Archive for the ‘Pastimes and hobbies’ Category

A great revelation in Haden Street

January 12, 2010

Some of the posts in this blog appear because of an email or phone call I sometimes receive which reminds me of an event I’d just about forgotten. It only needs that brief trigger and then I find I can recall the whole event in great detail. Such is the case in this present post. One of the main participants in this event phoned me and reminded me of what happened.

The field of Twmpath School was not much more than a hundred yards from the rear entrance to our house in Wern Terrace. The field was easy to get into because, at several places along the length of the tall railings, some enterprising character had somehow managed to bend two of the railings making it possible for us to squeeze through.

We played all sorts of games in the field. In the summer when the grass remained uncut on the banks of the football pitch we played hide-and-seek, but most of our time was spent on the football pitch playing cricket , soccer or rugby. There was only one drawback with playing on the proper football pitch: whereas we could organise a game of cricket or football in the lane at the rear of our house with just half a dozen or so boys, on the football field we needed at least double that number. So we used to  walk around the streets near Wern Terrace, such as Gwent Street, Haden Street and Brynwern to drum up some extra volunteers for the teams.

When we’d recruited enough players we would all squeeze through the railings into the field and two teams would be picked. Because of the need for extra players on such occasions we often allowed younger boys to play with us and, on this particular occasion, we recruited young Ronnie who lived in Haden Street.

Twmpath football pitch was a rather rough affair with a lot of bare earth on it and stones sticking up. The match progressed well and we were all having fun until disaster struck: young Ronnie fell over and hit the side of his face on a large and rather sharp stone. We crowded around to examine his injury as he screamed and cried. It was a rather severe injury and blood was pouring from it. So much so that we decided to send Ronnie home. As he was quite young we thought it best to send a few other boys with him to see him safely back to his house. One boy from Ronnie’s team and two from the other made things equal, so while the young medics escorted the crying Ronnie back home, the rest of us assured him that we’d let him know the result of the match later. Play was then resumed.

Ronnie lived towards the Twmpath end of Haden Street so the journey to his house was not very far. His three companions tried to calm him down as he yelled blue murder right outside his front door. Because of the pain he was suffering Ronnie continued to yell at the top of his voice for his Mum and bang on the front door. There was no immediate answer but all four could hear muffled shouts from Ronnie’s Mum somewhere inside the house.

Suddenly the door was flung wide open and there stood Ronnie’s Mum – stark naked! She had obviously been having a bath and, hearing Ronnie’s frantic screams, knew he was in some great trouble, so, without even bothering to throw a towel around her, she rushed to the door to see what was the matter. Obviously she thought that it was only Ronnie who was banging on the door.

The three young medics momentarily just stared in utter disbelief at the sight which met their young eyes. Then, they quickly explained to Ronnie’s Mum what had happened and, while young Ronnie was being ushered inside by his Mum, they hastily made their way back to the football match where they, once more, joined in the game.

When it was over they reported that they had escorted Ronnie home successfully but had been rather surprised at the nude vision of Ronnie’s Mum. Someone then remembered that we had promised to let Ronnie know the result of the football match, but there were no volunteers to visit the house with the news. Someone suggested that we let him know the following day when he’d be feeling better. Everyone agreed.

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Drama in Pontypool

March 31, 2009

 

picture-11

You might have seen the recent TV series where the question is asked: “What have we done to our kids?” I suppose the answers to this question are many and varied, but I think one answer we can give is that we have robbed them of their sense of imagination. Today, with TV and excellent computer graphics, we supply them with the pictures; they don’t need to use their own imaginations to create pictures in their minds.

I cut my reading teeth on magazines such as the Wizard, Hotspur etc. which I’ve written about previously. They usually had stories with one graphic incorporated in the title; the rest was reading material, and I remember being shocked later on to discover that some of those magazines had turned into picture strip comics. Now we wonder why one in five seven-year-olds cannot read!

When I was a young boy, I never needed to be called in to tea twice when I knew Uncle Mac would be reading another instalment of the Coot Club in Children’s Hour. I loved those stories by Arthur Ransome and, in my imagination, I witnessed every adventure of the Coot Club on the Norfolk Broads.

Although I think I must have been last in the queue when the acting talent was given out, I always seemed to be one of the children chosen for any play being performed in Town School. It started even in the Infants’ section when I was dragooned into being a herald. I had to stand at the side of the stage and shout out the names of the various characters as they came on stage. I didn’t get an Oscar for my performance but that didn’t stop me being picked as one of the characters in “The Pearl of Great Price” when I was in the Junior section. My enduring memory of that performance was not any of the acting but the action of one of the backstage hands. She was Joan, a girl in my class who was given the task of playing “In a Turkish Market” on a gramophone at a given spot in the performance in order to create an Eastern atmosphere.

The gramophone was one of those old wind-up affairs with a handle on the side. When fully wound it lasted long enough to play a 12 inch record. I was offstage during this part of the performance and was standing in the wings near Joan as she operated the gramophone. Sure enough, right at the appointed time, she wound up the gramophone, put the record on and the Eastern music floated out into Miss Brooks’ classroom. But for some reason I’ve never been able to fathom, Joan decided that, as soon as she’d wound up the gramophone and put the music on, it was also her duty to take the handle out. I saw her starting to struggle with the handle but all to no avail. It stubbornly refused to move. So she decided to turn it the opposite way in order to remove it. Unfortunately this had the effect of unwinding the gramophone, and several seconds later the Eastern music entered a very minor key getting flatter and flatter, and sadder and sadder as she, in desperation tried to remove the handle. The effect of all this was to cause a titter amongst those of us standing in the wings which developed into raucous laughter from the audience, who, fortunately, were mainly sympathetic parents.

