I try to persuade my mother to start writing her memories, but although she says it's a good idea, she doesn't quite get around to it. Her father was the youngest son of a welsh mining family, near Swansea, in the south.
The family lived a hard life, and death was never far away in the coalmines. John's father, and all his brothers felt that he, the youngest, should have a chance to escape that life, and all agreed to put aside a meagre portion of their tiny wages towards his education. So, at the age of twelve, he signed on to the payroll of the mine. With his father and brothers, he toiled in the darkness and filth of the mine, but, each night, he had the first use of the one tub of bathwater that served six men, and then would go out to the mechanics institute, to study engineering. He became a pit engineer, a respected and privileged post, and after a few years, achieved the dream his family had for him, he left the mine, to travel to the seaport of Swansea, where he became an engineer on the docks. In this new life, he met a beautiful girl, Selina-Maria, and fell in love. But they were from different worlds, John Griffiths, a miners son, fiercely proud of his family. Selina-Maria, daughter of the manager of a large company, brought up in a big house with servants, and a stranger to want and hunger. Her father took John aside,and told him that whilst he liked and respected the young suitor, it would be inadvisable to ask for Selina's hand in marriage until he could afford to buy her a house of her own, in a suitable neighbourhood.
Devastated, John realised that he could never earn enough on the docks to meet that requirement, so, writing a letter for his beloved, he signed on as crew in a square rigger, and left his homeland on the evening tide.
The first voyage took him to Africa, the Gold Coast, where he found work as a mine engineer, but then left, along with three other adventurers, to seek gold in the jungles of the Congo, -one by one, the others sickened, John nursed them, then buried them, the african bearers killed and ate the dog. John slept with a gun in his hand, fearing he was to be next on the menu. One night the drums sounded through the jungle, and in the morning, the bearers were gone. John was never sure what time had elapsed before the day he staggered into a native village, delirious with fever, nor how long it was that the villagers nursed him, but by the time he was fit, he spoke their language. With their craftsmen he learned to work the little gold he had found, and from a part of it he made a ring, in the shape of two clasped hands, to send to Selina, before taking ship again, south to Australia.
For four years he travelled, working in mines, repairing steam cranes on docks, crewing square-riggers across the oceans, until he was paid off in Valparaiso, in Chile, where his uncle was a shipwright. He stayed there, working for his uncle, using his engineering skills, learning new ones. The uncle was childless, talked of John being his heir and successor.
Uncle wanted a commitment to staying, but John yearned for his beloved.
One day the two, uncle and nephew had a row. Harsh words spoken, not easily withdrawn.
John packed his sea-chest, and went to the docks. There on the tide, was a ship sailing for England. He signed on. The story goes that his uncle had men searching the town, frantic to find him and persuade him to return, but too late.
Apparently there is a statue to the uncle in Valparaiso... I've nevver been able to confirm the details, but it seems he was honoured as a hero, for warning the town of an impending attack by the Peruvian Navy...
The journey home was a bad one, the Cape Horn storms repeatedly drove them back, he described four months of gales, the ship beating into the wind but unable to round Cape Horn, four months in wet clothes, wet living quarters, rotten food, picking insects out of the biscuits they were fed, four months of shipmates lost swept overboard, of men falling from the rigging, men crushed by shifting cargo.
Eventually they broke free of the southern ocean, and sailed to the Falklands for repairs and provisions. John's skills learned in the shipyard earned him promotion from seaman to shipwright, and much welcome extra pay. He described bursting into tears at the scent of the land as they first approached the shore, to dock at Plymouth, on the south coast of England. When eventually, a week later, he reached Swansea, he arrived unexpected, and at first, unrecognised. The slight, nervous young man the family remembered was no more, At their door was a confident, tanned, weathered man, asking to see Selina. Her mother, puzzled and unrecognising, enquired who he might be and what business he might have, but was bowled aside by Selina, who knew just what business he might have.... The rest, as they say, is history, and I'm here to prove it. The stories are many that I have not written here, The first Motor Lorry in Uruguay, for which John was the engineer, driver trainer and assembler. The schooner found drifting with not a soul aboard, but a meat cleaver buried in the table as a clue. They need my mother to set them down."
I'll try update this, after further quizzing my Mama.
I am the grit in the gears, the missing bolt, I am the poker of sticks into spokes. I like to know how things work, but sometimes when I take them apart and rebuild them, I have a few pieces left over. I am a man, so I tend to leave reading the instructions until after it goes wrong. And like all men I have a comprehensive mental map of the world and never need to ask directions. I never get lost, only sometimes I'm late, or end up in the wrong place entirely. It's what we do.
Sunday, 11 February 2007
Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)