Edward Thomas in Swansea

February 24, 2019 1 Comment

Killed by a shell, a year short of his fortieth birthday, on 9 April 1917, at the start of the Battle of Arras, after seventeen years as a prose writer and a mere two years as one of the twentieth century’s finest poets. 

The bare facts of Edward Thomas’s life conceal a complex character and a troubled nature.  One of the concealed things, for many who take him to be quintessentially English writer, is his Welshness.  Both Thomas’s parents were Welsh (his father was a Welsh speaker), he spent much time in Wales, especially travelling on foot, and he strongly identified with Wales as his real home.  As early as 1899 he wrote in his diary, ‘Day by day grows my passion for Wales.  It is like a homesickness, but stronger than any homesickness I have ever felt – stronger than any passion.  Wales indeed is my soul’s native land.’

Jeff Towns’s recent book, Edward Thomas and Wales, gives us the evidence for this.  It includes selections from his prose works – sketches, articles, stories, letters and his only novel – that have a strong Welsh connection, together with useful appendixes, including an essay by Andrew Webb on reverberations of Wales in Thomas’s poems, a chronology, worth reading for its extra Welsh associations, and a personal ‘afterword’ – Jeff’s adventures over the years with ‘Edward Thomas’ in the book trade.

The selections are arranged in chronological order, starting with a youthful sketch from 1897.  This, and many of the early pieces, like the book Beautiful Wales (1905), are quite hard to read today: wordy, dreamy and imprecise, self-consciously literary and cluttered with literary allusions, often pallidly medievalist in tone.   The later pieces, though, hold real interest.  They include short stories, ‘Mothers and sons’ and ‘At the cottage door’ from the collection Rest and unrest (1910), ‘Home’ (1911), the nostalgic recollection of a dying soldier, and a lively picture of the keen pedestrian Iolo Morganwg, taken from Thomas’s only novel, The happy-go-lucky Morgans (1913) – surely one of the worst novel titles ever invented.

But the outstanding piece in the entire book is an essay called ‘Swansea village’, published in The English Review in June 1914.  Unlike much of the earlier work, this essay, some twelve pages long, is vividly and energetically written, with plenty of concrete, and sometimes plain, detail.  It’s also far from picturesque, because it concentrates entirely not on what the painter Grant Murray called ‘Swansea for pleasure’ – west Swansea, Mumbles and the Gower peninsula – but on the industrial heart of the city: the copper works and other factories lining the river Tawe.

Thomas is at pains to say that he’s as familiar with ‘Swansea for business’ as he is with the middle-class areas:

Year after year I go there (I do not mean to the Mumbles, but to the town, and nothing but the town) and walk up and down it and round it, inhaling sea air and mountain air, or the smells from copper works, cobalt works, manure works, and fried-fish shops; year after year I have felt that only friends could bring me again to Swansea.  But the town is a dirty witch.  You must hate her or love her, and I both love her and hate her, and return to her as often as four times in a year.

Evan Walters, The cockle woman;

This passage introduces the lovely/ugly antithesis that Thomas develops in the rest of the essay (as Jeff says, the piece must surely be the inspiration for Dylan Thomas’s similar Swansea paradox).  Different women stand in as contrasting symbols of the twin town:

… quarrelling in the Irish quarter – a woman at first having it her own way, shouting louder and louder and drowning the man’s bass interjections, then wildly screaming, ‘Bastard, bastard’, until the cry is smothered in noises of scuffling and throttling, and the victor’s voice rising for a moment as he strikes, and after that, her sobbing and moaning, that ends in silence broken only by the child they have awakened …  and the cockle-women (their white, scoured cockle-tubs on their heads or under their arms) from Penclawdd, dressed in half a dozen thicknesses of flannel, striped and checked, all different and all showy – with broad hips, no waists, stout legs slowly and powerfully moving, and the clearest of complexions and brightest of lips and eyes under their fine soft brown hair.

The landscape parallels this opposition:

Cheapnesss, clapham-junction, squalor, or actual hideousness is everywhere in contrast with grandeur, and even sublimity, and these qualities do not alternate, but conflict, or in some way co-operate.

