Chekhov with Chips’ – that’s how the author himself attempted to characterise his own novels when asked, and I’d be loathe to disagree much with that assessment. Thomas (1913-1981) grew up in the Welsh Rhondda Valley, before gaining a scholarship to study at Oxford but it is evident in his writing how formative his experiences as a young man were to his personality and politics. In these stories first published in 1946, one senses a strongly autobiographical element bolstering the lives lived and explored in an impoverished South Wales neighbourhood – or The Terraces – as they are consistently known. That he would regularly choose to adopt the first person plural – we- as a narrative device attests to to a forceful identification amongst those of whom he is writing.
As one might expect of book set in these times the world inhabited in this pages is certainly bleak: containing variously elements of violence, revenge, bitterness, abuses of power – physical and spiritual – and a population that is struggling to get by on not very much at all – and in Thomas’ view, even that ‘not much at all’ was still still rather too much for the more objectionable personalities in power quite taken in by a stately greed. Yet, there is a welcome counterbalance to the destitute setting, in its rich wryness of humour, that is as affectionate as it is sharp.
Within each tale there may lie monstrous tyrants, but there is also no small amount of warmth to be found in certain of those who survive there. The eponymous friends in the middle story – Ben, Walter, Arthur and John ( the narrator ), along with Idemeno the Italian cafe owner, Willie and Margaret are infused with a form of stoic tenderness for example. The stories also feature the familiar association of welsh valley boys who like to sing – a feature most explicit in the final novel Simeon too.
In addition to the more appealing characters available, the dry humour serves a style that is as distinct in it’s tone as in it’s structure, one allowing a sardonic voice that belies a savage anger at the warrantless cruelty of authority – both men and state – whilst equally offering up a Camus-esque sense of the absurd, of the irrelevance of notions of choice for those living here. There is a verbose precision to the style, conveying a meaning efficiently, whilst maintaining a full bodied structure to the sentences; eschewing any form of slang or diminutive language formation. As an example, here’s an excerpt from book two, ‘The Dark Philosophers’:
We found Mrs Radnor’s house to be one of a group of small houses in the top but one Terrace. The woodwork of the house looked as if the landlord thought paint was a deadly poision to be obtained only after getting a note from the doctor, and not even then if the tenants lacked the means to burn down the woodwork and move off to some quarter that had a fresher look.
While waiting for the door to open, Willie, whispering in a very important way, told us that the two rooms of this house, that were not occupied by Margaret and her mother, where lived in a voter called Hector. We knew this Hector by the back. A backward element who looked like an ape and acted like some animal that had not been found yet and has not been named for that reason; unless you want to take a short cut and call it Hector.
The portrait of the house is indicative of a subtle but effective means of satirising the climate of the Terraces, both understated but also -taken as part of the whole – damning of the living conditions. Politically, almost every character large or small in all the books are introduced as ‘voters’, which can be viewed either as an ironic suggestion that these individuals are genuine agents of their own future destiny, or that they are complicit in their own fate. At any rate, it always keeps the spectre of political change, however futile it may be, at the front of the readers’ consciousness. The term element is also ubiquitous to the book, and both a method of distinguishing Thomas’ voice in the writing. It can underscore how each individual is both remarkably insignificant in the world, a disparate disconnected soul who taken on it’s own can offer up nothing on his own, but in parallel to that it also invokes it’s opposite too – the coalescing of elements creates a more unified and stronger whole – which given the Marxist politics of Thomas would certainly be appropriate to his line of thought.
The first of the tales then is full of political allegory – the Mountain and Oscar are synecdoche’s for a distant government’s crushing policies that have disenfranchised the communities, and left it in poverty and ruin. The narrator Lewis is a young man who takes work with Oscar, like many others in the tale, simply as it’s the only expedient option available to procure any form of wage. Through his eyes, and interactions with Oscar, his friend Danny and assorted local characters we have a window into the world of The Terraces. He is the detached yet clearly troubled embodiment of the next generation who has grown up in this environment, learning and accepting that pragmatism in survival comes with a moral cost, yet the alternatives as seen through the weakened and destitute characters such as his neighbour and friend Danny indicate a lack of viable options available, life in the welsh valleys in the 20s and 30is about surviving, and even that’s a tricky business.
As mentioned above, despite the bleakness of the surroundings there is an absurdity in the bleak humour of the existence. The Harp’s Landlord plainfaced concern over the missing Moral Sense is amusing coming from a man who watches over many insalubrious acts within his pub, one that regularly hosts the greatest source of local misery for the populace – Oscar – attending to his rapacious desires for women, food and drink. Oscar’s overwhelming and overbearing presence pores into every area of effectively his own little dominion from start to finish, here but the resident wry humour applied to the narrative, creates tentative hope for rebellion.
The Dark Philosophers
A more established tale that’s overtly political and philosophical in it’s treatment of the characters and the environs in which these voters resides, Thomas is more explicit in aligning himself with the story, with the use of the ‘we’ pronoun. It serves to help establish a link to the reality that is described, lending a more personal vision to this imagined world having a very real sense of place in Thomas’ past. The frequent references to the Terraces’ and the poverty therein has a very acute sense of familiarity about it – not least as seen in the unavoidably polemical tone the book has in it’s opposition towards certain traits possessed by Mr Dalbie and Reverend Emmanuel. The latter in particular holds the “Philosophers” ire due to the volte-face in attitudes he displays from his pulpit once his sponsor Mr Dalbie – a coal-owner – criticises the younger Emmanuel for calling attention to trivial issues such as the abuse of labour and the impoverished state of the “voters.”
The eponymous characters chiefly feature the narrator himself (John), and friends: Ben, Arthur, and Walter who congregate at The Library and Institute and act as the weary observers of life in the valley, enjoying respite from the ardours of work and life in a cafe. They are a community unto themselves, held in suspicion by many others, for not subscribing to the doctrines and sermons preached by the now much-changed Rev. Emmanuel, whose absurdist spin on the troubles on the region reflects statements that do meet with experiences of those who are living through this period. As they chew the fat in the cafe – run by a friendly but broke Italian named Idomeneo – they come into contact with young Willie, whose naivety clearly contrasts with the dry-witted cynics. Willie’s courting of a young girl – Margaret – jump-starts a narrative that intertwines the lives of all of the main characters with that of the Rev. as past histories are brought to a darkly apt. climax.
The shortest of the three novellas, but also the darkest. The humour and one-line wit remains, but the brutality – and his revolting abuse of power – physically, sexually and mentally of the eponymous character tips the ballance into a bleaker more savage tone. Colenso, Emrys and the narrator – Ben – are a younger group of friends, around 16 – and a generation removed from the Dark Philosophers but between possess the similar qualities of naivety – Ben – and hardened experience – Colenso and Emrys. The trio know Simeon as a man who gives them some money in exchange for hearing them sing a few songs, until one day Simeon offers Ben a job working for him, an offer that appears infinitely preferable to Ben’s current occupation. It doesn’t take too long to realise though that all is not as it seems in the household and with Simeon himself.
It was not a surprise to read in the introduction by Elaine Morgan that the Gollancz were unwilling to publish at the time – late 30’s, due to it’s bleakness of tone, but it didn’t stop many reviewers on it’s release in 1946 also finding his voice distinctive and original, and certainly as a social critic, with Thomas’ own characterisation in mind you can see the Russian style inflecting his commentary on the times, but the peculiarly Welsh voice stands above this classification and certainly well worth a wider audience.