Allan Owen was a timid boy living in a very tough little bush town in Australia.
It was not an unkind town, it was simply a town which was always on the edge of seasonal catastrophe, as the wheat was sown and the grain ripened. Would it rain enough at the right time? Would the winds blow dry storms across the sandy plains and root out the young wheat and smother the town of St. Helen for days? Summer and winter the townspeople were helpless before nature, and times were particularly bad in the 1930s, so tempers were bad, even among schoolboys.
Allan was ten and an immigrant boy. His father was a Welshman who had tired of Welsh mining poverty and was trying Australian bush-town poverty instead: a carpenter and a mason and a silent man who brought up his son and daughter in the pacifist tradition he had learned from his own Quaker aunt and uncle. He was the only Quaker this small Australian town had even seen, and when the boys got wind of it-of that extra oddity which a ten-year-old boy brought to school with him – it was one additional hell upon a lot of other hells for him.
Everything about this immigrant boy was fair game: not only his sing-song and quite hilarious Welsh accent, but his clothes, his way of walking (as if something was going to rush out of the bush and attack him) and his funny appeals against the cruelty inflicted on him by his schoolfellows for no reason at all except that he was a Taffy – a Welshman:
Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief.
Taffy came to my place
And stole a leg of beef.
This was sung at Taffy (which became his natural nickname) at all times on all occasions.
Or the girls would shout out to him: ‘Taffy! Taffy! Have you stolen any beef today, Taff? Mr. Mee the butcher is after you, so look out.’
Taffy lived with his father, mother and sister in one of the worst little houses in the town, far away at one end along the main road which was muddy in winter and dusty in summer.
To get to school he had to walk the length of the town, so that every other boy was poised (or so it seemed) waiting for him on the way, waiting to torture him.
‘Good old Taff,’ they said. ‘Let’s carry your books.’
They would take his books from him and drag them in the dirt, or throw them over a fence where there was a savage dog.
At first Taffy was simply amazed at all this ragging, coming as he did from the softer life of a remote village where there wasn’t much spirit left, even among the children. Amazement in his pale face soon passed to fear, then to terror, and finally to helplessness which became nightmarish, because it never let up. The boys had a victim, and he was fair game until he made a defence adequate to win their respect and thus win relief as well.
But Taffy didn’t know how to defend himself, he didn’t have the spirit for it. If they tried to fight him, he gave in. His pacifism and his initial poverty had taken his heart away. Why should he fight? But did the others respect this gentle and defeatist logic? Ah no, it made them worse.
‘Oh come on, Taffy,’ they teased hopefully.
‘Put up your dukes and give us a good one on the nose. I promise I won’t hit back . . .’
They tempted him to hit them, they tortured him to respond with a blow; but it was no good, not until the day when one particular torturer went far beyond the normal fun and actually began to wait for him and to beat him up.
Taffy was then twelve, this bully was thirteen, and, though he was no bigger than Taft’, he would wait on a particularly deserted part of the main road for Taff where there was a barbed wire on either side, and there he would corner the Welsh boy and annihilate him, not once but many times; not only coming home from school but sometimes on the way as well.
Taffy wept, Taffy tried to run, Taffy tried ·to wait and dodge, Taffy tried all the tricks of retreat; but Michael O’Halloran was too fond of his easy victim not to make a real sport of it.
Michael was always there . . .
It seemed so hopeless that Taffy one day waited until dark before venturing past this terrible corner. His father was violently angry with him, his mother was in tears thinking that he might have drowned in the river. Taffy was a shy boy in a family where love had very little chance to break through the barriers of unhappy silence, and he couldn’t give a good explanation of what was happening to him. And anyway his father had forbidden him to fight.
Sooner or later, however, Taffy was forced to try to defend himself. Every time Michael O’Halloran attacked him now, even in the school yard, Taffy would try to ward off those flying fists, that hard-butting head. But his feeble attempts were so crude that it made the sport even better, until one day a small man with one arm (well known as a town character because he was always threatening to knock down any man who asked for it even with his one arm), one day little Jones, who was a blacksmith’s helper, saw one of Michael O’Halloran’s tornado-like attacks on the helpless Taffy.
‘Why do you let him do that to you, Taffy?’ little Jones said. ‘Why don’t you give him a few back?’
