On the hunt for a story

In the mid-1960s, halfway through a short journalism course in Cardiff, UK, we were given five days off and told to come back with a story that would be published later in their journal. It was an academic exercise as well as an opportunity to see a bit of the country.

A journalist from the Rand Daily Mail of Johannesburg, Tony Ryder and I decided to do a circuit of Wales and England, for which purpose he intercepted, for 40 pounds, a decrepit, retired red post office van headed for the junk heap. It did have two seats in the front and it did run. And that was about it.

We drove due north-west through Snowden hills, past the Caernarvon castle where Charles was anointed as the Prince of Wales four years later and reached the subject of my article, the village Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, also known by its shortened moniker Llanfair PG. The 58 character name itself tells a story. It means: Parish of Saint Mary (Llanfair) in Hollow (pwll) of the White Hazel township (gwyn gyll) near (go ger) the rapid whirlpool (y chwyrn drobwll) and the parish of St Tysilio (Llantysilio) with a red cave (a gogo goch). Before departing, I picked up as a souvenir the eight-inch long platform ticket at the railway station with the town’s full name on it.

We spent the night at Aberystwyth and after another halt at Liverpool, using a series of country roads, headed for London. En route, we picked up two hitchhikers. Ryder was an awful driver who did not see the point of having traffic lights, or slowing down at the turns. The two hikers in the closed rear of the van were beginning to feel very uncomfortable. Then one of them lit a cigarette and after puffing through to the stub casually crushed it in with his boot, just behind my seat.

The floor of the van was dirty and greasy. It had not been scrubbed for years. The stub had not been extinguished properly. After a little while, I felt some unexpected warmth from below my seat. We looked down and saw a flame that was spreading quite rapidly. We were then close to Warwick and quickly pulled to the grassy side, and got out as fast.

Fortunately, a police car suddenly materialised from somewhere and they had a fire extinguisher. They blasted the interiors of our van with some pungent, foamy tetra-whatnot. As the smoke — or whatever they had sprayed — cleared, the two hikers, already rattled by Ryder’s driving, decided that it would be better to walk than to ride in the unventilated evil-smelling interior of our vehicle. We, however, had no choice. The windows in front could be kept down, but the padding in my seat had all burnt down. I had to sit as well as I could on bare springs all the way to London.

The next day in London I nursed my bruised bottom. But I was determined not to go through the agony again. It was a Sunday. Succor came in the form of the ample pages of the Sunday Times which when folded became the cushion I needed for the drive back to Cardiff. And now I had a second story, which was headlined: ‘On bare springs and Sunday Times.’

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