Life in the Valleys
My parents, Arthur Ernest Nixey and Enid Vera Jones, were both aged twenty-three when they were married on 24th March 1951 at the King Street Baptist Chapel in Abertillery, in the presence of my father’s brother, Jack, and Edith D. Evans. There addresses were given as 44 Queen Street and 180 Alma Street, while their occupations were recorded as “Laboratory Technologist Coal Board” and “Domestic House Maid”. My mother was born on 13th June 1927, and was the eldest of four children and the only daughter of Stanley Jones and Eleanor Mary née Thomas. My mother’s parents spent all their married life in Alma Street, firstly at number 185 and then from about 1,939 directly opposite at number 180. At the time of my parents’ marriage, their father’s occupations were recorded as “Surface Worker (Mines)” and “Charge-hand British Nylon Spinners”.
Around two years after my parents were married, my father’s brother, Jack, married Winifred Richards at Neath in Glamorgan. Winifred, or Win as she was known, was born at Neath on 24th March 1932, and was the daughter of William Richards and Sydna née Peters. Jack and Win had just one child, a daughter who they named Helen Diane.
Because of my mother's eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa, my parents decided that the best thing would be not to have any children so that the eye condition wouldn’t be passed on. Despite their best intentions however, they actually had 2 children, the first being my sister, Susan Mary. Then, just under twelve years later...
While the launch of Early Bird (the first communications satellite to be placed in geosynchronous orbit) was taking place, and the British Government were announcing the cancellation of the TSR-2 aircraft project, your's truly decided it was about time to make my entrance, and was duly named Jonathan Paul. Unfortunately mum and dad’s concerns and worries were well founded, as both my sister and I inherited her eye condition.
Retinitis Pigmentosa, or RP, is also known as tunnel vision, although I feel this is a very misleading description. The reason why I say this is that in my case at least, it never appeared as though I was looking through a tunnel. It gives the impression that there is black all around with just a central area where you can see. What I consider to be a much more accurate description is when you look at a photograph of a bird perched on a branch. The photographer focuses his lens so that the bird is clear, but all around the bird is blurred and out of focus. There's no blackness around the bird, there is still evidence of light.
Prior to marrying my father, my mother had worked for Hector Williams and his wife as a cleaner at their shop and home in Marlborough Road, where she continued cleaning for them afterwards. Hector also owned a shop at 32 Bryngwyn Road, and my parents rented the living accomodation behind and above the shop from him for about fourteen years. When Hector decided to retire, it involved putting number 32 Bryngwyn Road up for sale. So, in early 1966, when I was about ten months old, we moved to 52 Rose Heyworth Road at the northern end of Abertillery.
When I was very young, I had a play-pen which was positioned against the settee where I could play to my heart’s content, and mum knew she wasn’t going to accidentally tread on me or unexpectedly find me somewhere else. One day as my sister was about to leave for school, mum said: “Say ta-ra to Susan then.” She heard my loud and clear “ta-ra,” but not from where she was expecting! I'd figured out a way of using the settee to assist me in climbing out of my play-pen! Needless to say, a new position was quickly found for it!
I have just one memory of my father’s mother, and that was standing outside her ground floor room window in the Velindre Hospital in Cardiff. I can still visualise her in her bed, giving me the most lovely smile and waving to me. I was around four years old at the time, and it wasn’t very long before she lost her fight to cancer on 19th April 1969 at the age of sixty-seven. Unfortunately, my grandfather was also a victim of cancer. He passed away on 14th October 1970 at the Aberbeeg Hospital, Abertillery, at the age of seventy-two. The following entries can be found in the Gwent Crematorium Book of Remembrance:
Arthur and Lou Smith (seen right) survived my grandparents by about twelve years, and so I have more memories of visiting them at Darran Road throughout the 1970’s. In particular, I remember the sewing machine that belonged to their daughter, my cousin Gwynneth, which was kept in the front room, and also the grandfather clock that was kept in the back room.
