Catching the train from Abertridwr to Gallipoli, 1952
I’ll find him fetch him in the train he’ll be pleased the dog we’ve ham for the journey for the jour, dog ham train, pleased, is the Dardanelles like Abertridwr?
Creating the Centena
Abertridwr is a mining village in the valleys, near Pontypridd. My grandma was born there, and my mum was evacuated there for a brief, unhappy period during the Second World War. My great grandparents lived at 93 High Street. Thanks to RightMove.com, I’ve had look round. (Typical writer – nosy, uninvited, didn’t wipe his feet.) Somehow two adults and their 9 children, aged between one and early 20s rubbed along in this tiny three-bedroom cottage.
I’ve had this picture since 1987. It was in an old frame behind a picture of my mum as a young girl. It’s of my great grandparents, Catherine and Walter Saunders. Walter was a haulier in the mines, as were their three sons, Benjamin John, George and Gwilym.
A few weeks before she died in 2014, mum told me about them – things I’d not heard before. It was a bit fragmented as she was in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s.
Benjamin died in action at Gallipoli in 1915. Gwilym was wounded at Gallipoli too. They fixed him up and sent him to Flanders, where he was wounded again. He survived and lived until 1951. George died of ‘illness’ in West London in 1916.
All this horror, along with Walter’s sudden death around 1913, meant my grandma Doris and great aunt Bea were sent into service to make ends meet. They hated it, even running away from one particularly abusive employer.
By 1952, Catherine was living with my grandparents, my mum and uncle in another tiny house near Birchington-on-Sea, Kent – the last resting place of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Catherine died a year after Gwilym – I don’t know if she’s buried near Rossetti.
My mum told me a story about Catherine many times. Catherine also suffered from some form of dementia (possibly Alzheimer’s). One day, she disappeared from home and was eventually found halfway up the Minster Road, family dog in tow and a whole ham wrapped in a tea towel under her arm. She was adamant she had to get somewhere in a hurry and apparently took some persuading to return home.
I’ve no idea where she was going but it gave me a way in to write about her and the effects of the First World War on her life. How might it all seem to her after 30 years through the haze of dementia?
I can still hear my grandma’s lovely soft, Valleys’ sing-song voice in my head, so that became the starting point for Catherine’s voice. I also wanted to visualise an off-kilter stream-of-consciousness, literally wandering through events from 30 years before, mixed with her present. This gave the centena its shape.
The process has made me think about my family, those I didn’t know about before I started thinking about how the War affected them. I’ve tried to be respectful of Catherine and her condition – what was a funny family anecdote has a deeper meaning for me now. I wish I could have met her and asked her what she thought about it all.
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