Gillian Clarke's Journal
by Gillian Clarke
War. Radios. The sea. A fox. Stone animals on a castle wall.
I can’t say what came first, but in an undated long-ago a boy dived from a bridge into black water. It smelt mossy, like a well. My father held me on the parapet while I sent pennies spinning into sunlight before they fell, drowned in tree shadows and the sunless waters of the canal. Brown boys, and boys as white as the marble boys in the Museum, jumped into the void hugging their bony knees, and came up blowing water from their noses, sometimes with gold in their fists. Some of my pennies must be down there still, in the feeder canal under Kingsway, dragged by a slap of water or the splash of a rat, deep under, where they would never be found.
It was a game for a Saturday morning outing, just me and Daddy. Part of the fun was fear of the drop, the black water, the tunnel, my skin tingling, my heart jumping like a frog. I would put myself to the test, stepping to the edge of any vertiginous darkness before legging it, or hanging there, safe, in my father’s arms. The mind’s equivalent was ‘Who made God?’ Tucked up in bed after a story I would ask myself the most frightening question in the world, or allow myself to think about forever and ever until I had to shout for someone to come. According to Ga I was always asking about God, as her letters to my father and his sisters testify. I was never given a satisfactory answer.
Risky places, the deep, the dark, the edge, where looking down makes your head spin, and looking up turns the earth. This was the enchanted place, where the canal eeled under Kingsway towards the Castle ramparts draped with the tails of peacocks, and its wall with the seventeen stone beasts that, according to my father, came to life to prowl the city by night, and where the ghost of Ifor Bach still raised his flag on the tower when Wales were playing England. I wore my new coat with a brown velvet collar, mittens on a string, a hanky in one pocket, my pennies in the other. My father’s coat was whiskery tweed and felt like the fur of the black bear in the tobacconist shop near the Prince of Wales Theatre, where, before dirty films and Bingo, they showed Snow White, or The Wizard of Oz, or Lassie Come Home.
An outing in the city of tall stories. First, my father’s office in the BBC in Park Place, with its tall commissionaires, studios, wires, microphones and mysteries. Then the Museum. Later, perhaps, to his favourite cafe in Caroline Street for egg and chips, or down Bute Street to the pub whose name I forget. Everyone knew him in these places. Sometimes we walked streets with wonderful names: Womanby Street, or Golate where, in the olden days, sailors used to go late to embark on their ships for places I could touch on the globe at home; Westgate Street where, in the future, from a corner of the BBC box at the Arms Park, Cliff Morgan and Onllwyn Brace would become heroes.
In the Museum the Blue Lady’s dress is so blue it is a lake of bluebells in Porthkerry woods. So blue that she’s the sea off Pembrokeshire. Because of her, blue is my favourite colour. Once I’m seven, I’m allowed to wander the lofty halls, the staircases, the galleries opening out of galleries of this wonderful place all on my own, while my father checks something in his office over the road. In the Museum the woman in her Welsh costume cooks cawl and Welsh cakes and bara brith forever over the red coals of the stove in her lovely old-fashioned farm kitchen. In the Museum the fox steps from its den beside a glass stream, one paw raised, its glass eye gleaming.
It is as real as the fox cub, quivering, hot, with a thrilling smell, that my father carried home in his coat through the bombed streets, all the way home from the office in Park Place. He walked in the dark on broken glass up Cathays Terrace, across the junction of Whitchurch Road where people were running and crying, past the Carnegie Library, the cemetery, the park, the lake, up the hill and all the way to 1 Cyncoed Avenue where, once upon a time, we all lived together: me, my mother, my father, his mother, (my Mamgu, ‘Ga’), his sister Doris who was never to be called ‘Auntie’, her husband Uncle Howard, and my father’s eldest sister Ceridwen, known as Ceri, who once tried to run away with a married man, till my father stopped her at Cardiff railway station. ‘Worst thing I ever did,’ he said time and again throughout Ceri’s troubled life. Auntie Phyllis, the middle sister, Great Western Railway clerk from Carmarthen, self-taught teacher of speech and drama, was a frequent visitor, bringing books and reciting Shakespeare and the Psalms, and telling me not to talk so fast and to watch my enunciation.
