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FIRE - Humble Beginnings

Updated on January 5, 2013

Glamorgan Colliery, Tonypandy c. 1930

The air thick with the coal Dust that shortened the life of many a collier - if a pit fall didn't kill them first.
The air thick with the coal Dust that shortened the life of many a collier - if a pit fall didn't kill them first.

Rhondda Grey

FIRE – Humble Beginnings

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” William Shakespeare.

There is enough phosphorus in the human body to make the heads of 200 matches. There is Magnesium enough for two photographic flashes, Ammonia enough to splash a house, Sulphur enough to make a box of sulphur tablets, Lime enough to paint a wall, Iron enough to make a nail, Salt enough to cook a meal, Fat enough to make 7 bars of soap and there is Sugar enough for a traditional English afternoon tea-time. And, as J.B.S. Haldane frequently and wryly observed in his inimitable, nasty and funny way, even the Archbishop of Canterbury is 60% water. As large a bucket of water that is, it's not enough to douse a fire!

Fire has played a significant role in social evolution and human organisation for millennia. For warmth, security, protection, food preparation, ritual and religion, tribal and family bonding, fire has been an element integral to human development and psychological comfort. The almost sterile warmth of modern central heating is incomparable to the sheer joy of the magical, flickering flames and radiant heat of the bright glowing orange coals of a real fire. Presented with the opportunity to build and tend a real fire, modern man (and I mean the male gender) immediately rises to the challenge and instantly regresses to and assumes the role of primitive tribal leader. This perhaps explains the popularity of barbecues and the almost automatic male dominance of the necessary tools and the whole procedure from beginning to end, from lighting it to delivering freshly charcoal grilled meat, fish and vegetables to the rest of the tribe.

Rhondda Grey

We are born fools, yet fools with the capacity for greatness. Even the naïve and fragile newborn, mewling and puking, like Shakespeare's infant, in the nurse's arms has abilities that we can only marvel at in later life: Rooting, Gripping, Toe Curling, Stepping, Sucking, Moro, Galant and Tonic Neck are a set of primitive reflexes that provide the newborn with a bundle of innate strategies for adaptation and survival. The strength of the baby's grasp is a skill we lose all too soon so that by the age of six months it is all but past and forgotten, lost forever. And most of us never know we had the ability in the first place.

As a child of 5 or 6 my grandmother would take me to stand on the old iron bridge that crossed the railway which passed by the back of her house. A gravelled, weedy gulley snaked behind the row of unexceptional terraced houses between the Edwardian brick walls of the back yards and the rusty steel fence that ran along the railway track.Nan would take me down the tricky path from the house to the wooden back door, side-stepping the untended weeds and sickly trees that straddled the narrow yard, at the same time avoiding the piles of cans and pots and other remainders left there probably since the end of the War. There was an old shed in the middle of the uncared for jumbled mess, untended for more than twenty years, that couldn't really be called a garden. The shed had been, I think, a corrugated steel Anderson shelter that served as some less than cosy refuge during the heavy bombing raids of South Wales during the Second World War. South Wales had been an important area of coal mining and dense industry for over a hundred and fifty years and this made Cardiff and the surrounding areas a prime target of the Luftwaffe in those, then, not so far off dark days.

Less than a generation had passed, barely twenty years before, the War was a time still fresh in the memories of many. But, too young to appreciate the privations of war or comprehend the terror of the Blitz and the rigours of a nation forced to live on rations, I was more fascinated by the old apple tree that sprouted proudly through the broken metal roof happily providing a green canopy to replace the old rusting metal sheets that had finally admitted defeat and given up the struggle with the defiant tree. The gentle and immense strength of plants to grow through metal, brick and concrete flagstones always fascinated me. It is that Scorpionic quality of gentleness with deep passion and hidden strength that I suppose I recognise in myself. Maybe some women also, though no more than a few I suspect, have sensed it too. Maybe. While reaching the back door of the yard was a battle, managing to open it was a triumph of will. Rusty hinges and worn timbers had somehow contrived to make easy opening of the door nigh impossible. Taking the weight of the door and heaving it in a particular fashion seemed to be the only means of encouraging it to do the job. And even then there was only just enough room to pass through due the overgrowth of weeds around the semi-derelict brick outhouse that once served as the outside toilet before extensions were added to the backs of the old two-up two-down houses and modern sanitation installed. So, to the old iron bridge that spanned the railway we would tip-toe, Nan and I, through the garden, negotiate the tired back door, down the gulley and up the clanging metal steps. Hand-in-hand with Nan and there on the top of the world I would peer over the metal rails to watch the trains approaching from the distance. When the train was close enough for us to see the driver we would wave, grandmother and grandson hand in hand, and the friendly faces of the drivers would smile back at us from the engine accompanied with a cheerful wave. As the train disappeared under the bridge I would begin to count the carriages and run three paces to the other side to watch them sadly disappearing into the distance. As fascinating as the passenger trains were with their cheerful, friendly drivers, the regular cargo trains were altogether more hideous and spectacular: A seemingly endless snake of industrial carriages, too numerous to count. Ugly, rusty, open-topped, steel wagons would pass under us hourly carrying thousands of tons of the damned black coal from the filthy collieries of the South Walesvalleys.