As I grew up, I was well used to my mum regularly going to Tyleri Court in Abertillery, which was a day centre for people living with a wide range of disabilities. I loved the school holidays in particular because it meant I could go with her and spend the day there. Something else I really liked about Tyleri Court were the holidays they organised. Over the years, we went on quite a few of them, including such Places as Blackpool in Lancashire, Bracklesham Bay and Hayling Island in Sussex, Seaton and Westward Ho! in Devon, and Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.
Many of the holiday centres we stayed at had sports rooms that the guests could use free of charge. My father was very keen on snooker, and so when I was big enough to be able to play snooker on full size tables, it became a regular feature of our holidays, something that dad and I always looked forward to.
Something else dad and I thoroughly enjoyed was getting up at the crack of dawn to go for walks to take in the countryside and in particular the bird life. I'll never forget one day as we walked along the River Ax in Seaton. I heard the most strange sound, a sound I'd never heard before. My dad being a keen ornithologist knew exactly what it was! We turned to watch a flock of swans flying up the estuary. Staying on the subject of swans, when we stayed at Hayling Island, the holiday camp had its own boating lake. Besides the boats that were seen on it, there were also two resident swans. I befriended the guy that was in charge of the boating lake, and I spent many a happy hour there with him in his shed drawing pictures of birds. The swans were relatively tame, and they soon got used to the idea that I would keep some bread back for them at mealtimes. On one occasion when they were out on the lake rather than stood on the side, I had my camera dangling off my wrist by its strap. As I began throwing the bread in for the swans, my camera suddenly vanished from my wrist and fell in to the lake! I managed to retreive it, and amazingly, a few of the photos were able to be developed.
Another highlight for me when we stayed in Devon was going for rides on the Seaton Electric Tramway. The tramline actually ran past the back fence of the holiday camp, so it wasn't at all unusual to find me leaning on the fence watching the trams go by.
As well as going to the optician throughout my childhood, I attended regular hospital appointments so that checks could be made on the progression of my eye condition. At one such appointment, a nurse handed me a small plastic bottle complete with a paper label and screwtop lid. She ushered my dad and I into a room while requesting a "sample." I looked at dad and then the receptacle with a puzzled look on my face. Dad, of course, said nothing, knowing full well what was expected of me. I on the other hand had never experienced this before, and was at a loss as to what to do. I glanced around the room, and saw a handbasin in the corner, and, working on logic, headed towards the tap. He quickly realised what I was about to do and stopped me. Again, I presented him with a puzzled expression, to which he gave me clear and concise instructions: “Pee in it...”
I went through mainstream school, and coped with it relatively well, as long as I was able to sit at a suitable distance and angle from the blackboard. The only problem I recall having was when the sun shone on it, causing an awful glare and making it very difficult to read what had been written, but that affected others as well, not just me. The main problems I had in school were a couple of the boys thinking it was funny to trip me up because they knew I couldn’t see them putting their foot out in front of me, and holding their hand in front of my face because they knew there was a good chance I couldn’t see them doing that either. The thing I hated the most though was PE, because it was virtually impossible for me to follow the movement of a football or rugby ball, let alone a cricket or tennis ball!
There were a number of things in my life as a child that I loved very much, including music, drawing, and buses. The latter two were often linked together, to the extent that on one school report, much to my mum’s amusement, my art teacher Ron Francis wrote: “Seems to have a mania for public transport.” Well there was no denying it, he was absolutely spot on! As far as music was concerned, I passed three royal School of Music examinations on the violin, one straight pass, one with merit and one with distinction. I definitely have my dad to thank for my love of music, and he was always very encouraging when it came to practice times. He had played viola in a youth orchestra, and was able to show me techniques. He could also play the piano, but even though I wanted to learn how to play it myself, I just couldn't seem to grasp it. One day however, I was watching my music teacher playing the piano, and I couldn't believe how she made it look so easy. When I got home from school, I asked dad if he would mind trying to teach me again. Of course he was more than happy to do that, and from that day on, I progressed very well. I also became interested in learning to play trumpet and guitar, but because this increased practice times to an unreasonable level, those two instruments were put to one side.