I still feel the quivering heat of the cub, but what I see of my father’s walk though the shelled city came later from a letter to his mother, my Ga, safe at Fforest, the family farm in Pembrokeshire. The farm was kept going, just, by Jim, the bailiff, and for a while two Italian prisoners of war, Raphael, and Mario, who had motor bikes and let me ride pillion. They were good men. Nazis were bad men. Once, on the A48 near Bridgend, my father pointed to a prisoner being walked on the verge. ‘That’s Herman Hess’, he said. ‘A Nazi officer.’
The family came and went between Cyncoed and Fforest like a wandering tribe, Howard between his offices in Cardigan and Windsor Place, my father, travelling the country as O.B. Engineer for BBC Wales. After the night of the broken glass, he took me to Fforest to be safe with Ga by the sea, where the war was just a bad story on the wireless, a winter storm, Bendigeidfran raging at the waves. It was at Fforest in the lawless west that Doris skimmed cream from the tops of the churns in the dairy, and sent me for eggs from hen house and hedge for her delicious cheese sauces; where they laughed, conspiratorial and safe in the farm, to hear that the local policeman called my father ‘the whitest man in the black market’ for supplying his friends at home with contraband eggs and ham - imported to Cardiff once, they said, in a hearse, and where my uncle was fined for ‘watering the milk’.
I couldn’t date or explain it, but once, earlier, 1940 or so, my father carried me up the gangplank onto a ship in Cardiff docks. My glamourous mother followed. (‘So pretty she took our breath away’, the chemist in Cyncoed told me years later.) She wore high heels. It was night. We climbed down steep steps into the ship’s belly. A beautiful man met us. He was the Belgian Captain, my father’s friend from the days when he was a ship’s wireless officer for the Marconi company before he met my mother and joined the BBC. The Captain gave us a mango. The juice ran down my chin. The sea lapped at the porthole. The cabin rocked. When I woke up I was in bed at home and thought I’d been dreaming, except that next day I watched my mother plant the big mango stone in a pot. A beautiful stone, like the keel of a little ship, draped with the golden fibres of the fruit. It never grew.
Our house in Cyncoed was ‘The first house on the meadow’. An elderly neighbour told me so when, years later, at twenty-two, newly married, I returned there to live in the upstairs flat. No other house has established itself in such detail in my mind. I lived there at crucial periods of my life, times when heightened awareness of the indoorscape lays down rich memories: earliest childhood, the first years of marriage, the birth and upbringing of three children. Other places left the outdoors more strongly printed on my mind - Fforest, especially, where rocks, sea and cliffs, woods and waterfall, shippon and hayloft are clear and detailed, while the farmhouse interior remains vague. 1 Cyncoed Avenue was familiar in the complete meaning of that word, a house I can never leave behind. In a sequence of poems called Cofiant (biography) I record this:
‘Houses we’ve lived in
and history’s restless
in the rooms of the mind.’
It works both ways. I can enter that house right now, because it is a part of me:
‘How can you leave a house?
Do they know, who live there,
how I tread the loose tile in the hall,
feel for the light the wrong side of the door,
add my prints to their prints to my old prints
on the finger-plate?
How, at this very second,
I am crossing the room?’
I still recall, learning to walk on the oak parquet hall floor, the pleasing rattle of the few loosened blocks under my feet. We lived downstairs with Ga. Doris and Howard and sometimes Ceri lived upstairs. When Doris and Ceri quarrelled, Ceri would rant and wail and depart in a huff to live in a caravan in somebody’s field. As the house resettled into itself, the consensus was, ‘Good riddance’. She was always welcomed home after a month or so.
I lived mostly in the garden in a black pram with a white silk fringe on the hood. Trees trembled over my pram. I know now they were poplars. Their roots reached under the clay, shrinking and surging with the weather, cracking the walls of the family house they had built for £700. Uncle Howard was an architect. He built the Art Deco Plaza cinema, and the Bowling Club with the undulating roof that collapsed in a great snow in the ‘80s, and his own house in Sherbourne Avenue whose interior, even as a child, I loved. I suppose it must have cut a dash at that time, a modern house in a suburb of traditional dwellings, stylish, all blond wood and pastels like the colours in Art Deco cinemas, ivory, apple green and old rose sharpened with dashes of black, and a white baby grand piano that nobody played.
