Writing LGBT Wales in Literature

Something a bit different this week – with an eye on LGBT history month in a few weeks time, and the always present demand for reading suggestions. This list is ecclectic, a little skewed towards the late twentieth century, but hopefully offers the interested a list of LGBT or queer-able classics to enjoy. Let me know what you think!

10. Bob yn y Ddinas by Sion Eirian (1979)

This deceptively simple novel, published in the late-1970s, tells the story of a young man–Bob–displaced from his home and living in a shabby and run-down Cardiff. He wanders the streets, drinks in the pubs, and generally does as young men without a purpose do. This is one of those books which serves as much as a snapshot of a moment as a profound work of literature, but it makes this list because part way through, Eirian introduces us to one of the first gay bays ever to appear in Welsh literature – in either language. The scene takes place in the Duke of Wellington, very much a real pub which you can still go to, and features a gobby but supportive drag artist and a gay barman, Toni, who spares the blushes of his otherwise straight clientele by convincing them to have their drinks in another part of the pub.

9. So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry (1970)

Is this really a gay novel? Not conventionally but Ron Berry often offers hints at queer characters in his novels and in his autobiography, and there is no reason to think that the accusations levelled at Hector Bebb – the boxer who believes a little too much in the regimen and not quite enough in his wife – that perhaps the homosocial world of the gym and the ring appealed to him in a way that traditional heterosexuality did not. This is a novel that benefits a queer reading, quite as much as a straight one, and with that lens applied suddenly Hector Bebb appears as an even more sympathetic character. Perhaps even, dare I say it, one of literature’s great icons.

8. The Homeless Heart-Throb by Crystal Jeans (2019)

Back in Cardiff, again, this time with Crystal Jeans’s hilarious but at the same time heart-breaking novel published just a few months ago. As with all of Jeans’s writings, this is rich in its LGBT themes, including a young woman, Lou, who is ‘not quite bisexual enough’ to date her boyfriend. This is contemporary Welsh literature at its best – a gauntlet challenge to those who imagine things still to be all about mining and chapels.

7. Llwyth by Dafydd James (2010)

The only play in this list, but a landmark play all the same – Dafydd James’s Llwyth or Tribe, as it would be in English. A hit when it was first performed at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, the play describes itself as a ‘A gay fantasia on Welsh themes set during a rugby international night in Cardiff. Wales lost, but four gay friends are determined to have a night to remember, whatever the cost.’ All the expected characters are there but in the end this is a curiously apolitical work. The moment for that, I think, has passed but at the time it summed up a post-liberation, post-section 28, post-AIDS, ‘freedom’ in which hedonism rather than civil rights mattered more. A time capsule.

6. One Moonlit Night by Caradog Pritchard (1961)

This is Welsh-language literature at its finest and a novel which seems to contain everything from queer themes to boxing to suicide. All forms of sexuality are explored, too, including incest and homosexuality but the novelist refrains from making judgements – instead, they are left to the reader. If any novel from Wales was to take the title, ‘queer’, then this would be it. A landmark, often voted as the greatest Welsh novel of all. I’m not convinced of that myself, but it’s certainly an important work. Those curious can search out the 1991 feature film, too.

5. Welsh Boys Too by John Sam Jones (2000)

The slimness of this volume of short stories belies its significance as landmark collection of LGBT literature from Wales. This was Jones’s first volume of short stories, which he followed up with a second collection Fishboys of Vernazza in 2003, and a novel Crawling Through Thorns in 2008, and easily his best work. Better for the concision in comparison to the novel, which needed editing down considerably, and better in terms of the thematic content and power of ideas than the second short story collection. Like many Welsh writers, Jones is better at the short story and this comes across vividly here – perhaps it is no surprise that this collection won a Stonewall award when it first appeared. There has been nothing lost in the power of the writing in the twenty years since.

4. Jill by Amy Dillwyn (1884)

Amy Dillwyn is Wales’s most important lesbian novelist, whose nineteenth century works are endowed with a remarkable determination to, in the words of Kirsti Bohata, ‘validate lesbian love as a desirable alternative to marriage and family duties’. This comes across especially clearly in Jill, a lesbian novel published almost half a century before Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, which rejects many of the stereotypical features of ‘women’s literature’ evident in Austen and the Brontës. ‘I abhor domestic novels’, Dillwyn wrote in her diary, and novels ‘with too much love in them’. Unrequited love is here, though, and a melancholic atmosphere that recalls Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

3. The Red Hills by Rhys Davies (1932)

Too many people think Rhys Davies hid his sexuality away from the page, that he was somehow ashamed of it, and afraid of it. Oh boy, no. This is, after all, the writer who once had a character called ‘Lewis Gents Only’ – a play on his brother’s name and the fact the pair were gay men. In this early novel from 1932, he throws homoeroticism onto the page in bucket loads – so much so that the central character, who owns a coal mine, often finds excuses to go underground so that he can hide away in his ‘perfect hiding place’ and spy on the half-naked men working away at the coal.

2. Island of Apples by Glyn Jones (1965)

This is an odd novel – a bit like a South Walian version of Caradog Pritchard but spun onto a version of the King Arthur stories, and all set in Merthyr Tydfil and Carmarthenshire. The novel’s queerness can be discerned immediately from the plot – ‘the story deals with the arrival in a beautifully situated Welsh valley of a handsome, accomplished, glamorous and fantastically brave young stranger, and the effect of his presence on a group of boys who become his friends’. This is really a novel about a teenage crush. In his introduction to the University of Wales edition, John Pikoulis records Dewi’s crush on Karl being ‘much as a second-former might over a sixth-former who is captain of rugby, victor ludorum and star of the school’s annual musical production.’ Yeah, exactly – perhaps it’s better to think of Dewi’s crush on Karl as the first, unknown, flowerings of homosexuality. The sort of crush that feels right but has yet to be called anything.

1. Make Room for the Jester by Stead Jones (1964)

In an era of brilliant writing coming out of Wales, this one truly stands out. It is also probably the most compelling portrait of gay youth – and the tragedies of alienation – ever written by a Welsh writer. If this were from anywhere else, there would be television adaptations galore by now, instead the novel was out of print for decades and only recently recovered thanks to the Library of Wales. The brilliantly named Gladstone Williams is so clearly gay that Stead Jones never needed to say it directly in the novel, he left it to the reader. The recent sales pitch for the novel calls it a Welsh take on The Catcher in the Rye and a ‘haunting journey from the edge of childhood into a threatening adult world’. I think there’s more to it than that!

Gay's the Word International

Almost exactly forty one years ago, a small group of gay socialist activists opened the doors on the Gay’s the Word bookshop in Marchmont Street in central London. It was an act of defiant optimism which remains in situ today – there is not an LGBT author in Britain, to say the least, who does not look forward to the day when they can find their work on the shelves there. It is, if I say so myself, a badge of pride. Gay’s the Word had its immediate origins, of course, in a small, peripatetic collection of lesbian and gay literature which was carried around various venues and to various events by the bookshop’s founder, Ernest Hole. For a time, Hole also sold books via a mail order service. One such event to which Hole carried his portable shop was the Gay Times Festival held at the Drill Hall in Chenies Street in Bloomsbury in January and February 1978. It was that event, Hole recalled later, which prompted him to think about a more permanent space. The Gay Times Festival, incidentally, had been organised by the theatre group Gay Sweatshop and featured performances of their play As Time Goes By, workshops, discussion groups, and so on.

