My new book of short stories is finally available on Amazon. My highly talented partner, Petra Brown, designed the cover- and I think it gives a very good taste of what is inside.
To quote the blurb,
"This collection of ten stories gently meanders around a theme of journeys and relationships. The book opens with a bus journey to Manchester, seen from the points of view of a varied selection of passengers. The characters are drawn with humour and gentleness, their stories examining the bonds of friendship and affection. The pen portraits will raise a wry smile, a sigh of sympathy- or in one case, raised eyebrows.
Other stories explore the varied personalities in a cycling club, the dynamics of a large group of young siblings who hi-jack a steam roller, or the doubts of a young female quarry manager when confronted with a supernatural entity. There is light and shade in these tales, but also a feeling of optimism... because sometimes the journey is more satisfying than the destination."
The stories are:
Derek's New Motor
The Steam Roller
The Space Ship
The Chain Gang
The Flying Scotsman
The book comprises 189 pages and is available on Amazon here for £10 plus postage.
The ISBN is 979-8363723575
Sub titled "Blue Stones and Green Trees", this is a book about the quarry and forestry tramways of the Dyffryn Angell.
I first encountered the fascinating village of Aberangell in mid-Wales almost forty years ago. A friend and I were driving round the area exploring disused railway remains, in this case, the traces left of the Mawddwy Railway and the tramways in the woods. I was fascinated, but mystified and frustrated. If only I’d had this superb book back then, I could have much more readily understood what I’d been looking at.
Since then, I have wandered extensively over this area, finding out where things are. I did a little research, too, and thought that there wasn’t much to go on. I wrote a few articles on my blog about the various quarries. Then I heard that Dan Quine was working on a book about the area and I thought, well, good luck with that. When I saw it was published, I put my name down instantly, not expecting much. Now I have the book and I have to say that it has blown my socks off.
It is such a detailed account in every way. It gives details of the tramways, the life and times of the quarries, the forest operations and most importantly, the people and personalities that make the history of the area come to life. Dan writes in an engaging style, unusual for a deeply delving history such as this. The tramway rolling stock is fully described as far as possible, where there are gaps in the narrative they are bridged by scholarly conjecture and hypothesis. There are many very fine illustrations by the author. There are a multitude of important, never before seen photographs of the workers and local people. The sections on the quarries and mines are superbly detailed- having been underground in most of the places I can vouch for their accuracy. Throughout the book there are maps and diagrams, drawn by the author, to help the reader visualise where things are located. The maps themselves are all to a very consistent style, beautifully drawn and of a very high standard.
Dan must have been digging very deeply into the information strata and has come away with a book that is much more rewarding than I suspect the quarries and forests were to their owners. More than a mere transport history, it is a fascinating insight into a disappeared era, where the players on the local stage are brought to life. It made me think that the scurrilous politicians of today are nothing new, some of the quarry operators in Dyffryn Angell would have given them a run for their money.
There are other fine books about mining and quarry operations, about tramways and the like, but very few come anywhere near the quality of research and graphics of this one. I can unreservedly recommend it.
My new collection of poetry and writing is available on Amazon. It's the first collection of poems since "Traces" back in 2017. The subject matter is similar; quarries, industrial remains and all that- except that this time there's a section on experiences from childhood. The blurb goes:
"A new collection of poems opens first with 'Passage', a section featuring works that explore relationships, how small, childish insights become tempered by time and experience. 'Curlews' tenderly laments the dissapearance of one of our favourite estuarine birds. 'Northbound' will resonate with anyone who has had to make a long, tedious motorway journey. In the second segment, 'Wales', the focus moves to the slate regions of the North with the historical exploitation of people and the landscape. Blackwood's love of Wales and his enthusiasm for the industrial vernacular shows through clearly, yet he manages to sidestep the obscure; the writing is always accessible and rewarding."
"Bowden's Boat" is still in the editing stage, but I hope to have it out there before Christmas.
Something of a gem, this book. At times eccentric and idiosyncratic, it’s an exploration of the brief life of a young man, a maker of early sixties blue movies who at times seems like a leaf blown about by the zephyrs of fate, catching against niches and corners -until landing in a tight spot where he is saturated by the world he inhabits.