It was Doris and Howard who introduced me to the theatre, the footlights, the opening chords of the orchestra, the rise of the great curtain. Every Boxing Day they took a box at the New Theatre for a family trip to the pantomime. My sister and I wore party frocks for the occasion.
My mother, who aspired to education’s privileges, yearning for them with a hopeless air of personal disappointment, handed me a mixed bag of gifts and deprivations. She taught me to read before I went to school, but she banned Welsh. Her own experience as one of ten children of a Welsh speaking family demonstrated that a tenant farmer’s Welsh speaking children were poor, while a landlord’s English speaking family were rich. ‘I want you to get on in the world’, she said. According to her the South Wales in-laws laughed at her North Wales Welsh. Maybe, but life had made her oversensitive, and vulnerable to South Walian humour. She sang me nursery rhymes, taught me wild flower names, let me stay up late to listen to Saturday Night Theatre on the radio, and Jane Eyre serialised on Friday nights, and planned the doubtful blessings of elocution lessons, and boarding school, if I didn’t shape up. My father set the stories of the Mabinogi in locations wherever we happened to be - in Fforest, in Cyncoed, in Kingsway, in Roath Park. He took me to the Arms Park, and the opera. First, The Magic Flute, in one of the theatres and cinemas that used to rank Queen Street. Auntie Phyllis took me to Peter Pan in the New Theatre, and got me a week off school every year to visit Stratford. My first Shakespeare play was King Lear. I was ten, and wept for the old man who broke friends with his daughter.
One day the family story would fall into place, the ‘real’ become distinguished from the myth. I eavesdropped on grown-up talk in Welsh and English, voices over my head in a seethe of rumour, gossip, quarrels, scandal, malice, stories, the Bible, Grimm, Hans Anderson, the Kathleen Fiddler Omnibus. My father’s stories on the slow road between Cardiff and Pembrokeshire as the danger of bombs came and went. Words. Delicious words. Names. Coed ar hyd y Glyn. Splott. Golate. Brains Dark. Coedpoeth up north where Nain and Taid lived, and Gobowen, and Wrexham Lager Beer. Once at Fforest, balancing on the slippery wall that dammed the flow of slurry between the shippon and the sloping yard, I was muttering favourite words, collected into a couplet, stamping its syllables as I went:
‘Ga puts mentholatum on her sciatica
And Ceri soaks the clothes in Parazone.’
Parazone. I fell. Ga shouted. Someone carried me squirming like a piglet to the pool under the waterfall where clean little shadows of freckled brown trout darted away as I was plunged, shouting, in icy water, then carried me home, rinsed of muck, to be bathed by Ga in the scullery sink and dried by the fire to wait for Daddy to come and hear the sorry tale.
We moved from Cyncoed to Barry. Ga came too. Flatholm, Lakeside, Barry, our own house overlooking Cold Knap Lake. It was a white house with a flat roof and bay windows that followed the curve of its prow like a ship, and a flagpole where my father ran up the Y Ddraig Goch to flutter in the wind off the Bristol Channel as if we were, indeed, aboard ship. Doris said the house was the height of style. Both my parents had left school at fourteen, Llanelli Grammar School and Grove Park Grammar School, Wrexham, respectively, The only surviving son and youngest child of a rural railway man, the daughter of a tenant farmer who became a nurse, where did they get such ideas, and aspirations to what they could not afford? I knew they couldn’t afford it. Doris said so. I worried.
Soon after that I had a sister, five school years younger than me, enough to give us separate childhoods. Eat your egg, there’s a war on. Bombs fell on the docks. A piece of shrapnel made a hole in our dining room window. A German shell hit a ship with a cargo of oranges at Barry Docks, and broken crates littered the shore of the Little Harbour. Trained early to forage in food-rationing days, we children staggered home with our jumpers, skirts and knickers filled with fruit, the first real oranges we’d ever seen. One night my father woke me and took me to the window of my bedroom over the porch to see the lights of hundreds of planes flying overhead. And, in Llandough Hospital, Ga died, my last sight of her in her blue dressing gown, blowing kisses from a high window.
They sold ‘Flatholm’, because of money said Doris, and after months in lodgings in ‘Felden’, The Parade, we moved to Penarth, first to Cwrt-y-vil Road, and soon to Oaklands in Plymouth Road. The plan was that I would go away to school, and my mother would turn the house into a guest house. I loved the big square rooms, the secret corners, the oak floors and turn of the century stained glass, the large walled garden, ruined greenhouses, old coach house and stables, and the glimpse of sea from my bedroom window at the top of the house. Years later I learned that Oaklands had once been the home of the painter Ray Howard-Jones. My father spent his every spare minute keeping it from falling apart.
We could see the sea from Cyncoed, from a few hundred yards away at Ffoest Farm, from Flatholm, and from my attic bedroom in Plymouth Road. From my Cyncoed bed I heard the steelworks thump in the dark and trains going East, and a colony of tawny owls in the woods and fields that would become the Llanedeyrn estate, where a woman was murdered while out blackberrying. It was never solved. She and her basket of fruit still haunt those acres that look east over the Rhymney. From my cot in Flatholm I heard planes, and RAF men rolling home after Saturday dances at Bindles. In Penarth the call of the Breaksea lightship on a foggy night most moved me, one long moan before its voice broke. Then again.
And always the sea. Voices off. Rows downstairs. And radios. Wireless sets, they used to call them. Behind glass in the lit cave of each of our many radios was a needle, and with that needle you could navigate the world just by turning the knob. Later, on the bridge of a ship, holding the wheel tight, trying to keep the needle on a steady course, I remembered those first voyages by radio, through the languages, the crackling wastes of ocean between Cardiff, Athlone, Hilversum, Moscow, and home to Children’s Hour.
Nothing could put me off the sea, or water, even that early baptism of body and soul under the waterfall. I had to be hauled out of swimming pools by attendants, and called from the sea by Ga or my parents. Cold Knap Baths, Penarth Baths, the sea at Fforest. Even the lost boy didn’t stop me, though his ghost haunts every narrow place where the sea sucks or where water flows underground. The cover came off an exit pipe at Cold Knap Lido, and a boy was drawn into the pipe, where he drowned. And turned to marble. A boy called into the mountain by the Pied Piper. A girl from my class at Romily Road Junior School, Barry, a traveller’s child from the caravans, was taken and murdered. Two other children were found half buried in leaves in a wood. The Mirror, or The Graphic, or The News of the World, headlined the story ‘Babes in the Wood’. My mother hid the paper but I saw it. Story became life, life became story. It happened far away, but for me it was Porthkerry Woods, with bluebells and the sound of the sea, a train crossing the viaduct and my feet running down dry woodland paths and out over pebbles in broad sunlight where my mother was unpacking the picnic.
Stories layered with stories, all laid down in the mind to become part of being.
It’s often said, and it’s true: children were free then. At the age of eight or nine we’d leave home after breakfast and not be expected home till dusk. We (my friends and I) walked along the beach from Barry to Porthkerry. We made fires. We built dens in the wild wood between the park and school. We got deliberately marooned on Sully Island - a peninsula when the tide is out, but an island at high tide. At ten or eleven years old, I and a friend would cycle from Penarth to Cardiff, under the subway from Penarth Dock to Ferry Road, then up through Grangetown, the Castle grounds and on to Rhiwbina woods, or over the mountain to Caerphilly. We caught trains to unplanned destinations. Best of all, I would wait at the end of the pier in Penarth, alone or with a companion, for a Campbell’s steamer bound for Weston or Ilfracombe. At dawn, with a queue of other voyagers, leaving my bike chained to the pier, I would wait for the boat to hove into view. Glenusk, Glengower, Ravenswood or The Bristol Queen, or, best of all, The Cardiff Queen.