In a very real sense, Gay’s the Word was part of a tradition of radical bookselling which has long roots in the socialist, feminist, anti-war, secularist, and environmentalist movements in the UK. When I was researching Labour Country, for example, I found numerous market stalls and bookshops established by the early branches of the Independent Labour Party – and the Communist Party – all over the valleys. They sold the sorts of literature that simply could not be found in newsagents or in bookshops, or which was intended to speak to a specific audience that fell through the gaps in the popular market. Much the same emerged when I was researching A Little Gay History of Wales, with alternative bookshops such as 108 in Cardiff and Neges in Swansea, providing access not only to gay and lesbian and feminist literature, but a range of handy, politically radical material. For scholars of these things, this was hardly a revelation, of course, but it certainly reminds us that the tradition of alternative media is hardly limited to the postmodern age of memes and questionable ‘news’ items online. Those without power – and this certainly applied to the labour movement of the 1890s and 1900s – must make their own voices heard. Somehow.

But there is another lineage to the creation of Gay’s the Word: an international one. Ernest Hole had spent part of 1968-1969 living in New York City, where he had befriended Craig Rodwell (1940-1993), the founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore. Opened at 291 Mercer Street on 18 November 1967, and relocated to Christopher Street in 1973, this was the first LGBT bookstore in the United States of America and was intended, in Rodwell’s words, to transform the homophile movement from ‘sitting in an office’ into something that was public facing and street-level, ‘out dealing with the people’ and being visible. There were eight shelves in that early iteration of the bookstore, thinly populated with literature from gay and lesbian authors, and monthly rent a mere $115. Soon, Rodwell’s commitment to visibility and presence, to the creation of an out-LGBT movement, led to the store being used as much as a community organising space as a place to buy books. Photographs from around the time Ernest Hole was spending his time at the Oscar Wilde show shelves populated with the works of writers such as Gore Vidal and James Colton (the nom-de-plum of Joseph Hansen), throw-away toothbrushes for ‘overnight lovers’, pin badges, magazines, and handmade greetings cards.

Hole leant on this tradition – as did many of the early LGBT bookshop creators in cities like Montreal – to create Gay’s the Word, which opened its doors on 17 January 1979. Just as the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore had pioneered in the United States, so Gay’s the Word did in the UK – you can see some marvellous images of the early days on the shop’s Flickr page. In 1985, it was even able to envisage opening a branch at the GLC-funded London Lesbian and Gay Centre! Within a few months of its original opening in 1979, though, Gay’s the Word was advertising itself in various of the lesbian and gay journals and magazines across the English-speaking world. One of the earliest adverts was placed in the classifieds of the Toronto-based Body Politic in May 1979. It’s not exactly the most exciting advertisement of all and sat, perhaps unfortunately, under an advertabout ‘lasting longer’, it does show that an international audience, as well as a domestic one, was part of the bookshop’s original thought process. The advert read as follows:

GAY’S THE WORD BOOKSHOP, 66 Marchmont St, London, WC1, England…, Gay, feminist books, new/second-hand; information, refreshments. Tues-Sat 11:30-7:30.

Refreshments refers to the attempt, in the early days, to run a café alongside the books – one way of balancing out the relatively modest offerings on the shelves. I’ve cut out the telephone number, there, by the way, but forty plus years on, they still have the same one. The advert appeared again in June 1979, with little variation. Gay’s the Word were not the only London-based organisation to advertise this way, of course; others did so too, including Gay Switchboard. But Switchboard was five years old, Gay’s the Word a mere five months. The relationship with Body Politic lasted until the magazine’s final issue in February 1987, although outside of these couple of months in 1979 there were no other adverts placed. There didn’t need to be: the bookshop was the subject of travel pieces, news articles, and loving reviews. In that last issue of Body Politic, Gay’s the Word was called

not just a good bookstore – for a relatively shy individual like myself, it is also the best place in London to meet interesting people for conversation. Everyone who takes tea or coffee sits within the same cheery alcove.

Apparently, said the author, Richard Summerbell, it had a similar vibe to the Little Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver which had opened in 1983. Summerbell, who had previously been president of the LGBT society at the University of British Columbia and the host of ‘Coming Out’, Canada’s first LGBT radio show broadcast out of Vancouver, was well placed to make such an observation. Nor was this the only pen portrait of the period. In the early 1980s, it was the turn of the Canadian writer and leading scholar of Walt Whitman, Robert K. Martin (1941-2014). Writing in a ‘London Diary’ for the Christopher Street magazine, Martin observed that

The bookstore, called (a bit cutely) Gay’s the Word, is run by a charming and knowledgeable man called John, who gave up a more conventional career as a banker to take over this active shop on Marchmont Street, in the heart of Bloomsbury (one can almost hear Lytton Strachey’s voice). It is beginning to attract a large and varied public, and the night that I’m thre the relatively small premises are pleasantly full. There is an excellent choice of both new and used books, and a good selection of periodicals.

In his discussion of Gay’s the Word’s successes and challenges, Martin pre-empted what was to be the defining challenge in the first ten years: availability of material and importation of literature from the United States, France, and elsewhere. As he wrote,

A great many successful gay titles are simply unavailable in the United Kingdom. The bookstore tries to compensate for this by ordering directly from the publishers, but it is a difficult and time-consuming process. It also frequently involves problems with Her Majesty’s customs inspectors.

Before I get on to that part of the story, though, it’s important to look at something else which happened in 1979 and not only involved Gay’s the Word but directly echoed the work of Craig Rodwell. 1979 marked the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and was commemorated across the world in what was, at that point, the zenith of the gay pride movement. Even cities which did not normally have pride events or marches (and would not again for a number of years), such as Liverpool, Edinburgh, Leamington Spa, and Hereford, took part. In London, of course, pride was already well-established but that year, as Ernest Hole recalled, Gay’s the Word led the march. There was, in fact, more to it than that. Not only were a number of the cultural events hosted at Gay’s the Word, such as the singers Paul South (whose music had featured in CHE’s landmark 1976 film, David is a Homosexual) and Mark Bunyan, the shop was home to the Gay Pride Week information desk – the public face of the festival. Rodwell, of course, was the primary mover in the creation of the first gay pride march in the United States, which took place in New York City in 1970 on what was then called Christopher Street Liberation Day.

These international echoes are by no means coincidental. They are a central part of gay liberation activism, a theme usefully explored in Geoffrey Woods’ book Homintern (2016). All too often, when undertaking scholarship on LGBT activism, it is easy to fall into the trap of only looking at one’s national context but that was never the full story, and with increasing digitisation of LGBT archives this aspect of the past can be readily restored. And there’s a lot to be restored. One of the HM Customs stings on Gay’s the Word’s (would-be) stock in the mid-1980s, for instance, resulted in the confiscation of copies of the Parisian magazine Gai Pied – it certainly was not the fact it was printed by the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League that caused the officers to act. Nor was it the involvement of Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre in writing for the magazine, either. Perhaps it’s time to return to that particular theme of Gay’s the Word versus HM Customs and Excise.

