THE 1950s POP IDOL
Born Ammanford, July 10th 1908
Died Brighton, August 9th 1973
(From the autobiography of Donald Peers)
published by Werner Laurie, London, in 1951,
Chapters 1 - 4
I was born in Ammanford, a mining town in the Amman Valley. In my memory it is peopled with kindly warm-hearted and generous folk. Most of them had to fight a grim battle for a livelihood, and their independence and prosperity was more often than not shown by the proud possession of a piano in the best front parlour.
I understand them because I was one of them. They understand me because in me they saw the counterpart of themselves when young, another child of the valleys building his castles in the air, and who in due course learned to respect his elders, to sing, and to love the cadences of poetry.
Like so many mining areas in South Wales, the Amman Valley formed part of a landscape which could be beautiful one moment and forbidding the next. There was sheer delight in some of the narrow, rutted lanes that led perhaps to a farmstead nestling on the hillside, or again, perhaps to nowhere. There was the industrial romance of mine-working and the very feel of history in the ancient pathways that wound upward to the summit of the mountains.
The Amman Valley was long and narrow.
At one moment all was green, and clean, and fragrant then one turned a corner or emerged from behind some mighty boulder halfway up the mountainside and there with an almost physical feeling of shock one surveyed the dreary panorama of the mine workings spread untidily below. Along the valley ran the River Amman. The winter floods would cause it to fill and even overflow its banks. It would race past the colliery workings higher up, and into the filthy pollution would be sucked debris which had lain stranded stagnant for most of the summer months.
When the spring came round again it would seem as though some wound had been cleansed and made wholesome and only after some period of summer hot weather had reduced the flow of water would the huge stones in the river bed show themselves brick red and untidy.
But there were other, although smaller rivers: perhaps streams would be a correct description. One newspaper printed a charming' picture of a stream near Ammanford. The caption described it as the original "babbling brook" of my signature tune. I knew many such streams, played in them and defended the banks against other marauders in jerseys and with grubby knees. But the brook of my song is another story and did not come into my life until many years later.
About a mile from the Ammanford Square, which is a four-road crossing in the centre of the town, lies the village of Bettws, and it was here that I spent most of my early remembered life. I may write of Ammanford and Bettws as though they were one town, but in fact there was a decided line of demarcation between them. This was the River Amman itself and it marked a boundary which was quite rigid. When you left Ammanford and crossed the bridge passing a common lodging-house set back from the road, you climbed a rise and in a hundred yards entered a village, with its sub-post office in a tailor's shop, and a road which took you on and out to the gentle hill slopes where a magnificent house was hidden in its own wooded grounds and where Colonel Williams lived. The road, of course, was called Colonel Road. After a while, the road became narrower and deep-rutted, and then climbed swiftly to the top of the mountains. On the slopes grew masses of wild bilberries and in the summer time, my Sisters and I would be sent to gather the fruit.
We would set out with a lunch package of jam sandwiches and bottles of cold tea. After an hour's climb, we would be high up almost touching the clouds, and looking along the length of the Amman Valley.
My parents were not natives of the valley, and my mother's people came from just over the hills. Father, a foreigner in the truest sense for he was an Englishman made the folk of the valley love him as I know he loves them.
Father's family has its roots in Kent, but my mother is from a line of Welsh men and women whose origins might have been bound up with the early fortunes and misfortunes of Wales itself. Her maiden name was Rees. For generations my forebears had been in humble circumstances, but independent and of forceful character. A powerful personality indeed was my grandfather, Ebenezer Rees. He was a man of immense drive, strong and thrustful. As a child, he would rise before dawn and commence his day's work. He was sturdy and his heart was filled with a quite relentless ambition to improve his lot. How this was to be achieved he had perhaps only the haziest notion as he toiled. At that time, parts of Wales were as remote as the Shetland Islands. He had no schooling. He was a grown man before he could read or write. It was, in fact, my grandmother who taught him to trace the outline of his own name so that he could sign the marriage register.
Yet Grandfather Ebenezer Rees became a potent force in local affairs. This man to whom, in his early youth, a line of print was a meaningless jumble, went on to found a weekly newspaper and to write stirring leading articles in vigorous prose. This paper he called Llais Lafur which means The Labour Voice. It flourishes still, under the title The South Wales Voice.
By the time I was old enough to go a visiting to Ystalyfera, where my mother's family lived, my grandfather was dead, and the business was carried on by my three uncles. They seemed tremendous fellows to me, and the affection with which I regarded them was tinged with some awe.
Uncle David edited The Labour Voice and controlled the business affairs of the paper. Uncle Will was in charge of the printing machines. Uncle Elwyn watched over the Coliseum, a cinema which was built over the printing works. He booked the "forthcoming attractions" and was the family showman. I suppose it is natural for youngsters in every family circle to adopt a favourite uncle. Mine was Uncle Elwyn. In my eyes he was a handsome, swashbuckling giant of a man with a gusty laugh a deep chuckle that would gurgle in his throat and a man who could talk to children on their own ground. I idolized my Uncle Elwyn, not only because I hero-worshipped his prowess as a sportsman he was a fine cricketer but because of his association with the Coliseum.
Whatever the limitations of the Coliseum may have been, it is known that many artists appeared on its tiny stage and had cause to be thankful for a week's engagement there. From time to time small theatrical companies would find their way (usually to their own bewilderment) to Ystalyfera. Very few of them could even pronounce the name properly.
In 1949, when I was singing in Blackpool, A. C. Astor, that accomplished ventriloquist, told me how he had "played" Ystalyfera. He had already described the experience in one of his most readable and entertaining articles in The Stage.
With a company of other young performers he had been touring South Wales. Small profits turned to losses, and eventually the show folded up. They were left with scarcely a shilling between them. The owner of the Coliseum, Ystalyfera, listened to their sad story and agreed to help them out. He offered them the use of the theatre so that they might at least raise the fare back to London. "I shall never forget it," Arthur Astor told me. "Not because there were no dressing-rooms heaven knows, we were used to going without that luxury but it was the first and only time that I had to change and make up in a newspaper office. We rigged up screens and, as we put on our costumes, dodged in and out among the printing presses!"
I wish I had seen and talked to and grown to know my grandfather; instead, he has always been to me a rather legendary figure. Now and again he has almost come to life as I have looked at his stern, old-fashioned photograph and thought of some of the stories my uncles would tell about their fabulous father. I have often wondered, too, how and why my grandmother had the sweet patience to become the wife of a young rip-roaring man whose only attribute at the time they met was a willingness to fight anyone or anything.
I have said enough to make it clear that she was a woman who had great strength of character. As sweethearts, she and Ebenezer must have talked about the future and been quite sure that together they would make their way in the world.
Grandmother knew it would be a sin to waste the force and inspiration of which her man was capable.
What wonderful people they must have been. However, my grandmother, too, is only a shadowy figure in my memory for my most lasting recollection of her is a sad but impressive one. It was at her funeral. At that time I was about six years old, and the ceremony made a profound impression 'upon me. Even now, my mind has only to go back to the open graveside, where I stood gripping my elder brother's hand, and I can hear again a great crowd of mourners singing in the minor key that haunting Welsh hymn, "Caer Salem." My grandparents were well respected by their neighbours in the district, and to me it seemed as though the whole neighbourhood had put on its Sunday clothes and come to see my grandmother laid beside her beloved husband. Even at that early age, I was aware of the emotional impact which prevailed when those glorious Voices of my fellow-countrymen rose in paeans of pent-up emotion.
