Goodbye Dr Mannsaker

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In 2018 we had to say goodbye to far too many friends. In December, Frances Mannsaker’s was the last death of a cruel year of losses, a distinction that I’m sure would not have been lost on her. Frances had invariably favoured Twelfth Nights for her celebration dinners with close friends, and so she would have wryly smiled to know that her funeral had to be deferred until after the Christmas/New Year holidays. As things turned out I was ill at the time set for the event, laid low with asthma. But her wonderful friend Debs suggested that were I to put down some thoughts about Frances,  she would then arrange for them to be read at the celebratory party afterwards. This she did, and moreover sent me a delightful snippet of film in which my words are spoken by twenty-year-old Daniel, the grandson of Frances’ sister Jill, who delivers them with a charm and eloquence that betters anything I could have delivered in person. I am so greatly obliged to him, and to Debs, for helping me to to share my thoughts about Frances. Here’s what I wrote:

“When first I met Frances, I didn’t put her down as someone I was going to love. Far from it. I thought her a deal too scary for anything much more than neighbourly cordiality. First impressions: small, compact, with sharp, dark eyes that saw everything and probably didn’t think much of most of it. Fiercely direct. This was a woman who might require one to shape up, an interrogator whose questions would demand replies. A sometimes seemingly furious ball of energy. Over the years we lived next door to each other in Cardiff, I grew familiar with the staccato tap of her heels through the walls of our adjoining houses: on her tiled kitchen floor, on the pavement outside, on the path down from her front door, along the garden wall, sharp right and up the path to ours. Frances was the only person during our decade in Cardiff who I recognised by the sound of her approach. Always fast, always with purpose. In those years I never once saw Frances saunter. She was like a heat-seeking missile with a sure trajectory. Wherever she was going, she meant business.

So no, not love, to begin with. Respect, of course. A sort of formal getting along, because we were neighbours, and we clearly wanted to be good ones. But slowly, unexpectedly, respectfulness gave way to something warmer. I began to see flashes of merriment that belied the professional carapace, and I grew to relish the moments when her gaze would swivel to mine over the lip of a wine glass as she looked to see whether I too had heard some pomposity across the dinner-table that she was about to skewer, and the glint and spark of an unspoken ‘Watch this!’ flashed to me before she turned back for the kill. I learned that when you knew her, she was wickedly funny. And once I’d got the fuller picture, I liked Frances a great deal. In 2001 at Newport Museum and Art Gallery, at the private-view of my first one-man exhibition, I stood like a rabbit in the headlamps listening to the playwright Julian Mitchell giving his opening speech, not hearing a thing because of the blood thundering in my ears and the chattering of my teeth. I was rigid as a lamppost, hands clasped behind my back because I needed to still my trembling. Suddenly a warm hand slipped into mine, a confederate shoulder leaned conspiratorially against me, and Frances was there, smiling reassurance and staring hard into my eyes, as only she did, to signal that everything was just fine. And it was. The next day I saw her hand was bruised where I’d held it so hard, and she hadn’t even flinched.
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After Frances left Cardiff for her new post of Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln, we remained in touch. And when Peter and I left Cardiff and moved to Aberystwyth, the friendship between the three of us continued steady. We visited her at her new home, and she reciprocated. After her son Edward’s early death, we often got together for Easter, Christmas or New Year. We spent time together, catching up over meals and walks, enjoying each other’s stories and adventures. She recounted news of her grandson Seth and his mother Clare. Catch-up with Frances was always a treat. Sometimes we would invite her to stay, and occasionally she would invite herself. She came to my exhibitions, and she collected my work. The woman who I’d first thought of as a neighbour I had better get along with, had become a woman I loved. And with the loving, and the geographical distance, came the missing. When I missed her too much, I’d phone her, or write a long e-mail, and she did likewise. And if too long had passed, she or I would enquire gently if the other were well, and that is the way I discovered last year, that Frances was not.
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But before that, before the time when the lesion on her brain began to make words fall away – though her mind continued sharp – I had an e-mail from her that I treasure. Our dog, Jack, had died. Anyone who knew Frances will know she was not a dog person. However, she suspended her prejudices for Jack, who won her over by being a most courteous chap in her company. She had rather unexpectedly invited us to bring him along when we stayed with her for the first time, and thereafter the invitations to him continued. When Frances heard the news of Jack’s death, she wrote to me:
“I am so sorry to say goodbye to the gentlest, politest and most gentlemanly of all dogs.  You must be cut to the quick entirely, and not quite able to believe it yet.”  
We spoke, as we had many times before, of death and missing. I explained that I felt clumsy, fretting over the loss of a dog to Frances, who had lost a son. She swiftly replied that grief is grief and there can be no degrees or categories of it. For Frances, who knew the depths of loss, there was no difference between her grief and mine. That was so like her, my unexpected friend who crept up on me and then remained to constantly delight, surprise and illuminate. Quickfire, bracing, sharp as needles and intellectually rigorous, yet entirely un-judgemental and warmly inclusive. I always think that friendship should be less about what makes us similar, than an appreciation of our differences. Frances and I were unalike in so many ways, and yet we had an almost secret relish of each other’s characters, both the admirable parts and the flaws. We were beloved friends, battle-worn soldiers and mischievous allies. Since I first met her she has been a vibrant presence in my life, and despite the fact that she has gone, for as long as I am granted a memory, I don’t plan on letting that change. Not one bit.”
Clive Hicks-Jenkins
January 2019

