Richards, Alun Morgan
(19292004), author and playwright
, was born on 27 October 1929 at Oak Villa, King Edward Avenue, Caerphilly, the son of Megan, née
Jeremy, daughter of Thomas Jeremy and his wife, Jessie. His father, Edward Morgan Richards, a commercial traveller, abandoned his mother three days after his birth. He was brought up in a strict but loving and comfortable home by his maternal grandparents, who were shopkeepers, chapel-goers, and Welsh-speakers, although Welsh was not passed on to him. Although he was to reject both religion and the language, being a fatherless child was the making of him as a writer, as he explained in his autobiography, Days of Absence
I learned at an early age to lie low, to watch, to gauge a mood, to know when it was time for me to speak. I also learned to listen, to eavesdrop, gathering what bits and pieces of information I could. I listened from corners, behind doors, on tramcars, to hushed voices drifting out of the vestry after chapel, to the gossip of neighbours talking in the street … I kept these phrases to me, hugging them in the secret place. (pp. 12)
Richards's time at Pontypridd Boys' Grammar School, one of the best of its kind in the whole of Wales, was marked by rebelliousness and a bare minimum of academic endeavour. I was 31st when I went into the school and I've kept it up, he told his grandmother, still putting a brave face on things (Days of Absence
, 57). His relationship with E. R. Thomas, known among the boys as Piggy, was at first fraught, but the martinet of a headmaster came to serve as the father Richards never had. A strange bond grew between these two and eventually the quick-thinking, loquacious lad became the head's Goldflake boy, a coveted status because it meant being able to nip out to his grandmother's shop in the middle of the school day to buy the headmaster's tobacco and thus choose the lessons he wanted to miss.
It was Thomas who wrote the glowing reference that enabled Richards to enter the Monmouthshire Training College for Teachers at Caerleon, where he spent three years. He then served with the Royal Navy, latterly in the rank of instructor lieutenant. So began a fascination with the sea that was to remain with him for the rest of his life, and which he was to make one of the main themes of his writing. He wrote extensively about ships and sailors, notably in two novels set in maritime Swansea, Ennal's Point
(1977) and Barque Whisper
(1979). He also edited two anthologies, The Penguin Book of Sea Stories
(1977) and Against the Waves
(1978), and contributed many scripts to the popular television series The Onedin Line
. For his books about the lifeboat service he was presented with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution public relations award.
After returning in 1955 to Wales from London, where he had been a probation officer for three years, Richards became desperately ill with tuberculosis and was admitted to the sanatorium at Talgarth in Brecknockshire, where most of his fellow patients were silicotic miners, many in the last stages of the disease. The two years he spent in hospital as a witness once more of homo sapiens
with his trousers down (Artists in Wales
, 63) were a dreadful but enriching experience. Almost blind and left for long stretches in a semi-coma on account of his resistance to streptomycin, he was sustained by the courage, humour, and comradeship of the older men, who kept an eye on him, fed him with bacon from their own plates, placed bets on horses for him, read to him, and helped nurse him back to health. Again the writer in him found inspiration in the experience.
On 8 June 1957, at St Mary's Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea, Richards married (Barbara) Helen Howden, probation officer and daughter of George Bruce Howden; they went on to have three sons and a daughter. In the same year he took up a post teaching English at a secondary school in Cardiff. He taught for ten years, but then was able to become a full-time writer and settle in Mumbles, a seaside suburb of Swansea, where his wife was a teacher and where he was to spend the rest of his life. He earned his bread and butter, and the occasional dab of jam, writing for television, including adaptations of Simenon, Maugham, and Wells, and for theatres in Leatherhead, Coventry, and Nottingham, though seldom in Wales, where he never tired of detecting prejudice against him among the Welsh-speaking sanhedrin at BBC Wales and in the subsidized theatre. Four of his stage plays were published in a substantial volume entitled Plays for Players
in 1975. From time to time he took up fellowships at universities in Wales and Australia and he was awarded a Japan Foundation fellowship in 1984.
Richards's greatest achievement was in writing novels and short stories. The most important of his novels were The Elephant You Gave Me
(1963), The Home Patch
(1966), A Woman of Experience
(1969), and Home to an Empty House
(1974). His stories appeared in Dai Country
(1973) and The Former Miss Merthyr Tydfil
(1976); his Selected Stories
was published in 1995 and a small selection of stories, Scandalous Thoughts
, in 2003. Social pretension and flawed relationships were usually at the heart of his plots and, almost invariably, it was the female characters who were the truth-tellers. He also edited two editions of The Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories
(1976 and 1993), which were much admired for their quality and range. Whereas Welsh writers of the inter-war years had been able to write about the life of pit, steelworks, and Sunday school, Richards found his material in the valleys of south-east Wales which, thirty years on, were more prosperous, hedonistic, and socially mobile, less concerned with religion, politics, and working conditions, but still with enough fierce pride in community to distinguish them from the rootless, middle-class suburbia of Cardiff. In one of his funniest stories, The Scandalous Thoughts of Elmyra Mouth, the pulchritudinous heroine, whose ambitious husband wants them to move down valley to be near his job as an assistant cameraman with BBC Wales, refuses to do so with the ultimatum Travel, you bugger. You'll not move me an inch.
A connoisseur of rugby, Richards published A Touch of Glory
(1980) to mark the centenary of the Welsh Rugby Union, and in 1984 a memoir of the rugby player and coach Carwyn Jamesa very different kind of Welshman, Welsh-speaking and a leading member of Plaid Cymru, with whom he had an unexpected affinity. Richards always bristled when the Welsh language was used as a badge of Welsh identity. His own Welshness was ebullient and unequivocal, and the basis for some of his best writing, but it had less to do with language than with the qualities he associated with the proletarian communities of south Wales, especially a sense of humour in the face of adversity and the absence of deference on grounds of social class. I am Welsh, he wrote in 1971, and the rest is propaganda (Artists in Wales
, 66). After suffering a heart attack he died in Singleton Hospital, Swansea, on 2 June 2004, and his remains were cremated at the city's crematorium nine days later. He was survived by his wife, Helen, and their three children.