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written by Grafton Maggs
Dan Phillips (better known to his pupils as“Mooney”) was one of the few genuine scholars on the teaching staff of the Dynevor School. He fought valiantly, all his teaching life, to instil a reverence for the English language into the cheese-like brains of his adolescent charges.
I was one of those charges and, regrettably, during those school years failed to appreciate the true worth of this good man’s teaching. However, in later years, his efforts did come to bear fruit- by no means a harvest, but certainly a punnetful - all the more precious for its sparseness. As I matured I came to see the genius that existed in the hearts and minds of those English poets and writers whom he revered. In particular, I came to understand Dan Phillips’ love for the works of Thomas Gray.
And it was the elegiac words of Gray that came to mind when I began to burrow into the substance of this story:
“…. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air... “
Written two and a half centuries before; yet, how beautifully it cut to the quick of the teeming thoughts that swarmed my mind.
In the under privileged social life of a 1930s Mumbles, scant regard, or recognition, was afforded for any genius that lie simmering beneath the grubby carapaces of those little village boys who thronged the back streets. I know, because I was one of them.
I was all too aware of the burgeoning talents that lie seething, cauldron-like, within me and about me, - all, unrecognised!
These talents were legion but, of relevance to this novella, just one in particular is of consequence- that of poly-linguism! Yes! Every little lad, without exception, possessed a fluency in at least four foreign languages which, no doubt, will come as a shock to those of you living in a world, now, where a degree of competence in one’s own language seems of low priority.
But, how was this incredible skill acquired, in such deprived times? Simply, by regular attendance at the local cinemas- the Regent and the Tivoli!
Twice a week, from the age of three, Mumbles children sat spellbound before the silver screen absorbing every scrap of information thrown at them. There was no public library and, apart from school, in those days, the cinema was the main source of universal culture. There the village kids sat, squashed into the front seats, black and white shadows flickering across their wondering, upturned faces. Every action registered, every word and every nuance was retained,- as permanently as those multiplication tables drilled into nascent minds by the fearsome Miss Woollacotts of their teaching world.
Languages were mastered, as spoken by those gods on the flickering screen, with command of every idiom. Each little lad favouring one particular language.
I opted for the American Indian tongues and was capable of holding forth in an Apache dialect. All carried out, looking into the far distance with impassive stony look on face,
“White man speak with forked tongue, Crazy Horse! Him full sweet-talk. For many moons, him trade firewater for gold. Him come to hunting grounds of fathers. We have lands. He have new belief. He tell us close eyes and pray. We close eyes. We pray. We open eyes. We now have belief and he now has lands…”
Ken Bale spoke perfect Sicilian with a Palermo dialect, learned from Hollywood veteran, J.Carrol Naish, famous for playing Capo di Capo roles in the Chicago Mafia films. When upset by anyone’s behaviour, Ken’s eyes would narrow, shoulders hunch and with a sinister smile, he would snarl quietly,
“Si, Mario! Zeesa numbers racket - eesa mine! Joe Bananas, hea try toa muscle in. But! Thees eesa mya baby. I feex theesa Joe Bananas, myself weeth a concrete overcoat. I attenda to heem, myself — Perrsonal!!”
Jack Timothy was word perfect in boudoir French (thanks to Maurice Chevalier); bowing to kiss the back of an imaginary hand, he would purr through his nose (sometimes with disastrous glutinous consequence),
“ Ahh, cherie! You ‘ave surely heard of moi – the magnifique Beau Geste?
Come! Let us avay to ze Casbah- and zen I take you to my tent in ze Sahara!
Ve can enjoy ze romance of ze desert night. Ve shall sip ze fizzy Tizer as ve eatz ze Rowntrees gums and you, cherie, can ‘ave ze black ones……”. (Jackie really knew how to live).
Mark Glover, being blonde, revelled in all that was Teutonic. Having sat through, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, seven times, he had mastered the Prussian dialect. And thanks to the great Erich von Stroheim, he was able to complement this with the stiff necked posture of Kaiser Wilhelm’s best Uhlans.
“Achtung! Jawohl! Hants up, feelthy Englisch, schweinhund! Ze var ist ober for you! Vun move and I, Kapitan Schmidthaus, vill schtick mein potato masher bomf ver you vill not be ‘appy. Jawohl!”
There it all was, such an abundance of talent and, sadly, unrecognised! . “….wasting its sweetness on the desert air…..”
