A semi-detached view of life

Scholarship Boy
February 16, 1996

Autobiographical accounts of working-class life - "from the back streets to success in the academic, journalistic and theatrical worlds" - seem obligatory today. Mostly they tell urban tales, so some of them have a touch of the "we lived on the dole in a cardboard box" syndrome.

John Harrison has set out explicitly to "rescue I lower middle-class England", not so much from the enormous condescension of posterity as from the shadows where all this attention on working-class life has cast it.

Modern autobiographies tend to be best on the early years. That can hardly be escaped. We may have done interesting things and write about them interestingly, but the childhood years, the gaslight and tram-car years have a special attraction; not only a nostalgic attraction but that suggested by a more ordered, sure and manageable life no matter how limited its boundaries.

A professional historian has no difficulty in marshalling his material: the intensely house-proud mother managing the home and the husband (wage packet handed over each week for subdividing); the complex rituals of every day, week, month and year, all set in their own idioms ("you can't wear that hat with that coat - it doesn't go"; "Oh, the Harrisons have come into a little money"; and hundreds of like phrases).

When the Harrisons did come into a little money and Dad got promotion they made the big leap: from maintaining respectability in a working-class terrace to their own semi. The celebration here of the culture of semi-detached life is unusual and accurate. A limited vision, undramatic, turned-in on itself but yet self-reliant, true to its perspectives and predominantly honest. Those who also had, like the Harrisons, village roots they could still draw on at weekends and on holidays were even more steadied.

There are other sequences that have their special interest: the enchantments of Cambridge for a wide-eyed innocent (but dreadful teaching), the snobberies of Sandhurst, wartime Africa at the fag-end of colonialism, stuck-up postwar Yorkshire village life (the horror of finding a Labour party poster in the window of the newcomer's house), the extra-mural department of Leeds University under the redoubtable Sidney Raybould (some of the judgements there seem questionable to one who shared those years from the other side of the county). But it was a remarkable time for anyone who believed, with Tawney, in the cardinal importance of adult education to an open democracy.

Then came the University of Wisconsin and, among much else, a different kind of worker's education; and finally research, teaching and publishing from a chair at Sussex. Throughout it all John Harrison has remained an unwavering Christian and Socialist. He looks and is deeply untheatrical, intensely steady and true to his very decent lights.

Richard Hoggart's latest book is The Way We Live Now (1995).

Scholarship Boy: A Personal History of the Mid-20th Century

Author - J.F.C. Harrison
ISBN - 1 85489 072 7
Publisher - Rivers Oram
Price - £16.95
Pages - 224

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