Magnifying past

PTSD, it would be called now. Perhaps there was a name for it in the 1960s, if there was I never heard of it.

The stay in Tone Vale Hospital lasted long enough for the visits to remain in my memory. I was six or seven years old at the time and we would wait in the car while my grandfather was visited by my grandmother and one or other of my parents.

The visits lasted long enough for us to need to take a picnic tea which we would eat sitting in the car. My grandmother would have a bag filled with sandwiches and cakes and a flask of tea.

My grandfather was a fireman with the National Fire Service, a Section Leader, he served in London throughout the war, including all through the Blitz. The experiences were harrowing: people hideously burned, bodies, fragments that had once been people. There were no debriefings, no-one with whom to discuss the emotions evoked.

Perhaps the nightmares had always been with him, perhaps he had always suffered flashbacks. By the time he was sixty, in 1967, the trauma had gained the upper hand and he was hospitalised. He would shout aloud across the ward, warning people of dangers, shouting in alarm at things he had imagined.

My grandmother, like most people of the time, could not understand such behaviour and would shout at him to be quiet and to stop being silly. My grandfather’s illness was something not to be discussed, it was considered to be a lack of willpower.

In the Great War, my grandfather would have been accused of “LMF” – a lack of moral fibre. By the 1960s, with the experience of another World War, there would have been a greater understanding of the human psyche, but it was not sufficient to ensure that he received more sympathetic treatment by my grandmother.

Tidying shelves and sorting through things, I found my grandfather’s magnifying glass. Picking it up on a summer’s afternoon, there was a sense of the gentle, softly-spoken man sat in his armchair at his East Coker home, carefully going through the pages of his stamp collection, closely examining stamps from far corners of the Commonwealth.

Reflecting on memories of him, it is hard to reconcile the quietness and reservation with the requirements of commanding a fire crew.

He was sixty-five when he died, seeming an elderly man. Perhaps people grew older younger. Perhaps the PTSD had aged him prematurely. Holding the magnifying glass, I wondered what thoughts he may have had as he used it.

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Reg is in the greenhouse

Reg was born at the turn of the century, at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Born in 1900, he was still working at the Kelway’s nursery in Langport when I spent the summers of 1978 and 1979 there as a casual worker.

Reg worked in the glasshouses, spending his days caring for the delicate plants near which no members of the casual staff would have been allowed. As we passed the greenhouses, where the ageing nurseryman worked quietly by himself, a friend who worked with me during those summers would remark, in bad mock Latin, “Reg in greenhouse est.” It never failed to make me smile, such is the sense of humour of eighteen year old boys.

Reg rode a heavy black bicycle from his home, no more than a mile from the nursery. The same bicycle had probably travelled those roads for sixty years or more. Quietly spoken, always good humoured, Reg had seen enough of history to be unworried by anything that might have happened in the 1970s.

Two world wars had come and gone during Reg’s lifetime. He had laboured on the land through both of them, but could readily recall those from his neighbourhood who had served in armed forces and never returned. The names on the parish war memorial from both of the world wars were the names of men Reg had known. The Fallen of the Great War, who remained only in sepia photographs on cottage sideboards, were those among whom he had passed his boyhood years.

A healthy complexion and solid frame gave Reg an appearance that belied his age, not that an eighteen year old would have had much idea of what someone of Reg’s age might have looked like, he was a decade or more older than my grandparents. Reg was fit and healthy and independent, and probably worked harder than many men who were decades younger than him.

In the mind of a casual worker who worked alongside him for two summers, Reg created the impression that it was possible to live forever, or, if not forever, for so long that you could remember all of the important events in the history of the Twentieth Century. If you could be seventy-nine years old and still working, then someone sixty years your junior need have no fear of ever becoming old.

Four decades later, two decades short of Reg’s age during his greenhouse days, there is a sense of age accelerating. Perhaps the answer lies in slowing down and buying an old black bike.


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Easily pleased

We were easily pleased.

A little thing could change a whole day. A Crunchie bar on a car journey, a glass of lemonade in a pub garden, a bag of chips from a waterside hut, a game on the beach, flying a kite from the windy dunes, pennies to spend in the amusement arcade: it did not take much to make a summer’s day a happy one.

Living in a community set between the Dorset coast of the English Channel and the Somerset coast of the Bristol Channel, it was not necessary to stay away from home to enjoy the seaside, it wasn’t even necessary to be away for a whole day. We could have our tea and get into the car full of excitement and be at the Cobb in Lyme Regis or on the downs at Brean in an hour or less.

The happiest times were those when the extended family went out together, uncles and aunts and cousins as well as our own family. It would always mean a longer evening our cousins were never subject to a strict a regime as we were. There would be no thought of leaving the coast before it was dark and we would be heavy with sleep before we arrived back at High Ham.

