Letter to home…

 

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It is October 2nd 1975. Carrying heavily laden cases, I’m on my way to University in York for the first time. The A level results had gone particularly well and I managed to get into my first choice of University.

My mum insisted on coming with me as far as Manchester on the train, in part to check I don’t leave my cases anywhere, also to make sure I eat the stack of sandwiches she had made early that morning. My mum, in my lifetime, had never felt the need to travel to Manchester for some urgent shopping, but on this day she does. Perhaps it is the thought of the second born flying the nest.

I can’t work out if my trepidation trumps my excitement. I’m assuming the next few days will be difficult. The torrential rain as we arrive in Manchester Victoria does little to improve the mood and we both get soaked as I see my mum off the train. She is crying, which she claims is the rain. I have butterflies but try to sound breezy. In the minutes before the train’s departure she reels off a list of things to remember, of which the old chestnut of changing my socks and underpants every day features, together with the command to ring that night after seven, to be sure she is home to hear about my progress.

I wondered if my dad had received such lavish attention when he left home to fight in World War Two. I doubt he had as many corned beef and pickle and egg and tomato sandwiches as I was carrying, unless he was expected to feed his whole regiment.

All this comes to mind as we were discussing family history with my uncle Glyn this weekend. In honour of his and Janet’s arrival, I had blitzed the attic trying to find artefacts and photos from my parents, as he is the family historian. Eventually I was able to find a biscuit tin from my youth which dates from about 1960 and shows a little girl in a snowy scene wearing a red scarf and hat. The girl’s face has outlived its usefulness as it has been covered by my mum’s faded, yet distinctive writing on a heavily sellotaped piece of yellowed paper.

The Premium Bonds alluded to on the cover note have long since disappeared, but all the other contents, Army Records, Important Letters and the catch-all Bits and Bobs, were present and correct.

Amongst the salubrious company of the Important Letters were two written by me in my first weeks of University. As my mum had provided stamped letter cards, all I needed to do was to find time to write the one page letter and locate a letter box. It would have been churlish not to have completed those two tasks.

I had not seen the letters in over forty years, and did not remember writing them. Immediately on reading them though, I was back there on my first morning as a student following a restless night’s sleep in my new room. I can remember the emulsioned breeze block that cooled my back from the incessant heat of the central heating system, which had a default position of breathlessly hot, even when turned off. I’d grown up with ice on the inner windows of my bedroom and this central heating would take some getting used to. The letter was the first task after the morning shower as it gave me the opportunity to wile away some time with some purpose.

The letter was inordinately positive and breezy, which was not quite how I felt in those first few days away from home. I was going to be able to fully enjoy and indulge myself in student life, but for now the butterflies had not subsided and I was already exhausted from the charade of looking positive and confident when I felt the opposite.

It was a relief when I teamed up with my first university friend, Davy from Belfast,  who seemed to have both direction and momentum and was patently not lacking in confidence. I must have come across, or at least I hoped I did, as mean and moody in those first few days as I tried to re-orientate myself to this new life. In fact I was melancholy and disorientated in my new surroundings.

I suppose we have all experienced similar feelings on our first forays away from home.

What were yours?

 

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Rhyl 1960s a video compilation by Chris Turner

This shows a range of footage from different sources showing Rhyl as it was in the early sixties compiled by good mate and collaborator Chris Turner…  various copyrights…

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The back door… the family and friend entrance.

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Thinking about the ‘best room’, the other thing that distinguished our house was the fact that family and friends always came in through the back door and didn’t knock. It was the same with all the extended family, that included all the aunties and uncles by virtue of the fact that they were friends of my parents. The back door was locked last thing at night, and even then, for some of the Night Owls in our family, it was still the way in when the pubs had closed and they fancied a chat.

By the time we moved to Prince Edward Avenue in 1969, we had the good fortune to have a south facing back door so it tended to be the venue for any pictures of visiting family. As well as the regular visitors, we had arrivals from the South Wales, American and Australian branches of the family. Most of the pictures showed happy faces squinting in the sun.

More regular visitors in my teenage days were my mate Brian who used to leave his bike in our back yard after riding over from the Reso, and my girlfriend Lesley who would stop for a  drink and a biscuit before I walked her home. Happy days.