On 10 April 1984, a month into the miners’ strike, officers from HM Customs and Excise raided the flat of Gay’s the Word director Glenn McKee. They took tapes, diaries, and books. That was at nine o’clock in the morning. A few hours later, the police arrived at the bookshop. Ejecting the customers then present, customs officials began seizing books. Amongst the titles taken were Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City, Lenny Giteck’s Cruise to Win, Tena Clark’s memoir of the American South Southern Discomfort, and Emily Sisley and Bertha Harris’s The Joy of Lesbian Sex. The confiscated books were American imports, mostly obtained from the Giovanni’s Room bookstore in Philadelphia. Maupin told the San Francisco-based gay newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), which covered the raid just two days later, that ‘I had always wondered if I would make it to forty without having my books banned somewhere. Now I find I’m banned in London’. Maupin’s work was subsequently returned, but others – more than two hundred copies more around twenty titles – were threatened with destruction. The BAR, usefully, gave the full list:

  • Terry Andrews, The Story of Harold
  • Phil Andros, Below the Belt
  • Christopher Street, Aphrodisiac
  • Terry Andrews, The Story of Harold
  • Phil Andros, Below the Belt
  • Daniel Curzon, From Violent Men
  • Ed Diamond, Ed Dean is Queer
  • Ed Diamond, Second Crossing
  • Judy Grahn (ed), True Life Adventure Stories
  • Levi Kamel, Studies in Sadomasochism
  • Kevin Esser, Streetboy Dreams
  • Erskine Lane, Game Texts
  • Tony Manotta, Forty Deuce
  • Boyd McDonald (ed), Cum, Flesh, Sex
  • Larry Mirchell, Terminal Bar
  • Gordon Merrick, One for the Gods
  • Paul Monette, Taking Care of Mrs Carroll
  • Emily Sisley & Bertha Harris, The Joy of Lesbian Sex
  • Richard Steveson, Deathtrick
  • Carter Wilson, Treasures on Earth

The final confiscation was a quarterly periodical called Common Lives, Lesbian Lives published in Iowa City from 1980 until 1996. The wider list, which results from the full series of seizures, included works by Gore Vidal, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Oscar Wilde, as well as Victorian and Edwardian texts by writers such as Edward Carpenter. These were almost all available in other editions – such was the silliness of the custom’s legislation being used – it dates from 1876.

In total, there were three raids on Gay’s the Word or stock bound for the bookshop in 1984, with almost one hundred and fifty titles (out of eight hundred seized), the equivalent of more than two thousand books and magazines, forming the basis of the court case. Combined value: more than £8,000. The bookshop’s eight directors, a member of staff, and Ed Hermance, the owner of Giovanni’s Room, were named as ‘co-conspirators’ and prosecuted. The court case began in 1985. All of the twists and turns were reported in the American and Canadian gay press: hardly surprising, of course. In addition to reporting on events, the LGBT movements in America and Canada took an active part in the Defend Gay’s the Word campaign raising funds to support the legal effort. In the spring of 1985, LGBT bookstores across America held readings and other events to raise money – these included at A Different Light in Los Angeles, which raised more than $2,500, at A Brother’s Touch in Minneapaolis, and at the Walt Whitman bookstore in San Francisco (which became a regular fundraiser through 1985 and 1986 – including one with Maupin in July 1985). Similar events were held in Canada, too, notably at the Glad Day Books store in Toronto. When magistrates determined that the case should proceed to trial by jury, these fundraisers became ever more substantial.

The Los Angeles fundraiser, out of interest, was held at the Variety Arts Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and involved poetry and prose readings, music, and raffles of some quite prestigious prizes including novels signed Christopher Isherwood and the memoirs of Quentin Crisp, paperback copies of John Rechy’s City of Night, and a pair of the artist Don Bachardy’s paint-spattered jeans. That last apparently ‘inspired eager bidding’! Not to be outdone, in June 1986, the Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco held a series of ‘open book’ literary readings featuring writers including Armistead Maupin, who read from his 1987 novel Significant Others. The organiser of the Modern Times events, Tede Matthews, explained to the Bay Area Reporter that the Defend Gay’s the Word Campaign pointed to the need for vigilance. ‘Gay rights issues have taken a back burner to the AIDS crisis’, he said, ‘yet as shown by what’s happening to Gay’s the Word, gay literature is still suffering from attack and censorship; gay journals are in trouble. It’s important for us to be aware of what’s happening in other countries, especially since our words are not getting in’. Indeed, Giovanni’s Room, the Philadelphia bookstore responsible for exporting most of the seized books and magazines, suffered the loss of a third of its export income. At the time it was the primary exporter of lesbian and gay literature from the US to the UK.

In the event, of course, the case against Gay’s the Word was eventually dropped in the summer of 1986, with all but nineteen of the books returned – the only stipulation being that Gay’s the Word not import them again. The titles not allowed back onto the shelves included Mitch Walker’s Men Loving Men, Jack Morin’s Men Loving Themselves, and the novels of Phil Andros. As in decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, it had been the intervention of the European courts which made the difference. A ruling on 27 June 1986 in relation to importation of goods from the continent, such as Gai Pied, to the effect that it contravened the rules of the Common Market, made proceeding with the primary case against Gay’s the Word much more difficult. It hardly needs repeating, in this era of Brexit, that the European courts really did make a difference in upholding the civil rights of LGBT people in Thatcher’s Britain. And in the US? Well, this letter from one activist from California perhaps underscores the anxiety there: ‘We are convinced that these kinds of attacks can take place in the USA, especially with 4 more years of Reagan’.

The Oscar Wilde Memorial bookstore closed in 2009, albeit having survived Craig Rodwell by more than fifteen years, Giovanni’s Room followed in 2014. Gay’s the Word, which is younger, of course, has outlasted them. Both American icons played a major role in shaping their British counterpart: Paud Hegarty, who in 1985 became manager of the shop and remained there until 1997, and whose badges were so memorably recovered not long ago, spent several weeks at Giovanni’s Room early on learning the tricks of their trade. The café and the piano may have long gone (although the former did at least make it to the 1990s) and Pride turned into something very different; the need for such a beacon has not. And that spirit and idealism of early gay liberation, encapsulated not only in alternative media, literature, music, and marches, but in bookshops and community spaces, lives on too. To coin a phrase: the (queer) readers, united, will never be defeated.

Light in the Dark

Holocaust Memorial Day, on January 27th, will this year mark exactly three quarters of a century since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet troops in 1945, a matter of months before the end of the Second World War in Europe. Of the estimated 1.3 million people who were interned at the camp, at least 1.1 million, mostly Jews, were murdered. There are many stories that could be told today, not least that of the remarkable survival of Newport’s Ron Jones, who died only last September aged 102, a captured British soldier who helped to form a football team at the camp and became the team’s goalkeeper. He told his own story, of course, in his poignant memoir The Auschwitz Goalkeeper (2013). For this post, though, I want to tell a very different story, a Jewish story.

Let us begin at the end. On 24 October 1942, Hartog Samehtini (known to the family as Harry) was deported from the Mechelen transit camp in Belgium on a train bound for Auschwitz. He was one of more than three hundred men, almost one hundred women, and almost seventy children, who were part of ‘Transport XV’, itself one of twenty eight such deportation transports which left Mechelen for Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944. On the manifest, now held at the State Archives in Brussels, Samehtini was recorded as the 175th name. The details about him are slight. He was a hairdresser by profession. He was born on 21 July 1917. And finally, the starkest detail of all, his place of birth: Cardiff. A photograph of Harry can be seen below, gathered as part of the remarkable Kazerne Dossin project in Belgium.

