Searching for Narrative

Writing about my father’s experiences as a Prisoner of War is, on times, harrowing- not least because though I can date and place him in events I cannot really corroborate these as part of his story because other than two events- his capture and two snapshot on the forced march he never spoke about them. ‘Ifan suffered much.’said Mike Evans in a message to me after we discovered his mother was best friends with Nancy dad’s sister but at a distance of seventy five years I’m unlikely to find personal accounts now. So it’s almost a lost narrative slipping through my fingers in fragments of stories passed on, historical accounts, messages and impersonal service reports that say little about who he was. Moreover given that it is over 40 years since his death, it feels that he has slipped further down stream out of sight in a river-haze.

Part of this enterprise is a search for him – perhaps we always have an innate need to search for what is lost: keys, tickets, debit cards, childhood friends, school days, childhood summers and significant relationships. But it seems in some respects, that he is lost too a bit part in the greater narrative of historical accounts. Dad was never a ‘glory-boy’. His approach was to stay alive and survive. That he and fellow POW came close to being shot by SS captors is documented historically and coincides with one other story I’ve been told.

Part of my concerns with narrative belong to the recent historical commemorations and remembrance services for WW1 and WW2. As a child, these services seemed more low key and muted. Dad, wearing a winter coat, bought poppies in Swansea Market, places them in the grass around St Mary’s , then we left for home. There was no discussion, no elaboration simply due respect and thanks and I suspect for dad. many memories. However, It’s hard not to feel there’s another elaborate narrative around the commemorations of the last two to three years and I would love to be a time-travelling historian to see how all this ties together with what’s going on in politics today. Maybe what I’m searching for is lost, maybe I’m a bit lost and am looking for what can be found. However it feels as if so many letters, documents and fragments are slipping through my fingers.

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Where did Summer go?


BluePools copyright Anne Phillips

I had a catch in my throat as I talked of my wish to ‘hold on to the summer vibe.’ Over coffee with a friend, I detailed the colours I wanted to hold on to: teal, turquoise, azure, royal blue, marine, sapphire, navy, aqua marine, cobalt, powder blue, violet. More than that I wanted to hold on to the warmth they brought. There is no better feeling than sunlight, sunscreen and skin.

It is of course, more a holding onto memory and experience of the  warmth of welcome from friends and relatives on the east shores of America; warm conversations with strangers on trains about life, learning and literature, or simply conversations about the difficulties of the daily commute – 27 train cancellations in one day on the NJ Transit which was a lesson in how to ‘squash on more on’, and became a exercise in patience when I discovered I had no wifi and no phone connection as we waited an hour in a small town called Maplewood. I watched as people paired up according to destination and Uber-ed their way home or simply milled around on the platform during an unexpected hiatus in their day.

In fairness to NJ Transit a storm had swept through NY felling trees indiscriminately across lines and power cables in a matter of minutes and just as swiftly the sun shone and the tracks steamed in the humidity – but we got there – Summit, New Jersey – in the end, with lots of patience good humour and sympathy for the train guard – he was so helpful.


Riding Acela home to Boston copyright A Phillips


But right now I wish I were back there. I miss my relatives, the younger ones especially. It was fun to do girly things – paint toenails, dance in the living room, have a birthday party; simply spend time together.


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Searching historical records.

Most of my research this year has centred around reading about 619 Squadron – forever known as “The forgotten Squadron”.  It formed so quickly in 1943 and disbanded shortly after the end of the war in 1945 that it never got its own motto.

An internet search for dad, Evan Jones, connects him to a photographer who photographed the friends of Dylan Thomas known as the Swansea gang. Otherwise These have been paper and pen searches, book searches, sifting what we (my brother sister and I) remember, what we have been told by others, what dad said (not all that much), what mum said (quite a lot but not that accurate), so dad has always been told to me second hand as it were.

At my uncle’s funeral someone told me his exploits in the waiting room at the crematorium, and Michael Evans of the RS Thomas society explained to me in a brief note that his mother ( a close childhood friend of Nancy, my father’s sister) said that  dad suffered badly in WW2- a third hand retelling.

Today it is 75 years since he was shot down over Germany and most of my information has been gathered from his log book which I then cross referenced with 619: The History of a Forgotten Squadron: The Activities of No.619 Squadron RAF During World War 2

But dad was more than neat handwriting in blue and red ink, more than a footnote in a historical record so that while we can place and date him it’s impossible to know how he processed his experiences – he was only 21.

31/8/43 is a date we remember the crew he lost of Lancaster PG–R but even embedded in that story there is another forgotten crew. At HCU 1654 Wigsley, dad met with a Sgt Douglas.They flew together between 23/4/43 and 4/6/43.  Their first flight was ‘familiarisation on Mk 111 Lancaster bomber.

We have always been told of a crew that went on a training flight without dad because he had been detained. In one retelling it happened in snow in mountains in Canada, in another it happened in snow in mountains in Wales. It actually happened over the north sea when Sgt Douglas was killed , along with 8 others on an air test mission (619: the History of a Forgotten Squadron p 29). dad and Sgt Douglas had flown a total of 25 sorties and  63 hours together . EE113 PG-K was lost over the North sea on 9/6/43 and was the first casualty of the squadron.

