Sunday, 28 January 2018

Happy Days

I was up in London last week to celebrate my partner's birthday together with our children, who both now live and work in the city. We spent the night at the house of some old friends, and by the time I caught the train back to Southampton the next morning I was well primed for one of those reveries that train journeys seem to induce. As Eastleigh rolled past in the bright but misty sunlight, I saw a young man in blue overalls kneeling on an industrial roof, pausing in his work with what looked liked some wiring to talk to an older man, standing on a ladder. They were both smiling and laughing, and something about the youngster's body language suggested to me that he was entirely happy in his work up there. Which reminded me that once I, too, was a young man in overalls, deeply contented and absorbed by his labours.

One of the oddities of the British educational system back in the 1970s was that Oxford and Cambridge still ran their own entrance examinations. Inconveniently, these happened during the winter term, followed by interviews, with admission results published in the national broadsheet papers around Christmas. So, unlike their private-school counterparts, potential Oxbridge candidates from state schools would first have to get some university offers in place, wait for their A-Level results in the summer and, if these were judged good enough, defer their year of university entrance and then spend an extra term at school preparing for and taking the entrance exams. Meanwhile, all your contemporaries would have left, either for university or the real world. As a consequence, successful or not, you had to experience a peculiar extended spell under a secondary school regime – uniform, haircuts and all – followed by nine months with nothing much to do.

I suppose children from wealthier families probably treated this as an opportunity for travel and adventure: what today would be called a "gap year". But I and my classmates Dave and Alan – two of us successful in our applications, one not – all came from typical New Town families, and needed to find paid work. Luckily, there was an informal agreement between some of Stevenage's schools that any Oxbridge candidates (there were never that many) might be taken on as temporary teaching assistants, and that's what we did. Dave went to a primary school, and Alan and I went to the Catholic boy's grammar school, St. Michael's, where I was put to work mainly as an art assistant.

Those two terms were some of the most intensely contented months in my life. Seeing that overalled young man on the roof brought back a wave of happy memories. I was earning real money for the first time and, outside of work hours, was free to do whatever I wanted: no more homework, no more exams, and with friends away at university I could visit them at weekends in exotic, faraway places like Bristol, Norwich, Birmingham, and Brighton. I was finally able to let my hair and beard grow, too, with the result that the boys at St. Michael's nicknamed me "Roy", after Roy Wood of Wizzard, a group that was a bit of a fixture on Top of the Pops in 1972/73.

At work I mainly wore overalls, as my main duties included attending to the kilns and clay bins in the art rooms, a messy business. It was also a hazardous and necessary business. The art and craft rooms at St. Michael's were very superior to those at my school, and in addition to a couple of kilns for firing pottery they boasted a plastic-injection machine, which melted little plastic beads to make moulded objects. Given a chance, boys would grab a handful of these beads and scatter them into the wet clay in the bins. If these weren't removed any pot placed into the kiln would explode, destroying much of the the other work being fired, even if it, too, hadn't been primed to self-destruct. One of my daily tasks was to pick through the clay to find these accursed things, which were about three millimetres in diameter and transparent, like clear plastic fish roe.

At the same time I had to keep a wary eye out for the Stanley-knife blades that would also occasionally get tossed into the clay, with potentially lethal consequences. Any boy caught doing this would suffer the ultimate penalty: being sent to see the school priest. I have no idea what went on in there, but it was clearly very effective. As far as I know he may even have been related to many of the boys, as his name was Father Brennan, and there seemed to be at least one Brennan in most classes throughout the school. Although, being in the main populated by the large extended families of the Irish construction workers who had built the New Town and decided to make it their home, the roll-call of names in every class was remarkably and confusingly similar.

"Roy", the carefree technician, 1972
(What, me worry?)

