Heaven Lies About Us
NEITHER my father nor my mother attended any place of worship. We children were allowed to go whither we pleased; but, as parents expected to be free of children on Sunday afternoons, we were expected to go somewhere. Thus, fortuitously, I made the acquaintance of the Plymouth Brethren. Their dingy chapel was the nearest one to our house; and so I attended their Sunday school.
I soon discovered that I was a goat among lambs. All the other boys in my class were the children of Plymouth Brethren parents, and they had, young as they were, taken the Great Decision. Not one among them but possessed a Bible, inscribed in some such way as this: ‘J. Smith, born Feb. 18th, 1889. Born again, July 16th, 1899, 11.32 A.M/ They knew to the dot when they had left the broad highway and taken to the straight and narrow path.
In a secondhand shop I bought a Bible whose former owner had underscored in red a great many verses. It was a battered book, and when first I produced it in the Sunday-school class the teacher seized it with a glitter in his eye.
‘This,’ he exclaimed, holding it up for the admiration of all, ’is how I like the Old Book to be — worn with use.’ He flicked the pages. ‘And see,’ he said, ‘Bob has underlined the Promises.’
I kept a cowardly silence. I could not with my own words tear down their beginnings of respect.
All the Brethren were monomaniacs of the Book. Nothing else — literally nothing else — was admitted to be fit to read. I became a hypocrite of hypocrites at the age of ten. The Brethren were great visitors in pursuit of souls. They took to visiting our house; and one night, when I was reading the Pickwick Papers, I heard the voice of one of them at the front door. I hastily buried Pickwick beneath the old rag cushion on my father’s chair and sunk myself deep into the Bible with the Promises underlined in red.
From the Sunday school I passed to attendance at the morning services. They were held in a drab oblong hall. A few painted texts relieved the coldness of the ugly walls. Pinned to a seat halfway down the room was a notice: ‘Unbelievers! Sit behind this seat.’
Thus there was no chance to pass yourself off for what you were not. Though my dirty Bible was held to show the dawn of grace, I remained unregenerate and sat with the damned behind the notice. There were advantages in that, for the collecting plate never came to the unredeemed.
How many sermons I listened to in that bleak place, with my toes dangling above the ground: a thin, dark little goat, with sticks of wrists and poor clothing. No sermon was ever written or, it seemed, thought about. Torrents of denunciation poured out: particularly denunciation of ‘our friends the Wesserleens’ who went to worship in top hats, which were held by the Brethren to be worldly and blasphemous, who sat on cushions, paid pew rents in the House of God, quoted profane poetry in the belief that it helped to expound divine truths, and sang ‘Amen’ at the end of their hymns.
1 In the JanuaryAtlantic Howard Spring, English novelist and critic, began the glowing account of his boyhood in Cardiff. His father was a gardener, and the children had to fend for themselves and pick up their education on the run. — EDITOR
‘The Wesserleens’ were fair game; they were always for it; and so was smoking, and the theatre, and the wearing of jewelry, and any sort of sport. I was not the only goat. I soon got to know of boys who kept their football boots and jerseys in the homes of friends, changed there before and after a match, and never let their parents know how dangerously they had warmed their hands at the flames of Hell.
But even the Brethren unbent on a Whitmonday, which was the day of Sunday-school outings. Wagons with benches lashed upon them would draw up in the early morning before the chapel door; and, when we were all aboard, the great lumbering horses would plod slowly away to some green field where the day was spent in sunshine. There the true and secular selves of the Brethren would be betrayed in round games and an enthusiasm for swinging the young women teachers from the Sunday school in the shade of the oaks and elms. There were tea and buns and sweets, and, if lugubrious hymns damped the temper of the journey home, still the day had been good and nothing could alter that.
But even on these occasions the Brethren maintained the sober fashion of dress which their minds allied with holiness; and once when Brother Thompson, a young and not unhandsome spark, appeared at the Treat wearing white trousers, a crimson cummerbund, and a straw hat, it was whispered in more than one quarter that he had Gone Too Far.
I have never in my life sought jobs. I have always been pushed into them or lured into them. So it was with the first full-time job I held.
But before I got the job I had to leave school. I was only twelve years old, and the law had laid it down that I must imbibe the milk of education for another two years. But there was little enough difficulty in getting over that rule. Any boy who sold evening papers was permitted to leave school before the last lesson was finished; and any master who wanted to send a boy out on some errand of his own made no bones about it.
Some sort of application must have been made about me, because one day Flegg summoned me to his study. He told me what a fool I was to want to leave school, as though the affair were of my devising. He told me just what magnificent advantages I was missing by losing two years of learning; but he said not a word which would help me to understand that all need not be ended when the board school had done with me. Then he handed me some sort of certificate and growled ungraciously that that was that.
