BLOG Prof Tony Brown

NWR Issue 117

The Dragon Has Two Tongues

I was struck by the way in which the long list for New Welsh Readers’ Poll reached way beyond Wales: to America, to Canada and to Nigeria. I was quietly pleased that the shortlist ended up with two books from Wales – though I am grateful that the poll brought to my attention Rebecca’s Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (placed third in Poll ranking), which I am about to read.

John Barnie’s The King of Ashes (Poll runner-up) has long been on my shelf: I bought it initially, when it came out in 1989, because of the three fine essays there on RS Thomas, but I stayed to read the others: essays on Welsh identity, on the blues, an important essay on Robert Lowell.

The essay, even the long review-essay, hasn’t perhaps got very deep roots in Wales – or at least not in English. Alongside John Barnie’s collection I would want to place Gwyn Jones’ Background to Dylan Thomas and other Explorations, published in the early 1990s, and Jeremy Hooker’s The Presence of the Past, published a few years earlier. These collections all seem to me to be slightly different works from the heavy-duty collections of more narrowly academic essays, all bespeckled with footnotes. There’s a certain elegance, a certain creative style, in Barnie, Jones and Hooker, that isn’t always present in more functional academic writing.

And Glyn Jones, of course, was there long before there was any academic study of Welsh writing in English. The Dragon Has Two Tongues was published fifty years ago this year. It was written out of a life-time of involvement in the literary life of Wales. Indeed, he wrote in this book of those who had been around him in those years; he knew personally all of the authors of whom he wrote: in fiction, Caradoc Evans, Jack Jones, and Gwyn Thomas and, in poetry, Huw Menai, Idris Davies and Dylan Thomas. All men, we notice. He reminds himself in his notes as he is writing The Dragon to ‘Look up Dorothy Edwards’ work’, but sadly she only gets a passing name-check, as do Menna Gallie and Margiad Evans. That first generation of Welsh writers in English was rather blokish in attitude.

It is, though, a deeply humane book, and, as I suggest in my Introduction, Glyn Jones emphasizes over and over the relation between the writers and their community. The writer, for Glyn, has a role, in his community, which I think is a very Welsh stance. (One thinks of the communal role of the Welsh-language poet from the medieval period onwards.) He didn’t really have too much sympathy for the notion of the writer as bohemian outsider, and I think that was part of the difference between Glyn and Dylan Thomas, whom he knew from 1934 onwards. Glyn Jones, the chapel-going, teetotal teacher, living a respectable life in suburban Cardiff, writes in his journal in the 1960s, ‘I represented all that [Dylan] was trying to get away from’. But Glyn writes in his notes when preparing this book, about how he couldn’t warm to the work of Vernon Watkins, but that he did admire him: ‘I didn’t admire Dylan at all, the silly bugger, but every time I saw him I loved him.’

It was one of the privileges of my life to get to know Glyn quite well in his last years and he was very pleased that The Dragon Has Two Tongues was to appear in a new updated edition [edited by Tony, in 2001]. He gave me a copy of the first [1968] edition of the book in which he had started in the margins of the early chapters to update the text, change tenses etc. I wish I could have competed the new edition before Glyn left us. He was a lovely man, and as Gwyn Jones wrote in the TLS when the book first appeared, ‘This is a lovely book.’

Tony Brown is Professor Emeritus in School of English Literature, and is also co-director of the RS Thomas Research Centre at Bangor University. He was the founder-editor of Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays, and is the author of a wide range of publications on English-language literature in Wales, including essays and reviews for New Welsh Review. He specialises in the work of Glyn Jones, including an edition of his Collected Stories from 1999, and in the work of RS Thomas, with Tony’s edition of a study of the poet appearing in UWP’s Writers of Wales series, re-issued by that press in 2013.

The Dragon Has Two Tongues (Dent, UWP) by Glyn Jones won the New Welsh Readers’ Poll 2018 this summer for the best ever essay collection published in English. It is out now in a new edition from the University of Wales Press edited by Prof Brown. The piece above was delivered as a speech at the shortlisting ceremony at Aberystwyth Arts Centre bookshop for the New Welsh Writing Awards 2018: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection. The winner will be announced at the final ceremony on Tuesday 29 May, 3pm, Summerhouse, Hay Festival, from a shortlist of essay collections by Alex Diggins, Ed Garland and Nicholas Murray. Previous winners are Eluned Gramich and Mandy Sutter.

       


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