Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Toffs and Toughs

The Toughs and the Toffs, photo by Jack Sime, 1937

Peoples’ stories are at the heart of writing, by which I mean all good writing is about people, not events. I recently came across a superb article by Ian Jack, a Guardian columnist in the Intelligent Life, an Economist lifestyle magazine.

You can read the full article here:

It concerns the photo above showing two upper class boys and three street urchins. This photo has been used over and over again to illustrate class and inequality in Britain. However, in 1998, Mail journalist Geoffry Levy took a different view. He looked at the story behind the photo. It was semi-staged, of course; the camera always lies.

The two Toffs are Peter Wagner and Tim Dyson from Harrow public school. It is the day of the Eton-Harrow cricket match at Lords and the two boys are required to attend in Sunday Dress. They are waiting at Grace Gates for the Wagner family to arrive by car.

The three Toughs are George Salmon, Jack Catlin and George Young, who lived close to Lord’s and were in the same class at St Paul’s Bentinck Church of England school. They had been to the dentist and decided to skip school and make some money in tips by portering at Grace Gates.

Levy probed beyond the social message to ask what had happened to the boys. What was their story? Did the rich boys live gilded lives of privilege while the poor worked until they dropped? Not exactly.

The Toffs
Peter Wagner read Natural Science at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was called up in’43 as a lieutenant in the Royal Signals but was invalided out due to poor health. He married in ’53, lived on a farm in Surrey, worked in The City and had three daughters. He suffered from mental illness in the 70s and died in an asylum in Hastings in ’84. He sent two of his daughters to state schools as he hated Harrow.

Tim Dyson went to visit his parents for the summer holidays in ’38. His father was an army officer in India. Tim contracted diphtheria a few days after arriving at his parents’ bungalow in Trimulgherry and died. Four years later his father was starved to death by the Japanese in a POW camp in Korea.

The Toughs
Jack Catlin’s family moved out of the London working class to the middle class West London suburb of Rickmansworth. He served in the Navy during the war and rose to a senior position in the Civil Service. He is still alive in comfortable retirement in Dorset with his second wife – he has two sons from a first marriage. He will not talk about the past.

The other two toughs were George Salmon and George Young. They stayed friends, leaving school at 14 and serving in the Navy. They married, had kids, and lived out their old age in smart and comfortable London flats. They died sometime between 98 and now. They had happy fulfilled lives.

So there it is, the story of five English boys whose lives touched for one brief morning in 1937 outside Lord’s cricket ground.

Nowadays, there is still an Eton-Harrow match at Lords but the Harrow boys will be dressed and look pretty much like the working class boys walking past. They will also have to do their own portering. The wealth gulf is as large as ever, and growing steadily wider as a new aristocracy of international corporate fat cats develops.

And the morale of this story? Damned if I know, except that it is far more complex than a simple tale of class, of privilege and deprivation.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

That is fascinating, John!

Francis Turner said...

I suspect that the 3 toughs in that photo did better than an equivalent 3 today would do. The 3 today would come from a sink housing estate where true unemployment is about 90% (hidden of course by people in "training programs", "disability" etc.) and where they will probably fail to leave school able to read, write or do sums.

C Kelsey said...

Extremely interesting, John. It also illustrates something that is growing more and more common nowadays... There used to be a common saying, "Don't believe everything you read". It really should extend to to "don't believe everything you read or see". Sadly, most people today -- perhaps due to the abundance of information available now -- simply take whatever they read or see at face value.

Anonymous said...

Wherever you start out, you wind up about the same in the end.

WWII was a big leveler, very obviously in Britain with the servant class disappearing. In the US the effects were a bit slower, as women left the factories so the returning men could find jobs, but they raised my generation of women to expect an equal education and no barriers to jobs.

Our current government seems to be dead set on destroying the middle class and raising the barriers of class. They seem to not be noticing that by destroying the family structure through welfare they are not creating a class of obedient voters, but rather creating the Barbarians already inside the gates.

However, dropping the politics, and turning back to the use of a time captured on film . . .

A static picture from my childhood would have me gawping and saying "what happened? Where did that world go?" Same as those youngsters were probably saying when they reached my age.

In fiction we tend to sweep away governments and space fleets with the click of the keys. How do we portray the turnover of a way of life?

We've spoken about the desire for surety that has people wishing for the return of a tyrant. I think we all understand both the limits and usefulness of "the old ways" and we need to remember that at the end of our books, when the adventurers return home, home will have changed. Both for the better and for the worse.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I suspect people overemphasize the importance of social class. My father didn't finish high school(1), and my mother finished it without being eligible to go to University. Their three kids all have Bachelor's degrees, and soon two of them will have Master's. My uncle on my father's side has a Ph.D.

The fact is, we're short on competent people. The global economy is amazingly complex, and requires a lot of very smart people to run it. We cannot afford to waste talent. This means that businesses have every incentive to give opportunity to people.

There is a problem of people raised without the right values (hard work, honesty, etc.). But that isn't a class thing, it's a culture thing.

(1) I don't have income figures except for myself, so I use education as a proxy.

Mike said...

Matapam? Huh. I think you just explained something that has puzzled me. Fairly often, people ask me where I'm from, and I explain that I was born in one place, then we lived another place, and another, and... but my teen years were over here, before... and usually people ask me when I'm going to go back. At which point I'm usually stunned, and just say that I will probably never go back. Which seems to stun them, in turn.

I guess people are trying to fit my life into the template of leaving home and then going back, and finding out that I have no interest in going back is a shock of some kind. But... why would I want to go back there? I mean, my birth place... I don't even remember it. And the places I've lived along the way -- I've got my memories, but I don't feel as if I need to visit again. I was passing through, I guess.

Interesting. Do most people really have that kind of "going home" instinct? Why?

Thanks. You've given me something to think about.

Anonymous said...


"Class" isn't what it used to be either. Except maybe in India.

I think Americans are too far removed from a genuinely stratified society that we don't realize how "stuck" people used to be.

One of the best thing about America is that we can fail, and get up and try again.

My father didn't finish high school either. He entered college with the huge slug of post WWII veterans, and his records didn't catch up to him until he was half through the chemical engineering program. My mother started college when she was thirty-six.

Dropped out? Take a GED program. Flunked out of college? Go find a community college and try again, with less partying and more studying.

We forget how much didn't used to be "allowed."

John Lambshead said...

dear Rowena
Yah, real life is so wierd.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Francis
Social mobility in Britain seems to have peaked in my generation (those who came of age in the 70s). Most people think it has gone into sharp reverse since.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Chris
Very true. Facts reveal nothing if you can't process them in context.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Pam

Yes, WWII was a zero hour for Europe. Everything changed.

I agree with you that you can't go back. Don't revisit that wonderful place you knew. It no longer exists.


John Lambshead said...

Dear Ori
There is a huge difference between caste and class - the latter is flexible. People do tend to rise to their level of competence.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Mike

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
LP Hartley - the opening line of The Go-Between.

I never 'go home'. The place I grew up in, the place I remember, is frozen in the 50s and 60s.


Kate said...

Very interesting. Proof that individual choices can make one heck of a difference, if you look at it that way.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

And these days class is shown by NOT showing class. The ostentatious simplicity, except everything worn will be well-made or expensive.

Anonymous said...

Chris, one variation of this is the "if it's on the intertubez it MUST be true" meme. It's amazing how much someone's level of credulity is skewed when reading electrons on a screen.