Before I go on, I should deal quickly with the main cause of approbrium about this book; it contains detailed and fairly graphic descriptions of blue movies, fairly early on. Hence many reviewers have denounced the book as “filthy”, “disgusting” etc. There are other episodes of a similar nature further into the story. I can’t try and justify or excuse these except to say that for me at least, they are essential to the style and substance of the story, and fit in the the obsessively detailed writing. There is very little graphic violence in the story, which to me is much more offensive. I guess if you are going to write a book about someone who makes dirty movies, then you have to describe what he is up to.
The writing itself is never less than compelling, despite using the old conceit of a narrator who becomes fascinated with a character, in this case Tim Purdom, who is the aforementioned early exponent of blue movies. There is research into Tim’s origins, reading like a documentary-style investigation. Interviews with people who knew Tim lend an air of authenticity while underlining how tough life was for folk in the Isle of Grain, where he was brought up. Frewin’s descriptions ooze atmosphere:
“Here beyond the sloping grassland and the geometric concrete blocks designed to prevent the Germans invading, beyond the weathered groins and piers and half-submerged abandoned barges on the mud flats, is old Father Thames himself, emptying into the North Sea.”
The descriptions of London itself are dripping with a sense of place- I found myself imagining it in black and white, drawn in and beguiled. I know it seems a strange comparison, but at times I was reminded of J.B. Priestley’s “Angel Pavement”- the characters and the locales in both novels have a threadbare innocence about them which fascinated me. London, this tattered, bombed-out place where everyone seems to be on the take, is described in a series of filmic scenes, not surprising since, as has been mentioned many times, the author was assistant to Stanley Kubrick and has spent his life wrapped up in the genre.
I’m glad he took to writing, though. I never had the feeling that the characters or the locales were just bought in from central casting, they all stand on their own merits. After the documentary section, about forty pages in, time slips and we are there with Tim for the main part of the book. Following him as he moves from one slightly unsavoury association to another, eventually becoming mixed up with Stephen Ward, the agent provocateur of the Profumo affair. He skates about on the surface of this world- it’s difficult to sense whether he is entirely innocent, simply trying to get by for himself, or whether he knows that he is becoming embroiled in a shadowy scene of procurement and double-dealing.
Tim’s girl friend, Vanessa, is a well-drawn character who moves the story along- she is a strong and opinionated person who encourages Tim to make more blue films and earn more money. Of course, the world of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties is not one where there are many opportunities for women- unsurprisingly for the times, Vanessa is a hairdresser.
The reader becomes aware of a pressure building behind Tim, as the police, in the form of some bent detectives, take an interest in him. Other agencies seem to be tailing him- whether they are the security services or just hoods isn’t clear. But in other ways, Tim’s life is looking up, he has met a girl who he has feelings for and it seems that if he dodges the dark shadows gathering, he may find his way out of all the mess. Sadly, it proves not to be.
It’s a testament to the writing that I was disappointed that things ended the way that they did, and Tim stayed with me long after finishing the book. The last section, which returns us to the present and the narrator, helps in some ways to bring a sense of closure to the story- and the ending is perfectly fine. I don’t think it will satisfy those who like their thrillers cut and dried, but for me that was the only way it could have ended, painful and inconclusive as it was.
A gripping crime/conspiracy thriller that entertained me- I can recommend unreservedly.
Long suffering readers of my "Treasure Maps" site will know that we're no strangers to Dinorwig. But this time, Petra and I were showing my son and his partner around, neither of whom have seen the place. They also brought along their utterly charming rescue dog, Loxley.
Just lately, we've tend to enjoy the lower, bosky levels, like Ceubran or Pen Diffwys- both start out mildly, then open out into spectacular vistas of slate, not to mention great views of the mighty Ceiliog.
So this visit, we wandered about, stopping to examine things, fascinated with the place. Then we made for the path through the quarry, the one the climbers call the "tutter's path", a wide thoroughfare and right of access. It also gives some spectacular views.
We wandered off the path along an old tramway to what I thought might be Bonc yr Efail, below. I'd be pleased to be corrected on that, because we found a loco shed that I hadn't seen before. I thought I had seen every shed, and documented them- I know, not as clever as I thought I was.
