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