Review: Fight and Flight – Essays on Ron Berry
‘I’ve been obsessed with language, and it’s been crucifying sometimes, and sometimes it’s a kind of ectasy.’
So said writer and ecstasist Ron Berry – a one-off buccaneer in fiction and truculent artist who was nothing less than tirelessly productive. There were half a dozen novels, essays, short stories and a couple of television plays, along with a posthumously-published autobiography, ‘History is What you Live,’ in which his ‘quirky idiosyncracy sparks out from the first page with energy that threatens to short-circuit.’
He’d packed a lot in – had been a boxer, cyclist, sea-sick merchant seaman, and a collier, albeit one who lost his job after hitting the mine manager. This eventual father of five had also briefly been a Coleg Harlech student, deserted the army, racked up a catalogue of jobs, battled depression and been seen by some as a ‘waster,’ a view he did not resist with any great heart.
In his lifetime this superb prose stylist was sorely and, for him woundingly neglected. After a run of five novels, brought out by London publishers he had to wait a quarter of a century for Gomer to publish another, ‘This Bygone.’ But now, at long last, these fine centenary essays give the man his due.
Ron Berry’s subject was the south Wales coalfield and in particular the higher reaches of the valley of the Rhondda Fawr. As the introduction by Dai Smith has it ‘he dealt with all the travails of that place’s fabulous twentieth-century history by means of individual witnessing.’
Berry’s artistic career, his witnessing life was kick-started when he first picked up a copy of Walt Whitman in Ystrad Workingmen’s Library which was a revelation for him, leading him to read other American writers such as Miller, Faulkner and Hemingway. Not for him the Anglo-Welsh writers who often wrote about the same terrain, the “riven gulches” of the south Wales valleys, as Gwyn Thomas put it.
But Berry had been alert, one might say hyper-alert to the world even from a very young age, with ‘Smells, tastes, sounds, sights, sensations crowding my infant ganglia, confirming oneself as singular. A soul bud. Chopped mint, drops of blood, sand on the flagstone floor, a pure tugging of candle flame, bladders of air behind gulps of stingy-nettle pop, soapsuds burning eyes.’
Reading Berry is to be aware of the closeness of a coal-field community, even as its reason for being disappears with pit closure after pit closure and with them the demise of institutions such as the once burgeoning chapels and Miners’ Institutes. In this he is an elegist, noting how the Methodist chapel has become a bus garage: ‘All gone now though, gone, Treorchy, Trealaw and chapel cemeteries’ sempiternal harvest’ where the winds and the weather erase even the etched names on the graveyard’s headstones.
But Berry concerned himself with the living, the valleys’ miners who were ‘genealogical all-sorts, socially unified by a short, delirious history, unity fragmenting as the industry died.’ Yet in novels such as ‘This Bygone’ the industry lives on, described down to the fine detail:
“He filled a rickety bucket with sump water, unscrewed the little filler cap, primed the pump, replaced the cap and triggered the switch down. Normally this was a labourer’s job. Water hissing from a leaking manifold died to glassy wreathing. Rhythmic glugging sang inside the 2 inch pipeline.”
In Berry’s short stories the principal characters are often cowboy-like loners, as is so often the case with this literary form, which often depicts outsiders, folk outside the mainstream. Berry’s live in a place which often resembles the Wild West, the hills above Pont Fawr being, in the author’s mind’s ‘bow and arrow country.’ They, like their creator, often have scant regard for authority and, as one of them opines, ‘Discipline’s for puppydogs and born losers who can’t think for themselves.’
Yet, sport calls for discipline and as Daryl Leeworthy’s sterling essay in this collection attests, sport had a special place in Berry’s life, creating a ‘strong relationship between various sporting activities and the “south Wales” depicted in his writing’ and in particular boxing, association football and cycling. He went on marathon, 30-mile trips with the Pentre Clarion Cycling Club, then avidly reading about the Tour de France on getting home. He boxed, an experience which feeds into ‘So Long Hector Bebb,’ the visceral, punchy and adventurous novel in which Hector’s tragic story is related by a chorus of fourteen voices.
Berry also played soccer, as an amateur for Swansea Town and also for Blaenclydach AFC, but an injury in 1943, when he serrated a knee joint had lifelong consequences for his mobility, made all the more painful because he was such a keen walker and birdwatcher. As one of his short story characters puts it ‘It’s well over twenty years since I climbed Pen Arglwydd. Can’t manage it now. Finished. Christ, aye, I’m finished.’
The essays in ‘Fight and Flight’ examine the full range of Berry’s work with not only a great deal of insight but also a genuine enthusiasm, which readily communicates itself to the reader and will hopefully now encourage people to seek out the work. The essays end with a lapidary set of memories by Berry’s children, an afterword which remembers how he ‘kept pigs, sold vegetables, did odd jobs, carpentry, picked coal and took us into the hills every Sunday.’ His kids also sum him up, a man who ‘knew himself – it was his grace and his gravity. He knew himself, and could only but live himself. Family sometimes had to be outside of that – his life. Ron was complicated, driven, passionate, honest and ultimately true to himself and his work.’
Those writing complications, the hard drive, the piercing passion and the self-lacerating honesty are all there in the work, in the searching, highly stylized prose which fully bears witness to Ron Berry’s obsession with language and to his rare gift and vitality in its deployment.
Fight and Flight – Essays on Ron Berry is edited by Georgia Burdett and Sarah Morse and published by University of Wales Press.