Emyr Humphreys (1919-2020)

In recent years I have found it increasingly difficult to write about Wales. The attacks on our very existence by the thuggish, destructive Tory government in London and their agents in the media have been so hostile, belligerent and sustained that I have found it almost impossible to tackle the many serious issues at stake. It has been hard to know where to begin when dealing with the threatening malevolence, nasty bigotry, brazen ignorance and rabid Cymruphobia of the extreme rightwing British buffoons and Little Englanders who have seized power. How the hell do you argue with psychotic, know-nothing brats? And why bother when they so proudly reject reason and basic decency?

Like everyone else, my life is complicated, busy and demanding. I have just not been able to summon up the strength, the time and the resources to fully throw myself into the struggle – hence my contributions have been largely restricted to trivial matters or satirical sniping or furious tirades or melancholic laments. But that semi-detached shrivelling cannot and will not continue. Wales needs every single friend, defender and advocate to pull their weight and I intend to up my game exponentially.

One of the many subjects I have avoided, simply because I found it too redolent of the ongoing attempts to eradicate Wales, was a profile of the writer Emyr Humphreys, who died over two years ago in 2020 at the age of 101. Belatedly, I now feel able to pay tribute to this truly great Welshman – and thereby signal my determination to fight for the survival of Wales that he so eloquently represented.

Novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, non-fiction writer and television producer, Prestatyn-born Humphreys dominated Welsh writing in English for over 70 years from his first novel The Little Kingdom in 1946 to his last collection of new poems Shards of Light in 2018. His output was incredible: a bibliography of 26 novels, 37 short stories in five collections, at least another 20 short stories in magazines and compendiums, seven collections of poetry, six works of non-fiction, and countless articles, interviews, documents and scripts. What’s more, his standards were always superb. And, as he garnered experience and polished his technique, he got better and better as a writer to the point where by his 30s he had become a magnificent wordsmith of the highest order, his pared-down, minimalist narratives eschewing exposition, explanation and exhortation to allow his succinct, understated prose to knit a dazzling collage of clarity and complexity. Many literary critics consider A Toy Epic (1958) to be his masterpiece, and it is no exaggeration to place this extraordinarily potent novel among the all-time classics of the European tradition. It manages to be a pinnacle of both Welsh modernist literature and the Welsh historical novel while also being the ultimate Welsh national statement. A deep, evocative analysis of 20th century Wales and the human condition through the lives of three boys growing up in Flintshire between the wars, with searing perception and intelligence A Toy Epic nails the universality of any corner of Wales, foresees the debased Wales of today and, by default, points at a possible path towards a better tomorrow. Had Humphreys not been Welsh and his subject matter not been Wales this book alone would have been known globally and showered with prizes – but the British cultural watchdogs who stymie, shackle and supress Wales made sure it was unjustly neglected and that Emyr Humphreys, the great historical novelist of Wales, remained largely unknown even within Wales for the rest of his long life.

Unmotivated by materialism and by Anglo-American corporate values, Humphreys’ first priority was Wales. Raised in the village of Trelawnyd during the WW1 aftermath, he became a lifelong pacifist having seen what being gassed in the trenches did to his father, and then he was politicised by the outrage of the RAF Bombing School. The UK government insisted on building a bombing range, aerodrome and military facilities at Penyberth on the Llŷn Peninsular in 1936. Penyberth was a centuries-old farmhouse that was a precious centre of Welsh culture, language, poetry, literature and music as well as a famed resting place on the pilgrim route to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey), the ancient sacred burial grounds of over 20,000 Welsh saints. Coastal locations in England (in Northumberland and Dorset) had been previously proposed for the Bombing School but small local protests were enough to persuade the Tory government in London to impose the School on Wales without even a token consultation. Despite over 1/2 million Welsh people registering their opposition, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) ignored the petition. Then, after the wanton destruction of Penyberth had begun, three Welsh ‘nationalists’ set fire to the building site one night and then handed themselves in at Pwllheli police station in what would become such a touchstone of peaceful, non-violent protest it would come to be imitated by fighters against colonisation and imperialism everywhere. They were jailed after a show-trial at the Old Bailey in London and, by the time of the release of those three great Welshmen – dramatist Saunders Lewis (1893-1985), politician and pastor Lewis Valentine (1893-1986) and novelist DJ Williams (1885-1970) – the fire at Penyberth had become the symbol of a reawakening of Welsh consciousness and the revival of Welsh resistance, radicalism and republicanism. The fortunes of the nascent Plaid Cymru were ignited and the construction of a serious independence movement had commenced. Young Emyr was very much part of that first wave, joining Plaid and learning Welsh, and never forgot the contemptuous sadism of the British. He would have been sad but not surprised that such wicked stupidity would prevail throughout his entire life – he knew it would always be thus, so long as Wales remained shackled to the rotten British State. But even his serene detachment would have been tested by today’s scary far-right Tories; Tories who make Stanley Baldwin look like Mahatma Gandhi. The fact that a corrupt, callous, criminal sleaze-bag, hooligan hooray-henry and pathological liar like Boris Johnson was UK Prime Minister as Emyr Humphreys lay dying only clinches the inarguable case for Welsh independence that Emyr had fully sussed out as a teenager over 80 years earlier.

When WW2 broke out he was a scholarship student at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, but the War stopped him from graduating. True to his non-negotiable pacifist values, he registered as a conscientious objector and spent the conflict doing farm work in western Wales and then relief work in blitzed London before working at refugee camps in Egypt and Florence in Fascist-liberated Italy when the War ended. In Tuscany a life-long love of Italian art and culture was embedded in the archetypal Welsh European. But he returned to Wales, always his prime mission, obligation, responsibility and purpose, became a teacher, had his first novel published, married, spent a decade in Cardiff writing and translating drama scripts with BBC Wales, then lectured in drama at Bangor and eventually became a full-time author in the 1970s, settling in Llanfairpwll on Ynys Môn. All through the years he wrote and, with hindsight, it is possible to contend that his works, like a fine wine, just got richer and more intoxicating with time as they probed ever deeper into his abiding themes: Wales, society, politics, religion, colonialism and the colonised mind-set, mythology, people’s flaws and people’s virtues. Particular mention must be made of:
The Land of the Living (1971-1991) An epic septet of novels that together amount to the definitive chronicle of 20th century Wales: Flesh & Blood; The Best of Friends; Salt of the Earth; An Absolute Hero; Open Secrets; National Winner; Bonds of Attachment.
Outside the House of Baal (1965) A devastatingly honest, ambiguous, heartrending and luminous exploration of Welsh Nonconformism from the dedicated but always doubtful and detached Annibynwyr (Welsh Congregationalist). A contender as his greatest novel.
The Taliesin Tradition (1983) His supreme work of non-fiction, an astoundingly acute and exquisitely poetic examination of Welsh history and identity.
But these are just some selected highlights; there are treasures to be unearthed throughout his immense back catalogue. Personally, I mean to explore his poetry, which I’ve only fleetingly encountered, to have all his novels to hand on my bookshelves, and to devour all his short stories, where his inventive narrative methods, economy of style and marvellous aptitude for dialogue come into their own.

Emyr Humphreys was Wales’ great defender. His legacy is colossal. Without him, we are weaker and more vulnerable. His sheer comprehension, grasp, knowledge and intellect seem irreplaceable. But he has left us with the tools to ensure that Wales will survive. He has left us with an unparalleled encyclopaedia of our amazing ability to adapt, to transform, to resist, to endure the ebbs and flows of “the steady sequence of triumphs and disasters, splendours and miseries”, and to generate new footsoldiers, bards, wizards and folk heroes for the Wales of the future.