Something else I absolutely loved to do was to go out riding my bikes. I had three over the years, well four if you include my little tricycle! My first ever ‘proper’ bike was a Chopper, followed by 2 drop-handle racing bikes, one being rather rough and ready, and the other was my pride and joy, a Raleigh Royale. Considering my sight was quite poor from birth, the number of accidents I had was relatively few. One day a few friends and I were riding around the fire station forecourt, just going round and round in large circles, when my front wheel suddenly clipped a kerb. A few seconds later I realised I was stood on my feet facing the front of my bike! Apparently, I'd not only gone over the handlebars, but had managed to twist right around at the same time! Marks out of ten...?
Having had such a great interest in buses as a child, when I completed my schooling, the obvious choice for work was something to do with buses. It was quite apparent that because of my inherited eye condition, being a bus driver was totally out of the question. Really speaking, I shouldn’t even have been riding my bikes, but as the speed was far slower, I managed alright, with the exception of one or two mishaps that could have happened to anyone. At the time, I’d become friends with Fred Day who ran a smallcoach company in Cwmtillery, and he took me on for a couple of days a week helping to clean the coaches inside and out. But it wasn’t really what I was looking for. So one day, feeling somewhat disgruntled, I called in to Henley's Bus Services office in Victor Road to see if they had anything better they could offer me. The owner, Arthur Henley, said he was looking for someone to do cleaning in the morning, and to go on the school buses in the afternoon to make sure the children behaved themselves. I didn’t feel much more than a child myself, but the atmosphere at Henley’s garage was much more enjoyable, due largely to the fun and antics of Mike, Alan, and predominantly Ray. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed my relatively short time at Henley’s much more, and I was deeply saddened on the morning I was told I wasn’t needed any more.
I didn’t know what to do or where to go after being sent home from Henley’s that morning, and while wandering into town, passed a shop run by friends of mine. So I went in to say hello, and of course told them of what had just happened. Nigel and Gerald ran a kitchen and bathroom centre at the top end of town in what used to be the much loved Howard’s bakery. The last thing I expected was to be offered a little work with them, but that’s what happened. I did all sorts of things there, stacking items, rearranging items, dismantling items, and so on, and even painted up a few signs that were hung up around the shop. It wasn’t long though before another friend, Phil, said that his boss was looking for someone to go on a six months’ Youth Training Scheme based at Ebbw Vale Hospital. I didn’t know at the time, but right ahead of me were going to be six of the best months of my life!
So, in late February 1982, I began my six months’ YTS with Gwent Health Authority. It was amazing! We were based in the stores at Ebbw Vale Hospital, and were responsible for delivering medical aids and medical comforts, not just to hospitals in north Gwent, but to literally hundreds of homes. You name it, we delivered it! Wheelchairs, hospital beds, incontinence pads and sheets, commodes, disposable pants, and urine bottles.... everything! It was a far cry from buses, but it was amazing! We had our regulars on our delivery lists, some of whom became firm favourites. Considering my eye condition wasn’t going to be getting any better, there were very very few mishaps. In fact, I think there was only one incident that could have ended up much worse than it did.
We were delivering to one of our regulars in the Beaufort area, and after we pulled up in the van, Phil sent me off to check to see if the lady was at home while he did a bit of paper work. I can’t remember why, but he suggested I went to the back door, so I headed through the gates at the end of her carport, turned around to close them, then turned around and began heading towards the back of the house. To this day I don’t know what happened, all I can put it down to was my eyesight playing tricks on me. Going along the side of her carport was a very low wall, probably about six inches high. The next thing I knew, I had tripped over this brickwork, had twisted right around and was falling backwards headfirst down over a three to four feet drop. I was waiting for my head to hit the floor, but somehow my shoulders prevented that from happening. In fact, the only injury I had was a severely twisted ankle! In the meantime, the lady had come out of her front door, wondering why we hadn’t knocked her door. Phil told her I’d gone to her back door, and they both looked but couldn’t see me anywhere. Then they spotted my foot sticking up over the low brickwork, and then the rest of me slumped in a heap below. It was suggested that I took some time off to get over the fall, but I insisted I continued going to work, after all I could do all the paper work in the van while Phil did all the deliveries!