Ebenezer and his wife were partners for many long and happy years and they brought up a large family of which my mother, Mary, was the eldest. Six of their other children my aunts and uncles loom large in the story of my childhood. They were a colourful part of the pattern of life as I knew it. The uncles were David, who became head of the Rees family after his father's death, Elwyn and Will. Peggy, Blodwen and Rachel were my aunts. There were others, but they died long before I was born, or went forth into the world to marry or fend for themselves, and I never met them.
Mother, as the eldest child, became her parents' companion at a time when they were setting out to lift themselves to security and influence. She grew up while the battle was still very much in progress, and she helped to nurse and care for the babies as they arrived with Victorian regularity.
Mother was one of the best cooks I have ever known. Later, when I was a boy at Bettws School, and our living fare was of poor quality, she would make special dishes; one I remember was "Boston Baked Beans," cooked slowly in an earthenware jar in the oven. The flavour is on my palate as I write.
Mother, I think, could never have been very strong. No doubt long hours at the open range, and keeping a boisterous brood of brothers and sisters in order, had told on her health. At all events, from her early years she suffered from rheumatic trouble. The accepted remedies of the day had no effect. Ebenezer and his wife became anxious and alarmed.
Then the name of a place in America was mentioned. Hot Springs, Missouri. Special treatment, to be obtained here and here only, might bring about a lasting cure. It seemed fantastic that such a journey could be contemplated, but it was contrived. Mother packed her modest belongings, and calmly set forth on a voyage which to her must have seemed to the ends of the earth.
And while far from the scene of her native valleys and hillsides, she met my father, fell in love and promptly married him. That was in 1894.
That Frank Peers should be in America or, for that matter, in any other part of the world, could have surprised nobody who knew him. He was a born rover. As a young man he wished for nothing better than to roam over the face of the earth, passing contentedly from one job to another as the spirit moved him. He was to live a great part of his life in Wales, and to pass into a serene old age there, but he is Welsh by adoption only.
The roots of my father's family are in Kent and my paternal relations are reputed to live happily far beyond the usual span. My grandfather was a postman who spent most of his life delivering letters and parcels in the countryside around Canterbury, and Frank was born not far from the cathedral city, in the village of Ash. But to stay in one corner of England all his young life was not an idea that appealed. He was all for trying his fortune overseas. He was not tall, but he was sturdy, with broad, powerful shoulders and a physique that would get him round the world and keep him out of tight corners. Even now that he is over eighty he is still firm of tread and carries himself as straight as a guardsman on parade.
Father's journeyings took him to many strange places. He coolly worked his passage to Africa, thence to Johannesburg, Durban, Natal and Cape Colony, and eventually found his way to New York. He took any job that came his way, surveying the changing scene with a keen interest in his fellow creatures. He finally found himself work in the stockyards of Chicago in the year of the great World's Fair of 1893. Here, in this grim and bustling city, which must have presented a vastly different world from the peaceful, leisurely Canterbury he had left behind, he met Mary Rees.
They enjoyed a devoted married life. But I was never able to learn much about that meeting. By the time I could take an interest in such matters, both mother and father were middle-aged, and these things had happened nearly thirty years before. But I like to think that their courtship must have been a piece of purest romance. My mother's soft Welsh voice falling like music on the ears of the young exile. They were both young and both far from home. Whatever their friends and relations in Britain thought about it and you can be sure that they thought and said a good deal the young Englishman made Mary Rees his bride, and there was nothing anybody could do about it.
My father, as I came to know him, has always been a man of the highest religious principles, a godly and upright character if ever there was one. It was while still in Chicago, I have heard him say, that his religion became a ruling force in his life, or, as some would say, he was "converted". He, and my mother with him, became members of the Plymouth Brethren. The young Englishman, who held his own with the roughest and toughest characters who wrested a living in the vast stockyards, became an evangelist and lay preacher.
In Wales, where perhaps such things are better understood than elsewhere, he became even more wrapped up in Bible readings and his discussions with the Elders of the sect. My parents' strong and strict views, as was only natural, had their effect on the upbringing of their children, but no home could have been happier. There certainly were solemn moments, but in a family of five children, each blessed with a keen sense of observation, there was also more infectious laughter in our home than in many I knew in the valley.
Mother was always gay of heart, and indeed both of my parents loved fun in their own way. Father's sense of humour was perhaps on the quiet side and it was a jest of his that sometimes he would break into the broad American accent with which his ears had been assailed for so many years. He would never say "a tin of tomatoes" but "a can of tom-a-toes," and when I was a baby and my sisters were wheeling me out in my pram, father would often call out, "Be careful of Donald in the buggy there, and be sure to keep to the sidewalk."
America remained their home for the first few years of married life. My two elder brothers, Elwyn and Howell, were born there. In fact, if, at the turn of the century, my grandfather, Ebenezer Rees, had not taken up his pen to write a certain strongly worded letter, the chances are that I should have been born, not in Ammanford, but in the United States. The letter, with the Ystalyfera postmark, was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Frank Peers, telling them kindly but if I know anything about my grandfather's character forcibly to put an end to their wanderings. The years were rolling by. The family was growing. There was no sense in staying away from the old country. In the opinion of Ebenezer Rees, and that opinion counted for a good deal, it was time for this young family to go home to Wales and stay in one place for a while.
I am sure there must have been some heart searchings and prayers for guidance but in the end, the young people dutifully booked a passage home. There couldn't have been much luggage just a few personal belongings, some souvenirs of America, and two healthy baby boys.
Ebenezer had promised to find work for my father, and his first job, conveniently enough, was in the family printing works at Ystalyfera. For some reason this did not prove an ideal arrangement, and Frank Peers applied for and was given a job in a local sawmill at Ammanford. I can only guess at the effort it cost him to say farewell to all those distant horizons, and settle quietly in a small mining town, many miles from his native Kent. But he found consolation in his growing family and in the company of his fellow believers, to whom there was but one book in the world the Bible.
Because of his intense religious outlook, father never joined in any sports and his natural reserve gave him at times a sense of aloofness, yet he is a kindly man, and for him I hold great love and respect. He was a great disciplinarian. Our house may have been a humble one, but he and mother showed greatest pride in its spotless cleanliness. Everything that could be polished was polished until it shone and shone again like the little brass rail around the mantelpiece. The children were given certain duties for each day, and the burnishing of this rail was one of the most important.
Father mentioned it in a letter he wrote me some months ago. Let me quote a little of it his words may give you a better idea than mine of his character and simple faith.
"Now that I'm getting on," he wrote, "I find the tasks of yesterday take a little longer, and at times I skip polishing the brass rail round the mantelshelf."
For many years now he has lived a quiet, monastic life in a tiny cottage, faring for himself, and refusing to take up the roots he planted so long ago in the Amman Valley. His children are scattered but he remains at the place we all think of when we speak of Home.
