Over the Top and Back
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Tom Jones


OVER THE TOP AND BACK

MICHAEL JOSEPH

UK | USA | Canada | Ireland | Australia
India | New Zealand | South Africa

Penguin Random House UK

Michael Joseph is part of the Penguin Random House group of companieswhose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

First published 2015

Copyright © Seconds Out Productions LLC, 2015

Cover photography © Harry Borden

For picture permissions see here

The moral right of the author has been asserted

ISBN: 978-0-718-18070-6

CONTENTS

Introduction

1. I Had No Idea

2. The Front Room

3. Uneager to Please

4. Pastimes of Youth

5. Raise a Ruckus

6. Take My Love

7. I Wish You Would

8. Coat Full of Singles

9. Bring It on Home

10. Escape from Wiggins Teape

11. Revenge Is Not Necessary

12. Door to Door

13. Friend or Foe?

14. What You Don’t Know

15. Factory Girl

16. In My Bones

17. I Wanna Hold Your Hand

18. ’Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone

19. The Jerk

20. Ladder of Excess

21. Talk of the Town

22. The Copacabana Hit

23. Made My Bed

24. Everything’s Got a Price

25. Convenience is the Devil

26. Working for the MAM

27. Hold That Tiger

28. Elvis Presley Blues

29. What Was I Thinking?

30. He Was a Friend of Mine

31. Honey Honey

32. Opportunity to Cry

33. Showbiz Graveyard

34. You Never Know (Ever)

35. The NWCs

36. Jimmy’s Place

37. Everybody Loves a Train

38. Flippy Doors

39. Rock’n’Roll Queen

40. Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do

41. What Good Am I?

42. Tomorrow Night

Illustrations

Chapter Picture Captions

Picture Permissions

Acknowledgements

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INTRODUCTION

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Let’s not begin at the beginning. Let’s start somewhere near the bottom.

Early 1983, say. Early 1983 finds me sitting in a drab-coloured dressing room in Framingham, Massachusetts, twenty-two miles west of Boston. Once this strip of Route 9 was pig farms and the occasional gas station. Now it’s known as the Golden Mile – Marshall’s Mall, a Holiday Inn, a Howard Johnson’s, a procession of neon signs along the roadside. ‘Framingham’s little touch of Vegas’, they call it.

And here I am on this Golden Mile, which isn’t particularly golden, if we’re being honest, nor actually a mile. Here I am backstage at the Chateau de Ville Dinner Theatre, Framingham’s premier ‘function room’, home to weddings and sales conference parties and the annual Natick High Prom – and tonight, home to Tom Jones, international singing superstar and globe-girdling sex symbol, who must remember not to go too far downstage in this venue or otherwise the spotlight at the back of the room won’t be able to reach him through the ornamental chandelier.

Here I am in the eighties in the dressing room of a drive-up dinner theatre in the American suburbs. Bright lights round the mirror. Stage clothes in zippered covers hanging from a rail. Sandwiches and fruit under cling film on a Formica table. Vase of flowers trying to make up for the lack of windows.

Two shows per night, to a predominantly white, middle-aged crowd, seated at tables, eating chicken or premium-plate surf-and-turf. 7.30 until 8.30; shower and change; then 10.00 to 11.00, plus encores. Thank you. Thank you so much. Good night. And afterwards a car back to Boston, moving fast to get there before the good restaurants shut. And then a meal and some drinks – quite a lot of drinks – and eventually a hotel bed.

I’m here again tomorrow.

After which the caravan will move on to more of the same. 134 nights like these in 1983 alone: the Circle Star Theatre, San Carlos; the Holiday Star Theater, Merriville, Indiana; Pine Knob Music Theater, Clarkston, Michigan. Tom Jones: Live In Concert. Singing the songs that made him famous: ‘It’s Not Unusual’, ‘What’s New Pussycat?’, ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’, ‘Delilah’, ‘She’s a Lady’. Stringing them together in a show-closing medley, because that’s what you do in the dinner theatres. Also doing Kool and The Gang’s ‘Ladies Night’; maybe ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ – bringing it up to date, or thereabouts.

It’s 1983, and I haven’t had a hit for twelve years. Twelve years! Not just singers but entire musical movements have come and gone in that time: prog rock, glam rock, disco, punk rock, post-punk, new romanticism … The earth has shifted under popular music at least six times without noticeably impacting upon me or even causing me to break step or slightly change direction.

Who’s selling records, as a singer, in 1983? Who do you have to be? Luther Vandross? Lionel Richie? I’m neither of these people. I’m Tom Jones.