The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 3

After nearly two years of preparation, in 2018 rehearsals began for an adaptation of Hansel & Gretel into a new performable work, with a score by composer Matthew Kaner and a text by the poet Simon Armitage. What’s so extraordinarily clever about the text – which was written before the music – is that in it Simon presents the siblings as close-to-starving child-migrants escaping a war-torn country, their journey hazardous in ways echoing the Black Forest wildernesses of the Brother’s Grimm, and yet with contemporary references that bracingly season the old tale with with a dash of darkly glittering folk/horror. The music was written for the Goldfield Ensemble line-up of five musicians, and the work was commissioned and produced by Goldfield Productions, helmed by producer – and Goldfield clarinetist – Kate Romano, who’s definitely a woman-of-many-skills.

Below: Narrator Adey Grummet fronting the Goldfield Ensemble. (Photograph courtesy of Still Moving Media.)

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Peter Lloyd was among the small group of artists known to me who were invited to work on the design and visual effects for the production. He would make the paper-cut ‘shadow’ puppets of the witch. These proved too elaborate and large to be operated live on a shadow-screen, and a plan evolved to instead film them as stop-motion silhouettes on a light-screen/animation table. In performance the film is projected onto a large-scale screen behind the small puppets of the children. However before Peter could begin work on the witch, I had to provide him with guideline studies. My sketches were intentionally rough, meant as starting points for the character. Peter was briefed to ‘freely elaborate’ on what I’d produced.

The first drawing was much influenced by Goya’s naked witches. I guess I knew from the outset that the idea wouldn’t get to the finishing line, but I needed to try it out.

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Peter was very keen to be given a design that would enable him to be freely creative with his paper cutting. He was scornful of the second image I produced that made her a bag-lady like an overweight sparrow in layered cardigans. (And he was right!)

 

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So I returned to the illustrations I’d made for the picturebook. In those I’d used the notion of the witch being short-sighted, her apparel sewn with eyes as an expression of sympathetic magic. (Simon’s libretto makes great play of the witch’s near blindness.) But we also wanted to make a slow reveal of her true appearance, and so her garment became an all-enveloping cloak to obscure her hybrid anatomy.

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When I suggested to Peter that the design might include a crustacean’s carapace, like a spider-crab, he was off like a rocket! A tail was discussed, along the lines of a scorpion’s stinger. Thereafter he was keen to give her many arms, but I declined the idea because I knew the filming schedule was going to be very tight. Another four arms plus hands and all those extra fingers could have added days of work to the witch sequences. As it was, her mere ten spidery digits monopolised the lion’s share of her studio time.

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Peter Lloyd’s translation of the drawings into witch silhouette-puppet number 1.

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Witch silhouette-puppet number 2.

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When the puppet arrived for filming, I made only small changes to it, though significant ones in terms of movement.  I hid a sliding-bar attachment for the hips behind the puppet, so as to give her more flexibility, and changed her knees to backward facing (see below), so that her gait would be weirder. It made her much more interesting to animate.

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The superb quality and detail of Peter Lloyd’s paper-cutting really came into its own with the large head and hands he prepared for the close-up sequences. The hands were particularly good, with secret eyes embedded in the fingers and forearms. The jagged, slash-like cuts in her face loaned a wonderful texture to the puppet. Phil Cooper, model-maker and scenic painter on the project – and also my assistant animator – cut upper and lower eyelids to add to the puppet, so that we could make her blink. Blinking is a great way to add life to an animation.

