‘The Beatles will be remembered long after Abba have been forgotten.’

It was an assertion with which it would have been hard to argue.  It was the late 1970s and Abba were at the height of their popularity, but the point was made that The Beatles were a cultural phenomenon while Abba were just a pop group.

However, while Abba broke up in a manner as rancorous as the break-up of The Beatles, the pop nature of their music seemed to allow it to endure.

In 1999, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the success of Abba’s song Waterloo at the Eurovision Song Contest.  There were wishes expressed that the band might re-form for a concert.  Hopes were immediately crushed. band members commented that they were now middle-aged and not the twenty-somethings they had been a generation before.

The lack of any prospect of them ever playing again did not seem unduly troubling, it would only have been an exercise in nostalgia for those who were middle aged themselves.

But an odd phenomenon seemed to be emerging. Abba were not going away, it might have been more than twenty years since they had last recorded a song or performed a concert, but their popularity seemed undiminished.

The musical Mamma Mia! highlighted the music of Abba, but it would not have enjoyed such success if the songs were not already in the hearts and minds of those who went to see the film.

Why did their success endure?

In conversation one day with a friend who was a DJ and whose love was Northern Soul music, Abba came up in conversation.  He was unstinting in his praise of them, ‘They were pure professionals. Pure pop, but pure professional. It’s a pity the broke up in the way they did. Everyone of their songs was rehearsed and re-rehearsed, recorded and re-recorded until it was exactly right’.

Pure professional. Perhaps that was the secret for the songs are both diverse and distinctive and yet they have a discernible Abbaesque quality about them.

The assertion that The Beatles would long outlive Abba was contradicted in our school sports hall last Saturday morning.  A sponsored 24 hour rowing marathon was taking place. The young women of 5th year had been present since 5 a.m, they were tired and physically drained from turns on the rowing machines. Suddenly, around 7.30 am, the sound of the opening bars of Abba’s Voulez-vous? filled the hall and every one of those girls who were not rowing ran to the centre of the hall and joined in a joyous dance, loudly singing the lyrics of the song.

It was a moment of pure happiness, a sense of something indefinable. Abba forgotten? You should have seen them when Dancing Queen began.


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In this world and the next

There was a poetry in the hymns we sang at High Ham Primary School.  Apart from the entirely banal When a knight won his spurs, the choices from our hymnbook were weighty in theological and literary terms.  Even to someone who had few religious inclinations, there was imagery and imagination in the lines we sang.  There were words we did not understand, words that might have prompted pondering even among adults. There were rhymes and alliteration and the sort of poetic devices our teacher tried to teach us.  Lines like which wert and art and evermore shalt be linger in the memory more than fifty years after standing in that long gone classroom.

Perhaps such childhood experiences helped create a sense of timelessness, a sense of living at every moment all at once, a recalling of distant memories with a realism so vivid that the linear order of events can become confused. The boy at High Ham school is much a part of the present as are the subsequent incarnations of him, the child being the father of the man and all that stuff.

Stepping out of the car at the house that has been the family home for the past fifty-seven years, there was a moment in which all the moments seemed gathered. Perhaps it was the sense of the approach of Easter, perhaps it was simply the sound of silence and birdsong after the noise of Dublin.

The landscape of home has been inhabited for two millennia, the mosaic floor from the Roman villa lies in the county museum.  There are people who claim to have seen legionnaires passing through.

Turning toward the door, the thought occurred that the number of years when such moments might occur was much less than it had been.  How many more times might I drive the road from Fishguard to Somerset? How many more spring evenings might there be when arrival is greeted by birdsong and tranquility?

In a moment, there came the realisation that it didn’t really matter, it didn’t matter what decade it might be, none of it mattered if time was all at once.

I smiled recalling Miss Rabbage sitting at the piano in the junior classroom. The hymns, the timeless hymns, Now thank we all, our God was among them.

. . . keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
in this world in the next.

This world, the next world, the past world, which wert and art and evermore shalt be.



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In memoriam: Private Henry Lines

‘Their name liveth for evermore’.

It was Rudyard Kipling’s idea to put words from the Hewbrew Scriptures’ book of Ecclesiasticus on the Stone of Remembrance in each war cemetery.  Kipling similarly composed the lines, ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known Unto God’, for those whose remains could not be identified.

Perhaps the gravestone inscription has become more significant than that on the Stone of Remembrance and that it is now only God who remembers the names of the fallen. Perhaps Alan Bennett’s line in The History Boys is true and that it was never about ‘Lest we forget’, but was instead ‘lest we remember’, that all of the monuments and ceremonies were an opiate against the horrific and painful realisation of the full horror of what had taken place.

In June days last summer, I meandered along the Western Front, from the flat fields of Flanders to the deep valleys and ridges of the Somme.  The object was to visit the graves of those from the little Somerset village I called home.  An additional grave was on my list, that of Private Henry Lines.

