Authors pay tribute to George Brinley Evans on his 96th Birthday
The three of us stood in a line against the wall. From left to right, the tall one, the short one, and the shortest one, me. Beaming between Alun Richards and myself was the ever affable and engaging George Brinley Evans.
We were being photographed after a gig some twenty years ago at the Hay Literature Festival. Beyond George’s smile was George’s wonderment at how long a photograph could take. This way, that way. Further apart. Closer together.
“Why the hell doesn’t she just take the picture?” George kept muttering to Alun. A smile was one thing, the glint in impatient eyes and the judgement of a man with no time to waste on fripperies was altogether something else.
How else, indeed, could it be for a pre-war collier boy, a Far East decorated soldier, a post-war miner, a family man, a lifelong resident of Banwen, a sculptor, a painter, a memoirist, a writer of fiction, a teller of tales, a man who epitomises the intellectual fire of the South Wales Coalfield in its working-class heyday.
I knew when I edited Story:Volume I in the Library of Wales Anthology of Welsh Short Stories in 2014 that I would place an authentic, genuine diamond amongst the glitter of famous assembled names: it would be Boys of Gold from George’s collection of related stories of the same name published in 1999.
He writes as he is—graphic, descriptive, devoid of sentimentality, full of compassion for all who suffer the Human Condition—a man who always knew what the Big Picture was, and was able to tell us what it really meant. An honour to call him my friend. Happy Birthday, George.”
George has an exceptional memory. In a long and varied life, he has generously drawn on his store of memories.
As a fellow writer I have been gifted with details which have proved priceless as I attempt in my short stories to write about his neck of the woods.
In snatches of conversation it soon becomes clear that George takes great pride in his surroundings. In a backward glance at the mining industry within the Dulais Valley he talks about the exceptional care that was taken in stabling horses in Banwen in particular. He has been a miner and remembers what was done to allow disabled people access to work above ground.
The pubs that were built by Evans and Bevans were strategically placed near the pithead. They were of an uniform design, with an impressive bar and toilet facilities. He also knew how Onllwyn bricks were manufactured and were prized for their hardness.
His knowledge of the area is not skin deep.
He brings the area of Dyffryn Cellwen, Coelbren and the upper reaches of the Swansea Valley to life, painting in the human details so vividly. The tin shed, St.David’s church, which he has always attended, celebrates its longevity alongside his.
‘We are the same age’ he recalls with pride. It is a thriving community church because the people of Banwen are unafraid to celebrate what they have. They take great pride in celebrating George’s contribution in their midst.
His home, Maple House, has a stream which runs through the garden and enviable views of the mountains, but has at its heart the feeling that the world and his wife are welcome; a place where his children have flourished
I am proud to be regarded by George as a friend, one of his many friends.
I first encountered George Brinley Evans through his collection of essays ‘Boys of Gold’ which shone because of the lustre of their authenticity, examining life underground and in his beloved Banwen, where the coal field meets the Brecon Beacons and in Burma during the Second World War.
He also wrote about fellow writer Bert Coombes who depicted the coal-hewing life with the same sort of hard won felicity. George’s pieces were different, though, in one regard. They had a quality of being painted into being, and suitably so, because George is an artist and some of his sculptures are now owned by National Museum Wales.
Evans worked at Onllwyn Colliery, which is a crow hop from his Banwen home and, as a painter, the material he most often used was home-made, concocted from household emulsion and watercolour on cheap paper.
He recorded miners’ working methods and technical expertise and resilience in the face of danger. After losing an eye in a mining accident in 1961, he turned to modelling figurines of his workmates and national heroes, such as Winston Churchill, using cheap and alternative material of his own devising.
He would cover a wire armature in layers of old nylon stockings soaked in plaster, which was then teased into shape and sprayed with car paint. In a sculpture such as ‘Aros am y Golau/Waiting for the Light’ a blindfolded miner is show sitting in a manhole waiting for his eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness. In another work a collier who is also a chapel deacon is holding a huge nugget of ‘black gold’ as he moves forward on his knees, illuminated by his Davy lamp.
I first went to see him to record a programme for the ‘First Hand’ series on BBC Radio Wales and met a humble man, o’erbrimming with warmth and with a compassion for others and a quiet wisdom that communicated readily in a stream of stories. He drew pictures in words as he recalled the metal clip of the colliers’ boots marching to the shift and the pit-head hooters resounding across the Dulais Valley and recalled mountain excursions to harvest whinberries which captured the sharp tang and sunlit moments of childhood.
But one of his most successful stories is one that has really taken root. It claims Banwen as the place where St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland grew up. Now, history tells us that Patrick captured by a raiding party as a young boy in Cumbria to be sold as a slave in Ireland.
The actual place where Patrick grew up was called Bannavem Taberniae and the people of Banwen have laid claim to this being Bannavem. George found the story in a old magazine and ever since, and with all enthusiasm, has promoted the idea so successfully that pretty much each year the likes of broadcasters such as RTE interview him on or around St. Patrick’s Day. The village has erected a Celtic cross and planted two olive trees and each year they have a procession to mark the occasion.
George is the sort of man who graces life so very quietly, a detailed and measured chronicler, a remembrancer of the joys of the local fish and chip shop, the billiard hall and boxing club. He is one of the last of the Burma Star veterans – even though he’ll be the last person to mention it – and a sterling writer of place and its rhythms, a celebrant of communities spread along the northern rim of the south Wales coalfield who can today lift a glass to celebrate his ninety six years.
Penblwydd hapus George. Very many happy returns.