Feb 25, 2010

An Interview With Mr. Roscoe Howells

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Interview by: Alan Evans

Roscoe Howells was born in Saundersfoot in 1919. His mother died when he was three weeks old. His father remarried and he was brought up during the depression. He witnessed the harshness of the depression with Bonville’s Court colliery closing down leaving families in utter poverty. Roscoe’s work has its roots in the community and countryside around Saundersfoot, Tenby and Amroth. Roscoe was a former pupil of Christ College Brecon as well as vice-president and former chairman of the Pembrokeshire Historical Society, of which he was a founder member. He was also a founder member and chairman of the old Pembrokeshire Records Society. His many books include Woodreef – From Amroth to Utah – Pembrokeshire’s Islands – Old Saundersfoot: From Monkstone To Marros – Crickdam – and Roseanna. Roscoe also wrote numerous articles on farming and agriculture in Wales. Roscoe was outwardly emotional when relating some of his many stories. One could feel his passion for writing, the people and countryside of West Wales. At 90 years of age Roscoe has an exceptional memory. The interview was conducted at Roscoe’s home in Amroth. I am grateful to Roscoe and his wife Margaret for their hospitality and time.

I began by asking Roscoe what it was like growing up as a chid in Saundersfoot

Roscoe: The colliery at Boneville’s Court was still open and I was there at the time of the 1926 strike. My mother died when I was three weeks old. My father married again and my stepmother was wonderful to me. I grew up referring to her as my mother. My real mother’s sister was a right bitch and she made my stepmother’s life hell. We lived at The Bethanny Manse, which had a garden that went down to a field where the regency hall is now. It was known as Vickermans field. I remember the pit ponies coming up and grazing there when the miners were on strike. It was a difficult time. My father was a builder and I remember men coming to the back door and asking if they could have a weeks work so that they could get a stamp to go on the dole. Grown men, coming round crying and genuinely so, genuine workmen, not like today’s parasites.

The great excitement for me was that Bonneville’s court was still working. I used to spend most of my time down at the harbour with the boatmen. The coal boats would come in to get coal from the colliery. The merchant seamen used to come in and get to know people in the village. We used to be down there when the boats went out waving them off. There were two or three pilots there and there was tremendous contention between them to get the job piloting the boats in from Monkston. These boats would come in and drop anchor off Monkston. These pilots would be racing out to be the first out to get the boat. My father used to tell the story. His father could see the boats coming in and he would run down to Saundersfoot and tell one of his mates. Eventually the pilots got wise than Granfer Ben was doing this. My grandfather had an arrangement with a local pilot and he would run down. The local boys would see him and set off but there was nothing there. When there was a boat my grandfather would run down ‘quatting’ as we say in Pembrokeshire beneath the wall so no one would see him.

If you could meet anybody today in Saundersfoot who was born in the village, without exception their parents would have come from the surrounding villages. This is the significance of the subtitle of my book, Old Saundersfoot from Monkston to Marros. My father was born at Wiseman’s bridge. He went to Saundersfoot to look for work. My mother was a nursemaid and had gone there from Crosseli. My stepmother had gone there from Kilgetty. Saundersfoot had a very good football team. We had a lot of visitors. People started coming in, boarding and lodging.

Alan: What are the main changes you have seen?

Roscoe: People coming in from the outside. The second homes and holiday homes. They come in and take over and in ten minutes they know it all. They tell you what’s wrong with you.

Alan: Is it fair to say that you love the area?

Roscoe: Yes, I love the area. You can read every word I’ve ever written about it. It is home, there is no place like home. I love the sea, I love the countryside it’s been my life. I know a so many of the people. I know some of the better ones and I’ve met some of the awful ones.

Alan: You were chairman of a number of organizations including the Pembrokeshire records society. How important is it to record and preserve local history, especially that of the ordinary working man?

Roscoe: It is very important to preserve the history of the working man. It is tragic that so much has been lost. I have been guilty of it myself, shredding papers. Then I ask ‘what did I do with that’?

Alan: You told me when we first met that there is no such thing as fiction. Are you suggesting that all literature has at its source real life experiences.

Roscoe: There is no such thing as fiction. Everything comes from something either your own or other peoples experiences. I could always write in school I remember when I was in the infant’s class at Saundersfoot council school. Mrs. Morris was the teacher. She always said to us, ‘You have the sentence in your head before you start it. Get the sentence right and then you wont have to cross out’.

Kenneth Griffith the actor was a friend of mine. When I wrote the manuscript for my first book I saw him in Tenby and showed him the book. He read it and said that it must be published. I sent the book to Tony Whitton then I went up to London to meet him. He said it was a lovely book but it was a shame that it wasn’t set in Cornwall or Lancashire. He couldn’t believe that a place like this existed. I had to have Tony Whitton down for a weekend for him to see something of the area. I took him all around the place and he couldn’t believe it. He went back and the book was published. I could write a wonderful book about literary agents and London publishers. He took the book on and managed to persuade his people to publish it. When it was due to be published I told Ian McClarren, now Lord McClarren head of Tesco about it. His grandmother was born at Herons Mill as was my stepmother’s mother. Ian and I were quite close and when Ian married he called his first house Heron’s Mill. Ian was so pleased about the book that he told me to tell Hutchinson’s that Tesco would go 50/50 on a big launching party. The man at Hutchinson’s asked, ‘What are we selling, margarine’? Ian was so cross so Tesco launched the book at the Stradey Park Hotel. The book Herons Mill sold out in three weeks. Publishers in America took it on and Hutchinson’s did not republish.

