My Uncle Dave

by Michael Lewis

Granny Bunce was busy with her mending.

“Granny, will you teach me Welsh?”

I had been thinking about that for some time. Only my grandparents, Robert the lodger and the dogs conversed in Welsh, but my aunts and uncles and cousins often used words and phrases in Welsh that I did not understand. 

Granny looked at me over her glasses

“No” she said “You don’t need that old language.”

I insisted that I did.

“Well, we don’t speak good Welsh. Talk to your Uncle David.”

I liked Uncle Dave. He was gentler than most of my Welsh family who, though loving and generous, were a rather rough lot.

Uncle Dave was the educated person in the family having attended Ton Sec (Ton-yr-Efail Secondary School) until he was 16. He would know about good Welsh, the language of poetry and song, rather than the argot of homes, streets, shops and mines. Most Welsh speakers of Granny’s generation could neither read nor write Welsh because an English program, known as the Welsh Not (or Knot), had vigorously worked against the native language from the mid-1800s.

I called on Uncle Dave a few days later. He was reading the South Wales Echo.

“Sut mae, Mihangel Siôn (“Hello, Michael John”); So you want to learn Welsh?” News traveled fast in those pre-telephone days.

“Ydy”  (“I do”) I replied, there being no word in Welsh for “Yes.”

 “Right” he said “I’ll be there with you, now.”

I remember that first lesson in the kitchen: cwpan (cup), soser (saucer), sosban (saucepan), cwpwrdd (cupboard), carped (carpet), wniwn (onion), taten (potato), afal (apple), brecwast (breakfast), fforc (fork), siwgr (sugar). This looked easy: Welsh was just English with weird spelling. But then came a torrent of tongue-twisting words that didn’t match that model. But from that early start I have learned enough of yr hen iaith (the old language) that I could make my way in Welsh if I had to.

I liked Uncle Dave. He was gentler than most of my Welsh family who, though loving and generous, were a rather rough lot. Many in the family thought Uncle Dave pompous and snooty, maybe, they said, because of some English blood. Indeed, with his English surname (Middleton) and gangly build and reasonably civilized demeanor he could probably pass as English. That may have affected his life’s course as we shall see.  

Almost every young man in the Rhondda Valley in those days went underground. However, Uncle Dave’s time at the coalface was not a life sentence as it was for many because, after a few years, he was working above ground. Later still he entered office work and management that was the domain of English-speaking Pooh-Bahs. This unusual promotion is something of a mystery that might be explained this way.

The language underground was Welsh. When disputes arose with their English-speaking bosses, the miners, being a Bolshy lot, insisted on their own language. This was the opportunity for Uncle Dave, a native Welsh speaker and pseudo Englishman, to become the interlocutor of the Coed Ely Colliery.

When the pit-head baths were opened so that the miners could wash and change before going home, Uncle Dave became the manager there and, as a matter of pride to the whole family, dressed for work in a collar and tie. That’s how he spent much, if not most, of his working career in the coal industry.

That turned out, curiously, to be less than satisfactory. Most coal miners suffered from silicosis as a result of breathing “the dust” during their many hours underground. For this they were paid an extra sum on their pensions based on the severity of their disability. The amounts involved could be substantial. Uncle Dave, of course, wanted such a bonus. As a result, he spent a good deal of time in retirement writing erudite letters to the National Coal Board pleading his case. He was eventually tested for pneumoconiosis, but failed to rise above the minimum level of disability for compensation. Instead he was assigned to The Rest Hotel at Rest Bay, near Porthcawl, a windswept convalescent home for ailing miners for two weeks each summer. That was not what he had in mind, but that was it.

Uncle Dave prided himself on his singing voice.

However, the many hours of research into his own case and writing about it with such fervor caused him to be fascinated by the history of mines and mining in the Welsh valleys and he became a devoted chronicler of local history. He called himself a “scribbler” and made regular contributions to the South Wales Echo. His major research opus was entitled Hanes o Rhondda Fach (History of the Little Rhondda) a turgid history of the development of mining in the Rhondda Valley since 1874.

As many Welshmen do, Uncle Dave prided himself on his singing voice and often spoke of his youthful successes at local eisteddfodau*. These are competitions that take place all over Wales that celebrate poetry and song. The main event is the National Eisteddfod that moves from place to place each year and is an important celebration of Welshness. The poetry competitions are most prestigious and demanding and there are not always winners. The winner of the free-style poetry contest earns the bardic crown. The winner of a poem in strict traditional meter known as cynghanedd is seated in a newly-made bardic chair in a spectacular ceremony dating back to the 12th century.

I had never heard Uncle Dave sing and so when he entered a competition at the Trecho Bay Holiday Camp I knew he would win. He was my famous Uncle Dave after all. Turns out, his best singing years were long ago and far behind him. He soon realized that and abandoned his performance at the end of the first verse.

“That silly sod of an accompanist pitched it way too high” he explained.

Wel nawr, I still loved him.

N.B. *The International Eisteddfod is always held in north Wales at Llangollen and attracts competitors and performers from around the world including recently the Davis High School Madrigal Choir.