BOOK REVIEW : Angry summer of an unhappy miner

COMPLETE POEMS of Idris Davies Ed. Dafydd Johnston University of Wales Press, £39.95
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The Independent Online
The poetry of Idris Davies has long been thought of as representing the authentic voice of the Welsh valleys. He wrote mostly about the inter-war Depression, particularly the General Strike of 1926 and the social deprivation that spread throughou t the coalfield after its collapse.

He made a hero of Dai, the typical miner with his allegiance to chapel, union and Labour Party, and attacked capitalism for its exploitation of communities such as Rhymney, where he was born in 1905. Among the poet's many fans is Neil Kinnock, who admir e s the socialism of his poems and their lyrical praise for the working class of Gwent and Glamorgan.

But this new edition of Davies's Complete Poems sheds a surprising new light on the poet's real beliefs. The editor, Dafydd Johnston, examines his attitudes to the events with which he has been closely associated. It emerges that he had little involvement with key aspects of life in industrial south Wales.

Davies, it seems, hated being a miner - "an ugly, cruel and dangerous'' trade - and was already thinking of leaving the mines when the strike began on 4 May 1926. He rejoiced in the crisis because it gave him an opportunity to read and walk the hills above Rhymney, and he returned to work a few weeks before the coal stoppage ended in November. Nor did he and his family suffer as others did: his father kept his job as a safety man at Abertysswg Colliery. Davies wasn't eligible for the dole, and never hadthe experience of standing in a soup queue or taking part in a hunger march.

Dr Johnston, senior lecturer in Welsh at Cardiff University, interprets the long poem entitled "The Angry Summer", which Idris Davies wrote about the strike years after it was over, as an attempt to create the solidarity with his own people he felt he lacked at the time. It wasn't that he had no sympathy for the unemployed, but that he felt detached from their suffering, he argues .

The poet was only too glad to leave South Wales for a two-year course at Loughborough College, going on to teaching jobs in London. As a teacher in various parts of England, he had no personal experience of the hardship caused by the Depression of the 1930s. Instead, it was the sight of unemployed miners singing in the streets of London that roused him to indignation and inspired one of his most famous poems, "Do you remember 1926?"

He returned to South Wales with a party of evacuees, whom he taught at Dunraven School in Treherbert. There he wrote most of the poems in his volume Tonypandy and Other Poems, which appeared in 1945. But he wasn't happy there: "the Rhondda is all right for those who love it," he wrote to a friend. "I certainly do not. I have no illusions about the Valleys or the people of the Valleys. Certainly, in the Rhondda, I have met about the narrowest and most vulgar people I have met anywhere."

Drawing on his unpublished journal and correspondence, now kept in the National Library of Wales, Dr Johnston shows that what Davies disliked in particular was the effect of economic decline on the cultural life of the Valleys and on the character of their people, which was in stark contrast to what he remembered from his youth. The poet was especially acerbic about the narrowness of Welsh Nonconformity and the opportunism of local Labour politicians, including Michael Foot, to whom he referred as a "young ex-Conservative playboy" when he was put up as Labour candidate for Monmouth in 1935. He took refuge from both religion and politics in a kind of paganism and aestheticism which were much nearer his heart than the Baptist faith and socialism of his boyhood. He died in Rhymney in 1953 and is commemorated there.

This new picture of him - "the troubadour of the blighted Valleys" - will shock and disappoint some of his admirers. But at this price the book isn't likely to fall into the hands of the people for whom Idris Davies claimed to be writing.

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