A WELSH EYE
By GWYN THOMAS
ETWEEN Porth and Trebanog lies my village, 1.3 Cymmer. My life between two and ten years of age wore itself wild and bandy-legged on that fierce and fascinating slope. You'll pardon my harping on this question of gradients, but the lack of flatness between Porth and Trebanog was a thematic thing in our lives. Before the buses Came there were elderly people by the score rusted down by habit or rheumatism who stuck to their kitchens and never ventured from Trebanog or Upper Cymmer down into Porth. The walk down was one thing but it was not always easy to recruit somebody to push you back Up a gradient of two in three, and the rickshaw service, with so much time given over to digging and singing, was patchy.
The day the bus service started up through Cymmer and Trebanog and Tonyrefail was an occasion of ex- citement and meaning. We children had turned out as if for some climac- tic summer treat, dressed in our best and in a vocal trim to blow the bus Up that mortal phase 'of the slope If the wheels, for some reason or another, vanished in Lower Tre- banog. They had mobilised some Of the saddest and least active of the elderly population, and they were in- stalled in the bus for the pioneer trip. The first journeyers to the moon Will look no tenser than that little Phalanx of adventurers. The bus !oared into action. We ran as a body !lust behind it, singing for joy, touch- ing the glossy red paint and getting drunk in the petrol fumes.
A fussy councillor, regretting the calm of the horse age, kept shouting, 'Back Children, back. It may slip. This is a juggernaut.' As we chugged through mid-Cymmer, and we had now switched from singing to mimicking per- fectly the bus's every noise, a woman, whose Voice had once been a golden legend in the lower Rhondda, leaned out of the bus to a point where She could have kissed the pavement and had two panicky passengers hanging on to each leg. She bawled to some relations and friends, 'Wave to me. I'm in a bus.' And no one had ever stood a better chance of suddenly not being so.
But gaiety turned to something like terror when the machine approached the foot of Farmer's Hill. The engine coughed and snorted as if it Were trying to get out and walk. A local sage, Waldo Aberystwyth, gave the driver a most dis- tracting tap and asked him if Rolls and Ford had been told of this particular gradient up to Trebanog before exposing humanity to this non- sense of internal combustion.
To the left of the hill's peak is the field where the Rugby team recruited from Cymmer and Trebanog used to play. It was the least level Pitch in Christendom. Those who survived it got a diploma from Darwin. It was the only It.tigby field where the players were allowed to dip their bits of lemon in adrenalin while sitting in an oxygen tent at half-time, and the referee Was allowed to call in a relative or use a motor horn if he lacked the breath to make the pea move
inside the metal. The Trebanog and Cymmer boys mastered the slope. They were badly de- feated but once and then the victors were found to have two Sherpas on the wing on loan from Tibet.
Most of the houses in Cymmer are of the traditional cottage type endemic in our mining villages. They were built in blocks of forty to fifty, each block large enough to evolve a per- sonality, a culture, a pattern of star g and scars, all its own. In many of them the structure was flimsy to the point of being flippant. Start ham- mering in the top house and somebody was hanging on to the looser fittings in the bottom one.
How tiny and inadequate most of the houses look now. Like units in a game of blocks in a House of Correction. Take our kitchen. To the eye of childhood it had the size of the Albert Hall and the converging tumults of Crewe. We were not content to be a large number of brothers. We had a phalanx of friends who loved my sister's cooking. On a good day it was like an overflow meeting from Doctor Barnardo's. Today its walls are about an inch away from my shoulders and the loud bustling cormorants have fled.
But the eye returning to this place sees most acutely the things, the great meaningful things that the years have led into silence. The rubbery, flaming-eyed band of tireless young yahoos with whom I romped through High Street, Graigwen, Lincoln and Argyll Streets, have gone and their games have been replaced by antics which I do not at once recognise as play. The huge colliery in the middle of the village, its rich, sinister heart, finished work in the late Thirties. Just behind our house was the vast tip built up from the endless honeycombing of pitwork beneath us. The rattle of trams up and down the tip, through the day and notably through the night, clad each of our dreams in a cloak of sharp and cruel omens..
When we played on the tip it was jet-black, proud and growing. The engine-house at its top, which played out the hauling cable, was full of wheels that sang wonderful velvet, greasy songs. In those .days we did not notice the tip's colour, its blasphemous lack of green. The young are great acceptors and the tip, like the pit, was the centre of our world. But grass of a sort grows over it now, a dim, grudging grass over the dramatic undulations, like a landscape of the moon. The old tracks of the tramlines down its flank are a contracting, sardonic furrow. The engine-house is now an empty shell upon its eminence. The winds blow through it and the ferns creep back into their old kingdom.
