Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Life on Mars

"Do y'like school, then, Michael?"

When I was small, this was the inevitable, ritual question posed by visiting older relatives. As I recall, this was usually pretty much the sum total of our conversation; in our family, "children should be seen and not heard" was taken quite seriously. Situated somewhere on the spectrum between "So, do you enjoy being assaulted with a stick?" and "I prefer tea, myself, but I can see coffee has its points", the question encapsulated the gulf between our generations, between those who survived the fag-end of Victorian Britain, and those who were embracing the benefits of the New Elizabethan Age. They had no more idea of what wonderful things went on in the child-centred utopia that was a 1960s New Town primary school than I had of the rigours of caning and shaming that constituted the schooling of the poor at the turn of the twentieth century.

It is astonishing to me, now, to think of the almost total transformation of society they had witnessed: from the precarity of a dark, damp, smoky world of horses and candles to the fair-rent security of a council house, lit and heated at the flick of a switch. It's not surprising they didn't say much; they must have lived in perpetual anxiety that the spell would be broken and it would all be snatched away, like Caliban's dream. But it also meant that I knew next to nothing about them, and one of my pastimes over recent years has been exploring our family history.

I recently came across this document. It is a page from the 1906 "Poor Law Union" book for the North Hertfordshire market-town of Baldock, which records the assistance, usually financial, given to the paupers of the parish. There, at the top of the page, are my widowed great-grandmother Mary Ann, my grandmother Daisy aged 12, and her younger brother Henry, 11, receiving 3 shillings and sixpence "weekly relief". Four older children had already left home, two of them girls not much older and living "in service" on a nearby farm.

I knew they had been poor, but this was pretty desperate. Mary Ann had not had a lot of luck in life. She had been disfigured in a domestic fire, but married an older man in 1882, a soldier turned farm labourer, who gave her six children in quick succession and then promptly died at age 50. The shame of living "on the parish" was considerable, and must have left its mark. Nonetheless, according to my father, Granny Mabbitt was a sweet, kind, and generous woman, with a knack for home-brewing (the two are not necessarily connected). I suspect that if you are gifted with the right nature, simple survival is reward enough in life. She lived to be 80, sharing a household in Letchworth for many years with another daughter, Alice, who had been abandoned by her husband to bring up their child alone. Between them, I imagine they were pretty much immune to any amount of small-minded gossip or scandal. Again, according to my father, his Aunt Alice was a good-humoured, life-affirming woman, and I am proud to carry whatever share of their genes I may have. I can also report that in 1941 at age 56 Alice married a man – a bricklayer, no less – of 39. The marriage certificate shows they were both already living at that same address in Letchworth. As I say, immune.

Granny Mabbitt

The stigma of poverty must surely also have affected the then "scholar" Daisy. But, if so, she too wore it well. She was by far my favourite grandparent and, as she lived close-by throughout my childhood, I spent much time in her company. In her youth she had been a bookbinder at the Temple Press in Letchworth (home of Dent's "Everyman's Library"), "mother of the chapel" of her trade union, an active Labour Party member and, in the years I knew her, the energetic organiser of the Stevenage "Over-60s Club", where she met her raffish second husband. It's amusing, now, to think that 60 was the qualifying age for membership of an "old people's" club, but you didn't expect to live long after retirement in those days. That's if you made it that far: having lost her father aged 50, Daisy's first husband, my grandfather, died at 59. In the course of my family-history researches, I was by turns astonished, alarmed, and encouraged to discover that my own father was the first man in my direct male line to live past 60; good diet, central heating, and relief from all-weathers manual labour make all the difference. Plus an infusion of those good-humoured, survivor genes from East Anglia into a stiff-backed Scottish strain did no harm, either, of course.

Daisy Chisholm at Hemsby, Norfolk, 1956

The truth is I did like school, most of the time, despite the bullying, the pressures to conform and adopt protective colouration, the tedious homework and rote-learning, and even the occasional caning (that was only outlawed in England in 1986). In fact, I could cheerfully have spent the rest of my life at school. Which, now I come to think of it, I very nearly did; some people do. I suppose I may simply have inherited that Mabbitt make-the-best-of-it gene – mustn't grumble! – but the really crucial factors were that our state schooling was free all the way from Janet and John to PhD thesis, that the education on offer was worth having, and that some truly talented, committed teachers really, really wanted you to take it and run with it. Most of which, sadly, is now becoming as historic in our state system as learning to write on a slate. But, if it turned out that taking exams was your thing, you could even end up at some preposterously elite institution of higher education, previously the preserve of the nobbiest of nobs – and some of us did – places so far out of the ken of your family that you might as well be talking about taking tea with the Royal Family, or life on Mars.

Which brings its own problems. Once in a while, the confusion of why and how I got here or what on earth someone like me is doing here, anyway, can overwhelm the simple pleasure of being here. Wherever "here" is. But it's then that I must remember to try harder to hear the distant cheers of my not-so-distant ancestors, celebrating the comfortable shoes, warm home, full plates, and the easy, interesting life their genes are currently enjoying. And not just theirs, and not just the ones residing in those of us who have scrabbled some sort of "result" from life, either. All shall have prizes! Well, all shall have shoes, at least.

You've never had it so good!
Southend or Margate, 1932


Paul Mc Cann said...

The favourite question in my day was 'Did you get any slaps today?' Times have changed
My own father died at 56 when I was 10 years old. To me he was an old man. Now that I'm past my 3 score years and 10 I'm surprised at how youg he was. My mother was left with 5 children all at school. She was agreat manager as we all got our full chance at higher education.
In talking with acquaintances and friends it is surprising how many men die at 56 in those days.

I still regularly read and appreciate you blog.

Mike C. said...


Thanks. I'm convinced that "family history" research -- so easy to do on the Web these days -- is a tool for social good, and should be encouraged. The more "ordinary" people get a sense of who they are, and where they come from, the more the idea that we are disposable nonentities will become untenable.

It also doesn't do anyone any harm to realise quite what a foreign country the recent past was!


Martyn Cornell said...

Just four generations back, the Cornells were illiterate farm labourers living just outside Cambridge. It really was a different country.