For me, the Second World War was great. There was money in our house for the first time in years. No-one from our street was killed. When the serving young men from our street came home we put out the flags and had a street party. I was eight. It was the Depression, we lived in the Rhondda Valley, and my father was on the dole. But with the war, things looked up. My mother soon had a job in Bridgend Munitions Factory. I don’t remember what sort of shifts she worked but I remember she didn’t like the long bus journey. She was often enough away in the evening. My father, who’d worked underground in the local colliery, was as unused to dealing with children as most miners were then and a teenage cousin who lived higher up the street came in to help put me and my four-year-old sister to bed. As the war went on, a number of younger men from the pit went to fight and eventually my father got a job on the colliery surface. My mother stopped working at Bridgend and we started the family life that would see us through the war. It wasn’t that there was that much money – but it beat the Depression!
Yes, the war had done us a favour and that was the view that remained with me as I began to grow up in the war years. There were just the four of us in the family, living where the Rhondda Fach was at its narrowest. Just the one row of houses backed up against the mountain and facing the main road that doubled as a playground for rounders and ‘scotch’, then the railway, the black, black river that washed the coal, and the colliery, itself, before the mountain soon began to rise again on the opposite side of the valley. But we did not live as a nuclear family of four. My mother’s two sisters lived closeby in the same terrace and our lives were lived in a wider medley of aunts and uncles and cousins, coming and going in lives threaded together. I became ‘darner-in-chief’ of my uncle’s work socks in that age when people still mended socks. I had developed quite a reputation as a darner – but I would only darn in bright colours like yellow, pink or blue. My aunt was no good at darning, so my uncle was glad to accept my colour peccadillos – he worked underground where, he said, they were soon black anyway.
The only blot on our new wartime lives came when Churchill took over the direction of the war. I didn’t know much about the old hatred of Churchill in the valley but I could feel the pall that descended at least on our little patch of the valley. I remember my father saying bitterly: ‘Well, I only hope the swine does to the Germans what he did to us at Tonypandy!’ But things soon got back to wartime normal and I remember being admired in the family for being able to repeat, in sequence, the names of our ships sunk by the Germans, which might – or might not – have started with the Ark Royal.
Then came rationing. That was good, too. I learnt it made certain food was shared around fairly instead of allowing it all to be bought up by people with money – whoever they were. I loved looking at our Ration Books. We couldn’t afford all that food, of course. But that meant we could sell some ration coupons to other families who had a bit extra – not enough to buy up all the food, mind. Other families must have found the same because a healthy and quite open black market developed in ration coupons. There was a general understanding it wasn’t absolutely right but they were your ration coupons, after all. The little you got for them helped to fund the rations you could buy. Everyone was happy. Sweets were rationed, too, but as we didn’t buy many sweets, the thought of buying our full family ration never occurred to me, anyway.
There were air raids, though they never seemed to harm us. When the siren went, the children were sent home from school to return when the all-clear sounded. I lived too far from the school to go home so I was to go with a classmate living nearby. Her mother was nice and I got to like air raids. When we looked out of the window, we would see lots of the other children playing in the street. But we weren’t allowed to go out and stayed happily inside until it was time to go back to school. A single bomb from a German plane returning home was dropped near where we lived. Our part of the valley was very narrow and it hit the high side of the mountain above the houses. There was talk of a big crater and gangs of young people walked up the mountain to stare down into it. I so wanted to go but my mother wouldn’t let me.
We were a healthy lot, then, by all subsequent accounts and medical matters were taken seriously. We were all given some sort of medical number and practised saying them in school until we knew them by heart. Mine was XKHU 135 3. The family shared most of the numbers, just that my father’s ended in one, my mother’s in two, I was three, and my young sister was four. I remember the orange juice and the cod liver oil, credited with making us a healthy generation. Perhaps that why so many of us are still about.
