Notes From Industrial South Wales. 1956-68
Stradey And The Real Sport
It’s a black wet night and all around are big black men with glowing red fires in their mouths and smoke coming from their noses which rises up blue and sparkling with rain in the blazing white glare of the floodlights. The massive green sea hangs underneath the black flickering crowd and even bigger men in red and blue are flying over it like huge birds diving for fish. I’m five years old and sitting on my father’s shoulders and going out of my mind with excitement at the colour and the sound and smell of the joy of thousands of men watching rugby at Stradey Park.
Any event packed with as much sheer stimulation as this will tend to have a lasting effect on a young mind. But not every child had the chance of hearing the sentence ‘He works with you, doesn’t he?’ addressed to my father about one of the players I worshipped. And this was a fairly common experience for boys in Stradey Park, and The Gnoll and all the other homes of industrial amateur rugby. So the gods of the pitch had something in common with our fathers. They were the same sort of human being. Which can only have been a good thing.
Sport for us meant rugby. The heroism of the muddy. As soon as I saw an image of a scrum half in a flying dive pass, I knew I wanted to play rugby, and as soon as I entered primary school at the age of 7 or 8 I wanted boots and a ball for Xmas and my birthday – which weren’t too far apart. And Boxing day saw me flailing to place kick in Felinfoel Park, as I knew the great Terry Davies did, who used to date my sister at one time so there. And as our next door neighbour was a Llanelli scrum half at one time, I felt if not obliged, then genuinely authorised to get very muddy indeed.
The boots were leather-studded, and the Children’s Encyclopedia of Knowledge (another Xmas present) advised the use of dubbin after every match, rubbed well into the ‘welts’. This was a whole new world. Once I had my schoolboy season ticket, no Saturday was complete without a match at Stradey against Neath or Richmond or Cross Keys, to watch the brilliant Phil Bennet do things with space and time and a rugby ball which have never been seen since, and which he seldom approached in his televised career, and the laws of which are only now being truly investigated by scientists in a massive hole in the ground in Switzerland.
We all attempted to imitate him through the exiting multitudes in the cinder crunchy Stradey carpark, much to everyone’s annoyance. But it’s not impossible that a few tries were rehearsed then and there, or even a few careers forged on that slag surface in the rain
The traditional opponents for Llanelli on the sluggish day after Xmas were London Welsh. The glamorous exiles who’d left to become teachers and accountants and lawyers, living in the west London Taff-belt within easy reach of Paddington station and Brunel’s escape route, just in case. The local boys made good, who’d studied hard and ate all their vegetables.
At the time, they were the Kings across the bridge of Welsh rugby. Pretenders to the throne who also saw themselves as the brains of the Welsh team. whereas we knew that the heart of rugby was, and always would be, Stradey Park.
They saw us as hairy cave-dwellers who’d sacrificed the eldest virgin of the tribe at the winter solstice and were still recovering from the party. Invading our temple was an obligation. A white Man’s Burden, to them. A Christian gift to the pagans.
They were perfect for us. Those games were some of the most entertaining I’ve ever seen. Not for the technical connoisseur, perhaps, and definitely not for the fanatical victory hound, but great fun, and in the best sporting and seasonal spirit. An escape from the usual serious business of winning the Welsh club championship or Floodlight Alliance or Welsh Cup, which is what Xmas should be. Anything involving any significant prestige, such as a local derby, would have been a shame.
I might have been having a bath in front of the fire, or just going to bed. It was dark and I was very young. It was a dark 1956 or so.
I was aware of a kerfuffle of some kind at the back door and crying. My mother and father went into action, but I don’t remember what they did or with who. I just knew something bad had happened. I found out the next day.
Without any warning or provocation, someone down the road had been shot and killed by a next-door neighbour. He was the new husband of a friend of the family. It seems there had been a petty grumblance about access during a bit of building work, which suddenly drove the murderer over the edge. He was sentenced to Broadmoor. When he was finally released some twenty years later, he could be seen wandering up the road alone.