Not that anybody in the audience in Framingham will seem to mind. They love me here. I’ll only have to walk on, and the place will go up. And then I’ll sing, and it will really go up. And, yes, no doubt there will be some knickers. Because that’s become a ritual. Not peeled off and flung there and then, as in the beginning. But most likely brought in specially and lobbed into my hands or laid on the stage at my feet in tribute, because … well, because that’s what you do at a Tom Jones show, isn’t it? Same thing every night. And I’m not complaining, either. Paid to sing. Paid to make singing my life. Paid handsomely for it, too. And brought knickers, albeit now in a kind of low-key, heritage way, with an eye on the upholding of a time-honoured tradition. There are far worse jobs. Proper jobs. I know because I’ve done some of them. There is no hardship here. Trust me, the meal after the Framingham show will be a good one. We will dine high, back in Boston: brandy, cigars, champagne. And then maybe on to a nightclub for more of the same. Don’t cry for me Argentina, is right. Don’t cry for me, anybody at all.

At the same time, though, here I am in the dressing-room mirror. Spangled bolero jacket. Slashed white shirt. Substantial silver neck-chain. Dark slacks fitting snug to the waist. Belt buckle the size of a manhole cover. Cuban heels. ‘Framingham’s little touch of Vegas.’

Twelve years without a hit. This wasn’t exactly the plan. Assuming there was a plan. Which, come to think of it, there wasn’t.

But does anyone really plan these things? You can’t, can you? You can only do your best to scramble aboard a plane that’s taking off and then see what happens. And in 1983 the path of my flight looks roughly like this: in the beginning, blasted almost vertically into fame’s skies, higher than I even dared to imagine; but since then, cruising. Worse than that: cruising and gradually losing height – but slowly, gently, over the course of more than a decade, so that you don’t notice how close the ground has got until one day (say, in a dressing room, between shows, in a dinner theatre in suburban Massachusetts) you turn your head and look down.

Two questions, then, in the Chateau De Ville Dinner Theatre, Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1983. And two questions for this book.

Firstly, how did I get here?

And secondly, now that I’m here, how do I get out?

CHAPTER ONE

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I Had No Idea

New York City, 1965. I am on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show, standing alone on a white wooden cube under hot studio lights, waiting for my cue. It’s eight o’clock on a Sunday night in the golden age of pop and the dying days of black and white television. I am twenty-four years old and I am about to break America inside two minutes.

I seem to have no nerves – unless you count an eagerness to get going, to get at it, a buzz of anticipation. But there’s no fear. Self-doubt doesn’t really apply at this point. Singing, as my twenty-four-year-old self knows it – as my childhood self seemed always to know it – is something that happens when I open my mouth and let it go. Singing I know I can do. Hasn’t everybody around me always said so? There is no other position in life in which I am so absolutely and unshakeably sure of myself.

And here’s Ed Sullivan, off to the side. ‘Now, ladies and gentlemen, we kick off the show with …’ There’s a huge pause here. Or it feels huge to me – seems to creep on for ever. What’s he doing? Has he forgotten? No. He’s just ramping up the anticipation. ‘… Tom Jones!’

Then there’s applause and, above it, a burst of screaming. The band kicks in, and the camera sweeps in with it. Sweeps in on me: dark suit, jacket carefully buttoned, trousers tight and straight-legged. White shirt with massive collar. Chelsea boots from Anello & David, just like The Beatles. Hair long at the back, by the standards of the day, and therefore just a little dangerous. A topping of lightly laquered curls. Big sideburns.

The set is a small landscape of white boxes of various sizes. As I sing, I must follow a course, carefully charted beforehand by the director, stepping down from one box and up on to another – which raises the possibility of putting a foot wrong and, in front of a couple of hundred people in the studio and 15 million Americans watching at home, going down in a pile of splintered plywood. But those are the risks, and I am young and burning with ambition and more than willing to take them.

Also I know these boxes and these moves pretty well by now. I have been put through no less than a week of rehearsals – run-through after run-through in a vast downtown warehouse, a space so big that, during breaks, me and the members of a band called Ruby and the Romantics, who are also on the show, fall to chucking about this new plastic thing called a Frisbee. Before I leave, I will find a store that sells Frisbees and take it home to Wales for Mark, my eight-year-old son.

The stuff about Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show in the fifties – shot from above the hips at the host’s insistence, according to the legend, to prevent the lower parts of his anatomy inflaming America beyond repair – is just so much myth. Sullivan let America see all of Elvis, just as he will, in turn, let America see all of Tom Jones. Still, these are without question formal and anxious times in the world of broadcast entertainment, and only a few months previous to this Sullivan has fallen out with Mick Jagger from the notorious British beat combo The Rolling Stones over his refusal to wear a jacket. I, meanwhile, have been formally warned during rehearsals, by a producer with a clipboard, to keep my hips in check or face immediate and irrevocable censorship. It’s Sunday, is the stern message. This is a family show, and pop music is a potentially corruptive sexual force the limits of whose dark effects we don’t yet entirely understand. So, easy on the grinding.

