Instead of writing another chapter of my book I found myself writing protest letters to local politicians and Directors of Education. The sound of ranks closing and people easing their backsides onto fences echoed around the valley. One local politician surpassed himself by posing in front of a derelict building on his party's newsletter that trumpeted the need for investment and regeneration in Pentre. Later that same day in a council meeting he seconded a proposal to close the school. So much for investment and regeneration. Honestly, you couldn't make it up!
The school in question is in the forefront of the picture. While it still retains its Victorian facade the interior is equipped to meet the needs of 21st Century students. This photo was taken when Pentre was in its prime and the civic centre of the Rhondda Valleys. The Rhondda itself is situated in South Wales and is probably the most famous of all those mining communities that fuelled the industrial revolution and helped forge an Empire. Like mining communities around the world its history often makes grim reading. Hardship and poverty were familiar companions and people learnt to embrace a black sardonic humour that reflected their daily flirtation with the Angel of Death. The name Senghenydd is synonymous with the risk miners took every day as a matter of course. In that little pit village on October 14th, one hundred years ago, 439 men lost their lives in an explosion. Nearly every family in the village was touched by the tragedy.
Now there are no mines left in the valleys but communities are still close-knit and resilient in the face of economic decline and hardship. Pentre has been particularly hard hit over the years and the loss of the school would inflict irreparable damage upon the village. There is a deep sense of betrayal within the community and this has been given expression through protest marches and public meetings. In the picture the school just in shot in the top right corner has been abandoned and demolished. The site is now overgrown wasteland. We are determined not to allow this to happen to Pentre Primary.
It has been a privilege to be involved with such a passionate and dynamic group of people who reminded me of something very important. As writers we should stay close to our roots. They are what make us not just different but unique. In the children's novel I am currently writing Billy, who lives in a deprived community like Pentre, is handed the family album and for the first time reaches out to his past:
“Look,” she said, pointing to a faded sepia photograph on the first page. “I bet you can't guess who that is?”
A stern gaunt individual stared at Billy from a frozen distance in time. He wore a flat cap and crumpled baggy trousers. A long jacket covered what appeared to be some kind of vest. His dark eyes and hooked nose reminded Billy of a hungry watchful sparrow-hawk. A long drooping moustache made him look miserable, as if he had just missed a kill. He could certainly do with a good feed. Billy couldn't imagine anybody messing around if he was headmaster. But what impressed Billy most was the fact he was covered from head to toe in what appeared to be black dust.
“I expect he's just had a row for getting dirty,” observed Billy knowingly, “and that's why he looks so sad.”
“He's a miner,” laughed Mum, “they used to work underground digging for coal.”
Billy thought that was something he might like to do. He couldn't believe you could actually get paid for getting dirty.
“There used to be lots of coal mines but that was a long time ago.”
Billy's dream of becoming a miner died almost before it had chance to take breath.
“They say the valley is riddled with abandoned tunnels deep underground.”
Billy was alarmed. Supposing some of the tunnels collapsed under the weight of the buildings on top of them. Suddenly the world did not feel such a safe place.
“But you still haven't said who you think is in the photo.” Mum pressed.
“It's not Nan's twin sister any way.” replied Billy confidently.
Mum smiled. “No its Nan's father, your great-grandfather.”
Billy stared at the photograph and the piercing dark eyes stared straight back at him. It didn't look like his great grandfather shared Nan's sense of humour.
“What was his name?” asked Billy.
“Glyn. That was the last photo he ever had taken.” Mum added mysteriously.
“Why? Couldn't he afford to pay?”
Billy hated the days when the school photographer visited. He always took a note asking to be excused and watched while classmates in their best clothes were called out one by one while Billy sat at his desk and pretended he didn't care. Mum placed an arm around his shoulders and when she spoke her voice was deep and husky.
“He went to work that afternoon and never came back. Just disappeared. There was no explosion or roof fall. His work mates say he just turned a corner and vanished. He became a bit of a legend. He had already survived an explosion that killed four others just after they were first married.”
I imagine that no matter what we write we cannot escape from what we are and the influences that made us that way. My advice would be, embrace them.