George MacBeth

Tony Hanwell (1949-56) writes:

As a new arrival at KES in 1949, I well remember George MacBeth and particularly after his elevation to Head Prefect during the following (school) year. To a new working class arrival, he seemed very patrician but then, to those of us in the Second Form (as the first year was known), so did all the prefects. He appeared to hold a position of special reverence, perhaps because of the loss of his father or because of his Oxford success in spite of long absences through illness or most likely, because of his precocious literary talent.

Fifty four years passed, and I discovered belatedly Don Nicolson's excellently administered OEA website. I devoured "Tha'll never gerr in theer" and John Cornwell's "King Ted's" and was led on to Macbeth's autobiographical "A Child of War" with its evocation of my childhood haunts in the Hunters Bar/Clarkehouse Road area.

However, I could not resist a hollow laugh when the publishers blurb on the book cover described Macbeth's father as a Scottish miner. To me, and I suggest to most people, the description conjures up the image of a tough coal face worker - but he was none of the sort!

To be fair to Macbeth, he never claimed as much in the book itself. He makes it clear that his father started out as a qualified engineering draughtsman working for a colliery engineering company and he quickly moved up into management. His father wore a black Homburg as well as (when necessary) a miner's helmet, and his parents played golf, owned a car in 1939, owned property in Scotland, lived in Bingham Park Road (where he wasn't allowed to mix with the 'roughs' in Ranby Road) and they put their son in to a fee paying preparatory school. His later house in Southbourne Road (even though rented) was similar to the many middle class homes to which I delivered newspapers on my morning round before attending KES.

I'm in danger of sounding like one of those characters in the notorious "Monty Python" sketches in which they all vie with each other to claim the most wretched working class origins, but I think it is very significant that the book was published in 1987 only three years after the Orgreave Colliery riots. It would have done MacBeth's left wing credentials, and his promotion prospects as a BBC producer, no harm at all to be described as the son of a Scottish miner during those Thatcher years.

The myth is perpetuated in the opening of his obituary on this website where he is introduced as the son of a miner. Perhaps son of a mining engineer would be more accurate? It is a common characteristic of many on the left of British politics to exaggerate their working class origins as the Monty Python team so brilliantly satirised. It would be a pity if Macbeth were open to this accusation when he, in his writing, was so characteristically open, frank and honest about the real circumstances of his tragedy torn childhood.

Tony Hanwell (Feb 2006)
See also George MacBeth (1932-92).