And I’m not here to buck the system. I’m not here to ruin America – or not much, no more than America is willing to be ruined. I restrict myself to some big right-handed finger clicks, some swinging arms and a small selection of handclaps at various heights. I obediently fight back the instincts of a performing lifetime and omit to grind.

The song I sing is the one that has catapulted me to stardom in Britain and Europe and spun my life around. It’s the song that has brought me out here to America – put me on a plane for only the second time in my life, seen me collected from the airport in a big black town car, driven to the Gorham Hotel and installed, along with a vast basket of fruit, in one of a pair of ridiculously luxurious suites on the top floor. The other suite, I get a kick out of being told, is assigned to Sammy Davis Jr.

It’s the song that has carried me to New York, where I will lie in bed with the windows thrown open so that I can hear the distinctive honking of the taxis in the streets way below, a soundtrack familiar to me from the movies and now made real.

And it’s the song that will now duly make me a star in America, with the help of the Ed Sullivan house band, pulsing away at its snagging beat – ‘bom be-dom, bom be-dom, bom de-dom …’ – a song I have known since it was just a couple of chords, an idea for a title and a hummed melody line, my manager, Gordon Mills, prodding at it on the piano in his flat in Notting Hill Gate in London.

‘It’s not unusual hmm hmm hmmm …’

A song I had to plead with Gordon Mills to let me have because I knew the moment I heard it that it was the one – the right song, the song with the power to change everything about my life, the song that was going to take me where I wanted to be.

It’s the song I recorded as long ago as November 1964, only to have to wait agonizingly while the record company held back its release to the following year, not wanting to risk losing it in the Christmas rush.

Leaving me to go home to a terraced house in south Wales for Christmas with my wife and our son and my mother and father, none of whose Christmases, on account of the song, would ever be quite the same again.

CHAPTER TWO

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The Front Room

My grandmother could neither read nor write, but she knew what to do with dead bodies. When there was a death in Treforest, someone would go to fetch Mrs Jones. She knew how to lay out the dead – dress the corpse, bind the jaw with a bandage so that it wouldn’t hang open, place the pennies on the eyes. These skills she handed on to my mother.

My grandmother knew what to do with newborns, too, which is lucky for me. When I was born, they thought I was dead. I didn’t move and I didn’t cry. But my gran took me from the midwife, plunged me in a tub of cold water and then shook me. With that, I moved and cried and got started.

This was June 1940, in the front room of my grandmother’s terraced house at 57 Kingsland Terrace. Nobody round our way seemed to go to hospital to have a baby. It happened at home. The women of the family gathered; the men of the family disappeared. My gran at this time was sharing her small, narrow house with my mother and father – Freda and Tom Woodward – and my six-year-old sister Sheila, as well as my Uncle Albert, who was blind. Not long after I arrived, we four Woodwards moved to a rented terraced house of our own up the hill in Laura Street, a mile or so closer to the adjacent town of Pontypridd. There, in turn, we would briefly, while I was very young, find room to lodge another family, the Wildings, whose mother would, in turn, give birth in our front room. That was the way of things in the community I grew up in. It was understood that you might, every now and again, be required to squeeze up a bit.

They named me Thomas John, after my father, and called me Tommy. Tommy Woodward: as a kid I can remember having a feeling that there was something unusual about that. In Wales, people had names like Jenkins or Griffiths or (like my mother) Jones. Woodward, not so much. What’s more, my nana, my father’s widowed mother, Annie, had an accent that wasn’t like anyone else’s, with this strange, soft burr in it. ‘Come along and have thy vittals,’ she would tell me, when I visited her. By which she appeared to mean, ‘Sit down and eat your tea.’

I said to my father, ‘Why does nana speak like that?’

He said, ‘Because she’s not from here. She’s from Box.’

‘She’s from a box?’

‘Box. It’s a village in Wiltshire.’

My father’s father, James Woodward, was an ironmonger’s haulier from Gloucester who brought his family west to south Wales for work, which there was no shortage of at that time. His business was loading a horse and cart with dynamite and taking it to the coal mines around Pontypridd, where they called him Jimmy the Powder. He died before I could know him, but the stories lived on, most of them connected with prodigious drinking. It was said that Jimmy the Powder could fall backwards into his cart at the end of a hard night, and the horse would see him safely home. One night he rode out to the Three Horseshoes pub in Tonteg for a quiet evening with his wife. Some guy wound him up during the course of the evening, so they decided to settle it with a cart race – whipped the horses three miles back to Pontypridd, standing up at the reins, while the wives clung on in terror.

