Some more lives

Miscellaneous briefer profiles

HANEF BHAMJEE (1948-2022)
Redoubtable activist and campaigner Hanef Bhamjee, who died in January, was born in apartheid-era South Africa and from the age of 10 had already acquired the brains, the courage and the principles to become an active opponent of the obscene racist state that denied the non-white majority the vote and basic civil rights. He founded the Indian Youth Congress of Natal as a teenager and as he became increasingly involved in the parent body, the African National Congress (ANC), he was regularly arrested, interrogated, harassed and threatened by the notorious South African security services to the point where he was forced to leave the country in 1965, aged 19. He fled to the UK (something that would be impossible in the ‘hostile environment’ of today’s UK) and after graduating in social science at Birmingham University in 1971 moved to Cardiff, where he had South African friends. Working as a lecturer in sociology at Cardiff University, he focused on strengthening anti-apartheid activity in Wales; as a socialist, a democrat, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and a supporter of the self-determination of all people, he understood the affinity between the Welsh and South African struggles. The anti-apartheid movement was already active in Wales, galvanised by the disgraceful Springboks’ rugby tours in the 1960s, but now Bhamjee, with his sharp mind, dynamism, fierce commitment to the cause and profound awareness of the issues, took it to another level – and in the process became a Welshman in his own right. In 1981 he founded the Welsh Anti-Apartheid Movement (WAAM) and soon forged it into one of the world’s most effective foes of apartheid, setting up branches across the country, creating alliances with religions, political parties and trade unions, and inspiring thousands to join the movement. His home in Roath was WAAM’s office, and he was the sociable, passionate, argumentative ringmaster at the heart of it. When the WRU at last severed links with South African rugby in 1989 it was a clear sign that the writing was on the wall for the apartheid state – despite the fact that the wicked UK Tory government in London was still its main supporter. And by 1994, when Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) became the first president of a democratic South Africa, Hanef Bhamjee had triumphed. Wales was one of the first countries Mandela visited as president, and he made sure he met up with his old ANC comrade when he was awarded the freedom of Cardiff in 1998. True to character, Hanef did not rest on his laurels: he qualified as a solicitor, he became an immigration specialist, he lectured part-time at Cardiff Uni’s centre for lifelong learning, he formed Action for Southern Africa Cymru as the successor to WAAM and, as ever, the feisty, articulate, chain-smoking little man was bringing people together, serving up delicious food in his ever-busy home or debating issues with his pals over a pint in the Arthur Buchan on Albany Road. Cardiff is the poorer without him.

ROGER BOORE (1938-2022)
Roger Boore, who died in July, made an immeasurable contribution to the Welsh language, to children’s literature in Welsh and to the publishing industry in Wales. In 1969 he and his wife Anne (nee Caswell) founded the publishing house Gwasg y Dref Wen with the express purpose of producing children’s books in Welsh, having noticed the dearth of child-specific illustrated books in the language. He realised young readers are essential if our perennially threatened ancient tongue is to survive and thrive, and with his trademark drive, intelligence and dedication he proceeded to create a vital Welsh institution. Today Dref Wen, based in Whitchurch in Cardiff, is the paramount publisher of children’s books in Wales with a vast back catalogue of colourful, diverse, high quality works that have entertained and stimulated generations of Welsh children and have been vitally important in the ever-strengthening revival of Cymraeg. Books such as Llyfr Hwiangerddi y Dref Wen (the standard Welsh nursery rhyme collection), the Storïau Hanes Cymru series (tales from Welsh history) and Y Geriadur Lliwgar (a children’s picture dictionary) are found in homes across the land, and Boore himself translated many classic children’s books from around the world into Welsh. On top of this, the Cardiffian wrote a prize-winning children’s novel (Y Bachgen Gwyllt), a collection of short stories (Ymerodraeth y Cymry) and a series of five acclaimed travel books. What’s even more impressive is that he taught himself Welsh as a teenager in the 1950s when it wasn’t taught in schools and there was virtually no encouragement or incentive to learn. For his massive contribution to public life in Wales Roger Boore was inducted into the Gorsedd of the Bards in 2016.