So there I was at twelve with school days ended and no job in sight. My brother was already at work. He had won the scholarship which I had failed to win; but after long family conferences it was decided that we could not afford for him to go on as a mere honeybee. He had to set to and do some donkeywork.
And now my turn had come, too, and I was all for it. I had not left school with work in view, but only in order to be free to take any work that offered. It was on a Friday that I said good-bye to Mr. Flegg, and on the Monday the job appeared.
There it was, in the window of a butcher’s shop: the conventional notice, ‘Smart Boy Wanted.’ I was engaged in five minutes, ran home to tell my mother about it, and half an hour later had begun the first of all the jobs that have gone on without intermission ever since.
I had not been in the shop an hour before an awkward hobbledehoy, whose business was to look after the stable, groom the horse, and drive it when it had to be driven, whispered in my ear: ‘D’ you want to get on?’
I assured him that such was my firm intention. ‘Well, don’t let the boss see you loafing about the shop. Find something to do. Clean all the brass on the harness.'
With the utmost goodwill I cleaned the harness, and only when Mr. Ventricle, the boss, appeared in the stable and wanted to know why I was messing my hands with metal polish when they had to handle meat did I realize that I had been taught my first lesson by a twister.
Ventricle seemed to me a forbidding and redoubtable chap. Years before, when chopping through a bone, he had caused a sliver to leap at his eye, and the consequence was that now he always wore a black shade supported by a string that slanted across his temple. It impressed my mind out of all proportion to the cause, and made him sinister.
When I was not carrying joints to customers’ houses, and discovering how very heavy joints in a big basket can be to a small boy, Ventricle kept me perpetually chopping up suet on a block. It became as odious a torture as picking oakum, and it was not surprising that I ended by chopping off the fleshy end of a finger. It was dressed in a rough-andready way, and I went on chopping.
I disliked that job very much. If you have to be an errand boy, be an errand boy in a greengrocer’s shop. There you have atmosphere: lovely colors, exciting smells, and the strange sense of all the queer places that the fruits have come from. To this day I love the smell of a greengrocer’s shop and I dislike the smell of a butcher’s.
On the Saturday night I waited till Ventricle had handed me my wages. Then, with the money safely in my pocket, I told him I should not come on Monday.
‘What about notice?’ he asked.
‘What’s notice, sir?’ I innocently demanded.
‘Pshaw!’ said Ventricle, and left me to go my ways.
By Monday morning I was employed again. There had been swift work somewhere, and it was not done by me. I can see now what acute anxiety on my mother’s part was betrayed by that instantaneous finding of a job. She had canvassed the Brethren! My next job was that of office boy to a Plymouth Brother.
Richard Basham, F. S. A. A., was a short, thickset fellow with a close-cropped black beard. All his movements were swift darting rushes. All his words were sharp quick barks. His chief clerk, an old bearded man named Hadley, had a giggling laugh and the dirtiest teeth I have ever seen in a human being. He too was a Plymouth Brother, but Hallows, the articled clerk, was only a nephew of two lady Plymouth Brethren. They had put him into the office because they thought the atmosphere would be good for him, but Hallows did not like it.
All this was clear within a week even to a twelve-year-old office boy. It was the most intimate office imaginable. Basham was almost always out, auditing books, and Hadley and Hallows discussed him and one another with unrivaled freedom. Young Hallows was a non-smoker, a teetotaler, a regular football player in a good team, as fit a man as you could see; yet decrepit old Hadley nagged him like a naughty child, and always found some offense which ‘your aunts would n’t like, my boy.’
One theme which recurred again and again in dley’s diatribe was the smoking concerts which Hallows attended with his football team. ‘But I don ’t drink myself, and I don’t smoke,’ Hallows would explain.
Hadley would cease totting up figures to say darkly: ‘Ay, but some day you will, and what will your aunts say then?’
Another thing which offended Hadley was the songs which Hallows brought from the concerts and which he would sing con brio. To Hadley they were disgusting, though he himself again and again burst into the only line of a song he seemed to know. ‘I saw Esau kissing Kate,’ he would sing in a whining voice, and then let out his childish giggle.
It was a brown, dingy little office, packed to the door and the ceiling with furniture and packets of dusty documents done up in brown paper parcels. There was a gas fire which smelled abominably, though a saucer of water was kept in front of it, someone holding the opinion that the steam purified the atmosphere. Opening out of the office was a second room which was used only for board meetings of the innumerable companies of which Basham was secretary.