Prior to internment in Mechelen, Samehtini had been interned at the Les Mazures camp in the Ardennes, not far from the Belgian border, to which he had been transferred following his arrest in Antwerp earlier in 1942. Despite frantic attempts by Samehtini’s mother and sister to stress his British citizenship, even seeking the intervention of the Swiss consulate, there was nothing they could do to prevent either his arrest or his eventual deportation to the east. There is no record of what happened to Hartog Samehtini after the 24 October 1942 and investigations by the Red Cross after the war found no trace of him: there can be little doubt that he was murdered in Auschwitz sometime after his arrival. Hartog Samehtini remains the only recorded Welsh-born victim of the Holocaust.

But how did Harry come to be born in Cardiff at all? The Samehtini family were Dutch and both of Harry’s parents were born in the Netherlands: his mother Mina Roodenburg (1887-1979) in Amsterdam, where her parents were diamond merchants; and his father Joachim Samehtini (1889-1942) in Rotterdam. Joachim’s parents were also musicians. Joachim was sent to London by his parents before the First World War to train as a musician and it was there that he met and married Mina. Harry’s older sister, Roosje (known to the family as Rosie or Rosa) was born in London in 1911. Joachim was, as a result of his training and natural talent, an accomplished cellist; his brother, Leon was an accomplished violinist and a pupil of the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. For a time, Leon was the protégé of Dame Nellie Melba, a soloist with the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and a touring artist across much of Europe. By the 1920s, Leon had settled in the United States and taught at the Chicago Musical College (now part of the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University). Amongst his many pupils was the violinist Aaron Rosand (1927-2019).

Marriage notice for Mina and Joachim, published in the Algemeen Handelsblad, August 1910

The earliest mentions of Joachim in the newspapers are in fact for the Proms Concerts for 1907 when he took the cello solo in Victor Herbert’s Suite for Cello and Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall. His review in the Daily Telegraph in particular caused something of a fuss in the Netherlands – the younger brother of the already famous Leon Samehtini was now coming into his own. The rest of the concert, conducted, of course, by Henry Wood and played by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, included the William Tell Overture, a suite from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. After a successful few years playing in venues and ensembles across London, Joachim moved to Cardiff in 1915 initially as a cellist in Arthur Angle’s orchestra. (Incidentally, Angle had his own instrument shop in the Cardiff arcades and much of his memorabilia can still be seen on the walls of Cardiff Violins in the Castle Arcade.)

After his contract with Angle was completed, Joachim took a job both in and conducting the ensemble at the Castle Picture Theatre in Castle Street and took on private teaching at his lodgings in Neville Street (the Samehtinis lived at number seventy). In adverts, patrons were reminded that ‘music at this cinema is provided by a grand augmented orchestra’ of some twenty musicians. Joachim established the cinema as one of the best in the city and he provided soundtracks to many of the well-known silent films of the period including those of Charlie Chaplin. In the war years, he was much in demand as a soloist in South Wales and played concerts in venues such as the Judge’s Lodging in Trealaw, at Bethania Chapel in Llwynypia, at the Theatre Royal in Barry, and at the workmen’s hall in Mountain Ash. By 1918, Joachim had moved on to the Imperial Cinema in Cardiff’s Queen Street and in 1919 left the city entirely to become the principal cellist of the Brighton Grand Orchestra. He returned to Cardiff only intermittently thereafter, mostly for one-off concerts. Harry was not yet two years old when the family left Wales to live in various parts of England.

The peripatetic nature of Joachim’s life in the 1920s, especially, placed noticeable strain on his marriage with Mina, and the pair separated in 1929. Mina even took Joachim to court in 1933 to secure a weekly maintenance allowance. The pair did not formally divorce until 1939.The circumstances of the marriage collapse can be found in the pages of the Northampton Mercury. At the time she applied for a maintenance order, Mina Samehtini was a patient at Creaton Sanitorium where she was being treated for suspected tuberculosis. The journalists painted her pathetically: ‘Mrs Samehtini, who had one of her feet in bandages, gave her evidence with a foreign accent. She took the oath in the Jewish fashion’. She then explained that she had been left destitute by her husband and that she had left him five years earlier when he departed on a music tour to Australia and South Africa. Mina went to live with her sister in Brussels. The pair did not reconcile thereafter.

In his testimony, Joachim told the story differently. Yes, he said, he had left for the southern hemisphere on tour but on his return to England, he had ‘nursed his wife to health from an illness in Brussels’. Then she had refused to join him when he moved to Ramsgate for work in 1930. Thereafter, he said, he had lived as if he were a single man. It was as a result of that decision that he got caught up as a co-respondent in a separate divorce case involving a Mr and Mrs Dodds. Magistrates sided with Mrs Samehtini and awarded her a weekly maintenance order of ten shillings. She was transferred shortly afterwards from Creaton Sanitorium to a hospital in London and was discharged as ‘cured’ in October 1933 after two and a half years of in-patient treatment. Less than three months later, the Samehtinis were back in court, with Mina demanding an uplift in her payments and Joachim claiming harassment. It was claimed in court that Mina had gone along to the Grand Theatre, Croydon, where Joachim was playing during the Christmas season, 1933, and had caused ‘a scene’ before being ejected from the premises. The purpose of which had been, in the words of Joachim’s solicitor, ‘to injure her husband in every possible way’. Mina refused to accept the terms put to her. Magistrates provided an uplift to thirty shillings in the hope that Mina would leave Joachim alone in future.

But it was not to be. In November 1934, Joachim applied for a reduction in the maintenance order himself on the grounds that his weekly earnings were no longer sufficient to be able to pay the sum. In a repeat of her earlier appearance at the theatre, Mina turned up at a theatre in Golders Green in June 1934 with a warrant for apparently unpaid maintenance allowance. A repeat of the fuss caused in Croydon in December 1933 prompted Albert Sandler, the violinist, musical director, and Samehtini’s employer, to fire the cellist shortly afterwards. Certainly, Joachim was out of Sandler’s employ by August 1934. By the time this phase of the case was heard in court, Mina had left England to live temporarily with her sister and brother-in-law in Antwerp (Albert and Vogeltje Delattre). In a letter to the court, Mina explained that she was in the Netherlands visiting her son but because of ‘the suspension of payments she could not return. She was destitute and relying on charity’. Magistrates once more sided with Mina and refused Joachim any reduction. Mina never returned to England and Joachim left for the Netherlands himself in March 1937. He settled in Amsterdam.

There are relatively few clues about Harry’s life amidst the chaos of parental fallout. Occasional reports in the newspapers point to a budding career not as a musician, like his father and grandfather, but as an actor. In 1932, for instance, he took the role of Sinbad in the annual pantomime at Langley Hall near Slough. The following year it was as Peter the Pindar in Babes in the Wood. He was also active in the local football team and in the village branch of the St John Ambulance. In the Samehtini family papers, held in Amsterdam, one of Harry’s school reports from this period survives, too, with the poignant observation made in 1931 that ‘in most subjects Samehtini desires to get on. But he lacks the will to do it. He must convince himself that life is a fight, and a great fight’. Harry left school in 1934 and moved, as per the newspaper accounts of Joachim and Mina’s court battle, to the Netherlands. In the turmoil of the marriage collapse, Harry had always sided with his mother.

