Father Smith

By Geoff Smith (written in April 1960)

The Smith Family
The Smith Family. David is fourth from the left;
Cliff extreme left and Geoff is seated centre.

Cliff’s younger brother Geoff provides an illuminating insight into their father and his beliefs in the following article he wrote for a teachers magazine.

My father's ideas on politics were somewhat simpler than the complex issues involved would warrant. For him it was a clear-cut conflict between Good and Evil, like the Cowboys and Indians of his childhood. On the one side stood the arch-villain, Capital, and on the other the spotless hero, Labour. All employers were, ipso facto, Conservatives and tyrannical brigands trying to squeeze as much work and production out of their employees for as low wages as possible. All workmen were innocent dupes of their bosses' rapacity, sweating their guts out so that they could live on the fat of the land. There were thousands of people who were drones and parasites, living on the interest from inherited wealth. Such people were represented and protected by the Conservatives, or Tories, as he preferred to call them, the latter term having more obnoxious connotations. The Labour Party was formed to protect the rights of the workers who produced all the wealth of the country by their brawn and skill (Marxism) and yet, because of the corrupt, outdated capitalist system were unable to share in it. The workers starved while the idle rich wallowed in lavish luxury. It's the system that's all wrong," he would say, as though in that one phrase he was solving all the ills of the modern world, also taking a little of the blame away from the industrialists. The main solution was to tax the rich.

His attitude was bitter and one-sided and there were good reasons for it. When, in early manhood, with clearly defined views and strongly expressed opinions he had been 'given the sack' for his part as one of the ringleaders of a strike at a large tube works in the Black Country, after a firm assurance that there would be no victimization, he had ever afterwards nursed a deeply rooted hostility to all employers. For him there were no philanthropic plutocrats. He blazed up in anger whenever the name of Andrew Carnegie was mentioned - and when one discovered later that most of Carnegie's money was made from cheap labour one can sympathise with his opinion.

Yet, with all his prejudices and gall in this respect he was at the core one of the most patient and reasonable of men. A man of integrity and probity he had sound common sense. He would not be taken in by anyone's pretences. Moreover, although his political views were as unshakeable as the laws of the Medes and Persians he was exceedingly tolerant and broad-minded on all other topics, Steady and reliable, he never panicked. He was typical of the yeoman stock, of the better kind of English workman, like many other products of nineteenth century industrialism who thought for themselves, went to worker's educational night classes and were ardent propagandists for Socialism. Keir Hardie was the great name and Robert Blatchford's "Merrie England," and Bellamy's "Looking Backward" and later Tressall's "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist" were their textbooks. I have little doubt that had he lived in the first half of the nineteenth century he would have been a zealous Chartist or a Tolpuddle Martyr. He had the complete works of Shakespeare and Byron in the Ward Lock editions, which he was constantly reading and which I still possess. He loved to quote “The Dying Gladiator" stanzas from "Childe Harold and for many years my favourite lines in poetry were, "Shall he expire and unavenged? Arise, ye Goths, and glut your ire" I had no idea of the dictionary meanings of “glut” or "ire" but the mere sound of the words made sense enough.

His discerning mind, quick to see through shams and sophistries was stirred with scorn and indignation at the British attitude during the Boer Wars. Britain, the great bully, the vain, covetous braggart, was the picture he gave us. He told us how the Press and popular entertainers aroused anti-Boer feeling. For him the Boer Wars were pieces of blatant robbery with violence, of naked aggression of which Cecil Rhodes was embodiment. When the wars were over he became a strong anti-imperialist. Many were the arguments he had with our milkman, Mr. Philip Birch, who was fond of goading Dad and had a fund of stories about his years as a farmer in South Africa and boasted that during the war he had killed a Zulu. Names like Mafekin, Ladysmith, Roberts, Smits, Kruger and Baden-Powell were constantly wafting over our heads during their semi humorous exchanges. So in our household anti-Imperialism was sown with great frequency.

A man of strange contrasts, he was apt to fuss over the most negligible trifles, perhaps a sign of tension due to the minutely accurate work he had to do. He was a tool-maker by trade and worked with micrometers to the thousandth part of an inch or 'thous' as he called them. During his long period of unemployment he once bought a second-hand lorry to transport goods but despite many attempts he never succeeded in mastering the art of driving such a cumbersome vehicle. I remember as a young boy returning from playing cricket seeing him with the lorry trying to negotiate a turning in a narrow lane and feeling a sad premonition, for him the transport business would be a non-starter. He would worry over the slightest mistake or sign of absent-mindedness, yet in an emergency he became an efficient man of action, the most cool and collected of us all. In petty quibbles he could be most obstinate and irrational. He would work himself into a passion over the smallest detail and yet on general principles or weighty matters such as family finance or those issues which required tact, foresight and determination he was easily the wisest of us all. It was he who, by a piece of smart detection and quick pursuit by bus tracked down, caught and extracted a confession from a woman who had been coming in to help with the house-work and been stealing money over a long period. It was he who, when mother was making beeswax polish in a frying pan and it caught alight, after getting tired of holding it up the chimney foolishly ran out and threw it on the yard setting her clothes on fire, we small children vainly trying to beat out the flames, rushed down from his work at the top of the garden, threw her down on the floor and wrapped her up in a rug thereby saving her life. It was he who had to challenge a neighbour and obtain recompense for the theft of fruit trees from our back garden. After he died I came across a notebook containing the dates and incidents of the fruit-sapling thefts. This showed how painstaking and methodical he was in such matters. In his later years he even showed more moderation in his political views and once defended the right of people with capital to receive some interest on their investments, despite strong protestations from his sons.

He never indulged in talk for the sake of talking yet he was an accomplished raconteur with an unerring sense of the value of timing and suspense in story-telling. His jokes never palled on us. We boys delighted in them. We would hang on every word and whenever a visitor happened to be present we would pester him with "Dad, tell Uncle - Mr -the one about the" or "that time when you" - and would chuckle with anticipatory glee as the new victim was held in tantalising expectation. He had a penchant for bringing out a swear word for emphasis, and liked to spike his narrations with something a little risqué. When rebuked for his filthy mind by his indignant wife he would grin like a mischievous schoolboy and hang his head in mock disgrace. Another of his foibles was to blame his wife for our misdeeds. If we had done anything amiss he would grumble and growl about us to mother but would not murmur a word to his delinquent sons directly. He seemed shy of scolding us, almost too timid to find fault, yet this did not tally with those other occasions when at the slightest sign of recalcitrance or stark disobedience he would be up and doing straight away.

If he sensed that unfair or spiteful remarks were being made he would put his foot down immediately. Woe betides the son who should stir up his righteous anger.
I can see him now, a steady but never flamboyant enthusiasm glowing within him, dour and reliable either at very minute work requiring the utmost care and precision, or playing fullback for Quinton Villa, waiting the right moment to go into the tackle, having decided, neither hesitating nor giving quarter. He-was a trusted workman, respected by his mates. In trade union affairs he was a keen debater who could make a competent speech in public as well as being a good committee man. He was in much demand for consultation whenever sound sense and good judgement were required.

As a father he would never give any outward show of interest or pride in his son's activities. His remarks would be noncommittal, neither encouraging nor discouraging. Yet he radiated an atmosphere of benignant fatherhood and a careful solicitude that did not wish to obtrude itself unduly. He was not niggardly. On the contrary he would at times be foolishly generous. He would never bring up a spoilt son. All cant, hypocrisy and self-deception wilted in his presence. He was by no means harsh. There was a brusque kindliness about him, a paternal benevolence that endeared his sons to him.

Ed’s comment – What a superb and powerful description of David Smith, I almost feel as if I knew the man. Another chapter in the story of Smith Bros(Quinton), following on from the last Oracle, I am indebted to Brian Smith, Cliff’s son for allowing me to publish his uncle Geoff’s article about his father, David. the photograph is also taken from the Smith family album.
© Geoff Smith/ QLHS 2003

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