’Oly, ’Oly, ’Oly

D.A.N. Jones

  • From Early Life by William Cooper
    Macmillan, 180 pp, £13.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 333 52367 9
  • Son of Adam by Denis Forman
    Deutsch, 201 pp, £12.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 233 98593 X
  • A Welsh Childhood by Alice Thomas Ellis and Patrick Sutherland
    Joseph, 186 pp, £15.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 7181 3292 0
  • Alarms and Excursions: Thirty Years in Israel by Naomi Shepherd
    Collins, 220 pp, £16.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 00 215333 5
  • Birds of Ill Omen by Marie Seurat, translated by Dorothy Blair
    Quartet, 168 pp, £10.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 7043 2694 9

Only one of these five memoirs can be fairly called secular – quite unconcerned with the consolations of religion, untroubled by the complications. This is From Early Life by the oldest of the five authors, the novelist and scientist ‘William Cooper’: he was born in 1910 and brought up (as Harry Hoff) in the town of Crewe in Cheshire. Seniors in his family were determined chapel-goers, but Cooper-Hoff looks back at his childhood, over eighty years, with the quiet smile of a tolerant agnostic: his light, amused impressions illustrate the way England has become more secular than other nations, during this century. Though he claims to have an unreliable memory, he can remember being a beautiful baby of two, in 1912, and screaming at a parson who approached his pram, saying: ‘Hello, my little man.’ He can remember moving up from the Infants to the Big School, where the headmaster brandished his cane at the morning assembly, announcing: ‘You’re going to sing “ ’Oly, ’Oly, ’Oly” – I’ll cut some of you in two.’ The boys were trundled across the road for an Anglican church service once a week. He remembers being baptised when he was nine, at the instigation of his piano teacher, who wanted him in the church choir. Young Harry was quite pleased with the fuss. Though his father came of a ‘good Baptist’ family and his mother from a ‘good Wesleyan’ family, neither was ‘given to going to chapel’ and only rarely did they threaten young Harry: ‘If you go on like this, you’ll be sent to Sunday School next week!’

He enjoyed the church choir, the ritual ‘bowing and scraping’ – the church was ‘Medium-High perhaps?’ At 13 he was marked out as a potential acolyte, a server at the Communion Service, so he was confirmed by the Bishop of Chester, with his parents present among the congregation: once again, young Harry did not feel a thing. At Crewe County Secondary School, he evaded ‘Religious Knowledge’ lessons, for he dismissed the idea of ‘being required to take seriously all the implausible stuff in the first books of the Old Testament’: he had been reading about evolution in the Children’s Encyclopedia. Among his kinsmen, some high-minded Methodists conducted their business negotiations on the steps of the Wesleyan Chapel after morning service – so alleged an envious relative who ‘frequented the Primitive Methodists, a social notch lower than the Wesleyans’, but the author suspects that just as many deals were done ‘on the steps of the Prims’. His Great-Aunt Sally, respected and well-to-do, suggested before a meal: ‘Harry, will you please to say Grace for us?’ Harry stammered out: ‘I don’t know any Grace.’ Then feeling a sharp kick in the ankle he turned to his mother and asked: ‘What are you kicking me for?’ His Great-Aunt Sally paid for his education at Christ’s College, Cambridge, which he had chosen partly because Darwin had been a member of the college: ‘The Theory of Evolution, which I hadn’t studied at all, must – because even I knew it explained how we came to be here without the invention of any supernatural agency – be right up my street.’

The parenthesis here is, I suppose, an example of blind faith. He is weighty in his parentheses, light and easy in his narrative. Other boys called him ‘Happy Hoff’ or, with lewd intent, ‘Thos Off’. He was frightened by the printed word ‘self-abuse’, since the slang expression ‘tossing off’, was so harmless and humorous. ‘Why is is that giving a word to something invariably transforms it, usually into something awful? (“God” provides a most striking case in point.)’ He is a skilful and experienced writer: this memoir might easily be mistaken for one of his novels, Scenes from Provincial Life, Scenes from Married Life, Scenes from ... He feels that readers want scenes. When he muses he breaks off with a parenthesis: ‘(Readers seem to be born with a craving for events.)’ There are many agreeable scenes and events, about school dances and his aunt’s pawnshop: ‘Pawnshops have gone, thank goodness! The rich have found other ways of squeezing the poor.’ Such parentheses hint at his political and non-religious opinions, his sexual experience and his class-consciousness. On the last page, he arrives at Cambridge and remarks: ‘For the first time in my life I was surrounded by the upper classes en masse. They all looked bigger and stronger than me!’

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