So my father had English parents – but you wouldn’t want to argue with him about his Welshness.

‘I’m a Welshman.’

‘But your mam and dad were English.’

‘I was born here. I’m a Welshman.’

End of debate.

What’s also not open to dispute is that some time in his early twenties my father started seeing a girl called Florrie Jenkins. He can’t have been that interested, though, because he wasn’t showing up for dates. Florrie Jenkins took her friend, Freda Jones, into her confidence about this Tom Woodward and his manners, and Freda Jones volunteered to go in on her behalf and sort him out.

‘Hey, you’re not showing up for Florrie Jenkins.’

Tom Woodward duly informed Freda Jones that she could mind her own business, and Freda Jones, in turn, duly informed Tom Woodward that as far as she was concerned it was her own business, and then they had a flaming row about it and ended up stepping out together. And soon after that, in 1934, they got wed and conceived my sister, Sheila – although not strictly in that order. Hard now to reckon with the level of social shame that came down on my father for getting a girl pregnant out of wedlock. A girl five years younger than him, too – eighteen, at the time, to my father’s twenty-three. Women turned their backs on him in the street. A couple of people even spat at him. His place in the community was only restored when he married her and made her ‘honest’.

My father was a coal miner, and, as such, he didn’t have a lot of time for postmen. My mother used to say, ‘Poor old postman. Look at the weather,’ and my father would say, ‘Postman? If he wants to get out of the rain, tell him to come and work with me.’

He was employed from the age of fourteen at the Cwm Colliery in Beddau, a three-mile walk out of Treforest in heavy boots, my mother getting him up and out in the early mornings, giving him an extra nudge on Mondays when the weekend’s drink was still in his system. He spent his days burrowing into deep, cramped tunnels where the mice would have your lunch away if you didn’t keep it snapped tight in a tin; clawing the coal out and pushing it back in seams so tight that when one side of the pick grew blunt, you would have to clamber back out completely in order to have enough room to turn the tool around so that you could use the sharper side. There was a bar in a pub in Pontypridd, a tiny room down a couple of steps, which was known jokingly as ‘the two-foot-nine’ in reference to the width of the smallest tunnel that a miner could work in.

Yet my father never seemed to want to get away or push himself forward – never applied for promotion to a lighter job at the surface or sought anything more comfortable. He was a bright man, and capable. But there was something nervous in him, too. A large part of him wanted to keep his world small and contained, where he could cope with it. And mining did at least spare him from going off to fight in the Second World War. Miners were exempt from the call-up because the coal supply needed to be maintained. So my father did his National Service at the coal face, and I think he thought he was lucky.

As far as the war was concerned, we were certainly lucky in our location. Cardiff was hit hard by German bombing raids and Swansea was blitzed – the German planes heading west across the mainland, cheered on all the way by the English, as the Welsh liked to imagine. But the mining village of Treforest and the adjacent industrial centre of Pontypridd which had expanded outwards until it all but connected with it, escaped almost entirely unscathed. To the extent that the area was struck at all, it was with stray incendiary devices, which could be nasty, but were better than the kind of high explosive bombs that would quite happily put your bedroom in your basement without bothering to ask you first. Consequently the first five years of my life took place during a violent global conflict, but, beyond the occasional droning of planes and the appearance around the town of American soldiers, billeted in the barracks of the Fifth Welsh regiment on the Broadway, I was mostly oblivious to it – which is probably the best state to be in, when it comes to violent global conflicts.

So my earliest childhood memory is a relatively peaceful one: me, in the kitchen with my sister, just before my father is due back from his shift, with my mother hurrying to get the tea ready, and talking to us, but distractedly, while looking out of the back window, watching for my father with his dust-blackened face to come through the gate, because if he comes into the kitchen and the cloth isn’t on the table … well, that’s a failure of duty on an epic scale, as far as my mother is concerned. Later on she tells me what her mother always advised her: ‘Get the cloth on the table. Even if the food isn’t ready, make it look as though it is.’

Another piece of domestic wisdom passed down by my gran to my mum – and later handed by my gran to my sister, too, to her surprise, on the eve of her wedding: ‘You should never refuse your husband. But you can always try to make sure you’re out of bed before he wakes up.’

