A magical mistiness

The mist was rolling in as I drove home from work, it would not have been hard to have imagined magical stories. When I was young, there were always magical stories. Somerset was  place for knights in shining armour who would ride back from the dead in the moment of need and, in Devon, a navy waited the hour when it would again put to sea.

The English teacher in the little Dartmoor secondary school I attended belonged to a conservative Christian church, but loved to teach us poems rooted in legend, even if they meant heroes rising from the dead (something strictly forbidden in the conservative Christian worldview). The rhythms of Drake’s Drum still conjure memories of her reading:

DRAKE he’s in his hammock an’ a thousand mile away,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
Slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay,
An’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
Yarnder lumes the island, yarnder lie the ships,
Wi’ sailor lads a-dancin’ heel-an’-toe,
An’ the shore-lights flashin’, an’ the night-tide dashin’
He sees et arl so plainly as he saw et long ago.

Drake he was a Devon man, an’ ruled the Devon seas,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?),
Rovin’ tho’ his death fell, he went wi’ heart at ease,
An’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe,
“Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder’s runnin’ low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port o’ Heaven,
An’ drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago.”

Drake he’s in his hammock till the great Armadas come,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?),
Slung atween the round shot, listenin’ for the drum,
An’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
Call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
Where the old trade’s plyin’ an’ the old flag flyin’,
They shall find him, ware an’ wakin’, as they found him long ago.

It was the same English teacher who lent pupils her copy of Frederick Forsyth’s The Shepherd, a wonderful story about a de Havilland Vampire jet in thick fog over the North Sea at Christmas Eve 1957 when all its instruments failed. An old Mosquito bomber appears out of the mists and leads the jet to safety before disappearing. The Mosquito had disappeared without trace on Christmas Eve some fourteen years previously; its ghost continued in active service.

Magical heroes felt no pain. They rode into a story for a brief time and went on their way as quickly as they had appeared. There were no “helloes” and no “goodbyes”; no tears and no regrets. Sometimes to be a ghostly figure, appearing and disappearing when the task is accomplished seemed attractive.

Glastonbury Tor

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A stick of rock

Do they have Weston-Super-Mare seaside rock? I must go down to the seafront some day and find out. It would be the proper stuff that I would want.  The tube shaped stuff with a pink coating and white inner with the name of the town in red lettering down the length of the inner, so that wherever you were in eating the stick of rock, you still knew that it had come from Weston.

Seaside rock always seemed odd. Why was it seaside rock?  Why couldn’t inland towns have had sticks of rock with their names inset in red candy?

Maybe the rock that tasted so good in childhood days wasn’t even that nice, maybe it was the association with being on holiday that gave it a special flavour, like those bottles of wine that taste well when you are away, but seem to have lost something when you bring them home.

There was good rock and bad rock – good rock was dense and became chewy if it was left in the back window of the car on a hot summer’s day; bad rock was brittle and tasted as bad as the Eastern European chocolate with which cheap Easter eggs were made, or those foil wrapped Christmas decorations that were fine when adorning the Christmas tree, but tasted horrible when eaten.

Rock came wrapped in cellopane that enabled you to eat it without it adhering to your hands.  Halfway down the length of the stick of rock, inside the cellophane, there would be a photograph of the resort; a slip of paper maybe two inches long and an inch wide.  It was always a black and white photograph; in an age when postcards were all in colour, seaside rock pictures were monochrome – why?  What would have been wrong in having a colour picture?  Was there some seaside rock system of quality control that ruled out polychrome images?

Perhaps it was the uniformity of seaside rock that secures its place in the memory.  You knew it was seaside rock because it looked like seaside rock.  It was always a similar shade of pink; always wrapped in transparent cellophane; always having the name of its town printed through it.

Who determines these things? The colour, the shape, the wrapping, the taste – is there a standards authority that overseas these things?  Is it like the French appellation system for wine?  Is there some body that ensures consumers get bona fide rock?

Is there a reason in principle why I could not buy a stick of rock anywhere in the country that I wanted?  Just imagine how much people’s morale would be raised by imagining they were once more on childhood holidays at the seaside.  Seaside rock would probably be more beneficial than much of the health system. I must find a stick of Weston rock.

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Passing through Loxley

Driving the A39 road from the top of Pedwell Hill to the foot of Puriton Hill takes you along the narrow ridge at the top of the Polden Hills. On either side, the land falls to low-lying moorland. Near a turning for Shapwick, the route dips through woodland – Loxley Wood. Fifty acres of ancient woodland, Loxley Wood is a winding dark valley in which the mobile phone signal disappears. Should you decide to pull into the lay-by and wander into the shadows, it would not be hard to feel a sense of timelessness.

In younger years, the name of Loxley Wood had a evocative powers. In times when television programmes told tales of heroism and derring-do, when the good side might lose battles, but always won the war, Robin of Loxley was the sort of figure who inspired admiration in an eight year old boy. Loxley Wood on the Polden Hills might have been far removed from the mythical home of Robin Hood, but it would have been easy to have imagined green-clad men moving between the trees.

