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Copyright ©2017 by Alan Thorne


Alan Thorne has asserted his right under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.


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ISBN: 978-1-86151-841-5





To Shel, the girl who made my life.

To Gill, the girl who kept it going.




Introduction



I have just embarked on my seventh decade. During my working life I was a serving police officer for some 27 years, rising to a relatively high rank. When I retired and found that I had time, that very expensive commodity, on my hands, I began to enjoy delving into Britain’s history through the pages of well-researched and light-heartedly written books, and on the odd occasion, when a natural pause occurred, I would lift a glass of chilled chardonnay to my lips and find my mind just slowly wandering; I would look upwards, my stare fixed on something which had no relevance to the moment whatsoever and I would see images of my life’s memories slowly passing before my eyes.

Now my life, I am sure, has no more significance in this universe of ours than those of millions of other folk, but my journey to date has been something of a rollercoaster ride. Sitting there in my favourite chair, a myriad of thoughts would sail past and very often I would become conscious that I had a smirk on my face, sometimes a smile – or, far too often, I would become aware of small, delicate, yet very wet tears meandering down the wrinkled folds of my cheeks.

Only weeks after my birth in 1944 it was clear to a few close members of the family into which I had been delivered that I was not going to be afforded a typical childhood with parental care and guidance. I was certainly too young to comprehend that, but I believe my mother had an inkling. I was, as it turned out, nurtured under the care of my maternal grandmother and due to her loving and competence, I like to think I developed into an acceptable member of society. In fact, she moulded me to a level which enabled me many years later to reach one of the of the highest ranks in the British police service.

In recent years, the literary world has been bombarded with autobiographies written by or on behalf of celebrities, politicians or other notable people, usually published just in time for the summer holiday period or before the Christmas stockings are hung up. There are a few where the subject is still in early middle age and these give a clear indication to the reader that there will be a ‘part two’ to follow. Those make me a little suspicious. Are there more interesting tales to tell, or is it more of a commercial exercise?

Forget celebrities and other notables – each of us has a story to tell which may well be far more interesting to read than fiction. My journey has been somewhat painful at times and when I first considered committing my tale to paper I had deep reservations, as following certain events, it has taken me several years to regain some form of equilibrium in my life, and I was afraid that the disturbance of old and often unpleasant memories would instigate feelings of remorse, anxiety or even depression.

I mentioned to a few close family members that I had thoughts of penning a few words. This received an enthusiastic response from my younger son, and when I discussed the subject in depth with my wife and best friend, she had no hesitation in showering me with support – what more could a man ask?

As Max Bygraves used to say, ‘I’m gonna tell you a story’. It’s about my life, where I came from, where I’ve been and what I did, with all the ups and all the downs. It will demonstrate how someone’s life can be torn apart with no regard for loyalty and dedication, and how a travesty of justice can be considered fair game for the ‘establishment’. Everyone sometimes stops, thinks and ponders about decisions they have made along life’s journey, and I am no exception, but this task on which I am embarking gives me the opportunity to review in some depth more than 70 years of modern history in which at times, I had a prominent role. If just someone, somewhere, absorbs an ounce of enlightenment, I’ll be happy.




Chapter 1



What’s the very first thing you can remember? This is a question that’s often brought up at the odd social gathering or celebrity interview. Goodness knows why because, generally speaking, no one has any great desire to know, but it does prompt conversation and occasionally, amusing answers.

It is, however, a question I can answer with some clarity. I would have been no older than 12 or 13 months and being held in the arms of my maternal great-grandmother, who was standing in the front doorway of a small terraced house in the village of Argoed, the place where I was born. Argoed is a small but spread-out community situated some five miles north of Blackwood in the Sirhowy valley, in a corner of South East Wales. There were three or four family members present, including my grandmother, Amelia, who was waving goodbye to her sister Marion. Great Aunt Marion was a career-minded spinster, married to the nursing profession. She had been visiting, having driven her small saloon car down from Merthyr Tydfil General Hospital, where she held the esteemed post of Matron. My mother was one of three sisters and two brothers and no doubt, Aunt Marion was the influencing factor within the family that prompted my mother, Ceridwen, and her sister Joan to pursue nursing careers.

Some years before I was born, my mother had been appointed District Midwife for Argoed and the surrounding area. It was a busy role and because of her employment I was to spend most of my childhood in the care of my grandparents, living under their roof well into my teenage years. My father’s name was James Thomas Thorne, but he was known all his life as Jim. He was born in Plymouth, into a working-class environment, and on leaving school with no significant educational qualifications he joined the Army as a professional soldier. My parents met just before the Second World War in Wellington, Somerset. I have never ascertained why my father had drifted north from Plymouth for what was a life-changing event for them both, but my mother had been sent to this pretty West Country town to complete her domiciliary midwifery training after undergoing residential tutorship at Crumpsall Hospital in Manchester.