By cross-referencing the numbers on Lancaster – the plane that dad was most familiar was PG-R JA 848. they flew this aircraft a total of fourteen flights including OPS between 14/7/43 and 31/8/43.  Perhaps they felt it was their ‘lucky’ aircraftBut what emerges – when you cross reference the serial numbers is a story of heavy loss. 14 air crew along with 2 ground crew were lost  – a total of 100 men in 12 weeks  between 9/6/43 and 31/8/43-  including one of the original three crews of the squadron and the commanding officer Wing-Commander McGhie DFC.  I cannot imagine what it must have been like waking up to see the empty beds of friends and colleagues who had not returned.

So dad survived twice, something which I didn’t really appreciate without the context of these figures.

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another long absence!

It’s almost a year since my cancer diagnosis — and while all clear,I don’t really feel that I am back to myself just yet. Without doubt I returned to work too soon (Please refrain from I told you so!) but fielding the calls from HR became too much; and by now I feel strongly that all corporate structures need a policy for ‘Living with cancer/recovering from cancer/cancer surgery’ as much as they need policies for MH. Ultimately it is a life changing diagnosis even when the outcome is as good as mine was.

I look back over the previous eighteen months and understand now why I was so tired why my easter shingles were indicative of a health crisis. Yet I ploughed ahead in spite of what my body was trying to tell me. How stupid that was. I haven’t written much about it – other than the importance of friends and family and what not to ask a person. The continuing fatigue reminds me of the diagnosis as does the scar. I know what I wish to do next and the drastic changes I need to make to accomplish that, yet circumstances suggest, ‘not just yet.’ Perhaps this is good thing.

The changes have happened slowly. I have created a garden of sorts – with a tree, potted shrubs, fairy lights, a seating area. In my mind I have built borders of shrubs and trees in sweeping curves – their names familiar from childhood — Pieris, Japonica, Fatsia, Forsythia, Wisteria and Lavatera They conjure memories of my mother and days spent in Singleton Park with my sister where the tang of the hedges carried on the warm air as I walked  home from school on cracked and billowed pavements.

I have prioritised my writing — going on weekend courses, dropping down into the well. Poems have been written. I have taken down pages from here because there are some I should like to see on a printed page and consequently my writings/ramblings have been less public. I have fleshed out ideas for more stories – I love that form, and for novels: what I need now is more time to write them.

Last week I spent a complete day with friends. We explored the north side of Ynys Môn, revelling in the warmth while the sea mist chilled us. The air was still as we watched the  boats reverse up and down the narrow port. Then we stopped for a while at Eglwys Llanbadrig. Driving the narrow lane felt endless and fraught,  keeping a sharp eye out for passing places. The hedges were heavy with flowers and grasses and it was impossible to see above them — the cloud was so low. As we reached the top, the horizon should have unfolded. Instead the sea fret had shrouded the sea into silence. The rocks to Ffynnon Badrig were slick with mist and we could only glimpse the sea in a shifting pocket of air.

The church was silent except for the scuff of our shoes on the tiled floor. Our voices were muted and our laughter muffled. It seemed the mist had obliterated the sunlight , so that the mosaic glass tiles around the altar lost their blue-ness, and the image of the Pastor Bonus was made invisible on the dim eastern wall. The crucifix was unprepossessing and the image of the chalice at screaming odds. Even the sense of permanence and walls weighted with prayers were unreal. After all the building was restored in 1985 following a fire.

It seems the mist closed in to offer only the present in company with friends, and that was good enough for me on the day.



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Untitled for now

Just a few thoughts for now. “Doing the tourist thing”in your home town is daunting to say the least. I’m sitting in a building in Adelaide street that used to house “The Evening Post”; that used to be “The Harbour Trust”; that is now a 12 year old hotel and as nice as it is, it does show wear and tear at the edges. I’m in a building where two war paintings used to hang that now hang in my home. Circle, Come Full – spring to mind. That and serendipity – that I found them in a shop in N Wales and they were sketched the day on the night my mother was caught out in the blitz of  February 1941

 Forty years ago my grandmother moaned about the developments in Swansea and how the ‘coorporation couldn’t get it right.’  What she meant of course was that her beloved town, with the narrow streets, Goat Street, Ben Evans, and the old market could  never be rebuilt. Castle Gardens in place of Ben Evans used to be green and the Vivian Fountain at their heart. Now it is a grey, concrete,  water-feature with floaty coloured lights and it has to be said, a bit soulless. 

A famously ‘Ugly lovely town”, it feels neither ugly or lovely. The marina could be anywhere in the UK, the supermarkets all look the same, there are restaurant chains here, hotel chains. The coffee in shops are national brands.

As I write, the traffic system at the bottom of The Kingsway is being reconfigured. There are major utility works in place on St Helen’s Road. And I wonder what it says about its people, as a town and then a city, that it is always reconfiguring and remaking itself. In some respects it suggests a lack of confidence, impermanence and uncertainty. On the other hand it shows a willingness to respond, adapt and recreate. 