As far as Ii know, father never complained because his world had grown so much smaller. He was perfectly happy with my mother in their new rented home near Jones's Garage as we would call it in College Street, Ammanford. This was always "No. 106" to me. But I happened to turn out my birth certificate the other day, and saw to my surprise that the house boasted the rather grandiloquent title of Bellamy Villa.
It was a semi-detached house in an ordinary street. Names of houses sometimes reflect their owners' ambitions, for Journey's End or Mon Repos often give a clue to some secret longing. But for what it is worth, Bellamy Villa was unexplainable. Here, then, I was born on July 10, 1908.
Let me describe my mother. She was not very tall, but she moved about our house and walked along the streets, with a dignity which was almost regal. Her face smiled the kindest of benedictions on all she met, and her eyes, very wide-set and deep brown, seemed to hold the wisdom of all the world. She gave everyone her undivided attention and was greatly loved.
Of my mother, and an event that happened not long before my birth, there is a story I must tell you. It is a personal and intimate tale, and until I came to write this book and set down certain things while the memory of them was still green, few knew the facts beyond a small circle of friends and relations. You will not wonder then that mother had an unforgettable influence on my life, or that her memory is very dear to me.
She seemed very close, very close indeed, in the late summer of 1949, when I had an illness which nearly robbed me of my voice. A distinguished specialist examined my throat and out of a mist of confused personal thoughts I heard him say with pity and finality in his tone: "I forbid you to sing!" At that moment I had a most vivid and startling vision of my mother. You see, she too had been attacked by an ailment of the throat where she was about thirty-nine years of age. I had barely turned forty-one when my throat trouble threatened to write finis to my career. It was early in 1908 when mother's ailment became bad. She was expecting her fifth baby. The weeks went by, and the prescribed treatments had little or no effect; her condition became dangerous. There was only one hope-it lay in the skill of a surgeon's hands-and just three months before I was born a serious operation was performed.
From that time, mother's voice was audible only from within close range. Father and the rest of the family had heard her sing sweetly. My elder brothers and sisters had heard her voice lifted in laughter and song many a time. They had known the sound of mother's call long after they had banged the gate and scampered down the road to school, but I never heard her speak in anything much more than a husky whisper.
So when, at just about the same age as she had been, I heard that grim command: "I forbid you to sing! ", heard talk of operations and saw my dreams crumbling to dust at my feet, you will understand why my thoughts flashed back to the house we rented in Bettws, and to an incident which is one of the most vivid recollections I have of mother.
One day mother was preparing a meal. Around her were my brothers and sisters, all engaged in some household task and singing at their work. I sat watching, eager and interested in everything she did. Mother was wearing a high-necked, spotlessly white blouse. It was always high-necked after that operation and it always had a dainty lace collar with little stiffeners made of bone. My brothers and sisters began teasing her gently, as they often did, trying to make mother join in their songs. This may seem a little thoughtless, but mother never had time for self-pity and in a way she encouraged them for it was all in fun. Mother smiled and gently obliged with "Doh-ray-me . . ." and then the voice failed as the children knew it would. There was shrill, delighted laughter, in which mother herself joined. I didn't. I cried and my throat went peculiarly dry. Then mother hushed the others, put her arms around me and comforted me. "Never mind, Donald bach," she said, "you will sing for me."
It is an incident I have never forgotten.
I was too young to have any thoughts of the future when all this happened. I had no idea how I was to earn my living. But, as things turned out, there did indeed seem to be some compensating law in progress. Singing did become my work, my life, my happiness. Quite unconsciously at first, I found I was on my way to become a singer of songs even before I could put the thought into words. Some restless, foot-loose wander-bug eventually caused me to leave home and professionally sing for a living. Mother lived long enough to see her affectionate, half-jesting prophecy come true, in some degree at all events, for in 1929 she heard me sing in a touring revue.
Maybe the strain of the operation mother had undergone just before my birth finally sapped her strength, for she was never robust, and maybe the strain was the reason why, unlike the other children, I was the weakling of the family. My hands and feet lacked strength pitiably. Later on our doctor diagnosed rickets, and it was mainly through my brother Elwyn's care of me that I recovered. But I will tell you about Elwyn later.
From the very beginning it seemed that mother was always having to defend the ailing child I proved to be. Some while ago my Uncle Elwyn, complimenting me on a good round of golf, said, with a smile: "I will tell you something, Donald, my boy-something that happened soon after you were born. I went over to see your mother, and I got the shock of my life when I saw you, for you certainly looked a sickly babe." It seems that my uncle, in his pity, didn't think I should ever live, and he went on ~o tell me that he had said to my mother, that it would be a far better way out of the problem of bringing up a weakling. But she turned on him fiercely and cried "Keep quiet! He might make us all proud of him one day!"
My limbs may have been weak, but there was never very much the matter with my lungs, as one of my aunts often reminds me whenever I see her. If ever I wanted to attract attention or was disappointed about something, I would run into our little front garden-which was about four square yards of earth-and throwing myself down I would bellow dramatically. Crying out: "Oh, I'm dying, how I'm dying! . . ." Many times I have had cause to mutter those words to myself Later in life, as I have stood on a stage before a particularly tough audience and thought, in the theatrical jargon for being a flop, "Oh, how I'm dying."
Unlike my doting mother, my Aunt Blodwen was made of sterner stuff in her handling o~ me. She knew how to deal with the situation. The way to quieten me was for her to poke her head round the corner of the door and say quite firmly: "Well, die quickly, my boy, but please die quietly!" at which I would promptly shut up.
The only remedy for rickets, the doctor said, was the simplest-to breathe strong and cleansing air into my lungs. Elwyn, who is my elder by eleven years, would come racing home from school, pack me and his books into a perambulator and climb to his favourite haunt on the mountainside where there was nothing to come between us and the clean sky.
The sturdy schoolboy, pelting home each day to help his baby brother, became a familiar sight in Ammanford. People would smile kindly and say, "Here comes the galloping major,'" and as "the galloping major" Elwyn was known for many a long day.
No one will ever know how much I owe to my eldest brother. Naturally enough, I always admired his strength, but at one time his ambitious nature caused him to become almost a stranger in our family, for his personality was bound up with a ruthless, self-disciplined plan for advancement and he achieved great things. My great regret is that in later years our paths have crossed so seldom. In the Second World War, Elwyn held an important appointment in India, and was awarded the O.B.E. He is a barrister, and now has a judicial post in Singapore. A fine record for a council schoolboy, who won a scholarship to Aberystwyth University, fought and was wounded in the First World War, and who finally went out East as a humble sergeant in the Indian Police Force.
When he returned on leave, his pent-up energy was directed to studying law. He would be reading and re-reading his books at six o'clock in the morning. We were all very proud of him when, in 1938, he was called to the Bar. I know you will understand how I feel towards that eldest brother of mine and why in the family we are so proud of him.
Later on I will tell you about my second brother, Howell. He went to sea as a wireless operator, but was too young to see active service in that First World War.
Father came home one day with bad news. He had lost his clerk's job in the sawmills. Things were not going too well in the world outside, and South Wales was passing through another of those periods of depression which through the years have made, perhaps only too justifiably, for bitterness. But Frank Peers had supreme faith that the Lord would provide. And when things were looking very black for us, he found work as a surface man at the colliery.
