PN Review - November - December 2011
NE I L POWELL Rewards of Failure
The cartoonist Mel Calman used to draw, with very few lines, a recurrent character: a melancholic yet resigned fellow, typically to be seen sitting at his desk and thinking (in the bubble caption) some wryly incontrovertible truth. One of these read: ‘Being a failure isn’t as easy as it looks.’ This seems neatly to suggest why unsuccessful people are on the whole more interesting and agreeable than successful ones; for success can come altogether too easily, while failure is usually hard work. Since the 1970s, success and failure have been defined almost exclusively in terms of wealth and possessions, but those of us who grew up a little earlier – children of rationing and shortages – may take a rather different view. We greatly resent having occasionally to spend money on replacing worn-out machines with new ones which seem both unnecessarily complex and mysteriously inferior; we actually like making do. Appalled and slightly baffled by the recent sight of looters making off with boxes of pointless electronic gadgets from shops and warehouses, I found myself reflecting that I’ve never possessed a freezer or a microwave, a digital or flat-screen television, a mobile phone or an iPod, and I’ve had my blue-humbug-shaped iMac for a decade now. That, however, is a stripling. My hi-fi system is over forty years old, the Rogers valve amplifier and the Celestion speakers as good as new, although the Garrard turntable’s got a bit rusty from living in damp houses: these old things endure, while the twenty-year-old CD player already seems doddery. To many younger people – and here the heartless winners of the late capitalist world would be in complete accord with the desperate losers – this must all seem laughable and pathetic. And there may be little point in trying to describe to them the incomparable pleasures of failure: the weird notion that there might be greater, and cheaper, delights to be found in a second-hand bookshop, a junk shop or a village hall sale than in even the glitziest shopping mall.
I don’t for a moment think there’s anything especially virtuous in my position: it simply goes with a certain habit of mind, which in turn has much to do with a particular time and place. In truth, I began my apprenticeship in failure at the earliest possible moment, by apparently not much wanting to be born: the forceps left marks visible to this day. My reluctant arrival took place in East Sheen, but my parents soon decided to move out of London to a shoebox cottage in rural Surrey. There was no mains drainage or electricity: we had a petrol-driven generator in the garage which my father liked to say went chuggy-chuggychug-chug, although quite often it didn’t, which is why I learnt to read by the pure light of an opal glass shaded Aladdin paraffin lamp. Hot water came, of course, from an Ascot, and we also had a cubeshaped Ascot gas fridge. In the back garden lurked a concrete cesspool which had usually acquired a perceptible degree of ponginess by the time a dull green tanker from Dorking & Horley Rural District Council came to empty it. Once my father had left for work, driving to the station in his pre-war Rover, we were pretty much stranded – my mother and I, Bruce the labrador and Simon the tabby – until he arrived home in the evening. But most things came to Deanoak Lane: milk from the dairy in Charlwood, bread from the village baker in Leigh, groceries from the Norwood Hill Stores. Once a week, my mother would put on her special telephoning voice – ‘This is Mrs Powell, from Rowbarns Cottage, phoning through the order’ – and a man in a beige overall would duly appear with a box, to be unpacked (and the items ticked off on a list while he waited) on the little red formica-topped kitchen table, next to the mangle. On Saturday mornings, we’d make a grand expedition in the car to Reigate. There we divided, my mother going off to incomprehensible places such as butchers and fishmongers while my father and I together undertook more enjoyable forays: Westminster Wine and the tobacconist’s for him, La Trobe’s model railways and Mrs Lee’s sweetshop for me. We’d eat cones of Forte’s ice cream in the car or take jam doughnuts home for elevenses.
Life in Deanoak Lane taught me about improvisation and self-sufficiency – not bad formative skills for a writer – before I even went to school. I’d vanish for hours on end, across meadows and bluebell woods on foot with the dog, or along lanes and farmtracks on wheels: at first three, then two. The little glade at the bottom of the garden became an imaginary court; a pair of old garage doors were recycled into a makeshift den with rather surprising diamond-paned windows. In time, the den was replaced by a big timber shed ingeniously constructed by my father and furnished with serviceable oddments, in the spirit of The Borrowers, a book I loved. These came to include a tiny ‘Bijou’ typewriter, ancient but surprisingly sturdy, and a maroon, suitcase-shaped wind-up HMV gramophone; at weekends, I’d cycle off to jumble sales in neighbouring villages in search of 78s to play on it. Nothing plugged in because there was nowhere to plug it. I don’t remember ever being bored.
