Emyr Humphreys: ‘Cultural giant’ author dies at 101

Emyr Humphreys

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Emyr Humphreys: 1919-2020

The prolific and award-winning Welsh author and dramatist Emyr Humphreys has died at the age of 101.

Described as a “cultural giant” by one biographer, he wrote more than 20 novels before retiring at the age of 90.

His first novel was published in the 1940s after he was persuaded to try his hand by the English literary legend Graham Greene.

Humphreys died with his family by his side at home in Llanfairpwll, Anglesey.

Born in 1919 in Prestatyn, Denbighshire, his family moved to Trelawnyd, Flintshire, when his father William Humphreys, who had been injured in France during World War One, was appointed to a teaching post in the village.

He became interested in politics as a result of the 1936 arson attack by Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D J Williams at Penyberth near Pwllheli in protest at turning the site into an RAF bombing training school.

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Graham Greene encouraged Emyr Humphreys early in his career

The young Humphreys had always enjoyed reading and while at school in Rhyl he began writing poetry. He also contributed to a Plaid Cymru publication called The Welsh Nationalist.

He won a scholarship to Aberystwyth where he studied English and History and contributed to the college magazine, but the outbreak of World War Two prevented him from graduating.

He was registered as a conscientious objector and did farm work in Pembrokeshire and Caernarfon before moving to London in 1943 where he trained as a relief worker.

He subsequently worked at refugee camps in Egypt and Italy.

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During the war, some of Humphreys’ poems were published in the Spectator during Greene’s tenure as the magazine’s literary editor.

It was Greene who suggested that Humphreys should write a novel and, in 1946, his first work, The Little Kingdom, was published.

In the same year, he married Elinor Myfanwy Jones and the couple later had four children.

Humphreys did teacher training in Bangor and taught at a college in Wimbledon and then Pwllheli Grammar School.

He carried on writing throughout and, in 1953, he won the Somerset Maugham award for his novel Hear and Forgive.

The prize money must be used for foreign travel and Humphreys went to Austria with his wife and children.

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Emyr Humphreys (l) with Emlyn Williams, Sian Phillips, Richard Burton, Hugh David, Gareth Jones, Meredith Edwards, and Clifford Evans rehearsing in 1958

In 1955, he joined the BBC’s drama department in Cardiff where he remained for a decade.

During this time he translated several plays into Welsh and worked with many famous actors including Hugh Griffith, Sian Phillips and Peter O’Toole.

It was during his time at the BBC that his classic A Toy Epic was published. It has been described by Wales Arts Review editor Gary Raymond as “Wales’ shining example of literary modernism”.

After a period as a drama lecturer in Bangor, he became a full-time author. As well as his novels and poetry, he also wrote for television and often collaborated with his son Sion, a producer and director.

In 1992, he was awarded the inaugural Wales Book of the Year prize for Bonds of Attachment. He won the prize again in 1999 for A Gift of a Daughter.

His contribution to literature was also recognised by the Gorsedd of Bards. When he became a member, he took the bardic name Emyr Trelawnyd.

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Emyr Humphreys finally retired from full-time writing when he was 90

Swansea University English professor M Wynn Thomas said his close friend was a “giant of 20th Century culture in Wales” as well as being a novelist of international outlooks and reputation.

He said he was “remarkable for his contributions to fiction, poetry, drama and cultural history”.

“His passing at the age of 101 marks the end of an era of committed Welsh cultural heroes that dated back to the beginning of the last century.”

BBC News