In truth, the only reason that I became an author is entirely due to the support and encouragement from Ronnie Barker– coupled with a huge fluke. While working for a company in Newport that threw together a workforce from Bristol, Newport, Cardiff, Valleys, Barry and Swansea, I used to write down the sayings that people came out with on my office desk pad. Mainly to remember them, but also to use as ammunition in the constant banter that flew around the place each day. I became known as the scribe and/or clecker (note: clecs is Welsh for to gossip) and people would report back to me if they heard something that warranted being logged. So, I was getting quotes from conversations that I wasn’t even a part of.
Because of my raised awareness and interest in this ‘study’ it extended beyond work and I’d come home from the pub with a pocketful of fag packets and beer-mats with phrases scribbled on them. I added those to my desk pad in work. Soon the desk pad was full so I ordered an indexed book from stationery and transferred the contents of the desk-pad into it. It was then that the ‘Silly Sayings Book’ was born. I still have this original handwritten version.
There was a lot of interest in the ‘Silly Sayings Book’ and I started to lend it out and word got around that it was a fantastic read. People would ‘report’ things to me that they’d heard in the pub, at home or from their own workplaces and it almost became a full time job entering these into the ‘book’. Very often I would get up in the morning and find ‘quotes’ scribbled on beer mats and scraps of paper that had been hand-delivered by folk on their way home, gleaned from wherever they’d been the previous evening.
I began to word process the sayings and this became the master document and, sadly, the original handwritten book became redundant. When printed I realised that I had amassed about 300 A4 pages of one-liners. A lot, in other words and, in fairness, they were all malapropisms. When my loaned copies of the ‘Silly Sayings Book’ were returned my readership regularly urged me to get it published and after a while I thought that it would be worth a punt.
I researched a few publishing houses and began the exercise that thousands of unpublished authors have done for years – started to send them off in the hope that one of them would take a chance on my manuscript. The manuscript was hardly presentable as it was just a package of one-line quotes. After about a year of submitting this manuscript I had a drawer full of rejection slips – the feedback was fairly standard. It was encouraging in one way as they all commented on how good the material was, but, it was just a long list and not publishable in that format. I was pretty clueless at that time how to modify it to make it more attractive to a publisher so I shelved the idea and stopped submitting it.
A few months after shelving the project I saw a programme on Ronnie Barker and was interested to hear him say that he was a fan of words, and in particular the way that words were being used wrongly. It struck me that my manuscript would be right up his street. I had decided that my publishing dream was over and I no longer had any use for the manuscript so I thought that he might like to read it. I posted it to him at Mr Ronnie Barker, c/o BBC, BBC Television Centre, London. My view was that if it gave him a giggle, I would be happy to have supplied it. I had no idea if it would get to him – but it turned out that it did.
About a month after posting the work, I got a call at 6:50am on a Sunday. I answered the telephone whilst waving to my missus in an attempt to get her to cease shouting, “Who the hell is ringing us at ten to seven on a Sunday morning!”. It was only Ronnie Barker. He thanked me for thinking of him and for sending him such a fantastic piece of work. He apologised for taking so long to reply, but he’d read the whole thing three times and loved it.
We talked for about an hour about its content and we went through his list of favourites that he had compiled from my master copy. He asked me for permission to use some of the material in his after dinner speeches, as at that time he had retired from comedy and was running an antique shop in Banbury. He did the occasional appearances and speeches and thought some of my quotations would go down well. Of course, I agreed and he thanked me once again for sending the material to him.
I then had to go through the whole thing with my missus who was not 100% convinced that it was actually THE Ronnie Barker, as I hadn’t told her that I had sent the script to him. During my explanation the phone rang again, and she answered this time. It was Ronnie Barker again. My missus handed the phone to me and she began bouncing around the house, punching the air as if she’d just scored the winning goal in an FA Cup final!
This time Ronnie asked me if the work was published. I told him it wasn’t and he told me that I must get it published – it needed to be ‘out there’ for people to see, It was too good, he said, to be sitting in a drawer. He told me that the main reason that I should get it published was because he wanted to write the foreward for it as he was so passionate about the work he wanted to have a connection with it. He told me to tell publishers of his involvement as a selling point and that he would be writing the foreward if accepted. His view was that this may tip the balance in my favour with any publishers who couldn’t quite decide whether to go along with the proposition or not. The only thing that he said he wanted in return was a signed copy from me.
