the first page of my fathers memoirs


Six years old, sat here under coal gas light, nights drawing in. Normally we are out playing in the street, but coming in earlier is a sign of one thing, and one thing only: The cold. We have 2 rooms at Cliff Street, mum and dad in one room and Me and my two sisters in the other. The coal fire range in the main bedroom is not the most efficient of house heating systems, but at least we are able to keep warm. We all huddle around the range, listening to the radio and talking, though it is no fun using the outside toilet, especially when the savage winter set's in. We always have coal. Dad was working on the docks, and if there was one thing that an be found at Penarth Docks it would be coal, Mined from the Welsh Valleys, brought to the Bristol Channel, from where it's dispatched to many places around the globe. We might not have always had food, but we always have had coal, and I have had to eat it on many occasions too, it was either that or go hungry.


Let me tell you about my dad, simply as if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. OK, not much of a life being a 'bowery boy', They say like father like son, though I hope I don't end up totally like him. Before the first world war, Dad was a dock worker in Penarth. A very brave, hard man, Extremely strong too, plenty of stories around the dock about his ability to handle pain; glad some of these traits ran in the family, helped me too. One example was a wooden flagon being dropped onto my fathers head from height in the dry dock at Penarth Pontoon. The flagon had some water in it too, yet it simply splintered on my fathers head. He used his strength to great effect in the boxing ring too. He used to box in 'Peerless' Jim Driscoll's gymnasium in Cardiff, where the great man spotted his potential. He wanted to sponsor my dad, especially after, in a sparring session, he put the great man on the floor with a punch.


Soon however the 'great war', the first world war, took him away, by way of the Merchant Navy, stealing some of his best years in the process, that and his smoking and drinking, although I can only remember the latter. The merchant navy was essential to the war effort, though I am glad he never had to go and fight in the trenches, as many of my friends lost their fathers in France and Belgium. Again, I can only recount stories that I have been told. In the merchant Navy, dad used to buy stockings in America and sell them back home for profit. During the war he also won a life savers medal in New York, swimming back and forth to a blazing ship to save lives. Dad was due to have the Medal presented by none other than Woodrow Wilson, US president, though sadly he chose to get drunk instead. This was an all too familiar pattern that my father cannot break, going to lead to much suffering in our family i think.


After the armistice, dad chose to stay in the Merchant Navy for a few years. He was doing well though, and he definitely had a good heart. He would always try to bring home a 'taste of the exotic' back to Penarth when he could; he always brought back souvenirs, and exotic foods and spices from both North and South America. After one particular trip, he brought back a monkey, although soon after it 'landed ashore', it decided to bite me so it had to be put down. On another occasion, he brought a Parrot back home, and sat on a stand with a lead in the bedroom. It was even trained to say 'Billy'; my formative years were upon me.


It was only when I came along that dad resigned his commission. He stayed in because after the first world war, coal, shipbuilding and steel industry jobs were scarce. Not only that but working women were forced to cede their jobs to returning soldiers. Swinging cuts in public spending were enacted in 1922, at the time when my dad was looking for work. He did just about anything for money during this time, and we did get by, though if I said it was a roller-coaster, I am being kind to my family. Part of me always felt a bit responsible for my fathers circumstances, especially as he wasn't exactly a pleasure to be around most of the time.. I sometimes pondered 'what if', then again, if it wasn't for my dad, I wouldn't be here myself.


I don't remember that much about my early years, most of it either forgotten on purpose or beaten out of me. The Coal lights, the coal range and playing in the street, the perpetual struggle to keep warm, not forgetting the poverty, the last two being inextricably linked. Its not as if I have extra clothes to put on when it gets cold, and the holes in my shoes don't help matters, especially when it rains. My only 'job' as it stands, and I am 6, is the one I have with my two younger sisters keeping my dad's smoking habit. Between me and my two sisters Florence and Lilla, we scour the streets for cigarette 'dog ends' thrown away on pavements, and in alleys and gutters. This is done to a system, streets are divided equally, and all the proceeds are then trimmed of mouth ends and put in a tin. Mum and dad smoke 'roll ups', and these dog ends are mixed with half ounce of 'Franklyns Mild', to be smoked over a period of a few days.


As eldest, this isn't my only job. I am always on the look out for waste from butchers and grocers, although I always ask as I am no thief. We can not afford milk, though I always take a jug to the handcart just in case they feel generous. Had a good season of blackberry's, though its been a nice hot dry summer. The university of life has enrolled me early, lets just hope all the hard work is worth it.



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