Sunday, 26 January 2014

Newport 1937 - Andrew Strong

My mother is in hospital, so I went to have lunch with my father.  He’s a sprightly and intelligent man, he can string out a tale, and always surprises me.  We sat in a very ropey pub in a damp corner of Newport in south Wales.  For some reason we began talking about my father’s childhood, and the story of the King coming to Newport.  I wanted to rewrite it from my father's point of view, trying to keep it more or less as how he told it.  The year is 1937. 

 *    *    *    *    *

Mother, or Mama as I called her, took me into town to see the King. I was nine, so I assumed it would be some sort of private conference, just me and him.  Perhaps he had something to tell me.  Of course it wasn’t like that at all. When we got to the centre of Newport, there was a huge crowd, but Mama, bold and obstinate, pushed through them all to the front.  And there was His Majesty, about to lay the foundation stone.

Suddenly Mama grew excited.

“The King,” said Mama, “he digs with his left hand.” 

It was a grand day. A big cheering crowd. Mama had bought me a flag.

“I knew it,” said Mama.

I could see the King’s head but not the shovel he was holding.  I waved my flag.

“You don’t remember, do you?” said Mama. 

“I don’t remember what, Mama?”

Someone started speaking, a very loud voice. There was a lot of clapping and cheering.  I couldn’t see what was happening and I needed a wee.

We went to the Kardomah.  Mama allowed me a lemonade.  She sat opposite me with her coffee.  The Kardomah was steamy and busy. It was nice.

“You don’t remember any of it, do you?”

“Yes, Mama,” I said. “You told me.” It was in the papers and on the wireless. I repeated her words exactly.  She’d said them enough times. “The King is coming to Newport to cut the first sod.”

“I don’t mean the King,” she said. She looked cross. The lemonade wasn’t very fizzy.

She stared past me. Perhaps she was hoping to spot someone she knew.  She knows lots of people. She is always stopping to talk about her sciatica.

“I was talking about you, not the King,” she said.  “When you started school the teacher wouldn’t let you write with your left hand.  Don’t you remember?”

“I think so Mama,” I said.

“You were forced to use your right hand and it made you stammer.  You stammered quite badly. We went to see Dr Harris and he said you must be allowed to write with your left hand. He wrote a note to school and straight away your stammering stopped.”  Her eyes were getting watery.

“I know Mama.”

“And the same silly people have done that to the King,” she said.  She looked cross again.
Cross but with watery eyes.  “He’s been forced to use his right hand, but he naturally uses his left.”

“Poor King George,” I said.

“But don’t you see?” she said, as much to me as everyone else. “That’s why the King stammers!” 


Sue Bursztynski said...

How fascinating! What if that speech therapist had just encouraged him to use his left hand? It was probably too late, but you never know. Your grandmother sounds like an amazing lady.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Wonderful! Thank you to you and your dad for sharing that, and very best wishes for your mother. It's funny how we have those important small conversations at such times. well done for catching and preserving that gem.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for this, Andrew, and I did enjoy the way you told it. It can be hard to capture such fleeting memories, so three cheers for drink in the ropey pub. Good wishes to your mum, and to your dad & you.

I am NOT saying that it was at all kind or right, but I wonder if - in a period when so much clerical work & communication was done by hand - some of the "right hand" conformity might have been to do with a wish to have a well-employed child.

(My own inability to catch a ball is probably the effect of being "changed" in my own childhood.)

Andrew Strong said...

Yes, Penny, I am sure that's true. My father thought the enforced right hand rule was to prevent the awkwardness of left handers' elbows pointing the opposite way when writing - it would interfere with the calm in the close ranks of scribbling Civil Service bureaucrats.

Penny Dolan said...

Exactly, Andrew! And risk the slant going the wrong way? Or the writer taking up too much individual desk space, which schools do - or once did, recently - allow for. Let alone possible problems with parade ground drilling or use of machinery & looms and so on. And that's on top of all the history of imperial hygiene & religious superstitions. Well done for writing that letter, Dr Harris! Maybe he was left handed too?

(Ooops. This too-intense response might have been sparked by my current use of an inherited, refillable fountain pen for my early morning scribbling. The subconscious, eh?)

Mystica said...

Thank you for the post.

Ann Turnbull said...

My father was left-handed and, as far as I know, was always allowed to use his left hand. He wrote with the paper tilted almost sideways and produced a strong slant to the right. He wrote very fast. He was always employed in work that required a lot of writing and he also learnt shorthand.

Fascinating post, Andrew, and I love the way you tell this story. What a pity the king never encountered your grandmother.

Tamsyn Murray said...

What an excellent post - I could picture it all. Thanks for sharing!

John Dougherty said...

This is great. Coming late to it, but what a story.