A visit to a second-hand bookshop is a chastening experience for a writer. Shelf after shelf of authors, once feted but now completely forgotten, whilst on bookstalls a badly written pornographic novel sells fifty million copies. Only rarely does one come across copies of "Fame Is The Spur” which by a country mile is the finest novel I have ever read. An even greater tragedy is that neither Howard Spring, nor his contemporary Ivor Novello, nor the hilarious writer the amiable Gwyn Thomas, three of the finest creative artists Wales ever produced, are remembered in their native land. If only they had been Welsh speakers the halls would still be ringing with their praise.
Howard Spring, Britain’s best selling author in the Sixties, was born in abject poverty in Cardiff in the late 19th century. The description closest to his own childhood occurs in “Fame Is The Spur”. He wrote 14 novels, three plays, three children’s books, a volume of literary criticism and between 1939 and 1946 three semi-autobiographical memoirs.
He was one of nine children, two of whom died in childhood and a third as a soldier in World War 1 at Arras. His father was an Irish jobbing gardener who never earned more than a pound a week and died young leaving his wife to bring up the brood. He was an irritable, taciturn man who loved literature. He made his children read aloud in turns from “The Pilgrim's Progress”. If they mispronounced a word twice he clouted them. Though obviously from a good family he would never speak of his past. Spring remembered that despite the family’s poverty academics from the University often called to have long talks with him.
Howard, a sickly child, at the age of ten when his father died helped the family by chopping and selling firewood, picking rhubarb and working sixteen hours every Saturday as an errand boy. His wages were a dinner, a shilling and a couple of herrings 'for charity'. He lost the job when he took a Saturday off to sit for a scholarship.
He left school at 12 to become first an errand boy to a butcher and then a junior clerk in a shipping office. At home the family slept top to toe with legs folded in the same bed. There was no bathroom, just a ritual 'wash all over'. He left for work before eight in the morning and returned after six in the evening for four shillings a week. His mother took in washing and her only relaxation was reading Dickens.
He had his first holiday when he was 17. He and his elder brother who were inseparable decided to got to Bideford. They saved the twelve shillings and sixpence each needed for their digs and a few shillings for expenses. They had no money for fares. They used Howard’s newspaper pass for a free ride on the paddle steamer from Cardiff to Ilfracombe and proposed to walk the twenty miles to Bideford carrying a huge portmanteau containing the books without which they never moved. After ten miles, virtually collapsing in the summer heat, they decided to use the few shillings they had saved for treats on train fares for the rest of the journey.
When he was 13, a sister who cleaned the home of a sub-editor had learned there was a vacancy on his paper, the South Wales Echo, for a messenger boy and copy taker. He got he job and while there submitted stories and dramatic criticism to the South Wales Daily News (now the Western Mail). Studying at night school he eventually became a reporter and nine years later moved to Yorkshire where he worked for the Yorkshire Observer. He had three and a half happy years in Bradford before he moved to the Manchester Guardian
He wrote his first book, a children’s story “Darky and Co” in 1932. His first adult book, the remarkable “Shabby Tiger”, was published in 1934. One of the characters, Rachel Rosing, so fascinated him that he made her the centre of his next book “Rachel Rosing”. But it was his third book “My Son, My Son”, first published as “ Absolom, Absolom”, that made him a best-selling author all over the world. The inspiration for that book had come to him on a train journey when he saw a water trough and 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 which took him fourteen months.
I met him briefly in Manchester when I was a young reporter. He advised me always to keep a notebook and to write in it every new word I came upon. “When you write it down you will never forget it,” he said.
It is the wisest advice any writer can receive.
Another artist who has slipped between time's floorboards into a dusty cellar is the distinguished concert pianist Bernard Roberts who once had international critics reaching for superlatives. Professor at the Royal College of Music, the most talented of a very talented musical family, he could talk about music in such a way as to make it understandable even to this non-musical interviewer. Best of all ,when I went to his home deep in the wild countryside beyond Harlech, he let me play with his model train set. It reproduced the line, running to a strict timetable, from Central Station in Manchester to St Pancras. It symbolises his journey through life.
“I was born at Chorlton cum Hardy, the first station after Central, and train noises were the first noises I heard,” he told me.
Before moving to Wales he lived in Leicester and studied in London. His father was assistant librarian at Manchester's John Ryland's, one of the world’s finest libraries, and assistant music critic of the Manchester Guardian under Neville Cardus. His parents met when his father went for an audition for the organist’s post at a Chorlton Congregational Church and his mother was on the audition panel.
“I think she fancied him. He got the job and they got married,” said Roberts. It was a marriage of musical minds. She had studied at the Royal College in Manchester.
When his parents heard him playing Clementi by ear at the age of four they decided it was time the youngest Roberts studied too. Before he was ten he read orchestral scores with ease and in 1949 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.
He played all over Europe and frequently broadcast on Radio 3. He liked the piano, a surprisingly rare gift in his trade. “Pianos are one of the horrors of being a pianist. A recital is like Russian Roulette. Every piano is different. Age, condition, maker. Like meeting someone new. You need time to get to know them before a concert.
“I went recently to choose a new piano. There was a line of them, made by the same firm within a year. All good but every one good in a different way. One bright, one mellow, one tender, another arresting. Depending on the quality of the felt, the wood - all sort of things.”
Next to the piano he loved Beethoven.
“He strives the most and transforms the most. He goes through a kind of death and resurrection. He suffers tremendously. The idea of being an outgoing performer, turned in on himself through deafness and having to struggle with this infirmity, then producing these works out of his inner hearing, is quite wonderful and very moving.
“One can identify with him. Some composers are so beautiful it is impossible to identify with them. I love Bach but I don’t know who he was as a man. I don’t know who Mozart was. It is very difficult to hear the touch of humanity in their almost perfect music.
“Mozart was more miraculous than Beethoven. And Bach is totally miraculous. To be able to conceive the B Minor Mass and write it down is quite astonishing. But I cannot understand them the way I understand Beethoven.”
So affable was Bernard Roberts, so wise in such a gentle way, I was emboldened to ask him a question I have carried in my non-musical head all my life: What is music?
“Music is an orderly succession of sounds which have a certain relationship. Within one note there is a harmonic series which contains almost all the others, just as one colour contains other colours. It is a completely natural phenomenon. You can strike a glass and hear all these harmonics. In one note there is virtually the whole scale as we know it.
“The most exciting thing about music happens when you start playing one note after another, because then you find that all the notes have a relationship. Your musical soul is being moved because you are being passed from one note to another.
“But it is the interval between the notes that is mysterious. I can play C and I can play G. What moves you is what lives between them. But this is the point which places you in the realm of the untouchable or the spiritual. It is not the silence: it is the inner space which exists between sounds.
“Tone quality, the difference between the oboe and the violin, is beautiful, but essentially the notes themselves contain the expressive quality which lives between them. Melody usually lives between an audible range, say an octave. But the fence within which it lives can be narrowed or extended.”
THOSE WERE THE DAYS
From the splendidly named Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, secretary of state for war nearly a century ago: "If the Arab population realised that the peaceful control of Mesopotamia ultimately depends on our intention of bombing women and children, I'm very doubtful if we shall gain that acquiescence of the fathers and husbands of Mesopotamia to which the Secretary of State for the Colonies looks forward." He was referring to Iraq in the 1920s; he could have been talking about Syria today.