An Interview with John Summers
by ANTHONY BROCKWAY
This interview comes from the excellent website The Wolf Man Knew My Father: Notes from the Margins of Welsh Popular Culture. It was the last major interview with John and I'm grateful to Anthony Brockway for his permission to re-publish it here.
He has chewed the fat with Rocky Marciano; taken tea with Evelyn Waugh; spent quality time with the Churchills. In Russia, where he travelled extensively, his books are still used in schools to teach the English language. But it is for his novel The Disaster, a fictionalised account of the Aberfan tragedy, that John Summers is perhaps best remembered. Here the Welsh writer reflects on what has, thus far, been an eventful and sometimes controversial career. This interview was completed in March 2004.
Tell us a bit about where you were born and the kind of upbringing you had.
Born at Rhymney, youngest of five, my brothers and sisters were all adults when I was born. My mother and her aunt, Sara Thomas, had run the Ras Farm (an Elizabethan Welsh longhouse) for some forty years. My mother’s parents were from Ohio, USA. She kept framed above her farmhouse fireplace the army papers of her American forebears who fought on both sides of the American Civil War. I was later to give a BBC Home Service talk on this because it shows what close links there have always been between the American and Welsh people. Also, I spent much time with a Welsh Methodist family of schoolteachers who had just lost their son and after whom I was named - John Aeron (the father was from New Quay, hence the name of Aeron, the river in West Wales). Whenever I think of the very best in Wales I think of them - they were religious but not aggressively so and I never heard them utter an unkind word about anybody.
You studied English Literature at Swansea University under Kingsley Amis. What were your impressions of him?
My impressions of Kingsley Amis are very bad ones. He was a lecturer and I was a student at Swansea University and I have yet to understand what anyone sees in his book Lucky Jim - certainly Evelyn Waugh had contempt for it. I never conveyed any malice toward the odious Mr Amis at all until in The Spectator magazine he let forth a tirade of nastiness in response to an unmalicious article I had published about him. I was forced therefore to respond in kind by reminding Spectator readers that Mr Amis had referred to us Welsh as: “slathered with woad and sheepshit”. Amis excused himself for this by rejoindering that he had many Welsh friends, by which of course he meant his occasional drinking cronies. Not a nice person at all and anyone who can read his novels (I can’t) will see that they are suffused with nastiness about other people but without a word of self-criticism.
Which writers have exerted the greatest influence on you?
The greatest influence on me as a writer is undoubtedly Henry Williamson, who is thought of as a nature writer but was a great deal more than that. His Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight captures Britain from the Edwardian era to our own times. He is said to have been briefly interned during WW2 for once belonging to Oswald Mosley’s British fascist party, as were many of the English upper-middle class at that time. You only have to know that Henry campaigned against the criminal war in Vietnam to understand that he was motivated in the right direction, even if he could be politically naive. J B Priestley told me that Henry was, and is, one of the greatest writers and his worth will be recognised by posterity. Williamson, who I was glad to know as a friend, taught me to write not for now but for posterity.
You wrote your first book, The Road to Andamooka (non-fiction) after travelling from Canada to northern Australia with a mere £20 in your pocket. Was that epic journey part of your education in becoming a writer?
Road to Andamooka was certainly part of my education in becoming a writer and it was my years in Canada (a very tough country) that changed me most.
In 1969 Edge of Violence (reissued in 1970 as The Disaster) was published in which you essentially fictionalised the Aberfan disaster and the resultant compensation fiasco. What kind of reaction did the book provoke?
When Edge of Violence/The Disaster came out the minions of the Harold Wilson government, and the absurd George Thomas, strained every nerve and sinew to suppress it but such books cannot be smothered. Hutchinson, whose subsidiary had published the book, had sought the opinion of prominent libel lawyer Hilary Rubinstein on whether it risked libel proceedings, describing as it does the disgraceful corruption in South Wales that first caused the Aberfan disaster and then almost succeeded in stealing their £2 million disaster fund. Rubinstein said: “A million copies of this book should be printed and given away free to the public.”
Two coachloads of Aberfan’s survivors arrived at the book launch which was held at the House of Commons. It behoves me to remind myself that when we had implored the help of Aberfan’s own MP, S O Davies, he had told us: “I can’t do nothing... or I’d have ‘em all down on my neck here,” (ie at the House of Commons). I forebore at that juncture to remind Mr Davies that his own Aberfan constituents, who were then appealing to him, had already had everything there down on their necks.
After the £1 million I’d lodged a writ for, on behalf of the survivors, did win through, it was only then that Aberfan’s own MP got on his legs in the House of Commons to quaver: “This money should have been paid out years ago!!” There, in that, you have all that was South Wales - at that time anyway.
