LESSON FOUR – THE LAST COWBOY IN WREXHAM
Hughie Williams was an Indian fighter. He and his drinking pal, my Uncle Denis, killed the last one in Wrexham, in the summer of 1954, one morning shortly before breakfast, while Little Jimmy was still in bed.
Hughie and Uncle Denis were boyhood friends and worked in the coalmines until my Dad left for Oldham in the mid-thirties. Hughie had a good tenor voice, but Denis was the real thing, a member of the Rhos Male Voice Choir, which sang all over the world like the Army of the Lord proclaiming the Last Judgment.
When I was very small, Denis and his wife Blanche came to stay for a week or two, which was the cause of a bitter argument between my parents and a grudge on the part of Nellie, which nags at her fifty years later. It’s understandable only against the background of our poverty and Nellie’s desperate insecurity.
Hughie followed the old practice of controlling the finances and paid Nellie a “wage” or “housekeeping”, on which she had to manage. There was no discussion: in fact Nellie didn’t know how much Hughie earned, and when she discovered he kept most of his money for himself, there was a blazing row. When Denis and his family arrived, Nellie had to put them up and feed them out of her meager resources while Hughie and Denis went boozing in the evenings, and at the end (so Nellie tells me) Blanche didn’t even make an offer of a contribution.
I believe the substance of the story is true, but Denis and Blanche probably expected to reciprocate in the way of a return visit, which never happened. Hughie occasionally went to Wales for a short break, and on one occasion I went with him. But Nellie never did. I doubt she saw Blanche again, and Denis re-appeared only once. It was at Hughie’s funeral in 1989 and he was a jolly old man with a high complexion, who looked as though he might well have shot a few Indians in his time.
At heart Hughie was a countryman, never happier than when he was growing tomatoes or chrysanthemums in a greenhouse he rented from our neighbours in Werneth, or a few flowers in our small patch of garden. He was brought up in a pit village, where fields were never more than a hundred yards away.
After Shiny Jim’s death the family broke up to escape the tyranny of Lucy. Hughie had an aunt who lived in Oldham and he trekked there some time in the mid thirties. He was seventeen years old or thereabouts and his native language was Welsh. Though the comparison may seem strange, his situation wasn’t dissimilar from that of the young Pakistani peasants who made the journey to Oldham thirty years later. They too were inexperienced country boys, unfamiliar with English and visiting a big town for the first time. They bought the house at Werneth where Little Jimmy once lived and for the same reason that Hughie bought it. It was cheap.
My father’s name was Hugh Thomas Williams, but everyone called him Hughie. He was a well-made bantam cock of a man, all five feet five of him, and good-looking in a fierce Celtic way with dark curly hair. He was also honest and hard working and had no difficulty finding a job in one of the coal mines that still existed in the Oldham area and closed only during my childhood.
He fell in with two brothers called Howard, who had a sister, Edna – the one Nellie hated. He married her and had three children: Denis, Jack and Ann.
According to Nellie, Edna was a slut who went out with other men. According to Denis, Hughie wasn’t above hitting her, which I’m prepared to believe. He was a hard man in his youth and handy with his fists, but definitely not a bully. Even now it’s difficult to make sense of the tangle of relationships and emotions. Certainly Hughie stayed on friendly terms with the Howard brothers after the break with Edna and was admitted to the Howard house to pay for the keep of Jack, who boarded with “grandma” Howard – I know because Little Jimmy went with him and thought nothing of this spare grandmother or the brother who didn’t live at home. Nellie, too, always spoke well of the Howard men and said she and Hughie used to have a friendly drink with them even after all that had happened.
What did happen was disastrous – or, at least, had the potential for disaster. Hughie was reduced to sleeping in the street or the shelter of gents’ toilets. It was his sister, my Auntie Dilys, who rescued him and cleaned him up.
Nellie was always bitter about Edna. It’s hardly surprising. She was unmarried and uncertain about her title to Hughie, pregnant with Little Jimmy and burdened with three children by a woman she hated.
At the age of eighty-six she confesses the truth.
‘I didn’t love them. It were duty that made me take them on.’
She feels guilty about this and wants forgiveness.
‘You have to understand. We had no money and I didn’t know the first thing about bringing up children. And then I fell for you.’
Again the language of ‘fallen women’. Nellie needs to be told she’s a good person – which, indeed, she is.