Despite being amongst the most prolific in the country, the pits of the Rhondda Valley were extremely difficult to mine. The deep seams which provided highly prized coal for steam were both gaseous and fiery and consequently work was hard and fraught with danger. All too often explosions, roof falls and other everyday accidents resulted in crippling injuries or death. On average, during the forty six years prior to World War I (1868 - 1914), one miner was killed every six hours with a further twelve being seriously injured daily. Industrial accidents were all too frequent and diseases were common among the miners; rheumatism, blood poisoning and nystagmus, an eye disorder contracted through working in low light levels that caused not only blindness but could, if untreated, cause insanity.

Pneumoconiosis, a gradually degenerative and crippling condition colloquially called ‘The Dust’ caused near suffocation and almost inevitably proved fatal. All too frequently sons followed fathers to their graves in the disasters that swept through the coalfield with grim regularity. It was only the passing of the coal era that put an end to this grim legacy of premature death

To the age of six memories are sparse. I know now only what I learned later about those early years in the filthy coal black valleys of South Wales. Number 2 Princess Street, Gelli, Pentre, Rhondda was home and hearth, a very ordinary two-up two-down house, nestled among the terraced houses that lined the un-extraordinary street. To the rear of the house ran the main line from Cardiff and to the other side, behind the row of mirror image terraces rose a once green hill blackened by the slag, thick oil and clinging dust of generations of mining so typical of the South Wales valleys.

Gelli's low lying position alongside the River Rhondda made it particularly susceptible to flooding and late in 1960, a month or two after I was born, exceptionally severe weather led to the river bursting its banks and flooding the streets with several feet of water. The downstairs almost destroyed, families were forced to live upstairs. Add to this the fact that at the age of six months the ancient, the decrepit ceiling suspended precariously over my cot decided it wanted to be suspended no more and came crashing down around me. Chunks of ageing Edwardian lath and plaster and flying debris missed me by inches, miraculously. Lucky to be alive and the first of several close brushes with death!

Not only lucky to be alive but I am now immensely grateful that although my mother smoked while carrying me she flatly refused the GP’s prescription for Thalidomide, the new wonder drug of the age. Oh what a wonder drug that was! In the UK, between 1957 and 1961, Thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women as an anti-emetic to combat morning sickness and as an aid to sleep. Pathetically inadequate tests to assess the drug's safety resulted in the birth of about 10,000 children with severe malformities because their mothers had taken the drug during pregnancy. As if the War had not created enough armless and legless casualties, a generation of NHS guinea pigs were born limbless. I’m glad my mother smoked. Maybe it explains my own life-long addiction to nicotine.

The remainder of those first few years passed almost without incident and over the next ten years or so I would spend many a happy summer with my grandparents left mostly to my own devices, exploring the enormous amount of bazaar-like jumble scattered about, piled high and crammed into every nook and cranny of the tiny house. An assorted collection of miscellany my grandparents had accumulated over two lifetimes and for the most part probably forgotten about. The front room, which in most of the other houses was kept pristine and only used for important family occasions like weddings and funerals or when someone important like the local minister would pay his occasional call, was almost impassable. In the centre of the room a large round polished wooden table was stacked high with papers, files, mysterious boxes and trinkets. With barely enough room to pass around the table without moving something out of the way, around the edge of the room were stacked boxes, trunks, old typewriters and a multitude of plastic reels of blue-purple ink ribbons, pictures, old, yellowing family photographs, enormous piles of papers and documents, travel souvenirs, ancient moth-eaten clothes and a thousand and one other things to fascinate a young and curious mind.

The middle room was much the same except for an old sofa always piled high with newspapers, The South Wales Echo and scattered with ageing copies of the Radio Times. Particularly scary was a large Victorian glass-fronted display cabinet that stood against the wall behind the sofa. Ostensibly with pride of place in the room, it was stuffed to the gills with a large collection of spooky looking dolls from around the world that Uncle Jim, my father’s younger brother, had bought as presents for his mother while criss-crossing the world during his years in the Merchant Navy. It was that or work down the coal pits. He decided to set sail on the seven seas although he always refused to serve on the oil tankers because of the dangers. Uncle Jim was my favourite of the two uncles I had. He knew I had a penchant for Smarties and would oblige me on every visit with a tube of the brightly coloured sweets. I still like them today. Apparently, while I was an infant, the sod wasn’t above slipping a rubber teat onto a bottle of Babycham and sending me to sleep with a couple of draughts of the light alcohol. Intra-uterine nicotine, a wee dram of alcohol as a night-cap and not even two years old! What a precedent these would set for later life! Cigarettes and alcohol, and of course, much, much worse was to come!

