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The Autodidacts

In our family, as far as we are concerned, we were born and what happened before that is myth. Go back two generations and the names and lives of our forebears vanish into the common grass. All we could get out of mother was that her grandfather had once taken a horse to Dublin; and sometimes in my father’s expansive histories, his grandfather had owned trawlers in Hull, but when an abashed regard for fact, uncommon in my father, touched him in his eighties, he told us that this ancestor, a decayed seaman, was last seen gutting herrings at a bench in the fish market of that city. The only certainty is that I come from a set of storytellers and moralists and that neither party cared much for the precise. The storytellers were forever changing the tale and the moralists tampering with it in order to put it in an edifying light. On my mother’s side they were all pagans, and she a rootless London pagan, a fog-worshipper, brought up on the folklore of the North London streets; on my father’s side they were harsh, lonely, God-ridden sea or country people who had been settled along the Yorkshire coasts or among its moors and Fells for hundreds of years. There is enough in the differences between North and South to explain the battles and uncertainties of a lifetime. “How I got into you lot, I don’t know,” my mother used to say on and off all her life, looking at us with fear, as if my father and not herself had given birth to us. She was there, she conveyed, because she had been captured. It made her unbelieving and sly.

A good many shots must have been fired during the courtship of my parents and many more when I was born in lodgings over a toy shop in the middle of Ipswich at the end of 1900. Why Ipswich? My parents had no connection with the town. The moment could not have been worse. Queen Victoria was dying and my mother, young and cheerful though she was, identified herself as the decent London poor do, with all the females of the Royal Family, especially with their pregnancies and funerals. She was a natural Victorian; the past with all its sadness meant more to her than the hopes of the new century. I was to be called Victoria, but now surgery had to be done on the name, and quickly too, for my father’s father, a Congregationalist Minister in Repton, was pressing for me to be called Marcus Aurelius. The real trouble was more serious.

On my birth certificate my father’s trade is written “Stationer (master).” An ambitious young man, he had given up his job as a shop assistant in Kentish Town and had opened a small newsagents and stationers in the Rushmere district of Ipswich. He did not know the city and had gone there because he thought he had a superb “opening.” He did not know the trade but he had found “premises”—a word that was sacramental to him all his life. He spoke of “premises” as others speak of the New Jerusalem. He had no capital. He was only twenty-two; the venture was modest, almost pastoral; but he had smelled the Edwardian boom and it enlarged a flaw that had—I have been told—even then become noticeable in his character. One of Nature’s salesmen, he was even more one of Nature’s buyers. He looked at the measly little shop, stripped it, and put in counters, cabinets, and shelves (“You know your father, dear”). The suspicious Suffolk folk hated this modern splash and saw that he had spent so much on fittings that he had nothing left for stock. The bright little shop stood out as a warning to all in a crafty neighborhood. Few customers came. The new paint smelled of sin to them. At the age of twenty-two my young father was affronted and flabbergasted to find after a few months that he was bankrupt, or if not legally bankrupt, penniless and pursued.

THERE IS A picture of him a year or two before this time. He is thin, jaunty, with thick oily black hair, a waxed moustache, and eyes caught between a hard, brash stare and a twinkle. He would be quick to take a pencil out and snap down your order. He wears a watch and chain. Not for long: he will soon pawn them—as he had done before—and my mother’s engagement ring too, escape from the premises, put her into those rooms over the toy shop. Once I am born, the young Micawber packs us off to his father’s Manse in Yorkshire, while he goes indignantly back to London to get a “berth.” The fact that he has gone bust means nothing to him at all. He goes to the nearest Wesleyan Church—for he has already left the Congregationalists—and sings his debts away in a few stentorian hymns. And so I, dressed in silk finery and wrapped in a white shawl, go screaming up to Yorkshire to meet my forebears.

Our journey to the Manse at Repton is miserable. Love in a nice little shop had been—and remained for life—my mother’s ideal. Now, though a cheeky Cockney girl, she was wretched, frightened, and ashamed. (“We never owed a penny; us girls were brought up straight.”) She was a slight and tiny fair-haired young woman with a sulky seductive look. In the train a sailor pulled out a jackknife and tossed it about: she called the guard. The sailor said he was only doing it to stop the kid crying. The arrival at the Manse was awful. My grandmother was confirmed in her opinion—she had given it bluntly and within earshot, when my father had first taken my mother there, wearing her London clothes—that her favorite son had been trapped and ruined by a common shop girl of whom she said:

I lay she’s nowt but a London harlot.”

