Sunday 11 December 2016

Gwyn Thomas - the art of the storyteller

Of the great storytellers of recent times, the Welshman Gwyn Thomas (1913-81) must rank high: indeed nobody I know of ranks higher in terms of a spontaneous flow of colourful, poetic and unexpected language.

Through the nineteen sixties and into the seventies, Gwyn Thomas was probably the representative Welsh commentator on his nation, so far as the mass media were concerned - Wales was his prime subject matter.

Indeed, like many storytellers or raconteurs, he wrote and spoke mostly about himself: Gwyn Thomas in relation to Wales - he made himself and his environment (English speaking South Wales) into fictional characters; and articulating his response to a crazy and hostile world was the essence of the method.

If you love (as I do) the prose of Dylan Thomas (as well as the poetry) - then you will certainly feel the same way about Gwyn Thomas (no relation - Thomas is one of the commonest South Walian surnames); which shares the same virtues, while being more intellectual and baroque in form.

The Anglo-Welsh have a distinctive way of using language which seems to derive from their distinctive accent with its sing-sing intonations and rounding-out of round-vowel-sounds. Gwyn Thomas was probably one of the great talkers ever, a real spellbinder, and this too is an Anglo-Welsh thing - supposedly deriving from the hwyl style of chapel preaching.

 From 9 minutes his live conversation - and its effect on people - can be seen in full flow...

But it is no coincidence that one of the handful of great talkers and conversationalists I have known was a South Walian; capable of improvising and elaborating (exaggerating and fictionalising) a couple of minutes of observation or personal embarrassment into a symphony of self-deprecating humour that left me gasping for breath with helpless laughter.

As with so many of the British 'Celts', Gwyn Thomas's gift was enhanced and fuelled by alcohol - the fluency and freedom apparently required it; as as usually happens in such cases it led to illness and psychological decline in later years. But Gwyn Thomas was never a happy man - indeed made no pretence at being one; on the contrary he was an angry young communist who grew-up to be a bitter sentimental socialist atheist - and not far beneath the hi-jinks of his verbal dexterity and intense appreciation of the small things in life, was a leaden despair at the human condition.

So, I have posted videos above - and I presume I saw a great deal of Gwyn Thomas during my childhood, because - being adjacent to Wales, we had Welsh TV; but (if so) he blurs into a tapestry of incantatory anecdote and exaggeration.

My proper discovery came after a TV play based on Thomas's autobiography A Few Selected Exits (written by Alan Plater - himself a North East English version of the same basic type) starring Anthony Hopkins. I went on to read the actual book - which is undoubtedly one of the very best of all autobiographies. That is certainly the thing to read.

Aside from his autobiography, I much liked his A Welsh Eye, and I have dug-out a couple of books of short pieces, and a biography by Michael Parnell. (I haven't any interest in what I have seen of the novels.)

But I think the truth is that Gwyn Thomas was a great talker and storyteller who once fully-succeeded in getting this onto paper, in A Few Selected Exits - a one-off permanent classic of English Literature. Here is an excerpt from its gorgeous final passage:

I was at the Fountain Inn one evening last summer. Our intention was to cross the plateau all the way to Mountain Ash and fix once and for all the location of that shrine of loveliness that had slipped furtively in and out of my father's talk and dreams of so many years ago. 

The whole day had been a throne of sweet sensations. The walk over the mountain-top had been exquisite, the air and the grass a matching velvet...

The choir roared into a piece about the irrelevance of death and the certain prospect of renewal... Then, the midsummer dusk outstanding, they sang one of the loveliest of the quiet carols. The night put on a cap of gold. I was home, at my earth's warm centre. The scared monkey was back in the branches of his best-loved tree. I've never had any truly passionate wish to be elsewhere.