common wealth Arts Council of Wales

In Conversation with Dai Smith | Interviews

In Gary Raymond’s in-depth interview with one of Wales’ preeminent intellectual voices of the last forty years, historian, novelist and chair of Arts Council Wales, Dai Smith, the two discuss the role of intellectualism in Welsh society.


I meet with Dai Smith as he begins his final year as chair of Arts Council Wales. His long career has seen him take on the role of an eminent professor of history, a broadcasting executive, and, most recently, a novelist. We began talking about what Smith termed, the ‘intellectual ecology of Wales’. I asked him about the history of Welsh ideas, and why we don’t seem to have had our Carlyle, our Ruskin, or our Yeats, just three names that recur throughout our afternoon of conversation.

Gary Raymond: Why is it, do you think, Wales doesn’t seem to have the great totemic thinkers, the cultural critics, that other nations have in their pasts?

Dai Smith: Public Intellectuals have, too often, been seen as Public Inconveniences in Wales. By which I mean that we are often frightened or cowed into silence by the cosy nonsense that promotes the Idea of Team Wales or attempts to issue Brand Identities centred on spurious notions of Celticism or hands out badges for linguistic Good Behaviour. Cultural criticism would be a threat, an exposure of the comfort Welsh blanket with which we are so ready to drape ourselves, all cwtched-up and myopic in the hold-tight, don’t-let-go arms of Mam. I think there are, indeed, cultural reasons for our relative impoverishment and, I suppose, that you could ask some of the questions you pose about a lack of such essential figures, as Cultural Critics or Public Intellectuals, to a country’s well-being as a functioning Democracy in a broader sense; where have the novelists, past and present, as our judges and jokers, been in our national life, until quite recently? Or other writers, in that sense of having a social and intellectual impact, whether dramatists or screenwriters? A surfeit of actors and singers is scarce comfort if we are to be, consistently, a society of purpose.

There’s been a series of moments, however, where you could point to such intellectual giants, people who saw the thrust of their scholarship or their creativity as critics and intellectuals, both within and against the grain of their contemporary society. As you know, I started out as an historian, so let me stress that discipline first, where you could point to, say, Professor David Williams in Aberystwyth from the 1930s, and a few others since, of course, who addressed the lives of the Welsh people in modern times. But actually the industrial and social history of South Wales in particular was first being written by worker autodidacts in the 1920s, and it was not until the 60s that it becomes institutionalised with people like Glanmor Williams, with the foundation of the Welsh History Review, and the series of Oxford monographs in the 70s, and of course John Davies’ History of Wales since the 80s; so the renaissance of Welsh historiography came about because a series of individuals came along and then institutionalised it, created an infrastructure for it. Now, a lot of that came under threat quite rapidly in the 90s when for a moment there was no historian aged under 40 in a Welsh history department, whereas 10 years before there were a bunch of us.

Now, if you look at literary criticism: same story. Who’s the great Welsh literary critic? Who is the person you could look to (in English Language terms) up until the 1970s, when things like Welsh Writing in English comes about? I was at one point the only person in the University of Wales who was using English language Welsh literature as part of my teaching tools – and I was in a History department; it wasn’t being taught in the English departments. There were rare examples, such as Belinda Humphries doing the Cowper Powys’ down in West Wales. But the career of someone like Wynn Thomas in Swansea goes from being taught in English Literature in an English department, specialising in Walt Whitman, and then turns for all kinds of intellectual – and if you want, emotional reasons – to Welsh writing in both Welsh and English. Individual reach had to be secured by institutional paraphernalia, all of which, across so many areas came late to Welsh intellectual life.

Welsh historiography undoubtedly spurred Welsh literary criticism on. So now you have that series of monographs in which Katie Gramich appears, or Stephen Knight and Daniel Williams and their students, coming out after the historians’ work, chronologically that is.

So there was nothing collectively happening before the historians took on the task of writing Welsh history. Literature followed?