We were desperately poor. Pennies did not drop from Heaven. They had to be earned-as I began to realize a few years later. I accepted as perfectly natural the necessity of becoming a grocer's errand boy for two shillings a' week, and then, picking up the odd sixpence for a weekly newspaper delivery round. But with all our problems, I. can look back with a grateful heart to a home where there was not only real faith and discipline-but real happiness as well. Not long before the First World War, when I was about five, we had left College Street, Ammanford, and my parents moved to Bettws. It was here that the first memories begin to join of a little cluster of houses that seemed to my childish mind to be the beginning and end of the world. Indeed, there seems to be some justification for my opinion, for, in the Amman Valley, there was a local expression, which became almost a proverb, when anything of tremendous interest happened. People would say in Welsh, "Of course, that's known to the whole world"-a pause-"and .Bettws."
Bettws is the backcloth against which all that is happy in my childhood stands out.
Our new house was one of a small row called Ysycoed or "on the edge of the woods" and the road leading from Ammanford through Bettws and past Ysycoed will take you by way of two or three wooded hills right to the summit of the mountain.
I've been away from Bettws for a long time now, and have had only a few chances to return. But it's always been a thrill to do so, partly because I'm still at heart a "small town boy," but mostly because everyone there is so kind.
When I walk with my father along the streets it's wonderful to be greeted by those who still live there, and greet them in return.
In such villages there is an atmosphere not found in the big cities. Whether one is walking through the fiat countryside of East Anglia, the narrow lanes of the West Country, the hilly parts around the Pennines, or the quiet Yorkshire moors, there is a similarity in countryside behaviour which I can only attempt to describe as humanism.
Dear, dear Bettws, how small-how cosily small you are In those faraway days the road between Ammanford Square and Bettws Square was a long trek. It was my broad highway. Along it I would drive some imaginary super car, or ride in company with my special pal Rhys Lloyd on fiery and untamable cowboy steeds . . . so much would happen on this long trail-we would face daring ambushes, and effect thrilling rescues . . . as the road unwound into town.
In fact, it is only a few minutes' walking distance between the two points.
I shall always remember most vividly that strange feeling of disappointment which overtook me on returning home after being away a considerable time, and finding that Bettws had shrunk.
The village, around which the whole world had revolved, had become smaller, and even my old neighbours were no longer the giants of yesterday. I felt very sad.
Many of you may be wondering how on earth the son of such deeply religious parents found himself turning to the theatre. Today, my busy life as an entertainer is so very different from what might have been expected in view of my upbringing. In one sense, my early background was quite out of sympathy with a career on the stage. My father to this day has set foot in a theatre only one since he was converted in '94. A hundred times the family has been called in from play to take part in quiet family Bible readings.
My boyhood passed under two widely differing influences although I didn't realize this at the time. On the one hand there was my father, preacher and evangelist-and on the other stood the more worldly members of my moth~% family, my uncles and aunts, the children of grandfather Ebenezer. Do not think from these words that my father' resented their influence, or that they, on their part, did not respect his views.
It was after my grandmother Rees's funeral-which had made such a profound impression on me-that Ystalyfera began to exert a powerful influence in my young life. We began to visit regularly the home of the new head of the family, my Uncle David. His house was called Glanyronen. On high days and holidays, my two sisters and I would put on our best clothes and set out for Ystalyfera, where we were received (after a journey of two or three hours, for transport in those days was leisurely to a degree) with rather more ceremony than any to which we were accustomed at Bettws. As I have said already, we were the poor relations, and because of circumstances beyond our control here was an atmosphere which was vastly different from our home.
At Glanyronen a completely new world was opened up before my eyes. There was about the whole house an air of prosperity and comfortable security that we had never known in our home. It was obvious to everyone that the owners of this desirable residence were people of substance. The carpets were thick, and the fine mahogany furniture was polished until it shone like a mirror. There was gleaming silver and glassware, and the prevailing note was one of warmth. Here we would meet my three cousins and listen, with a certain amount of admiration and much more wishful envy, as they practised at the piano. They were Uncle David's three daughters, Gwyneth, Ray and Olwen.
Ray was to become wife of Hilary Marquand, the Minister of Pensions, first in the i94~ Labour Government and later in its successor of 1950, and as I write, recently appointed Minister of Health. Hilary was at one time a professor of economics at Cardiff University. He had for a long time a practical interest in politics and won the East Cardiff seat from Grigg, the War Minister.
That piano was a thing of joy, but not only did Glanyronen possess this magnificent instrument but a telephone, and most miraculous of all-a gramophone. This ancient model an H.M.V., gave me intense happiness. The voices that issued from the wide horn were metallic and nasal, but I was fascinated by them.
After many visits, when my good behaviour could be relied on, I was allowed to play records without anybody supervising. My two sisters and the three cousins would be off having fun of their own kind, and to play the gramophone to my heart's content was all I asked. There were tenors and contraltos singing arias of all descriptions, choral works and the rest-but the record that appealed to me more than any there was one of Billy Williams, "The man in the velvet suit."
He was singing "When Father Papered the Parlour." This, in my judgment, was nothing less than a masterpiece. I loved it, played it over and over again, and learnt it word for word and note for note.
This led to one of the few serious disagreements I had with father. At a Sunday School Treat-I had "found my voice" by then-my contribution was a sacred song. Polite applause at the end must have turned my head, for I immediately burst into a completely unrehearsed and unsolicited encore, and I sang with glee and gusto.
I shall never forget how the faces round me grew sterner with each line-especially my fathers. One glance at the look on his face made me realize the fate that was in store for my temerity. But even in those days there must have been in me the germ of the performer who, having once started, will go on to the bitter end in front of the most unsympathetic audience. On to the bitter end I went, amid a startled hush from my audience which was almost a tangible thing. And indeed the end was bitter-and my "end" was subsequently painful in the extreme.
It was early to bed that night, after one of the few severe spankings I remember. I avoided singing comic songs at any of the children's parties I went to in the future.
For all that, I shall ever be grateful to that wheezy old gramophone. It gave me my first introduction to a world which existed solely to entertain and amuse.
And there were other delights at Ystalyfera, such as visits to Uncle David's "office" in the family newspaper and printing works.
When one entered the office from the street, there came from the distance a faint whirring and machine-clatter. But it was very remote and not until a door was opened at the head of a steep and dangerous-looking stairway did one grasp that here, apparently, all Hades was let loose.
The second delight was the way Uncle Elwyn allowed me to roam the stage and visit the projector room of the cinema. I am certain that the first seeds of longing for a life on the stage were planted during my visits to the Coliseum. The theatre, which had a seating capacity of about 300, prospered quite happily until the coming of the talkies.
Uncle Elwyn was quite different in appearance from his brothers, David and Will, and at that time he would tower far above me. He had the jaw line of a terrific fighter and the most piercing, wide-set eyes, which could blaze suddenly in wrath. They were, however, as I remember them, mostly as soft as the eyes of my mother.
He had a great deal of the commercial artist in him, but I see him most clearly on the Ammanford cricket field, leading Ystalyfera Club to victory, and thereby depriving us of our home ground record. The Visitors arrived by coach from the other valley over the hill, and were met by hundreds of Ammanford folk who packed into the local square. So that everybody should realize that I had some relationship with this god in flannels, I entreated him to let me carry his cricket bag, though indeed it was almost as big as myself.
My loyalties were torn to shreds between local pride, partisanship and the prayer that was in my heart that my great Uncle Elwyn should do well. The match ended dramatically enough. It was a very close run thing, and although I cannot recall the scores, I have a vivid picture of uncle finishing off the game by taking a magnificent catch. I don't think I shall ever forget the memory of that mighty figure, with his peaked green cap, stopping the stroke which could have meant another win for our local team. As the crowd swept forward to cheer the victors I didn't know whether to laugh for joy at my uncle's achievement, or to cry at the loss of a ground record.
You will not be surprised, then, that Ystalyfera had me under its spell while I was at a most impressionable age. At home, life was' completely different. I grew healthy enough and, especially in the summer, spent the greater part of the long days in the open. As a family, we went frequently to chapel, but there was an indefinable excitement even here, for the Elders were eloquent, fiery and dramatic preachers.
They had a wonderful feeling for words, and these men sang the praises of God with intense fervour and conviction. Yet, when the meeting was over, the speakers, who a few minutes before had been so ardent in their worship, would become-suddenly-just plain Mr. So-and-So, who patted you on the head and asked kindly how you were "going on at school. They were good men, and when times were bad (and bad they were only too often) they did much to help people bear their troubles with dignity and fortitude.
The big day of the year, from the children's point of view, was a Sunday School Treat to the Mumbles, which was about two miles outside Swansea. How we all prayed, and I really mean that we put up a prayer, for a fine day for that occasion. It seemed that the innocent invocations of the young are answered in a mysterious way, for I can remember only one day at the Mumbles when it rained.
We got tremendous happiness out of such simple treats. The very journey itself was an adventure, difficult for the modern child of town or city to appreciate, for we in the valley lived very simply. We would leave Ammanford by the early morning train, all dressed in our best Sunday suits, and then, after what seemed an age, unexpectedly come within sight and smell of the sea. We paddled joyously in the grey-green ocean, or just sat entranced, watching the waves rolling in. I used to scan the horizon for wisps of smoke and the sight of hull down ships stirred me through and through. Even today when I am near the sea, .1 sometimes have an almost overwhelming desire to put on a cap, walk on board, and sail away. I did this once, about twenty years ago.
After our seaside trip, where the sand would get into the tea, and even the most patient of parents would find the day a bit tiring, we gazed sorrowfully from the train that was to take us home. And with a fleeting, final glimpse of the ocean -a memory to treasure for the next twelve months-we were content until once again the Sunday School Treat would come around.
During these formative years, in all perfect innocence I was unconsciously leading two lives. On the one hand there was the magic of the gramophone at Ystalyfera, the highly coloured posters outside the Coliseum which lifted the curtain and gave me a glimpse of another world outside the valleys. On the other there was our family life, linked with the daily practice of a simple faith. One was associated with Bible readings, and the glowing, inspired oratory of the Chapel Elders. The other drew me irresistibly to a world where men and women became stars of the stage and of the screen, and earned a living, not in monotonous daily toil, but actually by doing something they enjoyed. At least, I assumed that nobody could live in a world of thrills, adventure and romance without enjoying themselves.
Even at school, the scales were weighted on the side of my Ystalyfera day dreams. Here I took part in "productions" that were far more absorbing and amusing than singing sacred songs at Sunday School Treats. At Bettws Council School, I learnt to know the thrill of acting before an audience. From time to time, we would give entertainments to which proud relations and friends were invited. At the council school, as a leading light of Standard I, I was given the part of Blondel, the Strolling Troubadour. This was perhaps a somewhat prophetic bit of casting. Later, at the county school, I played Mr. Pickwick in the famous Bardell v Pickwick Trial Scene. I have an idea that my chubby features rather than any particular skill in acting brought me this particular role.
At the age of ten, by which time my voice was coming along quite well, I was one of a select company chosen to perform as a gnome in a cantata, "The Magic Key." To achieve the proper effect, this company of bright young hopefuls wore little brown suits, and were adorned with fluffy white whiskers. The whiskers were made of cotton-wool, and applied with a liberal coating of spirit gum. This tenacious liquid, once dry, is not easily removed from the face-certainly not merely by washing. For days afterwards the gnomes were recognizable in the streets of Ammanford by the grubby
remnants of these beards! When my wife and daughter and I visited Eric Portman (who is Marie's favourite actor) in his dressing-room one evening, we learned that he too had made his schoolboy debut in "The Magic Key." We even recalled some of the featured songs and we sang them, line for line.
My teachers gradually came to rely on me as a reasonably sound performer, for my name always seemed to be on the programme in some capacity or other. When old enough to play rather more mature parts, I was cast, I remember, to play the role of the Honourable Ernest Woolley in The Admirable Crichton. For quite a while afterwards, I used to think romantically of that pretty little girl who was the Tweeny of the play. "Can't you see the lovelight in my eyes?" I had to say to her. You can imagine how the old scenes crowded in upon me and came to life when I went back to Ammanford on St. David's Day, 1950 I was met and greeted by the little heroine of Barrie's play, but now she is Councillor Mrs. Gina Jones.
The first great love in my life was a very one-sided affair. I was twelve at the time. Her name was Edith Mai and she had big brown eyes that looked as though at any moment they would brim with tears. I can still see her skipping in the playground with such energy, not to say abandon, that one perceived not only the pretty green cress that she wore, but also the pretty green knickers to match! Gorgeous Gussie Moran herself never presented a more entrancing vision. Of course, I used to write notes to her, but they failed to impress her-at least she never replied to them. Mine was destined to be a hopeless passion, and I would sob my heart out to my mother, who would listen and sigh and smile and then divert my interests to cricket or Rugby! It is good to keep our wonderful childhood memories, and that first love affair was as innocent and refreshing as the trusting smile of a babe.
We have never met since those faraway days.
Schooldays rarely interest anyone but ourselves, but in mine were certain features that had a bearing on my future life. One was the influence of the English mistress, Miss Lillian M. Lewis, who, for some kindly reason known only to herself, always had faith in my ability to entertain. Good parts were found for me in the school plays, and it was "L. M. L." who first encouraged me to believe that I could make a career for myself on the stage.
One of the nicest things about that St. David's Day broadcast (when, with Rae Jenkins, who also has such intimate memories of Ammanford, I shared a civic reception) was that so many old friends re-entered my life. Miss Lewis, now married to Mr. A. B. Oldfield-Davies, the Welsh Regional B.B.C. Controller, lives at Cardiff, and was unable to make the journey to Ammanford, but in a wonderful letter to me, she summed the whole thing up this way: "Isn't it exactly like a dream come true?"
At Bettws Council School we looked with respectful awe on the striking figure of Mr. Rees Thomas, the headmaster. He had the martial carriage of a guardsman, and was determined that the backs of his pupils should be equally straight. At morning inspection, he would walk along the rows of children and any foolish enough to crouch or sit hunched tip over their desks would get a paralyzing poke in the back from a powerful hand. With his sturdy build, a terrific chest and white moustache stained with tobacco smoke from his pipe, Rees Thomas could look frightening enough, but was always one of the kindest of men.
