After becoming the first man to climb Mount Everest Sir Edmund Hillary returned to North Wales where he had trained for the historic event.
Planning to meet up with Lord Hunt and the rest of the expedition for their first-ever reunion, Hillary arrived late at the Pen y Gwryd hotel and was told that everyone had already set off for the summit of Snowdon.
Without bothering to change into appropriate clothing, Hillary set off after his friends.
Halfway up he was accosted by a distinguished-looking gentleman who told him off for wearing inappropriate clothing which gave “hill walkers and climbers a bad name”.
The story, infused with humour and cut from the DNA of the history of climbing folklore, gets to the heart of the historic Pen y Gwryd hotel, which has now been celebrated in a new collection of stories and memories that explain why the building has become a “place of pilgrimage for mountaineers the world over”.
Jan Morris, who was the only newspaper correspondent embedded with the 1953 Everest expedition, describes the hotel as “one of the great climbers’ inns of Europe”.
Among the items on display there is the length of rope which connected Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they disappeared into the mist at the roof of the earth, making their ascent on Everest’s summit.
The rope was essential and functional then; it has since developed significance as a symbol of humankind’s endeavour. It must appear in the dreams of many of those pilgrims and adventurers who are drawn to the Pen y Gwyrd.
‘The Pen y Gwryd Hotel: Tales from the Smoke Room’ is a 259-page hardback book which has been compiled and edited by Rob Goodfellow, Jonathan Copeland and Peter O’Neill. It is priced £14.99 and is published by Gomer Press http://www.gomer.co.uk
On the 21st of October 1966, the village of Aberfan in south Wales was shattered by one of the worst disasters in Welsh and British history.
Following days of bad weather, water from a spring had destabilized a huge coal slag tip – one of the black man-made mountains which surrounded the village. Thousands of tonnes of coal tip waste slid down a mountainside and devastated the mining village of Aberfan. The black mass crashed through the local school, where pupils were celebrating the last day of term.
One hundred and forty-four people were killed. One hundred and sixteen were schoolchildren. Gaynor Madgwick was there. She was eight years old and severely injured. Her brother and sister were in classrooms either side of her. Both died.
Recalling the horrific event in a diary four years later, Gaynor wrote, ‘I heard a terrible, terrible sound, a rumbling sound. It was so loud. I just didn’t know what it was. It seemed like the school went numb, you could hear a pin drop. I was suddenly petrified and glued to the chair. It sounded like the end of the world had come.’
In Aberfan – A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One Of Britain’s Worst Disasters, Gaynor tells her own story and interviews people affected by that day – from the bereaved and the rescuers, to the police and royalty. She explores the nature of courage, grief and faith, to create both a moving personal story of one family’s pain and a definitive account of the events that shook the nation and the world.
‘For the past 50 years I have lived as a sort of prisoner or victim of my past. Now I am trying to break free.’ said Gaynor. ‘I started this book by looking again at the writings of my young self. I’ve tried to explore the determination, courage and resilience which got me through. Then, I set out on a journey, to find those same qualities in my community, to see how it had coped, survived and often thrived.’
The Earl of Snowdon – who was there hours after the disaster – described it as ‘one of the most moving experiences of my life.’
‘Gaynor Madgwick’s book, Aberfan, is a brave, heartbreaking and inspiring journey in which she re-visits the story of what happened to her and to the whole community of Aberfan on that dreadful day.’ he said. ‘It is a book that should be read by all of us in memory of those who died and those who survived.’
Broadcaster Vincent Kane said, ‘Gaynor Madgwick was pulled injured from one of the classrooms where her friends died. She was left behind to live out her life. This is her story, sad, sweet, sentimental, and authentic. I commend it to you.’
‘October 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of that awful day. For 50 years we have been trying to recover from the Aberfan disaster. It’s a long road, and we take it one day at a time.’ said Gaynor.
‘I’ve tried to tell this story in a way in which it has never been told before, beginning by reliving Aberfan through the eyes of a survivor. As a survivor, now 58 years old, I have been haunted by the memories of the Aberfan disaster.