This picture shows my mum, Crid or Gwen Hughes with nephew Chris and nieces Elizabeth and Faye… no doubt they were hoping for bacon butties. Those and Mandarin Orange Gateau were two of my mum’s specialities. My mum was never happier that when the family or friends came round. Nothing was more important to her…

I doubt we were alone in using the back door as the family and friends door. Who else did the same? 

 

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The ‘best room’.

Graham 21st birthday

The core of my family with the green bamboo wallpaper in our Front Room in June 1969

 

A characteristic and perverse feature of working class houses, despite frequent overcrowding, was reserving a room to be used only on special occasions. The front room or best room was a feature of my and all my friend’s houses on the Reso.

In our house, regular visitors would be shepherded into the back room which served as dining room and general meeting place. There was method in this though. The house was heated by coal fire, and the back room had the boiler behind the fire so it made sense to only keep one room heated rather than going to the expense of lighting two fires.

This back room was full of comfortable, if old furniture in green patterned designs, which brought to mind the sort of material that the British Railways carriages were upholstered with at the time. The dark wood table had leaves which folded down after meals to give more space.

When not entertaining friends, the chairs would all be angled to face the television and we lived most evenings from the 6pm News through to its reappearance at 10pm held in thrall to its grey glowing tube.  We laughed heartily at the comedies, concentrated open mouthed at the documentaries and wondered at the nature and travelogue programmes about places that we could never imagine visiting. We even spent time during intermissions staring at the test card or a soporific potter making a clay plot. If before 10pm  the box went dark it was as much a crisis as the heart monitor flatlining in a hospital. I cannot remember a day in my youth when the television wasn’t on in the evening, unless it was requiring urgent repair. It brought us both great news and bad, the 1966 England World Cup victory,  a Rhyl win in It’s a Knockout, the Death of President Kennedy, breaking news of the Aberfan disaster of 1966 and of course Blue Peter.

There was no television in our front room, but there was a large and ornate wooden radiogram which, taste of the future,  combined both a radio and a gramophone in a single unit the size and weight of a Pharaoh’s  sarcophagus.

The furniture in the front room was all Remploy, as my mum was keen to support those with disabilities and was purchased from John Brookes and Sons of Vale Road. Unlike some, who will remain nameless, all our furniture was bought cash on the nail. Not for my mum and dad the ‘never-never’ and the constant worry you might, by force of circumstance, find yourself falling behind on the payments, or worse, would have your furniture repossessed in sight of the neighbours. My parents never lived far from contemplating what we now call ‘the worst case scenario’ or what my parents called a ‘streak of bad luck’. I suppose first hand experience of the Great Depression and six years fighting the war against Fascism changes your outlook fundamentally. I was always surprised that there were others on the estate who, having lived through the same experiences took a ‘devil may care, live for today’ attitude, but that was never for us.

My parents were always trying to save. They did this in a green metallic cash box labelled with gas, electric, rent, insurance and food. Each heading had a slit in the lid of the box in which to save against that element. Once a month my dad , with his sharp pencil would consult the bills kept in the box in anticipation of the new bill coming in and do a calculation of how much the tin was up or down on the anticipated bill. If we were down on the anticipated bill there would be sacrifices made and things foregone.

In this way, and after many years delay,  a luxurious three piece suite was purchased in a red and grey tapestry pattern wit well lacquered wooden arms. Complementing this was a Remploy cabinet which held the beer and wine glasses placed on a liner of old Christmas wrapping paper, as well as precious biscuit tins containing the insurance policies and family photos in the main cabinet and domestic detritus and my dad’s brown leather gloves in the top  drawer designed for cutlery. The other two drawers to the right hand side of the main cabinet contained an assortment of scarves, souvenirs, old coins, badges and important white A4 envelopes containing precious documents which,  taken  together, could only be classified as miscellaneous.

The table and four chairs was of a light walnut design, mirroring the sideboard. These dining chairs, unlike the ones on the back room had padded seats and back rests in a green eiderdown type design and were more than adequately upholstered.  If I had been asked to find an adequate adjective in Mr Jones’ class I think I would have described them as ‘sumptuous’ and he and I would have been content with the description.

