John Summers


The Raging Summer

Extract from Chapter 4 - Red Sky at Morning

...Then there was the time when the King came to see the plight of Rumni and all the South Wales unemployed. We children were handed a small paper Union Jack glued on a stick and ordered to stand in line outside the Rumni Iron and Coal Company Shop and wave our flags frantically as the Royal train pulled in to Rumni Miners Halt. A carpet had been laid across the oil-stained track and a pink-faced man with a bowler hat descended.

I had expected a being of visible shining light and transcendental glory. All that stepped from the train was a pink-faced nervous man with a black bowler-hat and a stoop.

The King. Edward VIII.

We waved our paper Union Jacks heraldically and the King disappeared into the shambling ruin of the company truck shop, which was being converted into a club for out-of-work miners to keep their minds off things. In a few moments there he was out again, bowler-hat in hand. He put it on his head, descended the steps ... a waving of Union Jacks from the children and then he was gone. And the great day was over. Last of all, each one of us was presented with a china mug and a large chocolate penny wrapped in silver paper, to mark the Royal visit.

We ate the silver pennies.

Hustling us back still clutching our Union Jacks, Arthur Corkleg was shouting: ‘Hurry along that boy at the front there! Step out lively in front there!’ Arthur Corkleg, the terror of Upper Rumni school. When in fury, which was practically every afternoon, he would fly from one end of a classroom to the other, stumping like a pile-driver into the boards of the classroom floor till the chalk rose like shellbursts around and he rapped his cane for ‘Silence!’

‘Then we threw them back as the Allies – held the Germans – Here!’ Arthur Corkleg’s voice in a scream. ‘That boy at the back, there! What d’you think you’re doing half asleep there!’ Arthur Corkleg would come thumping across the classroom, doubling his fists and rapping his bony knuckles like a machine gun on the donkey-cropped head of the boy cowering and grinning in his desk. ‘Boy, there! boy, there! silly, silly, silly boy, there!’ The knuckles would be making the sound of a piece of firewood rapping on the head of a coconut: a fibre-sound on the skin and cropped hair of a boy’s skull, ‘Silly, silly, silly boy! there!’

Grabbing the wiry tuft of hair on the front of the boy’s head to yank him in front of the class, fingers twined in this horsemane of hair, Arthur Corkleg would bellow: ‘Well, boy, where did the Allies stop the Germans? What! Where? Stupid-stupid boy, there!’

Arthur Corkleg was our feared, loved, fiery-faced school-teacher who had lost his leg and his patience out there in a shellburst on the Somme. He stomped his classrooms on a leg that was just a straight length of wood inside the empty trouser-leg, going from his hipbone to the point where it struck and made the chalk-dust rise from the floorboards of the classroom. He was forever unfurling maps of Central Europe on to the blackboard and re-fighting the lost battles of 1916 for us; pointing with his swaggerstick cane and bewildering us with references to ‘the advances of the Allies’.

In that worst year of the Depression Arthur Corkleg had faded away, like an old soldier, in the summer holidays. We came back to school to find Arthur Corkleg had lost his final battle; he had collapsed in the street. No more would we see his red hair and hear the stumping of his wooden leg in the flapping empty trouserleg: ‘... And then ... we ...’ his intake of breath, Arthur’s brick-red face, his fire-filled eyes sweeping triumphantly round the classroom, ‘... stopped them ...’ a whack of the cane on the map of France, ‘...there!’

Now I wonder if most of his ill-temper must have come from bewilderment, and perhaps shame, at seeing what had happened to the Land fit for Heroes, for which he had fought and given his leg.

The enemy he had fought in the barbed wire and bullet-flailed trenches had been real enough. But what was this other enemy? The vague somewhere enemies who planned and hatched and plotted beyond Cardiff, beyond the valleys: politicians, London people, proper men with long faces in London, men who trooped colours in Horse Guards’ Parade and enjoyed whisky and cigars. The vague enemies who had shown for a hundred years that they had no interest in the South Wales valleys except for the drams and trucks of coal which could be trundled down the valleys to Cardiff.

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