When I was a boy growing up and parents or teachers would ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would respond with the usual “I dunno” and I still don’t know. However, that isn’t true, I wanted to be a gentleman. What I mean by ‘gentleman’ is a man that gads about town, has independent wealth and gets into all manner of japes and scrapes pursuing the latest infatuation or some mad cap idea that seems jolly good fun.
I grew up watching Ian Carmichael, Terry Thomas and Dirk Bogarde to name but a few and these were my role models and something I aspired to. I grew up on a council estate and my sister tells me that I didn’t speak like everyone else and spoke a little ‘posher’ than other people. I can’t remember this and am certain that I didn’t put on an accent and I certainly wasn’t romping around our terraced house wearing a monocle and top hat chirping “What, what, what”. I think it may have just rubbed off if it occurred at all. My accent is far from posh, and I pronounce ‘Bath’ with a hard A rather than a soft A, as in “Barth”, and ‘Butter’ as “Bu’er”, like a cockney would.
I think it is far to say that I lacked a male role model in my life, apart from my Grandfather who died when I was eleven. To all intents and purposes I grew up with an absent father. He lived with us and my parents never divorced but he was absent all the same. This was not his fault; many families in my town and in other town and cities have similar fathers and mothers and this is especially true of those on shift work: six till two, two till ten, ten till six…not including overtime which was taken when available. If my father was on two till ten then I wouldn’t see him all week. In later teenage years when I was allowed to stay up beyond 10 o’clock his tea would be put on the stove, which he would eat as soon as he came in and by that time it was nearing bedtime. I can’t really remember him ever being around.
At his point I feel I need to clarify a few points and depending on what class you are from then ‘dinner’ and ‘tea’ have different meanings. For us ‘dinner-time’ was a meal in the afternoon, and ‘tea-time’ was an evening meal. Having your dinner or tea put on the stove meant having a plate of food that was prepared earlier put on a saucepan filled with water which is boiled on the hob…the top of the saucepan is put over the top of the food to stop it drying out.
On the weekend he would watch football (which I had no interest in) which was interrupted with trips to the bookies where he would lose track of time and I was sometimes sent to collect him from. I hope the picture you have painted in your mind is not a terrible one as it wasn’t; it was what it was and was not unusual for a lot of lower class families or at least I knew no different. ‘Lower Class’? Surely I mean ‘Working Class’? No, I mean Lower Class. Upper, Middle, Lower! We may argue about their definitions and who is what but these are the three broad categories and excludes the underclass. So where does the term ‘Working Class’ come from you may ask. It was coined by Friedrich Engels, if you haven’t heard of him he was a mate of Karl Marx and wrote about the empowerment of the Lower Classes or as he called them the ‘Arbeitenden’ …there is an irony in the fact that the phrase ‘Working Class’ is now something people find pride in; pride in their lowly position. “I work for a living and am proud of it too!” Oh yeah? Say that again and replace the phrase ‘working class’ with ‘lower class’. It was not Engel or Marx’s intention but this is perhaps the biggest political dupe of the 20th Century and I have no doubt that it was unknowingly introduced to the lower class by the trade unions and the labour movement. It was and still is a powerful device in keeping the “working classes” in their place. I remember when I was growing up that if you were caught reading a book the question “What are you reading that for?” was often followed by “You think you’re better than us do you?”. I certainly wanted to be.
Yes I have always wanted to be a gentleman. When I was seventeen I had ‘a look’ that I called ‘the old man look’ which comprised of a grey brushed tweed two button suit, mustard waistcoat, maroon tie, tie pin, fob watch, flat cap and fake national health glasses…yes I went to the opticians and asked them to put clear lenses in a pair of old fashioned national health glasses. I even went so far as to bleach my stubble white. Yes, these were the moderate lengths I went to complete ‘the old man look’. It gets worse. Worse? Yes worse. During this period I suffered from an incident of twisted testicles, or testicular torsion to give it its medical term, and was rushed to hospital in the middle of the night. I had been doing nothing untoward if that’s what you’re thinking. What happens is that the two cords that connect your testicles get twisted and cuts off the blood supply to your balls. The pain is excruciating. If you were to try and imagine the pain imagine being repeatedly kicked in the balls or of you are a woman, giving birth. We cannot know each others pain. My nutsack was cut open and the cords untwisted and stitched down to ensure that it never happened again; my balls were saved. Some people are not that lucky and if the cords are not untwisted in time you lose them as they die from lack of oxygen. As you can imagine after the operation there was swelling and my balls were the size of a grapefruit, painful, and I could hardly walk. I walked with a hobble and was in need of a walking stick. Yes, the ‘old man look’ was complete…a gentleman owns a cane does he not? Yes, I have always wanted to be a gentleman.