Here it is, the loco shed. Inspection pit inside, usual arrangements for water and a small caban at the rear. So, have I become completely crossed up, as there is not supposed to be a shed on ponc yr Efail? Might this be Dyffryn, then? Or Pen Diphwys?
We did find some tantalising artefacts, even after all this time. A lovely bit of graffiti, which I failed to photograph (what a noob) some cinders from a fire, possibly a loco fire...and some scraps of metal which could have been brake blocks. All were left where they lay, of course.
Subsequent research has confirmed that this is indeed Dyffryn. The last locos to be stabled here from the nineteen fifties to the mid sixties were King of the Scarlets, and the mighty Michael. Before that it was Cloister and Velinheli.
It just goes to show that familiarity with a place doesn't make you immune to surprises. To hide the fact that I was caught out, I'll leave you with a portrait of a keen quarry explorer, the excellent Loxley.
When I lived in Glasgow, I made the maps for a couple of Ordnance Survey publications, notably “25 Cycle Routes in and around Glasgow” with Erl B Wilkie. The Southern routes capitalised on my knowledge of the little-used roads in the area, which I used for my training rides. I’m amazed to see that it’s still on sale, despite the later depradations of the M77, which chops up many of the quiet little byways in the area.
Fast forward to today- I have lived in Wales for eighteen years now and have discovered a few favourite routes here that I’d like to share. When I first moved, I made towards the west from Porthmadog along the sketchily provided Cycle Route through Pentrefelin and Criccieth. Cycle provision is less than enthusiastic in these parts and is applied in a half-hearted way. It improves towards Chwilog, once you are through Criccieth. Later, I discovered some gems north of the A487 that, while hilly and challenging, give some wonderful views and respite from cars, especially in the winter months.
I should mention the Lôn Eifion. A cycle and walking route using the formation of the old L&NWR Afon Wen branch, it runs from Bryncir to Caernarfon and is beautifully smooth and scenic, especially the southern leg. It’s a part of the NCR8, which takes a tortuous course to link up with it. Cycling the deadly A487 from where I live in Porthmadog is not something I’d be prepared to do, so I normally drive to the start- which defeats the plan, really. What the cycle route needs is for the disused railway formation south towards Afon Wen to be adopted- that would be very handy, but I am sure it would cost too much and be politically distasteful.
Anyway, for anyone interested, here is the first of a few of my favourite rides, mostly radiating from Porthmadog.
1. Porthmadog to Cwm Pennant.
Distance 33 kms approx (20.5 miles)
A mixture of car free cycle track and quiet roads.
Starting from Porthmadog, at the car park beside the railway station, ride towards the swimming baths until you see a cycle track on the left. This goes along towards Lidl and eventually comes out at the back. Turn right, past an oil depot and carry on until you pass the Travel Lodge on the right. Take the left here until you reach the A497, where there is a cycle path on the opposite side.
The surface is a little grippier than the road and there are the occasional low-hanging branches or brambles in summer, but the council do maintain it, bless them. This route carries on to another roundabout- Penamser- follow the cycle track left. You pass a couple of lay-byes on the left, but the gradient is generally easy, just a slight uphill push, unless the wind is a headwind, which it often is …
Eventually, after under a mile, the road dips down to a railway bridge and the Wern Estate. Cross over with care here and take the rough track under the bridge which leads to the Manor. Almost immediately, take a left up a very rough, steep road, before the gate house. This passes two other houses (I generally walk up, although my partner has ridden it.). At the second house, it changes into a footpath- a delightful little byway through lovely trees and fields, which is charming in any season. Ride this with care as it can be muddy when wet, and has a couple of rock humps (although it’s fine on a mountain bike).
After a short while you come past a very old cottage, Pont Faen. It’s a Ty Haf now. Pass this, closely by the front door, (it is a right of way, don’t worry!) go over the slate slab bridge, through the very squeaky farm gate and then turn right to Penmorfa along the gravel farm road. Views of Allt Wen and Craig y Castell open up beyond the meadows to your left, seen between the trunks of magnificent Beech trees. It’s a shame that the pylons stride over the landscape here, but they are not too obtrusive. You will note that the road starts to go down a steep, slate surfaced slope- if you are not very confident, it might be best to walk this; it’s dangerous when wet. I find it fine on my mountain bike, but it makes me uneasy on my drop handlebar gravel bike.