Sometime before the outbreak of the war, Harry began training as a hairdresser at the Institute de Beauté run by Christian Verpoorten and his wife. This seems to have been a kind of apprenticeship and in surviving correspondence, Harry was clearly not very happy in Antwerp and keen to rejoin his family in the Netherlands or, at the very least, move in with his aunt and uncle (the Delattres). Yet, on the outbreak of war, Harry found himself stuck in Antwerp. In February 1941, the Verpoortens wrote to Mina to explain that Harry continued to live with them and was doing well in his job. Harry wrote himself a few months later to say much the same thing, although he expressed a wish to move out. Within a year, Harry had been arrested and interned. In his final letter, sent just a few days before his deportation, Harry asked for a balaclava to shelter his face from the cold. He never received it.

Surviving newspaper testimony, read alongside the family correspondence, suggests that in fact all was not entirely well in Antwerp and that Harry was perhaps more aware of his circumstances than could be expressed in letters subject to state censorship. In May 1940, Harry tried to escape from Belgium using the occasion of a business trip to Ghent to make a run for the coast – his likeliest target was the Ostend-Dover ferry. It would have been his last chance to return to Britain. A series of panicked letters appeared in newspapers the following month, paid for by his brother-in-law telling Harry to return home to Antwerp and that all was well, that he was missed by his family in Belgium and the Netherlands. Whatever the reason for his return, perhaps he had been unable to secure passage across the Channel to Dover, Harry did eventually make his way back to Antwerp. It almost certainly sealed his fate.

At the end of October 1940, the Military Occupation instituted the first of a wave of anti-Jewish laws which banned Jews from specific professions including the civil service, made indications of Jewish businesses a requirement, and forced all Jewish members to register with their local commune. Less than a year after Harry attempted to escape, Antwerp experienced its first pogrom: two of the city’s synagogues were attacked and burned, the home of the city’s chief rabbi was also attacked. At the end of May 1942, all Jewish residents were compelled to wear the Belgian variant of the yellow star. Little more than two months later, in August 1942, deportations began. Harry had only recently turned twenty five.

It is not clear whether Joachim knew what was going on with his son, although the situation in Amsterdam was no less secure than in Antwerp. Not long after his divorce from Mina was formalised, Joachim had re-married – his younger wife, Marie (1897-1942), was a pianist and the two regularly performed together. Perhaps the most significant musical initiative in which they were both involved was the creation in 1940 of the New Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra, the new home of the Jewish musicians dismissed from radio orchestras in the city as a result of the anti-Jewish legislation. The same legislation required that audiences be Jewish only and that the orchestra change its name, too, to more overtly reflect is origins. It became the New Jewish Chamber Orchestra. In both guises, it was conducted by Salomon Abas (1900-1943). The conductor was murdered at the Sobibor extermination camp following his deportation from Amsterdam in June 1943. The last concert played by Joachim and Marie seems to have taken place on 22 June 1942. They played Eric Coates’s 1911 work, Miniature Suite for Little Orchestra, and the rather more famous Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. Joachim took the cello solo in ‘The Swan’ and Marie shone in ‘The Aquarium’.

A month after that concert was played, the Nazi forces commandeered the Jewish Theatre, where the New Jewish Chamber Orchestra was based, and turned it into a deportation centre: the Umschlagplatz Plantage Middenlaan. Storage. Jews were summoned to report at the Theatre and its rooms quickly became a prison for those who responded to the summons and those who were arrested. On arrival, prisoners were registered and then kept at the theatre for days or weeks until transferred to transit camps before eventual deportation to the east. Joachim probably understood his fate, even before this. For a period in 1942, he was interned at the Schaarshoek work camp outside the village of Heino near Zwolloe in the northeast of the Netherlands. At some point, late in 1942, Joachim and Marie were arrested. This time they were deported to Auschwitz. She arrived there on 19 October 1942 and was murdered at an unknown date thereafter, Joachim did not. His fate was different. About an hour from Auschwitz, the train carrying Joachim and Marie came to a halt and a number of men and boys aged between fifteen and fifty were taken off before train continued to the camp.

Had Joachim been able to see the station name, he would have seen Koźle – Cosel, in German. This removal was a semi-regular occurrence and it was intended to provide additional forced labour for the steelworks at Malapane in Silesia (now called Ozimek, Poland). Joachim and those like him joined, as Hugo Service notes in his book Germans to Poles, ‘Russians, Latvians and even British prisoners of war’. As a musician in his early fifties, Joachim was not well suited to work in heavy industry, certainly not in the conditions effected by the Nazi war machine, and he died of exhaustion in mid-December 1942, about six weeks after he been taken off the Auschwitz transport. More than one hundred Dutch Jews were killed in this manner between August and December 1942. By the end of the year, the only survivors of Joachim’s branch of the Samehtini family were his ex-wife, Mina, and his daughter, Rosa (1911-2001) who had trained as an artist. She married the composer and lyricist Han Dunk (1909-1996) in Amsterdam in April 1939.

There is a happier note on which to end, however. One of the reasons that the magistrates often sided with Mina Samehtini during her court battles with Joachim for money was that he had made a number of broadcasts for the BBC and gramophone recordings. Through these we can still hear and, in some cases, see Joachim’s cello playing almost a century later. He made around twenty commercial records between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s for companies such as Piccadilly, Columbia, Metropole, and His Master’s Voice. That figure must be regarded as ‘at least’, since it does not include those recordings where Joachim was a member of the ensemble but not mentioned as a recording artist on the sleeve. There are two known film recordings from this period, too: for the DeForest Phonofilm company in 1927, together with the tenor Murray Stewart and the pianist James Bell, and for British Pathé in 1929. The latter recording featured the same trio that went on the Australian and South African tour: the Welsh soprano, Betty Bowen, and the pianist D. Lloyd Thomas. These can be viewed in the usual places.

Samehtini’s classical repertoire was traditional with a tendency towards Romanticism and included works by Elgar, Schubert, Gounod, and Schumann. But he was also a vaudeville and music hall musician (notably in the north of England) and had a popular repertoire, too, although he seems to have eschewed jazz. During those last, fateful years in Amsterdam, the repertoire turned darker and had, both of necessity and of desire, Jewish foundations. Ernest Bloch’s 1939 work, Baal Shem, for instance, which was performed in a cello transcription at the Jewish Theatre in Amsterdam in 1941, or Leo Smit’s 1937 Concertino for Cello and Orchestra. Smit was murdered at Sobibor in April 1943. Poignantly, one of the recordings Samehtini made for Metropole in the late-1920s was of ‘The Swan’. But for the moment, let me draw this story to a close with a recording he made in 1929 of Elgar’s Salut D’Amour. Released as Piccadilly number 403, it reveals a rich sound and a talent as apparent today as it must have been for audiences in the 1920s and 1930s. There are, after all, if it is not too trite a thought on which to conclude, some things fascism cannot exterminate.

Joachim Samehtini, Salut d’Amour by Elgar, Piccadilly #403, 1929

Memoir of a Decade

2010 seems so long ago, now, separated by a material and intellectual as well as chronological gulf, that it’s hard to remember precisely how life was lived. At least for me. But some things stick in the mind. At the time, I was in my second year as a PhD student and a mere 23 years old. My first publications had started to emerge and in general life seemed to be going quite well. I’d been to conferences in America, Italy, and Hungary, and gone to European-level meetings at the European Parliament in Brussels. If this was the life of a doctoral student in history, let alone a Labour activist, then sign me up for more. In truth, of course, this sort of experience was a sticking plaster on a world that was fast unravelling – being a doctoral student had shielded me a little from the consequences of the financial crisis, but living at home and talking through the direct impact on my father was enough to realise that once my time was up I would be thrown into the maelstrom myself.