‘I wanted to create the fullest picture of the disaster and its aftermath while people were still around to tell their story.
‘For me, I can’t start the next chapter of my life if I keep rereading the last one; this book will help me move on. My hope is that it will help others move on too.’
Aberfan – A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One of Britain’s Worst Disasters by Gaynor Madgwick (£9.99, Y Lolfa) is available now.
I was delighted to be involved in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Royal College of Nursing in Wales, marking the work of nurses today and over the past five decades.
I produced these films (edited by Collin Games and filmed by Paul Roberts and Gareth Thomas).
And there is also a commemorative book, Nursing Matters.
As actor Michael Sheen states on the back cover, “There is no more fundamental or valuable service than to devote yourself to the care of others in their times of greatest need. It is the most noble of tasks and the highest of aspirations.”
A Life On The Edge, reviewed by Lyn Ebenezer, author of Operation Julie and Fron-goch Camp 1916
I have never met Eric Jones, yet I feel as if I know him well. Two contributions on the back cover of his autobiography sum up my impression of his character. One is a long-range photo that picks him out on the north face of the Eiger, like a forlorn gnat slithering towards the upper reaches of a gigantic frosty window pane. The other is a quotation by fellow mountaineer Reinhold Messner: ‘Eric’s many solo ascents can be respected for being free of any sense of heroics, and for his sense of humour when his stories are told. His strength, self-sufficiency and silent courage are admirable.’
Jones may not have any sense of heroics, but he is a hero. Heroes achieve feats that we mere mortals can only dream of realising. Heroes are modest. Heroes are fearless. Heroes respect the challenges that lie before them. Eric Jones is a hero.
Summing up Jones’s achievements could, on its own, fill this chunky, liberally illustrated volume. Greg Lewis manages to compress them into his opening blurb: Jones was the first British man to climb the Eiger’s north face, he has soared over Everest in a hot air balloon, he has parachuted onto the North Pole, he has skydived into the Cave of Swallows in Mexico, and now he has written, with Lewis, a cracker of a story.
To someone like me who is terrified of heights (I live in a bungalow), Jones is a superhuman. Leo Dickenson, cameraman-climber extraordinary, reveals in his foreword that in fifty years of knowing him, he can never remember Jones refusing an adventure. Yet Jones has known fear – his greatest being chased by a cockerel. His fascinating tale leads us from humble beginnings at Brynsaithmarchog around and above – and in some cases below – the earth.
Heroes, of course, can be boring. Like cockerels, some tend to crow. Jones, however, understates his feats. Imagine him hurtling towards seemingly certain death on the North Face of the Matterhorn. Rather than panic, he merely hoped it wouldn’t hurt. Incredibly, despite such dangers, he manages to posses an inner peace.
Jones is the kind of man whose hand I would dearly wish to shake. But please let it happen on level ground!
“Eric’s many solo ascents can be respected for being free from any sense of heroics, and for his sense of humour when his stories are told. His strength, self-sufficiency and silent courage are admirable.” REINHOLD MESSNER
“No working party today. Very hot. Played chess and bridge most of the day. Passed a very pleasant hour with Wilf reminiscing on our past exploits. Three years ago today we were playing 7s at Twickenham.” (‘From Java To Nagasaki’, Magic Rat Books)
In the Wales Online article from 2011, 91-year-old Graham Hale recalled how Cardiff were the only Welsh-based club to lift the trophy.
“Only our captain, Wilf Wooller, had ever played in Sevens before as it was not played in Wales and it appears he was in the Sale side that had won in 1936,” said Graham. “I was a centre then and with Wilf at outside-half, we had Gwyn Porter outside me and Willie Davies, the brother of the Wales prop Cliff, playing scrum-half, though he was really an outside-half.
“Willie was a splendid player but turned professional soon afterwards. In the forwards were Selby Davies, Evan Jones and Les Spence, while Wilf dropped the Wales forward ‘Wendy’ Davis, as Wilf said he was too slow.
