Tuesday 13 February 2018

146 Kinglsley Amis

146 Kingsley Amis
Anyone walking from Cwmdonkin Park in the Uplands, with its associations with Dylan Thomas, and leaving by the lower entrance into The Grove, may notice on the left a blue plaque outside number 24.  This is to commemorate another notable writer in the English language, not a Swansea-born poet like Dylan, yet a novelist who worked at Swansea University for 12 years.  That blue plaque states that Kingsley Amis, who lived from 1922 to 1995, was a novelist who lived there from 1951 to 1955.
Born in Clapham, south London, Kingsley Amis won a scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford, where he met poet Philip Larkin (who was also a good friend of Pennard poet Vernon Watkins).  National Service and the Second World War interrupted his studies, but after completing his degree in English, Amis became a junior lecturer at University College of Wales, Swansea, in 1949.  He lived in lodgings near the Guildhall and in St. Helen's Crescent, as well as in various flats and houses in Sketty, in Mumbles and the Uplands, until he left Swansea in 1961. 
Amis achieved fame in 1954 with his first novel “Lucky Jim”, published days after his third child, and only daughter, was born at 24 The Grove, which had been purchased through an inheritance received by his wife and to which they had recently moved.  The novel was a critical success, satirising the high-brow academic set of a provincial university, and was translated into twenty languages including Polish, Hebrew and Korean.  It won him the Somerset Maugham award for fiction, and was made into a 1957 film starring Ian Carmichael.  “Lucky Jim”, which is dedicated to Philip Larkin, draws on the author’s experiences and clashes with academia in telling the exploits of a reluctant lecturer at an English university.  In the opinion of author Christopher Hitchens, it is the funniest book in the second half of the 20th century.
In 1955 a second novel “That Uncertain Feeling” was published, also set in Swansea, thinly disguised as Aberdarcy, with a film adaptation entitled “Only Two Can Play”, where Peter Sellers played the frustrated librarian.  The 1962 film used the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery as the library, rather than the actual Central Library, which stood then on the opposite side of Alexandra Road.  In this novel Amis bitterly satirises Swansea’s Little Theatre - describing the characters from a superior, ironical point of view as vulgar, provincial and immoral. 
Like poet Vernon Watkins, Amis visited the United States twice during his time in Swansea, becoming Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at Princeton University.  Although he disliked Dylan, through his friendship with Swansea solicitor Stuart Thomas he became a trustee of the Dylan Thomas Trust.  Amis was the precise opposite of Vernon Watkins, who looked for the good qualities in people.
After leaving Swansea, Amis concentrated on writing - including poetry, essays, science fiction and short stories.  Twice divorced, he had joined the British Communist party when he went up to Oxford, though he later became right-wing, and admitted to mild anti-semitism.  Having twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, he was awarded this for “The Old Devils” in 1986, written mainly at Cliff House in Laugharne, which nostalgically recalls Swansea 25 years after he left.  His second son Martin (also a novelist) considers this novel his father’s masterpiece, commenting, “It stands comparison with any English novel of the century.” 
In 1990 Amis was knighted, but five years later his excessive drinking caught up with him, and he died at St Pancras Hospital in London aged 73.  Essayist Christopher Hitchens stated, “The booze got to him in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm, as well as of his health.”                                                              
Although the film was made over fifty years ago, for Swansea people it is “Only Two Can Play” that demonstrates the wit and humour of Kingsley Amis at its best. 

