FLEET STREET JOURNALIST
(3rd April 1933 - 8th May 2010)
Extracts from autobiography:
A SHORT WALK DOWN FLEET STREET (2000)
In 2000 Alan Watkins published his autobiography entitled A Short walk Down Fleet Street. The first extract below consists of the entire first chapter which deals with his growing up in Tycroes. The remainder of the book recalls his life as a journalist in London, but a later section returns to Ammanford briefly to describe the eventful life of local black sheep Hugh Lloyd-Davies, like Watkins, born in Tycroes just outside Ammanford.
Chapter 1: Heredity
"The most conservative of all religions—ancestor worship."
Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear, 1952I
'Juden, Juden,' the German prisoners-of-war muttered excitedly to one another, pointing to my father, who was standing outside our house in Penygarn Road, Tycroes ('House on the crossroads'), as they were marching raggedly towards a day's forced labour on one of the neighbouring farms.
'Nein, nein,' he said, with great good humour, 'I am a Welshman.' He could understand what they were saying because, with some other local teachers, he was learning German from a refugee at a night class in Ammanford. He could say nein but not, at that stage, if he ever reached it: 'I am a Welshman.' Not long afterwards, in April 1945, when the news of the liberation of Buchenwald and Belsen came through, he broke down and cried.
David John Watkins was, in his later years, of reclusive habits but great influence within a restricted circle. He was born in 1894 at a small stone house, no more than a cottage, called Lighthouse, in Penygarn Road and was accordingly sometimes known as 'Dai Lighthouse'. His family shortly acquired a slightly larger house, Bryntirion, almost directly opposite. On his marriage to my mother he rented an even larger house, Proskairon — the name, devised by a Nonconformist minister who had been a previous tenant, was of Persian rather than Welsh origin—about a hundred yards distant on the same road. In 1937 he had built for him, for £600, another house, Tregarn, directly opposite Proskairon. There was no need for him to do this. He could have bought Proskairon for less money; with a balcony and angled (rather than curved) bay windows, it was a more attractive building. But he was, for whatever reason, determined to 'build my own house'. Even so, his periods of teacher training, war service and teaching in London apart, he spent his entire life in the same spot.
His father, John Watkins, was the winder—the man responsible for raising and lowering the cage of miners up and down the pit shaft—of the Rhos colliery, Tycroes. John Watkins and his relations possessed some local fame as pit-sinkers, for, in the 19th century, quite small pits were dug in that part of the world as a form of private enterprise. His wife, Catherine Thomas, came originally from Penybanc, a small village outside Llandeilo; her maternal grandfather, William Thomas, who is outside the family tree on page 6, had been a forester on Lord Dynevor's estate. John and Catherine Watkins were illiterate in both Welsh and English, though John possessed considerable ability in practical engineering. Their children, in addition to David John, were Sarah Ann (known as 'Saran') and Daniel. Sarah suffered from epilepsy, was none too bright and married a Londoner from an orphanage who, with his two brothers, had come to the district after the First World War, in which they had all served, to work in the mines. Dan was a miner and a local rugby player of, by all accounts, a simple and affectionate nature. Old photographs show him looking almost exactly like my son David (born 1959). Dan was killed in the Battle of Jutland.
My father was educated, to begin with, at the Tycroes Church of England School, though his own father was a Calvinistic Methodist and his mother a Baptist. (In Wales the Methodists came in at least three varieties: the Primitive Methodists, the Wesleyan, also called the English, Methodists and the Calvinistic Methodists. The last were the preponderant group not only among the Nonconformists—the other main Communions being the Independents and the Baptists—but in the entire country, where they were known in the 19th and for the early part of the 20th century as Yr Hen Gorff, 'The Old Body'.) He could not read English until he was 12. However, he passed 'the scholarship'—the then equivalent of the 11-plus, though taken somewhat later—to the Llanelli County School for Boys, subsequently the Llanelli Grammar School, some 12 miles away. He travelled to Llanelli by train from Pantyffynnon, an important railway junction in the years immediately before and after the First World War, owing to its function of channelling the anthracite coal of the Amman Valley and the villages around Ammanford, including Tycroes, down the Loughor Valley towards the coastal towns of Swansea and Llanelli. He would, in the late 1940s, recall the great days of coal, when he could hear the trains clanking down the valley throughout the night.
He was frightened of his father, who was neither scholarly nor gentle and had a disposition to resort to fisticuffs, as much with his contemporaries as with his children. 'My father had a hell of a punch,' he would say. He felt affection for his mother, who was small and timid, but pitied or even despised her for her ignorance, foolishness and superstition. Though he too retained many of the characteristics of the peasant throughout his life—he possessed a strong sense of the importance of property, was close with money and regarded any attempt to deprive him of either as the equivalent of a physical assault—he was not one to romanticise the characteristics and habits of rural Wales, as was the convention among patriotic Welshmen.
However, his recollections of rural Wales before 1914 (or of the area of Wales that was partly rural, partly industrial, but neither urban nor suburban) differed markedly from those of Welsh Socialists. People worked hard, he said, but there was always enough to eat: virtually every household kept chickens and a pig. Above all, people were happy. Happiness, he said, disappeared in 1914.
Though he was comfortable with his past, he was not a countryman; nor did he possess his father's skill in practical matters. He was reluctant to undertake the simplest household tasks, such as inserting a screw or replacing a tap-washer. He did not attempt to do any cooking, which would, admittedly, have been considered eccentric in a man of his generation living in his part of the world. He even considered it shaming to be seen carrying a shopping bag. Though he ate meat, he could well have been a vegetarian. Like most Welshmen, he did not care for underdone meat, but he pushed this disposition to extremes, saying, if a touch of blood was in evidence: 'This tastes of the farmyard.' Throughout his life, indeed, he felt uneasy about the exploitation of animals, saying: 'What have the poor cows and pigs ever done to us?' He hated to visit a market-place such as Carmarthen's because the cattle and sheep were so abused physically by the farmers. Yet he continued to eat meat, in small quantities, and over-cooked.