A large old black and white TV perched precariously in front of the window which looked out onto the overgrown yard and the overhead lines of the blackened railway track beyond. The TV was rarely used since my grandfather had been blind since the age of thirty. He never saw either his own children or his grandchildren. On the odd occasion when the TV was used Nan would sometimes insist that if you looked closely it was possible to occasionally see flashes of colour across the bevelled screen. On a black and white TV! Perhaps she was right. Instead of TV, Da would spend much of the day listening to the wireless duly switching between stations at 11.30 every morning to listen to the continuing saga of ‘The Archers’, a popular, long-running radio drama about a rural farming family, listened to by millions before the bloody Box took its Satanic grip of people’s minds, filling them, for the most part, with mind-numbing soporific shite.

The wireless was Da’s life especially since he was a long-standing Radio Amateur and would spend every evening in conversation with other ‘Radio Hams’ from all four corners of the globe. Sitting in an old, tatty swivel chair with a set of uncomfortable ex-army headphones atop his head he would often place me on his knees and let me watch and listen as he switched on his home-made rig and waited for the beast to spark into life. Through the fine steel mesh grills I could see the vacuum-tube valves warming up to a bright orange glow as the filaments burned and on the front of the rig numerous meters began to twitch epileptically back and forth almost magically in response to mysterious, unseen forces. I would sit in utter fascination as his blind sensitive fingers deftly twiddled and adjusted the array of bakelite knobs and dials in response to white noise, pops, crackles and hissing and then silence when he tuned into the desired frequency. Speaking into the microphone, another army-surplus item, Da would announce to the world he was ‘On the Air’. “GW3 ITQ, GW3 ITQ calling. GW3 ITQ on air.” Many years later I would be reminded of Da’s home-brew radio rig while watching the many film versions of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel, as the misunderstood Doctor attempted to infuse life into his piece-meal creature using high voltage electricity, Heath-Robinson laboratory equipment gurgling with strange liquids and enormous Van der Graaf generators that fiercely buzzed and sparked with hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity. It has always been a source of some considerable sadness and regret in my life that I did not attend Da’s funeral. He died after a thankfully brief illness while I was otherwise engaged in a self-destructive drug-soaked psychosis during my second year at University.

The disordered and chaotic state of my grandparent’s house is perhaps the source of my fascination with junk-shops, flea-markets and bazaars stuffed with generations of the sad, worn unwanted flotsam and jetsam of other people's secret lives. In these places my eyes alight on an item of interest, an old Sepia photo, a chipped dinner plate, a well-worn dinner jacket, a cricket bat or the like and I cannot help but try to imagine its previous glorious life and the pride of place it maybe once had in forgotten times past. What trials and tribulations, what occasions both happy and sad have they witnessed and played their part? Who knows? Who cares? Well I care, deeply. It is sad to think that all we accumulate in our lifetime will go the same way, the rubbish tip or end up in a battered old cardboard box buried under a pile of other junk in a dark corner of a dingy, musty old second-hand shop.

"You can take it for a quid. Just a quid and it's yours!"

Sad but true is it that the only real substance we leave behind us is in the memories of those that knew us, and that is a preciously short amount of time. In less than two generations each of us has faded into oblivion and will soon be long forgotten. It begs the question "Why?"

During the early years of my life the dirty collieries of the five great mining valleys of Southeast Wales, the Taff, the Rhondda, the Rhymney, Ebbw Vale and Cynon valleys were still in abundance but in a decline that would take only another 20 years before their end. For almost two hundred years the valleys had been exploited for the prized coal and at the peak of the industry there were a little over four hundred active pits, sixty six of them in the Rhondda Valley alone. The streets, houses and surrounding hills were black with the thick dust that clung to the air. Mining accidents were numerous and fatalities all too frequent. The National Coal Board or the ‘NC Bloody B’ as it was referred to was a less than popular institution with the families whose livelihood depended on it and it had a lot to answer for. It was this that prompted my mother to persuade my father to seek work outside of the valleys so that her precious first-born did not end up down the pits. And this he duly did.

Paradoxically, my mother, despite her desire to provide a better future for her family, was obsessed with coal and my early years were dominated by the stuff. Being one of nine children with a brute of a father and raised in conditions I could only begin to guess at she was determined, throughout her life, to ensure the best she could provide for her family and that meant the warmth of a real coal fire, plenty of food, love and security, things of which she had been deprived in her own miserable childhood. This would continue almost until the end of her life. Almost until the end of her life that is when she relented and agreed, finally, to the local council's decision to provide central heating for its tenants. Although it was rarely switched on for heating, a two bar electric fire with a kitsch 70's style 'living flame' effect was put in the fire-place as a memento of the real coal fire that once burnt happily in it's place and, perhaps, a cosy memory of earlier years in the ever so filthy yet ever so friendly valleys.

It would be many a long year before the Rhondda Valley would turn once more to green, but at what high price? The rapid decline in the coal-mining industry continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s with the country's ever-increasing dependence on oil and December 1990 saw the final closure of Maerdy Colliery, the last working pit in the Rhondda.

The valleys became greener, yes, but as each of the mines closed there was ever-increasing unemployment in turn and along with this the social despair and sickness of drugs and vandalism unheard of a generation before. However, the increasingly desperate social problems of the South Wales valleys were a long way away as the young family left the pit black valleys of the Rhondda for the glorious, golden sands of Pendine in West Wales and embarked on a new life beside the seaside, beside the sea.


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