Tuesday, 7 February 2012

My place of birth

Volume 1 – chapter 6 -- Part 2

Gradually the line of houses that bordered the main road broadened and Fenton spread over the hills and valleys with newer terraces marching back from the main highway. By the time I was born in 1933 industrial development had created another grimy suburb in what had once been an attractive part of the Staffordshire countryside. Not a place to inspire confidence for the future, but rarely is the place in which we are born a matter of choice; fate decides such things for us.


This is a picture of me taken in the back garden of 14 Warrington Street, not long after my birth in 1933. I am not sure if it was before or after this photograph was taken that I contracted pneumonia and was lucky to survive. It should also be noticed that I do not yet have a pram, hence the use of a tin bath to put me out in the fresh air.

Today the Potteries are cleaner and greener, but when I was born it was a grim and grimy place. It would have appeared a normal and acceptable place to live to those who were used to such conditions, but looking at it from a more modern perspective it was an unhealthy environment. This beginning for me was, I am sure, a handicap, Fenton was dirty or perhaps a better word would be grimy. It was black everywhere, and a pall of smoke hung above it day and night. It was a typical industrial situation, and in addition it had an even more intense gloominess that was unique. The reason for this was not hard to discover, wherever you looked at the prospect it was dominated by the slag heaps created by the coal mines, and the fat profiles of bottle ovens. Most of the time these pottery kilns belched forth large quantities of black smoke, as did most of the other industry in the locality. Not far away there was a huge steel works, at a place called Shelton, and it also added to the general miasma. The whole scene was drab and totally lacking in colour, a depressing picture that brought to mind the descriptive line: 'Dark satanic mills.' In contrast the people were pale and washed out and looked old before their time. It is noticeable that people who live in a healthy environment have a brightness, a freshness and bloom that is absent in the troglodytes from an industrial wasteland.

Sooner or later we all discover that life is not fair or just, and if I could have reasoned at birth I would have concluded that the very first example of life’s injustice was the lack of choice in where I was born. It is little comfort to know that the same circumstances apply to all, especially when you happen to find that your particular fate is not an auspicious one. If others are burdened with circumstances which are worse, does this mean that I should be satisfied?

This then was the situation and conditions into which I was born, and though my mother and her family did all they could to protect me, I contracted pneumonia during the first winter, and was fortunate to survive. For three years I avoided the high infant mortality statistics, and then escaped to the even greater dangers of a life among the teaming masses of India. My parents had married over a year before my birth, but after six months my father had returned to India, and did not return for three years when his next home leave became due. Apart from the first few weeks of married life, my mother continued to live the narrow sheltered existence that she had always known. She was not unhappy with it having no other experience with which she could make a comparison. Like most women at the time she had never been allowed to make her own decisions, and had always been protected and provided for. Her nature and her upbringing made her the person she was, and that person was ill prepared to face a life of challenges and difficulties.

One of the reasons I am writing this account is to try and explain why my history turned out to be one misfortune after another. It has to be said that few of us can guide and control the life we lead with any success. We are swept along with very little control over where we are going. If in the final analysis it is said that my life was a failure, and it was quite clearly destined to be so from the very beginning, then much of the responsibility must be laid at my mother’s door. It is easy for me to say this now, though it would be true to say that she in her turn had little control over her life. My father would have to accept his share of any blame that might be apportioned, but in his defence it must be mentioned that he had very little to do with the life we led. He was leading a life of his own, and probably never gave a thought to how we were faring. My mother and father and the majority of the community around them accepted the way life was. In retrospect it is easy to see how things needed changing, but at the time everything seemed normal and the way it should be. My mother gave me love but that in itself does not make an effective parent, love alone is not enough. Had she known what was essential for a successful life I have no doubt she would have provided it if she could. She did not know, having been deprived of such things herself; she must have thought she was the perfect mother, and even today would be most distressed to find that anyone thought otherwise. She had no education, no self-confidence, little understanding of the workings of the world, other than the limited society in which she had grown up. She also lacked the one thing that would have enabled her to overcome all of these deficiencies, wealth.

Having read to this point in my story, the reader may well begin to see a cycle of events unfolding. Most would agree that once started the process is difficult if not impossible to stop. The future fate has in store for us will unfold no matter what we might try to do to change it. Considering my birth and background, maybe the circumstances I describe are sufficient explanation for what was to follow. If one cannot understand why fate appears to be set against you then it is natural to attribute such things to some sort of spiritual source. A religious explanation might suit some, but for me I prefer to describe the influence at work simply as the finger of fate. The way our lives unfold is certainly a mystery; so many factors have a bearing and there is nothing we can do about it. In the first few months of my life I should have died, just as many other infants did at that time. Why did I live when so many others died? With no antibiotics or other forms of effective treatment, pneumonia was often fatal. If my life had proved fruitful then my survival would have made some sense, but as it turns out it all seems rather pointless. Being now close to the end of my span, I still have many questions, and few answers.

Being a personal history it could be said that my story begins only now at the point when I was born. The picture I have provided of my parents and their families, will I hope provide a backdrop to the following story in which I now play a roll. There are a number of reasons why I am writing this history, though I have to confess that on considering them, I still cannot say that I have made it clear even to myself. In the Introduction I tried to explain it, but I cannot say I managed to do so successfully. All I can say with any certainty is that I feel compelled to write, and in doing so I hope to find answers. My search for answers is part of a greater search for those all-important answers to the greatest mystery of all: ‘Why are we here? Where did we come from, and where are we going?’ It also crossed my mind that a record such as this could be useful to those that follow on. If this history describes failure, then might it not help others to understand why the failure occurred? Is what I have to say worth the effort? For me the answer is yes, because already a little light is beginning to shine down the dark avenues of my ignorance.