At Llanelli my father determined to be a schoolmaster. He could possibly have gone on to a university—though in those days it was more difficult than it became later—but he was always unambitious and settled for becoming a 'certificated teacher'. Having left school with the School Certificate, he worked for some time in the Wernos colliery, Tycroes (until 1944 the village boasted two mines), though as a labourer rather than as a miner, to raise the money to take him to the teachers' training department of Bristol University.
His local reclame as a boxing-booth practitioner derived from this period. These booths were a favourite form of entertainment in the fairgrounds of South Wales. There would be a manager, or entrepreneur, and 'the pro', a professional fighter down on his luck, old or obscure, but nevertheless formidable to a layman. You paid money for fighting the pro, which was returnable if certain conditions were fulfilled, among them, I think, survival for four rounds. Naturally the young miners of that age queued up to accept the challenge. My father not only survived these encounters: on one occasion, I was told by elderly male neighbours shortly after his death, he knocked out the pro, to consternation on the part of the management, for this was not supposed to happen in a well-regulated boxing booth. But he never made the claim himself, not to me at any rate, though he did remark on his boxing-booth days and how easy it was to survive given a little skill and common sense; so the story of his knocking out the pro may be legend.
He made most of his lifelong friends in this Bristol period, the majority of them Englishmen; visited the music-hall; and, having previously played rugby, appeared as a notably unsuccessful goalkeeper (or so he said) for the soccer team. Physically he was an arresting man, a half-inch or so under six feet, something under 12 stones, though he later put on weight, with a large head and powerful back, shoulders and upper arms. His legs, however, were too thin and led to the nickname in Tycroes, in addition to 'Dai Lighthouse', of 'Dai ‘ coesau-rhubarb' or 'Dai rhubarb-legs'. He was sensitive about this sobriquet and became angry whenever it was mentioned, even when it was referred to as something that had belonged to the distant past. Even when he was not angry, his eyes appeared to change colour disconcertingly from hazel through green to grey. His hair was black and curly and grew in a peak. He had thick lips which did not create any impression of coarseness. His general cast of feature was Spanish, or Jewish. In his later years he resembled the conductor Otto Klemperer or one of the more obscure prophets of the Old Testament.
Apart from fire-watching at Parcyrhun School, Ammanford, my father played no part in the 1939-45 war: at its outbreak he was 45. He took the view, about which he was perfectly open, that he had done quite enough for King and Country in 1914-18. He was proud that he had joined up from the Bristol teachers' training department and had not been conscripted. In all other respects he was unmilitary, neither wearing nor otherwise displaying his two campaign medals. He served as a naval chemist in Dover, London and France, where he remained for some months, though he would emphasise in conversation that he had never been 'in the trenches' or 'in the front line'. His task was to install in tanks devices for creating smoke screens. Quite why the Army was unable to perform this function on its own, without calling on the Navy for assistance, remained mysterious, but there it was. The one photograph I have from this period shows industrial-chemical tanks and suchlike in the background, a group of young men, smartly uniformed in peaked caps, white shirts, black ties and double-breasted jackets with black buttons, with a solitary, elderly, putteed Army officer in the middle of the front row.
My father's experiences of the First World War left him with not only a detestation of war in general but a dislike of what he would variously call 'swank', 'pretence' and 'nonsense': words which to him comprehended the virtues of the parade ground, officer qualities, pageantry, the royal family, law courts, High Court judges and Winston Churchill (though not R.A. Butler, whom he admired). This dislike of the ceremonial aspects of English life did not, however, lead him to celebrate the homelier traditions of his native land. 'Lot of talk' was one of his favourite dismissive phrases. Or: 'Jim Griffiths'—the Member for Llanelli and a Minister in the Labour Governments of 1945, 1950 and 1964—'has the gift of the gab all right, but what does he know about anything when you come down to it?' This was an over-severe criticism, though not. Without an element, of justice, of a politician who recreated the national insurance scheme and was an outstanding Colonial Secretary. But for reasons that will appear, my father was suspicious of politicians.
The other aspect of his war service was to make him liable to nightmares, which ceased only when he became old. Though he had not himself been gassed, he would imagine he could not breathe, that something or somebody was at his throat. These nightmares were distressing to his family and dangerous to himself, for he would get out of bed still asleep. He had a particular penchant for attacking wardrobes, the more so if they were equipped with a looking-glass on the outside of the door. Seeing his own reflection dimly, he would imagine he was about to be attacked by an intruder —perhaps a German soldier—and would accordingly engage the wardrobe in combat. Despite numerous such assaults over the years, he luckily remained unharmed himself, whereas the wardrobes were less fortunate.
After the 1914-18 war he taught at an elementary school in Stratford, East London. He held no high opinion of the London teachers who were his colleagues, finding them (or so he claimed later) lacking in conscientiousness. He was even more shocked by their frequent resort to the cane, for quite severe corporal punishment was then as common in State as in private schools. He never used the cane, though he had no objection in principle to slapping an obstreperous child on the leg. As a disciplinarian he relied on the menace of his size—he was remarkably large for a South-West Walian of his generation—and on his resonant baritone voice. As a singer, however, he was shy and inept. As a speaker he never attempted to modify his Carmarthenshire accent, with every R pronounced and short As, to the extent that 'plaice', as in plaice-and-chips, would be rendered as 'place'.
