Lunch with my brother was always a given. He, the food we ate and the place we went were the first things I thought of when I wrote the invitation to this lunch thing all those months ago. It was inevitably going to be a nostalgia fest and it was likely to be enjoyable, but I was surprised at just how much fun I had and what a pleasant experience spending the day in Barry was.
We began our lunch in Bassett Park, a small recreation area in the street next to the one we grew up in. It’s quite nice now: decent play equipment, landscaping, a ban on dog fouling and policing to stop vandalism have made it all quite pleasant. When we were children however, Bassett Park was just a large open area of grey tarmac, broken glass and dog shit. There were a few, potentially lethal, pieces of playground furniture – a rite of passage was concussion from a metal swing or maybe a broken bone from the huge stainless steel slide which was virtually friction free thanks to our tireless application of the greaseproof paper that bread was then sold in. The kids that played in the park were, I suppose, quite rough – we lived in the tiny terraced houses built for the navvies who constructed Barry dock and virtually all the men we knew worked on the dock or in the Merchant Marine. Looking back, there was always more than a fair share of tragedy around us – men dead in industrial accidents, low life expectancy due to poverty related diseases, dysfunctional families, incidences of violence, drunken neglect and the overwhelming ignorance and superstition that a lack of education and opportunity entails. The cliche here of course is to say that in spite of all this, we were happy. Hmm. I do look back with warmth and I certainly remember my family and neighbours fondly, but even as we accepted so much as being part of ‘normal’ life, I think my brother and I were always aware that our lives were brutally and unjustly hard. It wasn’t just the park, our whole world was metaphorically made of grey tarmac, broken glass and dog shit. Life was tough and it’s no surprise that we got out of there as soon as we were able.
The other half of today’s lunch took place in a much nicer venue. The other side of growing up on the South Wales coast was that we lived a stone’s throw from a number of beautiful beaches. There was Porthceri – a wooded valley with a pebble beach at the end, the Old Harbour – a huge flat area of sand (tide in) and mud (tide out) where the sea raced in and you could easily hide a body in the cauldron of estuary mud, and where my childish imagination had many a hapless sailor and smuggler meet their fate. Then there was Cold Knap, a long pebble beach with a huge open air swimming pool which was freezing summer and winter. Then there’s Whitmore Bay, the sandy beach with the funfair, amusement arcades and Butlins holiday camp which most non-Barrians would know as Barry Island. On the other side of the Island from Whitmore Bay is a lovely little sandy cove called Jackson’s bay. It’s protected from the prevailing wind by its orientation so it was often warmer than the other beaches and it was always quiet there as no one but the locals knew it was there. I spent a lot of time on each of the beaches as a child, but it’s Jackson’s Bay which I remember best.
1 May 2015
Bassett Park and Jackson’s Bay, Barry
Clive had prepared for our lunch perfectly, so we grabbed the food and a take out cup of tea each, and headed straight for the park. We both commented on how small it looks now, but also how easy modern kids have it – rubber mats under the swings, for heaven’s sake! Lunch was a couple of corned beef pasties from the bakery at the bottom of our street. It’s hard to believe that they are still there and still baking to the same recipe as fifty years ago, but there it is. The pasties are delicious but are noted for the quantity of white pepper they contain. As kids, we were given a pastie fairly frequently as a quick lunch, but our mother, who was a great cook and an inveterate moaner, would always, and I mean always, say “there’s too much pepper in these pasties”. None of us were foolish enough, more than once, to suggest that she eat something else if she didn’t like them, that kind of logic was like a red rag to a bull to Mam who would sniff, push her plate away and say “well, if you begrudge me even a tiny little pastie, I won’t have anything at all”. She would then get out the steam iron and the washing would be beaten into submission to the soundtrack of our guilty silence, the steam iron hissing, the thump as it hit the hapless garment and the occasional, perfectly timed sniff of a starving martyr.
We ate our pasties, commented that there was too much pepper in them in memory of Mam and reminded each other of how life in that park used to be. Clive is eleven years older than me, so we didn’t play there at the same time, but the difference between the sixties and the seventies seemed negligible when compared to the digital world kids live in today. We remembered every gap in the railings we used as a short cut entry, the horror of kicking the ball over the wall into the ambulance station next door (the perpetrator would have to run the gauntlet of ambulance men to retrieve it) and the glory and/or terror of the swings, roundabout and slides, all of which were thoroughly dangerous and brilliant fun.
After lunch we headed down to Jackson’s Bay for a walk. As usual, the beach was deserted and if you stayed near the cliffs, there was good shelter from the wind. Clive had brought a flask to make tea but when I suggested we sit in the lea of the cliffs, he looked nervously at the admittedly friable and heavily striated rocks and refused, on the grounds that they looked like they were about to fall on him. I impatiently pointed out that the cigarette he was smoking was far more likely to kill him than the cliff, but then he thought for a bit and said that he wanted to sit near the cliffs after all, as it would be an excellently dramatic way to die, much better than incontinent and drooling in a hospital bed. I’m used to this sort of logic from my brother and I have to say, I can see his point, so we sat down and drank our tea. After another nostalgia fest and a session of us both saying how incredibly proud of Clive’s son James (lunch 36) we are and how happy we are with my lovely children (lunches 7, 9 and 32), it was starting to get chilly. Clive said “I wish that cliff would hurry up and fall on us, I’m freezing sitting here”. I was helpless with laughter, a state which he has always been very good at inducing in me and many others.
We walked up from the beach and as we neared the top of the cliff, he asked me to look back. He pointed out the gap in the harbour wall which seems impossibly small given that it is the entrance to the entire dock and the reason for the existence of Barry. Clive sailed in and out of this and countless other harbours many times and for many years and he told me that he believes that this harbour has created the personality of our little town. Barry, like most port towns, looked outwards towards the sea, not inwards to the land. A Barry child would be more likely to know the capital of Jamaica, where the banana boats came from, than the county town of Sussex or Wiltshire. It’s worth noting that the memorial to those who lost their lives in the Merchant Navy during World War II lists 530 men from Barry, more per capita than any other town in Britain. Clive put that in context by telling me that it was roughly two men for every street in the town, a heartbreaking statistic. The names on the memorial are pertinent too – there are Ahmeds, Mohammeds and Luigis as well as Davids and Griffs. I doubt Barry is free from the poison of racism, but compared to many small towns in the twentieth century, it was a cosmopolitan and open hearted place.
Clive knows that he was privileged to take part in the last stages of our marine history, the docks are mostly used by pleasure boats now and the warehouses are flats for wealthy executives. But it takes generations for that kind of Zeitgeist to fade and Barry should be proud of its honourable history and value its unique personality.