While I was at the council school the First World War broke out. On an August day in 1914, I was playing in the garden with Tom Phillips, our next door neighbour's son, when the sound of the drums and of marching feet came to us. I can remember a recruiting sergeant shouting in Bettws Square, the anxious faces of the women as they nervously clutched their aprons, and my father's voice, replying sadly and almost remotely to my query about it all.
"There is a war, my boy" . . . and I remember his blue eyes filled with tears.
Later, the grown-ups would always take pains to say as little as possible about the war news before the children. Now and again, however, we would learn that one of the boys of the valley would never come home again, and we would fall silent, only half understanding.
My special pal at school was Rhys Lloyd. Our friendship was to outlast those childhood days, and we met again last year. Rhys had a nimble mind, and a real flair for music. He was the son of Percy Lloyd, a very fine Rugby footballer, who played for Swansea. He was a great sportsman in every way, and his skill as a fly fisherman was proverbial. Percy was also a great believer in physical culture for his two boys, Hubert and Rhys.
Rhys was brilliant. He studied the piano officially for only six months. Then, unavoidably, those lessons had to stop: those were hard days in South Wales and many sacrifices had to be made. But he had a natural gift, and went on to teach himself until he became more than proficient. As soon as daylight turned to dusk, we would make our way into the best room of the Lloyd homestead, the inner parlour, and there he would play the piano, and I would sing and sing and sing. We even became ambitious enough to try and write songs, one of which, I remember, was 'Down Alabama Way."
"Just the starlight for a guide,
And my mammy by my side
We'll go roaming,
In the gloaming
Down Alabama way..
Reading it now makes me realize that appreciation of the main essentials in song construction was evident even in "Starlight for a guide" and, with the simplicity of twelve year-old country youths, we only wanted our mammy by our side.
Rhys and I were in the same class at school, sharing a double desk near the stove. On Friday afternoons, when our clam mistress would be feeling tired and looking forward to the weekend of comparative peace from children en masse, she would encourage us to become storytellers. We became experts at carrying some exciting adventure from incident to incident in the form of a weekly serial. For the 'whole of a long' winter term, we kept one such story going. It was packed with adventurous drama, and we contrived that our hero became involved in far worse scrapes than Dick Barton ever did! Later, when we were alone together, we would plot and scheme for hours how the leading character should escape from the hideous predicament wherein we had left him the previous Friday.
Small as was our corner of the famous Welsh anthracite coal district, a number of interesting characters dwelt there. One such was a travelling door-to-door salesman, who was known as Yorkie or "Johnny Fortnight." He made it his business to know the ways and means of his customers, and would persuade housewives to accept all manner of articles on' a glorious credit system of his own. The rate of interest he charged must have been tremendous, though the risk of defaulting debtors was negligible. Nobody ever absconded from the village owing money.
All the same, money was owed all the way round. The local grocer and butcher invariably gave more credit than they should have done. However, everyone did pay up eventually, and money was never considered as being particularly important.
Not far from our house lived a local Welsh bard, John Harries Irlwyn. I have reason to be grateful to him because was he who first pointed out some words of Ruskin which in many ways have governed my whole working life. Most Welshmen have an instinctive love of poetry, and their lilting voices are well suited to declaiming verse. I began to scribble rhymes and hoped that one day I might become a writer. My friend-with great understanding-encouraged me, and at one time, when I told him of my ambitions, he made me memorize the lines which Ruskin wrote on "The Art of Writing." I have since found myself repeating them on a thousand different occasions. Here they are:
"To begin at the beginning is, next to ending at the end, the whole art of writing. As for the middle, you can fill it in with any rubble that you choose; but the beginning and the end, like the strong outer walls of medieval buildings, contain and define the whole."
That advice has remained a beacon throughout my life and I have tried to apply it to nearly everything I have attempted. For example, I have a strong desire-instinct, perhaps-to learn the mechanics, the reasons behind, any task or activity I engage in. It is hard for me to put this into words, but from early boyhood onwards, I have always felt compelled to try and understand the things I undertake: I know I have failed often-but not for the want of trying.
That is why, when I realized that the microphone was an accepted and unavoidable handmaid to entertainment, I couldn't rest until I was getting the utmost out of it. I rehearsed and rehearsed with a stage microphone. I said to myself: this is not just going to be the means of amplifying my voice; it must be an integral part of my act. And I have done my best to use it intelligently.
My boyhood was rich in friendships. Looking back I find I have remembered certain things from about five years old, but as I left Ammanford the day before my sixteenth birthday, I have had little more than ten years in which to collect memories of people and events in the valley. As my mind goes back into the past, I can recall a whole gallery of kindly, intelligent people who always had time to take an interest in the young idea.
'One of the personalities of the district for whom I shall always feel affection was Willie Jones, the local reporter. He possessed a great heart in a crippled body. Willie Jones and his parents were our next-door neighbours for some time in Bettws. It was in Mrs. Jones's house that there came that awe-inspiring moment when I realized that at last I could tell the time. On the walls of their best sitting-room was suspended a clock, and it was on this well-remembered timepiece that I learned to count the hours.
Willie Jones helped me in a very practical way. He would take me with him to the local football matches, and I would telephone the half-time scores to the Swansea papers. This was a job that seemed to combine business with pleasure- to see a good afternoon's sport and get paid for it! And for a time I revelled in the term "cub-reporter" as Willie Jones's assistant.
He was striking in appearance. His dark eyes shone out from a powerful face and he had long, sensitive hands and beautifully kept nails. His nails fascinated me, for in a community where hands were rough and rugged and nails were, more often than not, cut and scraped by the hard and relentless contact with coal, the contrast made them seem much more beautiful. He had enormous courage for, although he was forced to walk on crutches, he overcame this great physical handicap, and he was a most popular figure in the neighbourhood.
Willie Jones always took a great interest in our family, and I like to think that he and I were particularly good friends. I would show him my "poetry," and however bad it may have been sometimes, Willie would never smile, but would always give the matter the serious attention due to it. Metre and rhyme and flights of fancy were always a serious business. What he really thought about my poems I can't say, but here is an example of one of my efforts, written about this time. It was the result of a school set-exercise, in which the pupils had to write verses on "Spring" without actually mentioning the word.
SYMBOLS OF SPRING
When mating birds build yearly nests
And fields with flowers look their best,
When rivers small with rain do grow
And keen March winds their teeth do show:
When snow like blossoms appear on trees
And busy hummings, as busy bees
Do gather on their wings their tasks
And butterflies let fall their masks
Then doth the Mystery Bird with gladsome call
Hearten man and beast with his magic thrall.
The vales are filled with an awakening sound,
Soft pealing round.
When April showers from blue skies pour
And skylarks high on light wing soar,
When farmers trim the leafy walls
And rainbows span the waterfalls:
When Nature doth her radiance find
And vales with beauty are once more lined,
When sunshine lengthens merry hours
Of happiness 'neath em'rald bowers
Then doth the Mystery Bird with gladsome call
Hearten man and beast with his magic thrall.