When not hunting Indians, Hughie hunts for mice. The house at Werneth is overrun by them; they scamper over Little Jimmy’s bed at night. Hughie chases them round the skirtings with a coal shovel, lays traps for them and finally wins his campaign. We have a cat to help out and one night, when he’s drunk, Hughie and Denis have to fish it from the outside toilet, where it’s been staring at its reflection in the long drop and lost its balance. It has kittens and Hughie drowns them in a bucket of water while Little Jimmy and his sister are watching the Saturday matinee at the Gem cinema.
Hughie often smells of beer because he has a drink with his mates when they finish their shifts.
‘I need to get the dust out of my throat, woman!’ he says when Nellie complains. And perhaps he does.
His spit is black and his body is tattooed with a skein of fine scars blacked by coal.
He’s spectacularly drunk only a couple of times. Because he’s a “hard man”, he’s learned the trick of doing it. Denis says, ‘Dad was able to gamble and drink with the very best. He told me once that, when he had drunk enough, he would make himself sick, just to keep up with the boys, and continue drinking.’
Once Denis has to retrieve him from the coal cellar when he’s taken a wrong turning. And once, when Jimmy is five or six, he and Nellie come home to find Hughie asleep under the sitting room rug, which is tucked up to his chin. It’s Christmas and Jimmy has been singing Sospan Bach in a pub at Bardsley to the delight of miners and their wives. Nellie and Hughie have quarreled and Hughie has sloped off on a pub-crawl.
His interests are rugby league, football and boxing. My Uncle Fred and he also put an occasional bob on a horse, especially when on holiday, but he isn’t a gambler beyond the odd flutter and the pools. He often goes of a Saturday to watch a match, but I go with him only once, to the rugby ground at Watersheddings, where it’s foggy and the match is abandoned.
All in all I’m a disappointment to him in this respect because I’ve no interest in sport.
‘Here’s a casey for you, Titch,’ he says, giving me a present of a leather football. He gives me a pair of boxing gloves and wants to spar. Sometimes we roughhouse on the floor. It’s to no effect. I want a teddy bear and books.
Hughie reads one book a year, usually a cowboy story. He loves cowboys, especially John Wayne and Joel McCree. It takes one to know one. He never lets his disappointment in me show. He’s far too tolerant and good-natured and he’s concerned for my future though only dimly aware of the possibilities.
‘You can stay on at school until you’re sixteen,’ he says. Ann goes to work in a handbag factory at fifteen, but for Jimmy he’s prepared to make the sacrifice. ‘You study your sums, Titch, and when you grow up you can become a draughtsman.’
I think the coal mine frightens him at times. At news of an accident he’s glued to the radio or the newspaper. ‘Hush, sirrah!’ he snaps at any interruption. Once he breaks an arm and, for all his courage, he’s terrified of hospitals: ‘being in dock,’ he calls it.
As a result he says, ‘I don’t want no son of mine going down the dirty stinking pit!’ He’s vehement; but, all the same, Denis does a stint in the colliery until he pulls himself out by his own efforts. Whatever Hughie wants, he doesn’t know how to make it happen. Except to stay at school until sixteen and learn sums.
Like Nellie, my father has no sense of history, but he has a vague radicalism inherited from his Welsh Non-conformist roots.
He’s the only man I know who disliked Churchill. Several times he expresses the opinion that, ‘The miners’ll never forgive Churchill for Tonypandy.’
Someone must have told him about this, because the incident itself was before his day. He resents Churchill out of solidarity with miners long dead.
Yet “Tonypandy”? What is it?
He doesn’t know.
A dimly recalled crime against miners.
A mystery like the “Old King” who reigned over England when Nellie was a girl and who might have been George the Fifth or Old King Cole for all she knows.
After the disastrous visit by Denis and Blanche, Nellie holds a fifty-year grudge and has nothing more to do with them. Hughie keeps contact with his old pal and now and again over the years he returns to Wrexham for a few days. And once only he takes Little Jimmy, who is six.
It’s the first time Jimmy has traveled by train. We go from London Road Station in Manchester and the train has a black engine and deep maroon carriages. A few years later, with my friends, John and David Parry, I spend hours hanging around the marshalling yard at Newton Heath, climbing on to the footplates of derelict steam engines such as The Derbyshire Yeomanry. The engine that took us to Wales is known as a ‘mickey’ to aficionados, but I’ve no idea why.
