The Times (24/07/1997)

IN NOVELS and short stories, written in his unmistakably individual style, Ron Berry described lives painfully eked out in the underbelly of the society of post-industrial South Wales. His tone was generally rueful, though not bitter. But he pulled no punches.

Life in the Valleys as he depicted it was, if not exactly nasty, brutish and short, then a constant struggle by the little man against the "haves" as he saw them: unscrupulous commercial fat cats; the Establishment at the Welsh Office in Cardiff; or personified by the television producer who has taken Saesneg gold and disappeared to a luxurious life at the BBC in London.

Yet, although Berry is regarded as one of Wales's more significant post-war novelists writing in English (along with Glyn Jones and Emyr Humphreys), it may eventually be seen that the short story was his true metier. The constraints of the form helped to guard against a sometimes over-lush, sometimes merely messy, prose style. It also restrained a tendency, evident in the novels, to over-excitable descriptions of sexual activity.

But when Berry returned to the novel for the last time, after a quarter of a century, with This Bygone (1996), set, this time, in the Valleys of the 1930s and 1940s, it was apparent he was attempting something different from its predecessors. This time the lyrical prose-poetry was carefully calculated - in marked contrast to the uncontrolled breathlessness of the earlier novels. True, there was a suspicion in places that the ghost of Dylan Thomas might lurk obtrusively at the writer's shoulder. But the result was generally hailed as being a moving book which authentically conveyed the life of the South Wales coalfield in its heyday.

Berry's grandfather had come from England as a farm labourer, hoping for riches from the South Wales coal Klondyke. Ron was born in 1920 in Blaencwm, in the Rhondda. He was a natural rebel - miner, navvy, fitter, merchant navy seaman (briefly, during the Second World War), boxer and footballer.

His early life was characterised by a good deal of "ducking and dodging", as he put it, trying to keep out of authority's way but without the funds to do so successfully. The tribulations of this woeful condition are wryly explored in his short stories, many of which smack sharply of the pains of personal experience.

An accident in a football match in 1943 damaged his knee, and he was never to play the game again. At some point he went AWOL from the Ordnance Corps; he then became a carpenter, and made some sort of living on various sites in Wales and London.

He married Rene Jones in 1948, often moving from job to job, and sometimes to no job at all. He began writing poems and essays, but no one wanted to print him. After a spell at Coleg Harlech, a residential college of further education for mature students, and an abortive attempt to enter a teacher training college, he returned with Rene and the children to Treherbert. There, while working as assistant manager at the swimming baths, he wrote his first novel, Hunters and Hunted (1960). Set in the imaginary Welsh mining village of Blaenddu (a thinly disguised version of his native place), it somewhat pantingly described the sexual adventures of three young men, and attracted good reviews.

Four novels followed in the next ten years. The last was So Long, Hector Bebb (1970), the tell of a second-rate Welsh boxer whose all-absorbing devotion to his craft has tragic domestic consequences. The Full-Time Amateur (1966), another libido-filled Valleys performance, attracted the attention of the film-maker, Bryan Forbes, but nothing came of the project.

Then suddenly no one would publish Ron Berry. He accumulated six novels and many more rejections slips. He did some radio and TV work and wrote soccer reports for The Observer for a season. He also wrote short stories, a number of which were published in Planet and the New Welsh Review during the 1970s and 1980s and kept his name before the Welsh reading public. In despair over his fiction, he began an autobiography. When his children read it, they discovered they had a very different father from the one they thought they had known.

Then he turned to a subject close to his heart: the way of life of the Rhondda during the Depression of the 1930s and after. This Bygone, which was published last year, is a lament for a vanished way of life, in which Berry's manifesto was clear. "Word-of-mouth cultures", he observed, "cease in cemeteries." He was determined that this one should not.

Ron Berry had never enjoyed good health, and in later years he was plagued by osteoarthritis. His spirit, nevertheless, remained indomitable.

He had two sons and three daughters. They and his wife all survive him.