I arrived into this big wide world via the small front bedroom of my gran’s house in this Welsh mining village on a typical bright, breezy March day in 1944. My mother was attended by her colleague, Nurse Pritchard. They were professionally responsible for different areas of the valley but covered for each other during periods of sickness or leave.

The midwife was a well-respected pillar of the community, on a par with the local doctor, village bobby and chapel minister. I mention chapel because the vast majority of the valley population were staunch Welsh Baptists, with a smattering of Methodism. There were very few Church in Wales followers. My mother, even at the age of 97, was still receiving Christmas cards from, as she put it, some of her babies, many of whom she had delivered more than 75 years before.

The work of a district midwife in those days was not easy, with the hours long and varied. No expectant mother was admitted to hospital for the birth in the post-war period unless there was a pre-determined medical condition which could cause risk to mother or child. It was the district midwife who dealt with everything, perhaps with a little help from a close family member. Very often, hot water and other sundry items were ferried to and fro by a very excited dad who, if the truth be known, didn’t really want to be there. Because of her involvement with the community, everyone got to know my mother and she them, and although I felt some pride for her on occasions, it caused me considerable consternation well into my teens when I was introduced in company as ‘Alan Thorne’, because the response was usually ‘ah, Nurse Thorne’s son’!

What’s in a name, some may ask. Well, a great deal to me, because the name that was recorded on my birth certificate was to cause me annoyance, frustration and anxiety for the next 65 years. Choosing a name for one’s offspring is an important pre-requisite to parenthood; it is a task which I believe should not be taken lightly and should be a joint and agreeable decision made, whenever practicable, by both parents. The surname ‘Thorne’ had been pre-determined by my father’s ancestry and the sole name ‘Alan’ was amicably decided upon, or so I am reliably informed by my mother. It was to be spelt that way because that was the custom in our slice of the Welsh valleys.

After completing her training in Wellington, my mother was living at home with her parents when I was born. It was my father who registered my birth, so he must have been home at the time. I know he was present at Dunkirk and that he left Britain for the D-Day landings in June 1944, so he could well have been on leave shortly after my birth, before the big Allied push back into France.

He visited the local authority offices and registered my birth in the name of Frederick Allen Thorne. When I became old enough to discuss what to me was a serious issue, I ascertained from my gran that the name Frederick had been chosen by my father, as he explained, in memory of his brother, who had lost his life at sea in the Atlantic naval battles. The spelling of Allen seemed, he said, to be the natural way, and the only way that came to mind in the Registrar’s office. As far as I am concerned, if my father had wanted to commemorate his brother by the naming of his own son, then he must have given thought to the subject; it would not have suddenly entered his mind at the time of registration. My father and I never did become natural conversationalists. In my view his actions were at best thoughtless and at worst devious.

Now let me make it quite clear: although the name Frederick gives me no joy – in fact, I just do not like it – I have no wish to cast aspersions as to its adoption anywhere or anyhow. In fact, there have been many great figures in history so named. However, it was not a good ‘handle’ for a child born into a deprived Welsh valley community in the post-war years. As a toddler it was bad enough, but history has dictated that I would be saddled with it throughout the enlightened fifties and swinging sixties, at an age when I had need to make my mark on the world. Whatever anyone else thought, it became my own unswerving view that my officially-declared name was a millstone around my neck, causing me untold embarrassment. In primary school there would be a hushed snigger rippling around the classroom every morning as the teacher marked the register.

I was too young at that stage to explain that I wanted to use the name Alan on a day-to-day basis and when I reached my teens and was able to converse in a matter-of-fact manner, people would reply, very often with a sly smirk, telling me that ‘Allen’ is a surname and as a Christian name should not be spelt that way. I have never discussed this subject in any depth with my mother, but I would have thought she would have been annoyed at the time. My gran was the one to whom I could talk and I know that she certainly was.

My parents and I were in no way close and I never could engage in any meaningful, sincere or harmonious conversation with either. Furthermore, it is sad and perhaps tragic that I was never able to have any kind of relationship with my father throughout my whole life. I am extremely grateful for the support and care he afforded me whilst I was growing up, but in any deep and lasting relationship there must be understanding and love. I lived with the result of my father’s actions throughout my teens and most of my adult life and kept explaining to everyone, and I think subconsciously convincing myself that it didn’t matter. However, I became very annoyed with my situation every time my name was called out in the dentist’s or doctor’s surgery. In our doctors, the blasted thing was piped over the tannoy. I used to imagine there were several persons lurking there who knew me and were secretly chuckling. Furthermore, in recent years, my wife and I have been accustomed to taking holiday cruises and as many will know, the moment you embark on the vessel you have selected, you no longer have the need for cash. You are duly photographed and your whole life is governed by your ‘boarding pass’. This card contains brief cruise details and your name. The name is taken from the passenger’s inventory which is, in turn, taken from your passport. To be brief, it lists the name imprinted on your birth certificate. The pass has to be produced to everyone and everywhere, and I soon found that I was being addressed by everybody as Fred.

