The Big Read | A Tale of Two Narratives

Richard Porch explores the tale behind a painting.

Tale of Two Narratives - Wayward Wind - Carpanini

The idea for this piece of writing was inspired by a painting by the artist David L. Carpanini (b.1946) called ‘Wayward Wind’ which was painted in 1979. In it three elderly men are having a chat whilst standing in the middle of the road of some Valleys community. The men are passing the time, perhaps reminiscing, in a street devoid of cars and traffic. The inevitable impression conveyed is that no-one owns a car and no-one visits, therefore it is safe to stand in the middle of the road. There are bare telegraph poles from which wires are no longer suspended; either no one can afford a phone or they have no one to ring. The terraced houses that line both sides of a grey asphalt road are rain-streaked and tired. Equally inevitably we can conclude that no-one is maintaining them, perhaps the owners are too old to or they don’t have the financial resources. Behind the men the perspective of the street on both sides dives down and away and terminates at centre-left in what looks like landscaped coal tips and rolling hills beyond. A nostalgic sky floats above them and is about the only natural element in the man-made environment of the composition. Carpanini’s painting is therefore as interesting for what he has left out – as much as for what he has included. It looks (at least to me) like the portrait of a community from which the young have fled and left behind an economically-defined residue comprised of the elderly. The lack of obvious conventional indices of wealth such as cars, TV aerials or shops defines the place as isolated and impoverished. Presumably the old people have lived all their lives in this once useful valley and it is here that they will die.

I look at this painting frequently and enjoy the repetition involved in identifying the iconography of Carpanini’s ‘story’ the way one enjoys re-reading a favourite novel. A while ago I found a photograph, taken in 1964, which excites this same feeling. I think you can look at its iconography too and read numerous levels of interest ranging from the purely historical to the sociological. It was taken by a man called Stephen Lavender who was a Conservator attached to the Lower Swansea Valley Project in 1964. In it five young children; possibly of around ten years of age stand outside a terraced house on Aberdyberthi Street in the Landore district of Swansea. They are conceivably whiling away the time between finishing school and their mother calling them in for tea. To judge from their clothing and the length of the shadows cast in the street it was almost certainly taken in the summer. I say this because the girls are wearing summer dresses, ankle socks and they are all (with the exception of the boy with the tie) wearing sandals. The girls’ dresses were probably home-made by their mother, run-up from proprietary patterns and stitched together on a sewing machine. The two boys look like miniature versions of their fathers, which was no accident, for there was little in the way of fashionable clothing for either pre-teen or teenage children in 1964.

The youth culture that would produce its own distinctive hair styles and clothing had still to reach the Swansea in this picture, but it shortly would. These children are ‘baby-boomers’ born in the early 1950s in that first flush of post-war prosperity and affluence that came with low levels of unemployment and rising wages. Their parents were probably born in the mid-1920s and may just have seen some war service, but grew up in the thirties when working class lives would still have been hard in South Wales. Aberdyberthi Street still exists although, I’m glad to say, the surrounding environment is much altered. As with Carpanini’s painting I think it is possible to tease out a narrative from the images iconography and this is what the point of this article is.

But first of all, some background. Aberdyberthi Street was and still is part of a series of streets in Landore, one of Swansea’s oldest industrial districts. The terrace in the photograph was laid out and built in 1849 by the Vivian family of coppermasters to house key workers at the Hafod Copperworks. The extensive ruins of which can still be found a few hundred yards to the east and on the other side of the Neath Road. At one time it was the largest copperworks in the world when it began smelting copper in 1810. So even by 1964 the houses were 115 years old and had probably only been minimally altered. Warming the house in the winter would have been done using cast-iron grates full of coal, newspaper and kindling. A kind of urban log fire. From the photograph we can see that some had already been ‘pebble-dashed’ and had ornamental door cases added in stone. The original roofing has been replaced from this terrace: photographs from the 1930s show the bedroom windows were of a smaller proportion and now they are taller. Aberdyberthi Street was one of the earliest parts of what people in the 19th century called ‘Trevivian’ or ‘Vivians Town’ after the family of Cornish mine owners who owned the land and paid for them to be built.

The only thing which mercifully isn’t there and was present in that photograph from 1964 was of course the Hafod tip. Easily the most unpalatable legacy of the Vivians industrial empire it towered 200 feet above the end of Aberdyberthi Street. It was already well over a century old by 1964; it covered five hectares of land and was composed of 112,000 tons of toxic copper waste. As a major blot on the urban landscape it was not removed until January 1973 at a cost of £163.000. Pentre-Hafod Comprehensive School was built where it stood in 1976 and opened a year later. All of that was in the future in 1964.

