Maerdy Diary

Boris Ford

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.

It was as well, for my sake, that they did, for the new contingent of unemployed came in like a gust of bracing fresh air. It was immediately apparent, from the way they distributed themselves among the tents and were in no time playing a game of mass soccer, 40 a side, that they all knew each other intimately. We learnt that they came from the village of Maerdy and that Maerdy was something special. Known in the valleys as Little Moscow, virtually the whole village was enrolled in the Communist Party, with the exception of the barber. Some of us were sitting with them in one of the sleeping tents, and there was much jocularity as they described how much red tape they had had to cut through to ensure that the widowed barber, almost the only man in full employment in the village, came to the camp with his young son. ‘He’s the only man in our village can afford to eat an egg for his breakfast every day,’ one of them laughed. ‘Well, that’s true,’ the barber replied, genially, ‘but there’s three of us share it.’

The Maerdy men, and no doubt the women too, were a triumph of zest and the human spirit over the most flagrant adversity, for their pit was calculated to contain at least a hundred years of excellent coal. The Party gave them a fair amount of support. But it was adult education that saved their morale. After a year or two of unemployed gloom and frustration, the like of which we had witnessed the previous week, some of the men decided that the solution for Maerdy was to assume that theirs was quite simply a community that didn’t engage in paid work, except for the barber and the primary teacher and the shopkeeper-cum-postmistress. But everyone worked at maintaining as best they could the fabric of their homes and of the village’s few meeting-places. They, the men, gardened and worked on their allotments, they played soccer and kept pets. The women ran their homes and brought up the children.

And then the men turned to their studies. Before long, almost every man was enrolled in a class, and some in three: classes on Marxist-Leninist theory, on economics and psychology, on literature and languages, and on history ancient and modern. As they remarked, they were privileged to have time to read and write and discuss. Except that they didn’t have a daily egg for breakfast, it was an ideal existence compared to the physical exhaustion and danger of working down a pit. And most evenings they sang.

Being Welsh, they all sang, about half of them in a choir, and all of them informally at the inn, where at least the students could contribute drinks if not many songs. It must have been the second or third evening of that week that Dai Jones (as I’ll call him, for I forget his name) first sang on his own, and it was typical of the man that up till then he had been content to sing as one of a group. We had already heard him speaking during discussions on political topics or about the business of helping to run the camp. He spoke quietly and with a kind of reticence, and yet with at unassuming conviction and authority. He had been among the first to include the students in all their games and discussions, and also to insist on involving the miners in the domestic chores of running the camp. Moreover I had noticed that though he was of frail build, he took part with great panache and little skill in the games of soccer. Dai didn’t so much lead the others as find himself spontaneously accepted as their guide. I remember thinking that he would have made a marvellous senior tutor or head teacher.

On this evening he was prevailed on to sing, and so he sang, in a plangent cello-like baritone, not a protest or political song, but a hymn. Some eight years earlier I had been entranced by just such a seemingly untutored Welsh voice when singing in the King’s Choir. Dai brought tears to our eyes that evening, and the memory brings them to my eyes again over fifty years later. In the hymns and above all in the folk songs he sang then and later was revealed the profound quality and simplicity of the man. There are few things so exposing as the singing of folk songs.

One afternoon a small group of us, miners and students, walked out over the nearby hills. They asked about our university studies which seemed to them so much grander than their amateur efforts. To them we were real students and they couldn’t help envying us our privileges, privileges which we couldn’t begin to deny. When we turned to their studies, we found that these four or five men were all enrolled in a class on the Greek city state, and they rehearsed for us their perplexity as to how the Athenians could reconcile their democratic idealism with their acceptance of a voiceless slave population: what did we think? But alas, none of us was an Eric Hobsbawm and we were embarrassed to be unable to contribute anything meaningful and thought-through to the discussion; and we knew that this wasn’t an occasion for glib cleverness. So they talked and we listened and it seemed to me that they were the really committed students, for their sanity and their buoyancy were intimately bound up with their reading and discussions and tutors’ guidance, whereas even the brightest of us students pursued our studies with an urbane confidence bordering on arrogance.