I did eventually do something about it. In my 69th year I officially changed my name by Deed Poll to a simple Alan Thorne. My wife duly organised notification to all bodies and organisations that legally needed to know and at last, I no longer have any literature being posted through my front door bearing the name Frederick Allen. Had I known that the process was so easy I would have done it years ago.


As far as I can recall, I had a relatively settled and happy childhood. With my father away doing his bit for our country, my pre-school years were spent living with my mother in my grandparents’ home. Because of my mother’s duties I was brought up on a day-to-day basis by my grandmother, of whom, over the following 16 years, I grew extremely fond. We developed a bond, which looking back, was something really very special.

My grandfather, a relatively short man with a temper to match, was a coal miner all his working life. I must admit that in my early years I was really afraid of him. His level of tolerance was extremely low and he would shout and rant if the slightest thing displeased him. His strait-laced Victorian values were inflicted on me at every family Sunday dinner, as I clearly recall. It was always a roast and whenever possible my mother, and sometimes visiting relatives, would also be there. This was the only meal of the week when there would be a bottle of Corona pop on the table, with me having the honour of choosing the flavour from the four-bottle crate which was delivered once a month. I would be permitted one half-glass of this celebrated liquid, but my grandfather decreed that not one drop was to pass my lips until my plate has been cleared of every morsel of food. Now what was that all about?

The whole family appeared to me to hold the view that my grandparents were a happy, devoted couple and neighbours, friends and acquaintances would have assumed likewise. After all, they remained together for over 60 years and parented five children. But I grew to know differently. My grandmother not only had to endure domestic hardship through the lack of financial stability, she was subjected to marital verbal abuse, stopping just short of violence, which was perhaps accepted as the turmoil of married life in the first half of the 20th century but would certainly be condemned in our modern era. However, the words ‘separation’ and ‘divorce’ were never mentioned in pre-war society, not even quietly within families. The only advice given out then was ‘you made your bed, you lie in it’.

My grandfather hailed from the heads of the valleys, an area described in graphic detail by Mr Cordell in his widely-acclaimed book The Rape of the Fair Country. After their marriage, they settled in the small village of Tafarnaubach, but the depression of that time forced him to seek work further afield and they moved to the house where this story began. My grandfather had secured work in Markham colliery, a little way up the valley, and I understand that within several years they were able to afford a mortgage on the property. In 1958 my grandmother was like the proverbial dog with two tails when she persuaded my grandfather to have a bathroom extension built on the rear ground floor. Before that, in my pre-school days, I can remember only too clearly my weekly scrub in the tin bath in front of the living room fire.

They occupied this house until they were both well into their nineties. What a social transformation and technological advancements they both witnessed throughout their lives. They could both clearly recall the invention of the motor car, which was initially restricted to 4mph with the attendance of a man with a red flag walking in front. Then, decades later, they both sat in their living room and watched Neil Armstrong on television as he set foot on the moon.

I visited the avenue in which I grew up a short time ago to acquaint Gill with my ‘glorious past’ and found that several new detached houses have been built on the nearby field where my friends and I created all kinds of games. There were rows of multi-coloured plastic rubbish bins lined up where our goal-posts used to be, but what really brought a lump to my throat was the large ‘TO LET’ sign which had been staked into my gran’s front garden. The sign was almost as big as the patch of grass in which it stood. In the few minutes I was there, hundreds of thoughts flashed through my mind, but the one which lingered most was the fact that my gran had never been really happy living there. And that hurt.


1945 saw peace once more settling throughout our islands and family life for most folk was again becoming normal, with thousands of dads returning from Europe. Mine was amongst them, and it soon became obvious that we could not all live in the small terraced house. In addition to myself and my parents, my grandparent’s youngest, Uncle Dave, was unmarried and living at home.

The election of July 1945 saw a Labour government take power, and amongst many of the nation’s problems was a serious shortage of housing. This issue was partly solved in some areas by the design and manufacture of the ‘prefab’. These were relatively small prefabricated houses of approximately 635 square feet when assembled. Each component was no more than seven and a half feet wide, to enable every part of the building to be transported from the factory to the site on the back of a lorry. The prefabs could be bolted together on a previously-prepared concrete base in less than a day. There were several different types manufactured from a combination of asbestos, cement, steel, wood and aluminium.

