Emlyn Evans: Literary figure who played a leading role in the revival of publishing in Welsh

In 1978 he was appointed managing director of Gwasg Gee in Denbigh, the most venerable of all Welsh publishing houses

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Emlyn Evans was a key figure in Welsh publishing at a time when it began to revive from the doldrums into which it had fallen during the postwar years. As managing director of Llyfrau'r Dryw (Wren Books), a publishing house based in Carmarthenshire, and later of Gwasg Gee in Denbigh, he proved himself to be a formidable bookman who was devoted to the fostering of literary talent in the Welsh language and the printing of books of high merit.

By training he was an electrical engineer who had worked for many years at power stations in England. By temperament, he was a cultural nationalist of the conservative kind, rather than a political one, though his commitment to his native tongue was never in doubt.

He came from the slate-quarrying district of Bethesda, where his father was a primary school teacher, and he was fully conversant with the bitter strikes of 1896 and 1900, when some 3,000 members of the North Wales Quarrymen's Union had been ultimately defeated by Lord Penrhyn. But it was not the radical tradition of the district that excited him so much as its rich religious, musical and literary life.

The first part of his autobiography, O'r Niwl a'r Anialwch ("From the mist and desert places", 1991) deals with the history of Bethesda as a Welsh-speaking industrial community that has produced a host of writers, musicians, preachers, teachers, politicians and colourful characters, among them the great, eccentric poet Robert Williams Parry, who had lived next door to the Evanses. An elegant account, it transcended the merely personal and amounted to a valuable sociological study.

After attending the local county school Evans went on to the University College of North Wales, Bangor, where he took a BSc in electrical engineering. He joined the Central Electricity Board in 1943 while waiting to be called up for military service, but the call never came and he spent the next 14 years at power-stations in the London area, including West Ham and Barking, at the time the largest of its kind in Europe. (My father too had worked for the CEB; whenever we met Evans never tired of talking to me about the grid, static, load flows, megawatts and frequency meters, delighting in the fact that the Welsh word for electricity, trydan, is not derived from any other language.)

A staunch member of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, he threw himself into the life of Welsh chapels in London and was very active in the London Welsh Association in Gray's Inn Road. He studied mechanical engineering part-time at Northampton polytechnic, and met Eileen Morley Jones, then a nurse at University College Hospital, whom he married in 1948.

It was in London that he first became interested in the provision of books in Welsh. He was one of a few expatriates who, concerned about the dearth of publications in the national language, formed Cymdeithas Llyfrau Cymraeg Llundain (The Welsh Books Society of London), of which he was the first secretary.

He was fond of quoting TS Eliot: "A language to survive must continue to be a literary language, otherwise the spread of education (in English) will extinguish it." He put his shoulder to the wheel with remarkable energy and from 1953 to 1958 the society published half a dozen new titles a year, including books by some of the best contemporary Welsh writers. This also led to greater initiatives, such as the founding of the Welsh Books Council in 1961.

His enthusiasm and business acumen were spotted by Alun Talfan Davies, owner of the imprint Llyfrau'r Dryw, who persuaded him to return to Wales, on a much reduced salary, to become managing director. He soon won the confidence of authors, including the eminence grise of Welsh letters, Saunders Lewis, whose plays he published. Quickly the firm, based in Llandybie, Carmarthenshire, became one of four upon which Welsh publishing largely depended. One of its mainstays was the monthly magazine Barn ("Opinion"), founded in 1962, of which Evans was the inaugural editor. Established as a major journal of current affairs with a wide purview, it attracted most of the leading Welsh intellectuals of the day.

Evans's years in Carmarthenshire came to an abrupt end in 1963. He had refused to publish a novel by John Rowlands on the grounds that it contained passages explicitly describing sex between a minister and a member of his congregation. But while Evans was on annual leave the bullish Talfan Davies ordered it to be printed. Evans resigned, and the novel appeared as Ienctid yw 'Mhechod (published in English in 1966 as A Taste of Apples). The passages that offended Evans are, by today's standards, only mildly lubricious, but in 1965 they caused as much stir in Wales as had Lady Chatterley's Lover in England three years before.

Evans returned to Bethesda and worked at Ysgol Syr Hugh Owen, the secondary school in Caernarfon, as a teacher of mathematics and then as head of the economics department. One or two administrative jobs with national bodies were denied him, so he claimed, because he was not a Nationalist, though this can be safely discounted. He was co-editor of the quarterly magazine Y Genhinen ("The leek"), a post he held from 1968 until its closure in 1980.

In 1978 he was appointed managing director of Gwasg Gee in Denbigh, the most venerable of all Welsh publishing houses, which the great Liberal newspaper proprietor Thomas Gee had founded in 1838. The firm's glory days had long departed but under Evans it continued to publish books of literary merit, albeit in premises and on presses that were outdated. He stayed on in the hope that the firm would be bought by a consortium or turned into a museum of printing, but in the end it closed and he retired.

Emlyn Evans was a genial and sociable man who had a wide circle of friends and was highly regarded for his integrity and expertise as a publisher. In retirement he pursued the interests that were important to him throughout his life: his Calvinistic Methodist chapel, the National Eisteddfod, local history, carpentry, painting and listening to classical music, especially Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and visiting places in England with literary and artistic associations such as Stoke Poges and Flatford Mill.

A selection of his poems, stories, articles and essays was published as part of his autobiography, which he brought out from Gwasg Gee shortly before he retired.

Emlyn Evans, engineer and publisher: born Bethesda, Caernarfonshire 4 December 1923; married 1948 Eileen Morley Jones (one son, one daughter); died Bangor, Gwynedd 13 November 2014.

Comments