I remember being extremely excited to walk past the window of Lear’s Bookshop in Cardiff, when doing my PhD, and seeing Glyn Jones’ The Dragon Has Two Tongues, in 1968. Glyn was 63 by then – I knew a little about him, but not much. I bought it, and it was fantastic, because for me here was a voice pointing me in the direction of writers, all within the history I was researching. In that instance the dynamic was from a kind of literary history. But also from a participant and practitioner.

There is a footnote in that book to Lewis Jones; and I’d never heard of Lewis Jones. You go and look at any of the literary or history books of the time and you will not find the name Lewis Jones in there. Or the titles of his two Thirties’ epic novels. I went immediately to the reference section of Cardiff library and took out We Live to read, and I found it very disappointing, because I was a terrible literary snob back then! I did help later in getting Cwmardy and We Live back into print, in 1978 in the Academi series of the time, with a still rather stroppy little introduction from me which I do regret. So, my point is there were footnotes and little things coming through, but that was it really, whole swathes of Welsh experience and earlier expressions of it just lost or not investigated. And often deliberately neglected then in the universities, out of a compound of ignorance and snobbish contempt.

It was left to universities, later on, to address the dearth in real criticism, then. But academia can only do so much, and it often likes to burrow away without any tactile connection to society.

Where is or was the Welsh Edmund Wilson, is another way of putting? Because what Wilson disliked was the academic-isation of criticism; the failure to create intelligent criticism for the layperson. I suppose you could translate that in English terms to the late 30s as having a Geoffrey Grigson, or later as a DJ Enright, or even maybe as an FR Leavis. You wouldn’t regard them as part of the PhD-ification – if I can call it that – of criticism. And, of course, Raymond Williams then comes through like a freight train.

Williams uses Leavis and IA Richards to build his idea of cultural materialism, and to argue that literature does not just reflect society but also shapes it.

And as you began by asking where were the Welsh equivalents? I don’t know, maybe if we had had more emphatic subject discipline silos – addressing Welsh matters I mean – other than the Welsh language and literature? So when the Welsh historians are turning after the 60s to Welsh industrial working class history, there is finally a coterie or a circle of colleagues within an expanding sense of Welsh history; and people in literary circles are asking increasingly where is the fine, analytical literary criticism of RS Thomas or whoever in so called Anglo-Welsh literature; because it isn’t there. There were some individual exceptions, but as a discipline it is not there, and that’s because it wasn’t embedded in the higher education sector.

So, Welsh history became institutionalised in a way that Welsh critical literature took a while to do. And so it became ‘established’, and even thrived.

Yes. And then you come to the more amorphous thing, of ‘cultural criticism’. What are we talking about there? Politics? Political ecology? Who is writing about that? Well, I like to think I’ve done a bit of it but, importantly, I had to step outside of the subject discipline to do it. And even then you’d have to wonder where your work would be placed.

We come to the question of platform.

As a young man I would look forward to the Guardian Review on Thursdays, because Raymond Williams invariably would have a piece in there, and we vaguely knew he was Welsh. His thoughts were often fairly knotty and convoluted, but you were dealing with a mind that was refusing to be curtailed, to be compartmentalised; that’s what I think of as ‘cultural criticism’. I don’t see how a cultural critic of, say, the television drama of Wales in the 1990s – when I was responsible for a lot of it, and we did do things like Karl Francis’ Street Life and Trevor Griffiths’ Food for Ravens; and I tried to alter the grand guignol crap that was still coming around – well, the cultural critic coming to look at this would, if they were any good, have also to be asking why Wales Today, which I was also in charge of, went from being two presenters – who supposedly had some kind of symbiotic relationship with each other in newsreading terms, which I didn’t think worked – to being one single voice, a singular personality, one that I wanted to relate directly to the audience, coming directly through the screen into the home on an intimate one-to-one basis. That voice in pre-97, pre-devolved Wales, then began saying, because I orchestrated it to do so, things like ‘Tonight from the Capital…’, and people would get in touch and say, ‘Cardiff is not the capital, London is the capital’ and I would say, ‘Well, no, Cardiff is the capital of Wales.’ It was about trying to shape people’s cultural appreciation of where they were from – I don’t apologise for that.