Then it all came to an end. The war was over. I was devastated. I was 14 then and doing well in school but the war had not touched anyone I knew in a bad way. The war had been good to us. My first thought was a return to the Depression. Up and down the valley there was celebration and bonfires. Groups of young people walked laughing and singing from one to another, first up the valley, then down again. Every gathering welcomed our little group to its bonfire and offered us bits to eat or drink. Everyone was happy, everyone was joyful. Except me. Oh, I smiled, laughed and chatted like the others. But inside I was grieving. At the time, I truly believed everyone else must be grieving, too. What I couldn’t understand was how they could hide it so well, so convincingly. It was a long, long time before I learnt better. Very many years later I remained haunted by these feelings of fear and loss and in an effort to get them out of my system, I tried to put them all into a poem, a sort of elegy to mourn the burial of childlike concepts. Even that was a long time ago now. This is what I wrote then:
I didn’t believe the laughing
They were laughing for victory.
But I didn’t believe them. The war was over.
There were bonfires up and down the valley,
Gangs of young people roamed from one to another.
The flames lit faces full of joy.
And there was laughing. But my heart was chill.
I kept my face in a smile to match.
I didn’t know why they buried their feelings
In the deception of joy. It unnerved me.
The war had not touched my school-day valley,
Bounded by low hills of stunted grass
And the illumination of learning.
Young men went to the war.
We put out flags and had tea parties when they came home.
No one from our street was killed.
Now the war was over. It was back back back
To the before … the beyond … of the war.
Back to the tight faces of men without work
Back to counting out the dole
And keeping the worry from the children.
Back to the hurt of hope
As a man washed and prepared himself
To go for a job. Back to the tired, empty return.
Back to the proud anger bitten into the heart of a child.
Faces all quiet and sickened with knowledge.
Then the war came.
The mighty war economy started to boom.
Munitions factories sucked up the women
Into a new wage earning resurrection.
And there was good food and fun for supper.
The war brought
Extra playtimes in school for air raids,
A mountain walk to see a bomb crater.
And jobs … and jobs … and jobs.
The unemployed were returned to life.
A job for a man and a woman could return to her hearth.
Ration books gave more food than money could buy.
And the tight dark days were gone,
Gone in the burst of war that saved the valley,
That cushioned the knife of life.
Now the war was over. The cushion gone.
But the knife was still there. They knew it
And I didn’t believe the laughing.
Bonfire flames lit shadowed faces painted with joy,
And I watched, quiet and sickened with knowledge.
It was some very long time before such haunting stopped and I could accept my young eyes saw through a glass darkly, that the savagery of war was not the best and certainly not the only antidote to Depression. Strangely, it did not stop me revelling in the life-changing Attlee post-war government that promised to make Depression a thing of the past. We wallowed in its splendour and, when my sister and I were allowed to name our two new kittens, I straightaway called mine, a tabby, Stafford, after Stafford Cripps, Attlee’s austere Chancellor of the Exchequer. My sister called hers, a long-haired white with tortoiseshell patches, Fluff, but she was always known as Dilys after the woman who gave her to us.
The greatest achievement of the Attlee government is today usually seen as Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Service. But not for me. Not then. The greatest thing was the nationalisation of the coal industry. I remember how, by then all of 16, I walked with pride from our house along the valley road, over the railway bridge, and along to the entrance of the mine. Then stepped inside to glory in the pristine new notice board that announced: ‘This colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people’ with the date January 1st 1947. I had to look up the exact wording when writing this but not the feeling of elation it produced. I remember, too, being surprised by the clear blue colour of the notice board that seemed to me rather too frivolous for the momentous declaration it carried.
Many years later, after the trauma, travesty and tragedy that saw the mines of Rhondda and beyond closed, I walked that way again. The colliery had gone and in its place was a single green field – not a very big one at that. The pit that had been the life-focus for so many people for so many years had disappeared. Its big winding house, its tall winding gear, its rambling monochrome buildings, all had returned to the rather small green patch from which it had sprung to feed and nourish, enliven and embitter generations of miners and their families.