There I was.
Walking along the pavement in brilliant sunshine, along the curving wall of Gibea chapel, on my way to Pen-y-Cae, the sweet shop just past the junior school. I was 10, wearing a faded orange t-shirt with the embossed characters from Top Cat on the front. Everything appeared over-saturated and pin sharp, as it does sometimes in dreams. I could smell the fragrant air, feel the light summer breeze, hear the cars pass by. It was a blissful Saturday afternoon in 1974.
‘Transported’ doesn’t quite describe it, I’ve never had such a vivid half dream / half memory. Just drifting into sleep, then sharply woken by the blinding assault on my senses. It brought back details of the immediate environment, that I had no idea I’d stored in my memory for so long — crossing the road at Mr Williams the Chemist’s; the tar-black gloss railings of the ‘Little School’; passing the bus stops on either side of the road; the smell of the sweet shop and the dark, cool interior of it’s tiny space; the airiness of the grocer’s shop opposite, with it’s own aromas of cabbage and oranges. The freakish light.
I recalled how I could have chosen to walk back down past the church, with its horizontal line of pock marks along the transoms from a bomb that fell during the war only thirty years before. Beyond that I might have seen I.P. Lewis standing proudly, though probably bored beyond reason, outside his ironmonger’s shop; silvery, galvanised wheelbarrows, stepladders and bundles of bamboo sticks outside; riddles, rubber gloves, buckets and an array of tools in the window; wondering what was for tea.
That particular place is near where I caught the bus to school every morning for seven years, from the piss-impregnated concrete shelter. But that wasn’t to begin for another two years after this memory. My parents were to be buried in the churchyard far too soon. But this was many years before that too. I hadn’t driven past there for several months, nor read or heard about it in any capacity lately but there I was, in Upper Brynamman at the junction between Station Road, Mountain Road and Cwmgarw Road, as surely as I was actually in my own bed in Swansea in August of 2017.
Brynamman, in the summer, in the seventies was a placid village, positioned at the foot of the Black Mountain, criss crossed by the paths of children on their seemingly years-long six week holiday from school.
The whole village was our playground. We spent hours in the park next to the rugby club, with its witch’s hat roundabout, huge iron rocking horse, spine juddering see-saw and ten foot slide. Each was a wood and metal health and safety disaster waiting to happen, grounded in concrete. Remarkably, I don’t remember ever witnessing any injuries of note, the worst thing that happened was when one of our number strayed behind the grandstand and disturbed the local Hell’s Angels. They scribbled all over his face with Platinum felt-tip pens before letting him go. They had a weird fondness for lime green and cerise.
Our adventures included day long treks, with a bag of meat paste or jam sandwiches and some crisps, through the quarry, up to the Black Mountain, looking for the Roman road. Or we walked along the somewhat more recent Llandeilo Road until the village petered out at Mynydd Llesi, the whinberry mountain. Occasionally we went swimming — in Pownd Plank — a deep pool with a cool shading of leaves on the surface of the water, or sometimes at the always freezing, wonderful, river-water fed lido.
My memory may be lit by the crisp clear light of that day, but in reality it was probably cloudy much of the summer. I certainly remember the rain and the stultifying torpor it brought, especially to an only child stuck inside, with my nose up against the window watching the drops run down the glass. So, so, bored, and waiting.
Being a Saturday though, it would have entailed being dragged away from watching the “Banana Splits” on TV in the morning, to be sent up to the Bakehouse to fetch a white batch and a cake for myself as a reward.
Brynamman Bakehouse was a marvellous place. You could feel the heat on the outside of the peeling green door as you reached for the latch, half a dozen bakers would spin round to look at you as you opened it, flicking fag ash into the dough proving on their benches. I would ask for a ‘Swansea’ batch and be led to the back of the baking hall to choose a cake from a long table. Cream horns, apple turnovers, custard slices, doughnuts, eclairs and viennese fingers all in ranks. The smell of flour, sugar and warmth, and cigarettes. But despite the cake I could never resist digging through the crust into the fresh, springy white bread on the way home.
On sunny weekdays there was the visit to our cul-de-sac of Carpannini’s ice cream van bringing Fab or Zoom lollys and their home-made yellow ice cream. At the first sound of a tinny ‘Greensleeves’ all the kids in the street would dash out and queue for their turn to buy from the elaborately ginger coiffed and moustachioed ice-cream man before sitting on the kerb to enjoy their purchases. At weekends the superior Cresci’s vans did their rounds with the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted and the thickest, smoothest chocolate sauce. My dad would sometimes buy me a cider lolly and let me dip it into his tub of ice cream as we sat on the front doorstep watching our very small world go by.
Occasionally the local cinema showed matinees in the summer, and I clearly recall being enthralled to be watching a film in the morning and coming out to daylight afterwards. It was a magical experience in our conservative world where the cinema was usually a night-time only affair. They showed cartoons and age-appropriate movies to a noisy rabble stuffed with sweets, choc ices and Kia-Ora.
There was also that most marvellous of things, school holiday TV. Mostly black and white I think, as we didn’t have a colour TV until the late seventies. Episodes were shown one a day during the week in a period when daytime TV was normally restricted to The Open University. Every series holds fond memories -“White Horses”, “Belle and Sebastian”, “The Flashing Blade”, and the outstanding “Robinson Crusoe”. Most were badly dubbed European productions but were so well made that the visual library they created in my head still informs my taste.
Then, at the height of Summer there was the annual Club Trip. The members of the local Working Men’s Club (all our dads) saved through the year to send their wives and children for a day out to the beach at Tenby, St David’s or Porthcawl. The noise and smell of the packed coach; the colour of travel induced vomit after drinking vibrant green Corona Tropicade; the slow progress, made slower by the children’s excitement - all forgotten when we crested the brow of a hill to see the sun glittering seductively on the sea.
All was good. Candy floss, sandcastles and a swift wrapping of pac-a-macs when it rained. Seagull menaced hotdogs, fairground rides and the terror of the waxwork devil in Coney beach amusements. It was simple and wonderful because it contrasted so fully with our ordinary lives.
But they weren’t so ordinary. We had freedom and hope, the colour and music of the seventies, and another three weeks of sunshine to rejoice in, and for this reminder of those long gone days I am grateful that my mind took a wrong turning, and found the opportunity to put me back there, on my way home.