Now, that simple thing – the way in which we presented the news, and the insistence on doing political news, not just ‘another murder in Llanelli’, all connected with what we were trying to do with drama. And was connected to the other cultural pertinences in which I was trying, in radio in particular, to create a national broadcaster, in English Language terms, that was talking to the Welsh audience about and for themselves.

What I’m saying is that those are all cultural connections, and so a cultural critic will need to sit back and say what an arrogant narcissistic toe-twisting bastard Smith must have been, and it all fell apart…

And why didn’t you give the people more Max Boyce?

…well, I did, actually. My wife said she’d divorce me if I commissioned Max Boyce, and they were the biggest audiences we ever had! But that was just me being a complete tart. But still married! And the underlying purpose was consistent.

I went to interview Studs Terkel, the great Oral Historian of America, and it was for Radio Wales, because he had a show on WFMT, the Chicago radio station, and Studs would have Alfred Brendel on talking about Beethoven’s Sonatas and then some guy on talking about Chicago architecture or whatever it was – so this was Radio Four squeezed out of a Chicago toothpaste tube. I asked him who is audience was? And he said, ‘I want my audience to be the working class stiff. I want to say to them, “Look! You don’t like opera!?! Sure you like opera. Let me tell you a story: there’s this girl, she’s Spanish, she rolls cigars on the inside of her thighs – waddaya means you don’t like opera!!!” And then I play them some Carmen.’ And it was that kind of seductive thing that I was trying to do by having, for example, on the morning on Radio Wales, Raymond’s novel Border Country serialised in 15 minute segments – we read the whole bloody thing! – then followed by Owen Money. Now, was there a connection? I was trying to make a cultural connection. And if there is a cultural critique then it has to understand that horizon of aspiration.

The connection lies in not ghettoising art from the working classes.

Well, I was born in 1945, and without getting romantic about it, yes, by the 1990s that idea of the working class as culturally aspirant that I grew up with had largely gone. I grew up in a society that was more localised in its place but more conscious of its own hard-won worth. And I can see sociologically that might have gone, but that doesn’t mean the values that I cherished or I think are cherishable through art can’t validate different ways to go forward.

But you were in a very privileged position to dare to try and influence people in the way you’ve just talked about. And there is the argument that making the connection between Border Country and Owen Money is admirable because it’s trying something out, rather than it is dictatorial.

The poet John Ormond, when I was becoming a broadcast exec, said – and I took it to heart – ‘Always remember that the 16 year old in Machynlleth hasn’t necessarily heard all this before.’ And that includes Dylan Thomas or Oscar Wilde. It’s the first time for some, so don’t apologise for revisiting things. There is no history, just the recapture of what occurred. It’s not just how history can be interpreted by every generation; it’s also what insights can be derived from history by being placed in a contemporary spotlight. So, I would say, about looking back on the histories I wrote in the 1980s, that I could genuinely write better history now by just being here today – it’s perspective.

I think all of that is right as far as identifying the role. So why does Wales lack that voice?

Not that I agreed with him, but Ned Thomas would have been a cultural critic, with The Welsh Extremist in 1970, and he certainly was attempting, from a Welsh language perspective, to envision a future for a Wales that had been, as he saw it, politically, socially, economically and, crucially, culturally, swamped by industrial and urban life. Ned’s attempted exit from the reality of a lived history was, I believe, entirely Leavisite, organicist and, ultimately, intellectually pathetic, and I said that at the time – but you can, at least, see where he was coming from.