The road veers right and passes the cemetery. After going through a gate, St Beunos church (1698) can be seen to the left. It’s in the care of the Society for Friendless Churches and is a fascinating place. The lychgate has deteriorated in recent years, but is still impressive, built (funded, I guess) by Mrs A M E Jones of Parciau. While the church is fairly dull externally, it has some interesting artwork inside, mostly by women. After the Great War, stained-glass artist Joan Howson (1885-1964) created the windows of St Cybi and St Cyngar in the porch. There’s also an elaborate alabaster wall monument to Sir John Owen, ‘the Welsh Muskateer’, who was buried here in 1666. Other work is by Constance Mary Greaves (the screen and Pulpit.) More about the church here.
Carrying on, past the row of cottages on the left, ride up the small rise past a garage on the right that repairs four wheel drive vehicles. The road then swoops down a tree lined lane, veers right and up the first serious climb of the day. It is short, but a handlebar gripper. It doesn’t take long to walk up it, if you don’t fancy riding- and be comforted in the thought that it is much steeper coming up the other side- and we won’t be coming back this way! The hamlet of Penmorfa is reached next. Climb up to the A487 and cross over to ride up a lane past a converted chapel. The road briefly joins the route of the old Gorseddau Tramway, a disused mineral railway coming from Porthmadog towards Cwmystradllyn and Cwm Trysgl. At the first tree shrouded junction, take the lane marked for the NCR8.
I won’t wrap this up, the climb on the NCR8 from here to Pen y Garnedd is another handlebar gripper- a handlebar chewer, actually. It rises for 1.6 kms or nearly a mile at varying steep rates of gradient. As Sustrans say in their leaflet, “attainable by those with a reasonable level of fitness”. Not exactly Alpe d’Huez, but quite a thought. However, the lane is beautiful and very quiet, and some lovely views open out the higher you climb. Your torment is nearly over when you join the Golan road at the top, passing through a farm. Turn right, and a short climb on a wider road takes you to the summit, for now at least. You can take a breather and enjoy the wonderful views of the Nantlle Ridge, Cwm Pennant and the Llêyn Hills- plus a bonus panorama of Moel y Gest and Cardigan Bay looking back from the top.
It’s all downhill from here, at least for a while.
Ride on along the fast, undulating road. Before the turning for Cwmystradllyn (another time) is a farm called Cefn Peraid, notable because we are crossing the Gorseddau Tramway again, which goes underneath the road here in a tunnel. The tramway has been nearby all the way, although for now, it will head towards the eponymous Gorseddau Quarry to the right. Carry straight on, until after 621 metres an old woollen Mill can be seen to the right. It is permanently closed to the public nowadays, but was once a corn mill. It was converted to a Woollen Mill in 1850, and still contains machinery such as looms, carding machines etc. A water wheel, to be seen at the rear of the complex, and later a turbine, powered the machinery.
A short while after the mill, a turning to the left is encountered, signed for the NCR8 and Garndolbenmaen. Take instead the right turn. This little hamlet is Golan. The hill slopes steeply down past an old chapel on the right, then veers left after a small farmyard, now a Ty Haf. This is a delightful stretch of country, level and passing some lovely fields and hedgerows.
Approximately 767 metres on from the Gorlan junction, a turning for Brynkir Mansion and Tower is reached.
The Mansion is no more, although I have written about the ruins elsewhere. The 6-story Gothic tower was built in 1821, by Sir Joseph Huddart, who lived at the nearby Brinkir Mansion between 1812 and 1841. He was a high sheriff of Caernarfonshire and was knighted (on the Britannia Bridge!) for building the tower to welcome the Prince of Wales to the area. Some accounts say that the tower was built during a spell of "work creation" for men who had fought in the Napoleonic wars, which at least allows me to think more warmly of the man.
If you decide to take a look at the tower, it’s a steady climb up to the farm turning for the tower, about 445 metres. The farm road is a right of way, although the track after that to the tower isn’t, but I haven’t been challenged in 17 years.