Returning to the march of events let me recapitulate. My father had returned to India unaware that he was going to be a father. For my mother the marriage had been a short period of romance and sudden change. After such a short period of time had she become aware that married life was not going to be the bowl of cherries she thought it would be? Maybe this realisation did not come to her until much later in the story, but whatever her state of mind when she married, it is almost certain that she felt a sense of relief when her energetic and distinctly forceful husband departed. I can imagine how gladly a sensitive young woman would have returned to the safety and familiar surroundings of her parent’s home. Her husband was a strong and dominating character, much as her father was, and possibly this helped her to adjust to her new life. But it could be conjectured with equal conviction that perhaps she had been hoping for some sort of escape from life with a domineering male?

In later years when my father had mellowed, and changed with the passing of time, he became more understanding. My mother also changed, and a better understanding appeared in their relationship. My father had long known that his wife had been unhappy, but now she began to express herself and the resentment and bitterness were to be displayed openly. My father had sown his seeds and in later years he was reaping the harvest. It was to his credit that he accepted that he had indeed been guilty of inconsiderate behaviour, and insensitivity. My father may have had his failings, and undoubtedly his actions were decided by circumstances and environment, but he was a man of honour with a strong sense of fair play, and as a consequence he accepted the chastisement that his wife inflicted on him, but this comes later in the story.

When I consider my mother’s good looks, her intelligence, the talents she possessed, - but never found the opportunity to use, - is it any wonder that I puzzle over the fact that the pages of her life have so little written on them. On further reflection the reasons for this are possibly revealed in the account I present. What I do see clearly is the similarities between my mother’s story and my own, and how much we had in common. So in a way I could say that the story I tell is hers as well as mine.

Being Welsh it is not surprising that my mother had a good voice; the whole Jones family could sing and an abundance of musical ability was clear to see. Of course Grandfather Jones knew this and was proud of it, encouraging them all to display their talents. Often they would sing together in perfect choral harmony, but only for themselves. There was some pleasure derived from this though mostly it was in the privacy of their own home that they displayed their talents. They enjoyed their love of music together but they were too shy and retiring in character to share it with others, or to perform in public. Much of the music they sang was religious, and though religion did very little to help them or improve their lives, it did at least allow them the pleasure it brought with it. Like all Welsh people their greatest joy was in song, they had music in their souls, and in their hearts. As a boy I heard the Jones family sing, and the feeling and emotion that they expressed, the sweetness and the harmony, was magic to my ears. Music is one of the gifts I have to thank my mother for. At the age of sixteen my mother’s voice was clear and true; she sang at the chapel regularly, and was expected to be a lead voice when religious works were performed for the congregation. For once in his life granddad Jones let pride overcome his sense of Victorian decorum, and shy or not, ruled that Mary should share her voice with others. Of course his word was law and if he so instructed it had to be done. She was painfully shy and without the insistence of her father it is certain that Mary would never have performed in public. Others also insisted that her fine voice must be heard, and it was decided that she should represent their Primitive Methodist chapel at the Eisteddfod in Llangollen. A favourite was the challenging 'Handel's Messiah' so it was a solo from this work that my mother performed.

This was my mother, artistic and naturally talented. She received no formal training in either music or in general education, but some that heard her recognised what might have been had accomplished had she had the confidence. With the right guidance and encouragement my mother might have done much with her voice, but there was no one in her life to help her. Another aspect of this artistic nature was also put to some use, though again was it was never developed to the extent that it surely could have been. This was her ability to draw and paint, and like many other young women who lived in and around the Potteries, she became a free hand paintress in the pottery industry. She was very good at it and enjoyed it very much, working for a number of years at one of the pot banks at Fenton. Some years after the period of which I speak I can recall watching her take all the plain china out of the cupboard, and with a children's box of water colours, decorate it all with the most attractive patterns and designs, mostly flower arrangements. It always seemed such a pity that when she had finished her beautiful creations the dishes were washed and put away for daily use.

For my mother and for the majority of women of her generation it was accepted that they lived in a world that belonged to men. Generally speaking they were happy for it to be that way; it would be some years before their opinions were to change. My mother had no interest in the practical things of life, and gave no thought to the importance of education and the need to develop opportunities. Such things had no significance for her, and those that knew her liked her as she was, and had no wish to see her change. She had a natural good breeding, a charm and dignity, which was admired by many that knew her. Few would have disagreed with the view that she was a lady in every sense of the word. She was a wonderful and loving mother, but like my father she was not a perfect parent. The life she led had failed to provide a suitable environment for complete development, and sadly she was to pass this inadequacy on to her children. We were to suffer from the same shortcomings, but the blame was not hers, it was the way she was made, and the insensitivity of the society in which we lived did not help. I have tried to describe the world into which I was born, and I have outlined the circumstances which were to influence and shape my life. With this picture clear we can now proceed with the story; a story which is not unique, but I would submit, is worth the telling. Would it be reasonable for me to claim that I tell my story not just for myself, but for all those who have suffered from ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, as Shakespeare put it.

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