Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Way We Were ...

I noted a while back the memoirs of Frances Roper, (nee Hubbard), an upper-middle class Englishwoman of good Christian family, describing the first twenty-odd years of her life in Ealing, the Forest of Dean, and her aunt's orphanage in South London.

More comprehensive, and illuminating a totally different society, is Gwilym Rhys Williams - The Story of My Life. Lord knows what it's doing on a Canadian blog - did someone emigrate ? Ah yes - Ruth Hartnup, Aberystwyth to Vancouver. Nice family pictures here.

This memoir incorporates descriptions of a boy’s memories of life in the colliery villages of Cymmer and Gwaun Cae Gurwen before the First World War; a remote Carmarthenshire farming community (Panteg) between 1914 and 1935; life as a Grammar School pupil in Carmarthen and a student at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth 1925-29; a life-long teaching career at Llandeilo Grammar School (he probably taught some of my mother's relatives - LT); life and travels as a member of the Army’s Education Corps during the Second World War; and a description of a social life in Llandeilo centred around Capel Newydd; ending with a post-retirement period in Rhuddlan.
Here's some Original Sin from the early years in the 'Waun' :

These days there is a great deal of talk and press-reports about the increasing vandalism and lack of social conscience among children. It seems to me that there was little social conscience among the children of my childhood, even though, as I have mentioned before, parents had the Victorian attitude towards the up-bringing of their children. Children, indeed, may have been well-behaved at home, but once out of the sphere of its influence, moral standards were influenced by gang behaviour...

One example of vandalism in our childhood was the game of counting who had smashed the greatest number of what we called bottles on top of telegraph and electricity poles. One does not see bottles today. They were ceramic bottle-like fittings on the cross-bar of the poles, around which the wires conducting electricity were wound.

Another example of violence was the gang warfare between the boys of the Waun and the boys of Garnant. On many Saturday mornings, the Waun boys, equipped with rubbish-bin lids as shields and having a stock-pile of stones, stationed themselves on top of a viaduct facing another bridge, where the Garnant boys had congregated, similarly equipped. We then threw stones at each other. Sometimes the Garnant boys wilted and we were able to chase them as far as the bottom of the ‘cwm’. Once we had a serious problem on our hands. One of our boys had a facial injury, with a copious flow of blood, the result of being hit by a half-brick. The problem was how to carry him back to his home. I remember our trying to tie together some kind of stretcher, but I can’t remember whether we had any success.

I can also give more examples of behaviour which showed a lack of moral conscience These examples may give you, the reader, the impression that I am even now a man of doubtful moral and social conscience. No, I’m fairly convinced that children can go through this phase in childhood, and yet become responsible and morally sound citizens.

Looking back, I sometimes think that I should have been ashamed of certain irresponsible and inconsiderate tricks that we played. There was a sweets shop on the main road, not far from Gron Road. It was owned by the Hicks family, the son of which family, by the name of Haydn, I became very friendly with during my College days. There was a long passage leading from the shop to the kitchen. We were able to see through the glass door of the shop whether anyone was in the shop. If there was no-one there we assumed that the person on duty would be in the kitchen. We would then open the door a quietly a possible – there was no bell announcing an entry. There in front of us was a long row of glass-lidded boxes of sweets. So, before knocking for attention, we would lift the lids of several boxes and stuff our pockets with sweets. Then we knocked and when Dorothy – usually it was she who appeared – came to the shop we would ask for a pennyworth of sweets. A despicable act indeed! But did we have a conscience about it? Hardly, because it was repeated several times. It was no worse a crime than stealing apples from gardens!

There was another despicable piece of behaviour which was repeated several times. In a nearby street there lived on her own a woman, who was considered rather ’simple’ or ‘not quite sixteen ounces’. We used to play tricks on her, such as leaning a can full of water against her front door, and after knocking running round the corner to see what happened when the door was opened. Usually, the can of water tipped inside, accompanied by a loud scream. At other times we tied a black thread to the knocker, and pulled it from around a corner. As soon as she appeared and then closed the door, the knocker was pulled again – this being repeated several times.

He's right. Children have little social conscience and are much now as they were ninety years back - or a hundred and ninety, if it comes to that. And note the almost automatic compulsion to torment the weak (as in the memoirs of Frances Roper and Laurie Lee), or take advantage of the unworldly, not to mention the appeal of gang warfare (as in George Borrow). The difference between those days and our day is not in the way children are, but in the way adults respond to their behaviour.

How many more of these wonderful memoirs are out on the Web ? Please drop any you know of in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Nicking sweets versus gangrape!!

Anonymous said...

back then there were a lot of controlling adults around. And even more dangerous to unruly young children the feared 'big sisters'.
None of that now.

Anonymous said...

LT I think you are right about the attitude of adults.

Those childhood transgressions seem essentially limited and I assume that if caught punishment was certain, an unspoken line that would not be crossed. The boys ritualised combat for instance would not be tolerated if it spread beyond the gangs themselves. I think the football hooligan firms are a modern echo of that. There is no kudos in attacking 'civilians' but these are grown men fighting, not kids.

Mark said...

'Another example of violence was the gang warfare between the boys of the Waun and the boys of Garnant.'

One of my musical heroes, John Cale, was a Garnant boy, and in his autobiography 'What's Welsh for Zen' he recalls the same 'gang warfare' occurring decades later(sadly in his long years in the States he's acquired some American idioms)-

'There was a housing project across the valley, the Twyn, against whom our village would occasionally have a full pitched gang war with air rifles and stones. I had to make my presence felt or else I'd be labelled a sissy for life'.

Later in the same segment, he recalls the standard pattern of sexual experimentation in 50s Garnant-

'The trysts positions in varying intervals against the back doors of garages that lined the hill. No one lay down, it was an upright fornicatory experience in the valleys. Often one would hear the conversation going on two doors down, and it was guaranteed to be a weapon of choice in classes the following week'.


Ruth Hartnup said...


I moved my Dadcu's memoirs from the URL you provide in the link to the following location:
(Memoirs of G.R. Williams)

Cheers, Ruth