Inspiring Older Readers
The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas
I have to admit that I’d never heard of Gwyn Thomas (1913 – 1981) until I came across this book but it just goes to show how a bit of bookshop serendipity can shine a light into the dusty corners of literary history.
Back in the 1950s Gwyn Thomas was in fact vying with two other famous Welsh Thomas’s – Dylan and R.S. – to be seen as the representative voice of Welsh literature. Somehow, and don’t ask me quite how, posterity decided that the names of the poets would survive while that of Gwyn would be eclipsed. However, despite history being unkind to his literary identity, Gwyn was still something of a radio personality in his pomp, appearing on the famous Brains Trust on a regular basis.
Elaine Morgan’s foreword to this reprint from the Library of Wales’ Parthian imprint talks enthusiastically about Thomas’ humour and compares him to Billy Connolly in his ability to reduce an audience to helpless tears of laughter. She also notes that:
“At the height of his career Gwyn had a string of novels to his credit, a highly acclaimed play running in the West End, and a cult following in America.”
Deprecatingly enough, when he was asked to characterise his writing, Thomas called it ‘Chekov and chips’ which many argue underplays the skill and commitment of his work. Thomas didn’t ever claim to write political works but his Socialism – informed by his Welsh mining community background – runs through The Dark Philosophers like a seaside town name through a stick of rock.
Originally released in 1946, very early in his writing career, this book is in fact a trio of novellas – although some might, I think, claim that it’s actually two novellas and a long short story. The book has been reprinted a couple of times before and this has led to it being mistakenly taken for one of his later works – a view that seems to stem from the extraordinary mix of dark humour and distressingly tragic topics that make up the trilogy. Not surprisingly I guess, not everyone was convinced that this was a recipe for success and the manuscript was originally rejected by Gollancz who said to Thomas that:
“It is worthwhile to remember that…your audience will be 90% more or less tender-stomached. You will frighten them all away if you write in this fashion.”
All three stories are set against the background of the pre-war South Wales coal fields where unemployment, economic Depression and the travails of working class communities are the stuff of life. The first, Oscar, is narrated by a young man, Lewis, who has landed the dubious job of ‘looking after’ the eponymous Oscar – an extraordinarily corpulent ‘hog’ of a man who owns the local mountain and coal tip and who takes it as his right to drink and womanise in equal intemperate measure. The disgust Oscar engenders in everyone is described with a kind of visceral relish – it’s both funny and revolting - and it’s no surprise to discover that no-one would find his death a loss. But Oscar feels invulnerable – he feels he can take whatever he wants – until after the death of Lewis’s friend and neighbour and Oscar’s claiming of his widow proves to be a step too far. When Lewis has to guide his drunken charge home from the pub, the path lies close to the precipice of a quarry…….
The longest piece, the one that gives the collection its title, has, in many ways, a classic comic scenario. A group of middle aged men made unemployed in the Depression find themselves working in jobs they are hardly suited to but for who life is made tolerable by their regular meetings in Idomeneo’s café, where they chew the fat over life and politics. One of the targets of their ire is the preacher, Rev Emmanuel Prees, who, the men think, has abandoned the cause of the poor and become a mouth-piece for the bosses – constantly preaching that the meek will inherit and that people should not struggle to improve their lot but accept what happens to them. Despite pouring scorn on him and his ‘beliefs’ they discover that the youngest member of their group, Willie, has fallen under the preacher’s spell. But, of course, Emmanuel is indeed a fraud and when he’s finally overcome with lust, his repressed emotions just can’t cope….
The much shorter story, Simeon, is another story about a monster - but this time there really aren’t too many laughs on offer. It’s a disturbing tale of paedophilia and incest that focuses on how isolated communities can create terrible situations that people prefer to turn a blind eye to. Simeon has effectively kept two of his daughters captive and they have had children by him – now his youngest child is set to return home again and something must be done to save her from a terrible fate…
This is a pretty remarkable collection – not uniformly good and with all sorts of structural problems – but quite why they have been so neglected isn’t clear to me because there’s plenty here to admire. Not least is the ambition Thomas clearly has to do something quite different with the voices of his characters and to give his working class characters a unique lexicon. In 1947 the New York Herald Tribune in reviewing this book said that it was ‘as if Thomas Hardy met Damon Runyon over a loving cup of small beer’ and that is, I think, an astute summation, capturing the idiosyncratic style perfectly.
The Library of Wales reprint can be found on line easily enough and I’m guessing it should be available to order from your local independent bookshop.