Gwyn Thomas: Centenary of Rhondda writer's birth

By Huw Thomas
BBC Wales arts and media correspondent

Image caption,
Gwyn Thomas excelled at school and later won a scholarship to Oxford University

It is 100 years since the birth of Gwyn Thomas, the novelist and playwright from Cymmer in the Rhondda whose dark humour attracted a loyal readership in Britain and the United States.

His quick wit transferred neatly from the page to the airwaves, his fiction delighting radio and television audiences as much as his personal appearances on The Brains Trust and chat shows like Parkinson and Kane on Friday.

The glamour of the TV studios was a world away from his formative years on High Street in Cymmer.

The last of 12 children, his father looked after pit ponies at a time when the Rhondda was embedded in coal production.

He later recalled: "I'm the youngest of 12 children, which is quite a load to bear, humanly speaking.

"Because I don't know how it is in other parts of the country or the world, but in Wales if you are the youngest of a very large family, you are the chopping block for the lot."

Despite the grim reality of his early life, including the death of his mother, Gwyn Thomas excelled at school.

At 18 he won a scholarship to Oxford, the boy from Cymmer surrounded by the sons of the English aristocracy.

"The effect of Oxford on me, the son of an unemployed miner? I mean there were thousands of people at Oxford whose fathers were unemployed, but I was the only one whose father was officially unemployed," he told Michael Parkinson in one of his many chat show appearances.

From Oxford he returned to south Wales to teach, where he became known as "Killer" Thomas in the classroom for his habit of dressing like a B-movie gangster.

'Outrageous' language

His pupils loved him and he continued teaching while his writing blossomed.

His publishers soon realised that Thomas's scripted humour was an enormous attraction for readers and audiences.

Katie Gramich, professor of English at Cardiff University, said Gwyn Thomas's dark humour helped to draw a loyal following.

"That's one of the great advantages of Gwyn Thomas's writing for a reader. He's very, very funny - he's laugh-out-loud funny. But at the same time he's not just a slapstick performer, he's actually very sophisticated," she said.

"He uses language in a very playful, over-the-top and outrageous way."

It was a radio play, Gazooka, broadcast in the early 1950s that helped Gwyn Thomas achieve popular success.

Despite the draw of London - the parties, the people, the panel shows - Thomas kept south Wales as his home.

In "A Few Selected Exits", the book he later referred to as "an autobiography of sorts," Thomas said of Wales: "It was and is the land of my emotions."

He later put his deep attachment to Wales down to the early death of his mother.

"My mother died when I was very, very young. But I've never lost the sense of belonging to her, this magnetic woman who I never truly knew.

"And it's manifested itself of course in this geographical context: I am never happy unless I am in this county of Glamorgan," he said.

Prof Gramich said Thomas remained unknown to many and hoped his centenary would encourage more to pick up his work.

Ripple of enjoyment

"I think he's still not very well-known, unfortunately, and I do think that he deserves more attention from the literary establishment - not only in Wales but in America as well," she said.

"If I were to compare him with his peers in the English novel, I would compare him with Kingsley Amis or Evelyn Waugh, who were more or less his contemporaries. And those three write in a similar vein of satirical humour."

Gwyn Thomas died in 1981. His centenary this year is sandwiched between events to mark 100 years since the birth of RS Thomas and next year's commemorations for Dylan Thomas.

And while Thomas's fame and notoriety sits sometimes in the shadow of the other tempestuous Thomases, his dark humour still casts a ripple of enjoyment through the Rhondda and the minds of his readers.

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