But I loved the work. I was a "technician": I learned to stack and fire a kiln, how to prepare slips and glazes and other useful hands-on skills, such as how to make screens for screen-printing, and racks to hang prints and paintings to dry. Sometimes I did help boys realise their art projects, and occasionally gave a hand with remedial literacy classes, and during the Easter break in 1973 I was among the staff accompanying two mini-vans full of boys to a Youth Hostel in Derbyshire's Peak District (I think it was there that my love of hills and hill-walking was awakened); but it was mainly brain-light manual work. I did an awful lot of sweeping up, tidying up, and putting tools back in racks and cupboards, as well as the eternal de-hazarding of the clay-bins.

I made friends with some of the younger teachers, and was invited to their houses. There I first became aware of the ways of the new, semi-bohemian middle-classes, with their duvets, Habitat furniture, and all sorts of eye-pleasing junk-shop bric-a-brac; antique glass bottles, stoneware jugs, and lacquered boxes, which sometimes concealed a little lump of hash for their weekend soirĂ©es. One couple, in particular, introduced me to the pleasures of illustrated books, of which they had a significant collection, including Arthur Rackham's Ring Cycle books and Some British Ballads [1]. In return, I introduced them to Joni Mitchell and Fairport Convention [2].

To those teachers I expect I was just a curiosity, one of the natives with unexpected tastes and ambitions, but to me this was the start of my New Life. These were the people I aspired to become, and I studied them like an Ancient Briton hoping to become a Roman citizen. This, combined with the rather wilder times I and my old schoolfriends were having together, meant that by the time I turned up at college the following October I considered myself quite the worldly sophisticate, especially compared to my privately-educated peers, who were arriving more or less straight from school.

Heh. Little did I know how much I had to learn, and what a gulf there was between the home-life and aspirations of a secondary school teacher in a New Town and those brought up to expect privilege and prominence by right of birth. But this lesson I had learned and knew for sure: that there is great satisfaction to be had in doing a necessary, skilled, reasonably-paid manual job well, free from worries and responsibilities, with the anticipation of a pleasure-filled weekend just a few days away. It's what young people are for. It's Saturday night and I just got paid... Here comes the weekend...

It doesn't last, of  course, but is one of the Best Things while it does. So what on earth are we thinking, and what on earth is the point of stealing that precious, carefree transition into adulthood from so many of our own youngsters by taking away so many of precisely those semi-skilled manual jobs, and filling their young lives not with useful, meaningful work but instead with idleness, insecurity, and anxiety about the future? They need to be up on the roof in overalls, fixing something that needs to be fixed, happy in the working moment and looking forward to a little weekend mayhem, not flipping burgers or stuck at home flipping listlessly through social media on their phones.

And they certainly should not be obsessing about how us Boomers ate all the pies. Even if we do go on about how very tasty they were, back in the day. Which, I have to say, they were (probably something to do with all the MSG they used to dose us with...).

(with apologies to Beatrix Potter)

1. I saw all of these for the first time in 45 years in a bookshop in Bridport over Christmas, which had clearly acquired someone's Rackham collection, and my heart leapt, then sank when I saw the prices: £190 each...
2. It's hard to imagine, now, how quickly one lost touch back then with the "latest thing" after settling into adult life. The hipper reaches of pop culture were mainly passed on by word-of-mouth, and the very idea of a middle-aged enthusiast for what was still, essentially, young people's music was actually in the process of being invented by that generation. No-one could afford the speculative investment in vinyl records that would have been necessary to keep up with the burgeoning scene, and radio-play was still effectively non-existent: weeklies like the NME and new TV shows like "The Old Grey Whistle Test" were vital sources of information for these house-, child-, and career-bound bohemians.


Martyn Cornell said...

A quick look at ABEBooks suggests even 1910 editions can be got much cheaper than £190, while modern reprints are £30 a pop.

Mike C. said...


Really? If I look for "Some British Ballads", setting aside the limited editions north of £1000, the first "trade" edition of 1919 goes for between £500 and £100 in good condition. Obviously, if you're happy with "The spine is sunned and stained; covers also rubbed and stained. All edges bumped. Upper board slightly loose. Book-plate to ffep. Some of the plates are loose. Sporadic foxing throughout, but not affecting the plates which, aside from a few tiny creases, are in Very Good condition." you'll get it for £70 or so, but...