The Innocents of Aberfan
It was a particularly wet October, even for Wales. We were connoisseurs of wetness, an expertise gathered over years of school mornings. There was the usual grey slanting raw rain which stang your cheeks, There was the dense swarming drizzle which seeped through and under scarves and hoods and collars, smelling slightly of fire. And then the full-throated hammering production-line downpour, which made the pavements run and the posters peel away from the hoardings and the fields gurgle and creak like sponges in the bath. This could last for a working week, and this October it had.
Our clothes were wet in the mornings, and the drains at the bottom of the hill in our village bled mud and silt across the road and bridge. The river underneath roared brown with soil and pulverised leaf-fall and broken branches. One day, the steps up to our garden were a little waterfall.
To a 14 year old boy at the time, this was no Winterland 1963, which we still sighed over, but it was better than nothing, even if it disrupted the freedom of school breaks, which we spent inacarcerated in the canteen. It was a more eventful Autumn than usual. The rivers were excitingly angry. Every expedition involved some preparation, which even at 14 still smacked a little of Boy’s Own adventure, in which the hammering of rain on an anorak hood stood in for the howling polar blizzard outside the intrepid explorers tent. Our parents were fed up with something other than us, which deflected unnecessary attention. Life was far from perfect, but it was bearable.
At 8.30 on Friday 21st of October, we would have waited for our school bus on the usual street corner, squabbling for the shelter of the one or two doorways, and looking forward to the weekend. We would have piled on to the steaming, jabbering Routemaster, with its furious conductor, and headed off for another fairly routine day.
I can’t remember whether an announcement was made at school,. By the time the Pantglas Juniors were singing All Things Bright and Beautiful we were probably doing the same, so any word at assembly would have been unlikely, but I remember arriving home to find my mother watching the TV, which was unusual. Normally, she was busying about the kitchen, and not watching the pre-Children’s slot – if there was one. I don’t remember her face, other than by piecing together all her expressions afterwards, and all those of the people who came around in the following weekend to share their grief. I don’t imagine many people watched Blue Peter that evening.
The TV pictures showed the vast grey panorama of what we called The Valleys, where everything was as grey as a faded wet newspaper. I’d been through there on day trips, and the grainy black and white footage confirmed my memories. Compared to it, our coastal fringe of the anthracite belt was like the Garden Of Eden – even if the black bulk of the Dafen steel works loomed only half a mile away across the watermeadows of Pwll Bach farm.
Only three years before, I had paraded to our little village school with the rest of the flock of bobble hats, bonnets, dufflecoats and anoraks. Chattering like parrots. Now there was this dead silent school in somewhere we’d never heard of but knew, buried under a mysterious mountain of grey porridge. The deadly mountain hiding its face in mist, and the school ruins lurching over like the shoddy tombstone they now were.
The TV screen was confusing and agonising. It seemed to show a building, like my primary school, up to its knees in the earth, with men in coats and caps, some frantically digging and pointing, and others merely standing, frozen, with their hands on their hips. The pile of rubble seemed to be steaming with the effort of the rescuers, that or the earth itself was panting like a bull from its rampage down the mountain.
Surely there would have been time to escape as the treacly flow entered the school? Obviously not. As reports came in, and the murderous mechanics of the event became clearer, so did the last seconds of those terrified little people, and the full searing tragedy hit home. I remember a faintly consoling tinge of pride at the efforts of the rescuers, but mainly just the persistent, toothache agony of human grief. Possibly my first experience of it. The monstrous barbarism of a mountain eating an entire generation was almost biblical in its indifference to suffering. Looking back from a safe distance, the week of rain was really the sound of Herod’s men unsheathing their swords. A Somme for the children of the coal industry.
As the evening drew on, and the graphic floodlit rescue began, and the succession of horror struck, grimy faces told their stories, and the colliers worked in the open air for once, we knew it was the end of a way of life as well as the end of lots of little lives.