He also played rugby as a forward for the London Welsh's first XV. He said later that he would 'never have got into the team if it hadn't been for the war'. He added that he had been 'knocked about terribly'. Certainly the middle finger of his left hand was permanently crooked as a result of being broken in the match against Llanelli at Stradey Park. This was also one of the great eras of English forward play. He was proud of having appeared against such figures as A.F. Blakiston, C.H. Pillman, A.T. Voyce and W.W. Wakefield, even though 'they gave me a terrible time, fel ceffylau ("like horses"). In truth he exaggerated the size of these undoubtedly formidable players, transforming them in his mind into the 16-stone monsters of the 1970s, who were to become more monstrous still in the decades after his death. The records show that the England forwards of the early 1920s were about the same height as he was, though a stone to a stone-and-a-half heavier.
My father left London because, he said, he could not afford to live there any longer. He was then a normal social beer-drinker, though he was careful to add that he was 'never a real boozer'. 'Boozer' was one of his favourite words of disapproval, together with 'waster'. In his later years he was virtually a complete abstainer. He returned from London to teach at Blaenau School, not far from Ammanford, where he met and married another teacher, Violet Harris, my mother, who will be described more fully later in this chapter. From Blaenau he went on to become headmaster of Llanedi, a small country school three miles from Tycroes on the main road to Swansea. There was an adverse inspector's report. In the year of my birth, 1933, he was deprived of his headmastership and given the choice of becoming headmaster of another small school in Pembrokeshire or joining the staff of Parcyrhun School in Ammanford as an ordinary teacher. He chose the latter and remained embittered for the rest of his life, often falling into rages, though these became less frequent as he grew older.
It is difficult to say whether his deprivation or dismissal was unjust. Certainly it was rare for a headmaster to be so treated, as it remains rare today. He claimed that the standards of the school were acceptable, given the material he had to work on—almost entirely the children of small farmers or of farm labourers. The episode left him with a permanent dislike of county councillors and of the Welsh Labour establishment generally, though he continued reluctantly to vote Labour.
But he did not participate in local activities. Instead he read, virtually continuously, for about 40 years. He was neither a browser nor a book-collector. I le subscribed to the Hibbert Journal; his basic diet was the Everyman's Library; be belonged to the pre-Penguin generation. He also read Balzac, Dumas, Maupassant and Victor Hugo in French. He tried to teach himself classical Greek, though without much success. With German, in which he had a teacher, he was more successful.
His pattern of reading is or, perhaps, was familiar enough. But his lack of knowledge of fashionable opinion, combined with a paucity of acquaintances with similar interests to his own, led him to form quite independent views. Nor were these views provincial or eccentric. He perceived the merits of Thomas Hardy as a novelist (Hardy's poetry he had not read) well before his reputation reached its present size. In the 1950s, when J.M. Keynes's economic views were virtually unquestioned, he nevertheless had his doubts:
'Keynes [which he pronounced Keenz rather than Keynes] took his ideas from Alfred Marshall, but Marshall was the sounder economist. I would read Marshall if I were you. What Keynes is telling us to do is to live beyond our means. Any fool in the pub can say that.'
Another of his maxims was:
'Go to church or chapel, because there you will make real friends. You may think that the people you meet in the pub are your friends, but they are not. At the slightest sign of trouble they will be off.'
Though he did not have an elegant mind, he possessed an instinct for detecting exaggeration, falsity and fraud, as much in writers as in the people he met. After his retirement he became happier, partly because, with no more teaching to do, the memory of his Llanedi disgrace was receding; partly because he had grandchildren by now; partly because he saw more people, who would drop in for a chat and a cup of tea. Though he smoked 15 or, often, 20 cigarettes a day, he drank, moderately, only at Christmas time, or on his occasional trips to the seaside, after rugby internationals on his annual visit to St Helen's ground, Swansea, to see Glamorgan play the visiting touring team at cricket. It was a game to which he was attached but which, like many equally enthusiastic Welshmen, he never properly understood as he instinctively understood rugby.
Like many people of pacific instincts, he became angry at contradiction and had a quick temper. His sense of humour was partly of the custard-pie variety, partly ironical. For instance, he had been at school with Dr Jeffrey Samuel, who later married Dr Edith Summerskill and was a vice-president of the London Welsh club. One Saturday after his retirement he was about to accompany me—casually dressed and tieless—to a match at Old Deer Park.
Put a tie on, boy,' he said. 'Who knows? We might meet Dr Jeff Samuel.'
It was impossible to tell whether he was being serious or making a Carmarthenshire joke directed at swank, pretence and nonsense. He died at his home on Boxing Day 1980 at the age of 86. His death certificate stated that he had died of arteriosclerosis, chronic bronchitis and—pretty obviously, I should have thought—cardiac failure. He had been in some discomfort but no pain; his faculties were intact. His last words to me were 'Never buy Japanese bonds', a reference to a recent financial scandal, and 'I could never manage gin-and-tonic', a reference to his inability in old age to unscrew the metal cap of the solitary bottle of Gordon's gin which he would purchase at Christmas. There were numerous callers at the house. One of them asked:
Tell me, Mr Watkins
'Call me Alan, please, Mrs Davies.'
'Tell me, Alan, did he suffer at all?'
'No, not at all. He went like a baby.'
'But there must have been some suffering.'
'No, none at all, really.'
'They were saying that he was screaming in agony.'
'Who were saying, exactly?'
'You know, down the road.'
'Well, you can tell them they're wrong. Thank you for calling, Mrs Davies. Much appreciated.'
