I have to admit 1965 turned out to be quite a year. Leaving grammar school at 15 was not a usual occurrence in the 60s. The point is I didn’t fit in.
If a lesson interested me then I gave it my full attention. The problem was that other than English the major part of most lessons was boring.
Even the science subjects, which for four years were the foundation of my dreams for a future in forensic science, could not hold my attention for more than half a lesson period – and we sometimes had double periods.
Put me in an English class, especially literature, and I was all eyes and ears. Dale Jones had opened a new world for me.
For now, however, I had an early summer holiday and the actual summer holidays ahead of me as my correspondence courses did not start until September.
An extra bonus was that I could give more time to my major interest – the theatre. Not theatre in general but specifically the Rhyl Little Theatre.
Since my debut as a fish I had participated in a number of productions including my first Shakespearean role.
Unfortunately when I won a part I used to throw myself into it heart and soul and with a week of evening performances this can be quite draining to a 14-year-old boy. By the third night I had developed a temperature and felt constantly cold – not that I admitted that to anyone.
When I was offstage I would go to the dressing room and wrap myself up in my cloak and do everything possible to stay awake.
I kept going for the week, Monday to Saturday 7.30pm to 10.30pm. When I woke on Sunday morning I felt drained, but by then I could afford to feel that way as the play was over.
My parents kept me in bed all that day and the following day they called the doctor. He could not identify the actual sickness but he knew the best cure. I spent that week in bed not school.
I have had similar bouts since but have normally recognised it in time and just spent 24 hours in bed gettng shot of it.
I think it was 1965 that I appeared as Dennis in the Group 200 production of Loot by Joe Orton. It was a risque play for any theatre company let alone an amateur drama group in a Welsh seaside town.
I suggest you look up the plot. Suffice it to say that at 15 I was playing a bisexual undertaker’s assistant turned bank robber. My fellow criminal was Mike (Williams) Carpenter who had appeared with me in The Deserted House. He also played the eponymous hero in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I played his pal Joe Harper.
I said 1965 was an important year in the sense of my growing up. I mean at 15 I had certainly recognised the delights of some of my female companions at the theatre.
I did go out on some rather juvenile dates, generally to the pictures, but things certainly never went as far as others claim was their experience in that “summer of love”.
Maybe that is why so many “girl friends” remained girl friends.
That was not the major part of my growing up that year, however. That came with a Sunday magazine supplement and an article about a young revolutionary who within two years would become an international icon of youth.
At that time he was still a niche character, subsidiary to the Cuban president Fidel Castro who had expelled the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959.
The newspaper article was about a young Argentinian who accompanied Castro in 1959 but was now resigning from the government to take the revolutionary message further afield.
Not that I jumped straight in to revolutionary politics, although that was when my earliest socialist views kicked in. Probably the radical background of Nonconformist ancestors including Welsh weavers and shoemakers.
My first affiliation to any political party was, as many people will be surprised to hear, Plaid Cymru led at that time by Gwynfor Evans.
Plaid Cymru’s attraction to me might not have been totally political. I was in a relationship with a very attractive red head at that time and she might have had an influence on me.
It did not last long as both the girl and Plaid Cymru were put behind me later that year and I looked towards a political ideology that was not quite so nationalistic – possibly more internationalist.
That, as they say, is another story. For now we will leave it there in the glorious summer of 65 when my life began to branch out.
All the way home after my “little chat” with the headmaster I was wondering what to say to my parents and how they would take it.
I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t frightened. My father was a big man. He was also a gentle man. He never raised his hand in anger.
Considering all he had gone through earlier in his life it was surprising he was NOT filled with anger.
My father was born during the Great War in 1915 the youngest of four children, two boys and two girls. His father, Rev Edward Vyrnwy Pierce, and his mother, Catherine nee Crocket, were everythig to their children and their oldest daughter Dorothy was young David’s “big sister” in every possible way and he called her Dodo.
In the late 20s Dorothy left Grove Park Grammar School and went to Bangor Unversity to study to be a teacher.
David hoped to follow her to Bangor to study classics.
After her graduation in 1932, when David was just 17, she hung herself in her rooms at the university.
