Rhys Davies was a Welsh writer in English who lived most of his life in London, that Tir na nÓg in the east, the place of eternal youth and beauty to which in the mid-20th century many Welsh writers in English, adulterers and homosexuals ran. There were few chapels in London, but many bedsits. Also publishers. And guardsmen. Here Davies followed a career unique by Welsh standards, for he did not sell milk or teach. For 50 years he just wrote.
As Meic Stephens, in the first full-length biography of this remarkable son of a grocer in the industrial valleys, records with awe, Davies wrote over 100 short stories, 20 novels, three novellas, two topographical books (yes, about Wales), two plays and an autobiography in which, ‘obliquely’, for there had been rather too many guardsmen, he set down ‘the little he wanted the world to know about him’.
But the world soon may, for the President of the Immortals had not done with Rhys Davies. At least not in life. It was after he died in 1978 that his brother Lewis, a librarian, set aside money for a trust to the memory of this boy from Blaenclydach, a man who had lived out of a trunk, moving from rented rooms to those belonging to friends, never owning a house or a car or a telephone, and who ran home in the time-honoured Welsh way when the money gave out, which was often. The irony is that, had he lived, there would have been no need to run home.
What has taken people aback was just how much money there was in death. The first donation, from royalties and family bequests, was £100,000. Stephens, who knew Lewis Davies, is the trust’s first secretary, and he has done more than justice to his benefactor and to the black humour of Davies’s writing and that of his life. This is a delightful book, which is itself a social history in its own right, and funny.
Not only did the biographer know the family, he shared the background from which they came. This is Stephens on the Rhondda Valley: ‘As for the Tories, in the Rhondda they were as rare as butterflies on an iceberg.’ In his book you meet the first man in modern times to cremate his own son, whom he had called Jesus Christ, and the professor of anthropology at Aberystwyth who was running round Wales measuring people’s heads, much as the SS did in Tibet. Stephens writes: ‘the subject fell under a cloud during the Nazi era’; his, like that of Rhys Davies, is a very delicate humour, even when he is writing about the only man known to have shared, chastely and on different occasions, a bed with D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas:
Rhys Davies was buttonholed by Thomas, who told him he had nowhere to stay. He was offered a bed in the novelist’s Maida Vale flat, only for Thomas to wet it during the night, a situation not improved by the fact that the two men were sharing it at the time.
When Davies later wrote a review of Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog this included the memorable sentence, ‘It contains the true acrid scent of young life, magically distilled.’
His own early books delighted in Gothic horror. In Under the Rose, on the eve of her wedding, a woman murders the man who is two-timing her with another, then buries him under a rose bush before jumping to her own death. Davies treasured the fan letter he got from a woman reader who said that, though a fine novelist, he seemed to know nothing about roses. Apparently, given the roots, you would need a JCB to bury anyone under a rose bush.
As a professional short-story writer Davies’s favourite single paragraph was that which starts ‘The Dilemma of Catherine Fuchsias’, which was bought by the New Yorker. Just see how much he manages to pack into it.
Puffed up by his success as a ship-chandler in the port 40 miles away, where he had gone from the village of Banog when the new town was rising to its heyday as the commercial capital of Wales, Lewis had retired to the old place heavy with gold and fat. With him was the bitter English wife he had married for her money, and he built the pink-washed villa overlooking Banog’s pretty trout stream. And later he had set up a secret association with an unmarried woman of 40 who was usually called Catherine Fuchsias, this affair — she receiving him most Sunday evenings after chapel in her outlying cottage — eluding public notice for two years. Until on one of those evenings, Lewis, who for some weeks had been complaining of ‘a feeling of fullness’, expired in her arms on the bed.
It is sad if you have not heard of this man. In The Modern Short Story H.E.Bates, an admirer (though Davies called him Master Bates), thought this was due to the fact that the English regarded Welsh life ‘with blank or sour indifference’. This biography may change things.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £18.00. Tel: 08430 600033
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