Another caller was a cleanly but roughly dressed man I had never seen before. He looked like a small farmer rather than a former miner and was, I supposed, in his late sixties. He came from outside the village. It turned out that my father had cured him of stammering as a boy by advising him always to carry loose change in his trouser pocket and to jangle the coins when he found difficulty with a word. The cure had worked: he was accordingly calling at the house to pay tribute to the young teacher who had effected it. I found this a moving moment.
D.J. Watkins was buried at St Edmund's Church, Tycroes, in which he had been confirmed after his marriage to my mother, so that he could accompany her to the Anglican church with a clear conscience, with, as he would say, 'everything above board'.
My mother, Violet, was born on 7 September 1893, the youngest daughter of Dr Edwin Harris, general practitioner, of Gorslas ('Green bog'). Her elder sisters were Lily, the oldest, and Rose; the youngest in the family was William, always called Will. The family joke was that, as all three girls had been named after flowers, so likewise had he, after Sweet William. All four became teachers. Violet was her father's favourite and used to accompany him on his rounds, often assisting in sanguinary operations on kitchen tables. These early experiences left her with no horror of blood and with an aptitude for first-aid from which I was to benefit. But her work as her father's young assistant did not make her hard or cynical. She remained sensitive to the pain and injuries of others. Later on, indeed, she fussed too much about my health.
She passed out at or near the top of the list for the whole of Carmarthenshire in the 'scholarship examination' and went on to the Llandeilo County (later Grammar) School, one of those mixed establishments which had been set up following the Intermediate Education Act 1889 and have produced individuals of such varying talents as Roy Jenkins (Abersychan), Barry John (Gwendraeth) and Donald Peers (Amman Valley). She distinguished herself at school, excelling at Mathematics, English and Latin, and won numerous prizes for being top of the class. I have them still on my shelves: handsome, leather editions of Shakespeare's works, Macaulay's essays, and the poetry of Milton, Keats and J.R. Lowell, who presumably enjoyed a higher reputation at the beginning of the 20th century than he does today.
She was also a fine sprinter and long jumper, but had to confine these activities to school hours. The reason was that to get to Llandeilo from Gorslas entailed a walk of four miles from Gorslas to the railway station; to get to Gorslas from Llandeilo meant another four miles. So my mother, accompanied at different times by both her sisters, her elder sister or her brother, would walk eight miles a day.
When she was 17 her father died unexpectedly at 57 of bronchitis. He left little money because he would not have earned much: the coal-miners and farmworkers who made up the bulk of his practice were in no position to pay generously or, often, at all. He also had the reputation of being 'a bit of a boozer'. At all events, Violet Harris had to leave Llandeilo County School to become an uncertificated teacher.
My mother's principal interests at this time were music, dancing and dressmaking, at which she remained adept throughout her life, until her sight began to go in her eighties. Dancing she loved as an activity: she could not understand why the chapels denounced it for immorality; while even her own Anglican church (in Wales still established during her youth) regarded it as a form of exercise liable to bring about temptations best avoided. She regarded dancing as simply something she enjoyed doing and was good at. There was no piano at the house, Glaspant ('Green hollow'), until later. She and her sister Rose sent away to London for sheet music and played it on a piano keyboard which they had drawn on paper and used as a basis for singing. The result was that I was brought up on music-hall songs of an earlier period such as 'Hello, hello, who's your lady friend?' and Lionel Monckton compositions such as 'A bachelor gay am I', a particular favourite of my mother's.
When she did acquire a piano, she discovered a gift for playing by ear. You could whistle or hum a tune and she would reproduce it on the piano without the slightest trouble. Whether this facility was the result of her earlier exertions with sheet music, a gift from the gods or both, I do not know. What was unquestionable was that she possessed it. Though she could read music as well, she preferred to thump away like a pub pianist. As far as I know, she never set foot in a pub in her life. She was certainly a non-smoker and a complete abstainer, not because of any puritanical or other religious convictions, but because she did not like the taste of alcohol in any form.
My parents' original intention had been to have four children; as, indeed, in a sense they did, but there was a miscarriage and two deaths in early infancy. It was a time when, she told me later, 'I couldn't look at anyone else's baby.' Her sanity was perhaps saved—I was certainly born—through the good offices of the family doctor, Dr Jenkins of Ammanford, a small, sandy, foxy man who had raced cars at Brooklands. 'You and I can do this together,' he said to her. On 3 April 1933, at the St Helen's Nursing Home, Swansea, just up the road from the rugby-and-cricket ground, she gave birth to me by Caesarean section, then a rarer and more hazardous operation than it is today.
She loved me extravagantly, as did my father, though it was considered unmanly for men of his generation to show affection towards other males, sons included, in too physical a fashion. My mother felt no such inhibitions. She was, in her forties (she was 39 when I was born), five feet six inches in height and slimly but strongly built, though she put on weight steadily for the rest of her life. She had blue eyes and thick brown hair which did not start to go grey till her eighties. My father had a rolling, sailor's gait, which was not explained by his period of service in the Navy, most of it spent on dry land; my mother, by contrast, walked as if she had been taught deportment, which I do not think she ever had been. Mothers, sometimes fathers too, would commend her example to their daughters. She was, in the word of the area, 'smart', which did not mean clever or fashionable but well turned out. Alas, she failed to pass on any of her characteristics in this area to me.
