Saturday, January 19, 2008


Robert lives in California where he worked as a geological research scientist until 1996 then he changed direction and became a freelance science writer.
This is his story.


The memories of Craig-y-nos never leave me, for they are the formative experiences of my life. I was six when I was dropped off there, where my elder sister was living, and had been for several months. It was to be more than one year later that I was to leave, in the middle of the fierce winter of 1947, which I saw and felt from the balcony overlooking the valley of the Tawe, and where, beneath the snow-dusted tarpaulin on top of my bed, the wind and bitter cold breathed health into my being. Or so I was told…

Now in my memory I can “..plunge my hand in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand…and out come…” (1) one vignette after another, in no particular chronological order, no order at all as they pour from the mind of the six-year-old coughing and wasting away, with his sister in a ward nearby but removed from her brother’s sight. A minor cruelty, that, in the scheme of life in South Wales of the time, where consumption’s tubercular finger touched six of our family, killing three.

Staff: Nurse Cowling, Sister Morgan and Sister Jones
From my fourteen months in Craig-y-nos, until January 1947, no faces appear save three: Nurse Cowling, Sister Morgan and Sister Jones.

Young, blonde, with a physical and emotional softness, Brenda Cowling stayed warm in my mind for four decades or more until I revisited the forbidding castle and accidentally met the man who told me he courted her in the winter of 1946-7, to win her hand and her warmth. Sister Morgan I remember as more formal, kindly and taller, with glasses beneath her grey hair and no destructive memory in my head. Her companion in dark blue, Sister Jones, stayed in my mind for years as an object of fear, always in a snit with a viper’s tongue and contempt for children. I had cause to remain silent when she was near; my sister had cause to be terrified of her, and that effect lingers still.
Some of the photographs in the blog told me that my memories from sixty years ago are accurate. Sister Morgan looked as I remember her; she hasn’t aged a day!

“Tube days”- gastric lavages
The early day-to-day in the boys’ ward has faded from my mind. Only the terrifying “tube days” survive, indelible as tattoos in my head. It says something about the procedure that I thought it was weekly, but others have said it was only once a month. I do remember being taken to a side-ward, held in a chair by two members of staff, and administered the procedure by two more. A red rubber tube attached to a conical glass funnel was forced down who knows where and for what purpose, I did not know. And if I asked, I was told to be quiet, to not ask so many questions and bother the nurses. Certainly never talk to a doctor, even though I do not remember seeing one.
Now I understand the procedure as “lavage”, once popular with those who did not like children, but now largely discredited as an efficacious treatment for anything. But every day we watched the food-trolley coming into the ward, and if there were sausages for breakfast (a treat after days of lumpy porridge), we knew that someone was going to get “the tube”. Then the names were read out, fears began to rise and tears to fall, and all the time I was there, it never dawned on the staff that the supposed treat only served to heighten, not palliate, the fear. Although the sausages were there to delight us, we never knew until it was too late who was going to enjoy them, and all we DID know was that some poor unfortunates were in for it in a chair in a side-ward.

Women suffragettes force fed
More than forty years later, when I lived in Dallas, Texas, I watched a program on television about the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain. Many of the imprisoned demonstrators went on a hunger-strike, only to be force-fed, yes! from conical glass funnels and through red rubber tubes. As the scene in the gloomy cell was played out, I was transported back in time to a side-ward in Craig-y-nos, to being tortured by four women, a glass funnel and a red rubber tube. But in the nineteen eighties, while watching television, I could simply walk out of the room rather than savour the experience again. And so I did.

My sister
My sister was not far away, in a ward for girls and women at the end of a long narrow corridor that we walked down again together in the nineteen-nineties. But certainly for the first many months we were not allowed to see each other, except on visiting day once a month for an hour or two, when double-decker buses unloaded family members through the big gates and into the courtyard of the castle.

Simple act of kindness
On one such visit, a generous and kindly patient or family-member in my sister’s ward gave me a green apple, possibly a Golden Delicious or a pale Cox’s Pippin. The crispness and tartness were new to me, and I have loved green apples ever since, such was the effect of one act of kindness.

Early days in Craig-y-nos
Those first months were not pleasant. I became withdrawn, trying to avoid upsetting the staff, I was humiliated by my bed-wetting, which I tried to hide by various stratagems, all of them futile, so that the wetting first and the subsequent attempt to hide it produced more contempt from nurses and staff. I was so withdrawn that I cannot remember the name of any other patient during my time there. To this day, my choice when I enter a group of strangers is to remain in the background, watching and listening rather than participating. But once drawn out, the child disappears and any observer would never know that I had once been shy.

I do remember the attempts to educate us, or at least keep us busy. A teacher came with big orange envelopes or folders with educational stuff within. All I recall of it are reading material and lists of sums for us to do. I was fortunate that I could read before I went to Craig-y-nos, and so I was able to keep pace with the lessons. In truth I liked them, as I have ever since.

Keep you “regular”
My sister Judy reminded me of the little vials we had to drink, small white cups made of coarse china, filled with a dark liquid. To keep us “regular” in our immobility, it was either cascara or syrup-of-figs, an important distinction that a child could not make by looking or smelling. Cascara was bitter, the syrup sweet, so what was the victim to do? Down the bitterness in one gulp so as not to prolong the nastiness, or enjoy the other by savouring its sweetness repeatedly? If you gulped the sweet, your pleasure was very brief; if you sipped the bitter, hemlock would have given you more satisfaction with each additional swallow. Another minor decision to make that gave us moments of pleasure or moments of distaste.