“Selby, ‘Wendy’ and I had all been at Cardiff High School.
“We had a small practice and the next day (April 22, 1939) we caught the train to Twickenham.
“We had never seen a Sevens match and watched the first one from the grandstand, the ground was full.
“We opened against the good St Mary’s Hospital side and the referee said we had two minutes left and we were losing 6-0.
“We ran down field and I was clear, but for some reason I stopped and dropped a goal.
“It was four points then and a try was three.
“It was the only drop goal I ever attempted!
“From the kick-off we got the ball and when I received it, I was again clear and scored to make it 7-6. I don’t think we attempted the conversion.”
Cardiff then beat the Met Police 5-3 and Birkenhead Park 8-5 in the semi-final.
The BBC broadcast had broken down and those in the Cardiff club were resigned to the team losing.
However, Cardiff met London Scottish in the final.
“Wilf was always loud off the pitch, but quiet on it,” added Mr Hale.
“He sat with me watching the Scotland fly-half Logie Bruce Lockhart run rings round their opponents.
“He said that if I got Lockhart low, he would take him and the ball high.
“We did and won 11-6.
“We caught the train home with Wilf running down the platform as it was going.
“We got in the club that night and nobody knew we had won the splendid Kinross Arber Trophy.
“It was a great day to remember.”
Like Les and Wilf, Graham joined the army during the war and became a POW in North Africa.
Described as “explosive” by the Irish Post and an “important” book by the Guardian ‘The Death of Justice’ continues to get five-star reviews on Amazon.
This is the inside story of a brutal murder as revealed by Michael O’Brien, one of the men wrongly jailed for more than a decade. The miscarriage of justice which followed sent shock waves through the British legal system.
The book contains a detailed analysis of the murder and police inquiry, a no-holds-barred view of life in jail and an essential guide for anyone trying to prove their innocence.
“An extraordinary, shocking and moving tale that climaxes in the triumph of the ordinary man against an incompetent and complacent Hydra-headed monster of society.” Western Mail
‘The Death of Justice’ is now available not only in paperback but as an e-book on Amazon. It is published by Y Lolfa.
This is a book everyone should read. It tells the story we do not want to really think is possible. How does an innocent person end up in prison? The police behaviour is undefendable. A very readable, unputdownable, book.
5.0 out of 5 stars
Dr. Charles Smith EVERYONE should read Michael’s book. You’ll be appalled at the things the police did, but don’t believe their story about ‘bad apples’. This behaviour was systemic, and recent events indicate that the CPS to this day is ill equipped to cope with it.
It is definitely the most informative book I have EVER read about our British Justice System. The book describes in detail how easy it is for any one of us to be falsely accused by our ‘trusted plod’ Huge eye opener but what a fantastic read, I will never look at the justice system the same ever again.
For anyone in doubt about the terrible damage done by a justice system which gets it wrong, this book is a must read.
For anyone fighting a wrongful conviction, Michael’s book offers hope, and the encouragement to never, ever give up. For anyone who thinks British Justice is the best in the world, this book will open your eyes. An incredible story, and a remarkable man.
I think that the content of the book would be beneficial to anyone who is helping to fight a wrongful conviction, as out of this harrowing story there is hope and encouragement. It would also be an eye opener to law students and those interested in the judicial system in our country. The only way we will learn and gain knowledge of how things can and do go wrong is by listening to and reading the accounts of those who have walked the walk, when the system gets it completely wrong.
Irishman Tom Sharkey was the never-say-die fighter who bridged the gap between old and new.
Sharkey arrived in the United States in the 1890s as the fight game was changing. The prize-fighters and bare-knuckle brawlers were disappearing as the new “scientific” boxers emerged to fight under the Marquis of Queensberry rules.
After quickly making his name as a mean brawler, Sharkey went on to battle all the top boxers of his day: his hero John L Sullivan, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons and the man who would become not only his greatest foe but his best friend, Jim Jeffries.