She was an Anglican, a Conservative, a pacifist and a feminist in the sense in which Bernard Shaw or H.G. Wells would have understood the word. She never wanted to live in Tycroes and would have preferred my father to acquire a house somewhere between Ammanford and Llandybie, on the Llandeilo road. She always looked towards Llandeilo, where she had been to school and Lord Dynevor had his seat (to which she had been invited to tea as a young girl). Tycroes people, she used to say, had long faces', which was I think true. When my father replied that most of them had endured hard lives, she replied that so too had the inhabitants of other mining villages in East Carmarthenshire, including her own native Gorslas, but that did not mean they looked miserable all day long. Her indictment of her adopted village as lacking in joie de vivre was not flaunted before its natives. On the contrary: she was a popular local figure. Though my father was respected, he was also feared, even disliked, on account, of his had temper and his habit of ignoring people's greetings because he was preoccupied with other matters or simply did not notice them. My mother had perfect manners and a kind or friendly word for everyone. Sometimes, however, she could be sharp. She was once organising a whist drive (as these occasions were called) in the church hall. One of her fellow members of the church was not only puritanical but rich, with a car, an Opel, I seem to remember, which—irrespective of whether it was an Opel or some other make—was rare in those days.
'There'll be no cards in Heaven,' she said.
'There'll be no cars there either,' my mother replied.
On another occasion she was crossing Tycroes Square to go shopping, accompanied by me, then about 10, and the family dog Nap, a combination of chow, alsatian and golden spaniel. It caused me much unhappiness when he had to be put down a year or so later for attacking people. I could always control him, as could my mother (my father was more hesitant), together with a boy, slightly older than I was, who now lived opposite us in Proskairon and was called Russell James. There was a group of three or four miners leaning or squatting beside the telephone kiosk outside Gladstone Thomas's hardware store. There was another dog in the vicinity. They tried to set him and Nap at each other's throats by hissing.
'Huss-er,' they whispered.
'Stop that at once,' my mother said.
They stopped, looked both surly and surprised, but made no reply. The three of us, woman, child and dog, proceeded on our way to the Co-op. Though personally shy, my mother possessed complete social self-assurance, for in the Carmarthenshire of the pre-1914 period and, indeed, for long afterwards, there had been no intermediate class between local doctor (who, in esteem, ranked above vicar, Nonconformist minister, solicitor or schoolmaster) and Lord Dynevor himself. Her natural language was English.
In addition, though she could speak perfectly good demotic Welsh—my father could speak proper literary Welsh—she possessed an antipathy both to the language and to what might be described as Welsh ways. It would be tempting to explain this hostility, which sometimes verged on contempt, by saying that it was natural in a doctor's daughter born in 1893, long before Welshness became chic, However, her feelings were not shared by her brother or two elder sisters, who did not possess either her dictionary-vocabulary or her collection of Edwardian phrases, of which I give a selection: Honour bright (‘I'm telling the truth' or interrog. ‘Are you telling the truth?'); couldn't knock the skin off a rice pudding; buck up; pull your socks up; togs (clothes, especially, new); coat (never 'jacket', unless of the cut-away sort); like greased lightning; in double-quick time; double dose; tummy (rarely 'stomach', never 'belly'); looking-glass; gyp (pain); four feet above contradiction (of any preacher, Anglican or Nonconformist); cross as two sticks; thin as a rake; ass; silly ass; silly billy; juggins; silly juggins; T prefer God's time to Lloyd George's' (originally used by her own mother of British Summer Time, but quoted with approval).
As a child I naturally reproduced these phrases in conversation; equally naturally, in a Welsh-speaking mining village, my usage did not enhance my popularity either with contemporaries or with seniors. I soon learnt to desist and to reserve my mother's English idioms for the family circle. There was, however, no social pressure outside the home to speak English that was incorrect. On the contrary: good English was admired. Here my mother was supreme: more knowledgeable, more accurate, better at explaining grammar, syntax and—trickiest of all—idiom than any teacher I ever had outside the house. She knew about sequence of mood and sequence of tenses, the relative pronoun as subject in its own clause, and the difference between a straight and a subjunctive conditional: all matters which were largely mysteries in Fleet Street when I arrived there, as they remain to this day, if anything, indeed, more mysterious still.
And yet she was also highly practical, capable of making a shirt or reupholstering a sofa. She did not have her husband's literary or philosophical interests or his powers of memory, particularly for the ramifications of family relationships. But she was by far the more competent of the two. She did not put things off, find excuses for not acting, as my father was constantly doing. Every letter was answered by return of post, in pen and ink (she went through life without once possessing either a fountain-pen or a watch). If the letter was a business letter, she would make an exact copy and file it.
In 1973, when he was 79, my father had an operation for prostate trouble. It was not cancer; the operation was successful; but it took the stuffing out of him and afterwards he treated himself as an invalid. My mother urged him to go out more, to take a short but regular walk, but her advice was repulsed. Despite his early success as a rugby player, he had always been disinclined to physical effort, a characteristic I have inherited. Now he would sit by the fire in flannel trousers and an old cardigan, smoking cigarettes, drinking cups of tea and reminiscing about the great days of coal and the London of the 1920s. Every Friday night my mother would bathe him, wash and sometimes cut his hair, and cut his toenails. He would shave himself with a safety razor, having soon discarded the battery-operated electric razor which I had bought for him on his admission to Morriston hospital for the prostate operation.
My mother's Friday-night exertions on his behalf were taxing not only because she was as old as he was, six months older in fact, but also because she was starting to go blind. She knew this, as I did, but my father did not realise how bad her condition was until much later. Like Kingsley Amis, he was afraid of being left alone in the house at night (though he did not share Amis's terror of public transport). For this reason, my mother refused to leave him for the night or nights which the operation then required. After he had died, it was too late for anything to be done to restore her sight.
She was able to carry on living at Tregarn, Tycroes, because of the kindness of two neighbours, Stuart and Lorraine (Lorrie) Smith, Stuart a former colliery worker. He was never allowed to work at the coalface because, like the husband of my father's sister—to whom the same restriction was applied—he had come originally from London: a piece of hardly-known racism perpetrated by what would then have been the South Wales Miners' Federation.