We had no cinema in Cymmer itself. Our place of pilgrimage on a Saturday afternoon was The Grand or The Dog as we knew it. It was not difficult, with some hastily-done chore on a Saturday morning, in my case the cleaning of cutlery for a family of twelve, to get the penny admission to The Grand. But there was another method that had a yard more panache to it. It was to take a couple of jars to the jam factory next door and get a penny on each. We followed the example of the hard boys of the upper age group whose fad was to buy with the second penny a fresh batch of bread and a swede. And we, with limping baby jaws, did likewise. The racket of that swede-chewing was immense. When the talkies came the clients had to agree to syn- chronise their dental swing to let an odd line of the dialogue through to the critics in the back.
Not long ago I looked at the dun, padlocked doors of that palace of delight. I think I could have stood before the Parthenon and felt rela- tively blithe, for the gods of the Greeks did not cry through my childhood. But in The Dog, locked up there, huge and articulate phantoms, were a countless parade of evenings that had shaped the eventual pattern of my mind, what- ever it is. I was taken there for the first time by the daughter of a neighbour, a lovable but remiss maiden and daft on the pictures. I was about eighteen months old at the time. The tem- porary nurse had wrapped a shawl around me and I, as a male, had escorted her into the cinema. She stood in one of the side aisles, gawking at the epic being currently unrolled. It was a naval film. Some of it I saw over the shawl. Some of it I saw through the shawl. Good sight or poor shawl. The memory of that even- ing has stood so vividly by me through the years that I cannot even think of the navy or see the sea without having a strong taste of wool on my lips.
And in the middle of Cymmer is the chapel. A large chapel. Off-hand I would say one of the largest in the Rhondda, a place where piety has begotten more shapes in wood and stone than anywhere else in Britain. Of that chapel I was a member. Theologically, as a child, I had a tangled time of it. I was one of the Rhondda generation whose language, with an almost malignant ease, had changed from Welsh to English. But the chapel's teaching had remained in Welsh. I and my mentors blinked at each other across a wider gulf of heretical overtones
than anything since Luther. But I cannot look at that building with anything but a deep, good love. For music does not concern itself with the base Machiavellianism of doctrine and vocabu- lary. Nations are torn apart, languages fall silent, but the young will always sing. We could all learn enough Welsh to give a unique passion to the hymns we sang at the festivals of Easter and Whitsun.
And if Cymmer produced nothing else it was an abundance beyond praise of beautiful sunlit voices, soprano and especially alto. I say 'especially' because it was in that brazen section of the juvenile gallery that I and my brothers found ourselves. The chapel is now abandoned. Mice and the odd mutter of subsidence pro- nounce their own coda on the packed festivals of yesteryear. But in those days when it knew our triumphs of innocence and immaculate har- mony, our Easter morning of voices arising and hearts fulfilled, it and the men and women who made it raised a banner of loveliness and joy.
Down that side street to the left is the Library and Institute. There I had my first taste of what have been the great merits of life. Masses of books, good talk, concerts. There of a Sunday evening the Cymmer Military Band would play under their impressive bearded bandmaster, Mr. Martin. He was a grave, Moses-like figure and it would never have surprised me to see his sheet music turn into tablets of stone. And there, too, in the draughts- and chess-room I sat in the com- pany of sage and outrageous wags who seemed to see themselves merely as part of a vast cosmic jest. Those lads set my thought swinging to a satirical chime that will never be amended.
Just over to the left is St. John's Hall which for years shuttled between being a centre for grand opera and the headquarters of the Ministry of Labour, both in those days demanding large casts and sombre synopses. And slightly higher up is the old graveyard. The earth of this musty and haunting patch was torn out of plumb by subsidence years before my time. The memorial tablets are painfully aslant and stare at each other in the most overt confusion. After a fairly jumpy life we thought the least a citizen can expect is a stable headstone.
Farther along the road is the chip shop that was the hub of the late winter evenings. It was a place bulging with light, warmth and turbulent gossip. Often, in the intervals of waiting, clutches of junior artists fresh from the Band of Hope and vestry rehearsals and hot with a sense of worldly carousal, were recruited and hoisted on to the lemonade boxes and asked to sing. My own strong suit was songs of tender yearning and such sweetness I was accused more than once of taking the tang off the vinegar. I also had a batch of ballads from Sankey and Moody that would have moved a mule to remorse. With 'Have Courage My Boy To Say No' I was always sure of a bag of hot scrumps. With 'Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight' I got a cutlet to go with them.
A few weeks ago I walked around the green patch by the old steam fan where we played and talked and ate the lotus through the fat, delicious summers of childhood. I stopped to watch some boys playing. I pondered the violent tumble of events that had shattered the face of reality be- tween my birth and theirs. One of them said, 'I wonder what he wants.'
So do I.
These extracts are taken from A Welsh Eye, by Gwyn Thomas, with illustrations by John Dd. Evans, te be published by Hutchinson in October.
(§) Gwyn Thomas 1964.