Alexander Cordell (1914-1997) gave me some wonderful advice. He told me that no one person writes a book and that no novel left his house until it had been proofread. I used to read everything I wrote to Lucy my first wife. If she said it wasn’t right there was something wrong with it. I never used a typewriter in my life. My second wife Margaret began to type my work and eventually went on to using a computer to type my work. I eventually learned how to use the computer and I can tap away at it now. I write everything on screen and Margaret can go through it and make corrections.

Cordell was very helpful and he had a look at my novel Heron’s Mill. He was living in Cheltenham at that time. He told me to bring my manuscript to him. I sent it to him and called on him a few weeks later. I asked him to tell me if he thought I was wasting my time trying to write. He told me ‘If you were wasting your time I wouldn’t be wasting my time talking to you’. He told me to take the manuscript home and that I should learn my craft. Words are diamonds, jewels, precious gems, every word must carry the story forward, every word must count. He said ‘You go home remembering everything I told you and start again and I’ll edit it as I think it should be’. I came home and I started again and I knew I could write. I sent it to him and when it came back it was worse than ever.

One thing I remember and if you’re ever thinking of writing boy you remember this. One thing that drove it home to me. If you read my novel Heron’s Mill you’ll see that these two boys were going to Sunday school and they came on a badger in a trap. Evan Harter went running back to fetch his grandfather who was one of the big characters in the book and the other boy ran on to Sunday school. Granfer Jenkins was standing by the gate smoking his pipe. He said ‘Granfer, Granfer, come quick there’s a badger in the trap’. When they got there Granfer put the fork down on the badger’s neck to hold it down. They put some tar or something on the injured foot. A few hours later when they went back to the house they went into the kitchen. Ben Harter was very upset and the two girls were crying. Granfer said, ‘What’s the matter’ and Ben said ‘Cosiah, she’s dead’. Granfer Ben said, ‘Dead’. With that, Evan was running up the stairs before anyone could stop him. He looked in through the bedroom door and there was his mother lying on the bed on the old patchwork quilt and the old brass knobbed bedstead. I had written ‘Mam, Mammy’s dead, but there was no reply’. Cordell had crossed off the first Mam. ‘One Mam is enough’. ‘but there was no reply’, he (Cordell) cut it off. He (Cordell) put in the margin, ‘She’s dead isn’t she?’ It then read, ‘Mammy’s dead, go to the side of the bed he touched his mother’s face and at eight years of age he knew death’ full stop. I knew I could write, I can’t speak but I can write. The significant thing is that I have been very fortunate to have mixed with very good journalists. (Cordell’s comments are in bold). Alexander Cordell, Welsh Novelist wrote Rape of the Fair Country (1959).

Alan: A lot of your work is illustrated with photographs. Do you believe that a picture is worth a thousand words?

Roscoe: Oh, ten thousand words. Every picture tells a story. I have worked with some very good photographers in my time. I wasn’t a bad photographer myself.

Alan: Do you have a favourite photograph?

Roscoe: Yes I do. They all bring back different memories. One favourite is hanging inside the door as you come in. That’s a picture of my late wife Lucy taken four weeks to the day before I found her dead on the floor. Its bound to mean something isn’t it? I’ve got another lovely photograph of Margaret when we were on honeymoon with the Blaskets in the background.

Alan: One of your most controversial pieces of literature is A Pembrokeshire Pioneer written about William Frost. You claim that he was the first man to perform a flight in an aircraft. How did you come to that conclusion?

Roscoe: How did I come to the conclusion? Good God I knew the man I was there, he showed my father the patent and the pictures. My mother had been the Sunday school teacher there and Bill Frost was the Sunday school supervisor.

Alan: What do you think you will be remembered for?

Roscoe: Me! Being argumentative I suppose. I’d like to think that I’d done a bit of good I can’t tell you. How do we know? I’d like to think that I would be remembered for saving things, which might have been forgotten. I could be wrong.

Alan: You’ve reached your ninetieth birthday. If you could sum up your life in a few words what would they be?

Roscoe: I’d like to think that I would be remembered for standing up to be counted. Not afraid to say my piece. I think that if I have achieved anything in life without anyone realizing it was when crooked people were intent upon putting a sewerage scheme in Saundersfoot, which would have been discharged into the sea. It would have been deathly for Amroth and the whole area. Evil people financially motivated it finished up with some of them going to jail.

Many thanks for your time.

©Alan Evans, 30th November, 2009

Find books by Roscoe Howells on Gomer

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