The last item of furniture in the room was a delicate glass display cabinet with engraved glass and a chinois silk pattern in the back plate. The four glass shelves were full of China, small pictures, more souvenirs like wooden clogs from Belgium from my dad’s time on active service in North Western Europe. There was a set of China which was literally Chinese – a large teapot with a red and golden dragon head forming the spout and the tail forming the handle. This impressive pattern was repeated on all the plates, saucers and cups. This magnificent tea set has been acquired and transported home by my Uncle Eddie, or Wink as he was known, from his national service posting manning 40 mm Bofors guns in Hong Kong to ward off a massive Chinese incursion. I was never sure which was more impressive, the fact that Uncle Eddie managed to transport this and a second set for my Auntie Doris around the world with no breakages, or that he was sat in Hong Kong for two years with nothing more than a 40mm Bofors gun to defend against the hordes of Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

The Chinese tea set never left the cabinet. My mum explained that it was ‘mostly decorative’ but it turned out that it was wholly decorative. At no point in my or her life did it leave the cabinet to make and serve a brew.

The last piece of furniture in the room was an occasional table which my dad had made and varnished to a very high standard, as he did all his projects in wood. Whether it was a bedside table in formica and plywood, a dropped ceiling in 2be1 and hardboard or a shed for Snowy the rabbit in marine laminated wood the result was always painstakingly executed and beautifully finished. I asked my mum why it was called an occasional table and she replied that it was because we only used it occasionally, and usually on a family occasion… this seemed to cover all the bases.

My dad had gone to particular trouble to wallpaper the room following several visits to local paint and wallpaper emporiums in the town because my mother could not quite see something she liked. Samples were brought home and laid against the wall only for my mum to declare that she liked the pattern on one, but the colour on the other. The impasse was only broken when he stormed off to the Labour Club for a pint, insisting that by the time he got back she had made a final decision. After much deliberation she went with the red semi flock which was all the rage at the time.

After meticulously measuring up, my dad made his way to town to purchase eight rolls of the chosen paper, only to find that it was out of stock. He had set aside his two days off this week to complete the decorating, and was not prepared to wait for the next delivery to come in.  So he settled on a green bamboo pattern paper instead. My mum was happy enough as she confessed she was having second thoughts about the red flock anyway.

I loved the decorating and was fully entrusted with a small wallpaper scraper, a bucket of warm soapy water and a demand that I clear up all the mess as I went along. It felt illicit peeling off strips of paper as I was usually told not to touch it. I often over-watered the old paper hoping that I could work the scraper all the way to the top, but this rarely happened. More often I was left stripping the wall one postage stamp size piece at a time.

When I thought I’d finished my dad had other ideas. He washed down the walls with sugar soap… one of the packages and jars he kept in the shed and which he warned me, under pain of death not to touch with stories of death and poison. He then went over my work, removing slivers of spent wallpaper which I’d considered too insignificant to remove. The exhortation at this time was always the same ‘The secret to hanging wall paper is all in the preparation!’

Once he was happy that the walls were adequately prepared, a papering table would be brought in and all the adjacent carpet and lino covered with old sheets. A plumb line was set up in the correct position in the room. Despite being told numerous times I could never remember if that was next to the door, on the wall opposite the door, or the wall opposite the window. I would have started in a corner, but my dad started in the middle of the wall with the fireplace in it and centred the first piece of wall paper so that it would have an even number of drops to each side heading to the corners. It was only now that I realised from the faint after smell that he had already painted the skirting board and door. He must have completed this overnight whilst I was asleep… such was his meticulousness.

He measured and cut half a dozen drops with a pair of scissors of a size and weight which were enormous. He pasted each drop thoroughly and evenly and using the old wooden step ladders offered them to the wall. and let the weight of the paper fall to the level of the skirting board with no more than a couple of inches to spare at top and bottom. The wallpaper grabbed the wall and stuck first time as he made minor adjustments before giving the new paper a good massage with the wallpaper brush. He’d step back and check his work and then he’d be pasting the next sheet. Up it would go the same process as with the first. He returned to the first sheet and eased out any bubbles that had formed before trimming the top and bottom neatly. He worked without pause, not quickly, but like a runner taking on a long distance – in a measured way.

Dad was immune to my pleas to paste or hang a piece of paper.