The Bedwellty Urban District Council, which was the local authority governing our area, decided to erect a small estate of these prefabs in the adjoining village of Markham and my mother, who had requested council housing and who, for the wellbeing of the community needed to remain in the area, was allocated one. I would have been four or five years of age, and I can remember seeing the lorries chugging past the end of the avenue laden with these large, strange-looking deconstructed boxes, one of which was destined to be my home for the next 16 years. These temporary houses were designed for no more than 10 years’ use, but it was 21 years before they finally replaced them.

The village of Markham was only some one and a half miles up the valley. It had approximately 1000 inhabitants and had mushroomed around the deep shaft colliery owned and operated by the National Coal Board. The pit produced a very good quality steam coal and I did hear, on more than one occasion, that the quality dug from Markham was such that it was used in the engine of the royal train, but I cannot vouch for the truth of that.

Markham was situated right on the top of the mountain, approximately 500 feet above sea level, and our home was erected on a barren windswept field on the edge of the village. There were 22 dwellings on the little estate and our small family moved into number 6 David Street. You will now be aware that I am one for simple names, so it well suited me. The local councillors who had decided on the names at their planning meeting must have lacked inspiration because they named our neighbouring street ‘John Street’.

I attended the local primary school from the age of five and soon accepted that this daily incarceration was going to be my fate for the foreseeable future. Like all youngsters of that age I did my best initially to disrupt this course of action, but it proved fruitless.

I progressed through to the junior school, which was really in the same building; our daily access was simply through a different gateway and the two playgrounds were divided by a high close-mesh fence. This is the time of life when most children start to gradually understand what life is all about, and I was no exception. I made friends with certain classmates and drew away from others because my senses told me to. I made firm and positive impressions on the teaching staff, and naturally, the good vibes came from the teachers who took the lessons I enjoyed; English, history and woodwork.

There was one person at this time, the PE teacher, Mr Maynard, who really was a thorn in my side. It was not because I loathed games or gymnastics, because I didn’t. In fact, I was pretty average at rugby and played for the school team in latter years. However, this particular member of the teaching profession just kept picking on me. Everything I did and every answer I gave was wrong. I finally came to the conclusion after two or three terms that the reason was that our Mr Maynard, a married man, was conducting an extramarital affair with Miss Richards, the music and arts teacher. I, along with other classmates, had sussed this out, and I believe he knew that we knew. But why did he only pick on me?

My home life was still being disrupted, because with both of my parents working I was still spending most of my non-school time with my gran. Every weekend and all through the holidays I would live and sleep at my gran’s house in Argoed, and when school finished on other days, I would walk, or usually run, the two miles or so to her house, taking the shortcut through fields. During term time, I would make my way back up to the prefab to sleep in order to attend school the next day. The time for my homeward bound trek was usually about half an hour after the street lamps came on, and I use the term ‘back up’ because the route between Argoed and Markham traversed Penylan Road, which was a hill with a one in six gradient and approximately three-quarters of a mile long. It was just perfect for free-wheeling down on our bikes, but I never looked forward to that evening climb back up after gallivanting about with my mates.

If I give the impression that my childhood was being disrupted by my parents’ work, I was not bitter in any way about it. I didn’t care – I enjoyed every minute with my gran.

I lived with this form of dual residency from the age of about eight through to my late teens, because by the time I gained employment at the age of 16, all the friends I had made lived in Argoed, so even through secondary school I had this semi-nomadic lifestyle. I just used the prefab as a place to rest my head and the older I got, the later in the evening I would arrive. I would have any social or family conversation with my mother as and when our paths crossed, which gave me the opportunity to ask, when the need arose, that age-old question “can I have…?” I rarely had any kind of discussion with my father and then only when my mother thought that he should intervene because of some misdemeanour on my part.




Chapter 2



I was an industrious young fellow, and I was able to secure gainful employment in my tender years. My first job was an evening paper round through Markham village, for which I was paid the sum of five shillings a week. I secured this prestigious position at Edward’s Newsagents, one of seven shops in the village, primarily because the proprietor, Harry, ran a taxi business and had a contract with the health authority to convey my mother out on her rounds and to emergencies, as she never learned to drive. She was in a prime position to vouch for my character. Like most youngsters, I soon became fed up with the role, not because of the effort required or the miserly recompense but because the round took at least an hour to complete and that was vital time, especially during the shorter days, which I could have spent travelling down to Argoed and my friends.