One winter the tank and pipes froze. On their unfreezing, in the middle of the night, a cascade destroyed part of a ceiling and a wall on the ground floor. Somehow my mother roused the Smiths, who did what they could to comfort her and to repair the damage. But it was obvious that she could not go on living alone, blind, dependent on Mr and Mrs Smith and on the nurse who would visit her daily to dress the skin cancer which she had acquired on her breast. Accordingly she was removed to an old people's home run by what was then, in the mid-1980s, the Dyfed County Council, in Tirydail ('Land of the leaves') just outside Ammanford, on the way to Llandybie.
It was clean, efficient and humane but nevertheless depressing, old people in armchairs looking eternally into the middle distance, a veritable departure lounge for the afterlife. I now visited my mother monthly, whereas previously I had visited her three or four times a year. If I was going to put in an appearance on a radio programme (rarer then than 20 years previously), I would try to let her know beforehand.
That's my son, that's my son,' she had said to her aged companions, so she told me on my next visit.
They had shown no interest whatever—had continued to gaze into the middle distance. There was no reason for them to do anything else. Even so, the episode depressed her. She was unhappy also because the principal language was Welsh. As I have said, she spoke perfectly adequate colloquial Welsh but did not enjoy doing so and much preferred to speak English.
By this time I was living with my daughter Jane, then 21, in a three-bedroomed house in Islington. She said we ought to have her grandmother to live with us. I demurred, saying that she hated London as my father had not, which was true, and that the house was on four floors including basement, which was also true. But I realised I was making excuses, finding reasons for inaction, as my father would have done. True, I could not have afforded full-time nursing care, but I could have afforded some. And the social services department of the Islington Borough Council would, I am sure, have provided some help. We should have managed somehow. In retrospect, I am ashamed I did not make the attempt.
In August 1986 I was told she had broken a hip in falling over while seeking the lavatory during the night, and had been taken to the main county hospital outside Carmarthen. I knew that when very old people were taken into hospital they generally died there. I hurried to Carmarthen, to be told that the operation had been successful. She was sitting up in bed, looking remarkably cheerful in the circumstances. 'Thank you for coming,' she said. Returned to London, I received a message that she had died peacefully in her sleep of a stroke, a blood-clot on that formidable brain of hers. She was a week short of her 93rd birthday. She was buried at St Edmund's Church, Tycroes, in the same grave as my father's.
Unlike him, she enjoyed an argument. 'Argument' is now used, as much in the broadsheets as in the tabloid press, as a synonym for 'row'. 'They were having a bit of an argument, like,' means they were screaming and shouting and saucepans were flying all over the place. To my mother, an argument was the occasion of a reasonable dispute conducted in civilised language. This was an admirable preparation for having to deal with C.A.R. Crosland and R.H.S. Grossman. Throughout her life also she was my censor not only of grammar and syntax but also of taste. 'Would Mama approve of that?' I would ask myself with a hesitant pen in my left hand. Almost 15 years after her death, I ask it still.
(From A Short Walk Down Fleet Street, 2000, pages 5-22)
From Chapter 10: This Sporting Life
For the England and Wales match, as for all internationals, my father wore his best suit. He also wore a hat, a heavy overcoat, leather gloves and, depending on the weather, a silk or woollen scarf. Though he was by no means sympathetic to Communism—quite the reverse—the general effect of his outfit was to make him resemble a large but politically obscure member of the Politburo who was about to take the salute at a parade of tanks, rockets and so forth. While neither vain nor pushful, he felt he had standards to maintain. He would no more have gone to the match with a leek and a red-and-white scarf than appear in front of his class with a false nose. I was expected to be correctly attired likewise, even if less splendidly.
The first international match we saw together was not, strictly speaking, an international. It was the ‘Victory international' of 1946 for which no full caps were awarded. We travelled from Tycroes to Cardiff in a hired single-decker bus (there were few coaches then). Also on the bus was another son of the village, Hugh Lloyd-Davies, in his pilot officer's uniform, who was playing for Wales at full-back.
Lloyd-Davies was an exciting though unpredictable performer who, next year, was to win the university match for Cambridge by kicking two penalty goals. On this occasion he did not have the happiest of afternoons. Two pre-war English players, Jack Heaton and Dickie Guest, both of Waterloo (in fact the Bootle team), effectively won the match for England, Heaton with his cross-kicking and Guest with his elusiveness. Indeed, Guest was a wing in the class of Peter Jackson or Gerald Davies. But for the war, he would surely have won more than his 13 caps. He twice went round Lloyd-Davies to score.
We could see because we were standing by that right-hand corner flag. Despite my father's correctness of dress and demeanour, we never sat in the stand but always stood in the 'field' or the somewhat superior 'enclosure': partly because stand tickets were hard to come by, partly, I suspect, because my father did not believe in throwing his money around and partly, I suspect also, because he would have considered it 'spoiling' to show me relative luxury at too early an age. After the match we came on Lloyd-Davies, now back in his RAF uniform, behind the corrugated-iron stand. My father was stern with the young full-back.
'I could see,' he said, 'that you were looking at his face, not his legs. It was his legs that went round you, not his face,' my father added, to leave no misunderstanding about his views on correct play by a full-back.
At this and subsequent matches, we had a ritual. We did not eat before the match but had a substantial tea afterwards. The menu was unchanging and suited the tastes of both of us. We had fish and chips, cakes (or 'pastries' as my father called them) and a pot of tea. He was always emphatic with the waitress (invariably addressed as 'Miss') about the need for a pot: a cup each was not good enough. Thus fortified, we would walk to the headquarters hotel, in those days at Cardiff the Royal, not the Angel. This was certainly the most important segment of the day for my father and partly accounted for his best suit. He was able to enter the hotel with confidence not so much because of any renown as an old London Welsh forward (he was modest about his past playing abilities) as because of his friendship with Aneurin Jenkins, a Cardiff schoolmaster and a member of the Cardiff Rugby Club, who had been at the teachers' training department of Bristol University with him.
