A Sociological Autobiography: 1 – Getting Started

Only a fully paid up academic could and would equivocate between two alternative and equally arcane subtitles: ‘sociological autobiography’ versus ‘autobiographical sociology’. In fact both make sense. The first and favoured option emphasises autobiography while suggesting a narrative of a life-course shaped by the confluence of time and place, a structured if not structurally determined life. The second has a methodological connotation, where the emphasis is on sociology and the personal as a means to sociological ends. So I have opted to tell my own story – more on why later – but recognise that the postwar era in which I have lived has had more impact than I have on who I have become. Born in 1948, it has even been claimed that – according to the statistics at least – I belong to the very luckiest of the baby-boomer cohorts. I am a ’48er’! I certainly sense that fortune has favoured me and my peers and I. No wars, job continuity and retirement with my final salary pension scheme intact. I write with sociological intent, justifying to myself at least the telling of an otherwise undistinguished story containing many a plot beyond my wit or control. It is a narrative as much about ‘people like me’ as about ‘me’. It bears also on postwar social change and on the emergence of sociology as a discipline to be reckoned with.

Beginning this story at the age of 64 I am embarrassed at how long it took me to find my intellectual feet. It was not that I had nothing to say, rather that for a decade or more I felt either obligation or need to anchor my thoughts in those of others. Nor were all of these referents dead, survivors by natural selection. But I have had a voice for a while now and another theme in what follows is my ‘take’ not only on contemporary society but on the human condition. That all this offers itself for debate and correction goes without saying: fallibilism is a singular virtue of the put-upon academic’s habitus. So what follows is a mix of very personal story-telling and reflections on the changing world we inhabit. Afforded relief from peer-review I need not hold back.

I must admit at the outset to another and perhaps less understandable or forgivable predilection. For reasons not altogether clear to me I have always been suspicious of neat, organised or tie-it-up narratives, independently of focus or intent. I prefer Bourdieu’s wonderfully disparate Weight of the World to many a rival account of what it is to inhabit the present. It is less a matter of content than of style. I recognise the genius of the ‘later’ Wittgenstein (not that the ‘early’ incarnation was bad either), but I share something of the urge to defining where one stands detectable in Strawson’s early review of Philosophical Investigations. I pursue an ordered or coherent account for all that disjunction appeals because that is how things present to us. In a manner in part captured by Marx and Engels’ concept of the dialectic, most of the conclusions we arrive at are simultaneously true and false, and the positions we adopt and advocate justified and unjustified. Again, more of this later. But I am not defensive about the organisation of my narrative; it flips between past, present and future, and between topics and agendas, and in doing so, it is my conceit, it offers a viable representation of a particular baby-boomer’s life-course in the later part of what Hobsbaum called ‘interesting times’.

Technically I am a Londoner, having seen the first blurred light of day in North Finchley on 8th October, 1948. Inevitably I was for a good while a less interested and salient participant in who I was than my parents (and even their parents). I had not been conceived easily, due to my father’s low sperm count, but was eagerly awaited. When I eventually plopped out it was more or less on schedule and into loving arms. Like many women at the time, my mother Margaret had prepared for my arrival on her own in the absence on war service of my father ‘Ron’ (christened Ernest William George, none of which he was willing to be known by). Thumbing through their letters there is no doubting their attachment to each other. In a barely recognisable era they had in the late 1930’s travelled together to Switzerland in motor bike and sidecar (the latter literally ‘hoisted’ by crane onto the Dover-Calais ferry) for a holiday lacking only in consummation, indicator enough. Marriage was a serious business.

I might have missed the second great European conflagration of the twentieth century but I arrived in the shadows it had cast. My mother had spent her war years anticipating home and family, collecting bits and pieces of furniture for the future, the beneficiary of occasional handouts from her parents in Barnet. She was anticipating more than the one child. My father’s life had been more exotically re-scripted. He had left school in 1925 at the age of 14 to add to a meagre household income (the family at that time comprising his parents, him and five-year old brother Ken). There was no family surplus for further study. His early and transitory jobs were low-paid, if not always mind-numbing: for a while he enjoyed cycling round London delivering cricket bats. The breakthrough came when he joined a firm of shipbrokers, Brown, Jenkinson & Co Ltd, initially in the menial role of office boy.

The company had been founded by David Brown, born in Llandaff in South Wales in 1829. Through the 1840s David learned his trade in neighbouring Cardiff, a significant centre of shipping, where his father Joseph was an established and leading figure. David became a shipbroker in his own right in 1855, when an entry appears in the Cardiff directories ‘David Brown, Bute Docks’.  It was possibly his marriage to the daughter of a London clergyman that decided David to transfer his business to the City of London and to open an office – as ‘shipbroker and shipowner’ – at 146 Leadenhall Street. He registered his company in 1860, an apparently stormy and disastrous year for shipping worldwide; but he survived to prosper. It was to a still prosperous company that Ron was recruited. I take these details from Full Ahead, a history of the firm published a century later and signed and sent on to ‘E Scambler Esq’. But Ron had left Brown, Jenkinson & Co Ltd by then: I am getting ahead of myself.