But the habits I’d acquired, though they might be dignified by words such as resourcefulness and independence, wholly unfitted me for school. My first one was a kindergarten called High Trees (it now seems to be an old people’s home, so perhaps I should return there for my second childhood) where everyone struck me as mad: I just couldn’t connect with their shiny-gold-star view of things. My father or a neighbour would drop me off there on his way to work, but I had to catch the bus back on my own: that was the best bit of the day. Mother, dog and tricycle would meet me at the end of Deanoak Lane until I was old enough to leave my bike there, hidden beside a farm entrance, to retrieve on the way home. I’m not sure I learnt anything at High Trees: it certainly didn’t prepare me for what came next, which was St Mary’s in Reigate. This was a peculiar day prep school, adjacent to the grim barracks of Reigate Grammar School, of which it had once been part: the general idea was that if you went there you’d have a decent chance of going on to the ‘grammar’ at eleven, though that didn’t take account of my increasing expertise in failure. I greatly disliked being middling, from which it seemed to follow that if I couldn’t be excellent at something (and the field for this was limited) I should instead be spectacularly bad at it and, moreover, treat it with obvious contempt. Sometimes this didn’t matter too much. I remember the day a bunch of us were herded off for a Cycling Proficiency Test, in some unholy place such as Merstham: by then, we’d moved to a house on the side of Colley Hill, outside Reigate, and there was nowhere within range I hadn’t cycled – the only constraint usually being a parental hint that if I fulfilled some grand ambition I wouldn’t be back for lunch or dinner or the start of next week – so going to Merstham to get a silly certificate shouldn’t have been a bother. When I got there, it wasn’t about cycling at all but about slowly navigating a line of traffic cones: not being much good at that, I decided to knock over as many of them as I could instead and was sent home, a failure, in disgrace. ‘Never mind, dear,’ said my
PN Review 202
mother, in a moment of terrible incomprehension. ‘I don’t mind,’ I said. ‘I’d have minded passing the stupid thing.’
Sometimes, though, it did matter. I could see that a failure to understand either maths or geography, for instance, might have more serious consequences than an urge to up-end traffic cones; but there was no help for it, especially as Mr Salmond, who taught both subjects, could be prompted to bristling and vastly entertaining rages, during which he spanked boys he especially fancied while the rest of us chortled smugly. On the other hand, I began to be quite good at English, encouraged by the fact that it was taught by a quizzical hunched Welshman called Gadfan Morris, in whom I recognised a noble failure after my own heart, no doubt a haunter of second-hand bookshops and definitely (though he never said a word about it) the author of radio plays broadcast by the BBC. Meanwhile, the headmaster, the Reverend Hobson, mysteriously taught us all Latin, a subject in which, at the age of ten or so, I might have plausibly attempted an O Level but which hadn’t anything much to do with passing the eleven-plus.
The possibility that Reigate Grammar School mightn’t welcome me with open arms, while secretly delighting me (I liked the look of Reigate Priory, the secondary modern, nearer home and housed in a beautiful building by a lake), prompted my parents to draw up contingency plans. They entered me for the entrance exams at both Whitgift and Trinity in Croydon, which I gratefully failed. They took me off to a cathedral school in the west country where the interviewing headmaster asked me to remind him which university he had attended: I realised he was a pompous fool who wanted to see whether I’d read his prospectus, so I politely wondered if he was perhaps feeling unwell and wasn’t offered a place. Meanwhile, I sat the eleven-plus exams – juxtaposed in memory with Quatermass and the Pit, the most exciting thing I’d ever seen on television – and naturally failed. Or so I thought, until I came across a file of correspondence preserved, with my school reports, by my father. In February 1959, Surrey County Council told him that I had ‘not satisfied the Committee’ in the first part of the examination and invited me to sit a second part in March; in April, they wrote identically about the second part and asked me to attend an interview; in June they decided that I was after all suitable ‘for grammar education’, but didn’t say where; it wasn’t until late July that they wrote again to offer me a place at Horley County Secondary School, which was eight miles away and didn’t sound much like a ‘grammar’. My father frostily replied that he had ‘felt it necessary to make other arrangements for my son’s education’. Only now does it dawn on me that someone in the Education Department probably hadn’t updated a card index and so thought that we still lived out at Leigh, for which Horley would indeed have provided the nearest secondary school.