Jenkins (‘Jenks', my father called him) was by now a widower with no immediate family who lived in lodgings: the Cardiff club was not only his home but virtually his life. Like many of his type, he took a keen, even obsessive interest in rugby politics. He was a great obtainer of tickets, forecaster of selections, nodder and winker and putter of fingers to the nose. 1 le knew not only players, members of the great post-war Cardiff side, but also administrators, even the selectors, the most important people in Wales, 'the Big Five' themselves. Many years later, when we were both rugby writers, Bleddyn Williams, the Cardiff and Welsh centre three-quarter of that time, told me that Jenkins was the most boring man in the Cardiff clubhouse.
The year after the victory international was that of the first full post-war match between England and Wales. This was also a time of one of the great recurring Welsh outside-half controversies. It was not simple. Should the outside-half be Glyn Davies of Pontypridd, later of Cambridge University, one of the classic, darting Welsh outside-halves? Or should it be the more utilitarian W.B. Cleaver of Cardiff, 'Billy Kick' as he was called in West Wales?
But this choice did not exhaust the dispute. For there was also Bleddyn Williams to consider. He was acknowledged to be a great centre even then. But might he not turn out to be an even greater outside-half? In other words, was outside-half Bleddyn's true position? Or was it not? On this occasion, in 1947, the selectors decided it was. Bleddyn played outside the equally great Haydn Tanner at scrum-half, with Cleaver and Jack Matthews, also of Cardiff, in the centre. This combination was known in the public prints as 'the Cardiff triangle'. It was widely expected to beat England on its own. Alas, it failed; Bleddyn suffered a muscle strain in the first few minutes. Though Wales scored two tries to England's one, Wales lost because Nim Hall of St Mary's Hospital and Richmond dropped a goal. Hall was to die young but looked hardly strong enough to survive a match even in his playing days.
Afterward Jenkins, my father and I were sitting in the lounge of the hotel. Two Welsh forwards, Rees Stephens of Neath and George Parsons of Newport, had somehow attached themselves to our party—or we had attached ourselves to them. Quite what these young men made of having to converse with two middle-aged schoolmasters and a 13-year-old boy with a balaclava helmet was difficult to say, but they were civil enough. I remember Stephens drinking orange squash, wearing a navy-blue suit and purchasing a packet of Gillette gold, extra-sharp razor blades from an itinerant vendor who had insinuated himself into the premises. Then Jenkins espied one of the selectors, David Jones (Blaina), who was always called 'David Jones (Blaina)' owing to the number of David Joneses in circulation; Jenkins invited him to join us.
'So the mighty triangle didn't come off,' my father said to him, somewhat presumptuously, I thought, in all the circumstances. He took it well. 'We live and learn,' said David Jones (Blaina).
On this occasion there was no Hugh Lloyd-Davies to accompany us on the bus home. He had been displaced in the Welsh side by Howard Davies of Llanelli. Lloyd-Davies made no complaint about this but did resent Howard Davies's successor, Frank Trott of Cardiff. He thought he was a better player than Trott, that he rather than Trott should have been the Welsh full-back. I do not want to go into rugby technicalities, but there was a good deal to be said for Lloyd-Davies's point of view.
As a player in his position, he was several decades ahead of his time. Though under 5ft 8ins and light even for those days, he was fast and elusive and liked nothing better than to join in an attack. He was a prodigious kicker, whether from the hand or when he was taking a shot at goal. He was certainly a better kicker than Trott. If Trott had been the traditional solid citizen in this position, with a mighty kick in both feet, Lloyd-Davies might perhaps have been less bitter. At all events, the preference of the selectors for Trott was widely held to explain, or partly to explain, the tragic history of Lloyd-Davies.
In 1926 he was christened Rheinallt Lloyd Hughes Davies. As a child he became known as Hugh Lloyd Davies. His father was a conductor on the local Rees and Williams buses. However, the Davies family had a substantial interest in the bus firm. In early adolescence he was refused a bicycle—one of the few things he was refused. What did he want a bicycle for when he could travel free on the buses at any time he liked? He was brought up by his grandparents, who had a house by the side of the Rees and Williams garage. His brother Heddwyn and his sister Mair were brought up by their parents on the other side of the garage. No satisfactory explanation for this arrangement was ever put forward: my own guess is that it made the best use of the two houses that were available.
Lloyd-Davies went to the Amman Valley County (later Grammar) School, Ammanford, where he showed early promise as a rugby footballer and played for the Welsh Schools. He also did his stint firewatching at the school, when members of the staff and of the sixth form would mingle on terms of greater familiarity than they could display during the day. He wooed and won the French mistress, Mary Michael, whom he later married, though the marriage proved to be of short duration. She was with him on the bus taking us to and from the victory international in Cardiff in 1946, an event I have already described.
In the middle of the war Lloyd-Davies went straight from the sixth form into the RAF, as countless others did at the same time. But he was sent on a course at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. At that period the coalition government and the Oxford and Cambridge colleges had entered into an agreement whereby those servicemen of the appropriate age who had been sent to colleges for service purposes would be readmitted when the war was over. Lloyd-Davies might well have been able to get into Cambridge on his rugby-playing abilities alone, but that did not arise: he got in because he had been on a course. Trinity Hall was famous for legal studies, and it was Law that Lloyd-Davies read, intending to become a barrister.