Their 25-round world title fight at Coney Island was one of the most gruelling and compelling encounters ever seen inside a ring.
And, despite the viciousness of their ring battles, they went on to enjoy a 50-year friendship which only ended when they died weeks apart.
The award-winning biography I Fought Them All prints the fact and the legend, and is chocked full of the rich characters who dominated the sport and politics of the period, from Wild West gunman Wyatt Earp to Tim “Dry Dollar” Sullivan of New York’s Tammany Hall.
It is the story of an Irish immigrant, a sporting celebrity who won and lost a fortune, and of a man described by the New York Times as a “ring immortal”.
Originally released as a limited edition hardback, I Fought Them All is now available as an e-book on Kindle US and Kindle UK.
“Hugely entertaining and exquisitely researched, I Fought Them All shines a penetrating and long-overdue spotlight on one of the most fascinating figures in boxing history. Revelations about Sharkey’s private life are eye-popping, and the book is especially thorough in covering the Earp controversy. ‘Sailor’ Tom himself would growl his approval, and his massive chest would swell even larger. It’s a great contribution to ring history.”
Pete Ehrmann, boxing writer, contributor to The Ring
“I Fought Them All is an excellent read. It’s well-researched and is good news for boxing fans everywhere. ‘Sailor’ Tom Sharkey was an aggressive, relentless and powerful heavyweight who ranks among the greatest who ever entered the ring. He was an earlier version of the splendid fighter, Rocky Marciano. Tom had the misfortune of fighting when boxing legends Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons were at their best. Had he fought at any other time in history, he very likely would have been heavyweight champion of the world.”
Tracy Callis, boxing historian
”The book features an array of characters including Wild West gunman Wyatt Earp and boxing legends such as John L. Sullivan, Gentleman Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. At its heart is the astonishing 50-year rivalry and friendship between Sharkey and Jim Jeffries, which started after their 25-round world title fight at Coney Island and lasted until the two men died a few weeks apart in 1953.”
“…it emits quality from the first opening crack of the hardcover until its final satisfying closing.”
Marty Mulcahey, Max Boxing
“…A fascinating story… Very well-researched piece of work with many anecdotal gems… I Fought Them All is a tale of one man who travelled from his homeland and ended up inAmericato swap blows with arguably the toughest pugilists to have ever fought in the ring. Along the way we are introduced to ‘injuns’, gun-slingers, shipwrecks, tragic love stories, gambling, acts of heroism and, of course, gruelling fights. I thoroughly recommend this book.”
In early 1942 a courageous band of Welshmen found themselves fighting side by side against the all-conquering Japanese army.
The men, who had joined up to provide air defences for Cardiff, Newport and Barry, had been sent to the Far East as the Japanese bore down on Britain’s “impregnable fortress” at Singapore.
But the battle-hardened Japanese swept through the jungles, mountains and mangrove swamps of the Malay Peninsula and took Singapore in seven days.
So, instead, the men of the 77th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment were diverted to Java (now part of Indonesia).
Many of the 77th were sportsmen. A large number of the pre-war Cardiff RFC team were among its ranks. There were Glamorgan cricketers and footballers too, including a veteran of Cardiff City’s 1927 FA Cup winning team.
Like all sports people, they’d sometimes had to chase lost causes – but not like this one.
They were forced to put down their guns and begin more than three and a half years of captivity.
The focus of attention on prisoners in the Far East is understandably often drawn to the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway, built by the forced labour of prisoners of war.
But many prisoners captured on Java were sent to Japan and some found themselves in a camp not far from the city of Nagasaki.
They would eventually, after years of hardship, witness the unleashing of a new weapon by the Americans, the plutonium bomb.
Among them was Les Spence, who had captained Cardiff RFC in 1936-37 and would go on to be a president of the WRU during the 1970s.
A keen observer of human nature, Spence – who was promoted from sergeant to sergeant major soon after his arrival in Java – decided to keep a secret diary, which has now been published as a hardback book, “From Java To Nagasaki”.