Plaudits for the book came in from all quarters including Saunders Lewis, Iris Murdoch and Erskine Caldwell. So too did John Steinbeck’s widow Elaine hail it, and also Martha Gellhorn who had been Hemingway’s third wife and who was then living in Wales.
The novel also deals with the emergence of the Free Wales Army. Were you, like your fictional hero Joe Parry, at all sympathetic with their aims at that time?
My fictional hero Joe Parry takes his name from Merthyr’s son, Dr Joseph Parry, the composer. As for sympathy with the Free Wales Army who appear in that book, I was never sure what their aims were and neither, I think, were they; except that it was an instinctive protest at seeing Wales and its language and culture die. And so did many English people protest about that too. There certainly seemed no actual malice intended toward English people in it at all - after all, so many of its members were part-English anyway. The comparatively few of its members that I met evinced no malice toward English people but towards the bureaucrats who had caused the Aberfan disaster in the first place and were now intent on stealing the survivors’ money.
I have never joined any political party myself. I first went to report on the Aberfan disaster for the US Harper’s Bazaar, Washington Post and Asahi Shimbun of Tokyo. After that the Aberfan survivors returned to me for help in carrying forward their appeals and writ, as they were getting no support from politicians in Wales.
Did the whole Aberfan compensation battle - in which you became personally involved - make you cynical about politics in general?
The Aberfan compensation battle did not make me cynical about politics in general because I was already cynical about politics in general after being reporter/feature writer/sub-editor on publications of national merit in this country and overseas.
In one episode in The Disaster Joe Parry gets his break in journalism by interviewing the reclusive Jocelyn Gough. This was loosely based upon an actual interview you did with Evelyn Waugh. What did you make of the reputedly anti-Welsh author?
I certainly interviewed Evelyn Waugh but the difference is that Waugh was not gatecrashed by me, on the contrary he ASKED me to come and interview him. I liked Waugh and was later, after his death, glad to assure his son Auberon of this too. Evelyn Waugh, I feel certain, was not anti-Welsh but he liked to say mischievous things to shock people. In fact, he was proud (for whatever strange reasons) of the Welsh blood that he claimed, saying that his forebears were nobility from the Vale of Glamorgan and that their coats-of-arms contained the Welsh words Darro Fy Mwallt which apparently means ‘pass me my battleaxe’. He did not suffer fools gladly. He pretended to have to use an ear trumpet just to avoid having to listen to them. He didn’t use one with me and we had an enjoyable day. He was not however pleased that my article about him carried the headline, referring to his Catholicism, of ‘Holy Waugh’. But then I didn’t write that, nor would I have done. His lifelong friend Randolph Churchill with whom I used to stay told me that Waugh was spitting with rage about that. They were grand people and it is a privilege to have known them all.
In your second novel Dylan you deal with the whole idea of the doomed artist. Did you ever meet the book’s biggest influence Dylan Thomas?
I met with Dylan Thomas as a schoolboy when staying with my grandfather who lived in Llansteffan which is the real Under Milk Wood – not Laugharne at all, beautiful though it is. Dylan lived at Llanybri just outside Llansteffan and did his drinking and poem-making at the Edwinsford pub that is now a private house. My grandfather David Summers lived opposite at Albion House, and preached at the nearby Baptist chapel.
There’s a quote from you in The Times in 1970 saying: “I want to use Dylan’s house as a cell for the resurgence of Welsh writing.” There’s a hint of revolution in that statement - was this symptomatic of the prevailing zeitgeist or did you genuinely think you could reinvigorate Welsh literature?
The Times quote I don’t recall, but what I did mean is that I wanted to see Dylan’s house at Laugharne as a centre for the resurgence of writing in the same way that Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath did for the writers that they encouraged. I didn’t think I myself would reinvigorate Welsh literature but that perhaps better facilities could and should be provided.
The Rag Parade was your last book for NEL - they had a reputation for publishing trashy mass market fiction. What had your relationship with them been like?
With New American Library and New English Library it provided the certainty that through their worldwide distribution many people would read The Disaster and I wanted that. I knew all-too-well that there were murky figures behind the scenes in Government who would do anything to prevent the public knowing of their dealings. NEL also published Tennessee Williams, J M Synge, Norman Mailer etc etc.
The Irish Times said of your Depression-era novel The Raging Summer: “At last! A Wales that the reader can believe in!” (a dig at Gwyn Thomas) Were you trying to portray a more authentic vision of South Wales.