Of course, the Robin Hood story itself was as far removed from reality as Loxley Wood is from Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood in the stories we were told was a brave soldier who had returned from the Crusades to find his lands confiscated by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, who served the corrupt Prince John who was ruling England while King Richard was away at the Third Crusade. King Richard, in the story we were told, was a good and just man, the Lionheart who would restore equity and justice when his battle for the Holy Land was complete.

Of course, it was all nonsense. Richard would never return to England because he had hardly spent more than a few months here since childhood. Richard’s home was in Aquitaine in south-west France, he spoke French and Occitan, dwellers in Sherwood Forest would not have understood him if he had spoken to them. The Lionheart was a cruel and violent man who was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of two and a half thousand Muslim prisoners whom he had been holding as hostages at Ayyadieh. Had Robin Hood been a Crusader, he would have been complicit in the killing of countless Muslim children, women and men – in the name of the Church. At one point, John, who was a villain in our stories, was forced to raise money to ransom his brother, who had been captured by the Holy Roman Emperor. The ransom was two or three times the income of the Crown, so John had to raise taxes, and his raising of taxes was something for which he was vilified in the tales we were told.

Loxley Wood is a beautiful spot, even more beautiful for having no association whatsoever with Crusaders, kings or men in Lincoln green.

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Sir Galahad is a worry

Galahad suffered a seizure today, one that lasted eight minutes and brought a rushed journey to the vet. It seems my sister’s white terrier has a canine form of epilepsy. Guinevere, Galahad’s companion, would be devastated if anything happened to him; Arthur died in a motor accident two years ago.  It seems inappropriate not to give them their appropriate titles: I always address them as Sir Galahad and Lady Guinevere. Growing up in Somerset, neither name would have been spoken without evoking the legends and folk tales with which we grew up.

Glastonbury Tor was Avalon. It was a place with mythical status in childhood; a place where legends began and ended. Cadbury Hill, in the south of the county, might have been an ancient hillfort, but it was much more a place of hope for it was here that King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table lay sleeping, awaiting their appointed hour. The tales of Arthur and his knights were part of that irrational buoyant childhood belief that there was not anything in the world that could not be changed. There was always hope.

Stand on the Tor or on Cadbury Hill and look at the country spread below, and there are, carried on the wind, hints of horses’ hooves and men’s voices. Of course, they are pointless imaginings, but if life is devoid of all imagining, what then is left?

Among my favourite closing lines of a book are those from  T.H. White’s Once and Future King. It closes on a note of irrepressible optimism:

The old King felt refreshed, clear-headed, almost ready to begin again.

There would be a day – there must be a day – when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none – a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.

But it was too late for another effort then. For that time it was his destiny to die, or, as some say, to be carried off to Avilion, where he could wait for better days. For that time it was Lancelot’s fate and Guenever’s to take the tonsure and the veil, while Mordred must be slain. The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.

The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.

EXPLICIT LIBER REGIS QUONDAM REGISQUE FUTURI

THE BEGINNING

Talking to the small white dog, there is a wish that the old tales might be true, that Arthur would ride forth from his sleep, that the wizard Merlin would return with his magic, that Galahad might not be a small dog, but a heroic figure standing defiantly on a Somerset hilltop; that the sound of horses’ hooves and the shouts of heroes might again be carried on the March breeze.

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The internet means our town is a backwater no more

“Oh, Langport, it’s a very nice place. It’s full of lovely shops.”

My colleague’s comment was perfectly accurate, my home town is a very nice place and it is full of lovely shops, but it was not always thus.

In the early-Twentieth Century, Langport was a bustling little market town. It had its own rural district council replete with its own council offices. It had two railway stations, its own newspaper, it own gas works, and a range of shops catering to every need. However, it went into a long-term decline. The newspaper closed before the Second World War; the railway stations disappeared with the Beeching cuts (in the case of Langport East, an entirely illogical decision that owed more to prejudice than reason). One by one, the shops disappeared. People had cars; people could drive to Yeovil or Taunton or Bridgwater; people took their custom elsewhere. In 1974, Langport Rural District Council, which served a population of 59,000 people, was abolished, its area being absorbed into a much bigger local authority based in Yeovil. In the 1970s, a new close of shops was built along with a new town car park, but there was nothing to suggest that this was not a town past its best. One writer commenting on Langport suggested it was a town that had succumbed to a “humdrum retirement”.

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Internet as we know it, Google featuring a picture of a big, clunky PC monitor as its graphic for the day. If there was a single factor that has contributed to the transformation of my home town, it must surely be the possibilities created by going online. People can live in our deeply rural community and still be engaged with commerce in every corner of the world. People can have front offices in London, but still work from the tranquility of the Levels. Crafts people can produce fine work in local studios and market it globally. Shops can be in Bow Street or North Street, and have customers in streets very far away from the River Parrett. If there is a vicious circle as a community declines, closures contributing to further closures, then there is a virtuous circle as a place revives: money bringing more money, success creating more success, diverse and attractive shops attracting more diverse and attractive shops. If there is a common factor among the successful enterprises that now fill our town, it is their strong online presence – their websites and their use of social media.

Thirty years ago, it would have been unimaginable that our town would have revived in the way it has. It has been amazing what a mouse can do.

 

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