At Park Terrace Methodist Sunday School I was invariably required to take part in the annual Nativity Play. For some reason unknown to me, I always seemed to be cast as one of the shepherds. I started off as a shepherd boy but did eventually get promoted to a full-blown adult shepherd when I was older. But I always cast envious eyes on the glamorous wise men in their very colourful costumes. I always wondered why shepherds only wore potato sacks which, as far as I was concerned, definitely lacked both colour and glamour. However, when I was a little older, I did manage to graduate to become a wise man.

My brothers and I had an Aunt Gwen, Uncle John and cousin John Plumley who lived at 13 Club Row up the Tranch. Often on Sunday, after Sunday School, we were invited there to tea. Aunt Gwen always provided generous helpings of food and we loved going there. After tea we went into the front room to play games. Sometimes a young lad named Billy Challoner was also invited to tea and he was very keen on drama. As there was a bay window at the front of the house with curtains to draw across to keep out the draught, Billy would often organise some sort of dramatic performance using the bay window and curtains as the “stage”. He was a real hoot but was so enthusiastic, with a vivid imagination, that we all went along with his dramatic exploits. Often our audience of two were doubled up with uncontrollable laughter. 

Despite my less-than-enthusiastic forays into the world of drama, my friend Eric Smith and I, together with his cousin, Royce Pritchard, decided to let our imaginations run riot and build our own mini-theatre in Eric’s backyard. By using a combination of a clothes horse, a few blankets, a few lengths of wood and some rope we managed to construct two curtains to pull across and a concealed passage across the back of the stage which gave us access to Eric’s kitchen and entry to the far side wings.

We managed to get hold of a small book of dramatic sketches, some of which were humorous, which appealed to us. We persuaded our mothers to let us borrow some clothes to use as costumes. One of the items was a woman’s dress and we bullied Royce into playing this part. Then we needed an audience so we went to call on other boys we knew whom we played with from time to time. We knew they would most certainly not be prepared to part with any cash to see our show so we decided to let them pay in cigarette cards. This display of generosity gave us an audience of five or six.

All went well as we kept the audience interested in our jokes and sketches. Then came the main item, our sketch with Royce playing the part of a woman. It was meant to be funny and when Royce appeared in his dress there were huge guffaws all round. Then came the part when he had to sit on a chair, and the boys in the audience erupted into uncontrollable mirth. Eric and I were rather puzzled by this as it wasn’t meant to be a funny part of the sketch. However, we afterwards discovered that when Royce put on the dress he omitted to wear his underpants.

So I suppose our real claim to dramatic fame was to introduce X certificate drama ten years before the rest of the country.

Pontypool’s Secret Society

March 6, 2009

 

Few people know that, in 1945, there was set up in Pontypool a secret society which operated clandestinely under the name of the “Q.O. Secret Society”. Its meetings were held regularly, well away from the public gaze and its meeting place could only be accessed by using the secret password. The society also published a monthly document which contained details of its operations and also of its finances. The document was passed around and read by members of the society only.

Visitors to this blog will know that, in order to protect national security, cabinet papers and a host of other documents were not released to the public for 30 years after they were written. The Freedom of Information Act subsequently amended this arrangement and anyone can now make an application to all manner of bodies to acquire information under the Act. Therefore, before I get masses of applications from members of the public, Scotland Yard and the Security Services demanding that, after over 50 years of secrecy, I release all I know about the Q.O. Secret Society, I thought I’d better come clean in this post. 

The Q.O. Secret Society was founded in August 1945 by Eric Smith, Elgar Counsell and I and several other boys we knew. Our ages ranged from about 12 to 14 at the time. The original idea of the society was the brainchild of the manufacturers of Quaker Oats – hence the Q.O. bit. Doubtless in an attempt to sell more of their Quaker Oats, the company engaged in a campaign to interest children. You will all have seen the small oval frame on their boxes of oats with the head of the Quaker man inside it. By cutting out these little ovals, all sorts of benefits could accrue such as choosing free toys from their list, or, if not free, then obtainable at a very nominal price. They also published several books: “The Master Book of Secrets”, “Detection and Disguise” and a book on how to run a Q.O. Secret Society.

 picture-1Two of the books published by Quaker Oats Ltd

My brother Garyth, who was four years older than I, really got organised on this matter and went around all the members of our family asking them to save their Quaker Oats ovals for him. They readily obliged and soon he was able to send in an order for no less than eight  model aeroplanes that flew, and they flew well. He kept one himself, gave one to me and shared the rest amongst his friends. The aeroplanes were powered by a wound up elastic band but they stayed up for quite a while and when they ran out of power they glided quite well. One of our favourite places for flying these were up the Tumps – but more of the Tumps and the Tranch in a future post.

At the backs of the books mentioned above were several pages with illustrations of the goods on offer. Here are two of them:

gun-etcGun and disguise outfit advertised in the books

I bought both the above items. The gun could be obtained free for 12 Quaker figures or for 2 Quaker figures and 1/6 (one shilling and six pence). The disguise outfit was 6 Quaker figures or 2 Quaker figures and 6d (sixpence) in stamps. The gun was wonderful. It came with a roll of ammunition which was merely a roll of thin paper. This was led over a hole and when the gun was fired, air was forced through the paper making a hole and a realistic bang. I manufactured my own ammunition by cutting up strips of newspaper of the required size.

Our meeting place was my father’s shed at the rear of our house in School Lane. It was reasonably large so that housing six or eight of us was no problem as long as we didn’t mind the strong smell of stored onions and other garden produce. In the colder weather we lit the valor paraffin oil stove to provide warmth, but it added another ambient smell rather more unpleasant than the onions.

