Saturday, 13 September 2008


For some time now I have been the victim of a particularly vicious TAFFIA dirty tricks campaign.

I will not go into details. I believe with Marcus Aurelius that to mourn a disaster is to repeat it. I am, however, incandescent, and very voluble, when I consider how the Welsh Establishment has treated Welsh geniuses like Ivor Novello, Howard Spring and Gwyn Thomas whilst lauding indifferent talents, it often seems, solely because their owners speak Welsh.

There was a time when the best way into Welsh broadcasting was through the back door of the Manse. The results were usually abysmal. One, producing an arts show which included interviews with myself and Gwen, the widow of the poet Vernon Watkins, insisted we had a rehearsal. Gwen pointed out we were both reasonably intelligent and well able to handle interviews off the cuff.

“Ah,” said this son of the Manse, “if the interviewers don’t know in advance what you are going to say, they have to listen to your answers.”

Until the sixties Howard Spring was Britain’s best selling author. He wrote 14 novels, three plays, three children’s books, a volume of literary criticism and three autobiographical memoirs. His novels, which were read the world over, were made into films and television series. His books were used to teach English in Japanese schools. When Churchill met Roosevelt to sign the Atlantic Charter, Spring, who was then working for the Manchester Guardian, was one of only two journalists (the other was H.V. Morton) who were chosen to accompany him on the battleship Prince of Wales.

He was admired by such diverse men as Arnold Bennett, A. E. Russell, Einstein, Kipling and Beaverbrook. Most of his novels are well written, run-of-the-mill family sagas. Two, “Shabby Tiger” and “Rachel Rosing”, were as good as any published at that time.

With “Fame is the Spur” he reached another dimension. I have read countless novels but never a better than “Fame”. In it he is Dickens without the caricatures and the dreadful heroines; Tolstoy without the interminable Masonics; Hardy without the gloom. And the only time Thackeray came near him was in “Vanity Fair”. Like Trollope, he shows the good in the worst and the flaws in the good.

He was incapable of creating a character without falling in love with it, warts and all. His gift was to engage readers with the characters he created. You feel his creations have lives before the book is opened and they go on living after it is closed.

“Fame is the Spur” is about a small boy born in the slums who rises to lead a great political party. Clearly he had Ramsay MacDonald in mind when he created his central character. It is a triumph of the writer’s art: a man capable of greatness but with terrible flaws.

It is also the story of the infant Labour party, started by working class people out of a desire to give a voice to the poor.

Some years ago I interviewed Tom Ellis, a Labour MP who defected to the Social Democrats. I asked him why. “Because Labour has met all the targets it set itself” he said.

We live in a Golden Age which was largely the creation of a Labour party of working class men and women, of which Spring wrote so perceptively.

He knew whereof he wrote.

He was born in unimaginable poverty in two rooms in a slum in Chapel Court off Cathedral Road, Cardiff. One of nine children, his father was a jobbing gardener, an irascible, taciturn man who was surrounded by mystery. He never earned more than a pound a week yet professors from the University of Wales came to the house for long conversations. He loved literature and read the classic books he bought for a few pennies by their only light, a tin lamp with no shade and a reflector of polished tin. He made his children read them aloud and punished any flaws in pronunciation.

They had no cooker. To roast a joint Mrs Spring tied it to one end of a length of string and fastened the other end to a nail hammered into a wooden mantelpiece. The children took turns to twirl the string. The family had one bed on which they all slept head to toe with legs folded.

A.L Rowse said of them: “The family had an absolute passion for knowledge.”

Spring wrote movingly of his elder brother whose thirst for knowledge was so great. “Though of wretched physical condition, he drove at learning with a sustained frenzy. I came home at night to find him asleep at a table with a pile of books and a penny bottle of ink upset at his hand. It killed him in a few years.”

Spring’s father died when he was ten and the boy earned money by chopping and selling firewood, and selling rhubarb he picked in a market garden. Every Saturday he worked as an errand boy. His wages were a dinner, a shilling and a couple of herring. He lost the job when he took time off to sit for a scholarship.