She said she’d take the baby.

She tried to snatch you away from me, Vic dear, and said she’d bring you up herself,” my mother often told me.

Mary Helen, my grandmother, was a great one for coveting a dress, a brooch, a ring, a bag, even a baby from any woman. As for choice of words—this bonnie little white-haired woman with a smile that glistered sweetly like the icing of one of her fancy cakes, fed her mind on love stories in the religious weeklies and the language of fornication, adultery, harlotry, and concubinage taken from the Bible, sharpened by the blunt talk of the Yorkshire villages. Harlots was her general name for the women of her husband’s congregations who bought new hats.

The old lady assumed that my mother, like any country girl, had come to leave me and would return next day to London to take up her profession again.

In the early years of my boyhood I spent long periods at the Manse. I have little memory of Repton, beyond the large stone pantry smelling of my grandmother’s bread and the pans of milk, and of the grating over the cellar where my grandfather used to growl up at me from the damp saying in his enormous and enjoyable voice:

I’m the grisly bear.”

My grandmother had always lived in small Yorkshire towns or villages. Her maiden name was Sawdon and she came from a place of that name near the moors inland from Whitby; it is a purely Scandinavian part of England—and she was the youngest, prettiest, and most exacting of three daughters of a tailor in Kirbymoorside, in the godly Pickering valley nearby. My father was born there and spoke of seeing the old man sitting cross-legged and sewing on the table in the window of his shop. Grandma was vain of her clothes and her figure. She usually wore a dark blue and white spotted dress. She had pale blue eyes deeply inset, a babyish and avid look, and the drooping little mouth of a spoiled child. Her passion for her husband and her two sons was absolute; she thought of nothing else and me she pampered. With outsiders she was permanently “right vexed” or “disgoosted.”

Her “Willyum” was let out of her sight as little as possible. The Minister had the hard northern vanity also, but it differed from hers. He was a shortish, stout, hard-bellied, and muscular man with a strong frightening face, iron gray hair, and looked like a sergeant major who did not drink. He was a man of authority with a deep, curt, sarcastic voice used to command. When I was a child I had the impression that he was God and the Ten Commandments bound together by his dog collar. He was proud of his life story.

Gradually I learned that he was the youngest son of a fishing family in Hull—his father was a trawler seaman—and that all his brothers had been drowned between Hull and the Dogger Bank. His mother had picked him up and taken him inland to Bradford, away from ships, and had brought him up there in great poverty. He had known what it was to be cold and famished. He grew up and worked on the roads for a time; then ran off and joined the army (this must have been in the Sixties), and since only the hungry or the riffraff did this, he must have been in a poor way. He chose the Artillery. This led to an event of which he boasted.

There is a strain of truculence and insubordination running through our family: at any moment, all of us, though peaceable enough, are liable to stick our chins out and take our superiors down a peg or two if our pride is touched. We utter a sarcastic jibe especially at the wrong moment; and are often tempted to cut off our noses to spite our faces, in a manner very satisfying to ourselves and very puzzling to amiable people. My grandfather was kindly enough, but one noticed that, at certain moments, he would raise one fine eyebrow dangerously, the eyes would widen into a fixed stare, the pupils would go small and look as hard as marbles, and the sharp arc of white would widen above them, as a horse’s eye does when it is bolting. This is the moment of cold flat contradiction; also the moment of wit. And there is a grin at the startled face of the listener.