Back at the junction, our route goes left, over a picturesque little bridge and past a delightful Georgian lodge house, Gatws Fawr. Turn right at the lodge house. You are now on the Cwm Pennant road. A succession of easy gradients takes you up into the cwm, past a steep gravel turning to the left which leads to the Hendre Ddu slate quarry, long disused. This is well worth a look, as there are stunning views from it, and a lovely pit- rewarding the steep climb up. Back on the main route, Carry on for 1.81 kms to St Michael’s Llanfihangell y Pennant church. There is a lovely view of the church from the road, taking in the quarry on Moel Isallt.
The church is 17th century in origin and was considerably altered in the 19th century, with the west gallery dated 1847. Further restorations carried out in 1888. It is considered architecturally to be without merit and has been on the market for years.
This is the last stop before the fierce climb of Y Gyfyng, (which means narrow or pinch point) over the bridge crossing the Afon Dwyfor, and up to the old schoolhouse. We will climb over the threshold to the upper cwm, something of a handlebar chewer, but once over this, there are only small undulations in the road all the way to the end of the cwm. Over the shoulder of Moel Isallt, the magical part of Cwm Pennant begins. It follows the Afon Dwyfor until the mountains close in ominously around. At the head, the mist shrouded citadels stand above the shattered ruins of slate quarries and deserted farms, echoing to the cries of ravens.
While Cwm Pennant is on the unfashionable side of Snowdon, and little visited, it's beauty is well-known to anyone who has been. The bard Eifion Wynn, in his famous poem about the cwm, wrote:
"Why God, did you make Cwm Pennant so beautiful,
And the life of an old shepherd so short?"
Jim Perrin, in his book about the hills of Wales wrote about the cwm: “Here is a landscape where every field corner is thick with ghosts.”
As you descend from the Gyfyng climb, you pass Pennant Methodist Chapel, built in 1834. The chapel was rebuilt in 1870, in the Simple Round-Headed style of the gable entry type, but by 1998 Pennant had fallen into disuse and is currently under conversion to a Ty Haf.
Riding along a narrow but well maintained road here, meandering between fields and the river is a pleasure after the climb from the bridge at Gyfyng. Even in summer, there is rarely much traffic along here, except on Sundays, when it seems to be favoured by locals having a post-lunch drive out.
Before the next bridge over the Dwyfor there was until recently a picturesque public footpath from Plas y Pennant farm, leading up to Chwarel y Plas and the Nantlle Ridge. Access to the path has been lost since the house was converted into a Ty Haf.
Remains of mines abound in the woods to the left. At the next bridge across the Dwyfor there is a gate across the road. To the left of this is a footpath to the famous Cwm Ciprwth mine, with it’s water wheel still in place- well worth an excursion, although it will take a couple of hours on foot, and is a strenuous climb. On the way, you can take in the remains of the Gilfach copper mine.
Once through the gate and over the modern, concrete bridge, the final section of the cwm opens up- and it is stunning. Fairly level going now, with the amazing view of the Prince of Wales slate quarry ahead and the majestic peaks of Moel Hebog and Moel yr Ogof to the right. Ahead lie Mynydd tal y Mignedd and Trum y Ddysgl, sharp, threatening, cloud scraping peaks. It is the delightful thing about this ride that you can get so close to these peaks without actually having to scale them. (I think we’ve done enough climbing already!) Finally, a little pull up to Braich y Dinas farm, where often the friendly farmer opens the gate for me and unlocks the final magical stretch of half a mile to the end of the cwm. I sometimes try out my Cymraeg on him, and so far he hasn’t laughed… at least to my face.
I haven't provided a map for this final section, since it is obvious; you just keep on the road heading for the end of the cwm.
There are often cattle loose on this stretch of road, but I haven’t had any problems with them, apart from having to navigate round their leavings on the road. Cow and sheep poo are the devil to remove from gravel tyres! The end of the cwm road comes too soon, but you can have a snack and a drink from your bidon while surveying the remains of the Dol Ithan Gethin quarry on the side of the hill opposite. A track leads from the car park here up to the Prince of Wales quarry, high above- another worthwhile excursion if you have a few hours to spare. I have seen folk on mountain bikes negotiating the Gorseddau Tramway that runs a few hundred feet above here on it’s way to Cwm Dwyfor, but honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Now it’s time to retrace our steps. The climb back up to the Gyfyng isn’t as bad this way, it’s a little more gentle. Then it’s a civilised meander down to the Gate house, Gatws Fawr again and on along the road to Golan. But our route has one more surprise. The climb back up to Golan is pesky. Slightly longer than you’d expect and just a little too steep for comfort. Once over this, there’s another slightly uncomfortable pull up to the summit at the cemetery, nothing too difficult, though. And then, it’s downhill all the way back to Porthmadog!
Turn left down the NCR8 towards Penmorfa, taking care going down as it is steep and you can soon build up quite a speed. When you reach the foot of the climb, don’t go down to Penmorfa, but turn left along the formation of the Gorseddau Tramway. This is a cycle route, although with a few more gates than I’d like. It skirts the petticoats of the Allt Wen ridge and passes a couple of old slate mines high up in the woods that once used the Tramway to send their produce to Porthmadog. This is a special stretch of the route, the trees give dappled shade in summer and the surface is good enough providing you ride a gravel bike or a mountain bike. The Old Tramway comes out at the Hospital, where you negotiate the car park and ride down past the school and on to a short stretch of the A487, before crossing back on to a cycle route towards Porthmadog. Now we are back on the tramway as it heads under the new by-pass, finally sharing space with y Cyt, the old canal as it runs behind a housing estate back into Port. Turn right, scoot along the pavement for a couple of metres and you are back where you started.
Thanks to Eric Jones for the photo of Gatws Fawr, under this creative commons licence
Thanks to Petra for the use of two of her superb photos.
Ty Haf means a holiday home.
I picked this up without any great expectations and sat reading it in the car while waiting for my partner. I was immediately plunged into the characters and situation and couldn’t wait to get home and continue reading. The writing is beautiful, sparse and elegant. Patrick is a prickly, insecure and damaged character, probably somewhere on the autism scale. We learn from his own observations that his upbringing was difficult, an indifferent father, a brother who took every opportunity to belittle him. His relationship with his previous girl friend was compromised and left him hurt and confused. Of course, we’re only getting Patrick’s side of the story, but nevertheless, I felt great sympathy for him. Sadly, alcohol magnifies Patrick’s insecurities and I began to see him more as a potential criminal as the book progressed, while not losing any sympathy for him.
The second part of the story is heartbreaking as he is reduced down by the prison system. The writing is never less than acute and superbly evocative, bringing out the terror and degradation of the prison world. There are some lovely sketches within this rather grim half, and it rewards the reader time and again. The ending is sad, poignant and yet optimistic, as if by distillation of the social niceties, we finally dig down to the essential spirit of Patrick and his rag tag collection of acquaintances in jail.
There were a couple of things that rang false with me, although nothing that spoilt the book. He describes getting a Schwinn bike as a teenager…really? Why not a Raleigh, or a Peugeot? Shwinn’s were as rare as hen’s teeth in the sixties, being an exotic US bike. Hyland’s descriptions of the women in the book are wonderful, but a couple of times she let herself down- for instance when she describes how Patrick really admired how Bridget’s large breasts didn’t move or wobble… had to chuckle at that :-) Maybe I am just being a nerd, as I loved the book and found the atmospheres totally immersive even when achieved with such an economy of means. A five star, the best book I’ve read so far in ‘22.
The book is finished! The cover has been designed and produced by my hugely talented partner Petra Brown- and we are going through the final proof stages now.
I am desperate to see the book published, as it's been an ambition of mine for so many years. It won't be long now...watch this space!
I’ve been back to Manchester a few times, to ride on the trams, visit the Lowry centre and examine what remains of Trafford Park Industrial estate (not a lot). But I hadn’t been back to Piccadilly station until last week- for the first time in about forty years. The occasion was to meet my daughter, who was visiting us from Edinburgh- where she lives now. It was exciting to be back at the station, hearing the train announcements and seeing just how busy it was. The station staff were a lot more pleasant than my last visit in the ‘eighties; the surroundings were too.