‘Your time will come son, your time will come, for now just watch and listen and keep quiet unless you have a sensible question! A cup of tea wouldn’t go amiss.’

He was as good as his word. After several such sessions, four years later he let me wallpaper a room. He helped me set up the first drop with the plumb line and then left the room saying he was looking forward to seeing the result. I was determined to show my worth and remembered all the tips he had given me. It worked out well for me, and even better for him. He never had to do more than a quarter of the decoration in the next decade as I was challenged to decorate each room in turn.

The front room, now fully decorated and complete, was the scene of the best and worth of our family history. It was the place when the whole family gathered at times of crisis, like when my Nain had a heart attack and was not expected to last the night. I always sensed trouble when adults talked in hushed tones.

It was also the scene of joyous occasions such as the New Year’s Eve Parties where you could hardly move in there for the sitting and jiving and talking and drinking and incessant laughter.

It literally was the place where the vicar was entertained to tea and cake, especially when the said vicar was none other than my Uncle Glyn, my mum’s youngest brother.

Amongst my favourite memories of the room was the Christmas of 1964 when, with Auntie Margaret staying over, we decanted into the room which was full of the Christmas tree decorated with tinsel and paper lanterns and bells and crepe paper trimmings, in two colours no less, all merging at the glass lamp shade in the centre of the room, expertly created by my dad.

At mid morning, with the smell of turkey and stuffing cooking in the kitchen, we all decanted to the front room to open the presents and having searched the upstairs cupboards previously I knew I was having several Airfix kits, as requested as well as a steam engine, some carriages and wagons and an oval of track. My happiest memory was lying on the patterned carpet with my railway and my Airfix soldiers set up, a sparkling Corona lemonade in the small frosted glass, that only came out at Christmas, and a warm glow from the family and the fire, as Christmas dinner reached perfection. I could have burst with contentment.

These are the only tangible remains of that glorious Christmas of 1964, the rest is all now dust… my dad’s Christmas and New Year’s beer mug and the last of the set of little sherry glasses … my favourite was the blue one, there were also red and green topped ones.

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My dad’s part in Adolf’s downfall…

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A search for family photos turned up a little scrapbook of pictures of my dad’s family in the twenties and thirties. My dad featured heavily, being the youngest child with three sisters and an older brother.

I’ve seen the full size picture on display in both my auntie Margaret’s and Auntie Olwen’s house.

My dad had a life of promising full starts. He passed to go to the Grammar School in Rhyl, only for the Great Depression to intervene and prevent his dad, who was a parquet floor layer, being able to afford to buy the books and uniform. My dad had to get working and was at the start of a promising career as a store manager at George Masons, the International Grocer’s, when weeks before he was due to start the management course, a certain unpleasantness in Europe called for his attention and he was away to a Welsh Regiment of the Royal Artillery.

The family had originally lived in the courtyard in Greenfield Place, roughly where the Marks and Spencer store was built on the High Street. Ironically, my Auntie Margaret, mentioned elsewhere on the blog spent all her working life of forty years working in the Rhyl Store of Marks and Spencer!

The family had moved to the last house on the left hand side of King’s Avenue, no 24 and the picture shows my dad home on leave, pictured with his mum outside the house. Until he joined the army, my dad used to climb the wall from the entry behind Kinmel Street to get in the house, later a gate was installed in the adjoining street which allowed easier access through Oxford Grove.

His mum was already quite frail in this picture taken in 1940. As she got more frail, the doctor suggested that the family club together to buy her bread and milk, as they could not afford the required palliative medicine. It was experiences like this that made my dad a great supporter of the NHS system. He thought that if him and the lads from Rhyl were good enough to be fighting and dying for their country, it shouldn’t be down to wealth as to whether you got medical treatment.

My dad served in a Heavy Anti Aircraft Artillery Regiment, manning the 3.7in anti aircraft guns.  His role was as the predictor. This involved doing calculations with rudimentary computing instrument to determine the height and direction of the enemy aircraft and then setting the fuses of the shells to the correct setting. He always was good with maths, and he was promoted to lance and then full bombardier.

