by Mary Owen
Some time in the 1980s, a fresh faced, pleasant boy came to Cyfarthfa. He seemed to enjoy his French lessons and he loved illustrating his written work, when required, with neat, labelled drawings. When I saw his excellent work on the ‘Clothes’ chapter, I suggested he repeat it for the wall display for homework, if he felt like it. He arrived at the next lesson with a set of ten delightful sketches of the clothes, including a smart chapeau with a chic feather in it. He had drawn them, coloured them, cut them out and mounted each one separately on a large sheet of paper and labelled them with their French names.
The stylish result amazed me. I didn’t know then that I was looking at the early efforts of a future young fashion designer, who would work at the house of Chanel in Paris, city of my dreams! and who would later make his own name and label famous: Julien Macdonald had done a fine piece of homework. I was delighted, we pinned his work on the wall and I showed it off to each class and to some of the staff. I think it would have remained there until the end of my teaching career but for a sad and regrettable incident a couple of years later.
The painters and decorators were in and gradually each classroom was going to be spruced up. I was instructed that work was to start on my room after registration the following day and the room had to be cleared of all its stuff. After school I stayed behind and carefully unpinned the wall decorations, that had become part of the furniture. There was a problem – some were too big to store in my cupboard so I decided, as it was time I went home, to leave them on a front desk until the following morning; after registration I would get help to carry them to some corner in the staffroom.
The next day I entered the classroom, without looking towards the precious pile, settled the class down and began to call the register, before assembly. A smell of smoke wafted up from the boiler room, somewhere down below: Glyn, the caretaker, was burning yesterday’s rubbish. A lot of it was paper. I gave a sudden look of panic across to the desk, on which my stack of papers should have been; the penny dropped! I knew in that instant that they would not be there and worse still I knew that they were probably being incinerated at that very moment. The pupil, seated at that desk, noticed my silent anguish and soon she and the rest of the boys and girls were sharing in my sorrowful and not so silent laments. The cleaner had taken them for a pile of rubbish (how could they have been considered rubbish?) and we never saw them again.
The maps of France and of Paris, the Boulogne – trip photos, the French flags, the cheese and wine labels, our exclusive collection of sketches by Julien Macdonald (not yet famous, admittedly) and all the other bits and pieces had gone up in smoke. I fumed at my lack of foresight and and my regret never ended.
Twenty or so years later, when walking in Thomastown Park, I met Matthew Howells, an old pupil of the school and former school-friend of Julien’s. He introduced me to his wife and as he reminisced about Cyfarthfa, he told us that once, when making their GCSE subject choices, he and some friends had asked Julien why he had chosen Art. Apparently, his answer had been “Well, Mrs Owen made such a fuss of some drawings I did for her I thought I would do Art.” After A-level success – nothing to do with me – Julien went on to study Fashion Design in London and is now known for his glamorous creations. He is one of Merthyr Tydfil’s most famous exports.