The vales are filled with an awakening sound,
Soft pealing round.
The shillings I earned from Willie Jones, reporter, could not have been more welcomed during the difficult days. It seemed the most natural thing on earth that, as soon as we were old enough to earn an honest penny, and help the family exchequer, the youngsters would do so. My first job was with Probert, the grocer in High Street, whose errand boy I became for two shillings a week. A little later I had a newspaper delivery round for a newsagent in Quay Street.
In spite of the time we devoted to these part-time occupations, there always seemed plenty of opportunities to roam the countryside. The boys of Ammanford would explore the district in small commando bands, and engage in pitched battles with similar gangs from the other villages. Now and again there were casualties, but these were gentlemen's wars, and no one ever bore malice.
Cricket and Rugby were the chief sports in the valley, with Rugby a very easy winner. Some of the finest club players were the men and boys who worked a hard day's shift at the colliery and then, in the evening, would train just as hard as they worked. One such was Sam Thomas, who taught me how to bowl. It was on Sam's lips that I first heard the magic word "golf." When we moved from Ysycoed to a house in Mill Road, Sam was one of our neighbours. This was round about the time father lost his job at the sawmills and became a surface-man at the colliery. One compensation about this new job was that it brought us a delivery of coal direct to the house once a month at a special price of seven or eight shillings a ton.
Sam was a first-rate cricketer. His eye was superb. He could pitch the most cunning of leg-breaks on to a patch of ground the size of a dinner plate with unfailing regularity. It Was Sam who was the master tactician of his side whether it played cricket or Rugby. He schemed out the most amazing three-quarter moves when Bettws Rugby team was formed, and we had to thank him for so many high scores. We were always getting good marks for our teamwork.
Sam, like so many colliery workers, was a very fine singer. He didn't appear to think a great deal of my vocal efforts, however, and sometimes he would shout to me from his adjoining garden with fine scorn: "Why do you persist in singing in that fashion?"
Next to our house was a big field, we used it for a while as a Rugby pitch, but now it is built upon. It was here that Sam would spend hours explaining various moves in the game while the youngsters listened absorbed. In my council school days, we were sadly in need of proper playing fields. The kiddies at school spent most of their playtime in a concreted playground. When it rained, and it often did, we would make a dash for the corrugated iron-roofed shelters, stand on forms and sing roundelays-the favourite being "When the moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin."
The word "destiny" is, by itself, so colourful and so romantic that looking back through the arches of the years it seems only right that perhaps my first introduction to it should be through the medium of a popular tune.
Near the Ammanford station yard approach stood a shop which was owned by Cresci and Impani. Their family all bore the true facial characteristics of the Italian race, and yet so close to us had they grown that their English was as lilting as only a Welshman makes it.
In the days I write about, radio entertainment was still some years away. The cinema heroes in the valley were Hoot Gibson, Pearl White and their contemporaries and occasionally the local drill hall was hired by a touring waxworks.
Boys of my age would often spend wet Saturday afternoons in the ice-cream parlour of Cresci and Impani. For a halfpenny you could obtain a large goblet of delicious ice-cream. Over the summit some richly coloured fruit juice would avalanche down, and we'd sit for a long time, at the cold marble-topped tables, just tasting the ice-cream away with the tiniest of spoonfuls, and a sweet-toothed joy. Not for us the mad frenzy of thrusting the heavenly stuff down our gullets.
We were old hands at making a goblet of ice-cream last until finally our warm and sticky hands, clasping the bowl so firmly, would cause the melting point to be reached.
Then we would be left with only a mush, pink or yellow as the coloured juice mixed through, and at long last we would up-end the goblet and drink the remains. The final ritual was the careful cleaning out of the glass with index finger. They were left so polished that a further cleansing in hot water was only a hygienic demand.
Against one wall stood a player pianola, and so our Cresci and Impani visits were carefully organized. We could spend only so much on ice-cream and so much on music, and the tune of the moment the weeks and the months was the haunting waltz "Destiny." Time and again it would stutter into tempo as the dropped penny set the mechanism into motion: "Destiny. . . Destiny".., one of the popular tunes which already seemed to be making a mark in my mental make-up.
The headmaster of Bettws School one day called me to his desk and, fixing his piercing eyes on me, he declared he had decided I should enter for a bursarship to the county school. "You'll do well if you work hard," he said, "and if I know your father and mother you'll work hard, so you'll do well."
I worked hard.
It was an early spring morning when we sat for the examination. Several of us set out together and we walked out of Bettws and over the Ammanford Bridge, through the quiet town. . . past the big overhanging clock in Quay Street, over the square and up along College Street, past Bellamy Villas until we saw some wet roofs of corrugated sheds which were clustered together in an untidy formation. This was Amman Valley County School.
It was set back along a clinker-constructed road. Half hidden from the main road, its poverty and ugliness were only apparent when one was very near.
This was my first close-up view of the secondary school. I had dreamed that it might be something after the fashion of a fictional grammar school. After all, I had read and lived with Tom Merry, Harry Wharton and Billy Bunter, and I knew Greyfriars inside out.., the playing fields, the tuckshop, the quad and the Remove ... what, then, was this collection of shambling army-type huts. . . corrugated and squat with flaking paint peeling from the outer sides.
We reported, and hung our caps and lunch packets in the cloakroom. The stench of the cloakrooms made me want to vomit and my natural anxiety and nervousness were not the only reasons why I looked so white.
To Mr. Rees Thomas's delight, and to the great pride of father and mother, and not, may I say, without a great deal of personal surprise, my name appeared at the top of the list for the whole valley. I had won my bursarship. So I put aside my more childish associations, and joined "The County."
Alongside the playing fields which contained a fairly good rugger pitch and a devastatingly dangerous cricket pitch, ran a railway line to Liverpool. Every morning, at about 8.40, a train would rush by bearing the legend "Liverpool-Lime Street." This intrigued me a lot, and I would wonder where in Liverpool was Lime Street, and what exactly did it look like. Many years afterwards, when I first appeared professionally on the Merseyside and I arrived at Lime Street Station, my mind somersaulted backwards to the playing fields of the county school and the 8.40 clattering along.
Almost two years were to go by at the county school. My future had been decided. I was to be a schoolteacher, for it was a highly respectable occupation, and what was more it carried a pension! I thought it tactful to say as little as possible, but in fact, the whole idea filled me with loathing and revolt.
The only silver lining was the thought of going to university. Elwyn had studied at Aberystwyth, and I would be happy to follow in his lead. The First World War had interrupted his career, and when he had returned and resumed his studies, he had found it impossible to settle down, and now he was in India.
But my personal ideas about the future were only half formed and tantalizing in their indecision. More than anything else I knew, in my heart, that I wanted to leave the valley. I was not actively unhappy by any means. My home life was quite as contented and as full as mother and father could provide.
Perhaps, as my father had done and felt before me, the wanderlust was beginning to bubble in my blood and the ache for distant horizons beginning to show in my eyes.
Mother sensed that something was troubling me, and would often ask what worried me so much, but II could never bring myself to confide even in her. I felt that if I confessed to this longing to leave my home town, it would only cause pain, and an upheaval which I was prepared to do anything to avoid. I still took part in school theatrical productions, but I found myself thinking more and more of Miss Lewis's flattering belief that the stage was my vocation.