To the generation of 60’s teenagers I had just joined, this was another sign that the lives our fathers led were not for us. The devaluation of human life they had suffered, and the lazy commercial vandalism of the land had killed the children of Pantglas Junior School. We knew even then, before any board of inquiry, that mining, and anything which valued human life so cheap, was to blame, and that it was over. The 1960’s had arrived, in spite of our fathers’ complaints about hair and loud music.
The worst thing my mother could imagine for me was my working in a mine. Even the army would have been better. To her generation, having survived the depression and the war, Aberfan was an appalling piece of spite. How had they deserved this? The cold civil engineering diagrams showed the scale of cynical neglect by the NCB, managers, politicians and businessmen, but the total blind hatred of the mountain’s last act seemed so calculated that only an evil mind could have been at work. I hadn’t read Shakespeare at that point, and neither had my parents, but we certainly understood what tragedy meant. It may or may not have been a co-incidence, but my mother did stop going to chapel not long afterwards.
A family friend was in the Civil Defence and had been there, like all the other services. His stories in our kitchen were terrifying. He seemed to be using bluster as a defence, almost enjoying this storytelling chance of a lifetime. He used the word ‘meat -mincer’, which said it all.
How this changed the way we thought, as impressionable young people at a critical stage of our lives, is impossible to gauge. But happening so close to home, and involving such a key element of our mythology, it can’t have done anything to attract enthusiasm for either the traditional heavy industries, with their long record of destruction and mayhem, or any concept of a happy smiling god, beaming down on His obedient, blameless children at morning assembly, singing
‘All Things Bright And Beautiful.
All creatures great and small.
All things wise and wonderful.
The Lord God made them all.’
Nobody believed that again.
Standard 3E. Felinfoel County Primary School. 1962.
Master Mr John Williams.
Back row L>R Noel Rees. John Armstrong. Vincent Bush. Robert Bartlett. Phillip Williams. Barry Brooks.
Middle row L>R Gareth Roberts. Douglas Jones. Stephen Evans. Robert James. Robert Kenyon. Haydn Beynon. Desmond Butler.
Front row L>R Maria Edmunds. Gwynneth… Karen Davies. Ceridwen Price. Melita Hopkins. Gaynor Lemon. Elizabeth Norris. Susan ….
Master: Mr John Williams.
We all came here aged seven, after 3 fuzzy years of combined drudgery and astonishment at being alive, although we had no idea how new we were. Ysgol Y Babanod, our infant school was, in fact, space-age new. Looking back, it was like something out of Tomorrow’s World. It was a shining example of 50’s modern architecture, and still is, though we didn’t know that then, and most still don’t. It had a massive parquet hall, where the beautiful Miss Parkinson, our headmistress, would play the piano with the sunbeams from the wall-high windows lighting her hair. She made all the boys fall in love with her.
.Felinfoel CP was a step back in time for us. Our desks must have been 60 years old and had been sat on by some of our parents and even grandparents. Unlike the Modernist tubular steel and plywood creations at Ysgol y Babanod, they were gnarled, oaken and ink-stained, and held together with curved black cast-iron. They looked like they were made by the same company which forged the black open-hearth stoves some of us still had at home. There was something grim and grown-up about them, compared with the innocent post-war optimism of our gleaming infant worksurfaces.
The school was made of stone and red brick and brown tiles wood and more cast iron. There was a radio, which was bakelite. But nothing else electrical other than the lights, and the kettle in one or two of the classrooms for the teachers’ tea.
We soon discovered that the entire week at Felinfoel County Primary used to revolve around singing. There was a hymn to begin and end the day. And on Wednesdays there was the radio singalong session, instilling for life old favourites like ‘John Peel’, ‘Widdicombe Fair’, ‘Men of Harlech’ and ‘Hearts of Oak’.