Three years after this photograph was taken on 21st October 1967, the Aberfan tip disaster occurred. In this hugely tragic event 144 children and adults lost their lives when part of a coal tip slithered down a hillside and engulfed a school. In the wake of this event the Secretary of State for Wales, Cledwyn Hughes, announced that he intended to speed up the process of dealing with derelict land. In addition, a new Industrial Development Act re-designated Swansea as a Development Area, which enabled the city to qualify for financial assistance when reclaiming derelict land. As a result the days of the Hafod Tip were instantly numbered. In a brilliant display of the ‘waste not – want not’ mentality that the Victorians would have approved of, it was discovered that this inheritance of copper slag also made good ‘hard-core’. The latter was used as filling material in land reclamation projects especially at Dunvant where low-lying marshland was being converted to open-space use.

Back to the photograph. You can tell just by looking at the absence of cabling going to and from the houses that only one or two people had a telephone in Aberdyberthi Street in 1964. I’m sure that every resident had television by then; although reception would have been available in black and white only. In addition there were only two channels available rather than the mind-boggling multiplicity of satellite and cable channels on offer now. There was BBC and ITV although in April 1964 BBC 2 came on line; the only problem was you had to buy a new television in order to receive it. BBC 2 went out on Ultra High frequency (UHF) at 625 lines and ordinary televisions only used 405 lines. Match of the Day and Playschool were first broadcast on BBC2 in 1964. The most-watched TV programmes in 1964 were; Steptoe and Son, Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Coronation Street. In this year also the BBC ended its ban on mentioning politics, royalty, religion and sex in comedy programmes that it broadcast. More presciently cigarette advertising was banned from children’s television in 1964 and all performers in such advertising had to be manifestly over 21 years of age.

The houses in Aberdyberthi Street would, by present standards, have been virtually devoid of technology, but would probably have contained; a washing machine, radio and a gas or electric cooker. Some sort of record player or combination of radio and record player called a ‘radiogram’ would have passed for what we now call a ‘music centre’. Of course all the music would have been on vinyl not DVD; even tape cassettes were not widespread by this time. Very limited amounts of children’s TV programming, closely followed by the radio and then children’s comics would have supplied the children in this photograph with what passed for youth culture. A key thing to remember when looking at this photograph is that in 1964 the Second World War had only been over for 19 years. In other words the same difference between 2016 and 1997. Think of that. The Second World War still provided the main theme in many boys’ comics such as Victor and Buster and supplied heroes in the form of pilots and soldiers more than pop stars or footballers. The Germans were still the stock villain rather than aliens or terrorists and plastic construction kits like Airfix rose to popularity by catering to this nationalistic hubris. Interestingly war stories didn’t really disappear from boys comics until the late 1980s.

If you look back at the photograph the children have only two toys visible. One girl is using a skipping rope and a bicycle lies on its side in the gutter. That bicycle is of itself an index of relative affluence because it is a children’s model. Ten years earlier in 1954 the idea of buying a bike just for a child to use (even if you could have found one) would have been an absurd notion. Bikes were very commonplace in 1964 it is just that they tended to be used by adults to travel to work on.

Obviously these children did not have mobile phones; they could not text or call each other whenever they felt like it. In fact apart from the record player and the television there was very little technology in their lives, although even then commentators were starting to complain about the pernicious effect of too much television on children. If a child in 1964 had wanted to use a telephone (something pretty incomprehensible by the mores of the day) and didn’t know someone who owned a phone then they would have waited in the street to use a public phone box. Something that would have looked distinctly odd.

So they had no secret digital world in which to hide or share with friends, their lives were lived out largely face-to-face. Nor did they have personal computers or laptops in their bedrooms with which to email one another or the world in general. They communicated either in the street or the school playground and were generally second-class citizens in a world dominated by adults. That said, I suspect children then enjoyed far higher levels of personal freedom and could roam the streets in ways that probably do not happen now. They really were children as opposed to small adults in-waiting.

Another feature of these children’s lives would have related to how their homes were heated. In 1964 those houses in Aberdyberthi Street were very unlikely indeed to have had central heating; instead they would have had coal fires burning in the principal rooms occupied by the family. Bedrooms would probably not have had any heating at all. The coal would have been delivered every week by a ‘coalman’ who would have heaved the week’s supply onto the pavement in sacks for the house owner to carry through to a coal bunker in the yard near the kitchen door. One obvious by-product of coal-burning fires was that the fire grate would be full of burnt ashes the following morning. These would have to shovelled out of the grate and deposited in a metal ‘ash bin’ kept in the garden or back yard and then put out onto the pavement for collection on an appropriate day in the week. There were no black plastic rubbish bags then and metal dustbins bought at the local hardware store – as opposed to being supplied by the council – were the norm. Photographs exist showing ashbins awaiting collection on Aberdyberthi Street in the 1960s to confirm this practice. Natural gas piped ashore from the North Sea would very soon displace coal as the fuel for heating homes with. Significantly Cardiff stopped exporting coal from the Rhondda Valley in 1964. Nevertheless coal mines in the Swansea area still produced two million tons of coal with 6.275 men employed in the pits. This made the National Coal Board the largest employer of male labour west of Neath at that time.