But, on this cloudless summer morning in 1935, these four master linguists had their minds far away from the fetid darkness of the picture house, dwelling on the joy of the immediate present. This was the first Saturday morning of the school holidays and the mood was euphoric. All four had swimsuits tightly rolled in towels and were wending their way down, through the Churchyard, across the Mumbles Road, to the Bowling Green steps on the seafront. They were not alone. From Southend on their right, to West Cross on their left, hordes of children wended their shrill, chattering ways to the one common destination- the sparkling sea.
On glorious summer mornings such as these, all roads led to the Mumbles seafront.
Whilst waiting for the sea to reach the iron pipe (optimum sea level for the first swim), Jackie made an announcement (Jack Timothy was always making announcements).
“Big Fete today, boys! On the Pier! You know competitions and side shows and things. Usual, you know. Top thing, this year, is the Best Hair Competition, run by Amami – you know- the shampoo people. Winner gets a fantastic prize. My sister told me that a lot of the local girls are entering. Fancy going? Betty Johnson’s having a go. She should walk it!”
This was the Age of the Village Fete, so popular in those unsophisticated times, simple events bursting with fun and happiness, looked forward to eagerly and always thronged. This one, on the Pier was the first of the season with the biggest, and best one, yet to come - the Bank Holiday Fete in the Castle Field, preceded by the magnificent Mumbles Carnival.
Jack’s declaration led to a mumbled interchange, brought to an abrupt finish by the ever succinct Mark,
“Never mind all that! Let’s swim first, - water‘s up to the pipe!”
How right he was! It was nine o’clock, the sun was rapidly burning away the early mist across the Bay and it promised to be a scorcher. The tide was up, the sea was beckoning! No time for talking!
For the rest of the morning it was- in and out of the sea, and between dips, groups of pals would sit on the wall, warming in the sun, talking and laughing, putting the world to rights.
And how we laughed and how we talked! Happy shared moments which were salted away for ever, somewhere deep in those young minds; Mumbles moments to be summoned up years on, perhaps in difficult times, far away under hotter suns.
Then the subject of the Pier Fete came up again and, by the time the tide had fallen back to the iron pipe, a decision had been reached. We would go!
Unknowingly, it was to prove to be a momentous decision.
Looking back on my life, I can liken its passage to the crossing of a fast flowing stretch of water, jumping from one steppingstone to another. Often, as I approached the other side, I got splashed and on a few rare occasions I fell in.
By the end of the coming afternoon, jumping across to another stone- I got splashed.
But first! Home for dinner! Saturday!- always the same, summer or winter, the 3d hake and chips from Johnnies.
Then, with a cadged sixpenny bit in my pocket (“… it’s all for charity, Mam- the Thistleboon Orphanage…”), I tied up with the boys. We ran along the Mumbles Train track – the sleepers of which had been specially laid, with optimum spacing, for the benefit of young running legs.
On to the Pier, and a bonus!- the man at the turnstile was bluff, red faced Lawrence Rosser from our street. He let us in for free (“...tell thee Dad, Graf, he owes me a pint!…”). We ran along the Pier, looking down through the boards at the seaweedy rocks beneath. Then, on and over the choppy green sea, to the wide arena near the end, - near the paddle steamer landing stage.
Flags all round, flew flappily and happily, in the fresh breeze. The sun shone, the sea glittered, music blared from Jim Kostromin’s loud speaker; and the Mumbles Lighthouse gazed benevolently across the restless water- one eye on us - the other down the Bristol Channel.
Rows of chairs were in place around the arena, many of which were already occupied. It promised to be a well patronised event. Important looking people bustled to and fro, some carrying clip boards; they all wore round badges (“Bovril Tops”, said Ken) hung from lapel by a boot lace..
And, they all had loud Langland voices.
The sun shone down from a cloudless sky, a gentle sea breeze kept us cool. All this, combined with such a noble cause, - the Thistleboon Orphanage- , was a recipe for certain success, and well before 2 o’clock, the arena was full.
On the dot, the music from Jim Kostromin’s speaker ceased, half way through
“The Isle of Capri”. Loud clicking noises were heard followed by a long wail, background mumbled voices and a cough. Jim’s voice boomed out, startling several seagulls who lofted themselves from the chipped and heavily enamelled pier rails.
“Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen! Thank you for coming in such strength today! As you know all profits for this function go to the Thistleboon Orphanage!”
We all clapped as loudly as we could. We felt self righteous (good cause, you know).
“And now, Councillor Abberfield! Over to you!”
The worthy Mumbles Councillor cut to the quick with a few words about how we all loved and cared for the Orphanage (we clapped again) and then announced,
“Ladies and Gentlemen! To start off this afternoon’s Fete! From the heart of our very own village - The Mumbles Keep Fit Ladies! They will entertain you with their Indian Club Drills!”
