How green was my valley?

Issue: 134
Posted: 27 March 12

Tim Evans

Dai Smith, In The Frame: Memory in Society, 1910 to 2010 (Parthian 2010), £20

Dai Smith’s 446-page book In the Frame—”an alternative history of the past century in Wales” as he calls it—is an occasionally unwieldy collection of essays on Welsh working class history and culture which, at first sight, seems disjointed in terms of a unifying theme or connecting narrative. Smith himself acknowledges that the book is idiosyncratic in its preoccupations, being “necessarily askance…tangential, even close-up-and personal”. Its subjects range wide, from the 1910 Tonypandy riots, the boxers Freddie Welsh and Tommy Farr, to writers Gwyn Thomas, Alun Richards and Ron Berry, photographer Eugene Smith, artists like Charles Burton, historian Gwyn “Alf” Williams and writer and cultural critic Raymond Williams. It is part-biography, (indeed part autobiography), part historical analysis, part cultural meditation, part epistolary. This wholesale, sprawling quality sometimes gives it an undigestible feel: I would have appreciated more editing, more connective text and, crucially, an index.

Having said this, there are two special factors that unify this mass of detail: a sense of place and a sense of class. Smith grew up in the Rhondda: his hometown, Tonypandy, was firmly in mining country. And it was in Tonypandy that the miners’ strike of 1910-11 boiled over into widespread rioting in which shops were attacked and looted, the military intervention making Winston Churchill’s name a dirty word in the Rhondda still. The riots are a brooding presence in the book, comprising its starting point and its ending. The remarkable cover photograph shows a huge gathering of striking miners in Tonypandy. Serried ranks of faces gaze down on the local photographer, all but a handful wearing the flat caps of working men (what Smith refers to as “Dai caps”), as they wait to attend a mass meeting at the nearby Empire Theatre.

As was the case in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, most of these men had that week collected the last pay they would see for over a year. The photograph signals that this is not about an individual but about a community, a class. Simultaneously and paradoxically, however, it pulls us towards the subjective and individual: we discover that one of the faces peering down at us is that of Smith’s grandfather, Dafydd Humphrey Owen. The opening essay, “No Through Route”, is a meditation on this image, considered in conjunction with other collections of photos of miners and the mining areas, taken by the American photographers Eugene Smith and Robert Franks. In a powerful evocation of the mining valleys, Smith blends together the personal, the historical and the political. His grandparents and parents put in an appearance, in a scene re-creating his own birth in 1945, linking to the great miner-poet Idris Davies’s A Carol for the Coalfield, written at the same time and quoted here in full. The advent of the first majority Labour government had made the Rhondda “a place of pregnant promise in the mid-1940s; of promises long made and, it seemed, promises soon to be kept”. The interplay of expectation and disappointed hopes runs through the book with its fulcrum the Labour election, although the vibrations of other iconic years—1910, 1926, 1968—are evident.

The book is a kaleidoscopic mosaic of a specific working class identity which developed during the 20th century. There is a strong, textured sense of place, whether it is Tonypandy 1910, the pubs of 1960s Aberdare, the boxing clubs of Pontypridd, or the rainy Border Country of Raymond Williams’s Glynmawr. Interestingly, two of the most vivid chapters in the book are about Welsh boxers—Freddie Welsh and Tommy Farr. In the Frame constructs a history of an area defined by the development of a particular class so, although we see this community through the lenses of different writers, photographers and historians, it is the self-consciousness of the working class culture of the area which pulls things together and is the point of convergence. Historical perspectives are brought to bear—from Glanmore Williams and the Marxist Gwyn “Alf” Williams—in an attempt to describe the changes wrought in these communities. There is a lively awareness of stylistic elements as well as narrative, Smith memorably describing Gwyn “Alf”’s When Was Wales as a “headlong romp…a breathless laying-out of a magpie’s treasures in an intellectual souk that reverberated with stylistic tics”.

I found myself relating to the book on a personal as well as a political level. As a schoolboy Young Socialist I was a speaker on the platform with the miner MP James Griffiths at the general election eve of poll rally in Llanelli in 1964. Two years later, though, in protest at Labour’s complicity with the Vietnam War, I would be with those chasing and banging on the sides of Labour PM Harold Wilson’s car as he left the Swansea Guildhall. More specifically, Raymond Williams, Marxist critic and cultural historian, about whom Smith wrote the definitive biography, Raymond Williams: A Warrior$7_$_s Tale, was my university tutor from 1967 to 1970. My home town, Llanelli, was, like Smith’s Tonypandy, the site of a major industrial confrontation involving not miners but railway workers, exploding into rioting after men were shot dead by troops. In many ways Llanelli 1911 was a more serious crisis for the authorities than Tonypandy 1910, yet the myth that it was at Tonypandy that Churchill ordered miners to be shot persists.

In the last essay, “Full Circle:Tonypandy 1910”, Smith blends together personal and political elements in an exploration of the riots, the “festival of disorder” which was such an expression of jubilant defiance and which so shocked the press, the pulpit and the crachach, the local bourgeoisie. While Smith’s examination of the social dynamic of the riots has the great virtue of describing the uprising as a significant political event and ensuring that we take the rioters seriously, I kept wanting to compare them with the events at Llanelli a year later. Both were societies under stress; both saw colonising industries clashing against dynamic, changing communities. Yet these were also societies which retained elements of pre-industrial revolt: the ceffyl pren or wooden horse had long been used as unofficial community sanction and there were clear echoes of the Rebecca Riots—a revolt of the peasant farmers—in the Llanelli railway workers’ seizure of the level crossing gates. These rebellions contained elements of continuity as well as innovation. In the Frame locates the Tonypandy riots firmly in Rhondda society. What it does not do is place it within the spreading revolts of the Great Unrest, which developed, after all, an international dynamic of its own.

The past, as they say, is a different country. In the Frame is a stirring evocation of the last hundred years, smashing notions of an industrial and cultural “golden age” in contrast with the disintegration of the communities that emerged from it. What we need now more than ever, however, as well as an account of the period, is an examination of how we got from 1910 to 2011. This would acknowledge not only the ferocious scale of the continuing free market offensive, but also the failure of Labourism and of “parliamentary socialism”, whatever that used to mean (and whether you call it New Labour or not) to defend those that built the society that developed out of the end of the Second World War, as much as their failure to defend themselves. The Great Miners’ Strike, and its defeat, is a dark presence in Smith’s book. He talks, in passing, of “the heat and misconceived passion of 1984” and of supporting “its bravery on the ground whilst deploring its leadership at almost all levels of engagement”. While he talks, too, of the Labour Party twitching “on the mortuary slab reserved for the pre-deceased”, he does not relate this decay to their wider failure to support the miners or to fashion an alternative to neoliberalism. It is this failure—ultimately a political and ideological failure—that has paved the way for the current offensive that is threatening to do to the public sector what Thatcher did to the extractive and manufacturing industry.

In the Frame reconstructs and recreates the dynamic identity of a particularly combative and idiosyncratic working class. The Tonypandy riots, as the narrative’s point of departure and of arrival, help us delineate the features of that class. In 2011, a year of global riot and revolution, as old certainties collapse and as new generations take to the field of battle, the questions that the Tonypandy strikers had to face—”What are we fighting against and how do we fight it?”—come back to haunt us. Walter Benjamin argued that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule, and that “every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably”. In this book Dai Smith has at the very least ensured that the image of the Tonypandy strikers will not disappear.