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The stop-motion sequences of the witch were reversed to negative at the editing stage. We felt that she was much scarier when bone white against a dark background. Peter Lloyd provided her with an almost prehensile tongue.

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The pupils of her eyes were made in two sizes, pin-prick tiny and enlarged, again to add expressiveness.

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Click on the control bar below to see the Witch in action in this extended stop motion animation sequence. This was a first edit that I made with Peter Telfer, who filmed all of the animation sequences for Hansel & Gretel.

 

 

 

Below: on stage the witch’s nose sails into view, dwarfing the puppets of the children looking up in awe at it. (Photograph courtesy of Still Moving Media.)
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Here the witch unfolds from her carapace and stretches her arms, legs and tail like a vulture waking from an afternoon nap. It’s a shot we didn’t use in the production, though I liked it a lot. Matt Kaner produced one music sequence in which strings create an unnerving sense of edginess, and it perfectly matched the restlessness of the witch’s hands, which are never still.

 

 

Photograph taken by Phil Cooper of me working at the light-box/animation table. The tape marks edge of frame, so that Phil and I knew the points at which to enter and depart a shot.

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The hands were wonderful to animate, more like insects than I would have thought possible. Their articulation was enormously elaborate. An animator’s dream!

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The witch’s house in the production is fluid and shifting, as though the magic holding everything together is unreliable and certainly illusory.

Below: salt-dough Lebkuchen made by Phil Cooper.

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What starts as an iced Lebkuchen biscuit resolves more corporeally into a slightly grubby construct, perhaps made of  children’s building blocks, or maybe from congealed sugar. Ominously, the out-of-scale chimney looks as though it would be more at home on an incinerator.

Below: Model designed and made by Phil Cooper and built from a combination of contemporary and vintage building blocks.

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Later, when the children make a tour of its interior, we’re transported to the rooms of a sinister doll’s house, decaying and mouldy. Nothing in this world quite fits together. It’s dream-like and fractured. The words and music that accompany us on this estate-agent-from-hell’s tour of the grim spaces, is the bone-chilling heart of the production.

Below: doll’s house built by Simon Coupland and Jana Wagenknecht, with contributions from Stephanie Davies and painted by me. Lighting by Pete Telfer.

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(The full story behind the building of the ‘Witch Doll’s House’ is one that requires more space than I can spend on it in this post, but I will be returning to the subject later, to give the whole picture.)

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Hansel & Gretel is currently on tour. Details of performances are below. Contact the venues for ticket availability.

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The Blogroll

Scrolling through my long established blogroll, I discovered countless broken links. Some clicks carried visitors to sites that while full of past treasures, had long ago ceased from updating. The conclusion can’t be avoided that what had once been a delightful route to adventures elsewhere, had become a list that no-one was using anymore. So I’ve discontinued it, for the present.

However I shall be building a blogroll afresh again, and some of those who were on the old one – dependable and sharing artists, authors, poets, publishers and friends committed to the art of writing  – will be reinstated. (And I’ll happily listen to arguments from anyone wanting an old favourite returned.) But the fact is that everything needs freshening up from time to time, and today I’ve had a Spring Clean!

Until later.

 

‘The House-Dog’s Grave’, by Robinson Jeffers

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Robinson Jeffers: The House-Dog’s Grave

I’ve changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you,
If you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no,
All the nights through I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read‚
And I fear often grieving for me‚
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying.
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope that when you are lying
Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.

No, dears, that’s too much hope:
You are not so well cared for as I have been.
And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided…
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.

 

My thanks to Julie Whitmore, who sent me this beautiful poem, so eloquent of many thoughts crowding my head at this time.

We didn’t bury Jack ‘less than six feet’ from our door, though he lies in the paddock where he ran joyfully for eleven of his fourteen years, and his view is of Ty Isaf and all its comings and goings.

 

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Every sensation in this house has changed in an instant. No longer the click of his nails on floorboards and no longer his blissful morning roll on the bedroom rug as he stretches and yawns and attends to his start-the-day lick-and-brush-up prior to setting out to get me moving because time is passing and still no breakfast.

No sounds of him industriously rearranging and making Jack-nests of the piles of cushions on the various sofas he was master of, or of the friendly though insistent growl that told me he was ready for food, or a walk or for simply a lap-cuddle.

