In the last week of March 2014 there were six of us together in North Wales. We called ourselves a work-party, and the purpose of our trip and stay was to attend to some of the repairs and maintenance required by the two houses belonging to Mill Grove in the picturesque seaside village of Borth-y-Gest.
Also in attendance (as it were) was a wife of one of the old boys, and a neighbour from London who helps out with the maintenance there. The term “old boy” is redolent of schools including public schools of course, and anachronistic because it has gone out of vogue at Mill Grove. For the past three decades or so, we have chosen to refer instead to “members of the extended family”. But because it is shorter, because we were all male, and because we all lived at Mill Grove when the term “old boys” was unexceptionable, I will use it just for the purposes of this piece.
We lived at Mill Grove as children between 1936 and 1963, and we are all now in the retired or senior categories. Unsurprisingly we had mustered a range of skill during our working lives, and we had a Sparky, a Chippie, an engineer, a security guard, a postman and men’s outfitter, and a writer. The tasks that were more demanding of skilled labour fell to the first two of these, and the rest of us helped with painting and decorating.
By the end of the four days spent in the houses we had transformed the look of at least three rooms, and completely redecorated another; we had prepared one house for a new central heating system; we had installed several new sockets; and repaired three doors. (And we have photos to prove it!)
But as you may have guessed the practical tasks in hand were only part of the whole experience. Though none of us were related by blood, we had all spent a good period of our boyhoods at Mill Grove, and so it was that again and again we found ourselves reminiscing about any number of facets of life there, including the place, schools, games and past-times, other children and the adults in positions of responsibility.
We also had some pretty lively discussions about politics which confirmed that our views ranged from left-wing (Daily Mirror and Guardian) to right (Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph). This reminded me that one of the great blessings of my childhood was the range of diametrically opposed views and opinions held within the same household. I didn’t have to wait to read Isaiah Berlin to discover that there are irreconcilable differences and incongruities between and within sincerely held beliefs. And this helps to explain why I have never been able to locate myself (even remotely) on the conventional left-right political spectrum. So it was in North Wales that I found myself in sympathy with both sides in the lively discussions that accompanied meals and tea-breaks.
We talked of childhood experiences before life at Mill Grove, and of members of our own nuclear families. Tracing family trees had been something at least three of the work-party had been engaged in with enthusiasm. In the process it became obvious that Mill Grove had not functioned as a substitute family in competition with their own, but as their “other family”. So Joan Warne, who had also lived at Mill Grove as a child, and wrote her memoirs under the title My Other Family, seems to have got it just right.
There were gaps in some memories about people and events, and a rough estimate confirmed for me the way in which those who are struggling with loss and trauma often cut off, albeit unconsciously, from feelings and associations in a way that means whole periods have been frozen so that they are inaccessible to the unaided memory. (Whether they can be accessed by other means, I leave for another day.)
One thing we wondered about was how the boys slept in rooms (dormitories) of eight or more when they were young, given that now with the snoring that seemed to have developed to an alarming degree, at least two old boys found it impossible to sleep in the same room! Perhaps the demand for personal privacy has increased over time, as well as the propensity to snore!
Anyone observing the group at work (bearing in mind that this was a team of volunteers) would have quickly grasped that something rather like the “Protestant work ethic” was a shared value or mode of life. There was no slacking throughout the quite long working days, and the tea-breaks were finite affairs, rather than excuses for long, drawn-out discussions. And this, by common consent, reflected the ethos of Mill Grove, particularly Herbert and Victor White (my grandfather and father respectively) who were always engaged in purposeful activity, and saw the constant risk of “the devil finding work for idle hands to do”.
We had prayer times after breakfast as we planned the work each day. As it was in the season of Lent we reflected on the testing or tempting of Jesus immediately after he had been baptised. We noticed how well acquainted he was with the lives, experiences, and suffering of ordinary people. Whether or not we believed the current British cabinet to be out of touch with average hard-working people, we knew that Jesus had lived life in the very ordinary town of Nazareth, and later rubbed shoulders out of choice with those who were marginalised and stigmatised. It might have seemed quaint in what is often portrayed as a “post-Christian” society that this group of mature men gathered round a Bible and prayed. But this too was part of our common heritage. On reflection I realise that all but one of the old boys is actively engaged in their local churches.
There was a shared East End (of London) brand of humour that ran through all conversations and interactions: a great leveller, and ideal when some of the tasks did not go as planned. More than once I heard someone whistling or singing the song, Right Said Fred, made famous in the 1960s by Bernard Cribbins, with its refrain:
“We was getting nowhere/ And so we had a cuppa tea…” Despite the challenges of the practical tasks, and the need to adapt to unfolding new challenges, there was always a lightness of touch about the work-party: it was, in a word, fun.
But the overriding feeling and motivation was an unspoken desire to express in a tangible way a thankfulness for the way in which Mill Grove had opened its doors, and those who lived there, their hearts, to children who were not remotely related to them by blood. I happen to know a fair bit about the life-story of each person, and the fact is that they had been dealt some pretty unfair and unpromising hands. But they were grateful that they had been welcomed and affirmed, and that through a period of between 55 and 70 years there had been those who were always willing to stand alongside them, and to relate to them as beloved members of the same extended family.
One evening was spent reading the most recent copy of Links, the annual newsletter distributed to every member of the extended family of Mill Grove. That is something that they have taken for granted all their lives: it has come out unfailingly every year, and is one of the ways in which the large and growing family keeps in touch worldwide.
And as it happened there were some pictures of the work party taken the year before: they were being thanked for all they had done to make the summer holiday in North Wales so comfortable and trouble-free. In this and many other ways there is a reciprocity embedded into the life of Mill Grove over the generations. It is a place where love is given and received, and where boys who prayed before each meal that they might be truly thankful proved many years later as men, that they were indeed.