Their mother never recovered from the shock and heartbreak and died the following year.
This left David home alone with his father, his siblings had already left home and begun their lives.
University was now a forbidden word in the house of mourning.
Meeting my mother made all the difference to him.
These were the people I was cycling home to tell that I had been involved in a difference of opinion with the headmaster and had defied his authority.
As it happened they both took it reasonably well. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t caused them plenty of concern in my 15 years, with all sorts of scrapes. Putting a stink bomb in a solicitor’s car was the least of them.
Naturally they knew something was up by the time I got home. A telephone call had covered the mile faster than I could cycle.
What they didn’t know were the details. The headmaster’s secretary had simply said he wanted to speak to them the following day.
Dad had an office behind the shop, linking to the kitchen. He needed to keep an eye on the shop as it didn’t close until 6 and so the great discussion took place there.
I explained the situation so far to my parents and finished by saying I was not going to stay down a year and if that was what the head intended for me then he was out of luck – or words to that effect.
Afer listening to everything I had to say there was silence and my parents looked at each other and then my father said: “Well what are you going to do with yourself now then? If you don’t go to school how will you study? You will need some form of educational certificate or you will find it a hard slog ahead.”
“I’m not going back.”
“OK. We’ll take that as read. So what do you want to be? A shop assistant? A clerk in an office?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s say you don’t go back. I don’t mind what you decide in the end. You can travel the world if that will make you happy but what will you do when the travelling comes to an end? You need something to fall back on. You need something to show, even if it is just a piece of paper with an official stamp on it. What do you enjoy other than science?”
“Writing. Words. William Shakespeare.”
It was not a brilliant start but it did begin a conversation.
It took time but somehow, without knowing how I had got there, I found myself saying: “I want to be a journalist.”
That was a significant moment which set me on a course not just to my future career but also to my political enlightenment and to meet the love of my life.
For many years I firmly believed I made that decision and settled the course of my life then and there.
It was many years later I realised my father had never believed I would have settled to a scientific life and knew that my future lay with words.
He was right.
It was initially a tortuous road.
I don’t know how but I did not go back to school; my parents signed me up with a correspondence course and I studied for four GCEs from home but sat the actual exams at my old school – I was the only one not in uniform.
I know I studied English Language and Literature as well as history but I don’t remember the fourth subject.
It was an interesting time during that period from May 1965 to June 1966. I probably worked harder than I had done at school because now I was in charge. Well my parents were technically as this was home schooling but I wanted to make a success of it.
I still had the theatre, which in its way was part of my education, and my books, and the library and my friends at weekends.
Over the last four or five decades forensic science has become a major factor in TV series.
If the main character was not a pathologist then he/she was sure to be one of the stars.
The first major tv show starring a pathologist was Quincy ME, starring the lugubrious Jack Klugman as Professor Quincy, a medical examiner (an American version of our pathologist), which began in the late 1960s.
My own interest in forensic pathology began long before that. Just a few months after starting at Rhyl Grammar School in September 1961 I had decided on my future career. I was going to be a pathologist and my benchmark for success would be the great British pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury.
Over the next few years I became an “expert” on crime and the importance of science in solving murders in the first half of the 20th century.
I was already a fan of Conan Doyle’s ceation Sherlock Holmes and it was clear the author had imbued his offbeat hero with many of the elements of the forensic scientist.
By the time I was in my second year I was getting my books from the adult library and was reading the trials of some of the most notorious murderers of the first half of the 20th century. It was in reading one of the trial reports that I came across Spilsbury.
He was involved in a case which is still frequently referred to these days – that of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen accused of murdering his wife Cora and entombing her in the cellar before eventually fleeing to Canada on the SS Montrose with his young lover Ethel Neave.
A Morse code message to the ship ensured Crippen was held and a detective sailed on a faster ship and was in Quebec when Crippen’s ship docked.
Spilsbury was also central to the brides in the bath murder case (George Joseph Smith) which I saw referenced in a recent UK crime series.
These and many others gave him a reputation which lived on for years after Spilsbury’s death.
