing about Wales – unless it was a Dylan Thomas, or an R. S. Thomas, and they weren’t really being studied. If they were then it was in a lit-crit fashion. And their subject matter, particularly the ones I was talking about, the Gwyn Thomases of this world, were writing about working-class people who weren’t themselves being studied, in historical terms, in the university. So that’s true.

But then the thing which I’ve reprinted in the memoir which I think holds up, and which I called the Future of Coalfield History at the time, also stressed that nobody’s looking at buildings, medical histories, compensation histories, sport, the history of women – a huge gap -, the literature that we’ve just talked about, the ways in which people joked amongst themselves, or had personalised experiences within this collective world, and most of those things I never subsequently went on to write about because it was too much for one person. But I am very proud that subsequent generations of individuals have taken on a lot of that prospectus and have been able to build on it, deepen it, widen it. I could see it and I was just saying, let’s get on with it.

Daryl Leeworthy: Which brings us to the world of South Wales. And we, you and I, do mean a world rather than something that was previously merely a (regional) society. Now there’s a whole global context, one in which those Conradian obsessions are central. Put simply you cannot get away from coal. Without coal – and we mean steam coal, in particular – the whole world either falls in on itself, or materially it doesn’t exist in the first place.

Dai Smith: I never, ever saw the study of South Wales, American Wales, in all its aspects, as a narrow or regional or provincial or limited way of leading an intellectual life. I always saw it, as soon as I began to think about it and to understand it, I always saw it as properly global – in the ways it did lead out materially and also because of the ways in which people began to think, more and more secular, more and more enlightened. You can’t understand a figure of worldwide significance like Aneurin Bevan without placing him within those kinds of contexts. I think that the current, contemporary willingness to see Wales as a more important imagined entity has actually diminished the realty of South Wales within that broader understanding. I think it’s not irretrievable historically, by which I mean we can understand it and continue to write about it; it may be irretrievable politically and socially because things have changed so much. I think the jury is out on whether culturally, by which I mean its values, its legacies, it can still be brought to the fore and what it would take for new generations to pick those things up. That will take an awful lot more soul searching.

Daryl Leeworthy: It’s all starting to sound like the period that you write about in The Crossing (2020), your polyphonic novel of ideas (as I see it). Therein you do have exactly those kinds of characters. You’ve wound them up into the academics, the imperial vice chancellors, who insist that we must have buildings, we must have this or that. You’ve also got Lady Rhondda who is not exactly palatable. But then you have these other, dynamic characters including Lord Rhondda who has a copy of Conrad in his luggage – or is it in his pocket. They can see this world of South Wales, even as they set out to control it.

Dai Smith: I would take slight issue with describing The Crossing as a novel of ideas. There are ideas in it but what I intended was more the Raymond Williams thing that it was both historic and visionary. Historic being the Hobsbawm bit, the visionary part being how did this work out. So, if we look at The Crossing there are whole bits of the novel where I am quite explicit about the way people lived their lives rather than thought about their lives. But what I tried to do overall – I’d call it a novel of perceptions – to show that my generation was both blessed and cursed intellectually with growing up or maturing at a time when our subject matter was clearly disappearing and at the same time was still alive and kicking, and we were clearly – us post-45 babies – part of it and yet actually not of it. To put it another way Neil Kinnock could never be Aneurin Bevan because there was not any longer a deep hinterland of being. We were busy exhuming the corpse and looking at its bits and pieces, even as the corpse was kicking a fandango down the road.