Death in Craig-y-nos
Unless my protective memory has wiped clean my slate, I saw no death in the wards I was in. Judy was not so fortunate, witnessing more than once the drawing of curtains around a bed, as a patient departed the hospital for the grave. It was a small mercy for me, for what would a six-year-old understand had happened with the departure of a ward-mate?

Freedom to roam the grounds
Eventually—I don’t remember how long it took—we were allowed out of bed for exercise, starting with “lav-walks” that saved us from bedpans. After that, one hour per day, then two and three, and finally the release to the castle-grounds for outdoor walks. What a wonderful thing that was: out into the surrounding gardens, around the ornamental lake, into the deep and mysterious bushes and paths around the prison, and even across the bridge on the Tawe! But even that pastoral activity was not without its drama . . .
Foxes roamed the hills on the other side of the valley, where sheep cropped grass to feed the tables of Wales. And where the twain did meet, torn and bloody throats, with red stains on the snow, showed the little group of children from the castle that death was never far away.
For sixty years I have wondered why a party of children was allowed to roam the grounds without an adult in attendance. In the dense bushes between the castle and the river, the remains of ornamental gardens, with their tight paths through the branches and roots, served as surrogates for dense tropical jungle for junior explorers.

Falling in the river
For adventurers there is always danger, in this case in the form of a deep, square pool, into which—too curious by half—I fell, unable to swim.
Somebody ran for help, and the others managed to reach me, struggling with an imaginary breast-stroke. My sister and friends were able to pull me out and a nurse took me back to the hospital.

Nurse “dunks” boy's head under water to get rid of fear
Believing in the concept that fear was overcome by repeated exposure to the terror, the nurse put me in a hot deep bath, where she dunked my head underwater again and again to rid me of my dread. Although I hated the experience at the time, I suppose she was being sensible, because I was never afraid of the sea when, after leaving Craig-y-nos, we were taken regularly to the beaches of south Wales for healthy exercise and rehabilitation. But it was another six years before I could swim.

Pyschological impact of Craig-y-nos on later development
It should be no surprise to anyone with some understanding of human development that this small boy developed an ambivalent attitude to women. Every kindness and all the cruelty were administered to the child by women, and so he spent a lot of his life enveloped in a familiar paradox: desirous of women and yet repelled by his fear of them. Years later, as a teenager at a dance with his first-ever girlfriend, she was on one side of the hall and he on the other. Though he wanted to cross the floor to ask her to dance, in his fear and self-consciousness, he never did, and spent the entire evening yearning.

“Dentist was my uncle”
I remember Santa Claus entertaining us in the small theatre off on one side of the courtyard. He was my uncle Jenkyn Evans from Ystalyfera, a dentist by profession and a sculptor of some note by vocation.

Snow on the balcony
And the last memory I have is a pleasant one: sleeping outside on the balcony, even when it snowed. Safe and warm under blankets topped by a heavy tarpaulin as strong as the wall of a tent, I was protected from the wintry elements, with dustings of snow over all of us. Years later, both Judi and I continued to imitate the experience by hiding under bedclothes at bedtime, reading by the light of a torch.

In retrospect
Looking over what I have written about this most-formative of experiences for a six-year-old, I wonder whether I have been too harsh about all the unpleasantness. Surely there was no conscious cruelty; the staff must have been practising the medicine of the day, the “best practice” of 1946 and 47. If they did not explain that to me, well, that too, was what doctors did in those days.
But a six-year-old cannot grasp that, nor can the schoolboy who came along, or the teenager in grammar school, or the undergraduate and graduate who came after him. In fact, the six-year-old had matured into his forties before he began to understand fully how the Craig-y-nos experience had affected his emotional development, his feelings and his behaviour. There was no escape; it lingered in his life like tobacco-smoke in clothes.

Coming to terms with the past
So what is the way to put into perspective my fourteen isolated months high in the valley of the Tawe? With years of unwieldy psychotherapy? Perhaps to learn instead of a supreme act of religious redemption by those who had been unintentionally cruel to me and all the others? For what purpose? The mid-to-late nineteen-forties in Europe were cruel times, and my sister and I were merely two among millions who had suffered. All of war-torn Europe learned that peace is hard to come by, and difficult to live in.
So for me it has been a slow enlightening since the day more than sixty years ago when my sister Judy and I stepped onto a South Wales Transport double-decker again, and headed down into bombed-out Swansea and thence to Gowerton, where we lived into the nineteen-sixties.
And that is the point, I finally understand, that no matter what I feel about that forbidding castle, it is only because of Craig-y-nos that sixty years later I can sit at my computer in California, telling you about my experience in the hospital.

My life after Craig-y-nos
The shy boy who left the place in 1947 became confident enough to speak in public in front of large audiences, and referee international football games in stadiums filled with tens of thousands of fans. The skinny kid who nearly drowned eventually played water-polo for his university and then taught life-saving and water-safety for the Red Cross. The education he received from the orange envelopes was a sufficient foundation for him to catch up to his contemporaries in primary school, learn with them in grammar school, and progress to university and eventually graduate school for advanced degrees.

He may have lost more than a year in Craig-y-nos, but he gained a life, and here, sitting in a farmhouse in the midst of walnut and fruit orchards in the central valley of California, he still breathes, as others in the ward with my sister do not.

Now he sees and clearly, that the granuloma still visible in his lung, scarred by the bacterial activity so long ago, is not a stigma, but a medal.

(1) From “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas

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