Ron Berry Collection

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Access to some types of information may be restricted under the terms of the Data Protection Act.

Administrative / Biographical History

Berry, Ronald Anthony [Ron] (1920–1997), novelist, was born on 23 February 1920 at Lower Terrace, Blaen-cwm, at the top end of the valley of the Rhondda Fawr, Glamorgan, the son of George Thomas Berry (1896–1977), a colliery fireman, and his wife, Mary Ann, née Davies (1896–1972). Both his parents were Welsh-speaking but he had only a little of the language. His paternal grandfather, James Berry, had come to the Klondyke of the Rhondda from rural Oxfordshire in search of work. The family moved shortly after Ron Berry's birth to 17 and then 4 Michaels Road, and in 1947 to 8 Beynons Row, Blaen-cwm.

After leaving school at the age of fourteen, Berry followed his father into the local pits, working as a collier until the outbreak of the Second World War, during which he served in both the army and the merchant navy. An injury to his knee while playing for Swansea City in 1943 put an end to a promising career as a footballer and shortly afterwards he went absent without leave from the ordnance corps, only to be caught by the military police on his own doorstep. A born rebel, he put a good deal of effort into ‘ducking and dodging’ (his habitual phrase), trying to keep out of authority's way, and remained sceptical of all systems and conventional behaviour throughout his life. He spent some years as a carpenter, a steelworker, and a navvy in Wales and England and, ‘thick-set, pigeon-toed and peasant-fisted’ (autobiography), took up professional boxing, but was often unemployed.

Berry married Ethel Irene (Rene) Jones (b. 1928) on 12 July 1947, and they had five children. He was prevented from finding regular work by chronic ill health, but began writing poems, essays, and stories. After a year at Coleg Harlech, a residential college of further education for mature students, and another at Shoreditch College, where he read avidly and honed his left-wing political views in endless argument with staff and fellow students, he returned to the Rhondda in 1955, settling in Treherbert, where he spent the rest of his life at 1 Ael-y-bryn. A gruff man, he remained profoundly suspicious of academic exegesis of his writing and was so disenchanted with politicians that he never once voted in a general election.

Back in the Rhondda, and while working during the day as assistant manager at the swimming baths, Berry wrote his first novel, Hunters and Hunted (1960), which was soon followed by Travelling Loaded (1963). The main characters in both novels are feckless and mainly concerned with sex, boozing, and drawing the dole. The world of drifting, libidinous, hedonistic labourers was one which Ron Berry was to make his own. The Rhondda of his stories is unlike that of any other Welsh novelist: it is economically more prosperous (before the closing of the mines), and its people are more sophisticated and less concerned with politics and religion than those of, say, Rhys Davies or Gwyn Thomas.

Berry's concern that the old communal values, among men who lived and worked in the same village, were beginning to wither during the post-war period was first expressed in The Full-Time Amateur (1966), in which social change proceeds apace as the affluent working class begin to buy cars and television sets, go to bingo, and take holidays abroad. Ron Berry saw himself as their chronicler, lovingly but sometimes caustically recording ‘what remains of the past before it sputters out as garbled memory’ (autobiography). This threnody for a doomed way of life centred on mining found its fullest expression in Flame and Slag (1968), a novel based on the journal of a dying miner whose poignant recollections of the old, coal-bearing Rhondda and its vibrant society are used as counterpoint to the brash ignorance and apathy of his children. Berry's novel So Long, Hector Bebb (1970), told in the words of the people closest to him, is a portrait of a second-rate boxer, the revoking of whose licence after a foul in the ring leads to his tragic end.

Despite the fact that five of his novels were published in London by such reputable firms as Hutchinson, W. H. Allen, and Macmillan, Ron Berry was virtually ignored by metropolitan critics and neglected in Wales. It was twenty-six years before his next novel was published. When Dewi Joshua, the hero of This Bygone (1996), is declared redundant, it looks like the end of him and his community. Yet the working class in Berry's novels, for all their shortcomings, adapt, survive, and eventually thrive in changing conditions, so that his work is more a warm-hearted affirmation of his belief in them than a rigorous critique. Above all, he drew an authentic portrait of proletarian Wales because he was born into it and never left it. His novels and stories will almost certainly be the last to be written from inside a way of life that is now passing from living memory.

The general indifference to Berry's work took its toll and, together with the osteoarthritis which plagued him, was largely responsible for his rather sour attitude and gruff manner, even towards those who tried to help him. With time on his hands and often short of money, he spent a good deal of his time fly-fishing and bird-watching. One of his last books, Peregrine Watching (1987), finely observed and rather less hyperbolic than the novels, was about the return of the peregrine falcon to the Rhondda. His financial difficulties were partially relieved when, in the 1970s, some of his writer friends were instrumental in obtaining a civil-list pension for him. His autobiography, History is what you Live, by turns sentimental, darkly humorous, and splenetic, was published posthumously, with an introduction by Dai Smith, in 1998, and his Collected Stories, edited by Simon Baker, appeared in 2000. The latter book revealed a short-story writer of considerable power and it is on this showing that Ron Berry's reputation seems likely to rest.

Berry died in East Glamorgan General Hospital, near Pontypridd, on 16 July 1997, and was cremated at Llwydcoed, near Aberdâr, six days later.

Meic Stephens

Sources: personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) [daughter] · R. Berry, History is what you live (1998) · unabridged autobiography, Ron Berry estate

Archives: priv. coll., writing, letters, diaries, estate

Sound: University of Glamorgan, interviews by Dai Smith on video and audio tape · BBC documentary The long road · BBC documentary ‘Ron Berry’, Read all about us

Meic Stephens, ‘Berry, Ronald Anthony (1920–1997)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/67354, accessed 8 Aug 2013]

Ronald Anthony Berry (1920–1997): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/67354

Conditions Governing Access

Access to some types of information may be restricted under the terms of the Data Protection Act.