So in The Crossing I’ve invented historical material, historical sources, partly to confuse the reader I hope,  because I wanted to show the ways in which the perceptions of the history could shape society, so the architect father of Tal is somebody who writes rather pompously in civil pridefulness about the growth of a place like Pontypridd but at the same time Tal is being exposed to actual building with which his father is associated and that differently and actively are creating the lives around him. And so there’s a different kind of perception going on there. And at the same time, as the book fast forwards, the photographer in it, Billy, is reduced to no more than taking photographs, to being no more than a witness. And he feels increasingly, and he should do, guilt, about being only such a witness. So he has to go away and maybe he comes back. So at every sort of level what I’m trying to say is these individuals led lives where even if they were D. A. Thomas, they thought they were in control, but they weren’t, or they couldn’t be. They could be aspirational, as Thomas was, for a capitalist, entrepreneurial world, although as we know in reality he was quite happy to turn his back on South Wales quite rapidly if he had to. And similarly I’ve got a political individual in it who, by the time you come to the ’84-85 strike, figures as an actor of substance in the book. So contra to this being about ideas I think it’s about action and events. These people, some of them, are then themselves parasitical upon the history.

I think there was a time when my generation betrayed itself by exulting so much in the disaster that was ’84-85. Some people will find it very hard to hear me to say that. I lived through it and I know people who got a kick out of it and I thought it was wrong at the time – and I resent it now. But either way, I think that is connected to the history that had gone, rather than the world that they thought they were saving in ’84-85. I don’t think that was ever a reality and we should have been a lot more hard-nosed about it. As people did become more hard-nosed. But by necessity not through insight or knowledge or courage.

Daryl Leeworthy: But even so, if we take The Crossing and add it to the non-fictional work you’ve been undertaking for half a century or more, intellectual threads do start to reveal themselves. You’ve got Richard Cobb, Teifion Phillips, Columbia gives you Lionel Trilling, then there’s Eric Hobsbawm who examines your doctoral thesis, and Raymond Williams who became a close acquaintance. There is one other person I want to throw into this mix: Alun Richards. That cohort, the four intellectuals, leaving Alun Richards aside for a moment, are a quirky group. Two of them are Jewish, two of them are not. Two of them are communists, two of them are not. Two novelists and two not. Two memoirists and two of them, well, they do not produce an exact memoir but certainly think about it. Two critics and two historians. But of the group—Cobb, Trilling, Hobsbawm, and Williams—who would you say has had the greatest influence on you?

Dai Smith: I think that influence is a difficult thing to pin down because it’s not so much that you take only one thing from any one person, you take various things from various people. From Hobsbawm I took and would continue to take an emphasis on class as a formative mover and shaker, more than identity, more than gender, more than any kind of essentialism, and I’ve stuck pretty close to that. Similarly with Raymond Williams. Bandy his famous phrases around, but there are ways in which his professed structure of feeling, his modes of being, and emotions, negativities even, which permeate a society, that have caused people to act or not act in certain ways, go back to and flow from perception of class. Almost like the Hobsbawm insistence but being more individuated persons and I guess the novelist’s perception coming in there, although, again, as Raymond says: he’d like his work to be taken as a whole, and I would make a plea, in a humbler way, that my work should be taken as a whole as well. I’ve often been kind of pinball-ish in terms of one work leading to another, whether it’s a memoir or fiction or straight history. The others you mention were more facilitating in terms of my thinking and writing than as intellectual influences, particularly my adoption – at a remove, I grant – of Gwyn Thomas’s ‘sidling, malicious obliquity’ as a stance, as any entry point.

Daryl Leeworthy: There are two books which come to mind whenever I think about The Crossing, one of which is Border Country (1960) and its influence is obvious; the other is Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties (1991). In his novel he’s trying to write about Wolfe, the fall of Quebec, all of that mid-eighteenth century period, but taking the novel and the history and the invention of materials and putting that all together in one place.

Dai Smith: I take that as a flattering comparison. I think he’s probably still mired more in the historical impulses, and I was probably letting myself go more in the fictive impulses. I’m thinking particularly when I wrote or brought together In The Frame in 2010, I did see that as my farewell to history proper.

Daryl Leeworthy: I remember you saying so at the time.