Spence’s writing takes in the surrender of Allied forces on Java, the conditions and life in the camps and the growing death toll.
It shows how the prisoners learned to survive: bargaining for food, playing football and rugby, and maintaining a sense of discipline.
One of the most intense sections covers the prisoners’ journey in the suffocating hold of a so-called ‘hellship’, taking them from Java to Japan via Singapore.
The 77th had trained to fight the Germans in the deserts of the Middle East but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, meant they were diverted to the Far East.
Their troopship, part of a large convoy, arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta) on Java on February 3, 1942.
Before they even arrived on Java, Spence confided to his diary: “It will be no picnic. I am afraid some of us will not see the end of next month.”
What he writes for the next few years is a remarkable testament to courage and endurance in the face of hardship and cruelty – and a firsthand account of how to hold on to hope when all seems lost.
The 77th’s defence of Java got off to a terrible start as the army tried to move many of them by train to defend the east of the island.
Les Spence writes:
“February 4/February 5, 1942
We left by train for Surabaya at 6.30am, all in wonderful spirit… We stopped at our last station at 11pm and on leaving we sang Cwm Rhondda. Then at 3am in the morning a terrible catastrophe befell us.
A head-on collision with a goods train loaded with bombs and petrol. It was terrible. I found poor old Ken dead. Jimmy Boxall, Stoodley, and Capt McMillan. Some had terrible injuries and I do not think they will live.”
The troop train had crashed into an ammunition train. Around thirty members of the 77th were killed and nearly one hundred injured. The cause of the crash remains unknown, although some suggest a signalman loyal to the Japanese might have been responsible.
The “poor old Ken” referred to by Spence was Battery Sergeant Major Ken Street, a well-known Welsh rugby forward. He had played alongside Spence and Wilf Wooller, an officer in the 77th, for Cardiff Rugby Club.
For several days the remaining men of the 77th tried to defend Java. But for both British and Dutch forces on the island, the situation was hopeless.
“March 8, 1942
A day that will live in my memory. The Dutch army surrendered and we were left with the baby. We were ordered to fight on but later on the order was countermanded… I never thought I would live to see this day out.”
The following day, Spence noted: “We’ve surrendered after being on this island for six weeks… So the war is over as far as we are concerned. Just prisoners of war.”
But surrender was to be just the start of Spence’s story.
For the first 18 months Spence and his comrades were kept in two prison camps on Java. Spence keeps a daily account of how they coped with their new life and with the ever-present fear of death from starvation or disease.
He noted onMay 28, 1942:
“Another death occurred today. It’s very, very serious this dysentery. I think we are in for a very rough time and many good people will die with this disease. I pray to God that I will come out safely.”
Spence makes regular notes in his diary about news received from outside, which he codenames ‘ice cream’. It’s unclear but the news may have come via an illicit radio.
“June 8, 1942
Ice-cream good but must not be too optimistic. Long argument re what we should do to Germany after the war. I think we should spilt the country up and put a government in charge of the state. I think we will be here at least another 12 months.”
The sportsmen in the camp quickly got round to organising rugby ‘internationals’ and a football ‘league’.
“July 2, 1942
Played soccer for the camp and beat number 3 camp 4-0. I did not enjoy the game. I lost my gold identity disc. Am feeling very despondent. I do hope I will find it.”
Also playing these strange games behind the wire fence in Java were Welsh international Ernie Curtis, who had been the youngest member of Cardiff City’s 1927 FA Cup winning side; former Cardiff City and Wales centre half Billy James and Cardiff City goalkeeper John ‘Jackie’ Pritchard.
Perhaps the most dominant player, according to the diaries, was Lieutenant Wilfred Wooller. Wooller was one of Wales’ greatest all-round sportsmen. Before the war he had not only captained Wales at rugby, he had played cricket for Glamorgan, briefly played up front for Cardiff City and represented his country at squash.
After the war, he went on to captain Glamorgan to its first County Championship and to become a test selector for England. He would also become a distinguished writer and broadcaster.