When, at eleven, I went to boarding school in Porthcawl, another of my parents’ unaffordable aspirations, for seven years Cardiff became The Weekend and The Holidays. Weekends we’d go shopping, my mother, my sister and I, in the big city stores. My mother was always entranced by the glow and glamour of department stores, Howells and David Morgans and Evan Roberts. While she bought fish at the still famous stall in the Market, I’d slip upstairs to see puppies in the pet stall, and browse in second hand books finding, once, a copy of The Maid of Sker. I wanted to read it because of Lorna Doone, and because it had familiar places in it - Newton, Sker House, and Tusker rock.
Then we’d go with our treasures to have tea in the Angel or the Royal, fingering the papery packages, sniffing our wrists for free perfume trials, looking at a Vogue dress pattern, a bolt of floral cotton, items from Haberdashery or Lingerie - Oh the words! - reading Woman’s Own and School Friend over tea and cakes. I’d have a new school blouse from Roberts, maybe a library book, some romance I hid from my mother - The Sheikh, something by Ethel M. Dell. There was no such thing as teenage fiction, and no transitional literature between childhood and adulthood.
Libraries had always been full of objects of desire. To a bookworm, there is nothing so bleak as the last page of a book an hour before bedtime, and nothing more thrilling than the Saturday morning find in the library, a new novel by a favourite writer, or something illicit, and hours of secret reading ahead. It was almost a vice. From early childhood I’d read all night, unable to stop turning pages. In school I read under the blankets by torchlight. Home for the holidays, sent to make the guests’ beds in the roomy old house in Plymouth Road, I’d be caught reading the books on the bedside tables.
One weekend, home from school, at Doris and Howard’s in Sherbourne Avenue, I staged my first political demonstration. First to have a television, they invited us all to watch the Coronation. I sat on the window seat, ‘nose in a book’, while my mother complained that I was ‘missing history’. I declared myself a republican. When I did sneak a look, I saw a grainy grey picture, the white face of the new Queen lost in the rain.
In my O-level year, my father fell seriously ill. After an operation, he took six months recuperation leave from the BBC, and went to Patagonia as a supernumerary on a banana boat. While he was away, and I was mostly at school, something changed in my mother. Her disappointment at his lack of promotion into management in the BBC had embittered her. He came home for Christmas looking tanned and well, but it was a bleak season. I saw that he was estranged in his own home. He had brought home taped recordings he had made among the Welsh-speaking people of Patagonia, talking, and singing in their eisteddfod. The BBC refused to use the tapes because my father was an engineer, not a programme maker. I sensed deepening disillusion. Forty years later, in the Museum book shop, I looked up my father’s name in the index of John Davies’s Broadcasting and the BBC in Wales. Writing about the BBC’s prejudice against its own Welsh-speaking staff, John Davies quotes their treatment of my father:
‘J.P.K.Williams, appointed assistant maintenance engineer at Cardiff in 1928, was denied promotion because the superintendent engineer “did not consider that the Welsh temperament (was) as suited to supervisory duties as the English temperament.”’
I was standing in the lofty foyer of the Museum, which I’d loved all my life. My father had been dead thirty seven years. I felt a bomb go off in my mind. My mother’s bitterness was justified. These bigots had blighted our lives.
We five 6th formers were St Clares Convent’s first University entrants. My father was ill again. Money had run out. My sister was away at school. Instead of going away from home to university, I went to Cardiff on a county scholarship, and travelled daily from Penarth.
I was in love with the very idea of university, and relished my new life. Cardiff was suddenly glamourous. Home from boarding school, I was grown up, an undergraduate. I loved the Civic Centre, the ornate white buildings, the rose red road of Edward V11th Avenue where I walked to college every day under huge elms that touched overhead. Later, they were all killed, every one, by Dutch elm disease. I saw them felled. It was like watching a great cathedral fall.
On my first day as an undergraduate I walked from the station up Westgate Street, Castle Street, Kingsway, under the cloudy elms of Edward V11 Avenue, through the Gorsedd Gardens, up the crescent of the drive, under the porch and into the cool spacious hall of the university building, excited, and terrified that now I’d arrived I would have to speak to someone.