Because the town is built on hillsides, even the meanest streets enjoy views of mountains or sea.  But the ‘real Swansea’ is the ‘low, waterside crowd of copper, steel, tin, zinc, silver, cobalt, manure and other works’.  The rest is just ‘an inexpensive prison where the workers may feed, smoke, read the newspapers, breed and sleep’.  And yet, on Townhill at night, he sees the furnaces blaze below.  The steel works, its roof removed for repair, looks ‘like a range of burning organ-pipes’.  And in the day, the ’black hills and vales of Landore … compose one of the sublimest of all absolutely human landscapes.’

Blackness, waste and decay are invariable by-products of industrial processes.  ‘Some sort of piety’ spares abandoned buildings from demolition, and dirty, rotting houses continue in use.  Thomas’s taste for the ‘medieval picturesque’ is satisfied in Swansea not by the Norman castle in its centre, but by the ruins of the eighteenth-century hilltop tenement Morris Castle (‘Trewyddfa Castle’).

Thomas climbs Kilvey Hill, with its fine views from the summit, but sees few other people there, since, as he says, everyone in Swansea has views:

For example, Byron Crescent, and, better still, Shelley Crescent, new streets high up on the green hill and curving with it, command so much of sea and mountain that their names are not ridiculous.

A more journalistic account of the visit would have included some conversations with local people, but it’s as if Thomas wanders the town with his head down in his notebook. This lack of direct human contact maybe contributed to the local hostility to the piece when it appeared in print.

Thomas ends the essay with a flourish, and a typically slightly overblown final sentence:

[Swansea] is a slattern.  Yet, being a spectator, I am glad I have known Swansea, and not a lesser Cardiff or Liverpool.  Equally shameless and unpretentious, it swarms about the Tawe, climbs over the hill with inconsiderate vitality, always allowing the magnitude and precipitousness of its hills to have full effect, while they in their turn emphasize the rustic squalor and confused simplicity of the town, combining with it to make a character which at the same moment irritates and fascinates.

The publication of ‘Swansea villlage’ excited comment in the local press.  On 2 June 1914 the Cambrian Daily Leader drew attention to Thomas’s article and found it ‘tolerably just’ (‘we have had heavier inflictions!’), in comparison with the scorn of other visitors, such as A.G. Bradley and Ernest Rhys.  The writer forgives his omissions: ‘much [is] to be said for the new Swansea that is rising to confound the old Swansea’.  On 12 June the newspaper reports that ‘an attempt has been made to show that Mr Edward Thomas … has set out to libel Swansea.  Nothing could be further from the truth’, and there followed a selection of Thomas’s more positive comments, ‘written with rare literary charm.’  The same issue has a letter from Thomas’s host on his stays in the town, John Williams:

He has been staying once, or more, annually with me since 1899.  I can assure you that I never knew a man more in love with the town and the district than he.  In truth, were it feasible, he would be amongst its residents.

I think the intelligent portion of the inhabitants of the town will be delighted with, and proud of, the sketch drawn of the town.  Moreover, I deem it one of the best word-pictures I have ever read.  And it is utterly and wholly true.

Some members of Swansea Council’s Library Committee, though, were less broad-minded.  A report of its discussion of Thomas’s article was published by the Cambrian Daily Leader on 10 June, under the heading ‘A storm in a tea cup!’

The Chairman, Mr. E. G. Protheroe, said that they, as a Library Committee, were responsible for the books there, and he proceeded to tell them of the article in the “English Review.” They had been spending large sums of money to boom Swansea, he said, and then this article came out, belittling Swansea, and putting them in a wrong light.  He pointed out that over 80,000 persons visited the Bath and West Show last week, and thousands of others came here who must have been pleased with the place.  He was of opinion that the article would do Swansea no good; he thought they should write to the editor of the “Review” and ask him to give the same publicity to an article on Swansea town as he had to “Swansea Village”.  

Mr. Crocker asked if the Chairman had read the article.  It was an article of great literary merit; he only wished that he himself could write in such a way.  The author (Mr. Ed. Thomas) was a master of language.  