To light applause, out marched thirty ladies (some of generous dimension) from a screened area behind the booths. Determinedly in step, making the pier boards tremble, they advanced to the centre of the arena. They lined up in two ranks, back to back, well spaced out. They were smartly turned out in matching white dresses, daringly cut short to mid-calf length and were crowned with wide brimmed panama hats firmly jammed down on heads. White ankle socks and freshly blancoed white canvas shoes, completed the ensemble. Some of the participants had been overzealous with the application of blanco with the result that as each foot thumped on to the pier boards so a knee-high cloud of white powder was discharged. This gave the impression that it was coming down from beneath their dresses and there was speculation (amongst the coarser minded) as to its origin.
Each lady boldly carried, before her, a pair of shiny varnished Indian Clubs.
In charge was Westbourne Place’s Mrs Kostromin, her costume differing only in that she had a red band on her panama. She turned to face her audience and bellowed,
“The first drill that the Mumbles Keep Fit Class will execute is the Bombay-Dangle, a loose lateral swing. Good for the bowels!”
She turned to face her team.
“ Right, girls! Prepare!- (Miriam!! Giggling time is over!)- Advance Clubs!”
Like a Guards’ Platoon, the ladies brought the clubs together to their fronts with a united clunk.
How they swung! All in perfect unison- to the left, to the right, in big circling movements, following their leader who, like the conductor of an orchestra, led them through a symphony of co-ordinated limb action.
After two or three minutes, they all stopped together.
“At ease!- pause- Down Clubs”!
We all clapped.
“Now a more difficult routine, regularly used by the British Army APTC in Poonah to keep our noble soldiers fit. It is known officially as the “Mahatma Goolie Klunker” routine, but referred to by the rank and file as “The Nutcracker”. I don’t know why.
This is complex and is not without hazard. You will notice that in spite of its complexity, at no time do the arms become detached from the rest of the body”.
Bravely the good ladies went through their routine under the merciless afternoon sun. They stuck it to the end and then with sweat streaming down their faces and the outlines of vest and drawers beginning to appear through sodden dresses, they downed clubs. Mrs K and her troupe triumphantly turned to the audience and bowed. They marched off to applause, tired, steaming and looking forward to their milk stouts.
Shamefully, throughout the performance, we had sniggered and muttered coarse unflattering remarks. The Mumbles Keep Fat Class (as we scathingly called them) were always subject to the mocking jeers of the younger element. However, within a few years time we were to rue the disgraceful conduct of having subjected these good ladies to such derision. We would eat our words.
(Early in 1939, these same ladies launched the First Aid Post in the old Legion Hall on the Square. They were amongst the first to become Air Raid Wardens, Messengers and First Aid Party (FAP) members. They drove makeshift ambulances through the blitzes. Manned the counters in the YMCA in Castle Avenue. They were the backbone of the WVA. They knitted their fingers to the bone for the Forces and, when the time came, demonstrated their worth by opening their homes to lonely servicemen. They were always there. Needless to say, when the time came for the bells to ring again, they were barely acknowledged for their charity.)
The show continued, Dibbo and Dabbo, two amateur (very) clowns (from the Hafod) ran on to the arena, their act consisted entirely of throwing buckets of water over each other and falling over.
This was followed by “International Accordionist and Spoon Player” –
“The Great Luigi Caruso, direct from Milan!”. Luigi certainly looked the part with his silk headdress, scarlet full sleeved blouse, gold and purple trousers. This was marred a little by his size eleven hobnail boots. But! He was a hit! Within minutes, we were belting out the popular songs of the day:
“Lazybones”, “Red Sails in the Sunset”, “September in the Rain” etc etc.
He bowed off to great acclaim. Wisely he had left his spoons at home.
Councillor Abberfield reappeared,
“Ladies and Gentlemen!
Please give a warm welcome to the Thistleboon Orphanage Girls!”
The Orphanage girls were a familiar sight about the village. Every school day they would march down, in pairs, from the Orphanage in Thistleboon to the Church School. Fifty or so in number, they ranged in age from about six to fourteen. Always neatly attired and spotless, they were very demure, healthy looking and seemingly content.
On this special day they were handsomely attired in fawn coloured gymslips with matching berets. Serious of face they marched out to music from the speaker and danced a complex routine that must have taken months to learn. In turn, individual members would separate from the main body to perform a small solo cameo. There was a special cheer for the tiniest lass who did her own perky, pointed toe thing.