The monthly document I refer to above was our own magazine. Fortunately, my oldest brother, John, when he left West Mon went to work in the chemistry laboratories at County Hall, Newport and was anxious to learn to type which would have been a big help to him; so my father bought a second-hand Imperial typewriter from someone in Griffithstown and, one evening, he and John carried it all the way to Wainfelin. Those old typewriters were very heavy, so it was no mean feat.

I was eleven when the typewriter was purchased, so after three years of practice, I could type reasonably well – with two fingers. This was the reason that I was able to edit and produce just one copy of “The Q.O. Secret Society Magazine”. It consisted of ten 8×10 one-sided pages of very off-white and very thin wartime paper and was passed around from member to member. I still have these magazines and I note that the December Christmas issue was a bumper 25 page effort. This experience sparked off my interest in magazine editing and writing which is something I’ve been doing ever since in an honorary capacity.

The contents of the magazine were very varied and members were asked to contribute as they were able. There was some information about the society itself and also things like a crossword puzzle, jokes, poems written by members, a science section, competitions,general knowledge items and even a serial story. It also carried some adverts where members were able to advertise for sale things like model aircraft kits etc.

The Christmas number, unlike the other issues, also contained illustrations. Eric and I were very keen at that time on pen and ink drawing and below are a few of our original works which were used. When Eric sees these I hope he won’t be too embarrassed. I am!

christmas-greetingsEric’s Christmas greetings to all members.
The verse is part of the hymn, “Now the day is over”. 

autumnMy rendering of autumn. I think I can claim to have improved since doing this.

camelEric’s rendering of “The Mysterious East”.

Also in the Christmas number was our balance sheet after five months in operation. Our total income was £1:4:0 (one pound four shillings), our expenditure was 8/- (eight shillings) leaving a balance in hand of 16/- (sixteen shillings). This was most pleasing and meant we’d been running on just one-third of our income. What financial skill! If the Chancellor of the Exchequer needs someone to sort out the current financial crisis, we might possibly be persuaded to help. But, naturally we’d expect a fee of at least £5:7:6. Now – what’s that in this new fangled money?

The games we used to play in Pontypool

February 2, 2009

 

Despite all the doom and gloom preached today about global warming, the warmest decade in living memory was the 1930s. This accords with my memories of my early childhood, the Town School days.

We spent most of our time outdoors when the weather was fine, most of it playing games. Naturally we played cricket , rugby and soccer whenever possible but that meant rounding up a good number of friends and having some basic equipment. Some of this we had to make ourselves, so that a rugby ball was often a tightly rolled up newspaper tied around with string; and goal posts, and quite often stumps, were our coats placed on the ground.

It was quite possible to play cricket and football in the main street at the front of the houses because very little traffic came along the road; just the odd car and from time to time the baker’s van or the horse and cart of the salt and vinegar man. French cricket was somewhat easier to play as all we needed was a bat and a soft ball. The idea was to hit the legs of the batsman not a wicket, and you could get as close as you liked, but must not move once you had retrieved the ball; even just three could play this game.

Quite often I would play games with my friend Eric Smith and perhaps one or two other boys; that meant playing games for small numbers. Here are some of the games which were our favourites:

boys-play-marblesboys playing marbles

Marbles  There were various versions of this game. We played with both colourful glass marbles, sometimes referred to as allies (pronounced arleez), and also the smaller dull brown clay marbles. The back lane behind Wern Terrace was made of a mixture of earth and ashes so it was quite easy to draw a circle on it with a sharp stick. Each of us would place two or three clay marbles in the circle and then shoot at them from a marked line with our glass marbles. The idea was to knock the clay marbles out of the circle; we kept all we knocked out. When the last marble was won the game was over and we started another. Before we started to play we decided whether we would play “keepsies” or not. If we did, then all the marbles won could be kept. If we did not play “keepsies” then after all the games each person had his own marbles returned.

There were certain cries which were shouted out. When we decided to play, one of us might shout “largall” which meant they would shoot last. There were other cries also: if another player was quite near to your marble, you could shout “Knuckle down” which meant the shooter had to point his knuckles at the ground making a hit much more difficult. The most tongue-twisting cry I can remember was “knuckledowninbarfullock”. I’m sure it meant something but I can’t remember what.

Another version of marbles was “following taws” and was quite often played along a gutter. This was usually played between two boys. The first player would shoot his marble and the second would then try to hit it with his marble. If he scored a hit he kept the marble. If not it would be the turn of the other boy to shoot. Sometimes it would take quite a while before a marble was hit; as you can imagine there were all sorts of obstacles in the gutter to hinder a shot such as stones, patches of earth, cigarette ends and spent matches.

Jackstones  This was one of my favourite games and could be played indoors or out and on almost any surface. It was played with five smooth stones or pebbles about three-quarters of an inch in length and one hand. First, all five stones were thrown in the air and we had to catch as many as possible on the back of our throwing hand. If we only caught one we had to start in “onesies” which meant throwing all five stones in a rough circle, and then throwing one stone in the air, picking up one stone and catching the other before it dropped to the ground. “Twosies” meant we had to pick up two stones at a time before catching the other. Then we progressed to three and four stones. If we made a mistake in any of this then we had to start again from the beginning. If you caught two stones on the back of your hand you started at “twosies”, and so on.

If all this was done successfully we progressed to “dappers” when we had to take all five stones in our hand, throw one stone in the air, dap the others on the ground and catch the thrown stone before it reached the ground. The stone was then set aside so that we next did it with three stones, then two and so on. Again, any mistake meant we had to start dappers all over again.