Monday 12 February 2018

145 Gladys Aylward

145 Gladys Aylward
One might expect that the people who Sir Ranulph Fiennes include in his book “My Heroes” would all be macho-SAS types.  After all, the author, the oldest man to conquer Everest, is described as “the world’s greatest explorer”, and has crossed the Antarctic continent unsupported.  But surprisingly his eleven heroes include a woman who had worked in Swansea as a parlour maid before the actions that made her famous.  She is Gladys Aylward, the diminutive missionary to China, portrayed in the 1958 film “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”, which was filmed around Beddgelert in Snowdonia.
Born in 1902 in Edmonton, London, where a school has been re-named after her, Gladys Aylward was small and lacked the advantages of being clever or pretty.  After leaving school aged 14, she did shop work before becoming a parlour maid in Swansea.  She would attend meetings at Snelling’s Gospel Mission, which had been founded by Oscar Snelling in 1865, and after whose death in 1916 was continued in Orchard Street under his son Basil, celebrating its Diamond Jubilee in 1925.  Gladys described herself as a “rescue sister”, going each night to the Strand, which then was a “no go” dockland area of drunkenness, crime, fighting and brothels, where she sought to rescue women from prostitution.  Beneath yellow gas lamps she would speak to women and girls about Christ Jesus, persuading some to move out of pubs into a hostel and to attend the Gospel Mission. 
However she felt that God was leading her to serve in China, and that might have been confirmed by hearing of the 50 years’ service there of Dr Griffith John, to whom there is a blue plaque outside Ebenezer Church, near the railway station.  She returned to London, but the China Inland Mission rejected her application, feeling she could not cope with the complexities of the Chinese language, and was too old at 28.  
While doing domestic work for explorer Sir Frances Younghusband, who had travelled extensively in the Far East, Gladys Aylward saved up the cost of the train fare to China.  Without the backing of any missionary society she set out from London in 1932, and crossed Siberia alone on the long overland journey, to assist an elderly missionary who ran an inn for drivers of mule caravans.  Once the tradition of binding Chinese women's feet had been outlawed, she was appointed a “foot inspector” to unbind the feet of girls and young women, which gave her opportunities to share the message of the Bible.  Gladys Aylward became a Chinese citizen in 1936, and during the war with Japan looked after many orphaned children.  When bombardment escalated she courageously led 100 orphaned children from Tsechow over the mountain and across the Yellow River to safety.
But as poet John Donne said, “No man is an island”, and our actions can have unforeseen consequences on others.  Gladys had passed information to the Chinese, and this brought repercussions on a Welsh missionary and his mission.  Rev. David Davies, whose son Murray lives in Bishopston, had warned Gladys that her covert activities could jeopardise the mission’s safety.  After she had led the children to safety, he was imprisoned by the Japanese on suspicion of involvement in espionage.  Having endured two horrendous years which left him emaciated and unwell, he joined his family in a concentration camp until the war ended.  Nonetheless David Davies held no bitterness against Gladys Aylward or his captors. 
A 1957 biography called “The Small Woman” (she was 4 feet 10 inches tall) inspired the film the following year starring Ingrid Bergman, though Gladys was deeply upset by its inaccuracies.  Gladys Aylward, whose Chinese name meant ‘The Virtuous One', died in 1970 at the orphanage she was running in Taiwan, aged 67. 
She was the subject of a “This is your life” TV programme, though surely to be among Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s heroes must be a supreme accolade.  

