Alun Creunant Davies

First Director of the Welsh Books Council
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The Independent Online

As first Director of the Welsh Books Council, Alun Creunant Davies played a pioneering role in developing the book trade in Wales, to which he devoted his boundless energy, administrative flair and business acumen. He took up his post, with a staff of one, on St David's Day 1965, an auspicious date for a man who, although never overtly political, drew great strength from his patriotism which, for him, was rooted in the Welsh language and its culture.

Welsh publishing had fallen into the doldrums in the post-war period, with only 234 Welsh-language titles appearing between 1946 and 1951, and fewer than a hundred a year thereafter. The Ready Report of 1951 had concluded that the future of Welsh depended to a large extent on the availability of books in the language and recommended the creation of a fund for the public subsidy of book production by local and central government. Thanks to Alun R. Edwards, the irrepressible Librarian of Cardiganshire, the counties of Wales had begun to provide small grants for the printing of Welsh books, mostly fiction, and a modicum of payment for their authors.

Alun Creunant, as he was widely known in Wales, soon transformed this tentative arrangement by persuading 12 of the 13 county councils (the exception was Monmouthshire) to make more substantial annual grants to the Books Council. This initiative was followed in 1972 by the Welsh Arts Council's decision to pay for the setting up of four new departments, with responsibility for Design, Editing, Publicity and Marketing, and by the Welsh Office's contribution of an annual grant for the subsidy of Welsh book production and some of the concomitant operating costs. The number of Welsh-language titles grew steadily and they were better designed, edited, publicised and marketed than ever before.

The Books Council also expanded rapidly, moving from its cramped offices on the top floor of a building leased from the Farmers' Union of Wales to more spacious accommodation at Castell Brychan, a former Roman Catholic seminary which stands on Constitution Hill, high above the town of Aberystwyth. At the same time the Books Centre, a wholesale distributing warehouse on the Glanyrafon industrial estate at Llanbadarn, on the outskirts of town, which was wholly Davies's idea, began providing the publishers, booksellers, teachers, librarians and book-buying public of Wales with a fast delivery service that is still the envy of the trade in England, Scotland and Ireland.

Although he was not averse to spending many hours in packing, invoicing and delivering parcels of books to all parts of Wales and the Borders, and was still in this habit long after the council had its designated staff to carry out such tasks, Davies was determined to implement policies and procedures that would ensure a greater degree of professionalism in what had for long been almost a cottage industry. In this he used his diplomatic skills to persuade those on whom the fortunes of the Books Council depended and was indefatigable in his support for its staff.

None of his colleagues was spared his zeal and there was no such thing as a nine-to-five day, weekends, unsocial hours or holidays. On one occasion, in 1976, I was speaking to the Secretary of the Nobel Committee in the throne room of the Swedish Parliament when a very ornate telephone rang and the call was for me. Alun Creunant Davies wanted to know whether, in my capacity as the Arts Council's Literature Director, I could attend a meeting of one of the Books Council's committees on such-and-such a date. When I said I could, he asked me what the weather was like in Stockholm, told me it was raining in Aberystwyth and then put the phone down.

I had to assure my astonished host that the call, though brief, was indeed a very important one. As I was speaking to my compatriot in Welsh, he was none the wiser.

Davies was born in 1927 at Llansamlet, near Swansea, the only child of a Calvinistic Methodist minister, and went to school in Llandovery in Carmarthenshire. After qualifying as a teacher at Trinity College, Carmarthen, and spending two years in the Army, he was appointed to the staff of Tregaron Primary School and, shortly afterwards, became headmaster at Llangeitho, a small village in rural south Cardiganshire, where he remained for 13 years.

It was this long association with the county which, in addition to his shrewd business sense, made many people think of him as a Cardi - a stereotype renowned in Wales for thrift, not to say parsimony, but a nickname he was happy to apply to himself when it suited him. For him, the local was the real, and that meant the Welsh-speaking communities which were nearest his heart. One of the quainter points about the running of the Books Council in its early days, I recall, was that a secretary was sent home early every Friday afternoon because she lived in Llangeitho, where she bought a substantial supply of postage stamps for the week following, thus helping the sub-post office to remain open as a vital part of village life.

Davies served Llangeitho in other ways, too. He ran the local branch of the Welsh League of Youth, teaching the children to act and speak in their native tongue, played a prominent part in the Sunday School and, whenever the need arose, took the services at the Daniel Rowland Memorial Chapel, named after the village's most famous son, one of the leaders of the Methodist Revival. On men like Alun Creunant the traditional culture of Welsh- speaking Wales has long depended and he played his part to the full, in recognition of which the University of Wales awarded him the honorary degree of MA on his retirement in 1987.

He was also active on a wider stage. For five years he was General Secretary of Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru (UCAC), the Welsh teachers' union. He carried out his duties with such vim and efficiency that the wags said the AC in the acronym of the union's name stood for Alun Creunant. Among the public bodies of which he was a member were the National Library and National Museum, the Mid-Wales Development Board and the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He served as a Justice of the Peace and Chairman of the North Cardiganshire Magistrates, often exercising an independence of judgement that was usually in favour of the poor and the underprivileged.

As Moderator of the South Wales Association of the Presbyterian Church of Wales in 1979-80, he delivered an address that treated the Church not as something static or hidebound by tradition but as a society of worshippers actively concerned with the contemporary world and ready to adapt to its changing conditions. The re- emergence of Gwasg Pantycelyn, the Connexion's venerable publishing house, was due largely to Davies's efforts on its behalf.

But his main achievement was the establishment of the Welsh Books Council, now, under his successor, Gwerfyl Pierce Jones, one of the most important public bodies in Wales. The first phase of its growth began in 1970 when he and I paid a visit to bilingual Friesland, and in particular to the Book Bang that is held every year in the provincial capital, Leeuwarden. We learned a great deal during that trip and on a subsequent visit to book distributors and publishers in Amsterdam, and brought back a number of ideas which we were able to put into operation almost immediately.

I found it easy to co-operate with Alun Creunant Davies, the kindest and most genial of men. For all his caution and attachment to the more traditional aspects of Welsh culture, he was ever ready to experiment and take initiatives if they could be expected to bring about improvements in Welsh publishing and the benevolently central role of the Books Council.

Whenever I go into a bookshop and see the array of books now available in Welsh (more than a thousand new titles a year), together with a wealth of English books from Welsh presses, I think of Sir Christopher Wren and that, in Alun Creunant's case, too, "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice".

Meic Stephens

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