My mother was a housewife. She held a part-time job very briefly in a factory at the Treforest Trading Estate. This was when I was in school. She had pleaded with my father, who very reluctantly agreed to it. But one Saturday night we were queuing as a family to get into the pictures, and a man in the line – someone from the factory whom my father didn’t know – called out, ‘Hello, Freda.’ The tone was no more than casually friendly, but it sent my father into a spin. It was the familiarity that got to him: not ‘Mrs Woodward’, but ‘Freda’. My mum’s adventures in the world of work ended shortly after.

So she went back to doing everything around the house –including papering the walls and painting the woodwork. My father, by contrast, didn’t do anything at all at home, nor did he seem to be expected to. He’d simply sit in his dark-green armchair and say, ‘Oh, well, Freed – nice cup of tea, then?’

‘Yes, Tom.’

And she’d be there.

My parents were good-looking people – the best-looking couple in any company, or so it seemed to me – and they liked to be well turned-out. My mother would put on dresses which showed off her small waist and would wear lots of carefully applied make-up and teased hair – a Welsh Lana Turner. My father would wear a pin-striped suit – inspired by George Raft in the Hollywood gangster movies of the thirties and forties which were his abiding passion. My parents went most Saturdays to one of Pontypridd’s four picture houses and brought my sister and me along with them as soon as we were old enough. My father would see George Raft in these handsome suits and he would try to dress like that, in as much as he could afford to. Whether George Raft ever burned a hole in the inside pocket of his jacket with an inefficiently extinguished cigarette, as my father did, I don’t know. Whether George Raft was in the habit of quickly putting out and hiding freshly lit cigarettes in order to increase his chances of being given another cigarette by someone who had just walked into the room (the sharp practice which caused my father to end up singeing his pocket), I equally don’t know. But Raft was the role model. And I, in turn, longed for a while to dress like my father, because I liked the way he looked – smart and strong – and I liked the way people looked at him, not least the women in doorways as he passed. ‘All right there, Mr Woodward?’ He was getting a reaction, and I noticed it.

My father also had strong feelings about shoes, exclusively favouring brown brogues for many years and frowning on crepe soles, which grew to be the rage in the fifties, and which he, in common with a high percentage of his generation, seemed to find morally dubious. ‘I don’t want to be creeping around the place,’ he used to say. ‘I want people to hear me coming.’ To this end, he had his soles fitted with nailed-on metal caps, which announced him with a decisive click on the pavement. He was a mostly quiet man, formal and reserved, until beer made him jovial and talkative and brought his stories out. But he liked to hear himself walk.

My father soon added a Trilby hat to his look, or sometimes a flat cap, to hide his quickly thinning hair. Self-conscious about that baldness, he would continue to wear a hat while sitting indoors. At the end of one Saturday night at the pictures, when everybody stood for the playing of the National Anthem, someone had a go at my father for not removing his hat, and the pair of them squared up and almost came to blows about it.

Movies were the family’s biggest window on to another world. There was no television – just the radio, offering news and Dick Barton: Special Agent. There were newspapers in the house – the News of the World on Sunday – but there were no books. My mother read but did not write. My father could read, and apparently did well in school, but neither of my parents were what you’d call readers. The only books in the house were my schoolbooks. The general feeling was that reading turned you in on yourself and was anti-social – unlike smoking. Father would send me running out to get cigarettes for him – which was often a complicated errand involving a trip round several different shops, tobacco remaining in short supply well after the war ended. In the absence of cigarettes, my father would smoke tea from a clay pipe. When I was a baby in a high-chair, his pipe was given to me to play with, and I whacked it on the table and snapped off the stem. Undeterred, my father simply stuffed the bowl with tea leaves regardless and sucked away at the pipe’s stunted remains – creating a comically desperate image of himself which my mother teased him with for years afterwards.

My mother was openly affectionate with my sister and me, and my father wasn’t, which was absolutely the standard way of things in the families I knew. There were few people less touchy or feely than a Welsh coal miner in the forties. Fellas in south Wales didn’t grab one another – unless they were going to hit each other, in which case they felt free to grab what they liked. Even when I got hold of him later in life, to give him a hug, my father would tend to be awkward and stiff about it. It wasn’t done. Shaking hands was as far as it went, and you’d do that once, when you first met the person, and then never again. That was one of a number of culture shocks I experienced when I went to London in 1964. Peter Sullivan, who was the producer on some of my earliest records, would shake my hand every time I walked into the studio.

I said to Gordon Mills, who was my manager at the time: ‘Why’s he keep shaking my hand? I’ve already met him.’

Gordon said, ‘That’s what people do.’

Not where I came from.

