My father had to leave school at 13, despite his innate intelligence and ability. He was a collier for 27 years and loved working underground, but in the late 1940s, he had to leave because of dermatitis due to a dust allergy.
The only job he could get after that was as a labourer in the blast furnaces of the steelworks in Ebbw Vale: the massive irony was that it was far dustier there than working underground.
My mother got into a grammar school, but because of the poverty of her family, she had to leave that school and find a job with accommodation; instead of becoming the doctor she had wanted to be, she became a district nurse in Tredegar.
As a result, there was never any doubt from both my parents that the way to liberation was a place at grammar school, and there was great celebration when I passed the 11-plus, which meant that in the future I would never put myself in danger going to work down the pit, or in any other arduous occupation, and life was going to be sweet.
I used to have to walk about a mile to the bus stop, get a bus to the station, then get a train down the valley to Pengam and walk up the hill to school – the Lewis School for Boys, established in 1729 and run very much as a public-school replica. The journey took an hour and a half each way, and if I was in detention, which I often was later on, it meant I didn’t get home until seven o’clock, which was a nuisance.
I was immediately bullied in my first week by boys 16 or 17 years of age – boys who looked like men. They’d hold you down and beat you with a strap – strapping, it was called. Everyone was bullied, but here I was, a ginger kid, slightly overweight, always with a sharp crease in my trousers, a startling white shirt and shiny shoes (a convention I’ve kept up until now), so for anybody feeling grumpy, I was a natural target.
Articulate and well-read
On the second week, I knew I was going to get a dose of what I’d received in the first week, so I got a cricket stump and put it down the leg of my trousers, and when they started to set on me, I pulled out the stump and laid about me. I honestly remember thinking, “I don’t mind if I die, I’m not putting up with this.” And once I’d shown that berserker capacity, the boys just laughed and left me alone, and I was never bullied after that.
I was articulate and quite well read, so I could busk my way through some classes, but I was absolutely abysmal in any form of mathematics, and apart from my first teacher, Taffy Hughes, I never had a good maths teacher, although it was probably my fault that I was so daunted by numbers.
And I kind of gave up working from the second year. I nestled very comfortably with similarly inclined lads in the “B” stream, which meant we could get along doing virtually nothing and could concentrate entirely on making each other laugh. And we did a lot of laughing, fooling about, answering back, smoking, fighting. Nothing really wicked, mind.
Rock and roll
I went to Pengam in 1953 and rock and roll hit in 1956. It instantly obsessed myself and every other kid in the school. Bill Haley and his Comets started it off with Rock Around the Clock, then there was Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, and the great Fats Domino – and ever since then, Blueberry Hill became my party piece in the rugby club or on various other occasions when the singing started and we had to do solos.
We had one kid in the third form who decided he looked much smarter in a black shirt and a white tie, rather than the regulation white shirt and black tie. I remember he had a teddy-boy haircut with a duck’s a--e and held it all in place by combing his hair with soapy water. He really did look like the original spiv and was greatly admired by everybody except the staff. Lambert, he was called.
And then there were girls. I don’t know whether the cravings develop at the same rate at a mixed school as they do at an all-boys school, but from the age of about 13, I loved girls: the sight of girls, the smell of girls, the sound of girls.
The girls I knew at that age were very, very prim and utterly inaccessible, so I was about 15 before I got a date, with a girl called Beatrice Michelmore, whose nickname was the Ice Queen, so you get the idea she was not easy to go out with. But she was a really terrific girl and I thought Beatrice was the love of my life. Of course, we didn’t have the faintest idea about sexual relationships, not a clue; I mean, studying the sex life of the amoeba or the frog in biology was not much of an introduction.
The first time I enjoyed school as an institution was when I got into the sixth form and began to work hard. But in the dog days of my last year, along with some other lads – God knows why – I took an Austin A30 car belonging to my history teacher, Malcolm Cook – a lovely man, gifted teacher, too – and wedged it between two pine trees in the wood at the edge of the rugby field.
When the news got to the headmaster, he went absolutely typhoon crazy. He called in everyone involved to be caned: seven of us, a couple of whom had never been in his study for anything other than awards and applause, real goody-goodies, all in a line in the corridor outside.
Standing next to me was a lovely lad from Tredegar called Neil Stradling, and he was shivering with fear. So I said, “Hey Strad, you go last in the line because with all these cuts to inflict, he’ll be completely exhausted and he might not even do it to you.” “Thank you very much, Kinnock,” he said.
Five guys go ahead of me – whack, whack, whack – and then out they come. I go in next and I bend over the stool – this physics-laboratory stool whose legs had been cut so it was on a slant in order to give him a better elevation when whacking you across the behind. He duly gives me six.
Then he calls “next”, and Stradling comes in while I’m still there. He slowly makes his way to the stool – and sits on it. I’m laughing so much, I am down on my knees with the tears running down my face, while the boss, absolutely out of his skull with fury and frustration, lays about my back and shoulders with the cane. And then he shouts, “Get out, get out of my sight, the both of you.” And Stradling got away without a single stroke.
To this day, the memory of that still makes me roar with laughter… I’m laughing now.