Sion Tomos Owen Discovers Rhys Davies
I first learned of Rhys Davies while trawling the “Local” shelf in Treorchy library. Nestled between Ron Berry, Gwyn Thomas and a few nondescript self-published memoirs full of nostalgia with the inescapable coal dust ingrained in their spines, were three volumes of his short stories. I thought to myself, Mam bach, this guy must have been a prolific writer, how don’t I know about him? Then I saw a picture of him and he looked distinctly…un-Rhondda. A far away look, a melancholic mouth and a trilby. I thought, Oh he’s another one like Richard Llewelyn who writes about the Rhondda but is from Slough or Norfolk or somewhere that glorified the filth, toil and religion of the South Wales Coalfield second hand. But then I read them.
I devoured all three volumes in a Summer away from the Rhondda, in a sweltering caravan in Brittany with my family. While my mother wept through Memoirs of a Geisia and my father regaled us with hysteria peppered extracts from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 years of Solitude, I was back in the lean-to kitchens and gardens of the Rhondda.
When in school I asked my English teacher, “how do I write about women?” and she told me to read Little Women. This, in my opinion, was a fruitless exercise. If I wanted to learn about the fall of aristocratic New Englanders during the American Civil War, fair enough, but I learned little from Alcott. (Also, it turned out I had read the Puffin children’s classic which abridged books to a suitable audience, so in my version, Spoiler alert, little Beth didn’t die.)
But when I read Davies’ women, I saw my mother, I saw my grandmother, my Bopas, I saw women who wandered the market on a Thursday, I saw those who drank coffee daily in the Brachi’s cafe, I saw the little old ladies who went to chapel in their Sunday best who fawned at the Deacons Davies so detested. As a 16 year old, I didn’t realise how much of an effect these stories had on my writing until I tried to revisit them years later. I went back to the library, but the books weren’t there. I asked at the counter and they told me they’d been removed from circulation due to lack of use. The irony of this is that by now, the ”local” shelf had become a full bookcase, with Library of Wales publications of more Valley writers including ones that were still alive! These introduced me to novels such as The Withered Root, and by now I had learned more about the author who shaped much of my early attempts at short stories.
Davies continues to inspire through his stories and in his attitude to writing. Supposedly he wrote a short story a week, which even if they weren’t any good, is a feat in itself. I always thought I was trying to evoked Gwyn Thomas when writing, but whenever I’m stuck, I inevitably return to Rhys Davies. I learned more about women from a gay man in London who felt socially exiled from Welsh Valley life than I ever did from any supposed literary American classic. You want to learn about how to write short stories? Forget the mansions of New England, go to the terraces of Blaenclydach.
One story that stands out is one that begins with a small boy, ill, in bed, mainly because at the same time I was reading Tom Jones’ autobiography, which also starts with the singer as a small boy, ill, in bed with TB. Both, towering Welsh icons in their chosen fields, but who rarely return to their roots. Davies’ Green Green Grass of home was rarely revisited in person but it’s sense of place and people he mined in abundance throughout his work. That is what drew me in. As an author I rarely write outside of the Rhondda, not because I don’t try but because there’s such a calling to document it in short story form, such as Rachel Trezise did with Fresh Apples. I strive to do what Davies did, only I want to stay here to do it…