There is a macabre and tragic twist to this part of my tale. After giving my notice to Harry Edwards, he took on a young girl who was about my age, 10 or 11, the younger of two sisters who lived no more than 100 yards from us. My mother knew the family well and had in fact, delivered the youngster. She had been engaged on my paper round for no more than three weeks when one evening she was reported missing. Her body was found the following day, partially hidden in undergrowth some 600 yards from the last house to which she had to deliver. A middle-aged man, known by everyone in the village as Wally, was arrested. Wally was mentally impaired, and took on any menial task he was offered around the village to supplement his allowances. As in any close-knit community, the talk around the village for weeks revolved around that classic statement “who would have thought it?” Well, the poor girl’s family was left thinking for a long time, because at his subsequent trial, Wally pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

My second job was in Argoed with a Mr Hyde, who operated a mobile greengrocer’s van around the village. He took me on as an extra pair of hands, but he wouldn’t allow me to serve anyone or have anything to do with cash transactions, which was no reflection on my character. Tudor Hyde, like his father, who had run the business before him, was just tight, the typical modern-day Scrooge. The role didn’t last for more than three months and was confined to weekends because the hours were long. I would be off with him in the van mid-morning and eventually finish late evening at anything up to 10 pm after loading the goods for the following day. For this, I would receive a few apples or other fruit that was in season and maybe a bar of Fry’s Five Boys chocolate; quite popular at the time. I can really thank my gran for freeing me from this role. She could see that I was being exploited and introduced me to my third part-time employer, Bill Collier, who was a farmer and had the sole milk delivery round in the village.

Bill’s farm was on the other side of the valley in an outpost called ‘The Grey’. It was a three-and-a-half-mile walk, and Bill was not happy unless he began his round by 6 am. This meant an early rise for me at 5 am so that I could arrive in good time to load the van with sufficient crates of pasteurised milk and ample eggs – Bill didn’t like missing a sale of eggs. It was a weekend and holiday job and it became part of my life for five and a half years, and I loved it. Bill was a man I could look up to and respect, and in turn he trusted me implicitly, giving me responsibility for all aspects of the role.

The morning ritual would unwind as I arrived between twenty to and a quarter to six, and as soon as his kitchen light flickered I would tap the window and be welcomed by Bill’s wife, Irene. The Rayburn would be springing to life and I would be presented with my mug of coffee – a little milk and one sugar. Whilst waiting for Bill to appear I would gaze at the plaque hanging on the right-hand side of the chimney breast; it displayed the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling and within weeks I knew it off by heart. I would read it over and over in my mind, giving my voice different inflections as if I were performing in the Royal Albert Hall in the guise of Richard Burton or some other prominent actor.

Bill would suddenly draw my attention back to earth with his appearance and practise his daily ritual, which was to drink two inches of sherry from a glass containing a raw egg, before enquiring about my health. Both of them really made me feel part of their family, even though they had two sons of about my age fast asleep upstairs. Having donned his flat cap from behind the kitchen door he would shout “come on young man!” and we’d be off. It was not many mornings that I left the yard without a quiet word with Dobbin the carthorse, and then we’d start trundling down the lane towards Cwm Argoed in the old Thames van with the bottles rattling so loud that it was pointless trying to talk to each other.

I think Bill was the man who gave me my lifelong interest in the automobile, because during the round, when we came to a safe place, he would allow me to jump into the driver’s seat, slip the handbrake off and roll to the next stop. It was a real dream when in 1955, he purchased a new van; a long-wheelbase Bedford CA which had sliding front doors. I really loved these times. I was as happy as the proverbial pig in the farmyard.


The weekend social life in Welsh valley villages in the mid-20th century took two forms, depending on whether your family was religious or otherwise. If otherwise, the men of the family would spend most of their time in the pubs or working men’s clubs, with their womenfolk shopping for provisions and tending to their family’s needs. The clubs were a widespread feature in Wales and more so in the mining valleys, because of their industrial labour force; they evolved as a direct result of the Sunday licensing laws, which applied throughout the Principality. The law prohibited the sale of intoxicating liquor on the Sabbath and to counteract this, all types of institutes and associations would register themselves with the Magistrates’ Licensing Committee, which allowed the supply of intoxicating liquor to bona fide members. These two words are important because ‘supply’ did not, in law, amount to a ‘sale’ and therefore drinks could be legally consumed. It has been said many times that the law is an ass. Well, I couldn’t possibly comment!

Another farcical aspect of this situation, which I soon became aware of at the commencement of my later police training, was that the Licensing Act empowered police officers to enter any licensed public house at will to prevent or detect offences, but because these ‘clubs’ were registered and not licensed they were deemed private premises, so in the event of any suspected offence being committed, a search warrant was necessary for the police to gain lawful entry.

Now, if a family was in any way religious, and mine was, the situation was completely different. The devout Welsh Baptist was a moral crusader who supported abstention. Regular attendance at chapel was the norm; three times each Sunday with various meetings and services during the week. My grandmother hailed from Maesteg with a very devout Baptist upbringing, and she was instrumental in fostering a similar lifestyle in her offspring. My grandfather, on the other hand, was something of an enigma. He portrayed very Victorian values, but it was a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. He never gave me the impression of having any religious leanings. On the contrary, he must have had some thoughts on hell and damnation, as one or both of these words were included in his vocabulary each time he blew a fuse, which to me, at my young age, seemed quite often.