As we walked along the little valley we came upon some long-disused and rusting machinery half buried in the grass, and the miners at once examined it so as to explain to us innocents what its function was and how it worked. But they found themselves perplexed and, ill at ease, they fell to arguing quite testily about its workings, for their mining instincts and know-how had gone rusty too. All of a sudden we found ourselves staring at the wastage of skills and precision and judgment that lay exposed before us, and we wandered back to the camp in an almost dejected mood.

But the mood was soon replaced by the verve and energy of these men. Their short holiday came to an end and they settled down, singing, in their departing coaches. We went through the motions of clearing up, but found that, quite unlike their predecessors, the men had left their tents and area swept and tidy. Kay and I went our ways homeward, she pining for the Italian-looking hirsute young miner who had fallen for her buxom and blond attractions, and I more than a little chastened.

That might have been the end of my Maerdy story. But after a new academic year had begun, Kay and I recounted our experience at a meeting of CUSC and proposed that we should invite Dai to come to Cambridge and speak to the club about the politics of life in an unemployed mining village. This was agreed with a fair amount of laconic enthusiasm. I suggested he should come the day before the meeting so that we would have ample time to show him around Cambridge. It was as well we did invite him to come early, though the terms in which his reply was couched should have alerted us. For he wrote on behalf of the whole village and spoke of the honour that they felt the University of Cambridge socialists were conferring on them.

At any rate, when Kay and I met Dai off the train we hardly recognised him: he seemed altogether smaller and more frail, though this may have been the effect of his being dressed in a new-looking suit and tie and carrying a new suitcase. He looked rather like a respectable bank clerk from Surbiton, and for a time talked like one, apparently doing his best to mask his Welsh intonation. We installed him in the Downing College guest room, and then walked out of the back gate for a brief visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum and on, past Pembroke and St Catherine’s, to King’s for choral evensong in the Chapel. When we left, after the unaccompanied singing in that most awesome of buildings, his Welsh accent had returned and I noticed that on this occasion there were tears in his eyes.

Back in Downing Dai ate dinner sitting between the Master and Dr Leavis, both of whom had the kind of habitual courtesy that immediately put him at his ease – except, as he told me afterwards, that he was much disconcerted to be eating so lavishly while Leavis, whose digestion had been severely damaged as a result of his experiences in the First World War, shoved a few morsels of food around his plate but seldom into his mouth. Dai revealed that the village had clubbed together to buy him a new outfit, for they felt that he was going to Cambridge as an emissary of Maerdy and it would not do for him to appear in his much worn and much pressed old suit. I and some of the others found ourselves apprehensive lest many members of CUSC would treat tomorrow’s meeting as just one more not very compelling date in the diary and that there might be only a sparse attendance. So the following day socialist cyclists were to be seen pedalling round Cambridge brandishing three-line whips while we toured Dai round the Backs and the Colleges. As a result, a somewhat dazed and exhausted Dai found himself, that evening, facing an impressive audience.

I wish I could recount that he had the triumph that he so much deserved. Perhaps the wording of our invitation, proposing a political analysis of unemployment in the Welsh pits, misled him, for he delivered, or rather read, a rather theoretical and even doctrinaire disquisition on the evils of unemployment. It was not a disaster, by any means, for the sincerity of the man shone through the verbiage and then came spontaneously into its own when, later, we managed to shift the informal discussion to life in Maerdy and to the human qualities and initiatives that flourished in what might easily have been a stricken community. Dai had fairly quickly realised, he confessed afterwards, that his talk was too academic, but that was the talk he and his colleagues had prepared for their undergraduate comrades and so he stuck to it.

Later, shortly after nationalisation, the Maerdy pit was set to work again, and I heard that most of the educational activities didn’t survive under full employment and a modest affluence. But the community spirit held firm when the pit was closed again during the long and fruitless strike of 1985, and the press featured Little Moscow as the last of the Welsh pits to give up the struggle, as its band played the men back to work. Now the pit has closed ‘for good’, and Maerdy will once more become a village of the unemployed. Dai must have died some years ago, and I wonder if they will find his like to help the village create a life for itself in the years ahead.