Those six months flew by, way too quickly! The purpose of the Youth Training Scheme was to train someone to do a job, then if they were suitable, they were offered a permanent post. So when the end of the course arrived in late August, I was desperate to know if I was suitable or not. I soon found out that there wasn’t a job at the end of it, I was finishing and they were lining someone else up to do another six months’ course! Governmental departments breaking governmental rules. I was gutted!
It was around this time though that my eyesight really began to deteriorate. I remember one day I was waiting for Phil to pick me up from somewhere or other while he’d gone somewhere else to do, well, something else. I was noticing that straight lines weren’t straight anymore. The best way I can describe it is if you were to draw a straight line with chalk on a blackboard, then put your fingertip on the chalk line so that it smudges. Add to that the smudge moving from left to right and up and down. As time went on, slowly but surely, my remaining vision would suffer from this visual disturbance. It stole from me the things I loved so much, like drawing, and riding my bike, and the ability to read musical scores, amongst other things. The deterioration of my sight happened far more quickly than it did for my sister, who retained some useful vision for many years. I feel that doing lots of close-up work, art and craft work, drawing maps, etc, must surely have played a part in the speed at which my sight deteriorated. I can remember standing at the window, struggling to figure out which felt tip pen was which, trying to work out blues from greens, and reds from pinks and browns. My grandmother used to ask shopkeepers if she could take an item outside in to the daylight so she could see the colour better. I too had found using natural light better than electric light, but things had got to the stage where even that wasn't helping very much at all.
Thankfully, there was something else I inherited from my mum, her sense of humour. As I grew up, I became accustomed to her ability to laugh and joke about her blindness. This definitely played a part in helping me to cope with losing my own sight over the next couple of years. It's true to say it didn't make this time in my life extremely easy, but it certainly helped to take the edge off things. In addition, I still had my keen interest in music, and found that with lots of practice on the piano, I was able to play many pieces by memory.
One thing I used to utilise was the double yellow lines along the road to help me find my way. This was especially useful if I was out in the dark when it had been raining, because the road lights vividly picked out the yellow lines. I particularly noticed in that situation I could feel my eyes relaxing. However, Phil kindly made it clear to me how important my safety was, and that it wasn't wise to carry on doing things that way. So he arranged with Social Services for me to begin learning how to get around using a long cane.
While training me, my mobility instructor Malcolm taught me something of great importance: If you see someone, don't walk around them, because they'll get used to you doing it, then when your sight goes completely, they'll still expect you to do it. One day while walking through town, I was about to cross a road, when I caught sight of two old gentlemen on the opposite side enjoying a chat, their shopping bags placed between them at their feet. I automatically wanted to move around them as I got closer, but all I could hear was Malcolm's voice telling me not to! I took a deep breath, and began crossing the road, homing in like a guided missile on my unsuspecting targets. I had to slow down to step up the kerb on to the pavement, which slightly softened my collision. I was met with profuse apologies and the scrambling of bags and bodies out of my way.
As my confidence in using the long cane grew, I also built up a reputation of moving at such a pace that I would leave sighted friends way behind as we walked along. I must admit, using a long cane was good for me as a mobility aid, but it presented problems to others, such as the lady who came out of a shop on my right, carrying a pile of boxes who ended up in a heap on the floor after tripping over the end of my cane. Or the time when I was on my way home and I could make out a schoolgirl running towards me to catch the bus that was just approaching the bus stop. I felt sure she was going to adjust her direction and run past me, but she seemed to just keep coming straight at me! In fact she was still coming straight at me when she trod on the end of my long cane, bending it in the process, before disappearing over to my left hand side, miraculously avoiding ending up under the wheels of the bus! Maybe she needed the cane more than I did?