As we drove along Fairfield Road towards Piccadilly I saw a shiny modern bus coming towards us- a 219- much like the bus in the photo above. Glimpsing the route indicator had a strange effect on me. As if I was in some tacky Dr Who episode, I was transported back in time. The hoardings advertising perfume and electric cars alongside the road dissolved. Modern developments faded away like smoke, to be replaced by derelict old warehouses, throwbacks from the canal age. For a few fleeting moments, the bus was an old Mayne's half cab, emitting a haze of diesel- as I found myself in the sombre, fume laden air of another time.
Maynes could never compete with their successors, Stagecoach for frequency of service, especially with all the works in the area playing havoc with schedules, although their buses were always on time and clean as far as I remember- although that could be my rosy glasses. I don’t know the full story of Mayne's and their demise but I guess after all this time, things are for the better. There’s a Mayne’s AEC like the one above on display at the Manchester Museum of Transport- we must visit, hopefully when/if we survive the Covid peril. I always wondered what those AEC Regents were like to drive, as at that time I was driving an ancient AEC Mammoth Major 8 legger, for a demolition company in Manchester- helping to knock down those aforementioned old warehouses, I’m ashamed to say.
Safely back home in Porthmadog, I consulted my books about Manchester's transport to check just how rose tinted my memory had been. I have rather a lot of bus and railway books, mainly thanks to people like Nick’s Railway Books in Machynlleth, who always seems to have something I can’t resist. I didn’t see the true significance of the book below until I got it home and saw who it had once belonged to: Nigel Dyckhoff, a well-known author of railway books about Manchester and the Cheshire lines, several of which I have. His bookplate and signature are inside, and it’s nice to think of him looking through the album. He was a Mancunian and a very successful businessman…railways and model railways were a spare time passion for him.
The book is a fine overview of the fifties, picturing many locations that are now altered beyond recognition. The photos, by A. C. Gilbert and N. R. Knight are exemplary. I confess to having spent many hours poring over them, especially those of places once familiar to me. There’s a photo of a Gorton K3 2-6-0 coming through Stalybridge Station- I remembered seeing one once in the same location, probably in the middle sixties. I asked a railwayman on the platform what it was, being unfamiliar with the type as I’d just moved from Crewe. He replied “It’s a bloody demic*, lad, that’s what it is.” I then had to ask one of my new school friends what a “demic” was… they were very amused.
*Demic: Noun. A thing that is worn out or broken. (Mancunian colloquialism)
Talking of Railway titles about Manchester, here’s another book from my collection. By the well-known photographer Tom Heavyside, who must have had the opposite of a mis-spent youth, as all he seems to have done is take railway photos in the ‘sixties. All day and night, judging by the number of books to his credit. Some might say that I wasted my youth on cycle racing, drawing, trying to snog girls and playing music- but then perhaps Tom Heavyside did all that as well, you never know. Some people can multi task. This is one of the Ian Allan colour albums and is a nice compliment to the Gilbert/Knight volume. I don’t put too much store on colour, sometimes steam locos look better in black and white- but there are some cracking shots within. Both books are all the more impressive when you consider that the photos were taken on old fashioned film cameras
My experience this week in Manchester is a reminder that if you take your eye off something, things often change. Not always for the worse, either. Looking across to the city from the Macunian way (“The Manchurian Way” as a friend used to malapropise it) the place looks very dynamic and exciting. It has it’s own problems, of course, and has just been kicked in the goolies again by the government as they break ever more promises. But from what I saw briefly the other day, it’s still a bold and busy place.
I picked up the book "Feet in Chains" (Traed mewn Cyffion) by Kate Roberts in Oxfam Porthmadog one morning. To be honest, I recognised the Peter Prendergast painting on the cover and was intrigued- the writer's name was curiously familiar too. It was only 99p...I could hardly go wrong, could I?
Back home with a cup of coffee, I scanned the first page, then went back and read the first three paragraphs, whereupon the afternoon slid by as I read on, oblivious to my surroundings. It's a good job I'm my own boss!
Afterwards, I remembered something on the internet about Kate Roberts. She was the Brenhines ein llên (The Queen of our Literature), a towering figure in Welsh writing, which is saying something.
Like I said, I was drawn in right from the off. The book opens with a young newly married woman listening to an outdoor sermon in North Wales during a preaching festival. The year is 1880:
"The hum of insects, the gorse crackling, the murmur of heat and the velvet tones of the preacher endlessly flowing."