If we went through all this without a single mistake we claimed one game and could immediately start another. The one with the most games was the winner.

Cigarette cards  In those days every boy had a collection of cigarette cards. There were all sorts of cigarettes sold, from the humble Woodbine to the more upper class Players. Most of the packets contained a cigarette card, and fathers, uncles and other relatives were always willing to hand them over to us. Often, when playing in the main street, we would ask any passing men whether they had any cigarette cards to give to us. They would sometimes take out their packet and remove the card for us, but sometimes, if we struck lucky, we might ask someone who had six or eight cards in his pocket; that would be a great occasion.

Each make of cigarette had cards with a theme such as cricketers, footballers, flowers, animals of all sorts and, during the war we had a set on ARP precautions. Some of these cards now, in good condition, are very valuable, particularly if you have the complete set. You sometimes see them framed for hanging on the wall.

The game with cigarette cards was almost always played indoors. We knelt down on the floor some six or eight feet away from a wall and took it in turns flicking a cigarette card towards the wall. The card was held between the index and middle fingers and, with a sharp flick of the wrist, the card travelled several feet. The idea was to flick a card on top of another one or possibly more than one. All the cards that were covered, even partially covered, in this way were then kept by the person doing the flicking. When only one person was left with any cards, the game was over. Of course, before we started, we would decide whether to play “keepsies” or not. We would never risk our rarer cards in a game which we might lose.

On occasions we might use a pack of playing cards for the game but that was definitely not for “keepsies”.

Conkers  This was a seasonal game in the main as it depended on a good supply of conkers – generally gleaned from the park. I understand that, today, children playing in school are required to wear protective goggles. We didn’t have any such mamby-pamby nonsense when we played, and from time to time we did get the odd few bruises. If the two conker strings became intertwined, the first to shout “strings” had the next swing. We sometimes hardened our conkers by heating them in an oven so that they wouldn’t break so easily but this was a practice frowned upon by some.

Pellet shooting  This was one of the minor games. A rectangular piece of paper was folded over and over until it was about an inch or so long and a quarter of an inch wide. This was then folded in two. A wide elastic band was then held between the index finger and thumb and the pellet fitted across the elastic band. The two ends were pulled back to stretch the band and then suddenly released projecting the pellet forward at a target. The target might be anything from a toy soldier to an old tin can.

Cowboys and Indians  This was a game invariably played out of doors. Some sort of cowboy costume was almost mandatory and we always wore at least a hat, gun belt and revolver over our normal clothes. There were some very convincing cap guns on sale and the little red explosive caps were very cheap; a box of 100 usually cost no more than a penny or two. Thus armed, we set out to slaughter masses of Indians. It was always difficult to persuade anyone to be an Indian as they invariably lost the fight and were killed off in large numbers. A latecomer wanting to play with us was often dragooned into being an Indian, otherwise we all took our turn at being shot.

Three other games which we dallied with in a minor way were rounders, hopscotch and skipping but we tended to regard these as girls’ games. Consequently, as far as we were concerned it was almost infra dig to indulge in this sort of thing; but for some reason there were always a few girls who wanted to join in our games but were pretty hopeless at cricket and football. They didn’t possess any cigarette cards or marbles but occasionally we did press them into service as Indians. As a result we found we had to play some of their games, mainly skipping and hopscotch. Girls seemed to play these for hours on end so were very skilled at them. We boys were more or less learners so after a few turns with the skipping rope, while the girls did the chanting of the rhymes, and a few games of hopscotch, we usually returned to our more favoured pastimes.

Patricia M. Spacks, in her book “Boredom: the literary history of a state of mind” points out that the word “boredom” did not exist in the English language until 1750. So many young children today complain that they are bored despite the fact of having a huge number of games, electronic and others; but I can honestly say that I cannot remember a single instance of me, or any of my friends, saying that we were bored. Perhaps the reason is that we never had much in the way of ready-made games; we had to make our own. It could be that the manufacture led to greater enjoyment.

World War II shipbuilders of Pontypool

January 9, 2009

It’s not widely known that, during World War II, two fleets of ships were built in Pontypool: aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines. It is also not widely known that one fleet was built by my friend, Eric Smith, and the other was built by me. We were about twelve years of age at the time.

We were both keen fretworkers and avid readers of “Hobbies Weekly” a magazine which encouraged that and other crafts and which we bought most weeks. Unfortunately, because of the shortage of paper during the war, the magazine shrank in size until it was an extremely thin publication indeed. But, from time to time, they issued their blueprints for various aspects of fretwork and Eric and I were both thrilled when one copy advertised plans for a fleet of model ships. We had both bought fretsaws and small fretwork tables which were designed to be clamped to the edge of a suitable table.

We’d seen some earlier pre-war copies of “Hobbies Weekly” and at that time small strips of neatly planed wood in various lengths and thicknesses could be bought, but, during the war, such luxuries disappeared and we were reduced to haunting the fruit shops of Pontypool looking for suitable apple or orange boxes which we could generally buy for sixpence each. That was rather expensive, but a whole box would supply enough wood for several ships; the only trouble with it was that it was not planed wood but was quite rough so a lot of hard work with sandpaper was required before we could use it. Still, it was all part of the fun.

We both spent many hours on dark evenings cutting out the many small pieces and gluing them together with Croid glue which was a very strong and effective glue for wood. Then we would paint the ships grey, eventually ending up with a splendid fleet each which we used to stage imaginary battles. They also served as targets for bombing raids by our Dinkey Toy aircraft.