Denis and Blanche live at Johnstown in a pebble-dashed house painted white. Behind it is a scrubby field. That night I go to bed exhausted with a Fox’s Glacier Mint in my mouth. In the morning it’s still there.
We take a walk after breakfast: me, Hughie and Uncle Denis, across the field behind the house. I find a crow’s feather lying in the grass. There are no birds in Werneth other than house sparrows and I’ve never seen feathers before except the brightly dyed ones in the Indian headdresses sold on the toy stall in Oldham covered market.
‘Look! Look!’ I say and I show the feather to Hughie. ‘What is it? Where’s it come from?’
He examines it and grins at Denis. He says, ‘It’s from a Red Indian, see? Your Uncle Denis and me, we shot him this morning.’
‘Did you?’ I am open-mouthed. ‘Did you?’
‘We used to be cowboys, me and your Uncle Denis, see?’
He gives me back the feather pats me on the head, and he and Denis carry on talking about having a pint at lunch time and placing a small bet on a horse. But all I can think of is that my dad is a cowboy.
Nineteen eighty-nine. It’s the last summer of Hughie’s life. The previous year, Shirley and I bought a house in Stockport, about a mile from Bramall Park. It has a large garden that makes Hughie’s eyes open wide with pleasure. So much room for tomatoes, dahlias and chrysanthemums! I know he loves it and I so much want him to enjoy visiting us and pottering about at odd gardening jobs.
But in fact he’s dying of cancer, though he doesn’t yet know it, and all I have to remember this day by is a photograph of him and Nellie and my children sitting on the lawn in the sunshine.
We decide to go for a walk to Bramall Park. I find myself strolling alongside my father, who’s in a cheerful mood but wistful. He doesn’t normally talk about the past – not, I think, because it’s a difficult subject but because he has an unreflecting nature and a lot of it simply makes no sense to him: it has no shape from which he can construct a story; only disconnected pieces. Today he talks about his days as a coal miner.
‘I was fourteen,’ he says. ‘They gave me the ponies to look after, see?’
The ponies lived underground and hauled tubs of coal.
‘I loved them ponies,’ he says and smiles.
One by one Hughie tells me about the ponies he knew sixty years before. He remembers them all: each of their names and the character and idiosyncrasies of every one; and his voice is full of affection.
I suppose a cowboy never forgets his horse.
NOTES ON “THE LAST COWBOY IN WREXHAM”
The essays on Nellie and Hughie supply a foundation for this autobiography. They explain the background to my childhood and suggest the origin of my character and attitudes. For this reason I’ve placed them early in the collection.
I didn’t find it difficult to write about my parents. I had a well-loved and happy childhood, and thinking about them causes me no anxiety. When my Dad died in 1989, I was sad because I loved him; but the process of grieving was an easy one. I think of him often, but the memories simply cause me to smile.
Not everyone is so fortunate. Not even within my family. My brother Jack was always semi-detached and he dropped out of sight in his early twenties. In her teens my sister Ann had considerable difficulties with Nellie. Nellie was frightened that Ann would grow to resemble her mother, Edna, and hounded her until in the end she left home. As for Denis, he had clear recollections of his birth mother, being nine years old when I was born, and although he was willing to accommodate Nellie he was never prepared to deny Edna. He joined the R.A.F. to avoid the problems of home life.
Over time, Ann and Nellie have patched their differences. Ann has my Dad’s warm and easy-going nature and is incapable of holding a grudge; and Nellie, to her credit, admits she treated Ann harshly and recognises her many excellent qualities. Denis is a well-balanced man with a good heart. Taken as a whole he’s behaved decently and generously towards Nellie, sometimes under considerable provocation, and I admire him for it.
I mention these matters because I’m aware that writing an autobiography may be painful if it means addressing the relationship with your parents. Still, I’m reluctant to offer advice about dealing with emotional difficulties: partly because it isn’t the subject of my book but more because I don’t claim any special wisdom or expertise and anything I have to say is probably trite. However, I do have something to say on the more limited topic of getting on with your own book.
If the subject of parents is too distressing I recommend, in the first instance, that you simply avoid it. Put it off until a later date. If you try to cope with it at the same time as developing your abilities as an essayist, the combination of two difficult tasks will probably defeat you. It makes more sense to tackle problems singly. Build up your confidence as a writer by covering the easier topics (later you’ll see some suggestions as to what these are); then, when you’re at ease with words, turn to the more emotionally fraught subjects if you can. The essay approach doesn’t demand that you write up your material in any particular order. These essays haven’t been written in the order you are reading them.
