Bethan Jenkins delves into, Fury of Past Time, the new biography of Gwyn Thomas by Daryl Leeworthy and considers the complexity of writing about a figure of Thomas’s standing.
It is always the job of a biographer to untangle the tales we tell about ourselves, and try to find the reality of their subject’s life – but oh, how much harder this job is when the subject is themselves a prodigious storyteller and raconteur, an exaggerator for effect, a voluble wordsmith who built around himself such a cloak of comic words, tales and distractions as would rightly make a biographer blanch at the task in front of them. Gwyn Thomas, the subject of this biography, wrote that “it takes an artist to be supremely contradictory,” and described writing “straight autobiography” as “a cyanide trip”. The task of writing the life of such a complex and contradictory figure has been bravely (and very ably) undertaken by Daryl Leeworthy, aided by access to an archive of letters from Thomas’s family as well as other newly-presented archival sources. Armed with these new sources, he sets out to disentangle fact from fiction – such as the oft-repeated tale that Gwyn’s wife, Lyn, sent out his stories to multiple editors without his knowledge. Instead, Leeworthy proves that Gwyn chose his first publishers carefully, setting out very deliberately to launch himself on the world as a writer by aligning himself with publishing houses which shared his political beliefs. Leeworthy gives us a comprehensive overview of the life and work of a writer whose multi-genre ubiquity at the time has sadly slipped into the shadows of the current collective consciousness.
I went into this biography mostly unfamiliar with Thomas’s work beyond a brief, uncomprehending childhood encounter with the film of his semi-fictionalised autobiography A Few Selected Exits, and so the sheer extent of Thomas’s work across so many genres was both astounding and daunting. Recognising this, and recognising the impossibility of keeping these multifarious strands in order across the author’s life, Leeworthy opts for a thematic approach rather than following Thomas’s life chronologically. He acknowledges that this requires some more work on the part of the reader, but I certainly felt it was a useful way of following a subject who was simultaneously a teacher, a novelist, short story writer, reviewer of book, film and television, playwright and dramatist, writer for magazines such as Punch, or newspapers as diverse as the Western Mail and the Empire News. In all the kaleidoscopic facets of his writing, his comedy and his politics are the unifying factor, all rooted in the Rhondda of his upbringing. The two pivotal moments of this upbringing – one personal, one political – set the course of all his future work. These were the death of his mother at only 44 when he himself was only a child, and the General Strike in the year of his 13th birthday – a strike in which the Rhondda miners held on for several months longer than the rest of the trades who walked out. While the hardship in the Rhondda was immense, the young Gwyn Thomas would also be struck by the carnivals, sporting events and marching jazz bands which proliferated that summer. These feature in his long short story, Gazooka, and the close-knit society he finds there of ‘voters’, their intellectual meetings, as well as the absurd comedy and ‘sheer damned daftness’ of the community, form the foundation of all his stories of Meadow Prospect. Witnessing the mineshaft’s dark humour in the face of the ‘terrible, ravaging sadness’ caused by poverty and adversity, gave Thomas a rich seam to mine, marrying the particular humour of the Rhondda with a hard-boiled style derived from the American authors whose books and stories he devoured.
Where Leeworthy’s work really comes into its own is in his diligence in not only showing the Rhondda Thomas, but in also uncovering his reception among, and relations with, international Socialists in America, the U.S.S.R., East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and even Australia. “At the height of the Cold War no other Welsh writer was as widely available to international audiences,” Leeworthy notes, and it is really striking how globally known Thomas was, in stark contrast to the current awareness of him in his own country. Particularly fascinating is the detailing of his encounters with the anti-socialist McCarthyite tendency in America, Thomas’s correspondences with the network of socialist authors and playwrights there persecuted by their own government. We owe his biographer a great debt in detailing these networks of influence, both to and from Thomas, on a global stage. Fascinating, too, are the explorations of Thomas’s exposures to the injustices which fired his zeal, such as a stint teaching in the Ministry of Labour Instructional Centre at Cranwich Heath, of which he wrote to his sister in the most scathing terms:
“I see no need for these centres, yet they are being extended, improved and made to conform with regulations that become more severe from year to year. The official reason is that the men must be made to leave their hometowns for a substantial period and re-accustom themselves to the atmosphere of regular work. It does not need a very sensible wit to demolish these arguments […] however loathsome and degenerating the slum life of some of the workless might be, it cannot be as demoralising as the life they lead when herded, forty at a time, into those wretched huts […] The world is rotten. What are these centres but areas of pure, gangrenous infection? You cannot rid society of such things as that by moral persuasion.”
I was struck, reading these moments of rage against the capitalist machine, by how many of the themes and conditions which moved Thomas to such righteous indignation seem to be returning to the world, and how urgent and necessary the recovery of voices such his has suddenly become. Leeworthy is careful in his approach to tracing the subtle changes in Thomas’s politics over the years, but the fight to raise up the lives of those living with so little remains a constant.
Focusing on the writer as a writer as this biography does leave a few small gaps in our understanding of Thomas the man, whom I still felt was a distant figure, seen, as it were, through a glass darkly. A tantalising mention of Gwyn having married his beloved wife Lyn ‘in secret’ left me wishing to hear more of their relationship and the story behind this wedding. There was also the occasional authorial statement which pulled me up short and would have benefited ideally from some explanation or contextualisation. I think in particular of the rather startling assertion that Gwyn’s father was “a man who loved sex, [which] proved to be his undoing” – presumably due to the family’s large number of children, a situation not entirely unusual in turn-of-the-century Rhondda. Nevertheless, these are very minor quibbles in what is overall a triumph of a work. Leeworthy knows his subject intimately, sympathises with him entirely, and locates him globally in such a way as to leave the reader with no doubt as to his importance as a writer – so very much more than the ‘Welsh windbag’ stereotype he was sometimes accused of being. Fury of Past Time is destined to be the definitive work on ‘the Rhondda Runyon’ for many years to come.
Fury of Past Time: A Life of Gwyn Thomas is available from Parthian Books now.