Aberfan book author found dead in flat
by Martin Shipton, published in the Western Mail, 23 August 2008
The heartbreaking final letters of a highly praised author and journalist who wrote a searing account of the Aberfan disaster can be revealed today.
Last night Swansea Council said it had done everything it could to help John Summers, who was found dead in his flat in the city.
But the despair of the writer, who wrote a fictionalised account of the 1966 tragedy in which 116 children and 28 adults died when a coal slurry tip engulfed the village school, was made clear in a series of graphic letters he wrote to his friend Harry Greene.
Mr Summers, who was about 80, and Mr Greene, the first DIY expert to have a programme on British television, were contemporaries at Rhymney Grammar School and remained friends throughout their long careers.
On Wednesday, Mr Greene was so alarmed at receiving what turned out to be Mr Summers’ final letter that he contacted Swansea police.
When officers broke into the writer’s home, they found him dead. Yesterday, after a post-mortem examination at Singleton Hospital, it was confirmed that Mr Summers had died of natural causes.
Mr Greene said: ‘It makes me very sad that John has died in these circumstances. He was an extremely talented writer and journalist who was full of compassion and who campaigned against injustice wherever he was.
‘His novel about Aberfan, The Disaster, placed the blame for what happened squarely on the authorities, and helped the campaign to get compensation for the loved ones of the victims.
‘He worked in Canada, the United States, Australia and Russia, and always kept in touch.
‘In the 1970s he bought a house in Swansea with his wife Sonya.
‘Sadly, his world collapsed after she died prematurely of cancer in the mid-1990s.
‘They owned the home jointly, and he got involved in terrible complications relating to probate.
‘He was unlucky in this respect and lost a lot of money as a result. He was unable to keep the home going and moved out.
‘Unfortunately the house got taken over by vandals and was very badly damaged. The council intervened and he was taken to court.
‘The letters he sent me show how greatly he suffered in his final years. It is truly awful that his life ended like this. Although it is now clear that he died of natural causes, I have no doubt that he intended to end his life.’
Mr Summers had many admirers in the literary world and beyond.
In an interview given in 2004, he said: ‘When The Disaster came out the minions of the Harold Wilson government, and the absurd George Thomas, strained every nerve and sinew to suppress it but such books cannot be smothered.
‘Hutchinson, whose subsidiary had published the book, had sought the opinion of prominent libel lawyer Hilary Rubinstein on whether it risked libel proceedings, describing as it does the disgraceful corruption in South Wales that first caused the Aberfan disaster and then almost succeeded in stealing their £2m disaster fund.
‘Rubinstein said: “A million copies of this book should be printed and given away free to the public.”
‘Two coachloads of Aberfan’s survivors arrived at the book launch, which was held at the House of Commons.’
A spokesman for Swansea City and County Council said: ‘This is a tremendously sad and unusual case.
‘Staff at Swansea Council had been in touch with Mr Summers for more than a decade about a range of issues and our intention was always to try to help him concerning the deterioration of a property he owned, unpaid council tax and unpaid rent.
‘At all times the council’s wish was to encourage Mr Summers and to support him. For example, when his home could not be lived in, we arranged for him to live in a council flat.
‘Despite the efforts of trained staff from different departments to support and engage with him Mr Summers was always reluctant to discuss with us how we could help him and help him manage his debts to us.
‘On occasion, with great reluctance we had to instigate legal proceedings in accordance with our normal debt recovery procedures.
‘However at no time in the years that we knew Mr Summers did we say we would take action that would have resulted in a court sentencing Mr Summers to imprisonment.’