Walking around the Marina (the old docks) I walked in my relatives footsteps – the dockers, sailors,Cape Horners. I passed the building where in the early years of the 20th century my grandmother was ‘in service’. I walked out along the old paths towards Port Tennant. The Norwegian sea men’s church now a children’s nursery.  I passed dad’s old shop now a barber shop and the four floors above still look rundown and lopsided. The only thing that has changed is that that groundfloor extension has gone. There’s still a red spiral sign by the building where the tobacconist used to be. Kilvey Hill and Salubrious passage are smaller than I remember, but the river still smells at hight tide. I had forgotten that!

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A Visit to Swansea and The Dylan Thomas Centre

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that the poetry of Dylan Thomas and the literature of Welsh Writers in English is part of the force that underpins my love for my hometown.

Picture me at six :small, brown ringlets and abuzz with excitement. I’ve just discovered that a poet was born in Swansea – moreover quite a famous one.

Dad, Dad ! Swansea has a Poet but he’s dead now.

Oh yes Dylan Thomas. well he was a bit of a scandal!

The myth was hardly suitable for a six year old wearing white socks.

It was less than twenty years since DT had died, and we know what the Bible says about prophets and their own towns. In fact Dad said a lot more but …

I would be a mother myself by the time I revisited Thomas’s poetry in an academic setting.

Years later and 150 miles away I studied Dylan Thomas’s poetry under the superb teaching of Tony Brown. I discovered that the cadences of speech, turns of phrase, the unique use of prepositions (Whose coat is that jacket over by there? )and some mispronunciation were part of Welsh Writing in English. So opening up a new literary context and space for me.

Under Milk Wood is probably one of my favourite works. Not in a critical poetical sense, but with a sense of affection, for the humorous light and compassion with which Thomas portrays his characters . They use the figures of speech cadences and tones of my childhood so that they take on the feel of well loved long dead relatives or old friends.

Today I visited the Dylan Thomas Centre. I have visited before but the new format and layout were especially moving. Off stage as it were, voices, film productions and spoken words collided in a sound space – some familiar enough to bring the calm thrill of recognition, a pang of longing and the buzz that comes with live words taking on a life of their own, almost a new context in a dedicated space.

The centre shows tantalising images of Swansea in the aftermath of the blitz – the type where the image changes as you walk past. So there I was bouncing from side to side on the balls of my feet, needing to stare at the images but discovering that what I saw changed and shifted according to where I stood. I was unprepared though for the emotion that accompanied this visit.
Thomas’s certainty that he would be a literary force so that he blazed a trail enabled him to push and extend the meanings of words and phrases. Startling, disturbing innovative phrases are just right: ‘Stop the bus I’m dying of breath .’ is one such phrase sign written on a wall. I laughed out loud because it was just right. Funny, irreverent true!

I was lucky with the weather cold sunny days. The racket of the buoys and seagulls in the marina were more of a background track as the wind whipped off the river and into the old dockyards. Thomas famously wrote the night after the blitz, ‘The Swansea we know has died.’ A sentiment shared by many of my relatives st that time.  There are glimpses of the industrial heritages. One or two spit and sawdust pubs remain, the Copper Quarter is being regenerated. The town is ok but it’s pretty ugly in places still. Lovely? I’ll leave you to decide.


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It’s been a hectic few weeks with  family job changes or adjustments. I hit the ground running  in January and haven’t really come up for air. The highlight (no pun) was a new policy regarding use of  highlighters of a specific colour, which flu-like, I read with increasing disbelief. My head spun and not just because I had a temperature.

It used to be called the chalk-face: these days it is more like the green ink face. Now the teaching interface has a range of colours for  different functions —   red, green, blue, purple, and yellow. Colours that make up a bruise if we stop to think about it. Ironically my favourite colour for writing in notebooks used to be green. Now I opt for pink, turquoise or black — thin nibbed and Pilot or Parker. Dad used to write in black ink in  small right handed slanted script: so neat. Mine in comparison is a curly scrawl.

I’ve invested in new notebooks. A range at the supermarket caught my eye. I bought one each for myself and a friend,and stuffed the back pocket with stickers for both of us. The idea being we could write together in an identical space despite living at both ends of the country. I loved stickers as a child and the pack of Alice in Wonderland stickers inspired one of my more darker poems – strange where inspiration strikes and it is  my first new poem in a long time. Its not a bad poem but I am unsure about it.

I revisited the collection I have written on places and they still resonate. They’re not going to change the world, but they are quite muscular and comment on language and the power or lack of power to tell our own stories; a concept which still hovers in my head. Other than that,the trilogy which begins in Defynnog and ends in Swansea has taken shape in my head. The family research and the research in and about Senny Bridge has been a joy.  The challenge is to get it out of my head and on the page. I’ve got the first chapter written but need to go back and add my first line. I see now why Dad loved the Cordell books so much.

So, it’s half term. I will be preparing for a mock Estyn and  writing.

What are your plans?


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