The article was sent for from the Magazine Room, and Mr. Crocker proposed to read it.  

Mr. Lewis: Are you sure you are not giving him too much of an advertisement?

Mr. Crocker: It’s the chairman that’s doing it.

Mr. Crocker then proceeded to read the article.

Hearty “hear hears” greeted the observation, ‘”It is a magnificent town, of which some, if not Landore, mIght say even to-day that for scenery and climate, it excels the Gulf of Salerno or the Bay of Naples”, but on the reading of the words, “Many of its dark-haired and pale-skinned women are beautiful,” Mr. Moy Evans interjected the observation, “He’s all wrong about the women.”

Mr Crocker proceeded to read “Year after year I have felt that only friends could bring me to Swansea.  But the town is a dirty witch.  You must hate or love her, and I both love and hate her, and return to her as often as four times a year.”  

The Chairman objected to Mr Crocker interjecting his own remarks, and continued, “He says that, ‘compared to Cardiff she is a slattern.’  Read what he says about Greenhill!” You haven’t read it all!”

Mr. Crocker: “I’ve read it carefully, and with understanding.”

The Chairman again expressed the opinion that it belittled Swansea, and added that “I, as Chairman of this committee, think this article will do no good to Swansea, if read by Swansea people.  I say the way in which he describes Greenhill – ”

Mr. John Williams: “Let’s have that!

Chairman: Who’s the best reader here?  Here, Mr Williams!

Mr. Williams: Oh, no, I am a teacher; all you boys read one after the other. (Loud laughter).

Mr. Chapman: Where’s this Greenhill business?  Come on, I’ve known Greenhill for over 50 years; let’s have somebody else’s opinion.

Chairman:  He says he wouldn’t come here only that he has relatives here.

Mr. Crocker: I beg your pardon; he says the town is witchingly attractive.  He says nothing about our new docks, and nothing about Mumbles.  Nobody ever said that Dickens ruined London when he painted Bill Sykes.

Mr. John Williams said he would certainly read the article.  He did not feel called upon to give an opinion then.

Mr. Moy Evans said he did not think they could base any judgment on what they had heard. The writer was well known, a literary man famous for his style.  Only the other day he read a very pretty article by him on a walk from St. Clears.  With regard to this one, there might be a little flippancy about it, and no doubt there was.  But it was the sort of article they would expect to get from a literary man.

Mr. Crocker said it was a prose poem. Mr. Moy Evans: Of course, there are exaggerations.  Everybody that –

Chairman: Why not read before you expound?

Mr. Evans: I have read it.

Mr. Crocker: The chairman should read it.

Chairman: I’m giving my own opinion.

Mr. Chapman: What about Greenhill?

He seized the magazine and began to read of how the writer did not come to Swansea for “the shaggy cattle driven into the slaughter-house, and a woman carrying a baby in a shawl after them, nor to hear mid-night quarrelling in the Irish quarter.”  You can hear that in the English quarter, and hear it here sometimes!” he added.

Mr. John Williams: Which part is the article, and which is Mr. Chapman? (Loud laughter.)

Mr. Chapman went on to eulogise the singing of Swansea boys at midnight in the streets. “I’ve had ladies and gentlemen staying in my place who said it was perfectly lovely!” he said.

Mr. Williams: Rubbish!

Mr. Chapman: You can say what you like about rubbish, but it’s the truth!

Mr. Williams said his experience was that in the early hours picnickers came back all drunk, and that more drunk they were, the more they wanted to sing.

Chairman: I hope you won’t run down the old town.

Chapman (energetically): You had better not!

Mr. Williams: question is: Is it false or true?   If it is true, then it ought to be shown, so that we can mend our ways.

Mr. Crocker also read the concluding portion of the article …

Mr. Chapman: This is a very careful writer, who is using at least three points to make a picture!

Mr. David Griffiths: Is that all the matter? Then I. propose wo close the meeting. Leave it alone.

Mr. David Williams: We needn’t be afraid of the truth.

Mr. Moy Evans: I think it would be a great mistake to write to the editor; it would attach too much importance to it.

