Obituary : Ron Berry
Thursday 24 July 1997
Although he did not have the lyrical gifts of Richard Llewellyn, nor the power to create a powerful myth about the loss of Eden after the discovery of coal in the South Wales valleys, Berry was able to draw a more authentic picture of working-class life because he was born into it and never left it. His six novels are testimony to his deep sympathy with a way of life which, now that only one of the region's pits remains, has virtually come to an end and will soon pass from living memory.
He was born a miner's son in 1920 at Blaen-cwm, which, as its name implies, is at the top end of the Rhondda Fawr, perhaps the most famous of all the coal-bearing valleys of South Wales. Leaving school at the age of 14, he worked as a miner in local pits until the outbreak of the Second World War, during which he served in both the Army and the Merchant Navy.
He also played soccer for Swansea Town and, "thick-set, pigeon-toed, and peasant- fisted", took up boxing for a while, a sport celebrated in his penultimate novel, So Long, Hector Bebb (1970), which is unusual in that its narrative consists of a series of interior monologues which are as sensitive as they are menacing.
Ron Berry began writing after spending a year at Coleg Harlech, "the College of the Second Chance", the residential college for adult students at Harlech in North Wales, where he read avidly and honed his left-wing political views in endless argument with staff and fellow-students. He was to remain profoundly suspicious of academic exegesis, particularly of the novel, but was able to hold his own in any discussion of the genre. His gruff manner and sometimes contentious views enlivened the correspondence which he kept up with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.
The Rhondda of Ron Berry's novels is unlike that of any other novelist: it is economically more prosperous (before the closing of the mines), its people more sophisticated and more hedonistic, less concerned with politics and religion than those in the stories of, say, Rhys Davies or Gwyn Thomas. The main characters in his first novel, Hunters and Hunted (1960), are feckless and mainly concerned with boozing, women and drawing the dole. In Travelling Loaded (1963) he describes the picaresque adventures of men who work in a steelworks during the winter and spend the summer living rough in the countryside.
Ron Berry once told me that he was trying to recreate "a happier Rhondda" than the one conventionally portrayed in the many novels which have taken the valleys as their background. His concern that the old communal values were beginning to wither was first expressed in The Full-Time Amateur (1966), in which social change proceeds apace as the affluent working class buy cars and television, go to bingo and take holidays abroad.
He saw himself as their chronicler, lovingly but sometimes caustically recording "what remains of the past" before "it sputters out as garbled memory". This threnody for a doomed way of life found its fullest expression in Flame and Slag (1968), a novel based on his journal of a dying miner, whose poignant recollection of the old Rhondda is used as counterpoint to the brash rootlessness and incomprehension of his children.
In Ron Berry's novels the working class, for all their shortcomings, adapt, survive and eventually thrive in their new conditions, so that his work is more a warm-hearted affirmation of his belief in them than a rigorous critique. When Dewi Joshua, the hero of This Bygone (1996), his last novel, is declared redundant it looks like the end of him and the community of Moel.
This novel contains what will almost certainly be the last nostalgic look by a writer with first-hand experience of the mines at the industry which, more than any other, went to the making of South Wales. More than anything, Dewi misses "the togetherness of men underground, the bonding, walking the main, old blokes in on the double- parting discussing Moel Exchange events . . . butties and mates settling down for grub at 11 o'clock, blokes queuing to the lamproom, and collier- boys chin-wagging outside the pay hatch on Fridays".
Despite the fact that five of his books were published in London by such reputable firms as Hutchinson, W.H. Allen and Macmillan, Ron Berry was neglected by metropolitan critics and, in Wales, it was only on the appearance of his last novel that he attracted much attention. This general indifference to his work took its toll and, together with the arthritis which plagued him for more than 30 years, was largely responsible for his rather sour attitude to critics and academics. Usually unemployed and often short of money, he spent a good deal of his time in fly-fishing and bird watching. One of his books was about the return of the peregrine falcon to his beloved Rhondda.
His financial difficulties were partially relieved in the 1970s when a number of his friends were instrumental in obtaining a Civil List pension for him.
Ronald Anthony Berry, novelist: born Blaen-cwm, Glamorgan 23 February 1920; married Rene Jones (two sons, three daughters); died Pontypridd, Mid Glamorgan 16 July 1997.
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