Dai Smith: Did I? Well, I saw that as a bridge and a way forward. I then wrote two pieces of fiction, one of which gets reworked into The Crossing. That’s partly what I meant about the pinball stuff. You will find echoes of stuff that I wrote thirty, forty years ago in stuff that I wrote last week but they are only echoes because the context has changed. Often, actually, the writing and the intent has changed. Certainly in The Crossing some of the characters in that grew from Dream On and they do different things. What I wanted to do was to try to find a way of writing about that collective working-class history in individual terms without making it an individuated novel of escape or discovery. I wanted to fix those characters within that formative world and so in timescale terms it runs from the 1860s through to the present.

Daryl Leeworthy: The novel certainly demands a lot of concentration when you’re reading it, I found.

Dai Smith: One reviewer said that it’s very interesting even for people who won’t know who Bill Paynter or Arthur Horner were and that kind of makes me shudder because I kind of feel that everyone must know that. But that reviewer was right that for your intelligent sixteen-year-old or twenty-year-old they don’t, even though the lives of such key people are now in print and are available for study. At the same time, if I’m right that the best fiction carries with it the best meaning about the past society and therefore the future society, then that sense of novels and poetry and fiction ought to be at the forefront of our culture and in our schools and universities, and frankly it isn’t. That is despite a lot of effort. Rhodri Morgan said that the Library of Wales series, bringing English language Welsh fiction back into print, was the best thing that the Welsh Government had done. Now, however much of a slight exaggeration that may be, at some level he is of course right and that it is a series of signposts from the past to a meaningful future for Wales, a place where the back is never turned and the mind never closed.

Daryl Leeworthy: Signposts to Dai Country, perhaps?

Dai Smith: Yeah. To quote Hobsbawm again, Rome beat Carthage in the Punic Wars and not the other way around. Coal was the most important single material factor in nineteenth, twentieth century Welsh life, and nothing else as such. And I stick to that as an historian, and I therefore say as a writer of fiction, that we derive meaning from that reality and never from its denial.

Daryl Leeworthy: Now that sounds like Alun Richards to me.

Dai Smith: Alun was an influence on me in the sense that I found him the most wonderful character and personality and he taught me very quickly to understand the glamour and importance of Pontypridd, as opposed to the dark recesses of the Rhondda, as he would put it, from which dwarf-life I had come.

Daryl Leeworthy: Quite right, too!

Dai Smith: And, in terms of his great short stories, he is the one who flays alive the post-war hypocrisies and illusions of post-1945 Wales, and shows us, too, a complex class structure in which, say, Ron’ Berry’s working-class survivors do precisely that, and no more, they survive but in a diminished world. The key issue, for me, is always what’s the next step.

Daryl Leeworthy: It sounds as if there are future provocations to come…

Dai Smith: After I finished Off the Track there was the usual kind of emptiness and exhaustion but I immediately started thinking and scribbling, and so I do have it in mind to write another one. After In The Frame and Off The Track, there might be On The Brink. And On The Brink, if it happens, will bring together some of the essays, historical and literary, that I have written or am about to write. But again, and I do think that this is what I have been about all the time, I want to break the back of form. I want to have a different kind of genre. What I’ve got in mind with this are interleaved flactions – flash fictions that are not necessarily fictive – of dialogue or of action. I’m reporting because I was there but I’m also drawing meaning from the witnessing. On The Brink is only in my notebooks, as yet, and I’m waiting a little bit longer before the mood takes me to see if I’m going to come through with it, but maybe that will be the final provocation. What I’d like to see for a future Wales is how we turn, again, to the influence of politics and away, finally, from the politics of influence.


Dai Smith will be in conversation with Roy Noble at Storyville at Pontypridd on the 13th of April, and will also be appearing at the Llaneilo Literary Festival with Alun Gibbard on the 29th of April and at the Hay Festival on the 2nd of June with Sam Adams, interviewed by Emma Schofield.
Photo credit: Jon Pountney.