Why not beauty everyday?

Somerton has a memorial to the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. A wrought iron ornamental lamppost and flower tub stand in front of a neatly kept hedged garden. Presumably, the length of Queen Victoria’s reign meant that the local civic authorities realised that it had been a long time since a coronation had been marked. Interestingly, there is no memorial to the coronation of King George V in 1911. Perhaps it was too soon after the previous such occasion for local funds to be spent again.

In the High Street in Street, there is a mosaic on the wall made by local children to mark the millennium year of 2000. It is a colourful piece of art and the eleven year old contributors, who are now thirty years old, must recall their work with fondness.

Somerset’s commemorative signs include those marking its nine “thankful villages,” parishes where all those who went away to serve in the Great War came home alive. (The Somerset total of nine is the highest in the country; there are only fifty-four parishes in total that were counted “thankful”).

Centenaries, jubilees, royal occasions, war memorials, there are countless commemorative monuments around the country. Sometimes they are intended as no more than prompts to remember; sometimes they are intended as objects of beauty, as local celebrations of moments that are passing.

If the intention is to create a thing or place of beauty, though, why confine it to particular dates? It seems a pity that in many places the last endeavour at beauty was the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, or her golden jubilee in 2002, or the millennium in 2000. Why wait for particular dates to add something of beauty to the life of the community?

In High Ham, we have a millennium wood. It includes a pond and benches for local children to gather to attend forest school. It has been an imaginative way of bringing into the life of our village something new, something that would enhance the lives of local people for generations to come.

Perhaps local authorities could be urged to have such projects on an ongoing basis. Perhaps there could be a regular audit of how local councils have worked to bring beauty into the lives of those who live within their jurisdictions.

There are many studies that show that beauty makes people happier, that it creates stronger communities through creating a sense of pride. If that is the case, then everyday should be a day for a monument.

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Catching eels

It was a surprise to discover from a television programme that eels had become a critically endangered species. In teenage years, we thought eels were a nuisance, they seemed so resilient that we could not have imagined that they would ever be endangered. How could a creature that could survive crossings of the Atlantic to breed in the Sargasso Sea, and that could find its way into our obscure waterways ever be threatened?

Fishing with rod and line in the River Yeo to the east of Langport, we rarely caught anything of note (we rarely caught anything at all, an odd perch, roach or dace, but always very small ones). The one thing that would regularly be landed was eels. There were some fishermen who had a special interest in eels. There was a National Anguilla Club whose activities must have been reported upon in the Angling Times, the weekly fishing newspaper, for there is no other way I could have known of the club’s existence.

In some parts of the county, eels were caught in large numbers to be sold for food. The local name for the activity was “rayballing.” Earthworms were tied together using a ball of wool and the ball of bait would be fastened by wire to the end of a wooden pole. The bait would have been lowered into the water and pulled up from time to time. The teeth of the eels would be caught in the wool and they would have been lifted, wriggling from the water. The eels would have been knocked free from the bait against the side of a tin bath in which their number would accumulate until the catcher was content with his haul.

Eels were extraordinary creatures. There were tales of their migration across land to reach isolated ponds and lakes, stretches of water that could only be reached but lengthy periods in the open air. Even if the eels could survive, how did they know where they were going? How did they know the direction in which to crawl? How did they know that water awaited?

The thought of eels making terrestrial journeys seemed an unlikely one until a visit to the French city of Bergerac one autumn. In the middle of a street market, a fishmonger had a tank of live eels among what he was selling. From time to time, an eels would climb up the side of the tank and attempt to escape down the street. In between serving customers, the fishmonger would step down the street, pick up the escapee and throw it back into the tank.

The end of the eels would be the end of something quite different from any other creature.




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Only losers!

Driving from Bridgwater to Langport and passing through Weston Zoyland, a sign at the former parish church announces that it is the Battle of Sedgemoor Visitor Centre. The building that was once used to hold five hundred prisoners from the defeated rebel army is now a place for tourists.