Pontypridd in the forties: industrial, smoky, frequently wet. Terraced houses ascending hillsides. Coal stacks and slag heaps. Gas lamps at the ends of streets, lit at evening-fall by a red-faced man on foot in a camel-coloured overall. Babies carried ‘Welsh-style’ in a shawl. Thoroughfares sprinkled with dropped coal. Discomfort put up with. The water in the River Taff runs black with coal dust. The mud on its banks is dark and greasy. You don’t go near it. Legends abound that rats the size of cats, or worse, dwell in those inky depths. The water is too dark for anyone to prove otherwise.

Heavy industry. The Taff Vale Iron Works. Crawshay’s Steel and Tin Works. Brown & Lenox, the chain and anchor foundry, whose giant link chains formed the backdrop for that famous photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great British engineer, before the launch of the SS Great Eastern in 1857. Brown & Lenox also made the anchor chain for the Titanic, which didn’t get quite as much use as they must have been hoping.

The Maritime Colliery. More than a dozen deep-mine collieries in the area and numerous trial shafts cut without fuss into the surrounding hillsides. A coke oven in the town, smoking away. The slaughterhouse down by the railway track, connected by a tunnel to the station so that the animals can be herded straight in off the trains. Horses and carts. Rationed food. Local characters: Ned Grono, the chimney sweep; Dut Hobbs, who sits just inside the door of the Wheatsheaf pub at the bottom of Rickards Street and who, for a small fee, will dock the tail of your dog with his bare teeth. (For a party piece, and if there are a few coins in it, he’ll do the same to a rat.)

We are a little more than ten miles north of Cardiff, the Welsh capital, but fiercely independent of it and wilfully self-contained. ‘You can’t get anything in Cardiff that you can’t get in Ponty,’ is the local mantra, which we say until we believe it. The truth is, in these days, you can’t get much in either of those places. Everything mined in the Rhonda Valley passes out through here, making it the mouth of the valley, or the other end, depending how you want to see it. A tough, work-hardened place where there always seems to be a metallic tang in the air. This is where I spend the first twenty-four years of my life.

Our house in Laura Street: back and front parlours on the ground floor; two small bedrooms and a box room upstairs; kitchen in the basement, giving on to a small yard with a back gate out to the alley. A bunker in the kitchen filled with free coal – the miner’s perk – dropped down directly via a hatch from the street. A tin bath-tub on the back door to be taken down and filled on the floor of the tiny scullery beside the kitchen, where my father washes himself nightly in two stages: top half while kneeling beside the tub, and then bottom half by climbing in. Wednesday is wash-day – done by hand on the scrubbing board and in that bath-tub and hung out in the yard, or draped around the house if it’s raining, which it often seems to be. Coming home from school, that washing waving outside the house will work like a warning flag for my sister and me, signalling the likelihood that mum will be in a dark mood and may need to be tiptoed around.

Everything in the house kept obsessively, oppressively neat by my mother.

One day, when I am still small and wrapped Welsh-style to my mother’s chest, a gypsy comes to the door, selling clothes pegs. My mother says you never refuse a gypsy because it’s bad luck. So, as she takes the pegs, the gypsy looks down on the top of my head and notices that I have a pronounced crown. Using her skill and judgement, she tells my mother, ‘This child will travel all over the world,’ and my mother believes her.

For now, though, I am going no further than our neighbourhood. Across the road from us lies the old quarry from which the stone for our houses had been cut. It’s now an in-fill site, and lorries come and go on the far side of it with grey industrial waste from somewhere or other. What is it? We don’t ask. All we know, as kids, is that if you get there soon enough after the lorry has tipped its load, the ground will be powder-soft – like a fresh dump of snow, except warm and grey. Periodically, as you slide and jump and dust-up your clothes, you might uncover pieces of glass test-tube. The unbroken ones are treasures which we take home and hoard.

Mostly, though, we play in the road – the boys of Laura Street: me, Dai Perry, Alan Wilding, Brian Pitman, Brian Blackler, Jimmy Herbert. There’s no traffic to keep out of the way of because nobody owns a car. We play ‘Best Falling’ to see who can drop to the ground in the most gruesome and/or realistic manner – who can die the best death. We kick footballs against walls. We pull down washing lines and steal milk. We fight kids from the Graig, the terraced houses down by the railway – and win. The Christmas that everyone gets roller skates, Dai Perry and I work out that if you skate downhill while straddling a broken broom handle, the stick can do service as a rudder and a prod and, if you’re lucky, a brake, all in one. And off you go, the bottom of the stick scraping and thwacking on the ground behind you, out of Laura Street, on to the Wood Road, downhill all the way, gathering to a proper lick, past the Wood Road Non-Political Club, where the adults go, down past Marney’s post office and general store, down past the Infants School and the Treforest Hotel, bottoming out now, left at the Cecil Cinema and on to the Broadway, which leads you eventually into Pontypridd and where Dai one day has to take sudden evasive action against an oncoming bus and slams himself dizzy against the window of a greengrocer’s shop. Now, that’s a ride. You won’t see many people roller-skating back up.