He had two vices: sexual intercourse, to which he was inordinately attached, and snobbery, which was rarer in South-west Wales. He claimed to come from 'an old Carmarthenshire county family', which was true only in the sense that his family had, like mine, lived in the county for a long time; his uncle was the local MP, Jim Griffiths. He inserted a hyphen between the 'Lloyd' and the 'Davies'. When people asked him where he had been to school, he would reply 'Ammanford, actually,' placing the accent on the second syllable: so that in the team programme of the time and in subsequent record books he is described as coming from a nonexistent, presumably public, school, 'Ammanford'.
Before he went up to Cambridge for his second spell, he had a brief liaison with a woman called Lydia Noel-Buxton, whom he took to a hotel. He went downstairs to buy an evening paper and read on the front page: 'The Hon. Lydia Noel-Buxton ... missing in the West End ... Last seen with an RAF officer.' Later, at Cambridge, he said to Grenville Jones, who will appear later in this chapter, that, 'of course she wasn't a real aristocrat' but 'only the daughter of a Labour peer'. When Jones pointed out that he was currently involved with the niece of another Labour peer, Lord Listowel, he replied that the Listowels were of ancient lineage and that the then earl had taken the Labour whip in the Lords; whereas the Noel-Buxtons were a Labour creation only.
On the morning of the university match of 1947 Lloyd-Davies failed to arrive at the appointed meeting-place for the journey to Twickenham. Clem Thomas, who was travelling with the team even though he was not to gain a Blue till 1949, and who will also appear later in this chapter, went to Trinity Hall with another friend to search for the Cambridge full-back. They found him sound asleep as the result of his heavy drinking the night before; bathed and dressed him; and somehow conveyed him to the ground, where he proceeded to win the match for Cambridge 6-0.
Like most sexual adventurers, he was both bold and undiscriminating, with a particular and, to me, peculiar predilection for pregnant women. He was handsome, with pale, smooth skin, black curly hair that grew in a peak, very bright brown eyes and very white teeth. He possessed loads of charm. In drink, however, he could be verbally vicious. In October 1947 he returned to Cambridge as the first-choice full-back. But he refused to train and was dropped from the side, to be replaced by Barry Holmes, an Argentinian who was to be picked by England. One evening he was in a pub and was ordered to leave the premises by one of the proctors.
Pubs and their governance by the proctors played a disproportionate part in the life of the Cambridge of the 1940s and 1950s. The proctor involved on this occasion was Trevor Thomas, a law don from Trinity Hall who looked like a town clerk and was already known by Lloyd-Davies. He addressed Thomas in disrespectful and familiar terms, telling him not to be so silly and to go away. He said all this in Welsh, which Thomas could understand, even though he came from Swansea—a non-Welsh-speaking area, even in the late 1940s. Next day Lloyd-Davies was not rusticated but sent down completely: a severe punishment for cheeking a proctor in Welsh.
He joined Gray's Inn, the traditional Inn of Court for Welshmen, and played briefly for Swansea and London Welsh and then for the Harlequins, where, he said, you met a better class of girl. In Edinburgh with the Harlequins, he said he liked it there and thought he would stay for a bit. He then ran up bills which were paid by Sir Wavell Wakefield, the club's president, a Conservative MP and an England international of the 1920s.
Finding himself short of money, he turned up at the Barrow rugby league club wearing a bowler hat and striped trousers and carrying a rolled umbrella. As a demonstration, he kicked three practice-goals without changing his shoes. He was signed on for a fee of over £1,000, the first Cambridge Blue to become a professional. He also claimed to have seduced Miss Barrow 1951, slept with the chairman's wife and turned out for only one training session. He certainly played only one match for his new club, after which he decamped to Paris, so becoming the most expensive signing in the history of rugby league. He then joined a French rugby league club but again lasted for only one match.
Then he went to jail. I am giving the full report partly to demonstrate the high standard of court reporting in those days. Lloyd-Davies was never a full Welsh international, but he always said he was, and certainly felt he deserved to be one. So the error in the report is understandable:
Nine Months for Rugby Star
Rheinallt Hugh Lloyd-Davies, aged 26, Y Fron, Tycroes, Ammanford, the Cambridge Rugby 'Blue' and Welsh international, was yesterday sentenced to nine months' imprisonment at Liverpool City Quarter Sessions for obtaining a diamond ring and a pair of gold cufflinks by false pretences from a Liverpool jewellery firm.
Lloyd-Davies had pleaded guilty and the Recorder (Mr H.I. Nelson, KG) told him, 'A man of your standing and education knew perfectly well that such an offence could not be passed over without some punishment.'
Lloyd-Davies was alleged to have told the Liverpool jeweller that he was a barrister. [He was never called to the Bar.] He made out a cheque for £94, the value of the ring and cufflinks. The cheque was later returned marked 'RD'. Lloyd-Davies pawned the ring for £10 and the cufflinks for £2 10s 0d [£2.50].
Mr J.D. Cunningham (defending) said that Lloyd-Davies was thoroughly ashamed of himself. Every penny had been repaid and Lloyd-Davies was having a course of treatment not unconnected with drink.
This savage sentence did not act as a deterrent. Lloyd-Davies went to prison again for stealing an overcoat from the library of Gray's Inn. He then returned to Tycroes, where he did odd labouring jobs. He went back to London. There were reports of sightings, on one occasion in the company of Jack Doyle, the former boxer. He was passing himself off as a colonel; had gone bald; was sleeping rough; was a gardener with the Islington council (if he was, I never came across him in the borough). In 1987 I learnt from the journalist David Jones, whose father had been at Cambridge with Lloyd-Davies, that he had died in the previous year, when he would have been around 60. There were no obituaries, which was a pity.
(From A Short Walk Down Fleet Street, 2000, pages 213-220)
Date this page last updated: December 28, 2010