I think a lot of the historians, more so in the 80s and 90s, stepped out onto those cultural and critical grounds. And to widespread effect. The films I made for BBC2 in 1984 as Wales! Wales?, and Gwyn Alf’s inspired The Dragon Has Two Tongues for HTV from 1985 (directly echoing Glyn Jones almost twenty years earlier) were deliberate cultural interventions. The Media were catching on to what was being said and written. And to good effect, too, as it laid foundations for debate and discussion. So, if you move on and look at the cross-cultural argument of M. Wynn Thomas’ work, and now Daniel Williams’ cross-over studies, like his recent Wales Unchained, and the feminism critique in particular, there has been a wholehearted acceptance of cultural criticism as being more powerful in arguing their cases than close-textual readings, or contextual biographical works.

So, I do think we have cultural critics in Wales today, and they’re mostly in the academic sphere, and they don’t get let out to play as often as they should; partly because our national newspaper(s) are pathetic – and they really are pathetic – and I think TV and the media in general has been dumbed down in the last 10 years – arts programmes have been taken off, and not just in Wales. The Slate may have been hard work at times but was it important? Of course it was. And what I was trying to do with things like the Studs Terkel idea I was talking about, was relate to an audience I thought I knew – the South Wales audience in particular – and I would say here’s Max Boyce, and stay with me, trust me; so we did a programme called Read All About Us, including one with difficult writers like Ron Berry, and I think the audience did, by and large, stay.

Do you think they got it?

They saw that this work related to them and they could take something from it. So, yes, I think they did get it.

A mainstay of the type of cultural discussions we’re on about here has always been the periodical. And in Wales, as with in every other country that has produced such publications, you have to look over time and ask who are they talking to? Without the natural randomiser of a national broadcast audience, or a daily newspaper audience, who are the people in these periodicals talking to? Who should they be talking to? These periodicals are traditionally by nature elitist conversations – but they are all you have in terms of platform, don’t they have a responsibility to reach beyond that little coterie?

I think you’re asking an important question, and to an extent you might break your heart over it.

There’s several ways of looking at this. If you’re going to write this work of international significance then why do it in Wales at all? I mean, why not? But, why? In Raymond Williams’ case there is an almost amoeba-like ability to split his emotional life and his wish to embody what he saw as human significance and experience. Not because it’s Welsh, but because it was human. It takes place in Border Country. It happens to be Welsh – or at least ‘borders’ – but it is human. And then there’s the way in which he was trained, not just via Cambridge, but by way of the English literary cannon. He was aware of people like Lewis Jones in the 30s, and of people like Dylan Thomas, but he wasn’t attached to that.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Using Williams as an example, as the pre-eminent cultural critic that Wales has produced, he is attached to the ideas, not to the conversation of national identity. He wouldn’t think of ignoring Walter Scott because he’s Scottish and not Welsh.

Well, this is the hard bit. So, if he wished to talk, alongside Burke or Carlyle or Lawrence whom he writes about, about a Welsh thinker and writer, who would he pick? Because I can’t think of a single person.


Maybe I’m being a little harsh; but there is no one who stands out in that way. And the Welshness of culture and society in that sense which is implicit, comes through the collectivisation. He says – over and over again – in 1956/8, that trade unions and collectivist organisations coming from the industrial working class are as much to do with culture as anything that is coming from the head of Ruskin.

So his big thinker is ‘society’.

Well, yes. It is what the working class has done. He was perfectly aware in 1958 that this collectivist culture absolutely rooted this idea in Wales. If you go back to Border Country, and to the forerunner Between Two Worlds (which has never been published), he is very explicit about the historical shifts from Chartism and the rest of it. You might say it’s too explicit for a novel, which is probably why it was never published.

So is this where Williams found his metier? Some things could only be satisfactorily explored and expressed in the novel as a form.

Yes; you have to say that the form of artistic representation that truly thrilled him was the novel. In Border Country he finds that form.