 

When we were about fifteen we became more ambitious and decided to build a real boat that we planned to sail on the fishponds just off the Crumlin Road. We decided to construct a six foot, twin-hulled catamaran. As we had a reasonably large shed at the rear of Garfield, we decided that the shipyard would be there as it was possible to keep the partly built vessel inside the shed until its completion.

Of course, whereas one apple or orange box would supply enough wood for several model ships, we realized that, for the catamaran, we’d need a number of boxes together with a large number of nails and a good supply of putty. We finally decided on our design: both hulls would be made from fruit boxes and the deck would be an opened out tea-chest.

For weeks, whenever the weather gave us the opportunity to work outside, we worked on our project and eventually we’d completed one of the hulls. We discovered that, because of the small knot holes etc. the amount of putty needed was considerable. At the end of the project we’d used about five pounds of it. Having made one hull, we’d honed our skills and the second one was completed much quicker. Then came the grand moment when we opened out our tea-chest and fixed it to the hulls to form the deck of the catamaran. Our craft was assembled and we stood back admiring our handiwork with considerable pride.

Admittedly our humble craft lacked the finesse and skill of true shipbuilders; Cammell Laird and Swan Hunter might not have given us the time of day, and it has to be admitted that our boat had numerous cracks filled with putty and a general outline that could hardly be described as sleek but we were reasonably satisfied with our efforts. We thought that a final sandpapering would make it ready for painting. We also decided that the best way to paint it would be to stand it on one end so that we could get at all parts except the ends of the two hulls. We gave it an initial coat of undercoat and, when that was dry, we turned the craft upside down to paint the unpainted ends. The quality of the paint during the war was not exceptional but it seemed to do the trick. When it was dry we hauled the boat into the shed to allow the paint to harden before applying the final coat of gloss. Being by that time all in one piece, the catamaran was quite a heavy object but we finally managed to get it inside the shed.

Then came the grand day when we took it out again for its final coat of paint prior to its launch on the fishponds. The day was fine and sunny so, once again we stood our boat on end on the concrete path outside the shed. Eric and I each had a pot of paint and a brush and we decided to paint the underside of the boat first. When this was completed we both came around to the top of the deck and continued to paint starting at the top of both hulls. That was a great mistake! As we both pressed our brushes onto the hulls to put on the paint we pressed a little too hard and the whole thing toppled away from us and right over onto the concrete. There was a terrible crash as the full weight of the boat hit the concrete; both hulls cracked into pieces from stem to stern and bits of dry putty shot out all over the place. Our beloved catamaran was a complete wreck! Having pots of paint and brushes in our hands were were completely helpless to stop the accident happening.

My mother, who had been working in the kitchen only a few yards away, heard the crash and came running to the door to see what had happened. We must have looked a disconsolate pair surveying the wreck of our catamaran like New Yorkers gazing at the collapsed Twin Towers. As a craft to sail on it was now absolutely useless. 

My mother sympathized with us but seemed to recover rather quickly offering, almost instantly, to buy the boat from us for firewood. We realized that any attempt at repair was quite out of the question so we accepted her kind offer. I remember her telling me some time later, after we’d got over the sad affair, that she was never more relieved than when she saw the catamaran in pieces. She was terrified that, if we’d tried to sail on it we’d have been drowned. In retrospect I think she was probably right. Launching from the bank of the fishpond would have been a great thrill but when we got to the middle of the pond we might well have found that both hulls were taking on water, and returning to the bank might have been difficult. We later learned that Eric’s mother had similar thoughts to my mother’s.

We’d never considered a name for our catamaran, but, as things turned out, I suppose Hesperus wouldn’t have been a bad one.

Climbing the mountain with the help of Watkins the tinsmith

December 7, 2008

 

One day, as I was playing inside my house at 7 Wern Terrace, I heard a rather peculiar clanking sound in the distance. At first I took very little notice but, gradually, it grew louder and louder until, eventually, it sounded like a dreadful racket right outside our front door. I decided to have a look outside to see what was causing all the noise.

As I opened the door I saw one of the most bizzare sights I’d seen up to then. I recognised the person of Mr Watkins the tinsmith walking down the street and, all around his person, were tied an assortment of his tinsmith wares: buckets, all sorts of cans, jugs and other items all made of shiny tin sheet, probably from the tin sheets produced at Pontnewynydd Town Forge. You can imagine the din he made with every step he took.

Mr Watkins the tinsmith had his house and workshop on the Bell Pitch roughly opposite Franketti’s chip shop. Every day when we walked up and down the Bell Pitch on the way to and from school we passed his house and, invariably, there would be an assortment of his products hanging outside around his front door.

When we were a little older, Eric Smith, Elgar Counsell, Royce Pritchard and I used to go on long walks down Twmpath Road, along the Crumlin Road and up the Glyn Mountain. It was quite a steep climb but held a lot of interest for us young lads as there were all sorts of abandoned rusty corrugated sheds to explore and the old railway line to walk along.

crumlin-rd-fishponds-from-glyn-mt-copyMy photograph of the Crumlin Road and fishponds from our favourite ledge on the Glyn mountain

At the foot of the mountain was a large black pipe protruding from the bank. Fresh, clear water always poured out of it and we frequently stopped for a drink. Common knowledge in the area ranked the water as pure enough to drink; I imagine this would be quite true as it must have drained through many layers of the mountain on the way down to the outlet pipe. It would be our last drink before we returned down the mountain on the way home.