During the war he saw service defending Liverpool from the Luftwaffe. He told me of the night when a Junkers 88 was shot down in the marshes of the Dee and having been involved in the barrage they were detailed to go and collect any downed airmen. They arrived at the aircraft just before a crowd of locals who were intent on lynching any surviving members of the crew. He said one was an officer and full of himself, another was a flight sergeant, who was terrified and crying and the rest of the crew were dead. Apparently they had to fix bayonets, more to protect the prisoners than to escort them as tempers were running so high!

He went over to the continent a week after D-day and headed north through Belgium and then to shell the Germans defending Walcheren Island, which were preventing the Allies sending supplies up to the port of Antwerp. They kept up random shelling every 24 hours to ensure that the Germans on the island were worn down without sleep and with diminishing supplies. He ended the war guarding what remained of the German High Seas fleet at Wilhelmshaven. He was billeted at one pint on the Prinz Eugen, which he remembered as a rat infested hulk. Prinz Eugen was later given to the Americans and was expended in the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.

In the sixties there were a couple of years when our family seemingly ‘ never had it so good’ and we holidayed in 1967 in Ostend in Belgium. We took coach tours most days, including ones to Ghent, Bruges and Brussels. My dad was obsessed with finding a town square where he had been billeted… a faint hope in towns marked by myriad town squares, all of which looked like the next, still I enjoyed hunting with him as he was more forthcoming about his wartime exploits.

Looking at the photograph, I think there was a competition in the services to see which regiment could wear their forage cap as the jauntiest angle!

I would have recognised my dad, as he did not change in facial features in all the time I knew him!

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Where to find the Reso Trilogy Books

BtR

If you are looking to buy a Reso Trilogy book, ake sure the publisher is JLB Learning Innovation.

If it shows Kings Hart Books, my former publisher, the company stopped trading a few years back and the book will be unavailable through them.

Probably the cheapest route to buying them is through Amazon marketplace, but nothing beats ordering them from an independent publisher.

Resolution

 

Having been vindicated by a publisher picking up the books, which for me suggested there was some value in them, and it wasn’t simply a vanity project, I decided to embark on self-publishing on a print on demand basis. I would recommend it for new writers as the big players like Ingram Spark cover all the incidental costs and help with marketing.

In theory, my books should always be available as long as you look for them under the publisher JLB Learning innovation. If you look under Kings Hart, you are likely to be disappointed.

The Reso - A Sixties Childhood

 

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Beyond the Reso : The Pavilion inspired cover

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The cover of the second Reso book, Beyond the Reso, was inspired by a sight that illuminated the Rhyl skyline throughout my youth, The Pavilion Theatre on the Promenade.

The coloured lights played on it at night, making it look like a giant ice cream which changed from strawberry, to orange to lemon to lime and blackcurrant.

I remember coming home from Auntie Betty’s home in St David’s Square late at night, my mum and Auntie Betty had been talking incessantly whilst drinking tea and eating biscuits. I’d amused myself with Prince the dog, but both of us fell asleep in the muggy atmosphere created by the gas fire.

BtR

 

Eventually I was awoken and told to get my coat on for the short walk home. As we drifted into Victoria Road, the playing field of Glyndwr field shone with dew and in the distance the Pavilion radiated warm and invited light. The spectacle was such that my mum and I stopped for a few moments and she waxed lyrical on the constancy of that sight which had remained the same from her childhood. She told me that both my grandparents had been involved in building the Pavilion and I felt I had something invested in it.

It later provided shelter for what my parents would have called my ‘courting days’. Hours were spent in the shelters on the seaward side desperately trying to keep warm in a full on Irish Sea wind with only warm hearts and hot lips to keep us from freezing.

I probably had a share in its demise as well because in all my days, apart from going to see the Billy Smart’s lions and tigers camped outside, I don’t believe I ever set foot in the theatre. Despite the delights of Wyn Calvin and Prince’s Circus ‘as seen on TV’ to entice me.

There was a furore when the Pavilion was demolished in 1973. It was said that it was unsafe and the pillars that held the dome in place did show structural decay. However, when the dome fell some seventy feet to the ground without shattering there were murmurings in the town that this was civic vandalism of the worst kind.

Many went to see the demolition. I didn’t, I preferred to remember happier times cuddled up and gazing lovingly at the world’s most beautiful girlfriend.

Thanks to Ben Overton and Luke Hughes for the cover design.

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