It therefore followed that I was encouraged to tread the ‘straight and narrow’, which resulted in me accompanying my gran, and my mother when available, to services at Argoed Baptist Chapel at 10 o’clock each Sunday morning and again at six in the evening. I was now eight years old. I hadn’t got a clue what the services were all about, I was utterly bored, and the only thing that made the whole experience bearable was the never-ending supply of Mint Imperials produced from Gran’s pocket.

As I became older and was able to step out into the wide world unaccompanied, I was encouraged to attend Sunday School at two o’clock each Sunday afternoon. Looking back, it was this that gave me the opportunity to further my horizons, allowing me to develop into adulthood.

Yes, it has probably been the same for millions of other youngsters; you suddenly find yourself in an arena where you can meet people and make some meaningful friendships. It just happened to be that particular Sunday School for me. I was not in any way religious, certainly not at that young age; I didn’t develop any religious inclination and I’m certainly not religious now. What life has showered on me has made me question whether there is in fact anyone up above looking out for us at all, as will become clear.

At Sunday school I became friendly with two or three boys, but more importantly I became acquainted with a few girls, and one in particular. Her name was Eirlys Dodd. She was my age, one of two sisters and lived in the village. Her mum had sadly died a few years earlier and her dad was the headmaster of the local primary school. If we had been 10 years older and at the local dance hall in Blackwood, I could have said I’d ‘pulled’. It was however, much more subtle. I was somehow attracted to her and I’m positive she felt the same. We would each suddenly become coy and shy if we became aware that the other was paying attention. What subdued my emotions at that age was the fact that at any gathering or activity our friends would laugh and joke and make fun of our apparent relationship, but there is no doubt that I was hooked.

Over the next few years our relationship grew; purely platonically, I would add. We would have both been in our 13th year before we shared our first kiss. My attendance at Sunday services continued, but I was now sitting upstairs in the gallery along with the other youngsters, where our time was spent poking fun and giggling. We even embarked on screwing up sweet wrappers and using Mrs Harris, the organist, as a target – something she didn’t like one little bit. I can add here that at the age of 11, my parents enrolled me for piano lessons with Mrs Harris, which I detested. It was not the piano which I disagreed with but the fact that for two one-hour long evening lessons each week I was marooned and missing my leisure time with our ‘gang’. As I grew older I would come to regret not having persevered with the piano, though if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard someone say the same, I’d be a very rich man.

In addition to chapel each Sunday, my friends and I, which obviously included the girls, were now attending various other religious sessions throughout the week. There was Young People’s Guild on a Tuesday evening, which was really a discussion session with the aim of encouraging interaction between those who saw their futures happily embraced within the body of the church. Then there was Band of Hope on Thursday evenings, which was again designed as a session when the minister or a church elder would try to convince us of the evils associated with drink. I had no interest in any of it, and neither did Eirlys or any of our friends. If that had not been the case, we would most certainly have not been ‘an item’. Our whole weekly charade was a reason for friends to get together for social intercourse and general fun whilst having the support and encouragement of our families. Although these gatherings at church were enjoyable, what we all really looked forward to were the country walks we’d embark on afterwards. We would walk for miles through the narrow lanes that criss-crossed the surrounding villages.

This period of my life seemed like Utopia and the school holidays seemed endless. When I hear the doom and gloom about global warming from what seems an over-abundance of environmentalists, I immediately think of what seemed the endless scorching summer days of my youth. I can clearly remember many occasions when the road’s tarmacadam melted from the strength of the midday sun. Three or four of our gang would regularly set off armed with a small pack of sandwiches and water, or a drop of that Corona pop if we were lucky, and make our way, usually over the mountain, for miles, where we’d spend the day bird-nesting, building a camp or catching newts. We’d usually arrive home about five and find time for food before embarking on an evening’s entertainment pestering the girls. Even school time didn’t put too much of a damper on it for me; I was out of class and on my way down to my gran’s by three-thirty each afternoon. But to be honest, I can’t say I had a strong dislike for school. Apart from that PT teacher, I seemed to get on with most of the staff and although I was in no way academic, I got by. I say ‘got by’ because I was bitterly disappointed when the results of the 11 plus examination revealed me as a failure. My parents didn’t seem to mind, or at least neither spoke to me with any seriousness about it. I was more concerned about what my gran would say, but I found I had no reason to worry there, as she understood.

My worries were dispelled somewhat when I found that most of my friends were in the same boat, so I was not the only duffer. My biggest worry was that Eirlys has passed, and although she had been attending a different junior school in Argoed, she would soon be transferring to the county grammar school in Pontllanfraith, some seven miles away. That would surely disrupt our lives and our relationship. For some months up until this time, we had been meeting up at various locations where we could steal some time on our own without interruption from friends.