Like my mother, my father is the youngest of six, so, between the Woodwards and the Joneses, my family is not short of numbers. Round the corner in Tower Street, Auntie Lena and Uncle Albert alone have seven children. Uncles, aunts, cousins – the place throngs with them, and nearly all of them are within walking or shouting distance at any moment. If I come home from school and my mother is out shopping and my father is at work, I can always go somewhere else. The positive consequence of this is that, as a child, I rarely, if ever, feel alone. I feel secure, not just in my own house, but in the neighbourhood. There are allies about the place – always somewhere to go, someone to see, somebody to help you out. So if I mess up my shoes and clothes playing football on the way back from Sunday School, I can go over to my grandmother’s house and get sorted out before my mother sees and clips me round the ear for it.

Because her legs are bad, my gran cooks sitting down in her basement kitchen, on a chair between the table and the coal-fired oven, swivelling from the one to the other. She defies the rations, conjures batches of rock cakes out of next to nothing. ‘How many eggs do you think are in there? One! One egg is in there!’

Her custard tastes like nobody else’s. I tell my mother about it. My mother says, ‘It’s because she can’t whip the mixture up properly, sitting down like that. It sticks and burns.’ I don’t care. I like the burned taste.

Gran takes snuff from the little tin box that’s always with her. The ritual has its own closely observed etiquette: the pinch of snuff on the wrist, the gentle, rather refined sniffing and then (the final flourish) the concluding light swipe at the nose and at the wrist with her handkerchief – although Gran can’t say ‘handkerchief’, so we all refer to it as her ‘hanchercuff’.

In the parlour, above the wind-up gramophone belonging to my blind uncle, which must not be touched, my grandfather, Albert, continues to look down from inside a frame – a handsome fella in a company sergeant major’s uniform with a long neck, a swizzle stick under his arm and a waxed handlebar moustache. Because my gran can’t read, when the telegram came telling her that her husband had died in a trench in France in the First World War, a neighbour had to read it to her. Albert was the son of the landlord of the Treforest Arms, which was known as ‘the Cot’ because it was more like a cottage than a pub. My gran would be sent there by her mother to fetch beer, and Albert, who hadn’t yet enlisted with the Royal Engineers in Cardiff, would serve her and try to engage her in conversation. But she was shy and kept her head bowed and never looked up. One day a girlfriend of hers said, ‘I wish he would ask me questions. Have you seen him?’ So the next time she went there, my gran found the courage to look up, and that was that. She talks about him so much that I think I will be able to find him. She says she can ‘feel’ him in the house, and I come to think that if I stare at him long enough on the wall I will be able to summon him up.

I say to my mother, in fits of pique or when she has stopped me doing what I want to do: ‘Why aren’t you more like Gran? She’s so lovely to us.’

To which my mother replies, ‘You didn’t know her when she was younger.’

I’m coddled by my gran and doted on by my mother and I’m diligently overseen by my sister, Sheila, who is a mild and placid little girl but fiercely protective of me while I’m a baby. When she comes home from school one day to find that Pauline Rogers, the girl from next door, has wheeled me up the road in the pram to quieten me down, she chases straight out and takes me back because wheeling me up the road in the pram to quieten me down is Sheila’s job. Later we will squabble seemingly interminably, as siblings who are going to be close for ever often do.

‘Mam! Sheila hit me with the broom!’

Mum: ‘Well, you must have deserved it.’

I go to Sunday School because Mrs Rogers from next door is the teacher, so it’s hard not to. We aren’t, though, a strongly religious household. My father was born into a Baptist family but he doesn’t practise as a Baptist. He says he doesn’t believe in it, but when he was dying, he was praying. My mother told me that. So maybe he believed in it more than he realized.

My mother is Presbyterian and, on that account, we attend Presbyterian chapel, in a routine, dutiful way, in our best clothes, which I never seem to mind putting on, as some kids do. However, at heart, my mother feels herself to be a spiritualist first and foremost. She believes she can sense things. When she was a little girl she woke up one night to find a man in a sailor’s uniform sitting silently at the bottom of her bed. She discussed this with her mother, and they both became convinced that she had seen the apparition of her uncle, who was a sailor who died at sea.

