Take a good look in the Mirror – yesterday (2/3)

Though George sensed, at last, he had got through, he couldn’t help feeling inside a little embarrassed, once again, for going off into one of his philosophical reflections, which so often made him sound either half barmy, or, worse still, managed to bore people so much they simply switched subjects as soon as they could.

He had tried to put his ideas over positively, by talking about Maxwell, who had been a popular member of the department before he retired in 2015. But then, in a flash, the thought came back to him of when he had first been struck by the idea that our own self-image is shaped, at least in part, by what we see in others.

Nicholas Haversham, his retired British colleague, had come to mind. While George tried always to see the good in everyone and had to recognise to himself that Haversham was a ‘very good talker’, he realised one day how big the discrepancy was between what he saw in front of him, in his own soul mirror, as it were, and what George’s colleagues saw in Haversham.

‘Highly intelligent’ ‘and a ‘good laugh’ were not exactly the words on the tip of George’s lips. Admittedly, Haversham was an educated fellow and had his merits, but whenever he was in his company, George couldn’t help finding him ‘a bit of a show off,’ a trait George found particularly un-British. What’s more, George never liked ‘the big plans Haversham had for himself’ in the ERA.

George was especially irritated by the way Haversham had worked the system and built the foundations of his career on the golf course with the Irish Commissioner at the time. George, who more than once in his career had been accused of an excess of ‘the Protestant work ethic,’ summed up Haversham’s approach with an observation he shared, on the rare occasions Haversham came into the conversation, with Patricia, his wife. “One day, Haversham will need to take a good look at himself in the mirror. He’ll see himself as a man who’s never put in a decent day’s effort in all his working life”.

Nevertheless, George had learnt he had to take care of his thoughts when reflecting on his unfavourite Brits. “Maybe it’s my problem” he had pondered over the years. “I’m sure, back in the UK, many would say I’m just someone with a working-class chip on his shoulder.” Patricia also regularly reminded him of his excessive attachment to nostalgia, and all that came with it.

The fact is George often had to admit to himself that his humble origins were something he could never quite shake off, not that he would want to. After all, he was supremely proud of his Kenyon family past. His grandfather, Frank, had grown up in the socio-economic gloom of the inter-war period in Barking, in the gritty East End of London, as one of eight children.

Frank’s parents, a docker and his hardworking wife, were full of pride that Frank had ‘set himself up well in life’ by passing his apprenticeship to be a joiner at the age of 15, marrying a local girl five years later and having a son Sidney, George’s father, and lovely twin daughters.

That was all before he joined the Middlesex Regiment in September 1939 and went off to ‘restore peace’ on the continent, as part of the British Expeditionary Force, the B.E.F., in Belgium. As the family history recalled, his wife had fretted terribly when Frank had signed up to the army. George’s father, Sidney, had no further recollection of Frank, than that day, at the age of 7, when he watched him doff his cap to the family, with his hallmark smile, from the back of a green 3-ton Bedford truck, as it took him away, “Leaving us”, as Sidney always said, “all alone”. Frank was never to return and died tragically in Belgium in the retreat of the B.E.F. in May 1940.

Despite the constraints of his upbringing, in a fatherless household in post-war Britain, according to the family lore, Sidney ‘did even better’ than his own father and married a girl from Chelmsford, a pleasant market town, with some light industrial areas, in Essex, 50 miles out of London.

The couple worked together all their lives in one of the larger shops on the High Street and eventually had a small business of their own. George’s parents rented a modest house in a ‘nice part of town’, had two sons, George, and his younger brother. They put every spare moment they had from their long hours in the shop into encouraging ‘the boys’ to work hard at the local King Edward’s Grammar School. George passed all his exams with flying colours and made it to Cambridge, to study economics at King’s College, where he was inspired by the pupils of Joan Robinson and Maynard Keynes who taught him there.

It was only when George left the warmth of his home in Chelmsford and went to Cambridge that he woke up to what he later came to name “in-grown classism” in England.

For sure, George had noticed at school he was less well off than most others. But his success at mental calculation competitions and chess – he became county schools champion and twice represented Essex at the national championships – and his natural intelligence, combined with the encouragement from his parents, had always set him a bit apart.

But he often recalled that evening he had a conversation with a group of his fellow undergraduates at Cambridge. George had begun speaking tenderly about his parents and grandparents, who he still referred to as Mum and Dad, Nana and Grandad, their hard work and their dedication. Then came the put-down from Drummond-Smythe, an Eton boy, who held the Braithwaite scholarship in economics at King’s, with the chilling instruction to George: “Kenyon, stop showing your background.”

At the time George hadn’t thought too much of it, but over the years, exposed as he was to the ins and outs of British mores, he came to the view that the idea of social ‘background’ only had one definitive criterion: class. “In Britain,” George would cogitate, “you belong either to working, middle or upper class. And the only way forward, is upward.”

George’s recurrent thoughts about classism often jarred in his mind. Though he had learnt to accept what others called the ‘reality’ of class around him in Britain, it was only once he left the UK, to join the ERA and live in Belgium, that he found he could put a bit of distance between himself and the concept.

“OK”, became his attitude, “I’ve had more formal education; I earn more money; and I do more intellectual work than my father and grandfather. But whenever did that give me the right to think I was somehow better or even, heaven forbid, superior to them?”

Reflecting on how he had come to this viewpoint, he found fascination in the effect that short encounters in his life, and the anecdotes they generated in his mind, had to play. He thought of an occasion he had gone back to visit several schools in his hometown to give a talk on Europe. At the local engineering college in Chelmsford, the director, as a courtesy, but also as a sign of his pride in receiving a visitor from what he considered a highly important institution, had arranged for George to be escorted round the school by two youngsters. One of them was a shy, scrawny, bleach-haired, wisp of a lad.

When George had inquired what he wanted to do when he left school, the boy had surprised George by replying that he wanted to be a hairdresser.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place for that” George quipped. The boy frowned, the friendly way George had posed the question giving the young man the confidence to dare to satisfy his own curiosity.

“Excuse me… sir” the boy said, in that tone, so common in England, which still carries the vestige of feudal obeyance while expressing an air of indifference, “can I ask you a question?”

 “Sure,” said George, “try me.”

“Well, sir” he continued, “are you high up?”

In the British context, George understood instantly the implication of the vertical dimension of the young man’s question. He paused. “Yes, I suppose you could say I am” George replied. The boy, for a moment, looked anxiously at George. “But in a low sort of way.”  

As the years went by, such ruminations formed in George an acceptance, which became a great consolation in his life: “I’m so glad I’m out of all that, living here in Belgium,” George would say to himself. “I just want people to take me for what I am, not to have them fit me into some ludicrous ascending scale of social hierarchy.”

(to be continued)

This entry was posted in In the mirror, Mark, Observing Brussels and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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