Nearly all those who had been unsuccessful in this now infamous examination were destined to attend the secondary modern school, but in our county of Monmouthshire there was an established boys-only school, Pontllanfraith Technical School, known throughout the county as Pont-Tech, and like the grammar school it was in Pontllanfraith. Entrance was governed by selective examination, but I was thrilled to attain a pass, and during the summer of 1955 I made several shopping expeditions with my gran to obtain the statutory uniform. Pontllanfraith, which is really a suburb of Blackwood (though residents wouldn’t agree), was about a mile and a half from the grammar school. All pupils of both schools living higher up the valley would need transport to and from school, which meant I would very often be on the same bus as Eirlys.

Pontllanfraith Technical School was the first of its kind in Wales and therefore to some extent it had the task of setting the standards for the future. There was an all-male teaching staff who wore their gowns at all times and I clearly remember that the chemistry teacher actually wore his mortar-board cap. The headmaster, Mr Glyn Price, always referred to as the Principal, was a strict disciplinarian. No misbehaviour would be tolerated in class and if any teacher had the slightest need, you would be marched to stand outside the Principal’s office to await his deliberation.

I, along with two classmates, was sent on this frogmarch one afternoon for alleged misbehaviour, discovered when our technical drawing teacher suddenly returned to class, having left us to quietly get on with our work. The Principal kept us standing in trembling anticipation for about half an hour before advising us in his sharp, incisive voice that he would deal with us at assembly the following morning. A very anxious sleepless night followed. We all received six of the best, three on each palm, before the whole school. I was only 12 years old at the time, but I did not dare tell anyone, apart from claims of bravado to my mates. One thing was certain; I never did again disrupt a class for the remaining four years at that establishment.

The original school, which is still in use as a youth club, was actually a disused chapel which was only just big enough to accommodate four classrooms; the remaining school buildings were spread around the neighbourhood. It was a walk of half a mile to where the metalwork forge and woodwork benches were housed. However, apart from the brutally-inflicted corporal punishment, I enjoyed my time there. As the school’s name would suggest, the theme of the education was to prepare young lads for a future within an industrial environment, and although we were taught the basic academic subjects there was no real emphasis placed on them, which suited me.

My time at this secondary school was uneventful and I fitted in as one of those ‘run of the mill’ pupils who made up the numbers. I do recall quite well that I was fortunate that my parents (and when I say parents I am really referring to my mother, as she was the main breadwinner) were in a position to be able to pay for me to participate in two school trips, both to Austria. The first was to a suburb of Vienna and the second was much more interesting, to a small village called Zirl in Tyrol in Austria. Both trips were part of life’s learning curve; we had no educational projects to complete. It just seemed to be a great holiday for us lads and to a certain extent, for the staff as well. I suppose they did have to care for our welfare and safety, but it didn’t stop us sampling the local bitter on a few occasions as far as I can recall.

One memory of school life whilst in my middle years was of the Head Boy. Like my classmates, I was somewhat wary of him. He was called Mike Dixon, quite tall, full of his own importance and liked to display it at every opportunity. I kept my distance and our paths never crossed at school, but I came face to face with him some 10 years later when I found that he was one of 80 traffic patrol car drivers under my supervision. He never recognised me from the past, but I kept a careful eye on him to ensure that he had grown out of his slight arrogance.

My social life at this time had graduated from those long walks when we’d go looking for nature’s weird and wonderful, and my time was spent cycling or playing football with the occasional visit on a weekday evening to the village institute, where we spent many a happy hour consolidating our misspent youth playing snooker. On a Saturday, we would journey to Blackwood to see one of the latest releases in one of the two cinemas. Sunday was chapel and courting. Eirlys and I still saw each other, but not as often. Actually, I believe that it was about this time that my mate Glen told me she was seeing someone else who’d been spotted arriving by bus to visit her home. I shrugged it off as not important enough to bother me – or did it?

Christmas 1959 had passed and I was embarking on my final term at Pont Tech. There was provision for pupils to stay on after reaching 16 years of age to further their studies, but I definitely wanted to move on into employment. There was virtually no assistance from the school in this respect, no careers advice and no visits to or talks from potential employers. I had no discussions either with my parents. The only information one could assemble in one’s mind was from discussions with mates or adverts in the papers.