Sunday 11 February 2018

144 Rebecca in Gower

144 Rebecca in Gower
Anyone eating or drinking at the Poundffald Inn in Three Crosses could hardly imagine they were at the scene of a disturbance which was brought to the attention of the Home Secretary during the mid-nineteenth century.  The unusual name Poundffald was that of the hamlet before it became encompassed within the village of Three Crosses.  It refers in both English and Welsh to a pound for keeping stray animals, like those still visible in Pennard and Penrice.  The pound is preserved within the pub buildings and now used as a cellar.
During the nineteenth century, a toll-house was on the site where the Poundffald Inn now stands, run by the Swansea Turnpike Trust to collect tolls from users of the road to Penclawdd.  Trusts had been set up during the 18th and 19th centuries by individual Acts of Parliament, with powers to collect tolls for maintaining the principal roads in Britain.  Members of the Swansea Turnpike Trust included such prominent people as John Henry Vivian MP of Singleton, Major Thomas Penrice of Kilvrough, with as chairman Matthew Moggeridge, brother-in-law of John Dillwyn Llewelyn. 
Local communities resented toll gates being set up, especially with exorbitant charges levied for using routes which had been freely traversed for centuries.  Toll gates could appear along routes to lime kilns, catching farmers on their way to collect lime for use as fertiliser.  Opposition was particularly intense in mountainous regions where alternative good routes were scarce.  Levying tolls on old routes sparked the protests known as the Rebecca Riots, which began in South-West Wales in 1839.  One night in May 1839 a gang of armed men disguised in women’s clothing demolished the newly constructed tollgate in Efailwen, on the border between Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, and burned the adjoining toll-house.  Rioters were called Merched Beca (Rebecca’s Daughters) - taking the name from a verse in the book of Genesis that stated “they blessed Rebekah and said unto her let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them”. 
Sporadic outbursts of vandalism and violent confrontation involved gangs of 50 or more local men, threatening gatekeepers with violence if they resisted.  In Carmarthen the following month a protest against how the Poor Law was administered turned into a major riot when 1,800 persons stormed the workhouse, releasing inmates and wreaking havoc.  Magistrates dispatched letters to the Home Secretary in Sir Robert Peel’s government requesting that a company of infantry be dispatched to restore order.
On the outskirts of Pontardulais at midnight on 6th July 1843 nearly 200 men destroyed the Bolgoed toll gate near the Fountain Inn.  Just over a week later, on 14th July, the Poundffald gate was destroyed by a gang of about 60 people with blackened faces, and the toll collector sent inside the toll-house and warned to keep out of the way.  The attack raised concern for the safety of toll gates at Cartersford and Kilvrough, the latter being on the corner of Vennaway Lane, where the Round House stands.  Police and special constables were engaged to patrol there at night-time, and the Home Secretary was kept informed of developments in South-West Wales.
Magistrates had powers to punish those who damaged turnpike property, broke gates, avoided tolls, or defaced milestones.  With financial inducements to provide information, many people were convicted of riot and transported to penal colonies in Tasmania.  The Commission of Inquiry in March 1844 recommended that county boards take over management from Turnpike Trusts, and tolls were reduced and simplified by the 1844 Toll Gates Act, which amended the laws relating to the South Wales trusts.  To some extent the Rebecca Riots achieved their aims, for the Poundffald, Bolgoed and Rhydypandy gates were removed permanently.
A Cartersford toll gate killing in January 1845 was unconnected with the Rebecca Riots, so the Poundffald toll gate attack in July 1843 was the final Rebecca incident in Gower - enabling Home Secretaries to concentrate on matters elsewhere.      


Saturday 10 February 2018

143 The Underground Chapels

The Underground Chapels
Mynydd Newydd road runs past Penlan Comprehensive School’s playing fields and takes its name from the colliery that was once on that site.  It was opened in 1843, and taken over by Vivian and Sons in 1866.  What makes it unique is that it contained in total three underground chapels.
Mining coal has always been a hazardous occupation, often in dangerous and cramped working conditions to extract coal from the seams.  If injury or death occurred, there was no expectation of receiving compensation.  Men would climb down ladders to the level where they were working, as there was no cage for them to go up and down until 1888.  Even some women and young children might work in the mines, and after a day’s shift, long before pithead baths, the miner would wash off the coal dust in a bath in front of the kitchen fire.
Yet it was work, and miners of Christian faith sought to follow the Biblical instruction to serve their masters to the best of their ability.  Several miners at Mynydd Newydd colliery worshipped at Mynyddbâch or Caersalem Newydd Chapels, and permission was sought from the colliery manager to hold a prayer meeting on Monday mornings before the week’s shift.  The suggestion was approved, and from August 1845 a group of miners would meet to pray at 6.30 a.m., while the pit ponies were kept in the stables.  A rough chapel was formed underground in the 5ft seam at a depth of 348ft; the ceiling was low but pit props were used to form benches.  Candles provided limited lighting, and the walls were whitewashed to make it brighter - the chapel measured about 16 by 6 yards (14m x 5m).  Instead of a liturgy, prayers would be extemporary, as at many nonconformist chapels today, and in Welsh, with two or three hymns being sung, the words of which would be familiar to most miners present.  There was usually a reading from the Bible, with perhaps a short comment or exhortation. 
At first, meetings took place irregularly, until an explosion in 1846 killed four teenage lads - prompting prayer meetings every Monday morning before the working week commenced.  Community spirit was fostered by the meetings, and after two years an all-day preaching festival (Cymanfa Bregethu) was held one Sunday near the pithead.
A second chapel was opened in 1867 in the 6ft seam - a depth of 774ft.  But by 1904 the original chapel had to be abandoned since the roof was cracking, so a new chapel was opened the following year in the 5ft seam.  In total there were three underground chapels in Mynydd Newydd colliery.
These underground chapels were featured in November 1916 in an article in the South Wales Daily Post (now the Evening Post), and the 80 years since the first underground chapel opened were marked with a preaching festival - Cymanfa Bregethu in 1924.
The late Mr John Hayman had fond memories of the meetings, recalling, “It was a simple, Welsh prayer service - just hymns and readings.  There was a great religious fervour at the time.  One of the readers was the oldest man in the pit - he was 69 years old and still working underground.  The service normally lasted about half an hour, at 6.30 in the morning.”             
In 1896, 311 men worked at Mynydd Newydd, and the workforce increased to 419 by 1908.  But the Vivian family relinquished the colliery in 1926, and the 6ft seam was closed through rising water the following year.  BBC radio broadcast a service from the 5ft seam at a depth of 350ft in October 1929, but the colliery closed a few years later. 
Most readers may not have worked underground, but the privilege of starting the day with prayer and praise to God in any language need not be the prerogative of miners of Mynydd Newydd colliery.    

