Clair, Sheila and I met through our children. We all lived near a small park with a big playground which was good for running some of the energy out of our kids and simultaneously giving us a few minutes of adult company. When I started a reading group, it was just formalising what we were all doing every day in the playground – talking about books. Bernadine was slightly different in that she joined the group having seen a poster in our local library. She lived in the same street as me, also very close to the park, but her kids are a bit older than mine and by the time I was doing the daily parental triathlon of school, park, home, she was already back at work.
That was all a very long time ago. The children we battled so hard to contain now need to be levered out of bed and their incessant chatter has been replaced by sullen monosyllables. Their parents however, still enjoy talking about books and still relish the opportunity to spend time in the company of like-minded people.
The Black Boy first caught my attention because I used to regularly visit a pub in Essex called the Black Buoy and wondered if the sign writer here had just made a mistake. Then I wondered if there was some kind of racism at work, but then the pub helpfully acquired a sign with its name and a portrait of a rather grubby small boy, presumably one who had recently done his shift in the nearby coal mine. Wales is like that – take a disgraceful piece of inhumanity or flagrant disregard for social justice and then call it a historic monument, or name a pub after it. Just look at the words of our beautiful, rousing anthem:
Though the enemy have trampled my country underfoot,
The old language of the Welsh knows no retreat,
The spirit is not hindered by the treacherous hand
Nor silenced the sweet harp of my land.
Or put another way, ‘we have been utterly destroyed by a variety of brutal and duplicitous invaders but while a few of us can still say that long Welsh town name and Pobol y Cwm is still on the telly, everything is OK’.
20 July 2015
The Black Boy, Killay
Rant over, back to the pub…
The Black Boy is a typical chain pub: it’s enormous, sells good, cheap beer and acceptable if unimaginative food. I had agreed to the venue initially as it is one of the few decent pubs I can get to on foot and I had intended to drink. Getting made redundant the week before made me rethink that one, I don’t trust myself not to get sucked into the habit of drinking because I can, only to find some time later that it’s the only thing left that I can still do. Nevertheless, you’ll always get a table at lunchtime in this pub, the staff are friendly and unusually for a concert hall sized chain pub, it’s got a nice atmosphere, so the Black Boy it is.
As usual for us Reading Group ladies, there was no shortage of stuff to talk about. Three of us are teachers so the education system was given a good mauling. All of us are parents, we have eleven children between us, so the kids were also discussed, disparaged and despaired of. I like the fact that it’s taken as read that we are proud of our kids, love them and want nothing but the best for them, so that it’s perfectly fine for us to do nothing but moan about them.
Us four are an interesting, if typically new UK, cultural mix. Bernadine is from Southern Ireland, Sheila is English but of an Irish family, Clair is English but having five kids studying in Welsh medium education, has absorbed a lot of the local colour, I am Welsh but English speaking and grew up in a very English part of Wales. When I thought I recognised but couldn’t place the charming young man who served us, Sheila helped me to work out exactly who he was and we both used the classic Welsh technique of naming people based on some physical or social characteristic, for example ‘Jane with the four children’ or ‘her over the road with the black cat’. Bernadine and Clair had no idea who we were talking about, but they tolerated this pointless conversation because that’s what we do here – if we know someone, we probably know their mother, brother, next door neighbour or the bloke who sold them a car last week. If we know them, we need to know how we know them, to place them in a specific position in the local milleux.
Having said that, living in Wales has definitely not turned us all into a bunch of fishwives. I’m always struck by our Reading Group members’ ability to go from gossip about film stars to meaningful political insight and clinically clear understanding of the international situation. We are, I’m proud to say, a clever old bunch, but we know each other well, we don’t have to prove anything to each other and I certainly learn something every time we meet.
We had all recently read and thoroughly enjoyed the same book – The Children Act by Ian McEwan. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this third class drivel and do it now. I’ll lend it to you if you like, it’s brilliant, really brilliant. We had lots and lots to say about it, only problem is, it’s the book we are supposed to be talking about at the next meeting of our Reading Group and while four out of ten members is not a bad sample, it’s not enough to pre-empt the meeting by discussing the book now. And so followed a comical series of half conversations where someone would think of something to say about the book, would enthusiastically blurt something out, but then catch the disapproving glance of the others and stop, realising that while true, it just wasn’t polite to say it, like a child mentioning the bride’s ex-boyfriend at a wedding.