As the summer months approached and the end of term loomed, I had formulated a few ideas. I had seen adverts for apprenticeships at the electricity board and openings with the BBC in Cardiff as technicians, but I was really interested in becoming a police cadet. The Monmouthshire Constabulary was one of the few forces which at that time took on youngsters aged 16 as cadets, employing them on basic office and administrative duties with the hope of moulding them into more than suitable police entrants three years later. My initial application was swiftly answered; I was told they would have no vacancies for the foreseeable future. In fairness, the force, because of the financial implications, never employed more than 10 cadets at any one time and in the absence of any concrete evidence to the contrary I will assume that was the reason for my rejection. However, several years later when I had sworn the Queen’s Oath myself, and with some experience under my belt, it became clear that to secure a position as a police cadet it was a matter of who and not what you knew. Nepotism was rife. In the late 1970s, when left-wing academics started to gain significant influence on police training, the post of police cadet was abolished nationwide.

As far as my career was concerned, it was now one down, two to go. I didn’t fare a lot better with the BBC. My initial letter was answered with an application form for completion together with a pile of leaflets and advertising material which would have been sufficient to paper my gran’s back kitchen. My heart wasn’t really in the BBC post; I suppose the sheer glamour had attracted me, so I wasn’t too disappointed with their subsequent rejection. This left me with the electricity board. I thought I stood some chance here; at least most of my family were customers. After scrutinising my application form, they invited me to their divisional headquarters in St Mellons for written and practical tests. But alas, it was not to be.

Then a few weeks later, as if by magic, my Uncle Dave asked me if I would be interested in a job at the garage where he was employed. He worked at Chaston’s of Blackwood within their sales department and was well thought of by management. Chaston’s was a family run business in the 1960s, headed by the founder’s son, Alfred, who had built it into a renowned and respected dealership. It was affiliated with the British Motor Corporation brand together with Wolseley, Riley and Morris, which together later formed British Leyland. The added kudos was that they also sold and serviced Jaguars, Land Rovers and several other unique marques. Uncle Dave had spoken to the Service Manager, who had agreed to let me start on a month’s trial with a view to a five-year apprenticeship. I nearly bit his hand off. Wow! To hell with nepotism!

The garage accountant, Mr Jones, wrote to me officially confirming that my trial would commence after the school holidays. I was in heaven for those last few weeks, or at least I would have been if it not had been for my love life. The liaison between Eirlys and me was seriously cooling from her point of view. She always had something else to do when we spoke about meeting up and the bond between us snapped clean apart the evening I actually witnessed some yobbo getting off the bus from Blackwood and entering her house, which was just yards away from the bus stop. I learned that he was a pupil at her school and was probably a nice lad, but to me he was a total undesirable. I had no further contact with her from that evening on.




Chapter 3



It was 7.40 am on Monday 5 September 1960. I was sixteen and a half years old and standing outside the large roller-shutter doors which gave access to the bottom workshop of Chaston’s garage. The building was on the northern edge of Blackwood town in a prominent position on Pentwyn Road, to the rear of the Miners’ Welfare Institute and just 100 yards down from the memorial Cenotaph. I was clutching my sandwiches, which would hopefully sustain me through my day’s hard labour, and anxiously waiting to announce myself to the big new world of employment.

The service manager, Mr Colin Evans, to whom I had been told to report, arrived at 8.00 on the dot to open up. There was no way I intended to be late, so my father had dropped me off at 7.30 as he drove to his employment as a progress chaser at South Wales Switchgear, further down the valley.

As I’ve mentioned, Chaston’s was a relatively large commercial undertaking, not only in its spread of business but the size of the premises it occupied. It had two adjoining workshops, the larger being about the size of a hockey pitch, with a separate body repair area incorporating two spray booths. The sales department building could house in excess of 30 cars where they were prepared for sale, with a first-floor office suite for administration. In addition, some 100 yards away on the A4048 main valley road was a vehicle showroom, together with fuel pumps and forecourt to serve passing traffic.

There was a workforce of around 50, with 12 time-served mechanics who each had an apprentice. This was the section of which I was to become a member. Well, not exactly, at first. In addition to the facilities I’ve mentioned, there was a machine shop staffed by Len Hutton. Len was a proper gent; he was in his 60s, approaching retirement and had worked as a mechanic there for 20 or so years. Len had been moved into the machine shop to lighten his workload somewhat and it was the pattern that all new starters did their initiation with Len for perhaps six months or so until a suitable vacancy arose in the workshop. In addition to assisting Len in any way he wished, the mundane side of my initial duties included making tea for the whole workforce during the official morning break and the collection and packing of dirty overalls each week so that they could be collected by the cleaning company.

The main purpose of the machine shop was to supply the mechanics with all the facilities required to undertake the more technical aspects of their role. It was equipped with all types of measuring devices (calipers, dividers and micrometers etc) and also housed a large free-standing lathe which was used quite regularly to re-bore engine cylinders, because the automobile trade was a different animal back in those days. Engines and gearboxes were routinely stripped down, cleaned and reassembled with new parts where necessary. Quite often, if a gearbox cog or shaft was not readily available from the manufacturer, Len would produce one with the array of tools in what he called his ‘Aladdin’s Cave’.


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