THIS MUST HAVE been the expression on my grandfather’s face one day when his battery was stationed outside some seaside place, I believe, on the Mersey. They were at artillery target practice, firing out to sea, and the safety of passing vessels was regulated by a flag signal. It is quite in my grandfather’s character that he fired his gun when the flag was up and contrary to orders and sent what he used to tell me was a “cannon ball” through the mainsail of a passing pleasure yacht. There was a rasp of glee in his voice when he stressed the word “pleasure.” He told me this story more than once when I was a child, sitting with him under a plum tree and eyeing the lovely Victoria plums in his garden at Sedburgh on the Fells—to which he moved after Repton. The yacht, of course, belonged to a rich man who made a fuss, and my grandfather was arrested and court-martialed. He was dismissed from the Army. The moral was that you could never get a fair deal from the officer class; he could, he conveyed, have wiped the floor with any of them. And the tale would end with him getting a stick for me—I was about five at the time—and putting me through military drill. We had the movements of “Ready! Present: Fire!” and, more alarming, the “Prepare to Receive Cavalry.” Down on one knee I went in the manner of the first lines of the British squares, with the stick waiting to bayonet the impending charge of Lancers on their horses. He had a loud, resonant voice and, being a fairish actor, could evoke the gallop of horses and spears instantly. The peaceful Minister concealed a very violent man, and religion had made him live well below his physical strength and natural vitality. He then gave me a Victoria plum and moralized. He pointed out that war was wicked—on wickedness he was an expert—and that to become a soldier was the lowest thing in life, though he was proud of knowing what lowness was. And, he would add, that his wicked younger son—my father’s brother—had brought sorrow on them all by running off to be a soldier in turn. The news had turned my grandmother’s hair white—“in a night.,” of course. And, my grandfather said, they had got their savings together and gone off to York to buy the boy out at once for £25. I did not understand, at the time, but this episode was traumatic for them. My grandfather never earned more than £150 a year in his life and, when he died, all he left was £70 in Co-op tickets which were kept in a tea caddy on the kitchen mantelpiece. That £25 must have drawn blood.

How and why did my grandfather, uneducated and living by manual labor, become a Congregationalist Minister? In the middle of the nineteenth century, and especially in the industrial north where the wealth was made, the pessimism and anarchy of the early industrial times had passed. Even Manchester—the world’s byword for poverty and revolutionary class-hatred—was becoming respectable. The idea of self-improvement was being dinned into the industrious poor; ambition was put into their heads by the dissenting churches, religion of this kind became a revolutionary force, for if it countered the political revolutionaries, it put a sense of moral cause into the hands of the ambitious. The teachings of Carlyle—the gospel of work—and later of Ruskin had their effect on hundreds of thousands of men like my grandfather. Snobbery and the Bible are dynamic in English life; respectability or—to be kinder—self-respect is the indispensable engine of British revolution or reform; and revolutions occur not in times of poverty but when certain classes are getting just a little better off. As you rose socially—see the novels of George Eliot—you rose in virtue. There is no doubt also that among Protestants, the tendency to break up into sects comes from a nagging desire to be distinctive and superior, spiritually and socially, to one’s neighbors.

After he was thrown out of the Army, my grandfather got a job as a bricklayer. It is a chancy and traveling trade and he went from town to town. He did most of his traveling on foot; thirty or forty miles a day was nothing to him. Eventually he appeared in Kirbymoorside. By this time religion must have been strong in him. It sounds as though the court martial had given him a sense of injustice: he had been in the wrong; all the more reason to reverse the verdict and assert that by the higher law of God’s justice he was in the right. The more wrong, the more right, the Old Testament offering its eloquent and ferocious aid.

It was easy to become a preacher in those days; gospel halls and missions were everywhere; the greater the number of sects, the greater the opportunities for argument. Soon he was at it in the evenings, after he had put down the hod. Yet to have got religion would not have been enough. I think that what impelled and gave him a rough distinction was his commanding manner, and the knowledge that he had a fine voice. He was a good singer, he loved the precise utterance of words. He loved language. All we ever knew was that a pious, spinster lady in Kirbymoorside heard him and was impressed by his militant looks, his strength, and his voice. She got him off the builder’s ladder and arranged for him to be sent to a theological college in Nottingham.

But the flesh—and ambition—were as strong as the spirit in grandfather. He was courting the tailor’s daughter and perhaps as a common workman he would not have got her. So at nineteen or twenty, on his prospects, he married her and went off with her to Nottingham as a student, and in a year was a father. He had only a small grant to live on. He got odd jobs. He told me he learned his Latin, Greek, and Hebrew traveling on the Nottingham trams. He saved pennies, for it was part of the arrangement that he should pay back the cost of his education at so much a year in five years. My father had unhappy memories of a hungry childhood, and one of great severity. But once his training was over grandfather triumphed. At twenty-two—the family legend is—he “filled the Free Trade Hall in Manchester” with his harsh, denouncing sermons.

Why was it, then, that after this success he was to be found in small chapels first in Bradford and then—getting smaller and smaller—in the little towns of the moors and the Fells? It may have been that all his energy had been spent in getting out of the working class and becoming a middle-class man.

This is the first of three selections from V. S. Pritchett’s memoirs A Cab at the Door.

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