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Of Boys, Men and Mountains

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Success Stories

by Roy Tomkinson

ISBN 0 86243 868 3
Y Lolfa, 2006
262pp, paperback
Retail price 6.95

Unlike many independently-published "memoirs", Roy Tomkinson’s book, Of Boys, Men and Mountains, is a true autobiography. Its author is not a celebrity or the doer of extraordinary deeds, but an ordinary man, of whose career the cover blurb supplies minimal details. He writes well, if sometimes sentimentally, about his youth, but he also has a definite story to tell. It is plain to see that he regards it as the story of a community.

The key to understanding this appears in the first few pages. Mr Tomkinson was born in the Rhondda valley, and to reject it (as he did when young) is, he says, "to reject your very existence". Whilst appreciating the loving environment in which he was raised, he is not blind to his flaws. His mother, a spitting ginger-haired harridan, seems to have ruled the whole street, not to mention his mild-mannered father – a father who, despite his education, earned his living underground. This was not the poorest family in the Rhondda, but their life was without the luxuries we take for granted today.

The characters Roy Tomkinson grew up with were, in many cases, larger than life. They were, and are, real people, the people one still finds in such close communities. The story of Uncle Jack, Roy’s father’s brother who had been paralysed in a car accident, and of the boy’s changing relationship with him, is particularly poignant, not just because of the drama of Jack’s experiences but because of their effect on all those close to him. The events leading up to Jack’s death are told in the simplest way:

"The telegram contained only seven words:

‘Jack died at six this morning, sorry.’

"Tears started to fill my eyes, and the only word I could hold in my mind was ‘sorry’. It shocked me, that single word of apology for the fact that he was no longer in this world."

The narrator’s voice, though often a little regretful, is never gloomy. The sadness is interspersed with humour, as in that last Christmas get-together when Roy, with his uncle’s collusion, has his first encounter with the demon drink, is sick behind a curtain and blames it on too much turkey.

The climax of the book is the mining accident that brings it home to young Roy that the "black gold" on which the valley’s prosperity depends is not always the people’s friend. The loss of life makes both young and old turn philosophical, but it does not lead them away from the pit. This is what, in the long run, gives the book its significance. When the people of the Rhondda ceased to be dependent on black gold, it was not the cause for celebration it should have been. Roy Tomkinson looks back on those days of suffering and socialising with a heart that is both glad and sorry. He speaks with the authentic voice of the eye witness who recalls with clarity and recounts exactly what he saw and felt. In years to come, this kind of book will be a valuable historical document, a primary source for those who want to know what the coal industry and the valleys’ communities of the 1950s were truly like.


Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher