Ascending Day

Our village primary school used to go across the village green to the parish church for two special occasions a year. One was the annual nativity play, a great occasion for tea towels and old curtains, and the other was today, Ascension Day.

The service on Ascension Day was memorable because we all had to take bunches of flowers with which we decorated a big wooden crown; because there was a lady who used to sing the “Alleluias” with a very loud quavery voice that used to make small boys giggle; and because, after the service, we had the rest of the day off school.

The children leaving the school that summer were allowed a special treat at the end of the service, the opportunity to go up the church tower to look across the countryside around. Our church tower was not very high, but climbing it seemed a special moment, a rite of passage that would not be repeated.

Our family were not churchgoers, we really professed no faith at all, apart from putting  down “Church of England” for our religion when asked to state such information. Despite our nominal connection with the church, the teaching of the Bible at the primary school was very strong and there were many stories that were baffling to a small boy.

The Ascension story was one of the stories that seemed odd. Why was there joy about what happened? If I had been one of the disciples, I wouldn’t have wanted Jesus to go away, I would have wanted him to stay with me. I would have wanted him to still be a friend who sat and shared a meal. I would have wanted him to still be a friend who cooked breakfast on the lakeshore. I would have wanted him to still be a friend who would sit down and talk with me. When the teacher read the story from the Bible about Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear Jesus talking about leaving and going back to heaven. Why would he do that after coming back from the dead? Didn’t he know that people needed him?

However, the world does not operate according to the wishes of small boys. The Ascension Day service  remembered the moment forty days after Easter when Jesus returned to the Father.  No-one could explain why this had to happen, but there were a lot of things in the life of a small boy that were without explanation.

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Fears of crashes

The reopening of the shops has brought opportunities to renew acquaintances with places long closed, particularly the antiques centre where are large model aircraft hangs from the ceiling. It is a model that caused me to ponder the word “synchronicity.”

Not having seen so much as an Airfix model of the aircraft previously, to have encountered a large scale model, suspended in the air above a shop was unexpected. It was even more unexpected to discover that it bore the number of the squadron with which my late father worked. A de Havilland Sea Vixen bearing the markings of 890 Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service which had been based at HMS Heron, the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton in Somerset.

The Sea Vixens had caused deep fear during childhood years, a fear recalled in memories of childhood discussed with my mother. To see a model of one unexpectedly seemed a scratching at a sore, a stinging of a rawness.

The psychologist Carl Jung described synchrocity as “meaningful coincidences,” it is about events that have no causal relationship yet which seem to be meaningfully related. So discussing aircraft that once flew from RNAS Yeovilton and seeing a model of an aircraft that would have caused fear when it flew from the station have no causal relationship, yet the coincidence seems meaningful.

Perhaps the synchronicity is about a need to confront fears. The Sea Vixen would have inspired fear in any young boy: 145 of the aircraft were built, 55 of them were lost in accidents, 30 of those accidents were fatal, 21 of the accidents involved the loss of both the pilot and the observer. More than fifty men died flying in an aircraft that took no part in any war.

That stories of the Sea Vixen frightened a boy in the 1960s is readily understandable, any child whose father worked on aircraft that might unexpectedly come crashing from the sky would have reasonable grounds for fear, but why should there be a moment of synchronicity five decades later? Why should there seem a meaningful coincidence in discussing flights from Yeovilton and seeing a rare model of a rare aircraft once based at the station? A coincidence deepened by the fact that my father worked on the maintenance of the radio and radar of the original aircraft that bore the number XP924.

Jung would perhaps have found a plethora of reasons as to why the coincidence might seem meaningful. Perhaps the meaning is to be found in confronting thoughts that were troubling during childhood, perhaps the meaning is to be found in an affirmation of the times, perhaps the meaning is to be found in facing all the Vixen-like fears that might inhabit the subconscious..

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Somerset Day 2021

It is Somerset Day. It is the annual county-wide celebration of what Somerset means to its people. The county flag, a red wyvern on a yellow background is much in evidence.

The date was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the victory of King Alfred over the Danes. It is said that it was on 11th May 878 that Alfred’s Saxon forces were victorious, leading to the baptism of the Danish King Guthrun at Aller and the talks that resulted in the Peace of Wedmore. The historicity of the claims might be questioned, but so then might be the date of Christmas, Saint Patrick’s Day and countless other commemorations.

The county derives its name from ‘somersaete’, alleged to mean the summer lands. Centuries ago much of the county would have lain under water for much of the winter, only in the summertime when the waters retreated would the county assume its full dimensions.

The county embraces a great diversity, from the rugged uplands of Exmoor to the dramatic rock faces of Cheddar Gorge, from the seaside towns of the Bristol Channel to the villages set deep within rural landscapes, from the Georgian splendour of Bath to the eccentric esotericism of Glastonbury, from the medieval wonder of Wells Cathedral to the massive nuclear power project at Hinkley Point; in the midst of it all are the Levels.

Despite it being six thousand years since the sea retreated to Bridgwater Bay, the Levels are still a place apart.

