John Summers’ obituary in the Daily Telegraph
published on 30 August 2008 in the Daily Telegraph
John Summers, who died on August 20 aged 80, was a bestselling novelist and journalist, writing for The Sunday Telegraph and covering the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster in 1966 before becoming actively involved in the campaign by survivors and the bereaved to unlock the money in the relief fund.
His campaign to uncover the shabby treatment meted out by officialdom to the surviving villagers at Aberfan formed the basis of his first novel, Edge of Violence (1969). The disaster cost the lives of 144 people, 128 of them children at the Pantglas Junior School, which had been engulfed by a torrent of slag.
Summers was outraged when Harold Wilson’s Labour government insisted on taking £150,000 from the £2.5 million charity fund established to assist the bereaved, in order to help meet the cost of removing what was left of the slag heap and the remaining heaps which still loomed above the village.
An instinctive supporter of the underdog, Summers vented his anger in articles for The Daily Telegraph magazine, and the glossy magazines Harper’s Bazaar and Queen. Years of campaigning by Summers and others finally resulted, in 1997, in that money being returned to the fund by the then Welsh Secretary Ron Davies – though it was reimbursed without any interest. Summers was not alone in describing the avalanche of money that poured into the Aberfan fund as the second disaster to overtake the pit village.
Although it was Summers who personally issued the High Court writ that eventually restored the money to the fund, his efforts attracted a measure of controversy, since he was assisted by members of the Free Wales Army (FWA), the group of fringe agitators who had planned to disrupt the investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon in 1969.
A feature by Summers about the FWA for The Daily Telegraph magazine in September 1968 pictured some of them in uniform and brandishing weapons and explosives; it was produced in evidence during the trial of nine FWA members the following year.
Despite attempts to postpone publication of Summers’s novel Edge of Violence – Treasury lawyers warned that it would prejudice the trial – it emerged as a modern classic, selling in large numbers, not least in the Soviet Union.
“The tip had taken everything away with it,” Summers wrote, “big trees with roots thick as telegraph poles were mixed with boulders, and what struck me… was the tremendous oiled smell of coal and shale that had not seen the sun for a hundred centuries.” His book attracted a great deal of media coverage, including a famous interview by Joan Bakewell on Late Night Line-Up, and widespread praise. Alan Sillitoe judged it “a very fine novel”.
As a journalist on The Sunday Telegraph’s Mandrake diary column from 1964, Summers interviewed Churchill in the last year of his life and many of the great authors of the day, including Anthony Powell, Robert Graves, Angus Wilson, JB Priestley and Evelyn Waugh – Waugh told him that not only was he not anti-Welsh but that he had Welsh forebears whose coat-of-arms contained the legend Dyro Fy Mwyall (Pass Me My Battleaxe). The boxer Rocky Marciano, who had been stationed in south Wales as a wartime GI, asked Summers: “Is the Mumbles train still going?”
John Aeron Summers was born on July 3 1928 at Rhymney, near Newport, south Wales. He was the youngest of five children — indeed, his brothers and sisters had all reached adulthood by the time he was born.
He scraped a scholarship to Rhymney grammar school, where he was taken under the wing of an older pupil, Harry Greene, who later became a celebrated DIY presenter on television.
The school teemed with artistic and creative types – Jack Howells, who became an Oscar-winning film director, was a pupil – and young John determined to become either a writer or an artist, inspired perhaps by a meeting with Dylan Thomas while he was still a schoolboy.
At University College, Swansea, he studied English Literature under Kingsley Amis, whom he disliked. “Not a nice person at all,” Summers recalled, complaining that Amis had insulted the Welsh in an article for The Spectator, saying they were “slathered with woad and sheepshit”.
While still at university Summers pulled off an early journalistic coup when he interviewed the young Richard Attenborough, who had just starred in the film of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1947); Summers had encountered him by chance in the Swansea Kardomah.
Summers then set off to see the world, and completed a circumnavigation via Australia and Canada, having started with only £20 in his pocket.
His travels resulted in his first non-fiction book, Road to Andamooka (1965), which became a Book Club selection. In 1967 he became a full-time writer.
When his fictional account of Aberfan appeared as Edge Of Violence (reissued in 1970 as The Disaster), he accused the Wilson government, and in particular “the absurd” George Thomas, then a minister at the Welsh Office, and one of the first politicians at the scene, of trying to suppress his book. His publishers consulted the libel lawyer Hilary Rubinstein about whether they would be sued, since the novel included charges of corruption and the plundering of the disaster fund. Rubinstein’s response was that “a million copies of this book should be printed and given away free to the public”.
His second novel, Dylan (1971), was based on his own experiences as a child and young adult at Llansteffan, where Summers’s grandfather had lived. This was followed by The Rag Parade and his novel of the Depression era, based on his own childhood, The Raging Summer (both 1972).
In 1971 Summers had a public falling-out with his former university tutor, Kingsley Amis, who had protested about his “dishonest, witless and inaccurate” reporting. In 1964 Summers had interviewed Amis, by then a successful novelist, who complained about the resulting article in the Mandrake column. Nearly seven years later, in The Spectator, Amis again railed at Summers, calling him “an unusually thick student” and complaining that Summers had misquoted him.
“What I wrote, which was ‘woaded in pit-dirt and sheepshit’, was part of a jocose caricature of ignorant or hostile English views of the Welsh, for which as a whole I retain a deep respect and affection, as my many Welsh friends will testify,” Amis declared.
Summers’s travels in the Soviet Union, including a visit to Hughesovska (Donetz) in the Ukraine, founded by a Welshman, John Hughes, yielded material for a book of travel writing, The Red and the Black (1979); it was on this assignment that Summers had it confirmed that Stalin had once visited Wales to raise funds and support for the coming Russian revolution.
In later life Summers was embroiled for many years in a dispute with Swansea council arising from complications over his second wife’s will. After he had moved out of the marital home it was badly vandalised, and although Summers lived in a council flat he became mired in legal proceedings for the recovery of rent and council tax.
Last week, following what he claimed was a demand for a further £6,000, he wrote to his lifelong friend Harry Greene. “I’ve come to the end of my life, Harry… Every penny I possessed – gone. House gone. Everything gone.”
When Greene received the letter in the post, he immediately alerted Swansea police, who broke into Summers’s flat and found him dead, apparently of natural causes.
John Summers was twice married. His second wife, Sonya, who wrote books about yoga under the name Sonya Richmond, died in 1995 at their home in Eaton Crescent, Swansea, opposite the house in which the infant Michael Heseltine lived. Summers is survived by two daughters.