That said, I do advise you to write essays about your parents at some time: certainly if you get to the point when you’ve covered the major part of your life. Partly this is in the interest of comprehensiveness; but more because what you have written will seem lacking in texture and truth if you deny a major influence on your life (if only by silence). Also – and here I am straying into the realm of advice and I repeat my earlier caution – the act of writing about your parents may be cathartic and help resolve the difficulties that have so far held you back.
Writing about both Nellie and Hughie, I’ve tried to understand the world as it appeared to them. I’ve taken Nellie’s perspective, deformed as it was by poverty and insecurity, and Hughie’s as an ignorant economic migrant come from the country. What strikes me still is how ill equipped my parents were to meet the challenges they faced and how valiantly they struggled – successfully by and large. After the disaster with Edna when he was reduced to sleeping in the streets and public toilets, Dad did succeed in holding the family more or less together; and Nellie, for all that she had to bring up two strange children she didn’t love (I exclude Jack who was with the Howards), managed well enough so that they never completely rejected her and most of the time hold her in affection. My parents’ life was a small one, but I think their achievements were great because they began with so little, and I saw my Dad visibly becoming a nicer and better man as the years passed.
Nellie fought many ding-dong battles with him but she says: ‘We became happier and happier. I do miss Daddy.’
Much grief is caused by things not said (as well as wrong things said and not retracted), matters unacknowledged, conflicts unresolved, anger suppressed – or so I suppose.
Death closes the opportunity for dialogue but, in the form of our essays, we can reopen it by entering imaginatively into our parent’s world. Perhaps more importantly, in writing an autobiography we have the opportunity to speak to our children in a calm and measured way and so put over a point of view, which the ordinary circumstances of life prevent us from expressing: perhaps because we’re too busy or embarrassed or tongue-tied. None of this guaranteed to cure grief or grievance, but I suspect it’ll help. However I know no more of the subject than anyone else.
At this point it’s worth examining the structure of an essay. What makes it interesting? What holds it together in the absence of a conventional chronology and plot? Below I’ve analysed The Last Cowboy In Wrexham schematically. The elements of the essay are set out, with an arrow to indicate a flow or link between one event and the next (or a break if there is none). The approximate date of events is given so you can see that they’re not sequential; and the nature of the link is explained. The purpose is to show how the essay holds together through the links. On the other hand, you may find the following diagram a bit technical and confusing – in which case, I suggest you skip it.
I didn’t compose The Last Cowboy in Wrexham with this structure consciously in mind. In practice I write with a general sense of narrative rhythm: the links naturally suggesting themselves. However you may find that a planned structure of short linked passages, each no more than a few paragraphs, will help you.
Story Unit Link
As you can see, the essay comprises eleven units. There are six sequential links and four breaks (after units 2, 4, 8 and 9) where there’s no obvious connection between consecutive units. Where there is a link, it’s in the nature of a common theme or reference. But even where there’s a break, in two cases there are connections to other, non-sequential units. So units 5 and 10, which both follow breaks, are connected to each other and to unit 1 by the subject of cowboys and Indians. These three units, at beginning middle and end, contain the main theme of the essay and provide its frame so that the conclusion in a sense flows from the opening. The only true break is between units 2 and 3 and it isn’t especially radical since both units in a larger sense are about Hughie, who is the subject of the whole essay. Unit 9, the “Tonypandy” story is an aside.
Now compare the chronology of the units: it goes 1954, 1952, 1935, 1940s, two undated units, 1950’s, 1954, a third undated unit, and finally 1989. The general trend is forward, which provides a degree of continuity, but it’s by no means rigidly sequential and there are few obvious cause and effect relationships between the units. Chronology is essentially secondary to the thematic structure.
Although I’ve said you ought to consider a formal plan for your essay, once you’ve established your general theme, you should trust to your instincts to develop it. Only if you get stuck or find the result too disconnected should you focus consciously on developing the links between units. It’s also possible to compromise: to devise a plan with four or five units, comprising your main subject, which will be expanded as inspiration takes you.
One of the tricks of writing is to know how to use a small amount of planning as a general compass without being too prescriptive. Experience will help you make this judgment.
Any plan should be short, each unit described in a brief sentence, much as I’ve done here.