Obituary: George Brinley Evans
George Brinley Evans: writer, painter, miner, soldier (1925-2022)
Richard Lewis Davies
George Brinley Evans was just eighteen years old in the final year of World War Two when he embarked on a frigate out of Calcutta to be part of the last sea-borne assault of the Burma campaign.
He recalled it was a bright clear day and the Indian Ocean was a deep blue. He was a long way from home. There was an announcement on the ship’s Tannoy that Adolf Hitler was dead.
There were feeble cheers until it was added the Army was giving all the ranks a bottle of beer to celebrate. George thought the beer was the usual army fare but they all drank it in the sunshine in the camaraderie of youth as they waited for the invasion.
A month later, on land and in combat his army pay slip showed that he had been charged for the bottle of beer as “Naafi damages”.
It was the telling small details of life that Taff, as he was known in the Army, noticed and loved. It was this sense of what really mattered in life that would serve him well fifty years later as a unique writer and artist of the south Wales Welsh male working-class experience.
It was a late burst of creative engagement that allowed him to tell his stories and paint his view of the life that had surrounded him and offer his work to the world.
He was past seventy when is first book, Boys of Gold (2000) appeared to be followed by Where the Flying Fishes Play (2006) and When I Came Home (2012). His paintings had been shown earlier but were scattered before eventually finding homes in the National Library, The National Museum collection at Big Pit and the South Wales Miners’ Library.
His painting of his brother in a steel bath in front of a range stove after the pit adorns the cover of Miner-Artists The Art of Welsh Coal Workers (2003) edited by John Harvey.
He was close to finishing another book about about Banwen inspired by the politics and community he had both witnessed and been an integral part of.
He continued living alone at Maple House in Banwen until being admitted briefly to hospital in Swansea. He has died aged ninety-six.
George Brinley Evans bought Maple House, the former colliery manager’s house, in the sixties with his childhood sweetheart Peggy Jones who he had had both painted and written about in his work, most recently in the short story, The Onllwyn Train.
George Brinley Evans was born in 1925 to a mining and farming family in Dyffryn Cellwen close to the Roman camp at Maes Marchog which would later fire his imagination.
His father, a soldier in the First World War, had moved from Welsh-speaking rural Breconshire with his brother for the better paying mining work offered on the anthracite seams of upper Neath and Dulais valleys. They were soon making good money and bought a motorcycle each.
His mother had been in service in London but returned and married the younger of the Evans brothers. His mother and father only spoke Welsh to each other but predominantly English to the children.
It was an idyllic childhood of close family and stories in the shadow of the colliery which would feature in his fiction especially the title story of his first collection The Boys of Gold.
His father, a bit of an entrepreneur in in the style of a Raymond Williams character in Border Country, set up both a chip shop and a billiard hall while also keeping a bit of a small holding and a drift mining concession they blasted out themselves with dynamite on a Sunday for the fun of it.
There was a lot of material for a writer.
The younger members of the family were expected to eye potatoes at the chip shop in exchange for cinema tickets. The young Evans was a regular at three separate cinemas between the Neath and the Dulais valleys.
He went underground as a twelve-year-old miner’s butty but after an industrial dispute known as the Boy’s Strike where he felt out with the overman, Evans signed for the army, aged seventeen, at the Brecon barracks and embarked on an adventure that would take him across the world to the final days of the bitter Burma campaign.
After basic training he volunteered for service on marine motor-boats on the basis he had been a member of the Banwen Sea Scouts.
He would serve for three years with the 856 Motor Boats, first with the 15th Indian Corps then the 12th Army.
His war memoir Where the Flying Fishes Play written fifty years after the action is more about the opportunities and perspective the army offered to young men who had until then known only their Sgwar Mile.
He was writing to Peggy by this time whose family owned a newsagent in the Dulais valley village of Seven Sisters. She would post her new boyfriend copies of The Beano and The Dandy which were eagerly awaited by the squaddies Evans was billeted with.
When the elections of 1945 were carried out and the overseas troops voted he recalled in Flying Fishes that none of his comrades were old enough to vote.
On his eventual return to south Wales and home he swiftly married Peggy and began a family life while working in industry. It was at this time he began to develop his creative talents. With a keen eye he began to paint the world that surrounded him including scenes from underground and domestic life.
He also created political cartoons for the Neath Guardian and South Wales Evening Post while honing his skills as a sculptor creating remarkable figures of his fellow workers which are now in the national museums of Wales.
At this time he also developed friendships with the writer B L Coombes and Dr Aubrey Thomas, a local GP and champion of the arts who would be influential in encouraging him to write. He also corresponded with the chronicler George Ewart Evans.
While working underground on the Cornish Drift in the Banwen Colliery, a pit prop cracked and exploded under pressure into Evans’s face causing him to the lose an eye. He was hospitalised and spent a considerable time re-training. It was at this point he first took to writing.
It was during this convalescence that he was encouraged to write by his wife Peggy. He sent a tv script called The Fourth Device, set underground in a Welsh coal mine, into the BBC and was promptly invited to London to discuss it with the successful Neath screen-writer Harold Green.
Green showed him around the studios but advised him to put the story between hard covers and sent him home. Dr Thomas, the village doctor and intellectual, suggested that he needed a second opinion and the script was sent to ITV drama studios in London.
Again, he was invited up to London to talk to the renowned producer Kitty Black. She understood his talent but explained the difficulties of a script that was a challenge to film as it was all set underground. She suggested he move to London. They’d employ him on set and he’d learn how to work for the television.
It was long train journey back to Banwen for Evans who was still recovering from his accident. His two boys were in school. When he got back home he built a bonfire in the garden of Maple House and burnt the scripts. It was a risk he couldn’t take.
A move forward thirty years. George Brinley Evans hasn’t regretted the decision and the boys have gone to college and left home but he is now a widower. Peggy has died after a brief and unexpected illness. He is retired and not getting out and about enough.
However the DOVE has opened in Banwen. An adult education centre and outpost of Swansea University championed by among others Mair and Hywel Francis who would become firm friends with Evans.
One of the courses offered was on short story writing, taught by a master of the genre Alun Richards, editor of the Penguin Book Welsh of Short Stories. Richards has been a professional writer most of his life and written for film, the stage, tv and as well as six or seven novels and several collections of short stories.
Richards is the real thing. He is older than Evans but only just and quickly sees his talent encouraging the emerging writer to begin again to send out his stories. First to Cambrensis, a magazine edited by Arthur Smith out of North Cornelly and then to a few publishers.
He continued writing and working all his life and in recent years was prominent in the campaign to establish Banwen as the official birth-place of St Patrick. With newspaper articles and broadcasts he made a convincing case and there’s now a Celtic cross and annual celebration to honour the connection of the Banwen Pyrddin and Ireland’s patron saint.
He was also a life-long member of the Burma Star Veterans association and returned to Mynamar (Burma) in 2005 as part of a veteran’s tour where he laid a stone from the stream bed of the Pyrddin on the grave of young Welsh soldier from Banwen who had died in the war. He was made life president of the Cwmdulais Historical Society in 2019.
George Brinley Evans may have embodied the ideal of Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society. He lived a long and engaged life in both.
He kept close and warmly in touch with a growing family of sons, daughters-in-law, grand-children and great grand-children who loved him in turn deeply and also an extensive network of friends and correspondents who were drawn to such a unique and engaging man.
He was much loved and admired both in the valley and village of his youth where he was a supporter of many honest endeavours and in the wider world wherever he travelled or spoke, people were drawn to his humour and straight forward honesty.
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Another of my late father’s schoolmates gone, but what a legacy.