I was not consciously trying to provide a more ‘authentic’ picture of Wales in The Raging Summer – I let it lay as it came out, as Americans say. And if it was more authentic then so much the better. I do think so much of Gwyn Thomas’s novels are utterly ridiculous and unreadable and I’m glad the Irish agreed with me. John Steinbeck IS authentic America and Laurel & Hardy films are NOT authentic America. I see Gwyn Thomas’s novels being like that.
You spent some time behind the iron curtain in Russia, an experience captured in your book The Red and the Black (non-fiction). What did you make of the Soviet system?
Taken overall the Soviet system (and Soviets told me: “You have seen more of our country than most of our own people ever have”) was hope-filled. It is now admitted that there never was any threat to the West from the Soviets but the bosses and maladministrators and manipulators of Western mujiks always pretended that threat was there. Many around the world have died and had their lives smashed because of that fake Cold War.
You visited Hughesovska (Donetsk) in the Ukraine founded by Welshman John Hughes; and in Kazakhstan I understand you had it confirmed that Stalin had once visited Wales.
The manner of Stalin’s arrival on a brief visit to Wales to garner funds and backing for the Revolution, which later would come, had been sketched in by the Sunday Times just before I first went to the USSR in 1975. The details were provided to me at Hughesovka and in Kazakhstan at Karaganda.
You’ve met and interviewed some legendary people during your journalistic career: the Churchills, Evelyn Waugh, John Steinbeck, Anthony Powell, Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell, John Le Carre, John Braine, Colin Wilson, VS Naipaul, to name but a few. Who impressed you most?
I never met John Steinbeck but he wrote letters to me about my mother’s farm - the Ras at Rhymney - which he confirmed to be where Henry Morgan the pirate was born and grew up before going to the West Indies. Morgan named Jamaican places ‘Rhymney River’ and ‘Rhymney Mountain’ there after he came to be Governor. Steinbeck confirmed that after the sacking of Panama Morgan buried huge loads of treasure at Rhymney – it means the place of marshes like Romney in Kent. I almost lost Steinbeck’s letters in South Africa and so allowed them to be acquired by UCLA in California – Steinbeck’s home territory. Steinbeck visited the Ras in the wartime years while he was writing Once there was a War at a cottage near Bath. He sent a card from Usk to a friend inscribed: FROM USK TO YOUSK. Steinbeck’s debut novel Cup of Gold opens at Ras Farm.
Again, it was Henry Williamson who impressed me most. A great writer, a great thinker, and utterly fearless as all real writers must be.
You also famously interviewed the great boxer Rocky Marciano before his untimely death in 1969. What did he reveal to you about his time spent in South Wales during WW2?
Rocky Marciano asked me: “Is the Mumbles train still going?” He had been a GI billeted on Mumbles Pier, sleeping on straw palliasse-matresses; he was a truckdriver here for D-Day. He was also at Scurlage on the Gower and at the US Forces hospital at Morriston that is now Morriston hospital. It was his brawl with an Australian soldier in Wind Street, Swansea, that propelled him into boxing. He’d been arrested he’d said, by the ‘snowdrops’ i.e. the US military police who wore helmets painted white, and they put him to boxing rather than court-martialling him.
He even maintained contact with his Swansea priest. After an early bout with Carmine Vingo (a US boxer), in which Vingo nearly died of his injuries, Marciano was on the point of giving up. He had unsuccesfully tried to adapt his style to become more of a boxer than a fighter. He phoned his Swansea priest who told him: “Rocky, you either got to give up entirely, or stop trying to be a boxer, which you are not fitted for... or just USE the strength God blessed you with!”
As my interview showed he eventually turned against boxing altogether and advocated its banning. He was killed trying to save a few dollars by cashing in his return air-ticket and accepting a lift in a small private plane which crashed.
Marciano made several nostalgic visits back to Wales to where he would catch the Pullman train as far as Cardiff and then a taxi from there to the scenes of his GI days. He said his practice was to board the Mumbles train out to Oystermouth to where in the wartime years he had regularly gone to the Stella Maris teaching school, and from there he would go on as far as its terminus at Mumbles Pier. A brisk walk along its wooden boards where he had once slept and then the Mumbles train back to Rutland Street in Swansea and another walk up through Swansea Market where he would relive old memories with a purchase of some cockles and mussels and a couple of slices of Welsh breadpudding. No-one, he said, ever recognised him in his corduroy ratting-cap and plastic mac and sandals. Then it would be back by taxi to return to London on the Pullman. All in one day.
You’re still writing, John - what projects are you currently working on?
One book starting at the Hitler bunker, which the Soviets showed me before they demolished and buried it – and ending at Auschwitz. And another book that begins with an interview with Marciano by a US journalist who then comes to stay sometime in Britain.