In 2014, Wales set a new standard for cultural celebration with an ambitious, co-ordinated, cash-rich year of events and projects that reached all the way to New York for the hundred year anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas. In 2016, a similar effort was made for the centenary year of Roald Dahl. In 2019, however, the opportunity to celebrate the life and work of perhaps Wales’ most gifted and admired novelist, while he’s still alive, at 100, has been all but passed by. Gary Raymond asks, where are the national celebrations of Emyr Humphreys?
A few weeks ago I was at a wedding, and at the bar, in that glorious period between speeches and cèilidh when the air is filled with the gleeful onset of informality, a conversation started up about Welsh literature. The topic, as you might imagine, is not so unusual in my circles. Me, and three or four friends, who happen to be literature academics, on this occasion had quite a bit to say on the subject of the greatness of Emyr Humphreys, whose centenary year would be pinpointed with his April birthday just a few days after the wedding. One friend said with appropriate passion how Humphreys’ Outside the House of Baal (1965 – and about to be reissued by Seren) is probably the greatest of all novels produced by a Welsh writer. The other academics agreed. Me, I might have argued for Humphreys’ slightly earlier coming-of-age novel, A Toy Epic (1958), but I admitted that all that really mattered was that everyone agreed the author of these two novels is the greatest writer Wales has produced. And he’s still alive.
Inevitably, after we’d all decided we agreed on Humphreys’ stature, we began grumbling a little on just what our nation’s establishment had done to celebrate his birthday. Perhaps there was a time when such notions would have seemed unnecessary, vulgar, by-the-by, but the problem is, the Wales-wide frenzied circle jerk surrounding the hundred year anniversary of Dylan Thomas (dead 60-odd years by that point) in 2014, and the strained attempts to recreate the vibe for Wales-hating Llandaff-born children’s writer Roald Dahl in 2016 had laid the foundations for questions like this. If Thomas, if Dahl, why not Emyr Humphreys?
On the same day of that wedding, there was an academic symposium at Swansea University on the work of Emyr Humphreys, for which turn out was reportedly very disappointing. If only the symposium had had the sort of marketing budget that inspired the Dylan Thomas celebrations, which included such events as the Swansea to Laugharne sponsored bike ride, recreating the favourite cycling routes of the famously athletic and outdoorsy poet. Elsewhere, Pen Cymru have undertaken the noble endeavour of trying to establish a literary award in Humphreys’ name, but at the time of writing have still not been able to attract the few thousand pounds in funding they need to get the award up and running. Perhaps, like National Theatre Wales during the Roald Dahl celebrations, Pen Cymru need to jettison the idea of an award and instead set up a chaotic and claustrophobic theme park based on random aspects of Humphreys’ work, and clog up the centre of Cardiff for an afternoon. They could probably pull together a few hundred thousand for something like that. Maybe we could all gather to watch actors dressed as Albie, Michael and Iorwerth abseil down the side of the Welsh Books Council in Aberystwyth. Maybe if Banksy had spray-painted a portrait of Humphreys on a discarded piece of sheet metal in the Aldi carpark outside Caenarfon, the BBC, as well as a few Welsh politicians with a canny eye for a popular cause, would have paid a bit more attention to Humphreys this year.
There are no doubt other pockets of public admiration for Emyr Humphreys around Wales this year, but where is the central co-ordination, where is the weighty purse to fund it?
But does it matter if a few academics and writers think Humphreys is Wales’s greatest ever writer? Of course, literature is not a competition (at least, if it is, it’s one for a certain type of literary male to worry about), but tourism most definitely is. Tourism is a brutal unforgiving industry, where the bottom line is to attract the disposable income of people and to stop them spending it on a rival attraction. Tourism used to be about penny arcades, now it’s about nations. And it seems the treasurers of Wales’ tourism strategy see no real worth in Wales’ culture in anything other than a superficial way. There is little evidence of any real understanding of the richness just below the surface of the Team Wales billboards, and so Emyr Humphreys is ignored whereas no expense is spared for Dylan Thomas (ready-made brand: “drunk/tortured, died young, poet, Americans love him”) and Roald Dahl (ready-made brand: “global megastar of Children’s literature and cinema, just don’t mention his frequent racism or hatred of Wales and the Welsh”).
In addition to Humphreys’ importance as a writer, to the fact R.S. Thomas called him the “chief interpreter of Welsh life”, to the fact The Observer newspaper once held Humphreys as Wales’ only real contender for a Nobel Prize in literature, we must add his own story as a writer not just of Wales, but one dedicated to it. As a young writer in the 1930s, under the mentorship of no-less a figure and kingmaker than Graham Greene, Humphreys made a conscious decision to return to north Wales and to make his own country his artistic furrow. That he arguably did it rivalling the craft and vision of Woolf and Faulkner is one thing, but that he did it by giving up the riches and notoriety a continued association with Greene would have guaranteed is another.
The media and arts organisations of Wales have a long track record of moping after artists who leave Wales and don’t look back. We bounce on our toes at the Severn Bridge like puppy dogs hoping someone who has had success abroad will come home and do a voice over or hold the scissors at the opening of a new arts centre. But when a writer of genuine international stature stays – not just stays, but lives to 100! – he is almost entirely overlooked.
By ignoring Humphreys’ centenary, Wales not only does a disservice to one its great citizens, but it tells future generations of writers and artists that staying in Wales will get you no thanks; it misses the opportunity to press on several generations of writers what being it can mean to be a Welsh writer. As Tristan Hughes notes in this magisterial tribute to Emyr Humphreys published in WAR a few weeks ago, writing about Wales is not always seen as such a fulfilling, noble, and vital pursuit to young writers as it might be, and Humphreys is a writer whose work can change that perception. It is also worth shouting loud that Wales has produced world-class literary figures apart from the guy from Cwmdonkin Drive. Literature is not a competition, but tourism is, and the gatekeepers of our literature have failed miserably to get in the game on an occasion when Wales genuinely, rarely, has someone in literature to cheer who can stand on the world stage.
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Jon Gower reviews Emyr Humphreys’ A Man’s Estate, a gothic novel about family life and the human condition set in North West Wales.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.