Magazine article The Spectator

Getting Ideas above His Station

Magazine article The Spectator

Getting Ideas above His Station

Article excerpt


by A. H. Halsey

Macmillan Press, f40, f15.99, p.263 This is the story of a railway child, who eventually got society to play with, instead of trains. Albert Henry Halsey was born into the closely-knit world of North London working-class families in Kentish Town who, before the district became a Hampstead-by-default, were all employed by the companies whose trains ran from King's Cross, St Pancras and Euston. His christian names were a traditional tribute to royal princes (70 years on, he would have been named after a rock or movie star). They were soon condensed into a nickname, Chelly.

His great-grandfather was a foreman platelayer, his grandfather a recordbreaking express driver, his father (who was gassed in Flanders) a signalman. Jobs like these, handed down from working father to working son, have almost all gone: Halsey is telling us of a world we have, for better or worse, lost.

The Halseys moved to Northamptonshire when he was a child, because the air might be better for his father's lungs. But it was still a railway life. He retains a boundless affection for it: `Nothing is more British than the railway.' (I hope he is wrong.) The family lived in the village of Corby, which was suddenly transformed when Stewart & Lloyd decided to build a steel works.

Young Chelly was beaten up by tough, marauding Scots, the sons of steelworkers from Glasgow slums. He has a continuing antipathy to Scots, which must give him problems with the modern parliamentary Labour Party.

He won a free place to grammar school. But he seems, otherwise, to have been unambitious. He left school to become a sanitary inspector's lad; one of his jobs was to keep the keys to the morgue.

The war opened a new life. He went into the RAF, and trained as a fighter pilot in Rhodesia. He is admirably honest about the fear this struck into him. I would have liked to know more about his time in Central Africa. He must have been one of the dashing young warriors Doris Lessing says that she and her friends swooned over at dances in Salisbury (sorry, Harare). But, after his evocative descriptions of a childhood when St Pancras station seemed 'a mile high,' the tale gets decidedly drier.

He became, however, a figure of some importance in postwar social history. …

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