What a beginning! She had described the Wales I love in that sentence and I was there on the hillside with Jane Gruffyd. Although in my case, I would have been scanning the skyline for slate quarries, not listening to the preacher. Nevertheless, Robert's description of his words reminded me of a stream coming off the mountain, an endless, mellifluous sound, but meaningless. Then she subtly burlesques the preacher and the congregation:
"He (the preacher) was able to preach effortlessly, restricted only by his clothes and his collar pressing in on him."
and the ladies:
"Their new shoes were pinching, their stays were too tight and the high collars of their new frocks were almost choking them."
It's a fine introduction, and though religion makes few significant appearances after this, the book soon settles into it's work, becoming a beautifully evocative study of family life, set against the hardships and pettyness of community and quarry. Jane's relationships with her husband and her children are drawn honestly and clearly without any false-sounding notes. There is no plot, except for the inexorable ticking of the clock as life moves on; the novels sets itself deeper into the landscape and into the reader with every page. After a while, I was struck with a slight resemblance to Jane Austen in the way Roberts uses humour and pathos with her characters, but unlike Austen, it is rarely at their expense.
The injustices at the quarry are drawn well, particularly with the "Little Steward", Morus Ifan, a small man of tiny achievements who took every advantage over the men in his charge. Robert's words have the ring of veracity when she describes the quarrymen, presumably at Moel Tryfan or Alexandra quarry:
"He could see the men in the shed, their caps pulled down over their eyes, cold and miserable, waiting by the doors of the shed for the hooter to sound. Like grey rats in their holes, they would peer round the doorposts. Then, when the hooter blew, they rushed headlong like a pack of hounds down the tramline towards the mountain."
The nature of work in the quarry is described through the thoughts of Jane's son Will, and her husband Ifan. The ever-dwindling rewards of their way of life are set against those perceived of the townsfolk who cut about in the latest fashions. There are parallels to be drawn here with the present day and our obsession with material things, thus being the unwitting dupes of the monied few.
While the tone of the book is often dour, like the grey landscape it is set against- and the hardships of the characters test them severely, the relationships between the family themselves are a source of both brightness and of conflict. Their inherent nature shining out from the many difficulties. Jane's alliance with her husband's sister Geini, forged early on in the novel, is particularly satisfying. She stands with Jane against the tyranny of her mother in law and is a source of emotional support. Family, of course brings pain and hurt, causing the son Owen to wonder about his choices and situation. The family have sacrificed much to send him and his brother Twm to university, putting a strain on ther family finances- when he gains employment, Owen sends home every penny he can. His sister, Sionedd, however is a self serving, shifty character who inherits their grandmothers money and yet gives none of it to help out. There are some fine passages where Owen tries to reason this out, but comes to a working conclusion that it is human nature and "he hates them all for it," as he sits surrounded by portraits of his ancestors. Roberts lets us know that he realises eventually how for him, ultimately it's about being honest, about having a duty of care. About love for one's family.
I shouldn't have been surprised, that the book takes a strongly left wing viewpoint - this was Wales at a crossroads and the son William is a passionate advocate of the union. Seeing that the men at the quarry were too meek to challenge the quarry owners, he goes away to make a new life for himself in the collieries of South Wales, becoming a Union official.
The war comes, an English war, a capitalist war that they want none of, but taunted by the folk in the town and by their uunsatisfactory situations, the boys enlist and Twm is killed. What shocked me was that the letter to inform the family of Tom's death in action was written in English. Neither Jane nor Ifan could read it and they had to ask a shopkeeper, who delivered the devastating news.
I put the book down reluctantly after I had finished it. I realised that it had touched me because it is set in a place I love and is about a people who fascinate me. I also sensed that it could have been written about society today and the themes that recur, the inequalities, the manipulation by the wealthy. And about the squabbles and small victories of ordinary family life. All that was missing was the very real concerns over the environment and our future- but I wouldn't wish that on Robert's characters!
The book I had bought was a Seren imprint, translated by John Idris Jones, a translation that gave me all the salient bearings to make sense of the story and it's characterisation. I haver since read a review of a new translation, by Katie Gramich- it will be interesting to see how this compares. (less)
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