SIÂN JAMES (1930-2021)
Although novelist Siân James, who was 90 when she died last year, spent most of her adult life in England (from the mid-1950s onwards apart from three years in Cardiff in the early 1990s after her husband died) she was always a Welshwoman incarnate. Her deep comittment to Wales, its language, its politics and its history never wavered, built as it was on her upbringing in an extended family of Welsh-speaking teachers, writers, radicals, socialists and freethinkers in Coed-y-bryn, Ceredigion. Education and literature were passions: her father Percy Davis was an erudite headteacher who as a young man had been involved in the foundation of the Labour Party; her mother Anna (nee Evans) was a teacher and writer; and an uncle, noted writer DJ Williams (1885-1970), was one of the founders of Plaid Cymru and also one of the famous ‘Penyberth Three’ jailed for nine months in England in 1936 for daring to oppose the destruction of an ancient home of Welsh literature, culture and idiom at Penyberth Farm in Gwynedd in order to create an RAF bombing school. James added her own pacifism, feminism, veganism and modernity to these influences and after University in Aberystwyth, where she met her husband Shakespearean actor Emrys James (1928-1989), the couple relocated to England and she doggedly pursued her own path as a writer of lucid, graceful prose astutely exploring families, marriages, women’s liberation and, of course, Wales. In 40 years of writing Siân James wrote no less than 13 novels as well as non-fiction, translations and compendiums. Her stand-out works are surely: A Small Country (1979), recognised as a classic of Welsh fiction in English; Not Singing Exactly (1996), a collection of sublime short stories that won the Wales Book of the Year award; and The Sky Over Wales (1997), an evocative memoir of Ceredigion before, during and after WW2.

DAI JONES (1943-2022)
Witty, relaxed and amiable, Dai Jones was the familiar, popular pillar of Welsh language broadcasting on TV and radio for over 50 years, hosting many light entertainment programmes before settling into the job he was born to do presenting Cefn Gwlad, S4C’s farming and rural affairs series, from its first broadcast in 1982 right through to his retirement in 2020 as his health declined, culminating with his death in March. The Welsh countryside was in his blood – he grew up on a dairy farm in Brynchwith, near Aberystwyth, and worked on farms from the age of 15 – and likewise he was saturated in the deep-rooted traditions of Welsh rural life as an active participant in the Urdd, young farmers clubs, the chapel and eisteddfodau. His love of Wales and his extensive expertise accrued on his own farm in the Ceredigion village of Llanilar, meant he personified the polar opposite of the brute vandalism of high-intensity Agri-business that desecrates the land and wrecks the natural world. Dai Jones Llanilar, as he was universally known, has shown the Welsh people the way forward if we are to protect, nurture and repair our beloved Cymru.

MIKE JONES (1941-2022)
The paintings and drawings of Mike Jones, who died in January, combine bold expressiveness and delicate sensitivity to deliver a potent poignancy that very few artists achieve. His prolific body of work is steeped in every aspect of life in the upper Tawe valley, the ‘milltir sgwâr’ (square mile) where he was born and bred, where he lived his whole life and where he found all the inspiration any creative artist could ever need in the complex, sophisticated, working-class, Welsh-speaking industrial and agricultural communities where the western Glamorganshire coalfield merged into the eastern Carmarthenshire countryside. With effortless empathy and deep affinity Jones captured the women and men of Pontardawe, Ystalyfera, Cilmaengwyn and his home village Godre’r Graig going about their hard but rich lives, hanging out washing, scrubbing steps, emerging from collieries and foundries, lugging sacks of coal or just socialising, in pubs and reading rooms, around farm gates and dining tables, on street corners and park benches. Over the years the passionate Welshman, who donated many valuable paintings to raise money for local Welsh-medium schools, eisteddfodau and Plaid Cymru, gradually became recognised as a special talent and his work was exhibited and lauded across Wales and beyond. His studio in Pontardawe was a fulcrum of Welsh artistic life so it was fitting that his final exhibition, to celebrate his 80th birthday in 2021, was held at Tŷ’r Gwrhyd, Pontardawe’s Welsh centre. There, large numbers of enthusiastic visitors of all ages were enthralled and inspired by Mike Jones’s intimate sense of Welsh importance and actualisation – a truly cosmopolitan approach that powerfully put the prevailing orthodoxies of sterile, homogenised, inhuman ‘globalisation’ in their proper, petty and parochial, place.

ROY POWELL (1934-2022)
Another distinguished Welsh painter to have died this year, in April, was Roy Powell from Chepstow, who settled in Brecon for the last 48 years of his life. Powell was greatly influenced by French Post-Impressionist pioneer Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), as well as the philosophical themes of ‘vanitas’ art – a sombre, moralistic style emphasising the transience and futility of life that had originally flourished in the Netherlands in the 17th century. He synthesised these influences into his own unique oils and watercolours: contemplative, disconcerting still-life set pieces utilising mirrors, skulls, fabrics, furnishings, vases of flowers and bowls of fruit in intense colours and striking arrangements. Never bothered by fickle fashion or commercial imperatives, Powell always ploughed his own furrow from his days at Cardiff College of Art in the 1950s and after a needs-must career as an art teacher at Brecon High School he really blossomed as a painter after taking early retirement in 1990. His output was high, he held numerous exhibitions and gallery shows, he branched out into moody landscape painting and he wrote extensively about art, all the while deeply embedding himself in the life and affairs of Brecon. Innately serious, he was a warden at Brecon Cathedral, wearing his Christianity lightly and asserting life amid the certainty of death beneath the glowering Beacons of Aberhonddu.