Saturday, 28 November 2009

"Get up amongst 'em"

I related in a comment on my last post how one of my early friends at Cambridge didn't appreciate - in some sense, didn't even see - the architecture, those staggeringly beautiful and ancient buildings. He just wasn't tuned into that part of life and would have just as happily pursued his studies in featureless concrete cubes.

I describe him as a friend, but he was more someone I associated with, living as he did in the same house as me, along with a few other like-minded types (like his mind, not mine). In this sense, at least initially, Cambridge was a huge disappointment, as it is for a lot of people. I'd left a provincial comprehensive with enormously high expectations of who I'd meet; but I'd somehow fallen in with a group of individuals more philistine, narrow and, actually, more childish than any I'd been friendly with at school.

Thankfully, again as I think most people do, I eventually began knocking around with some more sympathetic people (a couple of them are still amongst my closest friends). But I'll never forget the disillusionment, almost desolation of that first term.

The architecture was one thing, but the biggest consolation was what getting into Cambridge had meant for my family and, most keenly, for my Taid. He was someone I idolised. But he was also one of the most cynical men I've ever met. Not in a vicious way - he was kind and considerate - but in a literal sense with a twist: he tended to disbelieve in human goodness, and the louder it was declaimed the more scornful he became.

His biggest hatreds were reserved for the Pope and Bob Geldof. (I'd love to hear the vituperation that would have been provoked by the likes of Blair and Bono). It was the hollow self-righteousness that sent him spare, I think. Everyone fundamentally remains mysterious, but my guess is that this cynicism was produced in the conjunction of a sensitive, idealistic personality with rough-edged experience.

His early working life was hard, as it was for many working class men of the early twentieth century: avoiding the mine or quarry by leaving his home in the Conwy valley at fourteen to go to Manchester where an aunt had managed to find him work on the trams; then working for the Rhondda Transport Company, where he'd never know day-to-day whether he'd be given a shift (turn up at the depot at 5am; get taken on if he were lucky; work through until the early hours of the next morning if he was; start again).

But I think it must have been his witnessing of hypocrisy that had made him so bitter. It started early. I remember him relating how he and his Mam would be walking down the street when they'd see the black-clad priest coming towards them tipping his hat as he went. When he reached them there would be a slight acknowledgement but the hat would remain firmly on his head. This absolutely infuriated him to the point of tears, even seventy or so years later: why wasn't his mother good enough for that man? He loathed organised religion, which he saw as a racket and, in the case of the chapel, pointlessly cruel and dictatorial as well.

He'd joined the masons at some point, thinking it was some form of companionable but charitable organisation; he left a short while later disgusted at how people used it to connive in career advancement. Then there were the cruelties, small and large, inherent in life in the Valleys: fatal industrial diseases, degrading working conditions, poverty, strikes. He was obviously quite an innocent man, sensitive and well-meaning. The lack of reciprocity he found in the world upset him and continued to do so. But what infuriated him were the moral grandstanders, those who appear to thrive on a mission of alleviating misery.

He retired early for health reasons and he and my Nain moved up with us to the Cotswolds. He was a lot happier there; he found it less claustrophobic. But he never really got used to the English - not friendly - and he never lost the marks left by his upbringing.

He always felt smart people might be looking down on him (despite his being always immaculately turned out). He said he could never hear a posh accent without cringing inwardly, and he could never imagine being able to contradict someone who spoke like that (it must have seemed doubly alien to him: Welsh was his first language). He felt shamed by this. His conclusive advice to us children was simply to get on, to "get up amongst 'em"; make the most of what we had and don't make the mistakes he'd made.

But don't think this was the beginning and end of the man. In fact, very few would know about these private opinions and insecurities. He loved music (one son, my uncle, became an opera singer). He was tremendously curious, bombarding me with questions whenever I saw him. Most of all, he was extremely funny with an oblique but harmless sense of humour, always looking for a laugh, to send something up. At most social gatherings, before long, a small crowd would be gathered around him; he'd be making innocent wise-cracks, whilst cradling a very large whisky and lemonade.