Above: Peter napping while Jack keeps watch.

He announced every telephone call with wince-making wolf-howls – just in case we hadn’t noticed the ringing – and from his lookout post in the sitting-room window-seat he had a friendly bark for anyone he recognised coming up the drive, as opposed to the outraged one he reserved for suspect intruders and marauding rabbits. Jack was always the first out of the door to inspect and greet all legitimate comers, and for the years we’ve lived at Ty Isaf, our directions to travellers have concluded with ‘You’ll know you’re in the right place when Jack runs out to greet you!’

Above: Jack at Ty Isaf.

Above: sitting behind me and gently massaging my back. We never taught him to do this, but I always found it very soothing.

He was practical in matters of his own comfort. He would lead me to the fireplace wood-burner and fasten his eyes on mine to let me know he’d appreciate a blaze to stretch out in front of. Jack was always eloquent when expressing his needs and preferences, and was quite capable of many nuances of exasperation if he found we weren’t satisfactorily co-operating with him.

Above: paying a visit to Pip Koppel at Lletty Caws, where he’d been born.

Throughout Jack’s life he slept in our bed, and in the winter months Peter and I vied for him, each stealthily pulling him closer for warmth. Jack was at his most comfortable and happy with one or the other of us spooned around him. He’d curl up and press so hard into you, the tighter the better, only pulling away when he got too hot and had to rearrange himself, usually on his back so that his belly would cool faster.

He travelled the UK with us by car – his favourite mode of transport – watching the road ahead, preferably from the lap of whoever was in the passenger seat, and when that wasn’t possible, from the gap between driver and passenger.

Above: keeping an eye on things from the navigator’s perch next to our friend Dave.

 

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But he made trips by train and ferry, too, and just last year had his first experience of the top deck of a London bus when he accompanied us to the London Illustrators’ Book Fair, a mode of transport he entirely approved of when he discovered that he could wander off and make new acquaintances. He was a seasoned and polite guest in the homes of friends, in hotels, in rental properties and in B + Bs. He behaved so well that he occasionally gained access to restaurants that didn’t usually allow four-legged visitors.

Above: the first stage-rehearsal of The Mare’s Tale by the composer Mark Bowden – in the blue t-shirt. The librettist was Damian Walford Davies, whose children loved Jack so much they persuaded their hapless parents to get them a Jack Russell of their own!

When in 2014 I directed The Mare’s Tale, he attended every rehearsal. Somewhere I have a picture of him sitting in a stalls seat of the theatre while every musician on stage aimed a phone camera at him. Later he had a reserved seat next to mine for the premiere. Ian Hamilton recalls that when he walked into the auditorium that evening, there were more people crowded around Jack than there were around me.

Throughout his life he loved to play and was very good at it. In his prime his frisbee retrieval was nigh on legendary, and it was wonderful to see him run and leap and perfectly field even the most far-flying throw. He took fences like a steeple-chaser and what couldn’t be got over, he took a route under. I loved to see him chasing in the long summer grass of the paddock, because he’d progress like a Springbok, in high prances.

Jack was an extraordinary presence in our lives: sweet-natured, courteous, attentive, adventure-loving and laughter provoking. From his earliest days he was a pup who got a joke, and that’s a rare thing. Moreover his ease in all company made him in so many ways not quite what most dogs are. Yesterday in a phone conversation, Dan, my friend and collaborator on the Gawain project, explained that he’d realised whenever speaking to others about Peter, me and Jack, he never referred to the latter as being a dog, which I think must occasionally have led to misunderstandings. He said he just didn’t think of Jack that way when talking about him, and I can quite understand why.

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Above: in the audience of a concert given by the Mid-Wales Chamber Orchestra. He behaved impeccably until the applause at the end, when he barked vociferously to show his proper appreciation.

Above: enjoying a cake-fest with my cousin Katy in Dolgellau.

Above: encouraging Susan Trueman to play!

Above: Jack and a visiting Mari Lwyd

Above: in the River Ystwyth just below Ty Isaf.

Above: with Peter just prior to the opening of my ‘Telling Tales’ exhibition at the Tegfryn Gallery, Anglesey.

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Above: his favourite ‘Ducky’, a gift from Alfie and Elsie Bugg.

Above: the best game of all, trying to kill the shining snake that comes out of the hosepipe!