The finale was spectacular. Each dancer picked up a light wooden sword, three foot or so in length. They lined up and, in pairs, fought duels. Then the climax. They formed a circle with the tallest lass standing at the centre. They marched around her holding the swords vertically in the air. The swords were dropped and pointed in, like radii. Suddenly, the girls closed in on the central figure and stopped. There was a brief pause before they stood back, swordless! The centrally placed girl now had all swords attached to her own. She raised her sword in the air which now held the others, interwoven into a gigantic cross of David!
Proudly, with interlocked swords lofted, she did a solo walk around the arena, to much applause and shouts of approval. She then led the rest of the girls off the stage,
It had been a jolly good performance, enjoyed by all; we clapped, whistled and cheered.
Then, following a short interval,- the big event of the afternoon!
More clicks. More wails. More mumbled voices. Then:
“Ladeees aaand Gentlemen!!” boomed the distorted voice of Jim Kostromin,
“The highlight of the afternoon!
“The Best Hair Competition!!” Sponsored by -- Amami Shampoo!!
There have been forty entries! – some from as far afield as Blackpill!! It is my great pleasure to hand you over to the Amami Representative who will introduce his team of judges!
Mr. Peregrine Truss!”
A gentleman approached the microphone. He cut an impressive figure clad in his loosely draped purple suit, yellow shirt and puce bow tie. His hair was en bouffant.
We hadn’t seen anything like him ever before, certainly not in our Chapel.
Oozing confidence, he spoke into the microphone.
“Thank you, Jim and good afternoon, folks! My colleagues, Mr. Fred Crotch and Miss Rita Buns are delighted to be here with you today on behalf of Amami Shampoo! Remember! Friday night is Amami Night!”
(we groaned as we heard the all too familiar Radio Luxembourg advertising jingle).
He was not easy to understand as he spoke with a foreign accent, at least that’s what we thought. Within a decade, as a soldier, I became familiar with this strange tongue. He was a Londoner.
He continued,“The prizes donated by Amami Shampoo are impressive!
Third prize: - A month’s supply of Amami Shampoo and Two Pounds! (ripple of applause).
Second prize: -Two months supply of Amami Shampoo and Three Pounds! (louder applause!)
Aaand.! Aaand..! First Prize..! First Prize…:!
Three months supply of Amami Shampoo….A free perm at Langley’s…..and… and.. Five Pounds!! (Gasps! Prolonged applause).
So, let’s get weaving! Will the competitors now line up in the arena before the judges!
Aaaand remember! -- Friday Night is Amami Night!!”
There was quite a buzz about the arena, excitement was building up!
He walked away from the microphone to join his two colleagues on the table in the centre of the arena,
Most of the competitors, many of them village girls, were shy and diffident. They lined up and were given numbered cards to hold in front of themselves. They had made a great effort to make the most of themselves. They wore the best clothes they could muster in those difficult times. Friends, sisters or neighbours had done all they could with the curling tongues to make the most of their hair.
Hot favourite, Betty Johnson, was there and, as she was handed her card, there were a number of cheers from around the ring. She certainly stood out! A pretty teenager,- those tumbling curls and the glorious colour of that auburn hair were of a beauty beyond description! Apart from that, like all the other Johnson girls she was a thoroughly nice lass. We were all plugging for her!
Then the judging began and, with it, the painful process of elimination. In numerical order, they paraded around the perimeter with the soft backing of popular music from Jim’s speaker. It was like a glorified game of musical chairs. At a signal from the top table, the music stopped and the competitors stood still.
Ten numbers were called out from the top table. Ten competitors, sadly and shyly, scurried from the arena to the anonymity of the watching crowd.
Betty was still out there!
The music restarted, they paraded again. And the procedure was repeated but with fewer eliminations. The excitement grew! Last twelve! Betty still there!
To the final round! Only six left! Betty was still there!
Three were eliminated.
That left a pretty young ash blonde, a very, very smartly groomed brunette with an immaculate coiffeur. And, yes! – our lovely auburn haired Betty!
These were the prize winners of the competition but who was the outright winner?-
It just had to be our Betty! She was way ahead of the other two, surely?
The three judges conferred. It did not take them long. They left their table and came to the centre of the ring. Peregrine Truss and his team confronted the three competitors. His Worship the Mayor of Swansea, bedecked with glittering chain, came forward to make the awards.
“Your Worship! Thank you for joining us! Congratulations ladies! You are all prizewinners in this Amami Shampoo competition! And now, Ladies and Gentlemen the final result! In reverse order of merit…..!!”