We usually took the same routes up and down and, gradually we became well acquainted with every footpath, rock, ledge and pond. We also used to stay longer on our excursions, sometimes almost all day; it was generally hunger that drove us back home. At the very top of the Glyn was a wood of dead grey trees. Many of their branches had fallen off and were lying on the stony ground, so we often gathered these together with some dry grass and lit a fire. Then we came up with the bright idea of making soup on the fire so we could have something to eat and stay even longer. But there was just one problem: there was no water at the top of the mountain.

pontypool-from-ledge-on-glyn-mt-copyPhotograph of Pontypool from the same ledge

It therefore dawned on us that we would need to carry a supply of water up to the top of the mountain together with something to boil the soup in, plates, spoons, a knife and the various ingredients for the soup. We managed to borrow a large boiler with a handle and we borrowed the other utensils from home. It was the water which proved awkward. Therefore a few of us paid a visit to Mr Watkins’ house one day to ask whether he could supply us with a churn to carry the water. He said he could and that the price would be three shillings. We placed our order and then had to save up our pocket money for several weeks to raise such a large sum to pay for it, but we did it and then came the great day when we completed our transaction and emerged from Watkins the tinsmith’s house proudly bearing our shiny new three gallon churn.

There were about eight of us who joined in the excursion and we each cadged a few vegetables from home to make the soup; we decided that an oxo would suffice instead of meat. When we arrived at the water pipe we filled the churn with water only to find that it was far too heavy to carry it full right to the top of the mountain so we about half filled it. We took it in turns to carry the heavy churn and the other necessary items right to the top where we emerged triumphant but tired and out of breath.

Then we collected the firewood, built a circle of stones on which to rest the boiler, and lit our fire. We eventually managed to peel the vegetables, cut them up with rather grubby hands and threw them, some salt and the oxo into the boiler. There was no top on the boiler so a few bits of fern and wood ash were added to the brew in the stiff breeze which always seemed to blow at the top of the mountain. We felt the pangs of starvation while we patiently waited for the soup to boil, but it eventually responded positively to our frequent sampling and we shared out the soup equally amongst us. As we were all ravenously hungry by that time, it tasted like nectar to us all.

After running around, climbing the trees and exploring the very deep crevices in the mountain down which we dropped many stones to see how deep they were, we finally faced the rather unpleasant job of washing up, poured the remaining water on the fire to make certain it was out and then started on our journey down the mountain and home. We considered the expedition a great success and planned to repeat it whenever we could in the future. News of it spread amongst our friends so our merry band of explorers grew as the weeks went by.

Pontypool park for fun, frolics and fairs

October 11, 2008

Putting green, Pontypool park 1948

 

My house is a split-level with the lounge and kitchen upstairs and the bedrooms downstairs. The lounge has a huge picture window occupying most of the wall and it looks over to Caerleon and right up the Usk Valley to Grey Hill and Wentwood beyond; it’s a magnificent sight at all times of the year as the seasons unfold. The first thing everyone does – friends family or workmen – when they enter the lounge for the first time is to go over to the window and say “Wow! What a view!”

I’ve been living in the house for well over forty years, and yet I never take the view for granted; I continually appreciate it. And so it was when I lived in Pontypool. We had a magnificent park of 150 acres which we were able to visit freely  during the hours it was open and at any time of the year and we really did appreciate it. When I was old enough to venture that far on my own, I would go down, with a group of friends, and stay there for hours.

It had everything a group of young lads could ask for: a playground with a variety of machines to play on, acres and acres of green grass to run about on or kick or bowl a ball, hiils to climb, conkers to find, horse-chestnuts to eat, a pond and a stream to look for fish, build dams and get wet feet and acres of bushes near the river to chase about and hide in. When we became teenagers we could also play tennis and even bowls. What more could we ask for?

Then, of course, there were the special events, usually held on bank holidays. On those occasions the Pontypool Council was allowed to close the park and charge admission to enter. One such occasion was when the annual carnival took place. The long procession of entrants and floats wound its way through the town and ended up in the park where the judging took place and the winners were announced. I knew a boy, named Cecil Cleary, who lived in Hayden Street at the back of our house; he was about my age and every year his mother would dress him up as a red indian by using red floor polish. With his head-dress and indian clothes on he really did look the part and won first prize in his section for a number of years. I remember his mother once saying that she had to boil water for three baths in order to wash off the floor polish; there were no hot taps then, hot water had to be heated in a copper boiler or a kettle.

The sports were also great fun and we spent hours sitting on the bank watching the competitors running, jumping etc. And, naturally, there were all sorts of ice-cream vendors and pop suppliers about if we had any money to buy their wares. I remember one year there was a display by a team of Russian Cossacks. I was mightily impressed by their riding skill and daring deeds jumping on and off horses while they were moving and jumping from one side of the horse to the other and back again etc. I found it all so exciting.

The schools also made use of the park. Mr Petty, in the warm summer weather, would sometimes take a large group of boys down the park to play cricket. We only possessed six stumps, two bats and a cork ball, but we managed. I remember the challenge of one boy to Mr Petty: “How about a penny on the middle wicket sir?” He sportingly obliged by putting on the penny. The first bowler to hit the penny off the stumps kept it.

The Sunday Schools also found the park a great boon. At Whitsun, Park Terrace Methodist Sunday School usually went down there for their party. Tables and chairs were taken down, together with a supply of jelly, blanc-mange and slab cake all washed down with tea drunk from a blue and white tin mug. Then would follow the sports, usually the running of various distances according to age, and also novelties like three-legged races, the winners receiving tuppence or so as their prize.

Dante’s Fun Fair, Pontypool park, 1948

There was one event in the year which lasted for about a week; that was the visit of the Dante’s Fun Fair. We all looked forward to this and saved up a few pennies to use during its stay. We loved rolling our pennies down the chutes, trying our skill at darts and air-gun shooting and, when we could afford it, having a drive on the dodgems; how we loved chasing our friends! If the summer was particularly wet at fair time the turf would invariably get pitted and muddy with all the walking on it and complaints usually followed at the state of the ground when the fair had left. Sometimes there would be angry letters in the Free Press saying that the visit of the fair should be stopped.