‘He’s better than I am,’ Taff said. ‘I don’t know how to fight. I don’t like it . . .’
Small boys of that age fight with their heads down and their fists flying. There was nothing so erratic in Taffy’s character. He didn’t have that kind of wild and flaying passion.
‘You listen to me,’ Jonesy said to him, ‘and I’ll tell you how to show that O’Halloran, see.
Now are you listening?’
‘You call me Mr. Jones. None of that lip now.’
‘Yes, Mr. Jones.’
‘All right now. I’ve only got one arm, so I can’t show you properly. But let me tell you like this. That O’Halloran boy puts his head down and wades in blind, see. Now that’s no good. All you’ve got to do is to keep your left arm out straight, absolutely straight out, like that! That’ll keep him off.’
Keep your left straight out,’ Jonesy repeated, ‘and keep it in his face when he comes in wild, and if you watch what you’re doing he won’t ever get under that stiff left arm. He won’t be able to touch you. Savvy?’
‘I think so,’ Taffy said doubtfully.
‘Now. This is important. When you’re holding him off with your stiff left arm, you hit him as hard as you can with your right. Biff him with the right. And if you’re going to hit someone, you’ve got to do it as hard as you can. Not often, but just hard.’
Taffy was not so convinced, but he went through the motions which Jonesy demonstrated with his one arm. But then he forgot it all the next time Michael O’Halloran came wading in blind. Taffy put his head down and hit out blind, and got the worst of it. .
But little Jonesy (who was laughed at all over the town for his tall stories of great pugilistic feats in the past) – Jonesy kept an eye on his pupil, and as often as he could he caught hold of Taffy.
He found a corner behind the blacksmith’s shop where he could force Taffy to get the hang of what was, in fact, the first although the crudest principle of scientific boxing itself: straight left and hit hard with your right.
Taffy leamed. But in the wide open spaces of the school yard he simply went on retreating indefinitely with his left out, and though he wasn’t hit quite so much, he had no reason to hit back.
Little Jonesy saw what was happening, however, and with one of his bright pugilistic inspirations he realised that the confinement of a ring was necessary. So he shifted a few old carts and boxes behind the blacksmith shop to make something more confined. Then he made sure that Michael O’Halloran caught Taffy there one day so that Taffy would not be able to go on retreating indefinitely, but would be forced to hit back.
The fight started. Taffy retreated around the ring of boxes. His school fellows shouted derision at Taffy as usual. Taffy went on retreating. But inevitably he was caught in a corner, and Michael O’Halloran waded in, head down and fists flying.
Out went Taffy’s left, and the first time he hit Michael O’Halloran he closed his eyes and swung his right. It connected. He heard his school fellows roar with laughter. Michael had been hit.
That made Michael mad, and he came in even more wildly with his fists, and Taffy was taking a beating again.
But Jonesy snarled at him in a corner: ‘I’ll tan your hide if you don’t keep that left up and hit him the way I showed you to. Now go on . . .’
Taffy’s nose was bloody and his eyes were, as usual, filled with tears. But the next time Michael came on he kept his left straight and hit Michael as hard as he could with a swinging right. Michael O’Halloran staggered back. Everybody laughed, not at the sudden change in events but at the comic style of fighting which Taffy was usihg. It was so funny that they laughed every time Taffy made a successful blow with his right, and each blow got harder and surer; and though his left was as stiff as a ram-rod and though Taffy kept on retreating, his well-placed right was beginning to
take effect. Michael’s nose was already bleeding.
It went on until Michael, with his flaying arms, began to tire, and Taffy was still standing erect
like an old time prize-fighter, left extended, waiting.
He hit Michael twice more, and Michael gave up because he said he had to go home. But he swore to get Taffy next day at school.
The trouble was that Taffy still did not like fighting. But he knew something had happened, and next day at school he began to retreat again and that was no good. But then the laughter of his school-fellows, every time he hit Michael, finally made him so angry that he began to hit Michael more often and harder; and as was bound to happen (because there was no means of boys of that age learning the secret of that scientific success) Taffy began to punish Michael O’Halloran more and more.
It was not a sudden change, it was a steady development of technique, and the day came when Michael O’Halloran was so badly beaten: and when the scientific boxer Taffy so untouched, that Taffy began to take the offensive, left out and right hitting hard. He had tasted blood now, and he was not content with simply defeating Michael, he began to beat Michael up methodically, and do the same to every other boy in the school.
