Translating his own novel, Gareth W Williams offers us a taste of the seamy world of racketeering and corruption of Rhyl promenade in the summer of 1969.
Promenâd y Gwenoliaid / Swallows’ Promenade
Or should I say ‘novella’. Not the weightiest tome you’ll ever read but a pleasant few hours in the sun or by the fire thinking of sunny days on Rhyl promenade in 1969 and an intriguing yarn to keep you entertained somewhere between the famous Five and Brighton rock. It treads a tightrope between a tale and an autobiography and so does not follow the expected route for a crime novel: no perceptive detective, no rigorous police work; instead a group of students (the swallows) come back home from college in the summer to work on the promenade and are inadvertently sucked into the underworld of protection racketeering and corruption which lurks beneath the bingo, beer, chips and candy floss of summer by the seaside. During the novel the group grows out of the naivety of youth and realise that reality is far less benign than the world of the chapel that nurtured them.
The town itself is an important character in the novel, and I hope that the personality, colour, flavour and smells of Rhyl in 1969 permeate through the words and provide a memorable snapshot of a time, place, people and age dear to my heart. The cover I feel well reflects that character; a gritty, seedy little place but one which has a beating heart, deep down.
The narrator (not necessarily me) is one of the characters in the story, a feature I found difficult at times as adhering to it prevents using the omniscient voice. Only events seen by or reported to the narrator could be described and contributed to what some have described is a rather curt ending which tells of happenings out of the narrator’s view. O well! Reviews so far have been very complimentary. Readers seem glad to read of non-traditional themes in a location not given the attention it deserves in the body of Welsh culture.
Promenâd y Gwenoliaid is written in Welsh. Hitherto I have written of a fictitious small seaside town in West Wales which is a Welsh speaking idyll but one with a very dark underbelly governed by the iron grip of one family. The battles of Arthur Goss, the main protagonist, against the overlord is the main plank of the books. Translating the novels would not work, as it wouldn’t be a Welsh idyll any more if everybody suddenly spoke in English. However, Promenâd y Gwenoliaid is very different and tells of a real place where, in 1969 at least, Welsh and English rubbed along confusedly together and speaking Welsh in this book is not central to the point of the novel. I have therefore started to translate it, using italics for where people would be speaking Welsh. I am not sure if it will work, partly as I may seem somewhat parochial for an English speaking reader and my style may sound like translated Welsh. I have attached the beginning. See what you think?
I knew Alfie since school days. We were little more than kids at the start of that summer. He worked as a bingo caller and his skill at the microphone to attract customers was invaluable to Joe, who owned an amusement arcade around halfway along the line of similar arcades on the prom. In the summer of 1969 business prospects looked good, even if the sun didn’t always shine on Sunny Rhyl. Mexico Joe’s was something of a favourite with customers and Alfie with his quick wit was a significant factor for the popularity of the bingo games there. All the players sat around Alfie’s pulpit while the balls rose one by one and he announced the numbers – ‘two little ducks – 22, two fat ladies 88, unlucky for some 14, I told you it was unlucky,’ was his favourite trick, and those too quick, would have to uncover number 13 on the dedicated bingo boards with a sigh. Many punters stayed for hours to win a teddy bear or a rather cheap looking tea set and then walk away triumphant having paid what amounted to a fortune for it. The glitzy, glittering prizes were the backdrop to Alfie’s pulpit.
Joe had worked as a steward on P&O liners. Originally from Betws yn Rhos, a village some five miles away, he decided to go to sea. He met Consuela, a dancer, while working on one of the ships. A bit of a dish in her day, it was said, from Tijuana in Mexico. Alfie always said that her beauty hadn’t diminished, despite her hair turning grey; he would never dare say that to Joe, mind you. They married and went back to the city of her childhood and there they stayed for some seven years. No children. His name was Clwyd Owen Jones, a name that was the subject of mirth in Tijuana, as C.O. Jones corresponds to cojones – one with large testicles in Spanish, but a word which implies courage. His unfortunate name benefited him well in the career he chose for himself while living there.
Joe was a man of considerable stature, a weightlifter and a quality footballer, quite an athlete; and as wrestling was so popular in Mexico, he secured training and work easily enough, and lots of pesos and fame followed for the ‘Cojones Celtica’.
Joe had a desire to go back home too, with wrestling in its heyday; Kent Walton commentating and Jackie Pallo, Mick McManus, Billy Two Rivers and El Bandito were heroes of the small screen. There were new horizons and he and Consuela came to live in Rhyl. For a time he grappled in contests in the Gaiety Theater on the promenade in Rhyl and in halls across the north of England; he was sometimes seen on television. His nickname was Mexico Joe and he stepped into the ring with his poncho, his sombrero, his whip and his Latin moustache. Little did anyone know that it was a boy from Betws yn Rhos who was performing in front of them. His career came to an end with one fall that broke his ribs, and he decided that enough was enough and he wasn’t getting any younger. It was Consuela who had put her foot down, according to Alfie. But Joe was still a bit of a celebrity round the town, though his reputation had started to fade. He was often seen around the place on his Harley-Davidson and his cowboy hat fluttering in the wind (helmets were not compulsory in 1969), and the studs on the back of his leather jacket would announce that Mexico Joe had just gone noisily by, if someone didn’t already know. He was also quite a hero to the town’s bikers: they were on their Nortons and BSAs and he was on an exotic bike from over the water. He was sometimes among them in the Dudley Hotel. Joe was their ‘Wild One’.
After the fall he decided to invest in an arcade on the prom. The wrestling theme was still prominent there with a large plastic sculpture of him in his wrestling garb with the tattoo of a Celtic torc about his neck protruding large and glowering from the wall above all the gamblers. The artist who designed it hadn’t got the face quite right, but it was close enough.
This was Alfie’s second year in the arcade. He had become more of a son than an employee for the childless couple. Joe was glad to practice his Welsh with him. He believed that his grasp of the language had become a bit bedraggled, having lived away for so long. Alfie could hear little wrong with his fluency, although there were a few Spanish words thrown in from time to time.
Alfie had just come to work on that fateful morning and was tidying up the toys around his pulpit when they came in; one small, well dressed man and two hulks behind him.
Gareth will be launching Promenâd y Gwenoliaid / Swallows’ Promenade in the Cob and Pen, Rhyl, one of the settings in the story, on Tuesday 17th September at 7.30 pm. You can also catch an interview with him on Prynhawn Da on the prom.
Read more about Gareth W Williams