Friday 2 February 2018

142 Penlle'r Castell

142 Penlle'r Castell
The Gower Way is a 56km (35 mile) linear footpath that runs from Rhossili in the south-west of the peninsula to Penlle'r Castell in upland Gower, north of Swansea.  It was set up by the Gower Society as a millennium project, inaugurated twenty years ago when H.R.H. Prince Charles unveiled the Gower Way stone on Cefn Bryn in July 1998, marking also the Society’s 50th birthday.  Pennant sandstone blocks originally from Cwmrhydyceirw Quarry near Morriston were donated by Welsh Water/Dŵr Cymru having been used as coping stones at Townhill Service Reservoir.  Carved with the Gower Society’s portcullis logo, these were placed as marker stones approximately every kilometre along the route.  The first marker stone is by the look-out station on Rhossili cliffs, and the fiftieth is in upland Gower (Gower Wallicana), at remote Penlle’r Castell, near the Clydach to Ammanford road.
Wales has a considerable number of castles throughout the land, several having been built in North Wales during the thirteenth century to reinforce Edward I’s conquests, such as the impressive Caernarfon, Harlech and Conway Castles.  Peninsular Gower contains notable stone castles at Pennard, Oxwich and Penrice in the south, and Weobley in the north, as well as earlier sites of motte and bailey castles.  One might assume that to the north of Swansea upland Gower lacks such symbols of strife and conquest, until one finds the remote earthen Penlle'r Castell, meaning literally “the summit of the place of the castle”.  This earthwork is in a commanding position standing 1,213ft (370 metres) above sea level, the highest point in Gower on Mynydd y Betws.  It consists of a rectangular mound over 100ft long, divided unequally by a broad ditch, with traces of three dry stone huts on top, which were probably intended for only temporary occupation.  There could have been two stone towers of dry stone walls, since there is no evidence of mortar having been used.  The entire monument is surrounded by a V-shaped ditch, though any thoughts of Iron Age or Roman origins can be discounted.  From Penlle'r Castell there are fine views in each direction of the Black Mountain, the Amman Valley, the Lliw Valley reservoirs and peninsular Gower, with Carreg Cennan castle prominent eight miles away. 
In his 1899 Antiquarian Survey of East Gower, W. Llewellyn Morgan gave his opinion that “absolutely nothing is known about this Castle, when or by whom erected, or what it was called”.  However, Penlle'r Castell is documented in historian Rice Merrick’s 1584 Booke of Glamorganshire Antiquities, where he mentions the “old castle…now in utter ruin”.  It may have been the “novum castra de Gower” (new castle of Gower) that was attacked and destroyed in 1252, and possibly called Castell Meurig.  It would have been a purely military fortification, rather than a permanently manned settlement - possibly the earthwork was hurriedly erected in the late thirteenth century by William de Breos II, the Norman Lord of Gower, as a defence against the Welsh.  Rhys ap Maredydd, descendant of the Lord Rhys, had sided with the Normans when Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was slain near Cilmeri in mid-Wales in 1282, only to rebel against the English King Edward I five years later.  After a large army was mobilised to crush this uprising, Rhys was defeated and captured, sharing the brutal fate of many of Edward I’s victims - being hung, drawn and quartered, in York in 1292.  Penlle'r Castell is unusual because of its assumed limited purpose - that of sheltering a detachment of mounted men engaged in policing the disputed border area.
By contrast with such violent events linked to marker stone number 50 of the Gower Way, events near stone number 1 at Rhossili might appear far more civilised, although that stone is in shipwreck country - with the possibility that deliberate wrecking occurred!