I started negotiating with the publisher Y Lolfa about the new project (including the promise from Ronnie Barker) and the dilemma was still the fact that it was just one big list. We decided that I would try to get a high profile Welsh comedian on board to produce some humorous chunks of prose to just ‘break up’ the list to make it more readable. The idea was to market the book as the Celeb’s Book of Silly Sayings with myself being credited as being a collaborator as, realistically; I was unknown and not a selling point.
After discussions with a few celebs, it was clear that I was not going to get anyone on board and I went back to Y Lolfa to say that the project was probably dead in the water as I could not rustle up a big name. Lefi Gruffudd, Y Lolfa’s Commissioning Editor, suggested that I wrote the chunks of prose myself and submit it just so that they could evaluate it. I asked Lefi to give me an approximate word count to aim at and agreed to ‘have a go’.
I was at a loss to think of a topic to write about, initially, to complement a list of malapropisms which was, really, the theme of the book. I decided to write about life in a south east Wales valley –demography, attitudes, personalities and the language we used. Strangely, there were no references at all to valleys language in the manuscript because I and the people who had contributed to the compilation of malapropisms all spoke the same version of non-standard valleys English so nobody had ever highlighted it to such an extent that it warranted inclusion into the ‘Silly Sayings Book’.
I constructed about as much as I could bring to mind on the language (which I called ‘Valleyspeak’ as a working title) and then penned some jokes with a strong Welsh slant. I checked the word count and revisited the original manuscript and copied and pasted just over two and a half pages (randomly selected) into the Valleyspeak book. This brought the word count up to the required number and I emailed it as it was to Lefi with questions such as: Do you like the style, am I producing what you expected, shall I change direction, are there any bits to be omitted and would you like me to enlarge on any sections? Two days later Lefi emailed back with a simple: “We’ll publish as it is.”
I was dumbfounded. Suddenly, I was an author. I’d heard of the trials and tribulations that prospective authors go through, years and years of submissions and rejections – and there’s me, accepted straight away following a tentative submission of my first real attempt at a structured piece of work which contained less than 1% of the material that was originally supposed to be the theme of the book. I calculated that, in its entirety, it took just under 15 hours to produce the complementary text for the book. I hadn’t even proof read it! Ronnie Barker was also genuinely thrilled that I had managed it. I sent him his signed copy too!
The book was called Welsh Valleys Humour and it headed the Welsh Books Council’s bestsellers list for 7 months. It always outsells all of my other books on a yearly basis and in 2005 I won the Welsh Books Council’s Award for Best Selling non-fiction. A reader friend has told me that Welsh Valleys Humour has headed the Gwales bestsellers list every year since 2005 to 2017 for the period covering Christmas sales.
Starting the ‘What’s On In Cwmcarn’ newsletter
About 12 months before I secured the publishing contract with Y Lolfa, I bumped into a friend’s wife– my friend had been admitted to Royal Gwent Hospital with a serious illness. I asked her how he was and she said he was bored, so could I send something down to cheer him up?
I wrote a long ‘nonsense letter’ and gave it to his wife to take to the Royal Gwent and give it to him. Somewhere in the letter I said that I had been writing a newsletter entitled What’s On In Cwmcarn– I had been doing it for two weeks and so far every issue had just been a plain piece of paper with the words, “Fuck All!” written on it. One evening I was a bit bored so I decided to actually write an issue of What’s On In Cwmcarn which was a list of spoof news stories that were ‘daft’.
Feedback from the hospital was good- it was passed around the ward. The nurses and doctors read it and passed it to different wards. My friend also showed it to other friends who visited him and they contacted me and asked for a copy. The following week I wrote a follow up and sent it to the Royal Gwent with his wife and emailed the second issue to the friends who had requested the first one. I wrote an issue for the 10 weeks that he was incarcerated; when he came home I stopped writing the newsletter.
I began receiving emails from people on the mailing list saying things like: “Oi, where’s my newsletter? I haven’t had one yet this week.” I explained that I had stopped because the reason that I had started doing it had ceased – my friend was out of hospital. They insisted that that was no reason to stop producing it and persuaded me to carry on. I reluctantly agreed.
By this time I had showed a few people at the college I was working in and it was being emailed internally around most of the staff who knew me. They were then emailing it to their associates both within the college and outside. I used to email it to about a dozen people not cobbected to the college and they were also passing it on to people that they knew. I am aware that one person that was on my email list worked in a tower block in Surrey and he emailed it globally to everyone in the building (that was 3000+ people). I had a massive readership, bigger than I could have imagined.