My mum attends spiritualist meetings for a while, with her sister, Lena. But they both get frightened away. The medium keeps asking my mum to be the messenger and to go and inform someone in the town that a dead relative is coming through from the other side, or that some terrible fate awaits them. I don’t know why the medium doesn’t pass on these messages herself – or send them through, even. Less work this way, I suppose. Anyway, it puts my mother off, and her spiritualism becomes a mostly private matter again.

The one place members of my family attend devoutly is the Wood Road Non-Political Club, known simply as ‘the Wood Road’, just down the hill from our house. It’s a plain, two-storey working men’s social club, used mostly by miners, with a bar downstairs, a singing room above and a lounge to one side for ‘the ladies’, who are only allowed in on certain nights and are never allowed in the bar. Like anywhere that working men go to fill up on drink, the place can get boisterous and, indeed, when I’m a young man, a friend is goaded into a fight and he accidentally kills a man in the street. The word is, the punch wasn’t thrown to kill; it was thrown to teach the fella a lesson. But the fella bangs his head when he hits the ground and is done for. This story does the rounds while I am young, and it haunts me – leaves me worrying about the place where a fight can end up.

Men on both sides of the family, the Joneses and the Woodwards, gather at the Wood Road, drawn by the special cachet the place has as somewhere you can get a drink on a Sunday, when the pubs of Pontypridd are closed, in observance of the Lord’s day. So, on a Sunday morning, Uncle Edwin, my father’s brother, will call at the house with two of my older cousins, Kenny and Alan, to take my father (who, as likely as not, is still hungover from Saturday) to the Wood Road, and I will look longingly at the sight of them all, suited and booted, setting off together. This dressing up and going off to drink seems like the mark of maturity to me – what it means to be a man, in fact – and I long to be old enough to go with them.

Meanwhile, though, there are the occasional Saturday nights when members of the family spill out of the club and come back to Laura Street for an impromptu party. Alcohol is never kept in the house, but beer will be brought back from the club, and my mother will cut sandwiches, and our rooms will fill with relatives in various shades of pissed. Then someone will sit down at the piano in the parlour (which neither my parents nor me or my sister could play, but which turned into something more than just a prestige ornament on these nights), and the singing will start.

The one time my father gets openly emotional is when he sings. It takes a drink to get him up, but once he’s there, the emotion will pour out – to the point where it might actually bring the performance to an early halt. He does ‘Besame Mucho’, the Mexican bolero, and, above all, the sentimental ballad ‘A Beggar In Love’. If he can make it all the way through that, you’ll be surprised. He’ll reach a certain distance, and it will get to him, and his eyes will fill up, and his throat will go, and he’ll have to stop and sit down.

My mother is more flamboyant. She loves to get up. She can carry a tune but she is more about the flair than anything else, and will move around when she sings. Her big song is Eve Young’s ‘Silver Dollar’, and she’ll be giving it all the actions, the hips and hands.

Then there’s my sister, who has a very nice voice but will have to be coaxed. And then there’s me, who never requires any coaxing at all.

Getting up and singing seems to come easily to me. It’s not something I have to work on or think about. Put up to it by my Uncle George – who’s known as Snowy on account of his white hair and has a fine, rich voice himself and a different attitude to the prevailing one about children not being seen or heard – I might stand on a chair in front of the company and do a song from the radio like ‘Lucky Old Sun’, or ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Showboat, or cowboy songs like ‘Mule Train’ and ‘Riders in the Sky’, the galloping-horse rhythm of which my father has shown me how to slap out on a table with my fingers and the flat of my hand. I work out pretty quickly that I like the getting up in front of people – and equally quickly that I like the fuss that gets made of me afterwards.

By the age of eight I have seen Larry Parks play Al Jolson in the movie The Jolson Story and been struck deep down by the glamour of it, the showbiz, the effect a singer can work on an audience, if he plays it right. It has sown some seeds, as will its sequel, Jolson Sings Again, where Jolson gets a ramp built out into the theatre to bring him closer to his audience. It has inspired a game where I climb up on the kitchen window sill, draw the curtains across myself and then jump out as if on to a stage. Sometimes I will persuade my mother to introduce me: ‘Ladies and gentlemen – Tommy Woodward.’ Then I’ll swish the curtains apart and drop to the floor.

Those films have put some thoughts in my mind. Then again, I’ve also seen John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in the greatest western of them all, Howard Hawks’s Red River. Internationally fêted professional singer or slate-faced cowboy? From the kitchen of 44 Laura Street in Pontypridd in the forties, the odds on becoming one appear to be about as long as the odds on becoming the other.

CHAPTER THREE

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