Thursday 1 February 2018

141 Mannheim Twinning

141 Mannheim Twinning
Why is Mannheim Quay in Swansea’s Maritime Quarter so called, and why does it contain a scale-model replica of that German city’s water-tower?  The 5-metre high replica, designed by Robin Campbell and carved by Philip Chatfield, is one tenth the size of the original.  An inscription states that it was unveiled on 9th August 1985, to mark the twinning in 1957 of the city of Swansea with that of Mannheim in south-western Germany. 
After the Second World War, Winston Churchill encouraged the custom of twinning towns in order to foster friendship and understanding between different cultures and former foes.  One notable example, as an act of peace and reconciliation, was when Coventry, having been heavily bombed during the war, was twinned with the German city of Dresden that had also suffered terribly. 
Mannheim is downstream from Heidelberg, at the confluence of the rivers Neckar and Rhine.  Unusually for German cities, Mannheim is built on a grid pattern, as New York City, hence its nickname “The City of Squares”, and instead of street names, letters and numbers are used.  The city’s civic symbol is the Mannheimer Wasserturm, a distinctive Romanesque water tower, which was completed in 1886.  It rises to 60 metres (200 feet), and stands in a park facing fountains and statues; having served as a reservoir and held the city’s drinking water, it is now merely a monument.  Though partially destroyed during the Second World War, it was subsequently rebuilt.  Mannheim’s most impressive building is the enormous Barockschloss, modelled on the palace of Versailles.  It was commissioned in 1720 and built in a horseshoe layout with a 440m-long façade.  Out of over 400 rooms, only the rococo library on the ground floor escaped serious war damage, and since rebuilding, the palace houses the University.
Mannheim is the starting point and the finish of the Bertha Benz Memorial Route of 194km (121 miles), which was opened in February 2008.  This scenic route commemorates the drive undertaken in 1888 by Karl Benz’s entrepreneurial wife Bertha (apparently without her husband's knowledge), in his newly constructed Patent Motorwagen, from Mannheim to her birthplace Pforzheim.  The one-way distance of 104km (65 miles) was far greater than any automobile had been driven at that time.  Karl Benz had a factory in Mannheim and is credited with producing the first petrol-driven automobile, before his company merged with that of Daimler in 1926 to form Mercedes-Benz.
In September 1982, members of the Swansea Skydiving Club were invited to take part in an air show to celebrate the 375th anniversary of the city of Mannheim.  Thousands of spectators gathered to watch parachutists from the twinned cities of Swansea, Mannheim and Toulon in France attempt to set a world record for the largest joined circle of free-falling skydivers.  But tragedy struck when a Chinook helicopter attempting an emergency landing crashed into a motorway: nine Swansea skydivers and another five people from South Wales were among the 46 killed.
The tragedy is not forgotten, for example Swansea Council’s January 2002 minutes report Gerald Clement, who had visited Mannheim for the New Year Festival, stating “11th September 2002 would mark the 20th anniversary of the helicopter accident in Mannheim when nine members of a Swansea Helicopter Club had been killed, and it was proposed that Swansea be represented at the ceremonies marking the anniversary”.    
Wales is a musical nation, and in 2007 a German newspaper reported that “the twinning of two towns is celebrated with a display of powerful singing” after a Gwalia Singers’ concert in Mannheim.  The twinning association chairman, a former prisoner of war in Britain, said “harmony and friendship are always positive whatever the circumstances”, and the newspaper added, “It was evident from the performance of the Gwalia Singers on stage that music in a united Europe really does surpass boundaries.” 
That replica water tower in Mannheim Quay is a reminder of the links with Swansea’s first “twin town”.