It was the laughter that had done it. He challenged every boy, smaller and bigger than himself, and he beat them all – not once but many times. He knew that the ring behind the blacksmith’s shop favored him, and little Jonesy had·also taught him more and more technique, which gradually disguised the obvious secret of his success.
He learned to dance about, to prance on his victims with both eyes open at the moment he chose; he was a marvel of pugilistic science, for his age anyway. And it wasn’t only Taffy who was happy, but little Jonesy was delighted beyond words.
Yet it seemed to be getting out of hand.
Taffy began to pick fights, Taffy began to bully, Taffy had them all afraid of him; and one day he was scientifically slaughtering a boy much smaller than himself (who had more spirit than sense) and Jonesy, watching him, knew that he had created a Frankenstein monster. He had turned Taffy into the school bully with a straight left and a wicked right.
‘Now listen, Taffy,’ Jonesy warned him. ‘You’ve had enough. Call it a day, and make friends with your pals.’
But Taffy hated them all and he went on punishing them. Now he had also learned his own tricks of using his elbows, of hitting not only at the face (the way these unscientific savages did) but at the soft parts of the body, at the kidneys and the stomach.
He had thus become invincible.
But since it was Michael O’Halloran who had begun it, it was natural that it was Michael O’Halloran who should end it, though not the way he hoped to.
Michael had fought too long and too hard to give in totally to Taffy’s scientific fists, and he tried just one last time to beat Taffy. With all his fury, and his temper, and his head down lower
than ever, and his fists flying faster than he thought possible himself, he launched himself at Taffy in a challenge fight behind the blacksmith’s shop.
It was no good. Taffy was a scientist, Taff simply waited his time and cut him up. But Michael O’Halloran woulcln’t give in, so Taffy gave him more and more punishment until even little Jonesy could not bear to watch it, and he stopped ·the fight.
‘Well, I’ve got to hand it to you, Taffy. You’re the best boxer for your age I ever saw in my life; but you’re too good.’
‘They started it,’ Taffy said, watching his fellows go off. They didn’t like him, even though they now feared and respected him. But he still would not give them a chance to like him.
‘Even so,’ Jonesy said. ‘I’m going to tell you something. You’ve got to stop it. You’ve had enough. So stop it or . . .’
And Jonesy threatened to teach the rest of the school what he had taught Ta’ffy. ‘I’ll give them all the same idea, the same tricks. Savvy? Even that Michael O’Halloran.’
Taffy looked at Jonesy then, and something passed between them. ‘You wouldn’t do that?’ Taffy said, shocked.
‘You bet I would. You quit, or I’ll teach ‘em all.’
Taffy knew when he was beaten. The strange thing was that he had begun to enjoy fighting, not for what he did to his opponents but because he understood this careful and neatly balanced !orm of scientific boxing. He liked it . . .
And in his own way Jonesy guessed it. ‘You see, Taffy, you can’t go round knockng people down all the time just because you know how to do it. When you learn how to fight the point is that you only fight if you have to. Savvy? Of course I’m different. I can’t help knockng people down when they insult me.’
Jonesy had never been known to hit anyone, despite his threats. And no-one would think of hitting Jonesy because he only had one arm. But it was that one arm that kept Jonesy in aggressive fear.
Taffy understood that from his own experience.
He had that much of a glimpse of little Jonesy’s life as a small and one-armed man with a fighting
‘You won’t tell them if I stop fighting?’ he said to Jonesy.
‘I promise you, Taffy. I swear it.’
So Taffy stopped fighting, and that was almost the end of it.
Of course the moment he stopped fighting the easier it was to come to terms with his fellows, which he did, and soon it was all forgotten, and even Michael O’Halloran was no longer a potential challenger, although he would never, by any stretch of the imagination, be a friend.
So Taffy forgot the past and grew up without ever having to box again. But it did leave him with a wonderful rapport for any good scientific boxer who could keep his head and use his defences to hold ground while he used his right to do the damage. He also 16st his pacifism, and like most men who have had to fight for respect by sticking up for themselves, Taffy never had to raise his fist to another man in his adult life; although, until he was killed in New Guinea in 1943, he always remained very sensitive to that old rhyme:
Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief,
Taffy come to my place
And stole a leg of beef.