Quite early on in my doctoral studies, I realised that I had made a mistake – not so much about pursuing higher level research but about the topic. As interesting as sporting heritage is, and the sporting heritage of Wales, at that, my true passion was for social democratic politics, the cultural and social interplay between peoples as they move from one place to another, and the likes. In the end, I let passion overtake the original purpose of the doctoral research, which had been partly framed through the Collaborative Doctoral Award from the AHRC, coming up with a thesis which Dai Smith called, in the exam, the finest PhD thesis about Wales in a generation. The email from Chris Williams sending through Dai’s notes included the immortal line – ‘one for the wall’. At the heart of that thesis lay the argument that social democracy is made from the ground upwards; that for all Westminster debates do have an impact unless the facilities that people want (and need) on a day-to-day level function exist, those debates are meaningless. Looking back now, it’s quite clear that the financial crisis had had clear influence on my thinking. The final paragraph of the thesis read as follows:

Sporting space was of clear importance to the Labour movement and formed a significant pillar in their municipal vision for South Wales. Given that the projects undertaken by Labour were also community projects, it seems fair to suggest that social-democratic spaces of this kind exercise a profound influence on the continuing popularity of Labour. Alongside a rigorous defence of local people during the Depression, the ability to rally communities into effective self-help schemes was indicative of a movement that was very much ‘of the people’. That Labour councillors sat on recreation associations and were at the forefront of organising grant applications and negotiating with landowners or the colliery companies similarly made strong the ties between community action and political representation. The lingering sense of the past after the Second World War saw little decline in the strength of those ties even though community action weakened. Social democracy and its impact on the recreational landscape in South Wales was a triumph of that element of British socialism which showed what could be practically achieved from the bottom up.

A bit clunky, now, in places, but an early form of the argument which was to find far better rendition in Labour Country. What I realised when writing the book and had looked at a far wider range of activity, was that this was Bevanism in action. The point about Aneurin Bevan, and this comes through in Nick Thomas-Symonds’s biography very well, is that he was a very practical politician. He sought solutions to situations regardless of whether Labour was in power, or not. Bevan followed every thread of influence, whether it took him onto the library committee of the workmen’s institute, onto the housing committee of Monmouthshire County Council, into the position of de facto Leader of the Opposition during the Second World War, or into the Ministry of Health after the war. Those who misunderstand Bevan or know him only as the creator of the National Health Service, portray him as a socialist paragon, a scion of the left who stuck his ground and was anything but pragmatic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bevan did not stick to his ground but sought to take control of the ground. As a young councillor, he created an elaborate system of non-verbal signals using his jacket lapel and pockets to indicate to his Labour colleagues which way to vote.

In the run up to the 1929 general election, Bevan and his friends engineered a deselection process to get rid of Evan Davies, the sitting Labour MP, whom they regarded as a right-wing sycophant. It was the first time the technique had been used in South Wales and makes Militant and Momentum’s efforts seem rather lily-livered by contrast. And then there was Bevanite route to power without power. Look around your community and think of the various committees-with-money-or-resources that exist. Bevan did exactly that. So, in 1926, having taken control of the library committee of the Tredegar Workmen’s Library and Institute, he and his colleagues were able to effect a ban on the Western Mail and the Daily Mail and were able to fill the library shelves with the books and newspapers and journals they believed in. Taking control of other committees meant having the power to decide which groups could meet at the hall, what films were shown at the cinema, and what speakers came lecture.

Much the same happened in Maerdy in the Rhondda, where communists took over everything from the cinema to the seats on the local council. Having banned the Western Mail from the community in 1926, the created their own newspaper, the Mardy Leader. This was how power was won when Westminster seemed largely out of reach. Yes, I know, there was a Labour government in 1924 and between 1929 and 1931, but they were not administrations with great power, and, in any case, the state still didn’t do a great deal for people in those years. But there was also a warning: if you are in power, you must make decisions about mitigating the impact of Westminster policies and taking some of the blame for the milder implementation, accepting it as part and parcel of mature governance, or standing up to Westminster policies and taking the full consequences of that rebellion. The realists versus the impossibilists. Bevan was always a realist. For all that he joined in the waves of protest against the Means Test and other austerity measures, he also welcomed the arrival in Tredegar of modern commercial entertainment like speedway and greyhound racing as signs of private investment. Labour have often championed race tracks in the valleys!

Those are my belated thoughts on the election and what is to come. I had originally written far more, but it doesn’t really matter what I think about it all – millions of other people made their choices. Choices which are plain for anyone to see, if they wish to. But one can talk too much about politics. Of course, these issues are all very much apparent in the literature that stands out in my mind over the last ten years, and I realise in retrospect that I have been much vexed by a few themes in this period of my life – such as memory, childhood, father-son relationships, social and cultural inheritance, and one’s relationship with the society around one. This will become apparent in the list that follows, no doubt.

The two stand out books from 2010 for me were Paul Auster’s Sunset Park, a study in the fallout from the financial crisis. This wasn’t an easy novel to swallow at the time – a lot of critics found it too clever and Austerian. In his review, Mark Lawson complained that ‘in the cross-section of recession America represented by Sunset Park, almost everyone is, or wants to be, a novelist, artist or performer’. Well, ten years on, with the advent of the YouTube generation, this complaint seems rather muted and Auster’s depiction rather more prophetic. Who doesn’t blog, record themselves for YouTube, or picture their lives on Instagram? Eh? The other novel from this year which still stays with me is John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor. I’m not really sure why because I’ve long thought that le Carré’s best work was written at the height of the Cold War, but this is a novel full of Russian intrigue and manipulation, which I suppose is itself a statement on the 2010s. The less said about the Ewan McGregor film adaptation, though, the better.

2011 was more of a muted year for literature and my choices are eclectic, even amidst an eclectic list. Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. The former is a classic baseball novel that only the Americans really write. I had only read one baseball novel prior to this, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and on reflection I think Irving’s more philosophical take is the better one. Kelman’s novel was a fictionalised take on the Damilola Taylor story from a decade earlier. At the time reviewers thought it overhyped – a little too determined to dwell on the conflict at the heart of city estates. But the novel came out just months before the Tottenham Riots in the summer of 2011 and in the years since, with gang violence, male disaffection, and stabbing, all becoming standard newspaper fare, perhaps there is something to be said for looking again at this novel and its story and throwing off the view that it ‘is too conscious of the gulf between its subjects and its inevitably middle-class readers’. That gulf has only grown.

Speaking of John Irving, his 2012 novel In One Person is so rich in its discussion of sexuality, gender, and the pressures of identity, that it’s hard to believe it was not written this year rather almost a decade ago. Were it published in 2019, I have little doubt this would now be regarded as the book of the decade. As it is, In One Person was probably, to use that word again, the decade’s most propehetic. Conversely, Toni Morrison’s Home whilst not her best, by any means, got to the heart of another of the 2010s’ burning issues – the fallout from war. In the plot, it was the Korean War of the 1950s, but one gets the sense that Morrison had in mind more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the unfinished character of the book really has to do with the unfinished reconciliation of American with its actions of ten years before. One cannot talk about literature in 2012 without mentioning the English translation of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Min Kamp, which first began to appear that year. A Death in the Family is the closest the series comes to pure fiction and is thus perhaps the least interesting. This is not my last word on Knausgaard, though, so I’ll move on.

