Ken Smith grew up in the Welsh village of Rhigos (Rhyd y Groes, in Welsh). He held the elected offices of parish councilor and district councilor. He knew the people, the shop owners, and the publicans. At some point, Smith moved to Alberta, Canada, but he kept connected with his home town, with its characters, its ups and downs, and its stories.
And then he wrote the stories down, in Tales from My Welsh Village. And while they are officially short stories, anyone who grew up in a small town, or even a larger town or city before they became “media-ized” and homogenized, will recognize the realities underpinning these stories.
These are stories about men in a Welsh village. One female character appears, Annie Howells, the wife of Fred Howells, in Chapter 2. And that’s the sum total of all the female characters in the book. There’s a reason here: Smith is writing stories about what is largely village pub society in Wales in the 1960s and 1970s. And village pub society was largely male.
Fred Howells appears in most of the stories. He’s a former coal miner, and he has an astounding ability to sniff out a free pint of “best bitter.” He wanders, he hunts, he drinks a lot of his income, and his wife Annie gets so fed up that she leaves him. Fred is left to fend for himself, with his oldest son Colin, who is not unlike his father.
Fred gets himself into scrapes and escapades. He brags about his prowess in hunting rabbits and is put to the test. He says he can capture a fox without a cage or weapon of any kind. He buys two ferrets in a shrewd deal, and the ferrets manage to escape during a bingo game, causing undue excitement among the women present. He runs up his tab at the pub, and yet he still manages to cage a free pint from the pub owner. As much as the others shake their heads and / or enjoy his antics, it gradually becomes clear that Fred is the pivot on which the village turns.
Trefor Williams owns the pub, the Plough, and he seems to get into as much trouble as Fred. His practical jokes are famous, particularly the ones that get out of hand, like convincing Fred that his daughter in America won $185,000 at the Kentucky Derby. That leads to Fred almost getting arrested for counterfeiting and bank fraud.
And there’s old John Shimkus, ready with a comment or a quip on everyone and everything. And parish councilors Johnny and Alan, who seem to travel everywhere together. And the man who runs the post office, who tries to muscle in on Trefor’s pub by getting an off-license for alcohol. And the butcher, who believes he gets one over on Trefor only to find himself at the wrong end of an elaborate practical joke.
Tales from My Welsh Village is exactly that, stories based on what one hears, sees, and experiences while growing up in a small Welsh town. And it’s more than that. It’s the relatives we knew when we were children, the crazy uncle married to the prim and proper aunt, and the neighbor who was always just this side of the law, and the shop owners we remember as kind or mean or friendly or ready to chase kids off if he thought they were up to no good. These Welsh tales become every reader’s tales, and they’re funny and poignant, and nostalgic, and most of all true.
Photograph: a pub in a Welsh village.