Just being in the library with an essay to write, books spread on the table, the sentences shaping, themselves, made me feel I was on my way. By day, when I wasn’t at lectures, or lounging with new friends in the women’s common room, in the Student’s Union or the Kardomah, I liked to stay on in the city as long as possible. If I went home there’d be housework to do, my father to worry about. I’d be back to my old life. So I’d work on in the lovely university library in Old College, whose generous space barbarians would later destroy with an ugly mezzanine floor. In the evening, after a cup and a scone at the Hayes Island Snack Bar, where tea was poured into ranked cups in a continuous hit-and-miss stream, I worked upstairs in the old Central Library, where a tramp snored over a book and pigeons cooed on the window ledges - sounds I still associate with books, with reading, with falling in love with the idea of study, and with English Literature. In the same way, sitting annual exams became associated with the banners, bands and choirs of the Miners Gala passing down Queen Street on a hot June day.
Was I really working? I put the hours in, certainly, and got a kick out of writing a good essay, all the while wired to the presence of male undergraduates - the ratio was four men to one girl in those days. The library stairs were good for swirling a circular skirt with a flicker of broderie anglais beneath, the table in the alcove perfect for imagining, under the guise of studiousness, that the handsome student at the next table might be looking your way.
Learning for learning’s sake would, we were told, give us the world. This seems amazing now. I don’t think many students feel the romance of university that we did. We knew we were privileged and were grateful for it. I was no scholar, but I loved English, language excited me, and reading gave me other worlds. My fellow undergraduates were mainly from the valleys, miners’ children, all of us backed by whole tribes of relatives, all excited to be pioneers, to be young, to be the generation given the big chance. We were the granddaughters of the Suffragettes, the children of Nye Bevan and the Welfare State. We were political. We voted. We demonstrated. I listened, dazzled, to Michael Foot speak passionately and brilliantly in Crwys Road Chapel. It was obligatory to wear academic gowns to lectures and in town, so we were a conspicuous group. Cardiff belonged to us. The places where we consorted, flirted, romanced, sorted the world out, planned the anti-Suez march, anti-war or anti-nuclear demonstrations - the Students Union, the Kardomah, the Hayes Island Snack bar, the pubs, the Old Arcade, The ‘Woody’ - put a new, grown-up Cardiff under my skin and into my bloodstream.
May, in my second year, my father died in a nursing home on Penylan Hill. His last words to me were, ‘Hwyl fawr, fach.’ All the big-wigs of the BBC attended his funeral.
I graduated, got a job in the BBC in London, and after 18 months of being a stranger with a funny accent, I came home to Wales for good to marry my boyfriend from university days, and to live in 1 Cyncoed Avenue again. Our children were born there. We remained married for 10 years, and then, not surprisingly, found we were not who we’d been at 18 and 21 respectively, and we grew in different directions, while remaining friends, remaining family.
We sold the house in Cyncoed in the 1990’s. It was a painful moment, and a moment of freedom. We sold a house and an attic of skeletons. I cut ties, and shed a lot of luggage. My daughter and sons, all born to that house, two in my parents’ old bedroom, had grown up and left home for Art College and University. My life had shifted west to my ancestors’ country, to a new life. I visited the house where I was born less and less. I’d found it was possible to live somewhere else, without ever leaving the city in my bones. I kept what I wanted, left the rest in the skip in the road.
It’s my daughter’s city now, and her children’s. The new Cafe Quarter is a step from the Market, the Hayes Island Snack Bar. There is a new hum of confidence, and somewhere called Cardiff Bay that we called ‘down the Docks’. But listen to the voices, the gossip, the nosiness, the unstoppable cheek and humour, the interrogation of strangers. Take a taxi. ‘Where d’you live? West Wales? There’s lovely. Got a caravan in Tresaith. Small world.’ We are driving past the castle towards Kingsway. I ask, ‘Which is your favourite animal, on the wall?’ ‘I likes the bear.’ ‘Me too!’
This essay was first published in Cardiff Central. Ten Writers Return to the Welsh Capital edited by Francesca Rhydderch (Gomer Press)