Most of the time, we did very little. Money did not extend further than the simple treats. Going out after tea meant there was no need to buy a meal. If we went out in the daytime, we would take sandwiches and a flask. Greasy chips, served in a cone shaped from old newspaper, and covered with salt and vinegar, were a culinary delight.

In pre-teenage years, I do not remember ever having more than a couple of coins in my pocket, and they might be copper. Being sent away to school by the county council, because of my asthma, when I was fourteen, meant regular pocket money for the first time in my life: forty-five pence a week. I felt I was rich.

Being easily pleased, we did not need to buy things, so we did not need money. The simple treats were pointers to the enjoyment of the moment, they were to be enjoyed together because it was being together that brought us happiness.

When my Dad died in March, the only place I wanted to be was sitting on the harbour wall in Lyme Regis. I could watch Dad watching the fishermen and the boats at their moorings. I could listen to the voices and the laughter, catch on the breeze the voice of Uncle Bill telling a story. There would be glimpses of those who will no longer share a bag of chips.

I’m easily pleased.

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Not going on holiday

Our first family holiday was in 1971, a caravan in Lyme Regis for the week. 1973 was our most extravagant year, a week camping in a field outside of Saint Ives in Cornwall in August and a week in a chalet in Lyme Regis in September. Nearly every holiday in the 1970s was spent at a campsite at Westward Ho!

Once the 1980s came, Mum and Dad seemed to stop taking holidays. There were some years in which they came to Ireland to visit, but generally they stayed at home.

What was their reason for not going on holiday? Money was undoubtedly a factor in the earlier years: we didn’t have any. We were not untypical, few people in our community took holidays. But in later years, when there were only themselves, and when holidays were a more common experience, there was still a disinclination towards going away.

Perhaps Dad’s preference for staying at home was a recapturing of a sense of holidays in their original form when a holiday was a “holy day,” a religious feast when there was no work to do for a day. Holidays were about not doing things.

Perhaps not going on holiday was a better use of time, it left days and hours for doing the ordinary things that brought pleasure to everyday life.

Going on holiday might have meant sitting in lengthy traffic jams on country roads. It might have meant searching for parking spaces in expensive beach car parks. It might have meant jostling through crowded streets. It might have meant eating overpriced food in busy cafes. It might have meant passing much of the day in a hot car getting nowhere.

Not going on holiday allowed hours in the morning to sit at the kitchen table with a mug of tea and a book to read. It allowed limitless time to go to Langport on errands that might have been completed in twenty minutes. It allowed time to stop and talk to people who might otherwise have been passed with a wave of the hand. It allowed days of postponement of jobs that might otherwise need to be done in a short time. It allowed afternoons to catch up on black and white films and old television series. It allowed evenings when programmes could be watched until the early hours because there was no need to get up in the morning. Not going on holiday allowed time just to do and to be.

Dad’s reasons for staying at home were not so hard to understand.


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A survey of fourteen  year olds shows that while few went to church, most believed in a divine power; while few believed in hell, most believed in heaven; while some thought life ended when you died, others believed in reincarnation.

The opinions were familiar, I could show you exercise books where such views were held by twelve year olds. What was surprising was that the opinions were from a group of fourteen year olds sixty years ago.

In his groundbreaking book Teenage Religion, Harold Loukes reported on surveys with fourteen and fifteen year olds around the country. Young people who were about to leave school, and enter the world of work at the age of fifteen, were vocal and consistent in their religious ideas.

The surveys were carried out using tape recorded class discussions and open-ended questionnaires. The results would not have been encouraging  to the church leaders at the time, (and were undoubtedly rejected by many who preferred not to accept uncomfortable truths), but would have been intriguing to those who sought to understand young people born in the post-war years.

One of the fascinating aspects of Loukes’ book is the cover photograph. Other than the name of the photographer, no details are provided. There are no clues as to which class in which school were on the other side of the lens, but even without details the shot tell a story of the young people of the time.

I remember teenagers in 1970. You could have told straightaway from their hairstyles and their dress that the 1960s had changed everything.

Loukes’ teenagers are less easily located in time. As most of the class look towards an unseen speaker, one girl stares fixedly at the camera. The girl is wearing a short sleeved dark dress and a pearl necklace, it is an outfit that might have been worn by her mother. There are boys wearing sports jackets with collars and ties. A handful of teddy boy haircuts suggest the 1950s have been reached. At the front sits a boy with a teddy boy haircut and a leather jacket, the only undeniably youthful fashion in the picture.

Perhaps 1960 was in a transition period between times when teenagers were younger versions of older people and times when being teenage was to be different. The traditionalism of the way in which many of them are dressed perhaps makes the non-traditional religious views they expressed more fascinating, or perhaps their beliefs are the way in which people have thought for generations, but only in 1960 had the courage to say.

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