The name of Henry Lines had been encountered in the parish of Napton in Warwickshire.  He had been an uncle or some similar connection of Bob, a man researching his family tree.  Henry Lines had been a member of the 10th Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment and had died at the Somme on 30th July 1916.  I believe it was the first action in which he had participated.

The mortal remains of Henry Lines were interred in Caterpillar Trench Cemetery, as is the case of so many of the cemeteries, it is a place of tranquility and beauty, an experience incongruent with the events that had taken place there.

I went to Henry Lines’ grave and stood in silence before taking a photograph of the headstone. The photograph was emailed to Bob, who was unsure whether any family member had ever had the opportunity to go to Henry Lines’ last resting place.

Conducting genealogical research last month, I discovered that the General Register Office has wills online, dowloadable for £1.50.  I took the opportunity to find Henry Lines’ will.

As would have been the case with countless other soldiers, Henry Lines wrote his will on Page 13 of his paybook. It is an unremarkable will, leaving his money to his parents, but there seemed a deep poignancy in the few lines.

Bob died before I discovered the will, there are now only a couple of remote family members who might remember his name.  The declaration ‘their name liveth for evermore’ seems now to have become hollow.  Perhaps there is reassurance in the belief that God knows the name of Henry Lines.

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I knew I was right

The girls of my tutor group were  trying to choose a song for a spring concert. To my surprise, the first song they considered was Candi Staton’s  Young hearts run free.

‘Ladies’, I said, ‘this song is forty-eight years old’. They looked at me in a bemused way, the age of the song was considered unimportan.

I nearly told them about Disco stomp and Hamilton Bohannon.

Hamilton Bohannon was an important figure in my social education.

At the age of 14, I had caught on early that girls had subtly different tastes from boys.

The male of the species might have been listening to Status Quo or Queen (fifty years later, the latter do command a significant female listenership). However, most females in the 1970s preferred something softer. They liked love songs and ballads and, in 1975, they liked disco music.

When you are very plain and boring and girls were a mystery, the best way to ingratiate yourself with young ladies was to say you liked the same stuff as they liked.

Here was where Hamilton Bohannon and George McCrae and Minnie Riperton and the Three Degrees and Barry White, and others too numerous to mention, came in.

Being able to talk about the songs meant buying the 7″ singles so as to know the words and to be able to say you had the record. While other guys were buying tracks by rock bands, I was looking for Tamla Motown.

In 1976, when it appeared in the charts, I bought Young hearts run free.

By 1979 the ploy no longer worked, one girl I knew was less than impressed by my being able to recall Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’.

I moved on to The Jam and The Clash and stuff that was considered more serious (and which had strongly political content, to chime with being a student at the LSE). However, for a while, the strategy had worked!

For years the records remained hidden away in an attic box.  How could someone who had seen AC/DC live at The Monsters of Rock Festival in 1981 admit to having a secret copy of the Three Degrees?

When I reached the age of 40, I decided it didn’t matter anymore what people thought, and bought lots more Motown CDs.

Someone I knew in the 1970s once recalled, ‘Do you know what I remembered about you? How you loved all of those soul tracks’.

It doesn’t seem likely that it would work fifty years later

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Callers recalled

‘My brain is addled’.

A third bout of Covid during the summer has left my mother in a fog, short-term memory has become patchy at times, but recollections and anecdotes remain clear

‘It was after the war. We used to get men calling at the farm, something to eat, somewhere to sleep. Apparently, they left a mark on the wall outside to show that the next passer-by would receive a welcome.’

The men she described, we called tramps, but I do not remember it as having a pejorative meaning. A tramp was simply someone who tramped along, dressed in old and sometimes ragged clothes and carrying his few possessions in a bag or bundle.

If they arrived at the Crossman farm at Pibsbury, they would be given bread and cheese and tea and milk and would sleep in one of the stone barns.

There is a story that one cold night, my grandfather took pity on a passing gentleman and allowed him to sleep on the settee in the living room, where there was the warmth of a log fire. On discovery at there being an unexpected house guest, my grandmother flew at my grandfather, did he not realize that they could have been killed in their beds or had all their valuables stolen?

The story became a matter of pride for my grandfather.

In more recent times, one gentleman used to call each year with a chapel family in the hamlet of Henley.

Strongly evangelical Christians, they attended worship each Sunday and expected visitors to join them.

One summer Saturday, my mother, a hairdresser by profession, received a call. The gentleman had arrived with the family and he had been given a bath and clean clothes and they would be grateful if my mother would give him a haircut. My mother explained that she did not generally work on Saturdays, but was prepared to make an exception.

The gentleman went to chapel the next morning looking altogether different from the appearance he usually presented.

My mother’s recall of the gentleman is of a man who was educated and cultured, a man who had seen much in his lifetime. The gentlemen were always enigmatic figures, no-one was ever sure from where they had come or where they were going. What had caused them to take to the road? What family or friends had they left behind?

Perhaps there are still gentlemen out there, somewhere, tramping along.

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