Also in that file is a letter of 15 May 1959 from L.C. Taylor, the Headmaster of Sevenoaks School, confirming that I’d passed their entrance examination and been offered a place. I know why I passed: the appalling Hobson had told my parents that he thought Sevenoaks was too ambitious for me and a bit unconventional or even (he’d have sniffed) ‘progressive’. I’ll show him, I thought. Better still, there was an interview, which turned out to be with the genial, astonishingly young headmaster and a bearded chap, whom I’d soon be able to name as Brian Townend, classicist, jazz buff and brilliant boogie pianist. They somehow seemed to like a boy who walked and read and wrote and who cycled to village jumble sales in search of rare 78s, including, as luck would have it, early recordings by Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. As I was leaving, one of them said that they hoped they’d be seeing me again in September. They what? ‘How did it go?’ my father asked. He’d taken a day off work and was waiting for me in the car. ‘Oh, you know, not too bad,’ I said, with a giveaway grin. Not having lived a parallel life, I can’t be certain that it was the right decision; but it was the right kind of decision, and that’s what matters most.
SAM ADAMS Letter from Wales
Recently (in PNR 200), I quoted from a letter David Jones wrote to The Times in June 1958 concerning the Welsh language. The loss of Welsh, he said, would impoverish England, ‘for the survival of something which has an unbroken tradition in this island since the sixth century, and which embodies deposits far older still, cannot be regarded as a matter of indifference by any person claiming to care for the things of this island. It is by no means a matter for the Welsh only, but concerns all, because the complex and involved heritage of Britain is a shared inheritance which can, in very devious ways, enrich us all’. Worthy of repetition as it is, I would not so soon have brought it up again if I had not come across a very similar statement from an unexpected source: ‘Welsh is of this soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain; and Welsh is beautiful… It is the native language to which in unexplored desire we should still go home.’ These are the words not of a Welshman, nor of someone, like David Jones, consciously half-Welsh though born a Londoner. They were spoken at a public lecture in Oxford in 1925 by one who considered himself not simply English, but Mercian (which I have now learned means ‘of the March’), or better still, Hwiccian, that is, belonging to a kingdom corresponding roughly to modern Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and part of Warwickshire, which was annexed by Mercia in the eighth century.
That, perhaps, gives the game away. They are the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings I have not read, but whom I felt I knew well as co-editor (with E.V. Gordon) of the OUP Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first published in the same year as that Oxford lecture. My heavily annotated copy is a sixth edition, 1952. Faced with it as a set book in the honours course at Aberystwyth, I cannot pretend I was initially overjoyed, but I soon learned to savour it and am now immensely pleased and grateful that I once read, from beginning to end, a magical poem in its original fourteenth-century Lancashire English.
Tolkien’s devotion to ‘beautiful’ Welsh, the confession of a philologist, was not idly expressed. As professor at Leeds and, later, Oxford, he introduced a mediaeval Welsh option into the Anglo-Saxon syllabus. He found an academic soulmate in Gwyn Jones, professor at Aberystwyth. They shared a professional interest in Old and Middle English and were both, also, writers of short stories and novels. He introduced Gwyn as a friend at a meeting of the Inklings, where, according to W.H. Lewis, brother of C.S., ‘he turned out to be capital value; he read a Welsh tale of his own writing, a bawdy humorous thing told in a rich polished style which impressed me more than any new work I have come across for a long time’. Ah, I can just hear the smile in Gwyn’s voice. The friendship led to the publication of Tolkien’s long poem ‘The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun’, a tale of mediaeval Brittany, in Gwyn’s magazine
Sam Adams: Letter from Wales