Returning to the main story- Ronnie Barker got back in touch about a week after receiving his signed copy with feedback on the book. I was expecting him to be unhappy because I’d used so little of the material he’d seen and the final book contained mostly prose ‘knocked up’ very quickly by me! He had never seen this. He was very complimentary and told me that he hadn’t realised that I was such a talented and accomplished writer. Neither had I! Apart from scientific essays and papers it was the first non-serious stuff I’d written.
He asked me to send him something else that I had written, but I didn’t have anything apart from the What’s On In Cwmcarn newsletter so I copied and pasted some examples of past issues into a word document and posted it to him and added him to my mailing list. He absolutely loved the newsletter and he used to ring me to discuss his favourites from each week’s issues.
Once he said: “Does Cwmcarn actually exist?”
I said: “Yes, it’s where I live.”
He said: “In that case I must visit. I am fascinated by Cwmcarn and I have this mental picture of it. I have to see what it’s really like.”
After a few weeks he asked me if I would like to submit some of the ‘stories’ from the newsletter for inclusion into the Two Ronnies end of show ‘newsdesk’ section- he even suggested which ones to submit. I agreed, obviously, and collected a few hundred stories from back issues, including the ones that he’d requested and began to compile a submission letter. The Two Ronnies had made a comeback and they had just aired what was to be their final show. They were going to make one more series and my stories, hopefully, would feature in that one.
Sadly, Ronnie Barker was visibly infirm during the filming of the last series that was aired and following that, his health deteriorated very quickly and he passed away. The official ‘last show’ never happened- and he hadn’t actually visited Cwmcarn either, which was a pity because I knew he genuinely wanted to come.
When Y Lolfa approached me for a new book I suggested that I used the bank of stories that I had supplied to Ronnie Barker. Lefi was on the mailing list for the What’s On In Cwmcarn newsletter so he was aware of the kind on material that it would contain.
The problem, again, was how to present it because, like the ‘Silly Sayings Book’ manuscript it was a huge list of unconnected spoof news stories. After a lot of huffing and puffing, I decided to create a scenario whereby an archaeologist, way into the future, acquires an archive of the What’s On In Cwmcarn newsletter and studies it in depth.
The story involves this archaeologist trying to make sense of something that never made sense in the first place. He reads a batch of stories and then comments on what each may mean – when he has completed one batch, he moves onto the next batch, and so on. If I had to choose which of my books was my personal favourite, it would be this one. It is entitled Cwmtwp and it involved me doing a find and replace exercise on the main script and changing the word Cwmcarn to Cwmtwp- mainly because I still live in Cwmcarn.
I mentioned earlier that I was shocked at the extent of my readership for the newsletter; when I finally got fed up with writing it I decided to call it a day. The last one that I penned was entitled The Last Issue and I emailed it out to the usual suspects. After two hours of this posting, I received an email a reader in West Sussex with the message: “Well I don’t know you are but thanks for keeping us amused over the last eighteen months.”
I received close on two hundred emails over the next week or so from people hailing from the UK, USA, Canada, Norway, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, all thanking me for writing the newsletter and how much they would miss it.
Two odd stories
One of the people I emailed the newsletter to had a best friend who was the Chief Constable of Gwent Police, and my friend would forward the newsletter to him each week. One of the recurring characters in the newsletter was called Sergeant Hogg, the chief of police in Cwmcarn. I didn’t depict him very favourably – he was corrupt, uncouth and every time he made a statement, they were made from the cake shop, the chip shop, the canteen etc.
My friend told me that the actual chief of police was a huge fan of Sergeant Hogg and couldn’t wait to see what he had been up to this week? My friend also told me that when the Chief had finished the newsletter, he’d highlight the Sgt Hogg story and pin the newsletter on the central notice board at police headquarters. It seemed that all of the officers at Gwent Police who frequented Police HQ were also fans of Sergeant Hogg. I was always intrigued why they would like him- I didn’t.
One of my colleagues had a friend who was in the RAF. He told me a very sinister ‘newsletter related’ story. Apparently, his friend was in an aeroplane flying over Iraq during the Gulf War days and they were actually in the process of bombing Baghdad. I can’t remember how many my friend told me were in the plane but during the process of bombing people they were all laughing out loud because one of the airmen in the plane was reading out the latest newsletter to them from a laptop! What a sobering thought.
The original ‘Silly Sayings’ book: