My brother, Richard Earle, had left the Catholic Seminary in 1966, and, deciding that the Priesthood was not really for him, and that Apartheid South Africa was untenable, headed for England. When I arrived in December 1968, he was teaching in London. I went to stay with him at his rented flat in a terrace house in Camberwell, getting there from The Oval by bus. My first ferry-crossing and first ‘tube’ rides were now behind me; milestone experiences!
His hair was longer, his trousers were flared bell-bottoms and his shirts were in. He drove a Triumph Herald. He greeted me like a long lost brother; ha ha. I was introduced to city living; feeding the gas meter two six-pence pieces to take a bath upstairs, more to feed the meter in the basement for heating and cooking. In the few days in London before he drove us to our uncle’s Donnington Brewery in the Cotswolds, he showed me a little bit of London. We went to Carnaby Street, the epicentre of Sixties Fashion in Swinging London, packed with bright clothes and tourists. We browsed Bond Street. We took a ride to see the new automatic tube line, the first built for 60 years which had no driver; the entry and exit gates were automatic so that your ticket would open the gate for you! How old hat, now!
He took me to Windsor. The Queen was in residence, so we saw less of it than we might except for St. Georges Chapel, built in part from 1240. The Castle was certainly effective with a fantastic sense of grace and quiet power. At about five o’clock, he took me for tea and scones, don’t you know, old chap.
I have never thought of myself as a poet, ‘though I have written some verse, and also not an artist, but around this time I was moved to paint a couple of water-colours. I had been very fortunate to have at school as my art teacher, well-known South African artist, Walter Battiss. Here is one of the mantle-shelf in Richard’s flat.
We left for the Brewery, that I had last seen as a nine-year-old, on Christmas Eve to join Claude Arkell, his wife and sister, Edith Arkell for the event. It turned out to be a white Christmas as snow started to fall on the lovely Cotswold Hills. We seemed to be eating all day, and, although I loved these people, I wished I had caught the boat from Luanda to Trieste despite the fact that I would have missed this gathering.
We spent the week exploring the surrounding villages and even went to a folk-singing evening in Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as helping in the Brewery, then Richard went back to London. I went up to Manchester to stay a few days with Fraser Blake, last seen stamping my passport as a Returning Resident on the Zambia-Rhodesian border. He was now married, had a new daughter and was temporarily working for a Mothercare shop while he studied at nights to upgrade his O-levels to get entry to St. John’s College, York, to train as a teacher.
1968 had been an exciting year from a travel point of view and I had met some people that would become family and friends that I would know for the rest of my life. For me, the milestone was that I had managed to keep out of court for misdemeanours for the first full year since I had left school!
To get in place some necessary work documentation, I spent some weeks at the Brewery, I hope helping, but probably just getting in the way. The brewery-hands spoke with such accents as to make their speech another language and it took a while for me to adapt. What an idiot they must have thought me. How much repetition before, for instance, it dawned on me that points were in fact pints. So, with instruction which might as well have been Greek, I eventually was introduced to the workings and idiosyncrasies of the washer, the filler, the crowner and the labeller. All could be run from an overhead set of pulleys powered by the mill-pond waterwheel which, with a continuous rhythmic rumble, turned outside the thick Cotswold-stone wall.
The Donnington Brewery building dates from 1291. Part of its early life was as a cloth mill before being converted to a corn mill about 1580. In 1827 it was bought by farmer Thomas Arkell. His grandson, Richard Iles Arkell, started brewing there in 1865. His son, Herbert, my grandfather, took over after buying out his siblings. Herbert’s son, Claude, ex-RAF pilot, took over on his death in 1955.
In an unforgettable moment of lightly spoken, but set-in-stone, decision, when Claude asked me casually if I’d be interested in learning the brewing trade, I said “No, thanks. I love Africa too much to settle anywhere else.” Although Claude never had kids of his own and the brewery passed to distant cousins, also in the brewing trade, when he passed away in 2009, I have never regretted my course. Few dedicated brewers can escape to experience enough raw life to become any sort of novelist, methinks…