The atmosphere had now become electric. In our hearts we knew that Betty easily, easily had the loveliest head of hair. We waited to cheer our heads off.
Then came a paralysing shock which struck us, momentarily, dumb!
“In third place, Number 26, Betty Johnson!!”
Silence. Murmurs! Then shouts and cat calls from all around the arena.
Impervious, Peregrine carried on.
“In second place Number 19, Sally Morris from Blackpill!”
“And our most worthy winner, Number (unlucky for some! Ha! Ha! Ha!) 13!
Miss Diana Drors!!””
Applause from around the arena but a few boos were heard.
Miss Drors, before the result had been announced, had already placed herself between the other two competitors and, smilingly, had put an arm over each of their shoulders as their position was announced. She beamed at Ron, the Evening Post photographer, who, by now, had entered the arena armed with his massive Speed Graphic camera. In fairness, she cut an imposing figure, being immaculately dressed in a short spotted blue number enhanced by the patent leather high heeled shoes that had miraculously appeared from nowhere.
We were not happy but what could any one do about it? The prizes were awarded. It was all over. Peregrine fired his parting shot,
“… and that’s it folks! Thank you for coming along, today!
And, never, never forget!- Friday Night is Amami Night!”
We were too disappointed to groan.
It wasn’t quite all over. The Mayor and entourage were escorted along the narrow bridge to the Lifeboat House. After a pause, they appeared on the slipway and were helped into the Mumbles Lifeboat which had been lowered on the slipway, ready for launching.
To applause and cheers from the spectators on the Pier, the chain was banged and the Boat shot down the slipway into the sea. Always spectacular with its incredible accelerating rush down the slope, the great wash and the power surge off into the sea. Off went the council officials on a little cruise around the bay.
Now it really was all over. Feeling disappointed, sad for Betty, we walked back along the Pier. The sun was lower in the sky, a light breeze had sprung up and was beginning to feel its way through our light clothing. I shivered slightly.
We started to think ahead
We decided to walk back home rather than catch the train.- this meant that we had pennies to buy chips at Marshall’s shop on the Parade.
We started strolling up the incline road to the Cutting. Suddenly, Jackie leapt back from the wall, gesticulating madly, hardly able to get his words out!
“LOOK! LOOK! Down there! By the slot machines! There’s a car. That Peregrine Whatsit fellow is driving and the other judges are sitting in the back!
And look who’s sitting in the front seat!”
We ran to the wall and looked down. The car was turning off the Pier forecourt to drive up the incline. As it turned to approach us up the ramp, we were able to see clearly that Miss Drors was sitting in the front, chatting freely to her fellow passengers- with a big grin on her face!
Jackie blew up. Mark blew up and so did Ken. As ever, I was a little slower.
Ken was beside himself with rage,
. “It’s a fix!”
Jackie, “They’re all in it together”
Wryly, Mark muttered, “Nothing’s ever what it seems to be!”
It was time for sayings of profundity. It was time to draw upon those hidden reserves of genius that lie beneath the grubby carapace.
I drew myself up to full height and looked into the far distance. With impassive face, I pronounced sonorously,
“White man speak with forked tongue….”
Mark placed a penny in his eye, adopted his stiff necked Prussian stance and barked,
“Englischer schweinhunds! Ze Kaiser vill bayonet you viz his own hants…,!”
Jackie, with drooping lids and a half smile, drew on an imaginary cigarette and nasally purred,
“Ma chere, Diana! Zees time, cherie you go too far. Now you will never know ze magic of a night in ze Sahara viz ze great Beau Geste, sucking a black wine gum…”
But it was left to Kenny Bale to make the ultimate gesture.
As the car crawled up the steep ramp, we pulled to one side. Miss Drors had the decency to look down into her lap. Peregrine Truss looked ahead with bouffant swaying defiantly- totally uncaring.
Kenny drew the bottom line under this unsavoury event. His eyes narrowed, he stroked his imaginary pencil line moustache and with shoulders hunched, he snarled,
“OK, yousa guys! Let ‘em have eet! . Blowa ze ‘ed offa ze Truss rat. Leava ze Diana doll toa me. I attenda to her.. myself -…...Perrsonall…!”
Jackie and I blazed away with our Tommy Guns, from the hip; Mark threw a grenade and Kenny, picked out his victims with carefully aimed shots from his Beretta automatic.
The cutting echoed with the bursts of machine gun fire, the grenade blast and the crack of the 9mm slugs. Then there was silence.
We stood back. Justice had been done.
We were ready for our chips.
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