As the miners’ lamps at Maerdy, the last of the working pits in the Rhondda, are extinguished for the third and no doubt the last time, a short chapter in my revolutionary past comes back into sharp focus. It was at the end of my first year at Cambridge, in 1937, that I accepted a suggestion from Kay Garland, a fellow student, that we should go off to the Gower Peninsula for a fortnight and help run an inter-universities’ camp for unemployed miners from South Wales. There was a great deal of unemployment in the mining community, especially in the Rhondda, where many pits had been closed down in the depression of the early Thirties. And so, for card-carrying student comrades like ourselves, going off to help unemployed miners in South Wales seemed at least a modest, if feeble alternative to going off to fight with the embattled miners in Spain.
My insurrectionary ardour at that time was somewhat bookish, and amounted in the main to an admiration for Eric Hobsbawm’s dry eloquence at the Cambridge University Socialist Club (or CUSC) and Harry Pollitt’s stirring oratory at Popular Front rallies in Hyde Park and at the Albert Hall. In addition, we studied the Basic Texts and met in our college cells to read each other jejune papers culled from the Masters. On setting out on our hitchhiking journey, I was apprehensively aware that my only close acquaintances among the labouring masses had been the Indian ayahs and sepoys and the Irish cooks among whom I had grown up and who, until my adolescence, had been among my closest friends.
With my imagination preoccupied with a vision of the grim mining valleys of South Wales, I was not prepared for the green and bland scenery of the Gower and its seemingly endless stretches of sandy beach. The camp, which lay between the sea and a ridge of low hills, was thoroughly well equipped, with imposing marquees separating the rows of miners’ and students’ tents. There was no question, it appeared, of the male students sharing tents with the miners – to my secret and ashamed relief. And when, towards the evening, the contingent of eighty or so unemployed men arrived and settled in, it quickly became clear that we were not going to share much else either.
For they were a taciturn and unsociable group of men, drawn from a number of separate villages. They didn’t appear to know each other to any great extent, and they certainly evinced no eagerness to know us. They seemed to us seriously depressed and lethargic, as well they might be after years of idleness within sight of their decaying machines. Admittedly the weather was fitful, so they were reluctant to play soccer or go for walks over the hills. And they didn’t much frequent the nearby inn, perhaps because they couldn’t afford to on their meagre dole. Apart from a great deal of sleeping, the only activity they engaged in with a sombre enthusiasm was Nonconformist prayer meetings. The muezzin-like hwyl and the strains of lugubrious Mid-Victorian hymns, invariably in the minor key, floated over our tents and provoked us, I’m sorry to say, to an ill-concealed facetiousness. Kay and I were, I am sure, not the only students who wished we hadn’t committed ourselves to a second week. As the miners left in their coaches, I was tempted to disappear into the Welsh hills, but a mixture of timidity and Party discipline prevailed.