On the same landing was an office occupied by an Italian named Mansoni. Mansoni was always popping in to pass the time of day. He never seemed to have any work to do. He would stay talking as long as Hadley and Hallows would let him. He was the first perfectly dressed man I ever saw, a real little beau, and his cheerful face, shaved to incredible smoothness, would have shone with good humor if he had not used so much powder.
‘Gooda morning, Hallows! Gooda morning, Hadley!’ he would say, and then, turning to me, ‘Gooda morning, Mr. String!’ Every time Mansoni came in, smoking his perfumed cigarettes, he made that little joke, a poor enough one, God knows, but I don’t begrudge it to him, for he was a good-hearted man. The sight of the smallest and thinnest office boy at Cardiff Docks seemed a bigger joke than he could bear.
Mansoni would have known how to give a present without making it an offense. But Basham did n’t. He must have weighed me up on that first morning, for on the second, blowing in in his tempestuous way, he threw me a piece of paper and barked: ‘Here, boy! Take this, and wear it.’
The paper contained a tie, the first I ever wore. Basham did n’t like the look of my Eton collar stud, but he might have taken a quieter way of showing it. I wore the tie for a week, and out of my first wages bought a new one. I hope Basham noticed it. I put his in the fire.
I spent a happy year at Basham’s. The Docks were a long way from my home, — a good four miles, I should think, — and I walked there and back each day. The wages did n’t run to tramfares, and, anyway, there was fascination in the walk through Tiger Bay. ‘Chinks’ and ‘Dagos,’ Lascars and Levantines, slippered about the faintly evil byways that ran off from Bute Street. The whole place was a warren of seamen’s boardinghouses, dubious hotels, ship chandlers’ shops smelling of rope and tarpaulin, shops full of hard flat ship’s biscuit, chemists’ shops stored with doubtful-looking pills, herbs, and the works of Aristotle. Children of the strangest colors, fruit of frightful misalliances, staggered half-naked about the streets; and the shop windows were decorated with names that were an epitome of all the clans and classes under the sun. The flags of all nations fluttered on the house fronts; and ever and anon the long bellowing moan of a ship coming to the Docks or outward bound seemed the very voice of this meeting place of the seven seas. It was a dirty, smelly, rotten, and romantic district, an offense and an inspiration, and I loved it.
In the lunch hour a mob of us boys would take our food to the Pier Head and watch the shipping: the pleasure boats of the White Funnel Line setting off on high jinks we could not hope to share, the coal steamers lying under the chutes, the pilot cutters which, then, still carried sail. A grand spot, the Pier Head, on a day when the sun was shining, and the white gulls were screaming, and Penarth Head, across the muddy flats where the Taff found the sea, towered up at the entrance to the Channel which contained so many delights. As yet they were delights on paper only — on the posters stuck about the Pier Head, advertising the joys of Ilfracombe and Clovelly, Lundy Island, Lynmouth and Clevedon.
Sometimes we would go down the steps to the water and timorously embark upon a dinghy lying there, never daring to untie her painter, but, by the mere fact of being afloat and feeling the swell and undulation of another element, savoring the infinite possibilities of navigation. The clock in the tall red tower of the Docks Office crawled all too swiftly round to two, and, lamming and batting one another as boys will, we scuttled back to our various servitudes.
And still I was learning nothing. Indeed, I was unlearning, for now I did none of the reading which my father had insisted on, but found instead the delights of the Union Jack, the Marvel, and the Bull’s-eye. These were the daily pabulum of Hallows, who had a trusty knack of covering them with a ledger when Basham snorted and butted into the office. Hallows handed them to me when he had done with them; and for a long time Crusoe and Christian were ousted by the White Chief of the Umzimvuba Kaffirs and other heroes of the same brand.
I had to leave home before eight, I was not back till after six; I was only twelve, and I let things slide.
There was plenty to think about. There were changes at home. We had left The Street, The terrors of The Other End were gone. We were in a house with a bathroom! True, there was no hotwater system. Only cold water ran into the bath, but hot could be carried upstairs in a bucket.
That did away with the ritual of the Wash All-Over. From as far back as I could remember, the time would come now and again when my mother would drastically announce: ‘Wash all-over tonight.’ The operation was sufficiently complicated to make it necessary for all the children to be washed all-over on the same night, so that the business could be got through and done with. A big wooden tub was put in front of the kitchen fire, kettles were boiled, the water prepared, and No. 1 began the ritual. First you knelt on a mat alongside the tub, stuck your head into the water, soaped your hair, and washed it. Then you got into the water and washed allover.