Tennis courts, Pontypool park, 1948

When I was an older teenager at West Mon School I’d often visit the park with a friend or two to play tennis, or sometimes a more leisurely round of putting. It was quite inexpensive so that we often had a small sum left to enjoy an ice-cream drink in the Italian cafe near the library. With today’s enhanced facilities at the Trosnant end of the park teenagers are able to enjoy their drinks in the restaurant.

Over the years I suppose the park has given great pleasure to millions of people from Pontypool and its environs. May it long continue to do so.

Going to the pictures in Pontypool

September 13, 2008

My friend, Eric Smith, who lived next door, had a sister who was considerably older than he was. Like many other young girls, she was a picturegoing fan, and I remember she regularly took the “Picturegoer” magazine which I used to have a peep at when I was in Eric’s house. Cinemagoing in those televisionless days was a much more important affair than it is today. As the title of the above magazine suggests, “going to the pictures” was the term used rather than “going to the cinema”.

There were three cinemas in or near Pontypool:  the Park Cinema, so called presumably because of its proximity to the park, the Royal Cinema in George Street but with another entrance on Osborne Road, and the Pavilion in Pontnewynydd.

We regarded the Park Cinema as the most modern of the three. It had quite a steep flight of steps leading up into the foyer which gave it a light and airy look. The films shown in this cinema tended to be the more modern and famous ones.

The Royal Cinema, popularly known as “Pitts” for some reason unknown to me, was much older and had a neglected look about it. Apart from the usual seats in the body of the cinema, there was a flight of steps on the right hand side quite near to the screen. They didn’t lead anywhere and were used for sitting on if you didn’t mind the discomfort of a hard wooden seat. During the cheap matinee performances for children on a Saturday morning there always seemed to be a great crowd of 20 or so “rough kids” on the steps who loved making a lot of noise. They were constantly being told to keep quiet by the usherettes as they shone their torches on them. The films here tended to be older, and generally there were two shows: Monday to Wednesday and Thursday to Saturday. They also went in for serials – short episodes of about 15 minutes with stories about Flash Gordon and other heroes.

Flash Gordon, played by Buster Crabb, was one of my boyhood heroes. He was so noble and correct, and you can’t criticise anyone whose main aim is to save planet earth, can you? On the other hand “Ming the Merciless” was a dastardly villain who was invariably in the wrong. I lived on planet earth and this guy was intent on destroying it! Ming was played by Charles Middleton, who, probably in real life was a nice guy who gave cookies to kids. Beatrice Roberts was quite an eyeful so I was able to put up with her.

This is a screen shot from “Ming the Merciless” 1938

The Pavilion was also used as a theatre and occasionally put on shows. I remember seeing The Great Levant, a famous conjuror, there and also a pantomime. But mostly it showed films. It was a cheerful sort of place and had an illuminated fan sign across the front of the cinema which often could be seen from some distance.

I clearly remember some of the films I saw at these cinemas; they stand out in my memory for a variety of reasons. I remember the first time I was taken to the cinema with the rest of my family to the Park Cinema. I suppose there must have been some other films on show, but the one I remember was a short cartoon called “The Peculiar Penguins”. Later, in 1938, I recall being taken by my mother to see “Snow White” which became a Walt Disney classic. When I was about 16 I went to see the comedian Sid Field in “London Town”. It also starred Petula Clark as a young girl, and in this film Kay Kendall made her debut. It was slated by the critics but I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it was great even to the extent of buying some of the sheet music to play on the piano.

I don’t remember seeing any famous films in “Pitts”. I don’t think they showed any but I clearly remember going there many times to see the adventures of Tarzan, a variety of cowboy films such as “The Rustlers of Red Dog Creek”, and many episodes of Flash Gordon.

I saw several memorable films at the Pavilion. One was “The Great Dictator” in the early years of the war. It starred Charlie Chaplain as Hitler and was a satire of Nazi Germany. It was a great boost to our morale at that time and was nominated for five Oscars. Roughly about the same time, I saw “The Rains Came”, starring Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power. It won an Oscar and featured plague, earthquake and flooding. I clearly recall the last film I saw at the Pavilion in 1947; it was “The Brothers” starring Patricia Roc and John Laurie. It was about a long and murderous grudge between two clans in the Western Isles of Scotland.

The only form of home entertainment at that time was, of course, the “wireless” which provided a good mixture of light entertainment such as “ITMA” with Tommy Handley and also “Music Hall” on a Monday evening. About teatime there was always Children’s Hour, a well run programme especially for us kids. We loved it and I still recall how well Uncle Mac read stories to us, such as  “Swallows and Amazons” and other books by Arthur Ransome and others. There was also a variety of music and the Saturday evening play. But there was no television, so going to the “pictures” as we usually termed it, was very popular. There were often quite long queues outside the cinemas particularly if they were showing a popular film for the first time. They were continuous performances which meant that, once you had managed to get in, you could watch the film through a second time if you so wished. If every seat was taken the usherette would often go along the queue saying that it was “standing room only” for anyone who wanted it. This meant standing right at the back and making a dive for any seat which became vacant.

Some keen picturegoers in Pontypool liked to see all the new films as they were shown which could mean sometimes going to the pictures three times in a week; in a way it became their hobby and to some an exercise in “oneupmanship” to be able to tell your friends that you had seen a film before they had. Picturegoing was an integral part of our lives and it certainly helped to keep up morale during the war.