It saddened me years later to find that this “great man” had feet of clay and in many of his cases later examinations revealed errors in his methods.
In fact there is now a belief that the body in the cellar might not even be that of Cora Crippen and might have been buried before Crippen lived in the house.
In the 60s, however, all that lay ahead and I applied myself to chemistry and biology lessons and also to physics as I would need all three if I wanted to get to university.
The problem came in my fourth year. The physics teacher and I did not get along (a situation I was to face many times with people I did not see eye to eye with) and this meant I did not always pull my weight.
Not that this bothered me as what I fell down on during term time I tended to make up just before the exams.
In the summer term of 1964 the exams would determine which subjects we would be allowed to choose for the following year and which we could drop.
My intention was to stick with the sciences and I was quite prepared to drop geography for a start.
Unfortunately the physics teacher, Bill Fizz, had different ideas. He wanted me to drop physics and said that no matter how well I did in the subject if I did better in geography then that was what I had to do.
As I say, I wasn’t worried. Diligent revision would get me what I wanted, except it didn’t.
Just as my belief in Spilsbury was to be destroyed so was my belief in my own abilities.
My chemistry and biology marks were adequate but for the first time my physics mark was below 50% and my geography mark, usually faltering around the 50% mark, was over 60.
Bill Fizz got his way but that was not all.
The headmaster called me to his study and gave me a lecture on how failure at school would lead to failure in life. He had, therefore, decided that the best thing for me was to stay down a year and go through fourth form all over again.
Now I was well aware that I had done badly in my exams and it certainly looked as though my brilliant medical career, slicing up dead bodies, was about to crumble around me.
I was always a contrary little son-of-a-gun but this time something inside me went into overdrive and I told the headmaster I had no intention of staying down and would quit school rather than do so.
I don’t think this had ever happened before and he appeared dumbstruck until he managed to say: “It will not be your choice boy. I will be speaking to your parents.”
With that I was dismissed and as it was the end of the school day I headed straight home to get the first word in with my parents.
I miss Rhyl but is it the Rhyl I remember that I miss or is it the place itself?
The closest I can manage at present is to let Google do the walking but even then when did Google create the images?
I took you through the Rhyl I remember now let’s see the Rhyl of more modern times.
Turn around and where the beautiful domed Pavilion once stood I now get to see:
Look to the other side of the Water Street opening, however, and there is a slightly flashier version of the arcades I knew and loved.
I know that in the years I have been away there have been many changes in what was my home town for 17 years. They do say you should never go back because it will destroy your memories.
The last time I physically returned to Rhyl was two years ago following the funeral of my good friend Roger Steele. We said farewell at the Colwyn Bay Crematorium then travelled to Rhyl to raise a glass or two and spin yarns about him at one of the pubs where we once drank many years ago.
The Rhyl I really remember is from over 40 years ago now. Even starting outside my father’s old shop is different. The premises and those next door became part of a housing association company and even the front door to the house has changed.
I can imagine standing there then walking towards the prom before turning left on to Crescent Road to walk past our old back gates and the yard.
Now the yard is bigger because the Victorian mews at the back, which once would have housed a carriage but later housed our boats out of season when they were stripped and repainted or varnished, has gone and the dividing wall between our yard and the bakery is no more.
As I continued down Crescent Road I could see the former bus and coach station, where I briefly ran my casing business, is now a car park for the Beefeater and where Marshall’s warehouse once stood is now a brand new house.
The biggest change was at the five-way junction. Where once had stood my Victorian red brick primary school there was now a featureless red brick, rectangular monstrosity.
At least the old tuck shop on the facing corner was still there. Gone are the Sherbert Dabs and Black Jacks and Spangles because it’s a hairdresser now.
Instead of going forward I turned to the left and took Bedford Street which would return me to Water Street. As it happens at the far end the barber’s shop which I first was taken to when I was five years old still offers the same service. Facing it, what was once the jeweller’s shop run by Vin Thomas, has been taken back as a home.
The final part of the journey took me right out of Bedford Street on to Water Street. At the top where once stood the new Post Office when I was a child this is what remains:
I did follow the Google maps to neighbouring streets but when I reached Queen Street I could not take any more. Too much of it had become a buiding site.