He becomes a cultural critic, in terms of his other work, not by disembodying it or by becoming universalist – he writes hardly anything about America or American writers and next to nothing about European writers. And so it’s the English literary cannon. The university silos into which people of Williams’ generation – and mine – was placed really drove you down those tracks. Raymond goes from Politics and Letters – an attempt at cultural criticism, but still Leavisite, and still believing absolutely ardently, and you might say madly, that if he can reach enough people with a close textual reading of practical analysis of, say, this passage from Lawrence, he will actually change the nature of their lives. He’s completely explicit about that. The working classes will come to consciousness by being possessed by a Leavisite power. And then not to go back to some Arcadian rural existence, but to go on via technology to an industrial civilisation. Now, he breaks away from that. In some senses he ceases to be a ‘literary critic’, and that’s when he becomes a ‘cultural critic’.

So where does Welsh intellectualism of that period of evolution fit into all this?

If you go back to the old question about why so many Welsh intellectuals become fiction writers and historians and broadcasters and educationalists – I use the analogy of the old school photograph where you have the boy on the one end who runs around the back to be photographed on the other end during the camera’s exposure. Well, in Welsh terms we’ve had to have 3 or 4 boys and girls running around the back, as it were. We just didn’t have enough bodies to take on the jobs.

If people hadn’t set out from Wales to write the history of Wales, nobody else would have done it. That can get narrow and tribalist, of course, but it still means it gets done. But in the same way if people hadn’t set out to save the literature of Wales, it would not have happened. Owen Sheers didn’t know who Alun Lewis was. Rachel Trezise, even on winning the Dylan Thomas prize, had never read a word of Gwyn Thomas or Ron Berry or Alun Richards. My instinct is that that is wrong. But since I’ve mentioned Alun Richards, he would have said that the writers who taught him how to write about Pontypridd were John O’Hara and James Gould Cousins.

And Rachel would say her influences were American.

And I would say, as an historian, my influences were the same. But it still means you have to get your fingers dirty. William Dean Howells said, ‘A man is not born in his native country for nothing’. Like it or not… I sometimes wish I was New York Jew, and Peter Stead thinks I am… but the dirt beneath my fingernails is Welsh and no matter how much I would like to I cannot become an Irish novelist or a Scottish historian. Maybe it will take a generation or more before we are comfortable with that universalist position.

Library of Wales has recently published Alun Richard’s memoir of Carwyn James and you wrote the forward to that. It seems there are two great friends who symbolised two very different ideas of what Wales is… or was.

Yes. Well, Alun – who called himself Alan; and he always called Carwyn, Car-win, deliberately to his face. Alun hated the idea of devolution and despised the Welsh language as a mode of production for the over-privileged; thought devolution was disastrous, and Carwyn, who was very much the opposite of all that, were deeply and intimately friends. Both born in 1929, both served national service in the navy etc. Alun says at one point in the book that Caryn ‘was the kind of Welshman that made you proud to be a member of the human race.’ And I think that just about gets it.

And in an odd sense, Carwyn’s deeply ingrained Welshness meant that he could be nothing other than a West Walian Welsh-speaker; but in other aspects of his persona could have been more easily an Englishman, or whatever you want to say… a ‘Briton’ or a ‘flannelled fool’. Whereas Alun, who was very cosmopolitan and deeply anti-Welsh inwardness, actually more than Carwyn, couldn’t have been anything other than what he was, that is, from that particular part of the valleys. Now, I don’t know what all those paradoxes mean, but I do know that ‘cultural criticism’ is the key to finding the answer. It isn’t an enigma.

We’re moving on to the question about the future prospects. In a world where everything comes to you, rather than you having to go out and discover, the idea of nationalism and parochialism seems to be more and more ridiculous. I think the very idea of national identity is going to have to incorporate a global context to it. You are exactly where you are from, but also part of a landscape where borders mean very little and are no longer imperative to control and to a sense of self. More people will find they have more in common with another human regardless of whether it is another Welsh person.