While No. 1 was in train, a kettle would be boiling to warm up the water — the same water — for No. 2, who would go through the same ritual while No. 1 was drying his or her hair, kneeling before the fire. The kettle was kept going all the time, so that the water was hot for all, though for the last of the clan it would also be pretty slimy. And by the time the last was done, and had joined the kneeling line by the fire, No. 1 would be dry, dressed for bed, and sent packing.
But now that was done with. We had a bath!
How on earth was that family kept together? I received four shillings for my five-and-a-half-day week at the Docks. Older than I were one brother and two sisters. All were earning some pittance; but then there were another brother and two more sisters still at school.
As I see it, only the indefatigable realism of my mother kept us afloat. She was a little five-foot woman who could read the simplest things, but made a great to-do if she had to sign her name. She was not often called upon to do so; but when she was, the occasion was elevated to such dignity, the operation was performed with such care and circumspection, that one would think no document she signed could have less importance than Magna Carta.
She worked her fingers to the bone. Screwing her ‘coarse apron’ into a roll, she would set off with a brisk step, wearing rather jauntily a man’s cap. She scrubbed and charred, while the younger children were at school; and when they were at home she found time to do her own housework, to run piles and piles of other people’s linen through the mangle, and to wash the clothes which it was my business to collect from our clientele and to take back when they were laundered. I would gather the bundles on the way home from the Docks, huge loads done up in sheets that I heaved on to my back and staggered off with like Christian before his sins rolled away.
These things troubled me. I was bitterly ashamed of being seen lugging those bundles. The boys used to yell, ‘Your mother takes in washing!’ and, by heaven, she did! But these things worried her not at all. She was a realist. There was a family to be, somehow, ‘brought up.’ She set about it in the only way she knew. She acquired in those years a sort of terrific momentum, so that long after it ceased to be necessary for her to do such things she could not stop; and when the rest of us were lying abed we could hear her downstairs laying into the beginning of the day’s washing. A woman would be coming in to do it, but she could n’t be restrained. She would be up early on the specious pretense of ‘putting things ready.’ It was never possible to get a maid to suit her. Her own dogmatic views about how things ought to be done were too deeply planted. In those early days she cared nothing what anybody thought of her, and when I complained that boys were yelling after me in the street, she replied with a favorite saying of hers: ‘Let them call you what they like so long as they don’t call you pigeon-pie and eat you.'
It cost her much to bring up her sons. She lost two of them; and for the one she lost in the war she was awarded five shillings a week. It was I who had to be the realist then. She was very small, very gray, but fierce and energetic as ever. ‘They can keep it!’ she said. ‘They can keep it! He was worth more than that.’
Her only relaxation in those arduous days was on Sunday nights. We carried on with the readings — and it was only during those few hours that I read anything that was good. We went through book after book by Dickens. He pleased my mother immensely. ‘I’ll tell you all about my life some day,’ she used to say to me. ‘Then you can write a book. That’ll make people laugh.’
I don’t know where the idea came from that I would write books, or whence she got the notion that her career had been comic. Certainly she refused to consider it tragic. It was just a job like any other, and she put all she knew into it.
One night there was illness in the house. I was told to run for the doctor. I was to say to him: ‘Come at once. It will be all right. We can pay you.’
It seemed to me horrible to have to say any such thing to the doctor. For the first time I realized in a concrete way how poor we were.
No money was spent on amusements. It was unthinkable. I was seventeen before I went away for a holiday, and I did not enter a theatre until I went as the ‘dramatic critic’ of the first newspaper I worked for. I do not suppose any other dramatic critic in the history of the world has taken a completely virgin mind to his task. But my first acquaintance with the stage was in the Theatre Royal, Cardiff, when I told the world what I thought of A Wrecker of Men. It moved me profoundly, and when a pistol was actually and literally let off upon the stage, causing a deafening report accompanied by a perceptible flash of fire, I saw at once that here was realism as in my wildest dreams I had not till then envisaged it.
But that was yet a long way off; and, though amusements could not be bought, that is not to say that amusements could not be had. We were all walkers. We did not call it hiking, and no special clothes were necessary. We just said we were going for a walk, and we went for a walk. We did a good deal of walking as a clan; but, by one of those tacit understandings that arise in families, my elder brother and I, about this time when I was twelve and he nearly fourteen, split off from the rest, discovered one another, and became friends as well as brothers. From then on we did everything together until he prematurely died.