Comics, magazines and other literature

June 29, 2008

Having two older brothers, there was always a plentiful supply of boys’ books and literature available for me to look at, apart from our weekly comic the Tip Top which cost 1d every week. I took to reading, like a duck to water, at a very early age, so I was able to read the speech balloons quite easily. Rupert Bear annuals were favourites of mine and had an atmosphere all their own. In recent years I’ve been reading them to my grandchildren.

The boys’ magazines were only a short step further and soon I was avidly devouring the Wizard, Hotspur, Adventure and Rover. My favourite was the Wizard and I marvelled at some of the superhuman heroes enclosed in its pages.  For some strange reason these magazines were often referred to by us as “books” and I was often asked, “Got any books to swap?” I remember we kept a cardboard box about two inches deep which was usually full of comics we’d read and were ready for swapping.

My father took a daily paper The Daily Mail in which appeared, on 5th April 1915, the first ever strip cartoon in this country, Teddy Tail which, as it was still being published then,  I always enjoyed reading. My father also took The People on a Sunday though at that time it was a much more serious paper and less trashy than it is today.

The weekly magazine we took was “John Bull“, a well-produced magazine with a variety of thoughtful articles and plenty of pictures. Later in its existence it produced some striking and colourful artwork on its cover. They were always offering competitions and coupons to collect for bargain offers. I remember my father winning a large Christmas hamper one year which was a most welcome addition to our Christmas fare. With his collected coupons he bought – at a bargain price of course – several sets of books and encyclopaedias; these included the works of Charles Dickens, H.G.Wells and Bernard Shaw. I remember spending many happy hours leafing through the twelve encyclopaedias and particularly the section for children in each entitled Things to make and do.

Having all this literature available was a great boon and I suppose laid the foundations for my love of the English language and literature which has played such an important part in my life ever since. I am a member of the Queen’s English Society and The Folio Book Club which produces some high class books well printed and bound. Apart from the bathroom, there are books in every room in the house.

Arriving in Pontypool

June 11, 2008

One of my favourite comic characters, Popeye the Sailorman, made his entry into the world the same year as I did – 1929; but there was a difference: he became famous and I didn’t. Other famous people born the same year were Audrey Hepburn, James Last, Martin Luther King and Anne Frank. It was the year that television was first demonstrated by Bell Laboratories in New York, but a practical system was said to be a long way off. In London the first 22 public telephone boxes came into use, and, importantly, the England cricket team retained the Ashes.

I was born at 7 Wern Terrace, High Street and was to live there for my first seven years. About 18 months later another baby boy was born next door at number 8. He was Eric Smith and became my best friend throughout our school days. He too was the youngest member of his family, having an older sister, Mary. Both being regarded as “too young” to play with our older siblings, we always played together and with other same-age friends either in one of the houses or gardens of numbers 7 and 8. Soon we were allowed to play in the lane at the back of Wern Terrace and it was there that we played cricket, football, rode our three-wheeler bikes and spent many happy hours slaughtering hoardes of red indians with our cap guns.

My eldest brother, John, was born six years earlier and went to the nearest school, Pontypool Town School, where my other brother, Garyth, soon followed. The new Park Terrace School had not been built at that time. Naturally, I also went to Town School.

It was a very old Church of England School and I clearly remember the centenary celebrations in 1938 when I attended the junior section of the school. I started in the infants section rather earlier than I should have because an aunt of mine did some pupil teaching there and I think she was able to pull a few strings. Pupil teaching was an allowed arrangement for the benefit of young people who wanted to become teachers and were thinking of going to a teacher training college; they did a bit of practice in a school before doing so.

The infants section had two rooms. The first class (usually known as “reception” these days) was a room on its own. It was in this class that I remember we used “slates”. Actually they were not like the original slates which were pieces of slate used for writing on. These were made of thin wood painted black and with a frame around them. We practised writing on these with chalk and used small pieces of wet cloth for erasing.

Photograph of the staff at the Infants’ School
From left to right: Miss Hughes (my aunt), Miss Williams, Miss Long and Miss Rees

In the corner of the classroom was a rocking horse which we were allowed to ride on from time to time. It always struck me as huge but, having seen photographs of it since, it wasn’t all that large.

David on rocking horsePhotograph of me on the rocking horse. I can’t remember the
name of the other boy.  Any ideas?

3 on rocking horseTwo classmate have joined me in this photograph. I’d love
to know who they are. They’ll be well over 80 now!

There were various theories and experiments carried out in schools even in those days (we seem to delight in using children as guinea pigs) and I remember that it was considered a good idea for all children in the first class of infants schools to have a nap in the afternoon. As a result of this we were all supplied with camp beds and had to lie on them for about half an hour. We were told that we had to go to sleep but I can never remember doing so.

Classes two and three were in the next room. It was very large and was divided down the middle by a large heavy green curtain. Things became rather more exciting in there and I remember having to copy the drawings of objects from a large flip-chart, each object related to a letter of the alphabet – “A for apple” etc. I really loved doing that and we had to repeat it time and time again.

In the third class we had a percussion band with bells, triangles, tambourines and drums. Wow! Fortunately I was chosen to be a drummer and I loved it. You could make such a glorious noise with a drum. Unfortunately, when I was absent for a short while due to illness, someone else was chosen as drummer in my place and I was reduced to a triangle player. I was devastated!

Infants' percussion band

Our percussion band resplendent in hats.
I think I remember some names from left to right.
Back row: yours truly, Ronnie ?,  Glyn “Mickey” Morgan,
Kenny Rice, John Evans?, Ray Hurcombe.
Girls, L to R: Myra ?, Enid ?, Beryl ?,
5th from left I think is Jane Grey.
I’d love to hear from any of these who recognise themselves.