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An insider into the life of Gryff Thomas

PUBLISHED: 14:56 13 February 2017 | UPDATED: 14:57 13 February 2017

Gryff Thomas, storyteller par excellence

Gryff Thomas, storyteller par excellence

Matt Austin

Judi Spiers meets a man who is full of fantastic stories...and has a passion for sharing them

If ever a man was born to tell a story it’s Gryff Thomas. It just amazes me that it’s taken him so long to get it down on paper.

Gryff, an inspirational history teacher for the last 25 years of his career at Exmouth Community College has recently published The Vacant Chair, a collection of charming and funny tales of his early years growing up in a village on the Black Mountains in the Amman Valley, South Wales.

As the first grandson in his mother’s family and for a long time the only child in a large family of uncles and aunts, Gryff was cocooned by love and without a doubt indulged!

Gryffs home is stuffed to the gunnels with treasured artefactsGryffs home is stuffed to the gunnels with treasured artefacts

Indulged not least by Mam, his mother’s mother, the all-powerful matriarch who as Gryff says “held undisputed power over her seven sons and daughters”.

Indulged by his beloved mother Marion, who at seven months pregnant with him was blown across the floor whilst attending to the fuse box, earning Gryff a place in the Welsh medical journals where he was hailed “A Welsh miracle baby.”

His book is full of laugh out loud moments like his ill-fated trips to the theatre with Mam to see a pantomime. On the first occasion she was almost choked when an actor put his full weight on the scarf around her neck. The second she collapsed gasping for breath covered in white powder from a giant powder puff thrown at her. At what was to be the final occasion she narrowly avoided tumbling into the stalls from the balcony when she broke the fall of a rather large lad who had fainted in the gods. To this day Gryff has never seen the grand finale of a pantomime!

Gryffs home is stuffed to the gunnels with treasured artefactsGryffs home is stuffed to the gunnels with treasured artefacts

There are tales of the uncles who had him ‘tipping’ the television set during a rugby match in an attempt to get another try for Wales. There’s the story of his father who thought that an early job offer for Gryff in Addis Ababa was an elaborate plot to trap him because as a child Gryff had hurled a Chinese back scratcher out of the window and hit Haile Selassie - at the time seeking sanctuary in Wales - squarely on the head!

The day Richard Burton brought Elizabeth Taylor to see his homeland and drank warm champagne in the village pub served by Maggie the landlady who was permitted to try on Elizabeth’s huge diamond ring!

How he refused another young local, Hywel Bennett, the loan of his much-treasured green suede jacket for his first audition at the National Theatre.

Gryffs home is stuffed to the gunnels with treasured artefactsGryffs home is stuffed to the gunnels with treasured artefacts

If you’re wondering where the title comes from it’s his friend Gwen, a lady of rather ‘generous proportions’, who had a full-sized moss chair made for her late husband’s grave and insisted on squeezing it in the back of Gryff’s tiny car for a trip back to the valleys from Coventry.

Gryff’s friends call him Squirrel Nutkin and indeed his home, in Topsham, is one of the most extraordinary I have ever visited. It is stuffed to the gunnels with treasured artefacts, which, much to his cleaning lady’s dismay, he insists on displaying on every possible surface!

It is here, in front of the fire with Gryff perched on his huge throne holding court, that I have had the pleasure of hearing most of these stories. In his back garden I have watched a production of Mistletoe Madness written by Gryff and directed by the one-time dynamic artistic director of the National Theatre Jane Howell.

There is a quote the beginning of The Vacant Chair from the Welsh actor Richard Burton: “Every man is searching for the place he belongs to. For Gryff, that place is the Amman Valley.”

Although after 42 years in Topsham I think he’s pretty settled…and they’ve just about accepted him!

The Vacant Chair and other stories of the Amman Valley, published by Lily Neal; printed and bound by Short Run Press, Exeter.

Gryff's garden has been home to many a theatre productionGryff's garden has been home to many a theatre production

Gryff’s ten favourite things about Topsham

1 Rust red cliffs, white pebble beaches, black brooding Dartmoor tors and blue summer skies; my private kaleidoscope of Devon colours.

2 Spectacular sunsets – best viewed from the end benches of the Goat Walk.

3 The view across the Exe towards Haldon Hills whilst sitting on ‘Underway’ reputed to be one of the most restful spots on earth!

4 A trip across the Exe in the ferryman’s boat and a meander down the canal bank to the Turf Lock.

5 The view from the church wall down to ‘Wixels’ below, especially at high tide when the house appears to be like a villa afloat!

6 The green canopy of interlocking trees leading down to Monmouth Street and my home.

7 The breathtaking lifesize bronze statue of Sod, my gardener’s boy, under my illuminated apple tree.

8 Riotous drinking sessions and laughter with friends around my courtyard table under the walnut trees.

9 The overcrowded mementoes I’ve gathered around me - now impossible to imagine life without.

10 My art collection, ever expanding and much treasured. It has grown far more than I have in my 42 years in Devon!

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