Many of the changes in Rhyl are probably vast improvements on the way it had become during its downturn period. They may have made it look tidy but they have taken its heart and soul.
I went for a walk yesterday. Something I have not done since the lockdown began.
In fact I went for two walks.
In both I walked the streets of Rhyl. The difference being that one walk was in the Rhyl locked away in my mind to be taken out and revisited whenever I wanted.
The other was a virtual tour of the Rhyl that is or was as others see it on Google maps where you can see the streets frozen in time with people and animals who are strangers..
Today I want to take you with me on a walk in the Rhyl I loved from 1955 to 1972. A brash, saucy seaside resort which never tried to attract the clientele that strolled the streets of Llandudno, just down the coast.
In the summertime Rhyl displayed her wares for all to see, especially visitors from the North West.
I walk out of my father’s shop and turn left, crossing the mouth of Crescent Road and up to the West Parade.
That was where I could see one of my strongest memories – the great dome of the Pavilion Theatre, surrounded by its four mini-me domes.
A wonderworld of fun and excitement, whether it was Prince Cox’s Circus on its annual visit, or a concert with the variety stars of the day.
Even in daytime the Pavilion drew your eye no matter where you stood, from Splashpoint to the Foryd harbour.
The promenade entrance to Water Street was flanked by amusement arcades, ice-cream vendors, seaside rock stalls and doughnut stands.
If I went left I could get a strawberry and vanilla ice cream cone, drawn from a machine with a nozzle like that on an icing bag. Stick a flake in it and you had your 99.
If I turned right I was outside an arcade with a hot dog vendor and a fancy goods stall where you could buy saucy postcards, a stick of rock, a Kiss Me Quick hat or some other memento of your day out.
Behind the stall, and virtually all the way from there to the High Street were the arcades with their penny slot machines, pinball tables, a glass cube full of exciting prizes if you could only manipulate the jaws of the crane to get one out, and the bingo sessions with holidaymakers seated, eyes down and ears ready to catch the showman’s calls:
“Two fat ladies- no I don’t mean you and your mum luv – 22.”
“Never been kissed – sweet 16. But she’d better watch herself under the pier tonight.”
Eah caller had their own references for the numbers but the players got to know them all and could give a snappy response before the caller had finished.
If I had turned into Crescent Road when I left the shop I would have passed our back gate and the big wooden gates which offered vehicular access to our yard, past the dingy blue wood and glass doors which led through to the baker’s yard and ovens, and past the boarding houses down that side of the street.
Then there was Marshall’s fancy goods warehouse, an Aladdin’s Cave full of rubber beach shoes; plastic goggles, “scuba” tubes and flippers; cheap plastic sunglasses and tacky toys for the children to take back to remember their holiday.
The warehouse supplied many of the shops in town including ours.
We might have made our bread and butter out of cough medicines, little liver pills and rosehip syrup, but the jam came from the holiday trade – those plastic sunglasses, beach shoes, and, of course, suntan cream.
On the way back from the beach they would call in for calamine lotion to soothe the sunburn because they hadn’t realised that going for a dip washed the suntan cream off.
Halfway along Crescent Road was the junction of five roads with my primary school, Christ Church CP, dominating in its red brick glory.
Opposite at the corner of Abbey Street and Crescent Road, was what we called the tuck shop with its four-a-penny chews, sherbert in a conical bag and Spangles.
I carried on down Crescent Road and past the infants section of the school. Tis was as far as I would normally have gone on my own but on this walk I could age from five to 12 and carry on to cross Wellington Road and head past the Catholic Chrch down Ffynnongroew Road.
Oddly, by ths stage I had acquired a bike and was soon pedalling up one side of the H bridge, turning across the bridge itself and freewheeling down the other side to join Marsh Road where in the distance was the municipal rubbish tip.
Fortunately before I reached that smell zone I turned into Frederick Street and part way down on the left was the home of my schoolfriend and later lifelong chum Roger Steele.
My journey came to an end at that point and I found myself back in 2020 in Hampshire.