REVIEW by Peter Goulding

NWR Issue r36

Fight and Flight: Essays on Ron Berry

by Georgia Burdett and Sarah Morse (eds)

‘Can’t wait to find out who Ron Berry is,’ I type, not meaning it. I haven’t heard of him.

When I get Fight and Flight, Essays on Ron Berry in the post to review, I am quickly interested. We start with a lengthy quote from Berry’s story, ‘The Old Black Pasture’, in which Gabe Lloyd gives a ‘wristy backhander’ to the colliery office pay clerk, then berates the penpushers and bean counters – they don’t know what it’s like down the pit, because they’ve never done it, and if they’ve never done it, then how can they think like ‘us’. It is a well chosen metaphor for Ron Berry’s writing: violent, tough, angry, and authentic.

Ron Berry isn’t well known, and is indeed neglected among other writers of the coalfields. The reasons for this aren’t really clear, because the quality and authenticity of what he writes is high. It might be because he sat between worlds: he went down the pit, but he wanted out of it. He wrote a lot, but Dai Smith in his opening essay, ‘Ways Out: Ways In: Ways Back’, points out that Berry was the ‘literary enemy’ of the Anglo-Welsh writers; didn’t read them. Then perhaps, since his writing was of the Rhondda, he was too Welsh for London, then and now still the castle-town of literary agents and publishers. This is a shame, but being between worlds is an interesting place to write from, a sideways look is a useful perspective. 

Tony Brown’s essay explores Berry’s short stories, highly polished and prolific, sadly out of print and hard to find.  They pack a lot of punch into a limited word count: the short story has always been considered a useful form for the ‘marginalised, isolated and the lonely’. Berry’s short stories, such as ‘The Old Black Pasture’, ‘Clarion Boys’, ‘November Kill’, ‘Comrades in Arms’ and ‘Summer’s End: Snaketown' are marked by loneliness and isolation, but also close male friendship within Berry’s worlds of the pit, pit-village, boxing ring and cycle club. John Perrott Jenkins bring these themes to a head, exploring Berry’s best regarded novel, So Long, Hector Bebb, with its violence, boxing, murder and jealousy, and the final isolation and death of this post-war Hector. 

I especially enjoyed Darryl Leeworthy’ essay ‘The Full Time Amateur: Sport in Ron Berry’s South Walian Imagination’.  Sports like football, boxing and cycling provide rich source material for Berry, who usually chose the insider’s perspective. For example that of a participant who can watch and describe matches or races with insight: not just the kick, punch or the ride, but the psychology and the sociology behind such movements. Settings and angles include football stadiums set amid rows of terrace houses, captured in journalistic match reports, carping conversations planning a training bike ride and the detail of that fanatical asceticism needed to be a really good boxer.

But more oblique themes are also examined, for example disability, whose importance is given a subtle emphasis by Georgia Burdett’s essay ‘“The Inadequates”: Ron Berry and Disability’. Berry played as an amateur footballer for Swansea before a crunching tackle mullered his knee for life. Disability was also common in the milieux he wrote about: coal mining injuries and workplace disability, both statistically common in the Rhondda and across the south Wales coalfield. 

Berry’s ecocentric writing is unexpectedly strong, highlighted in Sarah Morse’s ‘“Green Always comes Back”: Ron Berry’s Ecocentric Writing and ‘Land of my Feathers: Ron Berry and Niall Griffiths on the Wing’ by Tomos Owen. Sociological, and elements of political activity and experience are explored, especially those around the Forestry Commission’s mid century tree-planting in the Rhondda. The latter he saw as industrialised and colonial environmentalism, which thoughtlessly erased the old boundaries and drystone walls created by the valley’s past inhabitants. Berry shows us the fossils of mussels in the spoil heaps and coal, he watches the peregrines, and is seen by their sharp, sharp eyes.  

Berry’s autobiography, History is What You Live, written towards the end of his life, and published after his death in 1998, ties all these themes together. Looking back, he could make some sense of his anger, his opposition to authority, his relationship with his parents. What he wrote was authentic, because it was from his lived experience, which was varied. He didn’t seem to stick at much for long (attitude or circumstance getting in the wayof jobs that might define a life) but gained experience in the fields of mining, the Merchant Navy, joinery and going AWOL from the army. Despite studying at the further education college with working-class roots, Coleg Harlech, his attempt to pursue a teaching career was scuppered. The variety of these experiences – him becoming the ultimate jack of all trades – gave him fresh anecdotes and access to vernacular speech which could be overheard, relationships to observe, motivations and character.

Berry took these sharp observations, especially of speech and language, and hammered them into well-shaped stories. It was deliberate, and you would be a fool if you thought someone like Berry, from his class, background, education – all that – couldn’t do something with kill and intent. Ron Berry himself read and read; he read everything he could from the age of sixteen. This combination of variety of experience and plenty of reading is what I think is the key to great writing.

The essays in Fight and Flight have inspired me to start reading Ron Berry. I’ll look forward to looking up his short stories and autobiography. If I had already read this author, these essays would have encouraged me to read in greater depth, and added a great deal to something that looks to be already to my taste.

Berry had a sharp sense, an acute ear, for the idiosyncratic event or character in the community... page after page of his autobiography contains vividly realised recollections which read like embryos of potential short stories.’
(‘A Man’s World: The Short Fiction of Ron Berry’ by Tony Brown, in Fight and Flight.)

Peter Goulding’s book Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene is published by New Welsh Rarebyte on 4 June (ebook), price £9.99 and 29 October in print, price £11.99.


previous review: Disability in Industrial Britain: A Cultural and Literary History of Impairment in the Coal Industry, 1880–1948
next review: Jim Neat: The Case of a Young Man Down on His Luck


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