On Thursday, there was the ‘rehearsal’ for the friday ‘assembly’ In the formidable Mrs Walters’ class. This was a serious trial. For an hour and a half, the entire school would stand in rows, youngest at the front, oldest at the back, and repeat the forthcoming Friday’s programme until Miss (Fatty) Walters, or Miss Thomas or Mr Williams or the ghoulish Mr Morgan was satisfied. Children would be beaten for being late on the beat, humiliated for having no tone, and screamed at for singing too loud – which I never thought fair even at 9 years old. In the winter, people standing too near the coal fire would faint, or throw up.
The year had two musical highlights. The eisteddfod on St David’s Day in the packed Festri Hall of Adulam, and the Christmas Carol Concert in the full glory of the chapel itself, where the boys all wore white shirts and red ties.
At the eisteddfod, the girls would promenade in full Welsh dress and daffodils, while the boys saw the whole thing as a biggest leek competition. During the parade of little earnest songs, poems and dances, which we paid no attention to at all, the air filled with the stench of chewed leek, until by the end, the windows would have to be opened, and heads smacked.
The Christmas concert was the real chance to show off, being in front of the entire village (or so it felt) in the big chapel. Our ‘choir’ sat in the gallery, and ran through the early part of the programme obediently enough. But near the climax, after the ‘silent nights’ and other soppinesses came something more rousing, I forget what, and instantly the budding juvenile delinquents (in our red ties) slipped into full rugby crowd voice, and one teacher at least held her head in her hands. But I couldn’t help noticing that more than one of the grownups looking up at us was smiling broadly.
Additions from fellow alumni.
“I remember being at the whip end of the chain and my head hitting the wall under to Freddy Tripp’s shop, that could be why I can’t recall the name of the game.
I remember the crates of frozen milk with ice-cream like growths under silver caps, standing by the big Cast Iron burner in Mr Rees’s classroom, and unfortunately can still taste the milk we had to drink after it defrosted, yeuch!
I remember taking the dares to climb over the wall into the Girls’ Playground and running around while the girls screamed for Wales.
I remember Tyson caning me and you (?) with his hazel switch. We had tried to be clever and snatched our hands away the first time. I remember that “Oh So Brief” feeling of relief that he had missed our palm up hands on the down stroke, far too quickly followed by the agony of the blow on the back of my fingers on the upstroke, I’m sure he’d be arrested now!
I remember the contests in the Boys’ toilets to see which one of us could send a piss stream from one end of the toilet to the other, by holding the end to allow a build up of pressure. I remember the girls looking over the wall from their playground to see which boy won. Wasn’t that you?
I remember Kathy Groves from the year below us and carrying her books home from school far too regularly, (I also remember snatching a kiss from her and running away in embarrassment!)”
I remember the ambidextrous Mr Evans in the Welsh Class writing on the blackboard with two hands.”
Gareth Roberts (pictured above)
“I had Mr Evans after Fatty Walters. He had a hearing aid and glasses I seem to remember. I’m not sure whether it was one or two years with old Fatty. I remember she has spittle drooling out of the corners of her mouth and when agitated (i.e. often) it used to run down even more and she had to dab it off with a hanky. She also used to sweat a lot and had a smell that a dog would be proud of.
Gary Jones (contemporary in the Welsh Class)
It is interesting that Gary is vague about his period under Miss Walters. My memory is that she taught the first two classes in the same room at the same time. Another echo of the Victorian Dame School in the late C20th. There must have been 40 children in the room, ranging wildly in age and ability.
Clennig, Carols and Bangers
‘Clennig Clennig! Bore dydd y Calan.
Nawr mae’r amser i rhanni’r arian.
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi.
Ac i Pawb sydd yn y Ty.
Dyna yw dymuniad i.
Blwyddyn newydd Dda i chi.’
It seems like it’s down to me to rescue this piece of folklore from the scrapheap.
One of the perks of winter was the money to be collected on new year’s Day (‘clennig’). Arriving on a neighbour’s doorstep, and chanting this little spell was enough finance the boiled sugar habit of any little boy until the middle of February, if you were in the know, and set off early enough. At the stroke of noon, the deal, was off. And it was only us farmland yokels on the outskirts of the village who understood the rules and more importantly, had been apprenticed by our older sisters and cousins and their gaggle of friends. By my last outing, at the age of about 10 or 11, I had no competition, and had the route to myself, which was very profitable, but a bit conspicuous.
I may have been the last fully freelance Clennig collector in Felinfoel.
‘We Come Along on Saturday Morning.’
Or as we used to sing at the tops of our voices:
‘We come along on Saturday morning
Greeting everybody with a smile.
We come along on Saturday morning
Knowing it’s well worth while.
As members of The Odeon Club we all intend to be
Good citizens when we grow up and Champions of the Free!
We come along on Saturday morning
Greeting everybody with a smile.
Greeting everybody with a smile.’
And then settle down to a morning of combined cowboys and horseplay and tribal score-settling. The crew from Copperworks and New Dock always vastly outmuscled anything we could produce. And Felinfoel was itself a divided force anyway, so there was no real hope but camouflage for the few of us who used to make the trip from Llethri Road. We survived.
The library was an important bit of the childhood Saturday in the industrial Welsh past, at one time. Along with the Odeon in the morning, then rissole and chips at the Savoy, then Frost’s comic and toy stall on the market, and Hodges’ model shop in Market Street with its spitfires, and model aeroplane ‘dope’. The incredibly opulent sports shop in Stepney Street with its arrows, fishing rods, footballs and airguns with their gleaming walnut stocks. And its high wooden racks and display cases and counters. Apart from being a train driver or fireman or spy or fighter pilot or outside half for Wales, or Davy Crockett, being a shop assistant among such wonders would have been one dream career.
For a particular kind of Llanelli teenage bargain book hunter, there was the ‘Refugee Aid’ bookshop in Llanelli House, the decaying C18th architectural masterpiece at the heart of the old town This book cave stank so much of mildew you could almost see the fungal spores drifting through the air like pipe smoke in a pirate tavern, and the two little old ladies knitting among a pile of damp cardboard boxes might have been its blousy barmaids. Which particular refugees we were aiding by buying one book for every three we stole, we never knew.
There were strange and expensive books there which must have come from defunct country house libraries and middle class Great Depression bankruptcies. The story of the book was as much in its appearance and smell as in the words. Great rusting tomes of Carlyle’s pernicious and unreadable essays, church editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress, with brass corners and Sunday school lesson plans in a special appendix. History was very near in those books even if the original homes of the books were beyond my experience. But so were copies of the mad, banned Beat poets and Williams Burroughs from god knows what trendy Llanelli avant-garde cellarites. Here was another Llanelli I knew just as little about.
The imposing stone battlements of the town library opposite were quite different.
Since I was little, my father had taken me with him to replenish his weekly ration of Zane Gray, and I’d got used to the place. And rather liked its grown up waxy meaty smell of stout leather municipal bindings and polished wood shelves. I liked the high toplit ceiling with its pigeons and, when I was only 8, the fact that I could go in to a huge stone building, and take away expensive books, and that the adults around weren’t trying to stop me, but were actually at my beck and call.I definitely liked the record library when I was older, and heard things courtesy of the Llanelli ratepayer, with a dash of teenage random dumb luck choice, which I might never have heard otherwise, and which have served me very well down the years. Likewise the books. And all partly made possible by the subscriptions of people who worked so hard they seldom had time or energy to read a book themselves, and who would probably not live to see much return on their investment.
Then off to the rugby for a 3 oclock kick off against Neath or Richmond or Cross Keys, to watch the brilliant Phil Bennet do things with space and time and a rugby ball which have never been seen since, and which he seldom approached in his televised career, and the laws of which are only now being truly investigated by scientists in a massive hole in the ground in Switzerland. After attempting to imitate him through the exiting multitudes in the cinder crunchy Stradey carpark, it was home for tea after a perfect Saturday afternoon.