Mr. David Griffiths: Let the thing alone.

Mr. John Williams: I don’t agree with that.  I say if it’s wrong, we should pass a resolution; if it’s right, we should not interfere.

Voices: no, no.

Mr. David Griffiths: Then it’s all over.And so it was.

William Grant Murray, Swansea for business

The South Wales Weekly Post jumped on the critical bandwagon.  On 20 June 1914 it offered this judgement:

Why should Mr. E. Thomas be allowed to focus attention exclusively upon the shortcomings of the town – which the authorities, by means of money obtained from the ratepayers, are trying to make good in a manner not excelled, if even approached, by any other borough in the kingdom – without as much as a word of recognition of the existence of another side of the picture? 

Alerted to the controversy, no doubt by his friend John Williams, Edward Thomas wrote a response to his critics, published in the Cambrian Daily Leader on 15 June:

People who make a fuss about my “Swansea Village” take it too seriously, and their town not seriously enough.  I am an occasional visitor who uses his eyes. That is all.

When I wrote the article I did not even know that they had been spending large sums of money to boom Swansea.  But even if I had I should only have mentioned the fact; I should not have felt obliged to join the booming, for I do not know enough to do that.  I do not know enough to enable me to attack or defend such a great being as Swansea.  As I hardly thought it necessary to say, the article was not an attack on Swansea, or I should have taken the advice of your contemporary, and have made a sober statement of shortcomings and defects. I wrote a simple impression, and at the same time showed how I had received it.  

I made it, I should think, plain to anyone who was not suspiciously touchy, that I wrote as an outside onlooker, not as a scientific statistical critic, nor as a political partisan. The majority of my readers will see this.  Some will, no doubt, be tempted to visit Swansea, for such witchery is not common.  Those who had intended to spend a holiday at Pentre Estyll or Hafod will not be put off by a few lines of description.  As to the sands, the sea, the Mumbles, I have said nothing against them, and if I had, readers would take care to consider the facts before accepting my view of them – the view of a casual spectator with certain likes and dislikes very dearly manifested.

A number of opinions have been shown to me.  One calls the article cynical comment of the cheapest kind. but he cannot trust his fellow men to I see through it as he does!   Another says it is slanderous, another that I belittle Swansea, a third that I was wrong in thinking the women beautiful.  But, so far as I have noticed, no one convicts me of a mistake.  I dare not believe that I made no mistakes; yet it almost looks as if after all I am right, and I am being criticised because I have spoken the offensive truth.  In that case I hope, not that the article will damage Swansea, but that it may, in a small degree, strengthen the hands of the more capable lovers of the town.  

Until my critics prove it “false and unwarrantable,” I am not called upon I to defend the article.  It is for them to put forward “fact and reason” not to remain content with the idle opinion that fiction is more powerful than fact. I will not, however, flatter them. For they have proved themselves enemies of free speech.

Within weeks, peace was at an end, and the madness of world war engulfed Wales.  After much thought Edward Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles in July 1915, and was dead within a few days of arriving at the western front in April 1917.  Peter Thabit Jones, in his poem ‘Edward Thomas in Swansea’, makes explicit the connection between the different pandemonia, of industrial Swansea, of the trenches, and of Thomas’s mental state:

… It’s said you looked down

At Lower Swansea Valley,
The hell-smouldering
Far sprawl of tall
Choking factories

Was your mind a mess,
A trench of dark thoughts
That stretched away
From reality?

The jigsaw of Europe
Was breaking apart,
Young men queuing
To wear the King’s khaki.

‘Swansea village’ has been anthologised many times since Thomas’s visit.  Jeff says in his book that he’d like to publish it in a limited edition, with illustrations (George Little would be a good choice).  The piece still carries an expressive power, in part because Swansea’s dual character is still with us.  This despite the clearance of the remains of the copper industry from the lower Swansea valley in the 1960s – a demolition so comprehensive that almost nothing remains, apart from some relics of the Hafod works, of Thomas’s  ‘chimneys, like gigantic tree-trunks or temple pillars that have survived some gigantic desolation … among the most unforgettable things that men have made’.

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