Looking again at the photograph we see only two cars in the distance up near Bowen Street. In the year that Ford first came to Swansea, car ownership levels were a fraction of what they are now and as a consequence there would have been little on-street traffic and therefore few houses with cars outside them. This in turn meant few road signs and road markings to blight the landscape with their semiotic clutter. Unlike now there were no ‘sleeping policeman’ in the roads of Swansea as a ‘traffic calming’ measure as there was little traffic (relatively speaking) to calm.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the photograph is that (once you realise it) almost everything in it was made in Britain. The cars, the children’s bicycle and the component parts of all the houses (slate roof, cast-iron gutters / drainpipes and timber sash-windows) would all have been made either locally (Wales) or nationally (Britain). The paving slabs are Pennant sandstone probably from a quarry somewhere in the Swansea Valley. The kerb stones were most probably granite exchanged for coal in a cross channel trade with Brittany. The children’s clothing would have been British, printed and manufactured in the north of England as opposed to India or Asia now. The skipping rope apart – no other toys are visible; although it is not inconceivable that the boys had a collection of Corgi model cars indoors. These would have been made a short bus ride away in a modern factory at Fforestfach and assembled by their mothers.

Their fathers possibly worked at any one of a number of the industrial concerns that were then located near Aberdyberthi Street in 1964. If you look at an Ordnance Survey map of the area for the period a number of light and heavy industrial concerns can all be found within walking or cycling distance of it. The Cwmfelin works in nearby Cwmbwrla being the pre-eminent example and conceivably where the boys’ fathers actually worked. Railway lines still lacerated the landscape and slag tips dapple the maps of this period with man-made mountains of toxic waste.

De-industrialisation was getting under way in Swansea by this time as the town’s economy moved away from manufacturing to what we see around us today. The slag tip at the end of Aberdyberthi Street was an all-too visible monument to former industrial greatness but one whose very presence was an obstacle to developing away from it. Its vast presence anchored Aberdyberthi Street and Swansea to a Victorian heyday and it hovers in the background of many photographs of this period like the black industrial mountain it was. The other striking thing about the photograph is how dated-looking everything seems; the children notwithstanding. Even the cars just visible to one side of the photograph seem to owe more to the early 1950s than the early 1960s. Perhaps this is because they would have been second-hand rather than new. One looks in vain for signs of modernity or some manifestation of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ that were just around the corner in Lavender’s photograph.

There is one small glimpse of modernity or some semblance of a modern sensibility, call it what you will, to be seen. It comes in the form of a tantalising glimpse of some wallpaper behind the young girl standing on the doorstep. There is only a small amount to be seen but it is of a type that you would not have seen much before 1960. That type of design was characterised by bright colours, irregular outlines and mottled textures with graffito effects. This kind of bold design had been gathering popularity throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s and was popularised by furnishing companies like Heal’s in London. The latter commissioned fabric and wallpaper designs by graduates inspired by Abstract Expressionist painters who worked in a loose painterly style. Wallpaper designs in 1964 were moving decisively away from vertical patterns or floral motifs into abstraction. Designs such as the one just visible in Aberdyberthi Street were a half-way house between a strong pattern with quasi-representational motifs or flourishes and the complete abstraction that would come later.

So there in that crack in the door is a slight glimpse of the future. The Hafod tip would take nearly another decade before being removed and the house exteriors would disappear under successive coatings of pebble-dash render. They would also lose their Welsh slate roofs in favour of coloured pantiles (made who knows where) and the window above the front door would be filled in for some reason. The timber sash windows would be replaced in the 1980s by UPVC ones. The Pennant sandstone pavements would be pulled up in favour of tarmac as the need to periodically dig them up to allow first of all for telecommunications cabling in the 1980s and then for Internet connections in the 1990s demanded. By then all the houses would have had central heating and computers; car ownership levels would have risen and filled the street with parked cars and traffic bringing with them all the detritus that cars and traffic generate.

I wonder what became of those children. Most probably they followed their fathers and mothers into the factories. Less probably they went into higher education. In 1951 for example; 80% of young people aged 15 -19 were in full-time employment*. Unlike now where most young people seem to think that going to university is a birthright after completing their GCSEs, in 1964 this would have been highly unlikely for a child born in Aberdyberthi Street. A decade later maybe less so. Perhaps they got jobs in the expanding service and public sectors that would convert Swansea from a blue collar town into a white collar city in the period 1970 – 2000.

Aberdyberthi Street is still there and will still be there in fifty years’ time if it is properly looked after and used. The Vivian family of coppermasters took a lot out of Swansea but also put a lot back into it. Without them it is arguable there would be no modern Swansea at all; perhaps Aberdyberthi Street and the other streets of their copper workers village in the Hafod should be their best and most enduring legacy.


*Source: the 1951 census.