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.
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.
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.