Huw Lawrence tells the story of his generation of 1960s working-class grammar school boys who migrated to English cities, creating meaning for themselves through philosophy and protest; and how for him this inspired a journey back to Wales.More excerpts from Planet 221
Victor Davies (as I’ll call him) was a grammar-school classmate of mine in Llanelli, a town where everyone believed in equality and anyone displaying snobbery was branded crachach. At the time, Vic was hardly that. He and his mother were abjectly poor, her scanty housekeeping and sloppy ways the subject of comment in my grandparents’ neighbourhood. I believe Vic even escaped Sunday school and Chapel.
An English speaker, Vic could still utter fluent fragments or even full sentences of Welsh when reporting something he’d heard. My cousin Elizabeth theoretically spoke only English, and I only Welsh, yet as small children we communicated without difficulty, accustomed to the mixed sounds of both languages. Like the docks and the works and the chapels, though, Welsh was in decline, and not through any influx of English people. English was the language of advancement in the new age of opportunity that followed the 1944 Education Act, which gave Vic and me the secondary education denied our parents’ generation. We left school without ever wondering why our grammar-school teachers spoke Welsh in the staffroom but only English to each other in our hearing – and only ever English to us. Who would complain about the language in which you ‘got on’? ‘Improvement’ was the name of the game. Vic realised it at an earlier age than most of us.
After working hard at school, he departed for one of the two most famous universities in England – an England which Raymond Williams, in his short work on Orwell, calls the ‘most class-ridden country under the sun’. Changing times had forced Oxbridge to open a narrow door for a few bright, working-class kids. Vic returned after just one term at Oxford with a cut-glass accent. I bumped into him on the street and we spoke briefly. I still remember my deep sense of shock. He was not my old classmate any more. We were nineteen. I don’t think he came home much after that. It was the last time I clapped eyes on him. What or who he became, I don’t know...Buy the issue or subscribe here
Huw Lawrence left a lectureship in Manchester in 1974 to return to Wales. He worked as a quarry labourer in Blaenau Ffestiniog before a teaching post took him to Aberystwyth, where he still lives. His story collection, Always the Love of Someone, was short-listed for the Roland Mathias Prize in 2010, and his story ‘Restocking’ has recently appeared in Best European Fiction 2016 (Dalkey Archive Press).
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