He only had one holiday. He and his elder brother decided to go to Bideford. They saved the twelve shillings and sixpence for their digs and a few shillings for expenses. Spring was working as a messenger boy on a Cardiff newspaper. They used the newspaper’s free pass for the ferry from Cardiff to Ilfracombe and set out to walk the 20 miles to Bideford carrying the heavy portmanteau of books without which they never moved. After ten miles, virtually collapsing in the summer heat, they had to use part of the few shillings they had saved for treats on train fares for the rest of the journey.

Whilst he was working as a messenger boy, Spring bombarded the Western Mail with stories and theatre reviews until they gave him a job as a reporter. From Cardiff he moved to Yorkshire, where he worked for three years on the Yorkshire Observer before joining the Manchester Guardian.

He published first a children’s book and then “Shabby Tiger”. One of the characters Rachel Rosing so fascinated him he made her the heroine of his next book. His third book “My Son, My Son” (first published as “Absalom,Absalom”) was a world-wide best seller.

The inspiration came to him on a train journey. At one station his train took on water from a giant trough. He thought: what a place for a murderer to hide in. On a slip of paper he wrote a brief synopsis in the five minutes the train was halted. That night he began writing the book. It took him fourteen months to complete

In Wales this incomparable writer is forgotten and unsung. Over the years I have tried to persuade every “major” Welsh publisher to reprint his works or commission a biography. I have failed.

I met him once. We had a mutual friend, a Guardian reporter called Edgar Ridley who introduced us in a Manchester chop house and told him I wanted to be a writer.

When I asked for his advice he said buy a notebook. When you come across a word you do not understand, find out about it and write it down. In that way, he said, you will never forget it.

First editions of Fleming, Tolkien or Rowling will cost thousands. I have just bought a first edition of “Fame is the Spur”, one of the few great novels of the twentieth century, for £2.50.

The most important thing about tradition and ceremonial is its inherent absurdity. If the Ancient Order of Druids parading in Wales round the twelve stones at the Gorsedd of Bards is absurd; if it is risible that the whole pageantry of the Eisteddfod was devised and first presented in London and that the Gorsedd stones represent the twelve tribes of Israel, then what of the Trooping of the Colour, the military form of “Come Dancing”? Or the procession of the Garter Knights at Windsor Castle? A queue of old men with tea cosies on their heads and their supporters’ club badges stitched on their dressing gown pockets. Let he who is without risibility cast the first hoarse laugh.

I’d hate visitors to Wales to go away thinking that it is a dull place, peopled by small, dark men wearing suits made from the covers of old prayer books. Far from it. Wales may be the only country in Europe not to have invented an alcoholic drink, but, as that great life enhancer Rene Cutforth observed: “The Welsh are Mediterraneans in the rain.”

The army is, of course, the guardian of tradition. I was part of a host of national servicemen called back to the colours for an ‘Extras’ fortnight’s training. Our Commanding Officer called a battalion parade to try to instil in us a sense of our regimental tradition. He told us how our fortnight would be an opportunity to meet again men we had fought with across Europe. This puzzled us because, to a man, we had been at school for most of the war. But the colonel was riding a stallion called rhetoric and nothing could check him. Marching across the square to the front rank, he paused dramatically before a minute Glaswegian cut-throat. “For instance,” he said, “I seem to recognise your face.” And the small, bitter Glaswegian looked up at him and said, “I’ve niver seen ye in ma bliddy life, Jock.”

Reading the Greek Anthology I came across this, written probably 3,000 years ago.

Epitaph for a Dog

Stranger, commemorated here
‘Tis but a dog you see.
And yet I beg you do not sneer
My master wept for me.
Wept as the dusty earth
He pressed above my lifeless head,
And wrote where now I lie at rest
The words that you have read.

From the Daily Mail
Sugar gliders - a species of possum native to New Guinea and Australia - are becoming popular as domestic pets.

"With soft brown eyes, fluffy fur and their amusing acrobatics, they are seen as ideal pets."

Perhaps. But for £150 you are lumbered with a creature that needs to be let out at night to glide around (up to 200ft), craves attention (and is prone to depression should they not receive it) and makes a noise "similar to an electric blender".