It is a long time since I have seen the environs of Cardiff, but there were grand walks to be had in those days. We would take some bread and butter and a bottle of water, and make a day of it. We would go to Caerphilly or Castle Coch; or take the dusty road to Leckwith Hill and climb over its broad shoulder to a sight of the gray water of the Bristol Channel. We would lie for hours in the sun, just doing nothing, or fish in small clean streams, or gather blackberries in their season. They were good days, free of fret and intrusion; just he and I, away in places where we could be quiet. He was a boy of profound seriousness, and it was he who began to see that we were pleasantly loafing along with no aim or object. We decided that we had better stop it, that when the autumn came we must go to night school.
Not a very heroic decision! But it was something to be going on with.
Here, now, is Mr. Simey, that mighty wielder of the board-school stick, but in how changed a guise! When you go to night school you go as a free agent, and free agents cannot be caned. Mr. Simey is no longer called ‘sir.’ A spirit of camaraderie irradiates the new relationship. Mr. Simey is trying to add a few shillings to his doubtless insufficient income. We are trying to add a few ideas to a meagre stock.
The whole feeling of the school is different. The classrooms are nearly empty. Not many boys elect to go to night school, and as the session wears along even the thin field of starters dwindles. In the English class I alone am left.
Many an intimate evening Mr. Simey and I spend together in the English class. A pleasant fire is burning; there is no one but us two. Mr. Simey takes from his pocket Chardenal’s First French Course. ‘D’ you mind if we run through these verbs again?’ he says.
I am enchanted. It is a great thing to be assisting Mr. Simey to learn French. I know nothing of pronunciation, so Mr. Simey has to spell each word as he ploughs through the verbs of the first conjugation. A tedious business, but if it suits him, it’s all right for me.
Thus did Simey interpret his duties as my instructor in English. But, completely by accident, he taught me as much as I or any other boy needed to learn about the structure of the language. He said: ‘You should read the best things in the newspapers. There’s a man called Sub Rosa writing in the Morning Leader.’
I bought a copy of the Morning Leader next day, and in his column Spencer Leigh Hughes said how splendid a book was Cobbett’s Grammar. I went to a secondhand bookshop and got the book for twopence. It is written in the form of letters to a ploughboy, and if any don has beaten that book as an exposition of English I have yet to see his work.
So the first winter’s work at the night school was not all loss. It cost nothing. Mr. Simey got on with his French; I got to know Cobbett; and, for reasons unknown, I was told to choose a book for a prize. I took Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.
And now all sorts of things began to happen which were to affect my destiny — if I have anything so imposing as a destiny.
The poor are always restlessly on the move. We shifted to a new house, and — which did not often happen — we became friendly with the family next door. The son of the house, a dark, handsome youth, was a corporal in a cavalry regiment. He was at home on a long leave, and a friend of his wanted to be near him so that they might spend their time together. This young man came to us as a lodger; not the first by any means, but indubitably the pleasantest.
Frank brought a large trunk stuffed with books. He was completely uninterested in them. They had belonged to his brother, a youth who had died while studying for the Nonconformist ministry. Frank was a rolling stone, and when his corporal friend from next door left to go with his regiment to India, he himself decided to go and try his luck in South Africa. He said those books were just a nuisance. Would we look after them till he decided what he wanted to do about them?
So off went Frank — God bless his soul! — and left us a little library. My brother and I unpacked the books and set them up. There were the complete works of Scott, cheap editions of most of the English poets, the works of the then popular Drummond, who wrote Natural Law in the Spiritual World, Darwin’s Origin of Species, Hawthorne, translations from Goethe, the Shah Nameh of Firdausi, odds and ends of Thackeray, and a hotchpotch of other stuff, all good of its sort and seeming to us as imposing in its array upon the tops of chests of drawers as the Vatican Library or the Bibliothèque Nationale — not that we had ever heard of either.
Frank’s books were unclaimed for about three years. By then we had whacked our way through every page; and I am free now to confess that when they were claimed I kept back one volume, which I have to this day, with Frank’s brother’s writing on the flyleaf, as a memorial of the great awakening.
And the second thing which happened now was that I said good-bye to Mr. Basham, and to Hadley and Hallows and to the charming Mr. Mansoni. It was a question of finance. For a year I had trudged the miles through Tiger Bay, morning and evening. By trial and error upon Basham’s Empire typewriter I had made myself what I considered an efficient typist. True, my handwriting was abominable, and I could not be trusted to add up a row of figures. Nevertheless, I thought it time that Basham should make some advance on four shillings.
Trusting already to the pen rather than to my tongue, I told him so in a letter which I saw him read with a frown. He told me that for my wages he could get a boy from the Higher Grade School, and added that anyway he was paying me four shillings only because my mother was a widow. Reluctantly, I handed in a week’s notice, and so ended my contact with the great world of affairs.
(To be concluded)