By the mid-1930s Ron had been ‘taken under the wing of one of the directors’. His apprenticeship, he felt, was metamorphosing into a trainee directorship. The eventual undoing of his ambition was the company’s, and his, investment in German shipping. He travelled to Germany often in the 1930s, becoming fluent in the language in the process. His excursions were not always on the company payroll, however, and one he later wrote up, partly as an aide-de-memoir, partly for me. It is a story eloquently retold from the vantage point of the 1950s, and one better transcribed than paraphrased.

‘The evening newspaper had just been pushed through the letter-box, and the dog had come running in with it in his mouth to drop it at my feet. All I could see by the light of the flickering fire in the hearth was the headline ‘Berchtesgaden’. I paused a while before switching on more light, and thought of another evening at dusk.

‘It had rained on and off for most of the day, but I was young, fit and the 250 mile trip through the middle of Germany had been pleasant enough, for motorcycling appealed to me – it’s natural exhilaration, the feeling of being able to travel independently, as well as the basic economic factor that one could journey on for 70 miles for 2/- worth of petrol. 

‘It had been pleasant until I had decided to push ahead over the mountain road which had looked like a short-cut to Berchtesgaden, which, I estimated, could be reached by dusk on that August evening in 1935.

‘Doubtless all would have gone well but for the weather. The clouds closed in on the mountain, loosed their torrents of rain, and the track became a treacherous mud-covered surface crossed at frequent intervals by deep gullies filled with water which hid the depth and very often their direction. Small wonder that as dusk came on I found the lighting system had been shaken out of order, and so had to slither the remaining few miles of the descent into the valley in almost total darkness.

‘However, Berchtesgaden was eventually reached and my spirits rose at the thought of a hot bath, a good meal and bed. It was not, alas, to be; apparently the choice of such a delectable spot by the Fuhrer for his ‘retreat’ had transformed the villages thereabouts from delightfully sleepy little-frequented places into resorts completely aware of their sudden importance, doubtless confirmed for them by the overwhelming influx of visitors, with the result that Berchtesgaden and the adjacent villages were full to overflowing. ‘He’ was apparently in residence!

‘It suddenly occurred to me that, during my many wanderings in many countries, I had never yet been forced to spend a night in the open unprepared, but this time it appeared a certainty. It was 11pm, a night dark as pitch, and every proverbial avenue had been explored as regards accommodation. I wearily got the flash lamp out of the pannier-bag and repaired the technical hitch in the lighting equipment. Failing a bed, at least I now had a powerful headlamp to go barn-prospecting up and down the valley.

‘I had thoroughly combed the main valley without success and had just turned up a narrow lane evidently leading off up to a small adjoining valley when my headlamp picked out a party of young men in seemingly high spirits descending. I stopped the machine and enquired whether they could suggest a sleeping place for the rest of the night: anything with a roof would do since the villages round about were full. To my amazement one of the party promptly offered me his own bed, explaining that as another of their party was being called up for his military service on the following day they had decided to make it an all-night celebration at the pseudo-soldiers’s house. Hardly could I offer my thanks, mingled with feeble protests at his extreme kindness, before he was perched on the pillion seat and directing me to ‘ride strongly’ up a footpath that appeared intent on going straight as an arrow up the mountainside. After a quarter of a mile, however, just as I was telling myself that the joke was on me, and as the path grew almost too steep to tackle, we veered off to the side and came upon a typical Bavarian farmhouse. The farmer’s son, as I later ascertained, explained the situation to his mother, who, without demur, produced a cold supper that would surely have vied with any come upon by that much-travelled Mr Pickwick in any English hostelry; and I did it Pickwickian justice as you can imagine! A short chat with my newfound host and hostess and I retired, after all to a bed not a barn.

‘I spent five days at the farm, during which time I came to appreciate to the full the delightful surroundings and the kindness and sincerity of the Bavarian peasant farmer and his family. My bill for the period was 1/9d per day, and I had made five friends into the bargain.

‘The dog at my feet showed his impatience at my lack of interest in his good deed for the day, and so I switched on the light, picked up the paper, and finished reading the headline: ‘Berchtesgaden ‘Retreat’ to be demolished by the Allies’. Yes, I know at least five Germans who will be as pleased to read that as I am’.

As this anecdote suggests, Ron knew too many ordinary Germans too well ever to cast blame indiscriminately in the postwar years. He had worked with them, spent time in their homes, socialised in their beer-halls (including those in Munich where Hitler tested and refined his oratorical skills and which I later visited myself). He had also held clandestine conversations about the rise of the Nazis in the middle of the fields around Hamburg to avoid being overheard: he understood and empathised with his consociates. Nor was he ever to forget in 1945-46 flying over cities reduced mile-on-mile to rubble by ‘Bomber’ Harris’ crews, too patriotic to criticize, too unsettled to proffer justification. Ron’s war service put work and family plans on hold: it was an interesting war from which Margaret came to think he never fully returned.

 

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