I’d like to agree. And I’d like to say that was how I used to view class politics – that I’d have more in common with a Yorkshire miner’s son than a Machynlleth farmer, or whatever. And I’d like to agree about universalism. But I have to say hang on a minute: what about ISIS, and The Ukraine? The break-up of Yugoslavia? All of those at some point were pan-nationalist and trans-nationalist and quasi-universalist. So when push comes to shove, it’s the Russian speaking part of the Crimea that is reverting to what you call man-made borders. They may be man-made but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Unfortunately, the bankers are probably the non-borders ideal you speak about.

Well, I don’t mean to say this is a utopia I’m talking about. But it’s a direction.

There’s a time and a space issue. You’re really talking about space and how the way we live can be bombarded and sent out regardless of whether we live in Cardiff or Timbuktu. I see that, and I also see ways in being more important as we exchange those universal messages.

So, I see when I went to Japan a couple of years ago that they have a thriving Raymond Williams Society. They used to love Terry Eagleton, but they got pissed off as everybody did with all that rubbish. And they discovered Raymond Williams. But their Raymond Williams is a Raymond Williams that they have to embed in what remains of the particularist Japanese cultural legacies. My experience of Tokyo was that I had never been to anywhere that was so much like a megalopolis. It was like a movie. Have you been?

Yes. I found Tokyo simultaneously familiar and alien. It was an exhilarating and discombobulating experience.

Yes; you have that, and then you have the way people respond and body language.

Western clothes and buildings of metal and concrete and yet something else amidst it all.

So why is that? That isn’t then about space or universalism. It’s to do with the other bit. It’s about the time continuum. At the end of it, you and I are both blokes who live in similar parts of Wales, yet you and I are imbricated with different timelines. Societies have that too. Now, the wicked guys, I can see why they would want to flatten that out and homogenise it, but we can’t. I think some of the things that make us particularly interesting as human beings are the things that we can only possess for ourselves although we can share them.

These are complex ideas. Do you think, like Raymond Williams thought, that the novel is only way to explore them?

I wrote my novel at this point in my career because I felt I needed a different way to tell the story I wanted to tell. I still wanted to write a collectivist experience, but in a new form. Some who have read my novel, Dream On, see that I am doing cultural criticism.

I write about characters in a Welsh setting because it is what I’m intimate with, I’m still reading Balzac and Moliere, and I’m still feeling the same thing.

There does seem to be an idea in some circles that this thing might be Welsh, and it is not to be given up to Balzac or Moliere. It is ours and about us. It is again that isolated way of dealing with things.

As we have both made the point that Welsh intellectuals have invariably found themselves in universities, and seeing how the nature of universities is changing – you could even argue it is moving away from the very idea of intellectualism – where do you see these figures coming from?

And more importantly where is the audience going to come from?

Much more importantly.

In strictly Welsh terms, we’ve lost both the socially informed audience and therefore we’ve lost a leadership that can relate to them, and sometimes those values float free. We are increasingly losing readers. And we might have to find different ways to communicate – I personally believe visual arts have a lot to do here.

But my short answer would be ‘don’t despair’; because you possess that cultural legacy – you would still argue for the ways you would express it, but it’s there. There has to be a full belief and acceptance by government and politicians – you convince them of the intrinsic power of the arts to deliver the kind of citizens of a democracy that is in the best interests of the politicians – the vehicle, the link, to attach themselves to that population.

But where are the natural congregations of people you can inspire?

The answer is schools. Restore the arts to their civic position, to quote Nye Bevan. Particularly in Wales, deprived socially and materially, but also it is an intellectually frozen world sometimes. You can move peoples’ hearts and minds. As we have said, people are already tapped in to the ideas of global communication, but we just allow them to tap in and leave them rootless… well, you know what happens to rootless plants: they wither and die.


Illustration by Dean Lewis