UNDERRATED / An ear for the music: The case for Gwyn Thomas

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The Independent Culture
League tables are one of the principal plagues of our time. They tell us, crudely, that Manchester United can afford to hire a better footballer than, say, Stalybridge Celtic. Applied to more complex activities, like the arts, they are total gobbledegook; a messy pottage of writers of the month, dramatists of the week, flavours of the instant. So, when I claim that Gwyn Thomas was the greatest comic novelist of our time, I do so in the spirit of genial saloon bar chat. It's only a game but he is top of my fantasy league.

His achievement, as novelist, short-story writer, dramatist and broadcaster, was to record the lasting impact on the common people of the most crucial event of the last two centuries: the Industrial Revolution. His writing covers all three acts in the melodrama: the social catastrophe of its arrival, the enduring misery of its presence, the monumental and merciless greed of its departure. It is the stuff of grand opera and Gwyn Thomas, a son of the Welsh valleys who grew up between the wars, had an ear for the music. He wrote operatically, in the Celtic tradition, with passion and an unrelenting love of language.

My love affair with Gwyn Thomas's work began in the 1950s. A still small voice was beginning to murmur thoughts of writing as a congenial long-term alternative to a proper job, but most of the books in the public library seemed to be about extra- terrestrial beings: the characters lived in country houses, spoke in epigrams and never did any work.

Then, on the fiction shelves, I found Thomas' books. They were about a world I recognised, intoxicating stuff, boiling over with political passion, wild poetry and jokes that simmered and scorched. The people, generally described as 'elements' or 'voters', had names like Omri Hemlock and Mathew Sewell the Sotto.

Forty years on, his qualities seem even more impressive, the jokes funnier, the rage totally vindicated by recent history. At the centre is a generosity of spirit, light years away from the spite of Evelyn Waugh or the wordsmithery of Wodehouse. Above all, his work deals with something that matters: the core element in our national heritage, the heritage of the heart, that comes with a small 'h' and, praise be, without a Cabinet Minister to run it.

Thomas recorded the full spectrum. The Merthyr Riots of 1831 inspired a classic novel, All Things Betray Thee, and an anarchic play, Jackie the Jumper. The starveling years between the wars forged the consciousness that gave us the contemporary stories and also made him perhaps the only writer able to speak aptly about the Aberfan disaster of October 1966, in a broadcast of astonishing simplicity, pain and compassion.

The neglect of Gwyn Thomas since his death in 1981 is, I suspect, part of the greater neglect that consigns so many Celtic writers to asterisks and footnotes in the Eng Lit canon. But perhaps rough justice will be done, if we hang around long enough. At the end of All Things Betray Thee, the central character says: 'I turned . . . feeling in my fingers the promise of a new enormous music.' It is the proper time for people to listen to the enormous music of Gwyn Thomas: it sings for all of us.

'Selected Exits', Alan Plater's recent TV dramatisation of Gwyn Thomas's autobiography, won a Bafta Cymru Award

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