When I got the A-level results I needed we had an impromptu family party. A couple of friends came to collect me to to go to the pub; they left in the early hours, Taid keeping them in laughter for much of the night. They wondered why I ever bothered to go out.

So after my first term, when he told me that he was enjoying walking down the street in the knowledge that he was as good as anyone, now that he had a grandson at Cambridge, I was obviously left speechless. I still don't have words to explain what this meant to me. I suppose I felt proud, but pride didn't seem anything like the right emotion.

16 comments:

Nige said...

A wonderful post Gaw - and I too remember that bleak disenchantment of the first term...

worm said...

d'oh! I was just saying that its a good thing you made it through to the other side and now we can benefit from your excellent posts.

Unfortunately I never made it university

Gadjo Dilo said...

Wow, the lad done good; and I agree, even "pride" probably doesn't cover the emotion properly. I was the first one in my family to go to university but I think my paternal grandfather (who'd also spend his life immaculately turned out, as a dooorman at the Bank of England) couldn't really comprehend the idea: "Mechanical Engineering? Well, I suppose it's alright if you don't mind getting your hands dirty" :-)

malty said...

Thought provoking Gaw, and fascinating, the ups, downs and in betweens of life.
You describe that generations parental pride very well, one of the major benefits for me as a businessman was the satisfaction my father took from this, it was if he was saying 'now we are your equals', very sad that people were so marginalised that they had to wait for the next generation to right the wrongs.
Things have changed but not as much as some would have us believe, the hypocrisy that drove your Taid to distraction exsists today, in profusion,

Must be a melting pot, Cambridge, one of my sons friends went there to study I think, geography, since he gained his degree 14 years ago he has been touring Europe in a rhythm and blues band.

Gadjo, mechanical engineering eh?, I thought that I was the only dinosaur haunting these hallowed blogs.

worm said...

by the way Gaw - as a psychogeographic explorer - thought you might like this excellent blog:

http://walkinghometo50.wordpress.com/2009/02/22/destination-argleton-visiting-an-imaginary-place/

Kevin Musgrove said...

Excellent post, Gaw.

There's nothing like the sanctimony of the nicely-well-off hypocrite to boil the bile of the honest working man. You decribe it well/

Bunny Smedley said...

This is an absolutely beautiful post, elegantly structured, moving enough at the end that, well, it's hard to know what to say about it - except that I'm very glad you posted it.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Malty, I failed Mechanical Engineering and eventually had to take up computing and artificial intelligence instead, though I did really just want to be a dinosaur all along :-)

Gaw said...

Thanks all - you're very kind. I suppose I felt the need to write this primarily as I wanted to keep a record for my boys of what happened before they arrived. It's wonderful to discover that others find it such a pleasure.

And thanks for the link Worm - I shall explore...

Bunny Smedley said...

'Civilisation' and 'Oliver Postgate' - a perfect synonym.

If nothing survived from twentieth century Britain other than 'Ivor the Engine' imagine what an admirable lot future generations might have imagined us to be ...

Bunny Smedley said...

Whoops - that last comment turned up on the wrong thread - sorry! A small child is 'flying a very big aeroplane' around my study as I type this, which explains a lot.

James Hamilton said...

One of those rare blog posts that you feel, having read it, that your life just became better.

Re. the Rhondda tram co - this seems to have been at its worst in Wales, as the Taff Vale Railway of the same place and time delighted in presenting its men with 24 and 36 hour shifts. That's drivers and signalmen.

Gaw said...

Bunny, I think that comment has universal application and would have relevance at the end of any post!

James, thanks for that - no wonder there were so many industrial accidents! BTW I shall enjoy exploring your blog.

dearieme said...

It is odd, all those people who never notice their surroundings. It's like people who don't notice their food.

ghostofelberry said...

Same at Durham in 1997 - i arrived expecting to meet bohemians and poetical cutthroats, but they were 99% braindead idiots who knew nothing and had no interest in anything, and despised learning and intellect. i found scientists more interesting than the retards doing English Lit, on the whole. Most of my friends were Christians who seemed to have walked out of the Middle Ages.

Gaw said...

I only found a friend who was at all interesting when a young man dressed as a psycho-billy tried to head-butt me in the college bar. We haven't looked back.