Boxing Days were normally interesting enough, but when I opened the back door and was faced with a wall of snow above my head, moulded to the shape of the carpentry, all other Boxing Days faded into insignificance. Within minutes I was out in Cae Beili Glas next to the house, and soon there were a crowd of us doing snowy things while our parents tutted in the background wondering what the world was coming to. Corrugated iron sheets and tea trays and other improvised sledges were dragged out, and the snowballs flew like pigeons.
The boys soon decided that a walk was called for. Like one of our rambling summer walks with dogs and sandwiches, only up to our knees in snow. It was a boy’s dream come true.
Passing down the road into the village, the sight of more than a foot of snow covering everything was a beginning. At our age, we’d never seen anything like it before, and we would have been satisfied with that. Then we reached the Lliedi, and began to realise the scale of the event. Apart from a little channel running down the middle, it was iced over, and there were genuine Walt Disney icicles from the branches of all the trees. The waterfall into the Lliedi was a pipe of glass channeling water raggedly down through the trees. It was fascinating enough in its usual state. Now it was beyond description. We threw stones at it and brought it crashing down.
Threading our way up the valley one spiky wonder followed another. The constant virgin fluffiness of the pure white drifts. The ecstatic flights of fancy of the random water frozen in time at the ends of branches, or on the green holly leaves, or draped around the arches of brickwork, or exaggerating the barbed wire fences.
We hit the Mynydd Mawr railway and took in the village below, drowned and invisible under the fallen and falling snow. The railway was covered in drifts and we ploughed through like Polar Explorers eating banana sandwiches, tripping over the smothered sleepers. The dogs were even more excited than we were, and missed no chance to wallow in the meringue, and would suddenly jump in the air from surprise or doggy delight. Alongside our furrow were dozens of tracks of birds and rabbits, and other hungry pawprints.
The deep, blasted railway gorge came into view round the corner, and when we realised what had happened to it, we broke into a stumbling trot. Everything before had been leading up to this. We should have expected it, given what we’d seen, but couldn’t have foreseen the kind of mad winter wonderland which surrounded us.
Again, this place was Gothic and glorious enough in its usual grey damp weather, with its ferns and hawthorns and sycamore clinging to the bare rocks. But now it was like nothing on earth. Like something from the Ice Fortress of Ming The Merciless, or a Disney extravaganza, or what happens when god takes the day off and leaves winter to a 9 year old boy.
Great curtains of ice hung from crag to crag, glistening in the afternoon light. Ten foot icicles with their sons and daughters layered the rock face, with more families of ice on top of them, and soggy stalagmite icicles on the ground to harness any water which had escaped the initial freeze. There were the gargoyles of leering ice faces and animals everywhere.
After gasping in amazement for however long it was, we scrabbled the granite hardcore from between the rails, and let loose, destroying as much of this glorious creation as we possibly could.
The walk down through the forestry to Swiss Valley reservoir was the most Xmas card experience any of us had ever had, or probably ever will. The towering pines and spruces with sheaths of snow thudding from them in the otherwise utterly silent woods.
And then we saw the reservoir itself, which was totally frozen over. It was so frozen that the weight of the ice had caused the surface layer to collapse under its own weight to a depth of about 6 foot, creating a huge ice basin, or collapsed pie crust. We could see how thick the ice was at the edge, and decided that this was too good a chance to miss out. We slid into the basin, and began an afternoon of hectic sliding and scurrying until we dripped with sweat and our face-scarves had curtains of icicles on them.
Slowly, we began to realise that the sun was going down and that we were getting cold and hungry and should think about going home. We then realised quite quickly that sliding down into a frozen reservoir was a lot easier than sliding back up.
The general approach was the long run and desperate clutching slide. Eventually, one of us made it, and was able to offer a hand to the next person, and so on until we got to the dogs, who were totally stymied, and who could only do a sort of hilarious cartoon running on the spot. They had to be physically hurled up the slope by the last boy, who was grasped by the rest after a last desperate charge.
It took a long hungry, cold time to get home, but the long slide down the still frozen Swiss Valley Hill helped. The snow continued for another two weeks, and we didn’t go to school for ages. The death rate among the old and frail must have enormous. And everywhere more than a mile down Llethri Road was cut off for days.
The prickly heat of the husks jabbing all over your body as you turned the hay before baling. Then the mad teenage machismo of feeding the bales on the elevator as fast as possible. All in a golden haze of pollen and flies and butterflies and beetles and diesel fumes.
And the deep Xmas pudding smell of the hay already beginning to ferment on the wagon as you rode on top of the last load under an unfairly wonderful immense universe, with the starcurtain lowering like snowflakes as the horizon went through blue to indigo to purple and black. Then stacking the barn to the rafters, with the hard fungus tang of last year’s bales being gradually drowned out by the sweetness of the new summer’s wild harvest. Then later, the barley. With the neighbour’s combine lumbering across the slope like a Baleen Whale harvesting cryll – Comanched on all sides by gulls and daws and starlings. And then hauling the sterile straw bales, which were much more hypodermic than the hay. Then the stubble burning, with the late summer sun blasting its way through the blue smoke. And the mad scattering of the rabbits and the squealing or exploding of the broiled frogs, their legs like teeny barbecued chicken drumsticks – once the dare had been taken. And much more delicious. And grown-up beer to wash them down – and proper cheese sandwiches on Mother’s Pride – real farmers being far too busy to bake their own bread, like in the stories. Then the strawfights with tumbly farmers daughters – and then the buckets of water just to wake up out of the heat trance of dust and sunburn and teenage competitive labour. And home to sweat out the sunburn through the sticky night.
The Man Who Lived In A Haystack
Domestic water drawn from a spring. Rabbits caught for the table. Foxes killed for the bounty on the tail. Baptisms in rivers. Yet these are some of the things I remember from as late as the Swinging Sixties. These antiquities were everyday life in my corner of industrial South Wales until about the time The Beatles released Revolver, and therefore part of who I am.
The man who lived in a haystack was over 60 when I knew him, and was known as Dai Blaen-Nant. ‘Blaen-Nant’ being the name of the field he lived in. The field ‘Near the Spring’. He had moved in to a corrugated iron shed sometime before the war…
As the roof began to need patching, and to insulate against the cold, he used the straw from the harvest, piling it on year after year until it was five feet thick on top and had slid down to the ground. It looked like the haystacks we had seen in pictures, and was, effectively, a replica of a traditional Native American wigwam.
There were 3 other single men living in the same kinds of shanty within a quarter mile radius. One was fairly lavish affair with a great black corrugated roof and lean-to, and a glowing iron fireplace and a grandfather clock inside. I used to visit him on Sunday afternoons with his niece, and he used to give us tomato sauce sandwiches washed down with weak shandy, and talk with us about the latest sport, and what we were doing at school, and would listen attentively while we outlined schoolyard plots and intrigues and betrayals and outrages which he could never have followed. He just let us speak and listened.
My Great Uncle Ifan was an ex-collier and professional rabbit-catcher whose business had badly effected by the Myxomatosis epidemic of the early 50’s and hadn’t worked since. He lived in what was barely a garden shed on a patch of land loaned to him by my grandfather. There was water near in the spring (or Nant), but he washed in the fresh air. His classic collier wardrobe of white scarf white shirt black suit and flat cap never changed. I never discovered what he did in the day, but most nights he made his way home from the White Lion or the Bear, to his tiny stove in his tiny house. I envied him his freedom. He died in 1967 leaving only a tortoise called Cliff.
All the fields were bounded by hedges (which were full of food for summer walks), and all of them had names.
Cae Glas (the Green Field), Cae Garw Mawr (The Great Rough Field), Pen Nant (The Field Above the Spring), Cae Bach (The Little Field), Cae Beili Glas (Green Castle Field), and most revealingly, Pen Tip (The Field by the Slagheap). Agriculture and heavy industry were never far apart where we lived. Our paths and garden walls were hard-cored with the purple volcanic rubble of the old mines and foundries all around. One of our favourite playgrounds was a derelict coal mine.
Some of the trees had names. The ‘Devil’s Oak’, with its great burnt chamber big enough to hold four boys, glowering at the top of the formidable ‘Devil’s Hill’, completely dominating the landscape and sometimes invading our sleep.
Everything seemed to have its own identity. From the improvised milk churn-stands outside every farm gate, to each of the three little rivers within half a mile of my bedroom, with their own rocks and mosses and guttering springs.
One of these springs turned into the River Lliedi. Our river, and the one which ran down through the town to the old docks and derelict wharves.. On its way it had powered the watermill which ground the grain for the local brewery, and provided one of the first legal Baptismal pools in Wales. When my mother was baptised in it, they had to break the ice. And I remember when my cousin was baptised that the minister conducting the service died with a girl in his arms.
Our main contact with people who did not share our local identity was confined to the exotic people who would appear at certain times of the year trying to sell carpets, or clothes pegs or onions. Or who would offer to sharpen knives and scissors on a huge bicycle-driven grindstone. The Indian Carpet man, with his turban, was supposed to be none other than Hollywood star ‘Sabu’ of ‘The Arabian Nights’ and ‘Kim’. The onion-seller on his black bicycle did wear a beret and a striped jersey.
Gypsies from storybooks would pass the house once or twice a year in hooped wagons. They would graze their horses for a couple of days on the little green in front of the little white council estate built in 1956. One horse one year was pure white, and I was a big Lone Ranger fan at the time. The rest is predictable enough. I was still very much in short trousers, and Gypsy horses have their pride about being pestered by presumptuous Welsh schoolboys on a dare. And they have other uses for their teeth besides quietly eating grass, as I found out.
If this humiliation taught me a degree of respect for my elders, which the horse certainly was, then so much the better. The horse was just part of the community, and as kids on the loose, we were policed by the community far more than by our parents.
The snazzy new council houses (Bryn-Y-Felin’ or ‘Mill Hill’ or ‘The New Houses’ to us) had electricity and gas and inside toilets and a bathroom. Most of us in the older homes, farms and smallholdings along the road didn’t. Not until about ten years later in the mid sixties were all those things guaranteed. The C19 had survived until then in our part of the country.
Nevertheless, we had made some strides in our house. By the 1960, we had progressed from the traditional ‘long-drop’ soil-trap, to a modern, hi-tech chemical Elsan, with its own cosy asbestos cubicle proudly standing in the middle of our garden on the side of a hill for all to admire. When the ‘receptacle’ was full, my father would dig a big hole in a convenient part of the garden, and bury the contents. We would not walk on that patch for a few weeks.
It was a beautiful Summer’s Day. I was 7 and without a care in the world. I had been watching Val Parnell’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium the night before, featuring the adrenalin-fuelled Red Army Ensemble, and was ‘Cossack dancing’ around the garden in my new brown wellies, which in themselves were another source of great novelty and joy
I was posing in mid-air during another HEY-UP! when there was the sensation of not landing when I should have, and whatsmore into something warm and sticky and smelly… – And then of being dragged upwards and dangled at arm’s length by my father who chortled how I would be lucky for life, as hosed me down like a bunch of turnips.
This story would not have been possible in an age of universal sanitation. And so I would have been somebody else, and not quite me. Of course, all this may well just be a trick of hindsight. Merely the enhanced perception of childhood, and a not a reflection of the age at all. Pure sentiment and nostalgia. But nevertheless, I’m still glad I was in the right place at the right time to be enchanted by it. And to have known some things out of history books, which I didn’t realise were obsolete or unusual at the time.
Which rather begs a few questions – like how much of what we now take for granted will still be here in 20 years? And what will we miss? And what would we be well rid of?