One warm, tingling morning, I found myself day-dreaming at a desk at the back of the class-room. It was a history lesson. Suddenly, for some reason or other, I looked up and saw for the first time, the face of my teacher. For a moment he was off his guard, and he wore an expression of such resigned futility that a thought struck me almost with the physical effect of a blow: If I continue and become a schoolmaster, I might end up just like that one day! From that moment, however much I might try to disguise it from myself, the future seemed unbearable. I should have to go ...... . I got up and walked out of the room....
This unorthodox exit brought me a private interview with the headmaster. He questioned me keenly and I felt I could talk to him of the things that were on my mind. Alas for my hopes! I was caned soundly and told to apply a little more diligence to my studies. The only effect, I fear, was to make me feel even more determined to leave. That decision, I see now, was unavoidable. I was aching to spread my wings, bent on a new way of life, and now, nothing headmasters or even my own flesh and blood could say would keep me in that corner of South Wales.
The family was splitting up, and I could not bear to be left behind on my own. One by one my elder brothers and sisters departed, first Elwyn, then Howell, then Gwyneth, until only Janie remained-and the day came when she, too, said goodbye and left us to be a nurse in Blackburn Fever Hospital.
Now, as the youngest, it had always fallen to me to play a part in these leave-takings that was at the same time a humble yet indispensable ritual. First of all, I would go to James's, the grocer, in Bettws and borrow a hand-cart. Then I would pile all the luggage on it, wheel the load down and put it on the train. The morning Janie went away, Sam Thomas looked at me thoughtfully and said: "Well, now, my boy, you have wheeled everybody's luggage down to the station, haven't you?" With the tears not very far away, for I knew I should be lonely, I replied: "Yes, Mr. Thomas, there is no one else left now." Sam shook his head. "Ah," he continued. "Now when you leave, you will have to wheel your own luggage to the station, won't you?-and then how will we get the handcart back I wonder?" At which we both laughed, and Sam winked broadly.
Sam knew well enough what was in my mind. How and when I should leave Ammanford behind me I had no idea. 1 only knew that one day my turn would come, and that it could be soon. Indeed, in a few weeks an event occurred that was to affect my whole future, an opportunity quite unsought.
It was the custom of some of the pupils to wait at Ammanford Station every morning to meet the others who came down the valley by the "school train." Then, in gangs, we would wend our way to "The County." One day, there seemed to be an unusual stirring of activity on the platform of Ammanford Station. I looked hard to see what was going on. Two young men-strangers to us-were putting up a portable hut. They were in paint-splashed overalls. One wore a sort of wide-brimmed stetson hat, the other a check cap. Jaunty is the only word to describe the tilt of this striking headgear. There was no doubt about it these strangers had an air. By the look of them, they were both in their early twenties, and as they went briskly about their work, they sang in pleasant harmony. Their voices were quite tuneful, and that was enough to catch the ear of any Welsh schoolboy more they were obviously happy and alert. Everything about them appealed to me, and I made up my mind to find out all about them. They were Londoners, it appeared, the advance guard of a gang of journeymen painters who were going to paint all the stations in the valley. As I talked to them, an idea began to form in my mind. I would ask these men to take me out of the valley, and into the exciting world beyond.
I soon struck up a friendship with them and discovered that their names were Syd Marsh and Walter Redman. Their employers, they told me, were painting contractors from Shipley, Yorkshire. Walter was the one with the Stetson Marsh was dapper and dark, and always wore rather an intense expression. Off duty, he never appeared without a half-belted Melton overcoat and black bowler. They were amazingly confident, and I was impressed by their attractive swagger, a swagger that may once have been assumed, but was now quite a part of them.
I was lucky enough to be able to do a good turn to some f the other painters. They asked me if I could find them some lodgings, for their stay in Ammanford, and in next to no time I had arranged for them to put up with Mrs. Neil, who lived opposite to us in Mill Road. A third man, a handsome, swarthy fellow with a black moustache, was also in their party. His name was Withers, but I was so impressed by his appearance that when, some time later, I got to know all the painters by their respective Christian names, I always hailed him "Mister" Withers. He and the foreman of the gang, Sid Fellowes, were related, and both of them lived in Bath.
As soon as my homework was done, I would race over to Mrs. Neil's house and there literally sit at the feet of these romantic strangers. I never tired of listening to the tales of their wanderings. They would spin wonderful yarns about the various parts of the country they visited, and I was enthralled. Every word they uttered seemed to be a stimulus to the wanderlust that gripped me. When they told me they would be leaving the valley to start on another job at Bordon, near Aldershot, I begged them to find me a job with the gang.
I was then undergoing a period of some emotional stress. After saying good night to my new friends, I would often go for long walks on my own, all the time trying to weigh up the implications of the step I was determined to take. At whatever time I returned, the back door of our house was never locked, and mother would still be awake. She could not rest content until she heard my footsteps and the sound of the door latch being raised. This gave out a very distinctive double click, and as soon as it sounded in the house mother's voice would break the stillness: "Is that you, Donald, bach?" and when I answered, she would reply: "That is good: I can go to sleep now.
Father was busy each night at some meeting or other with the Brethren at the Gospel Hall. He was completely and happily immersed in his religion. Each morning, before leaving for work at six o'clock, he would read a chapter of the Bible. Home again at about three-thirty in the afternoon, he would bath and then, like a true son of Kent, work for a while in his garden. Later, the Bible was taken down again for a while, and then, between seven-thirty and eight o'clock, he would quietly make his way to the Gospel Hall. The family would attend chapel at least twice every Sunday, and much as I loved the old people. This was an environment that seemed too narrow to appeal to me as a setting in which to spend the rest of my life.
Then, in June, 1924, I had a letter from Sid Fellowes to say he had found a job for me.
I left home on the eve of my sixteenth birthday. I slept hardly at all the night before. I was in a mood that had something both of exhilaration and sorrow. Very early on that bright July morning, I stole silently from the house without waking my parents (or were they, I have wondered since, listening all the time?). My heart almost failed me as I heard perhaps for the last time, I told myself not undramatically, the familiar double click of the latch in the back door. There seemed to be something terribly final about that last click.
All my belongings were packed in one of those old-fashioned straw-plaited baskets with a double strap. There was no handcart borrowed from James's, the grocer, for me. I lugged my basket down to the bus stop, and boarded the green Ammanford-Neath bus, a single-decker with solid tyres. From Neath I was to catch a train to take me as far as Reading, where I should have to change for Aldershot.
As I settled myself down in a back seat, it seemed that tiny trip hammers were beating madly inside my ear-drums. Soon I would be right away from this scene and a great adventure would be started. I was suddenly aware that the bus was moving and we jostled along, stopping now and again to pick up or set down passengers. I began to realize that no one Was paying undue attention to me. It was as though the sight of a young boy in his teens rather flushed with an excitement coursing madly in his bloodstream was quite commonplace. I was very glad of the sense of orderliness which seemed to prevail, but as the bus left the summit at Gwaun Cae Gurwen and the Amman Valley dropped behind I felt a tiny bit homesick already ... (continued)
Date this page last updated: September 28, 2010