Spence and Wooller were to spend a lot of time talking about the old days. At one point in his journal Spence remembers April 22, 1939, a “big day in the history of Cardiff Rugby Club”, when they had been in the team which won the Middlesex Sevens at Twickenham.
Remembrance of good times past would be important to the prisoners. After all, they had no idea when they might get out, if they got out at all. “I look back on my past life and deplore the time I’ve wasted,” Spence wrote in October 1942, while also wondering if his girlfriend, Babs, was well. He wished he had proposed before he left and feared he had now left it too late.
In September 1943 Spence and some members of the 77th were loaded into the hold of a ship called the Ussuri Maru. After brief stops in Singapore and Formosa they arrived in Japan a month later.
For the next two years Japan would be Spence’s home. He and other members of the 77th were housed in what the Japanese designated Camp 8 Kamo near the village of Inatsuki or Inatsukimachi, in Kyushu, Southern Japan.
Stanley Roberts, of Barry, was in the same camp. He remembers the huts there were “the low-weather boarded type with felted roofs and raised floors of ‘tatami’ straw matting… Partitions divided the huts into separate rooms, housing four, six or eight men, depending on size, and each was lit by a single light bulb.”
This was a coal mining camp producing fuel for the Japanese war machine. The prisoners were forced to work in the mine.
“January 17, 1944
I narrowly escape death today when I was carrying a girder, struck by trucks and all came off line just in front of me. Severely shaken. I thank God for being still alive.”
Others were not so lucky.
Terrible tragedy this evening. Rabinovitch fell down shaft, instantly killed. Very popular fellow. Cast gloom over camp.”
Liberation for the prisoners came following the dropping of the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, a city less than 100 miles from Spence’s camp.
“We had rather exciting morning, going down [the air-raid shelter] no fewer than four times,” he writes on August 9, 1945. “We saw no planes.”
Only four planes flew on the raid that destroyed Nagasaki, and the camp did not understand what had happened at first. The Japanese guards were in a state of confusion for days.
“We hear from the guards that one bomb blew up Nagasaki,” Spence wrote. “The huge cloud we saw must have been big oil wells catching fire. We must now take over the camp.”
On August 18, 1945, Spence’s diary marks his 1259th day as a POW. But it is more than a month before he leaves Camp 8.
“September 21, 1945
We left camp today… I left at 8am in charge of 215 English. The whole village turned out to see us off. I was the last man to leave the camp and the first to come in. We had uneventful train journey to Nagasaki and then we saw the result of the atomic bomb. It was simply astounding, nothing left standing for miles, everything flat and burnt out.”
The prisoners were taken by sea to San Francisco. They then travelled east by train and boarded the Queen Mary in New York on November 13, 1945.
As the luxury liner began its trip to Southampton, the soldiers received a distribution of letters from home.
And with that Spence made the final entry in his diary: “I received five letters. Pleased to see that Babs is still waiting. I hope that she will accept my proposal. Lovely day, beautiful sunshine.”
After the war, Les married Babs. His friend and former fellow POW Wilfred Wooller was his best man.
As well as running the family china and glassware firm, Les returned to his love of sport.
He was to become chairman of Cardiff Rugby Club and joint secretary of Glamorgan County Cricket Club.
By the time he died in 1988, aged 81, Les Spence had become one of the leading administrators in Welsh sport. Memorial gates were installed at Cardiff Arms Park in his name.
It had been in perhaps his greatest role, as president of the Welsh Rugby Union, that he had helped take a small step to heal the wounds opened between the UK and Japan during World War II.
In 1973 he had formed a firm friendship with Shiggy Konno, manager of the visiting Japanese rugby side. And two years later he led the Welsh rugby team on a tour of Japan.
As the South Wales Echo reported: “[Les] learned to forgive if not forget the tragedy of war.”
* ‘From Java To Nagasaki’ is published by Magic Rat Books (www.magicrat.co.uk) and is priced £16.99.