King Coal, the Rotten Waster

Georgia Burdett on the contemporary relevance of Ron Berry’s depictions of disability in the south Wales coalfield


Within Wales, heavy industry has left a sinister legacy in the form of psychological scarring and permanent physical disability. Indeed disability has been the subject matter of many contemporary writers based in the former coalfield and beyond, such as Desmond Barry, Lloyd Jones and Niall Griffiths. But the work of one of their most significant predecessors continues to be largely ignored.

Ron Berry was born in 1920 at the very top of the valley of the Rhondda Fawr, and worked there as a miner until the outbreak of the second world war. Late to blossom as a creative writer, he published his first novel Hunters and Hunted at the age of forty. Working underground was fraught with danger: quick death by crushing, slow death by dust inhalation, quick paralysis by rock falls, slow paralysis through rheumatism and arthritis. Disability, injury and accidental death were part and parcel of pit life and the number of disabled protagonists in Berry’s work is reflective of this. In an audio interview with Dai Smith, Berry recalled colleagues ‘smashed’ with broken legs, backs or worse (there is one reference to human remains being brought to the surface in a pit pony’s feed-bag).

Despite his striking originality as a creative writer, Berry largely escaped critical notice until Simon Baker’s edition of his short stories appeared posthumously in 2000. Such neglect served only to underline the peculiarity of his case. For someone of Berry’s social class and background, to be a writer was itself a disability. It made him ‘queer’, and set him apart...

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