By 2013, five years after the financial crisis first took hold, the world was beginning to get back to a certain complacency – the storm, weathered. President Obama had been re-elected and the Democrats retained their control of the Senate. In France, the Socialist Party had won the presidency for only the second time (and nearly twenty years since François Mitterand finished his second term in 1995) with François Hollande moving into the Elysée Palace. And it was from France that the standout work of contemporary economics – Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The English translation followed in 2014. The numbers embedded in Capital are striking, not least that for decades income inequality has been growing with wealth siphoned into the hands of the top one per cent. And boy if there is a 2010s phrase it is ‘the 1%’. Even after all these years, most people probably haven’t read Capital from cover to cover – it’s not easy – but lined up with other works about inequality and quality of life, from The Spirit Level (2009) to Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists (2017), there is a message here that is difficult to ignore. Assuming you’re listening in the first place.

The middle years of the 2010s were not the best for literature, but from 2014 comes one of Murakami’s more accessible efforts, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, on the surface a rather strange novel (a phrase made for Murakami) about identity, mental health, and the pursuit of happiness, about friendships made and sundered and the pain involved in putting them back together again. I read this one at a time when my own life seemed to be losing its colour and plunging into darkness, when I seemed unable to make good choices, and when I was in the process of remaking a whole swathe of personal relationships. This was evident in the other books which stuck with me that year too – the third part of Knausgaard’s project, Boyhood Island, and Alan Cumming’s autobiography Not My Father’s Son.  The former really kindled my enthusiasm for Knausgaard, a fervour which followed on into parts four and five of the project, and the latter shook me into thinking much more about my own sense of the world and coming to terms with difficult experiences. Fathers feature heavily in Knausgaard’s work, too. Hmm.

Anyway, moving swiftly to 2015 and to a dazzling set of works: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind. On the surface, these two novels are very different. The one about a romance, the other about lost memories and forgotten paths. But really they are about two countries – Turkey and England – whose history (infused with imperialism and grandeur) weighs so heavily upon contemporary society. The Buried Giant of Ishiguro’s world is that which caused the conflicts between Saxon and Briton and whose burial had enabled the flourishing of a different kind of country. This was a musing on Brexit eerily on the eve of that decision. And in Pamuk’s novel, which some regard as a love letter to Istanbul itself, but an epistle written by someone who cannot quite comprehend or reconcile himself to a world of greed, selfishness, and lust for power. It could just as well be about London. In its own way, part four of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, titled in English Dancing in the Dark, muses on precisely these themes, too. What is Norway in the late-twentieth century? Book four, for me, is the most compelling and finds the young Karl Ove out on his own for the first time living and teaching in the wilderness of northern Norway. There’s nothing like a winter hangover to force you to think about your place in the world!

Of 2016 there is much less that can be said. This was the year that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Andrew Davies’s adaptation of War and Peace was broadcast on the BBC. It was not a golden year for writing, though, although the two works I picked out are fascinating in their own right: Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You. As with the other Barnes novels of the 2010s, such as The Sense of Ending, this take on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich shows a writer musing on anti-authoritarianism and the internal struggle between rebellion and conformity in one’s own soul. Similar ideas are apparent in Greenwell’s novel of homosexual love in post-communist Bulgaria. This is a very clever novel, written by an artist who absorbs himself in language and in the richness of words. It is one of those books that tussles with an entire genre and an existential question that few novelists have yet overcome – what should gay literature be like in the twenty-first century? Greenwell does not quite resolve this quandary and instead muses, as most gay people do at a certain age, on a childhood lived unlike those of others.

This comes across in Alan Hollinghurst’s 2017 work, The Sparsholt Affair. Hollinghurst is a novelist I have had my difficulties with: his prose is very clever, of course, but everything is just a little bit too neat. You have to have quite some privilege to have gay lives like the characters in Hollinghurst’s novels and that’s just not how it is for most people. He is, at heart, a very safe novelist. What sold me on The Sparsholt Affair was the quasi-Brideshead take on Oxford and its perils, and the what-iffery that comes of reading novels like E. M. Forster’s Maurice decades after the culture it describes has faded. It is, nonetheless, a fantasia. No other novel of this year could ever hope to compete with Paul Auster’s epic 4321, which just keeps going and going and going and going but never in a way that exhausts the reader. Of all the writers now working, I think only Auster would have and could have written a novel of this size and scope. This really is fiction asking what-if: what if a person’s arm had been broken and they had missed school one day; what if instead of visiting a prostitute you are seduced by one of your gay students; what if you happen to have a fortune instead of living your life in poverty. Would it matter?

Enter Arthur Less, who cannot really answer the question but tries to run away from it all the same. He is the hero of Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2018 novel, Less. This is one of those hilarious satirical novels that brightens up your day even when you realise that the trope – middle-aged novelist writes big book which is turned down by publisher – lies at the heart of so many twenty-first century books. As I read this, I could not help but think back to Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, a novel much more forceful on screen than in print. But you know what, the take away for me from Less was really about (gay) men of a certain age who are unable to let go of who they were in the face of who they now are. I sort of agree with Patrick Gale that ‘the stealthy genius of this novel is that it simultaneously tells the life story of a basically sweet man whom the [book] industry has eaten alive’, but at the same time I think there’s more depth to Greer’s writing than that – and to Gale’s as his own 2018 novel Take Nothing With You demonstrated. Read it with a good Shostakovich cello sonata playing!

The great work of 2018, though, was Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers – an utterly stunning tale following the consequences of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago. This is as much a work of historical reflection as it is literary fiction, and I cannot quite express here – without making an already overlong blog longer – how much I love this novel. Like John Irving’s In One Person it deals with sexuality, fragility, gender, HIV/AIDS (of course), and American society. Like the Ishiguro and Pamuk novels I mentioned earlier, this is a work about memory and the weight of inheritance. Like Greenwell and Greer, this is also one of those novels that asks the question of what gay literature should be in this era of equal rights. Does it have an answer? I think so, but I leave that to your own experience. Suffice to say: you are altered after you turn the last page.

Finally, then, we reach 2019 – we are now in its embers. For this year, I picked out one novel and one work of non-fiction, both of which reflect on memory and loss. First of all, Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me which appeared in English translation in September this year. I had previously read the French original, so the plot contained few surprises at all, but there always subtle differences in a translation and this is no different. It aches with the pain of loss and of teenage love affairs gone wrong – of those first crushes which turn out to be anything but ‘a phase’. The last words I reserve, though, for Ian Maleney’s Minor Monuments – an absolutely breathtaking collection of essays which are all about dementia and its impact on one’s family and sense of place. As with when I read Annie Ernaux’s frank memoir of dealing with her mother’s dementia, I Remain in Darkness (published in English by Fitzcarraldo this year), there were moments of true emotion reading this book – the tear stained pages of my copy will live on as proof. And how much I feel that same pang of guilt that comes of ‘observing and interpreting that world, and most of all by writing about it, I deny myself the possibility of really living in it’. But what else would any of us do?