Above: being watered by Rhys Edwards at the 2017 London Artists’ Book Fair.

Above: on holiday on Bryher in the Isles of Scilly.

Gentlemen Jack

2004 – 2018

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Gentleman Jack

 

Peter and I give our heartfelt gratitude to all the messages of condolence arriving as we mourn the death of Jack, who left us yesterday. There are so many that while I’lll struggle to answer each one personally, we want all who’ve contacted us to know how deeply moved we are by the eloquent and comforting testimonies of how much Jack was loved both those who knew him in person, and through his further reaching appearances on social media. He of course was oblivious of how many hearts he caused to flutter, which was probably for the best. Suffice to say that occasionally, when walking through Aberystwyth with him, I’d hear a distant hailing by someone unknown to me, not of ‘Hello Clive, but a jaunty ‘Hiya Jack!’

Many years ago, when I read Philip Pullman’s magnificent ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, I was moved by the author’s conjuring of a world in which every human being is inseparably accompanied throughout life by a ‘daemon familiar’ in the form of an animal. Although a fiction, and a fantastical one, at some essential level it seemed to me – and I’m sure to many others who share their lives with beloved pets- a plausible notion.

For more than half the time Peter and I have been together (twenty-five years this month), Jack has been a part of our lives at an intimate level. Although he was an independent chap and would take himself off around the house and grounds on his own business, his preferred place was as close to me as he could get: in his ‘fleece’ basket next to my easel in the studio, in his blanketed basket next to the Aga (where he could keep an eye on all the food preparations), or wherever I happened to be sitting/going/working/sleeping. When not engaged in activities that required walking or running, his heat next to me, pressed close, has been an almost constant sensation over the fourteen years we’ve been together. So as in the ‘Dark Materials’ universe, his separation from me right now feels like a hole punched clean through my heart. Even as I sit here typing, from the corner of my eye I keep mistaking the crumpled piece of tissue on the sofa for a blaze of the white of his livery, and I feel that’s what life for the foreseeable future will hold for us: the constant seeking for what we know should be there, now absent.

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The Unsung Mentors: Part 2

 

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An extraordinary little memory-bearing time-capsule from a black and white past. This from my friend Gaynor Miles Clark, a snapshot of a group of tutors and alumni of Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre, dating, from the 1960s.

Mollie Wanklyn sits sideways on the bench, her body turned to the camera. It’s so like her to have intuitively balanced herself in the composition to the three tutors to her immediate left. She was a woman of graceful angles held in opposition, legs always immaculately crossed and sloped, insteps arched. (Her body language was similar to that of the actor Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s film of ‘The Birds’, all gleaming hose and pencil-line skirts in artfully arranged repose.) Mollie was the chief tutor and director with the company. Her influence on me was, though lightly scattered, nevertheless deeply sown. Her voice was rich and nuanced. She smoked cigarettes with elan and was always dressed beautifully, though subtly.

Centre is Marcia Griffin, who taught dance and who we all called affectionately, ‘Bunny’. While Mollie was somewhat daunting because she was such a presence, Bunny was a bottle of pop, and her enthusiasms and skills were myriad, coupled to enormous warmth and empathy.

Patricia Flowers, at the right, was I think the youngest tutor during my time, and she became a friend who I saw socially. Much later in life I tried to contact her. But though I was able to send a letter to an address I was given, I never heard back. There were half-lost memories of my time at MYPT that I thought she might help me recollect. Perhaps she didn’t receive my letter, or it was from a past she’d set aside and didn’t want to return to. Either way I was sorry. I was as fickle as any fourteen year old at the time we’d known each other, and I probably dropped out of her life as my own became more exciting. No reason at all why, therefore, she should have picked up the threads when I returned as an adult, full of questions.

Julia Hibbard’s head can be seen between Marcia’s and Pat’s. She was the niece of my ballet teacher, Myra Silcox. I think that her teaching came after my time at MYPT, as I don’t recall being in her classes.

Of the men I recognise only Robert Page on the right. He was among the generation of older students who went on to teach with MYPT. I knew him from the beginning, when we’d both been in a production of Henry V with the company. He was a magnificent, hearty youth, forever laughing and with a ripened actor’s delivery way beyond his years, all wrapped in the marvellously musical inflections of the south Wales coal fields. He was kind to me, joshing and ribald and tender, when I was as frozen and frightened as a kitten on a motorway!

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