It is thirty-five years since Patrick Sutherland Adam Nicolson published their book Wetlands,  The book showed a world anachronistic even in the 1980s; a farmer in a field milking by hand one of his herd of thirteen cows; loose hay being loaded onto a trailer with pitchforks; cider being pressed in farm barns; sheepskin coats being stitched by a woman working at home. Yet there was always a spirit of optimism, one farmer interviewed declared,  “We’re not old rustics out in the sticks here, you know. You’ve got to have a bit of push in a place.”

A bit of push is what there has been, towns that had fallen into long-term decline have been revived. Langport, which was once described as being in a “humdrum retirement” is now a place of thriving businesses. Villages have found a new vigour, community groups are thriving. And, in the middle of it all, the old ways continue, one can stop at the side of the road, pick up half a dozen eggs and leave payment for them in a plastic tub. Money might lie all day, and remain untouched. A bit of push has been accompanied by a holding on to good things. It is stuff worth celebrating.

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Mental health

It is Mental Health Awareness Week, in tutor time in school today there was a short animated video encouraging students to talk about the issues they face. (Two protracted periods of school closure will have far more devastating impact on their lives than the virus which brought so much disruption). Perhaps it was the case that for those who understood no explanation was necessary, and for those who did not understand, no explanation was possible. There was little I could add to the video they had watched.

My experiences of depression have been ones where the darkness is not like a sudden acute moment that can be isolated and identified, but is more like clouds across the sun: light and shadow. There are moments of brilliant light that are suddenly obscured and dark times that are suddenly illuminated by a piercing light.

In the dark moments, I have to persuade myself that this is not the world as it is. But, if the dark moments are unreal, is there also an air of unreality about the light? Is the cost of dismissing sorrow the loss of the counterbalance of joy? Is the price for saying that the pain does not exist, the dismissal of delight as no more than imaginary? One can seek clinical help, but what the medical world seems often to offer is a uniform greyness; no dark moments, but no light moments either.

The Great War poet Edward Thomas, he of Adlestrop,  was a writer who possessed the power to evoke the painful extraordinary experiences of the war. He believed his capacity to create profound contrasts in his writing arose from from his own personality, where in the space of a few moments his mood could shift from darkness to light, or, more ominously, it could move in the other direction, from light to darkness.

Suffering depression so deep that he was at the point of suicide on one occasion, Edward Thomas, nevertheless, feared that the loss of the darkness might bring a loss of the light; the absence of the depression that so afflicted him might bring an absence of creativity. In a letter to his friend Gordon Bottomley, he wrote,

“I wonder whether for a person like myself whose most intense moments were those of depression a cure that destroys the depression may not destroy the intensity – a desperate remedy?”

Perhaps Edward Thomas was right and that a removal of the dark moods would mean also the loss of his power to assemble words in a way that moved the hearts of his readers. But what of ordinary human beings without the skills of a great poet, is the world of greyness and equilibrium the only real world?


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Culinary oneupmanship

The BBC report of a 1913 menu being found during renovation work at a Liverpool cafe shows there is a long tradition of using cuisine as a mark of social class. How many Liverpool diners would have been familiar with the French name for dishes? How many would have known how to eat unfamiliar foods?

French vocabulary on a Liverpool menu recalled a conversation with a friend.

“We were at a dinner where they served slices of melon for starters. Anyway, Sid was there and I asked him how he had enjoyed the dinner. ‘It was alright’, he said, ‘but I found that melon skin very difficult to eat; I had to leave it’. ‘That’s alright’, I said to him, ‘I didn’t eat the melon skin either’.

“Anyway, he was out with some fellows who knew he hadn’t much experience of such things and they ordered mussels. He decided to watch what everyone else did, and they all picked up the whole mussels and put them in their mouths and watched to see what he would do, he put the mussel in his mouth, shell and all, and began to try to chew it. They all fell around laughing.”

It was a story that prompted a feeling of sympathy for poor Sid. As someone who grew up in times when restaurants were beyond the pockets of most ordinary people, and, even if they had the money, when many restaurants would still have had menus in French, it was not hard to understand the bewilderment poor Sid, a generation older than myself, must have felt when presented with unfamiliar foods.

Attempting to chew melon skin and mussel shells, it is hard to imagine what Sid would have made of the assorted cutlery and variety of glasses which would have confronted him in many places. The mussel shell friends would probably have been as confused as Sid at the finer points of table etiquette, but among other diners there may have been knowing glances and surreptitious winks as he picked up the wrong knife and drank from the wrong glass.

What came as a surprise was going to France for the first time, the country that is the home of cuisine. Eating in a restaurant, I made the mistake of allowing the waiter to take the cutlery away with the plate from the first course, only to discover there was no knife and fork for the main course.

Not only were the French not caught up with details of cutlery, it was permissible to ask for empty plates to share one’s meal with one’s children, whole families sat and ate and relaxed together, and meals might last for hours. Sid would have enjoyed such a place, they would have said , “Non, non monsieur, not like that, like this”.

In France, restaurants seem to be about food, not about laughing at Sid. It’s odd, the things we have so long used for oneupmanship.

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