Chasing the Afterlife in South Wales: The Curious Case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

One hundred years ago, give or take a few months, in the spring of 1919, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited South Wales with his wife, Lady Jean, as part of a lecture tour. His theme, based on his latest book The New Revelation, was ‘Death and the Hereafter’, and marked Doyle’s emergence as perhaps the most prominent spiritualist in the UK. Doyle was profoundly affected by the First World War – losing his son, Kingsley, his brother, and his brother-in-law – and his tremendous grief shook the scepticism which he had once had about communicating with the dead. As several biographers have pointed out, towards the end of the war Doyle began to attend séances, gave lectures himself on matters of spiritualism, and took a not inconsiderable interest in ‘spirit photography’. All, it seems, in an effort to stay close to those he had lost.

Doyle spoke variously in Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Swansea, and Newport, addressing packed houses at the Cory Hall, for instance. He had been booked to speak in these places by the local spiritualist societies – organisations dedicated to communing with the dead which had a tremendous presence in industrial South Wales from the mid-nineteenth century. The lectures which Doyle delivered were by no means controversial, but in their aftermath it emerged that he had attended a séance in Cardiff together with the Chief and Deputy Chief Constable of the Cardiff City Police. The gatyhering took place at the home of Walter H. Wall, a local solicitor and amateur actor, in Penylan. ‘They came to my house’, Wall explained to journalists later, ‘with a curtain, tambourine, a few rattles, and other toys’.

The medium that night was Tom Thomas of Merthyr Tydfil, a former coal miner whose father, William, a local councillor, had helped to establish the Merthyr Spiritualist Society several decades earlier. Doyle thought Thomas ‘more like [an] international footballer than a spiritualistic media’ but allowed him to proceed, nonetheless. Doyle takes up the story:

We went all over their clothes, took their boots off, and they had nothing with them except a few utensils … these were put on the side of the room, in a sort of cupboard, and the medium Thomas was tied to a chair by the Chief Constable. Thomas had a light jacket on and he was roped up with all the skill we could use…The lights were turned down in order to obtain the proper conditions…We sang some hymns, and the whole proceedings were conducted in a religious spirit. After a little while the phenomena began.

Doyle then went on to describe how things began to fly around the room, and the light jacket which Thomas had been wearing ended up on the lap of Lady Jean when she complained of being a little chilly. Doyle and the other guests were instantly hooked. The writer added to his account of his South Wales trip in his 1921 book Wanderings of a Spiritualist. His story begins in Merthyr Tydfil at another séance, this time at the home of the proprietor of the Merthyr Express, Harry Southey. Doyle’s testimony once more:

I walked forth with my head throbbing and my whole frame quivering from the villa of Mr Southey at Merthyr. Behind me the glare of Dowlais ironworks lit up the sky, and in front twinkled the many lights of the Welsh town. For two hours my wife and I sat within listening to the whispering voices of the dead, voices which are so full of earnest life and of desperate endeavours to pierce the barrier of our dull senses. They had quivered and wavered around us, giving us pet names, sweet sacred things, the intimate talk of the olden times…It was a different and a wonderful world. Now with these voices still haunting our memories we had slipped out into the material world – a world of glaring ironworks and of twinkling cottage windows. As I looked down on it all, I grasped my wife’s hand in the darkness and I cried aloud my god, if only they knew – if only they could know.

Doyle had apparently been able to commune that night with his son and it profoundly affected him (to say the least), prompting him to attend séances on a more regular basis. Another that he went to, this time in Portsmouth in September 1919, brought him into contact with a particularly well-known medium called Evan Powell. Powell was another spiritualist medium/lecturer from Merthyr Tydfil and the two struck up a close bond – Powell was able to link Doyle with his son, apparently. Doyle returned to Merthyr to give another lecture in early December 1919. At a packed Drill Hall, he told the audience all about the evidence for immortality: I know that the dead live, he said, for I have spoken to them – my son, my brother, my nephew. He told an audience at Maerdy Workmen’s Hall much the same.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as I say, was probably the most high-profile spiritualist of his day, but by no means the only one – nor the only ‘celebrity’. Harry Southey left money in his will to both the London Spiritualist Alliance and the local Merthyr Spiritualist Society on his death in 1930. To say the least, spiritualism flourished in South Wales in this period, and in industrial areas most particularly. Of the fifty five societies in existence (or which can be traced), only two were not located in Glamorgan and Monmouthshire – they were established in Pembrokeshire. I have counted at least three societies in Merthyr Tydfil, and more than half a dozen in what is now Rhondda Cynon Taff. There were no fewer than two regional organisations, too, the South Wales Spiritualist Alliance which formed in 1905 and the Spiritualist Council of Wales which came into existence in 1908.

Perhaps the most high-profile, and certainly most committed, spiritualist in South Wales before the Second World War was Ernest Bennett, one of the earliest Labour MPs for Cardiff – he won Cardiff Central in 1929. Bennett, as Keith Gildart has noted, styled himself as a ghost hunter and was one of the vice presidents of the London Spiritualist Alliance and an author of several works on the subject. His first encounters, he claimed, were when he was working as an academic at Oxford University. During his time as MP for Cardiff Central, he wrote his most significant book Apparitions and Haunted Houses a study of more than one hundred cases of ghosts and spirit appearances which had been reported between the 1880s and the 1930s. The book was published in 1939 by no less than Faber and Faber!

The legacy of the spiritualists is easily observed in industrial South Wales. You’re never that far away from a spiritualist church or meeting place, and in some parts of the region, particularly in Cardiff and Merthyr, they once occupied a prominent place indeed. For a period the spiritualists in Cardiff met at 58 Queen Street – what is today the HSBC Bank! – and in Merthyr they opened their own temple on the tramroad, Penydarren, in 1910. Perhaps it is as well to end this post with something about who some of the local mediums were and perhaps why industrial South Wales was such a target for spiritualism. A good example of the mediums who plied their trade here is Thomas Henry Essary who was born in Monmouthshire in 1865 and died in Pontypridd in 1910. He came from a working-class family – his father was a carpenter – and he began his working life as a blacksmith, but some time in the 1890s he switched to being a ‘herbalist and magentic dealer’ and made his way onto the spiritualist lecture circuit.

In 1909, Essary went to Merthyr to lecture on the ‘Pathway to Peace’ one of a rich circuit of lecturers and mediums sufficient to enable weekly séances, trances, and fortune telling to take place in that town. It’s easy to sneer, and plenty did at the time, or to recoil and regard the spiritualists, palmists, and astrologers, and fortune tellers as charlatans and chancers – entertainers who exploited gullibility and grief. There was certainly something of that, but the population of industrial South Wales was also after something to fill their spiritual vacuum in an effort to understand the world around them. They saw no contradiction between spiritualism and their Christian faith – indeed, in the Cynon Valley ‘Christian Spiritualist’ associations were very common. In an age when death or injury were common, when the child mortality rate was shocking (even to contemporary standards), and when levels of education were relatively limited, faith in the afterlife linked everyone from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, and perhaps even your nan.

Image Credits: 

Arthur Conan Doyle by Walter Stoneman, for James Russell & Sons bromide print, circa 1916 NPG Ax39223 ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Ernest Nathaniel Bennett by Walter Stoneman bromide print, 1931 6 1/2 in. x 4 3/4 in. (165 mm x 121 mm) Commissioned, 1931 Photographs Collection NPG x165025