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13 January 2016

In love and war: the life and work of the Welsh writer, pacifist and soldier Alun Lewis

Morlais by Alun Lewis and Alun, Gweno and Freda by John Pikoulis reviewed.

By Paul Binding

“I want to come home with you, that’s all I want,” says the 16-year-old Morlais to his mother. For years, he has seen her only rarely and he has just encountered her in a household mourning a young man who was killed in the nearby mine pits. Her reply is woundingly unequivocal: “‘Don’t be daft,’ she said curtly. ‘We don’t want you.’” This exchange stands thematically, spiritually and literally at the centre of Morlais, the novel that Alun Lewis (1915-44) worked on throughout 1939 but never published. The situation behind the boy’s request and its snub not only provides the novel’s most powerful emotional drama, it constitutes its governing, resonant metaphor.

Morlais Jenkins’s father works as a haulier at the local colliery, while his mother manages an increasingly straitened household. These are desperate times in South Wales, the difficulties intensifying with the advent of the Depression in the 1930s. At school, as a boy of 11, Morlais had befriended David, the gentle and much-teased son of Denis Reames, the colliery manager. During a visit to the Reameses’ house, the boys played a daring game that ended in David’s death. Already David’s mother had taken a liking to the intelligent and responsible Morlais. The day after the accident, she descended to the Jenkinses’ house – no figure of speech, for the Reameses’ house, The Elms, is situated high above the mining community of Glannant – and offered to adopt him. Her proposal was accepted.

Morlais’s removal from his roots is compounded by his winning a place at the selective county school outside Glannant. For five years, he scarcely encounters his blood family or old mates, and the most important person in his life is not his “Mam” but “Mums”, his refined, beautiful, educated foster mother. She gives him security, comfort, affection and intellectual stimulus. Yet she has also half-knowingly appropriated his burgeoning male identity so that he interiorises his passions.

But however lofty geographically and culturally The Elms may be, it can’t but be affected by the prevailing economic climate. Denis Reames, renowned as a hard taskmaster, is forced by his board to make cuts in expenditure, with devastating effects, including fatalities, on the miners. William Jenkins, Morlais’s father, becomes first spokesman, then victim, and his elder son can no longer keep himself apart.

Though Alun Lewis had had stories and poems published ever since his schooldays, Morlais antedates the works that, shortly after the novel’s completion, earned him considerable admiration: Raiders’ Dawn (1942), poems of men waiting in wartime to serve, so many of them in love or newly married, and The Last Inspection (also 1942), disquieting and sympathetically penetrating short stories of army life, with a remarkable ear for vernacular speech. The pressures leading to the creation of these books – Lewis, though a pacifist by conviction, enlisted in the army in May 1940 and married Gweno Ellis in July 1941 – were no doubt responsible for his abandoning Morlais for projects that confronted more directly the ever-demanding present. But he must have known its artistic distinction. The novel is not a linear Bildungsroman but original in construction, with provocative narrative breaks that force imaginative revision of the protagonist and his predicament. The tumult within Morlais counterpoints the turmoil inside a community of rising unemployment, while the accounts of his experiences on the mountain above Glannant provide context for the human troubles below and remind us of the ceaseless struggles within nature.

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That Morlais was nurtured by Lewis’s life becomes clear when we examine the book biographically. John Pikoulis has now added to his already canonical Alun Lewis: a Life (1991) a fascinating and invaluable revisiting of his work on the author: Alun, Gweno and Freda. Lewis grew up in Cwmaman, near Aberdare; his parents were schoolteachers there, educated and better off than others in that town of colliers. This, together with his selective education, led in Lewis to feelings of social guilt closely akin to those of the riven Morlais.

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Lewis’s life after the gratifyingly successful publication of his first two books demands further elucidation. In October 1942 he was posted to India, where the injustice and poverty appalled him. He fell passionately in reciprocated love with an older, married woman, Freda Aykroyd, while continuing to write tender, richly evocative letters to Gweno which she later published. The psychological strains became unendurable. In February 1944 Lewis was sent to Burma. On 5 March he was found shot through the head outside the officers’ latrines, revolver in hand. Accidental death was the official verdict, but fellow soldiers (who greatly respected him) were convinced that he had committed suicide, as was Freda. And so now is Pikoulis, whose grim biographer’s duty it became to help Gweno adjust to the reality of her husband’s lover and the likelihood of a self-sought death.

Lewis’s posthumously published books exceed their predecessors in scope and accomplishment – the poems of Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (1944), the stories and letters of In the Green Tree (1948). Darker, more openly metaphysical, they nonetheless connect back to Morlais, which presents its subject matter sub specie aeternitatis, irradiated by the charity of the author’s inclusive socialism. The novel points forward to the later split in Lewis. His last letter to his wife declared: “The sun is bright and gay and everything sparkling and scrubbed, and if it were ten years ago or ahead I’d have a very gay scrubbed heart as well.” But, only months before, he confessed in his journal:

Last night I was singing and there was death quite clear and familiar at last after all the groping and revulsion and I sang . . . Did she be close unto thee, Billy Boy? Billy Boy? Yes she lay close unto me as the bark is to the tree and me Nancy tickled me fancy oh my darling Billy Boy. 

Morlais by Alun Lewis (263pp, £12.99) and Alun, Gweno and Freda by John Pikoulis (400pp, £14.99 ) are both published by Seren

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue