I’m just old enough to have caught the tail end of books being given as prizes at school. I think it stopped when the Grammar school I attended for a couple of years closed and was amalgamated into a Comprehensive, but at some early stage, I was once presented with an impressively thick brown tome with a fancy plate stuck inside it, bearing my name and congratulating me on my achievement, whatever it was. I think because this was to be a rare event, it was significant to me, and I was really proud of this book, although on reflection it was probably dragged out of some teacher’s loft with the thought, ‘What on earth am I going to give those children as prizes? Oh, this boring old thing will do for a start.’
It was called ‘Mayhew’s Characters’ by Henry Mayhew and is a collection of observations on various idiosyncratic people the author encountered or interviewed during his life; in fact it focuses on the attitudes of the working classes and is an important social commentary from the 19th century. I was far too young for it and unable to make much headway into the prose at the time, but I always remembered the concept, and now find it has directly inspired me to compile my own collection of vignettes based on people I have come across – of course entitled ‘Cathy’s Characters’.
These ‘Characters’ are all real people from my own life, individuals who for different reasons have prompted me to describe them or comment on them in some way. Some portrayals are positive, some negative, and of course my reactions are by definition subjective and doubtless say more about my own character than those of the people concerned. Of course I have made small amendments and refrained from describing anyone so accurately so as to reveal their identity – I have no wish to libel or embarrass or offend anyone. If someone were to recognise themselves and object to my portrayal – well they could simply deny the character was them, and it couldn’t be proven either way.
Finally, and sort of to redress the balance, I would like to reveal that one of these ‘Characters’ is in fact myself. I hope it’s not too obvious which one!
by Henry Mayhew
which I once received
as a prize at school