Alun, Gweno & Freda

Dr John Pikoulis
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
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Alun Lewis (1915-1944) was the most prominent writer of World War Two, in poetry and short fiction. Raiders’ Dawn (1942), answered the critics’ questions about the absence of war poets in that conflict, and his story collection The Last Inspection (1943) was a best selling revelation of the ‘Phoney War’ in Britain and service life in India. A posthumously published collection of poems, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (1945) showed a move towards the spiritual.

Lewis was born in the industrial valleys of south Wales, near Aberdare, and grew up during the deep poverty of the depression. This, and his family background, made him a confirmed socialist and a pacifist, which presented him with a particular dilemma when the war began in 1939. The need to defeat fascism proved overwhelming and Lewis left his teaching job and volunteered as a private in the Royal Engineers. His attempt to play a non-combatant role in the ranks was the beginning of an arc of promotion which ended yards from enemy lines in Burma, as a regimental intelligence officer.

Set against that background of industrial poverty and war Alun, Gweno & Freda is an account of Lewis’s life and his writing, through the particular prism of his relationships with his wife, Gweno, and with Freda Aykroyd, an expatriate in India whose house provided respite for British officers on leave. The book argues that Lewis’s charged relationships with these two women were the key to both his writing and his mental health. It also explores the circumstances surrounding Lewis’ death by a single shot from his own gun and contributes to the ongoing debate about whether this was an accident or suicide.

In addition to illuminating the life and writing of Alun Lewis, the book also sheds light on the art of biography. It tells the story of its own creation: the author’s researches into Lewis, his dealings with Lewis’s family, his wife, Freda Aykroyd, the regiment. The book includes generous quotation from both Lewis’s work and Pikoulis’s correspondence and meetings with the main players as he negotiates the difficult terrain of personal memory and public exposition.

Alun, Gweno & Freda is published to mark the centenary of Alun Lewis’ birth, which is also marked by a number of celebratory events, including the publication of Morlais, a previously unseen novel by Lewis.


Review By Paul Binding, New Statesman

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

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 Lewis to feelings of social guilt closely akin to those of the riven Morlais.

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 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.

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