Monmouth’s army were always going to be losers. Many of them were ill-equipped Somerset peasant farmers who had nothing by way of military training, they were men without a hope of military victory when they were faced with the army of King James II at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6th July 1685; hundreds of them were cut down by musket and artillery fire. The battle was only the beginning of a tragic period in Somerset history, it was followed by the “Bloody Assizes” of Judge Jeffreys, in which more than 300 of Monmouth’s ragged band were condemned to death.

There were no winners, though. James himself would be deposed in 1688 and his armies in Ireland defeated in 1690-91. Soldiers who had fought with him were expendable, as were all soldiers.

Langport had suffered the effects of battle some forty years previously, on 10th July 1645. Crown forces had been routed by Cromwell’s men; Cromwell regarding it as a mercy from God. The retreating Royalist soldiers had set fire to buildings in Langport to try to hamper the progress of the Parliamentarian troops and had been attacked by local “clubmen,” local men who had been armed by the Crown but who had turned on the king’s men in order to protect their town.

The battle of Langport was a victory for Cromwell, but most who participated were losers. The Royalist army suffered heavy casualties, those retreating were harried by the pursuing Parliamentary forces. Many lost their lives along Wagg Drove, many died in the retreat.

But the men of Cromwell’s army were to find that they were losers. Among the officers, the men who had joined in the Putney Debates, the idealists who believed they were creating a new society, there must have been a sense of their hopes having been betrayed. Cromwell was brutal in his treatment of those who opposed his authoritarian rule. Among the men who had fought in the New Model Army, there must have been a sense of disappointment at the grim protectorate that emerged, and a sense of it all having been a futile effort when the monarchy was restored in 1660.

The battlefields within a few miles of here are a reminder that, for nearly everyone who goes into battle, wars only create losers.

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Flickering flames

In childhood years, did everyone stare into the flames in the fireplace and see shapes and figures and imagine tales of long ago – or is it a personal eccentricity?

My Nan lived frugally, but once this week of the year came and the evenings darkened and the first autumnal chill began to be sensed in the night air, she would light the fire. The farmhouse was a place filled with memories and no evening would pass without the recalling of someone whose demise was long past. Perhaps it was the conversation that provided the aural stimulus for the imaginings shaped by the flickerings in the hearth.

The logs would have been cut mostly from fallen trees, their size and shape would vary, and so would the rate at which they burned. Some were seasoned and would quickly ignite, others still retained sap and would hiss and spark and necessitate the fireguard if they were not to damage the hearth rug.  Staring at the fire, there seemed moments of timelessness, as if one could stop the passing of the days and seize a moment; as if the onset of autumn could be halted and the magic of summer could be forever held.

A fire now still has the capacity to connect thoughts with the rambling ideas of those closing days. Perhaps it is the nature of the experience that has the evocative power. Did the people who lived in the caves in southern France find inspiration for their wall paintings from sitting watching the movement of light and shadows against the rock that surrounded them? Did the people who lived in the medieval farms that shaped the progress of this part of England stare into the fire and wonder what country future flames would see? Did the forebears who lived within the thick blue lias stone walls of the farmhouse ever wonder who might in the future sit at the fireside?

Look for fires now, and they are becoming scarce. Even those burning logs or coal prefer stoves and ranges to the inefficiency of the open fire, but, in the progress, an ancient element of human experience is being lost. No longer will future generations of young people sit at firesides and feel a sense of community with the people of past millennia, no longer will they see faces and figures and unfolding tales as the logs burn to ashes.

Of course, it might all be personal eccentricity, maybe everyone else looked at the flames and saw just – flames.

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My Dad knows how to use the web properly

My eighty-two year old Dad is an enthusiast for things online. His day begins with his iPad and a tour of the morning news stories before he switches to Facebook to catch up with friends and comments on the issues of the day. Afternoons are spent at his desk watching YouTube videos; he is an enthusiast for black and white war films and Westerns.

The Internet is something he uses; it is not something he regards as authoritative. Occasionally, watching some video on some aspect of military history, he will say, “that is not right,” and he will turn to one of his collection of military history books to see if his objection is a valid one.

My Dad always treated books with the utmost respect. A book was never something to be treated lightly, or misused, or carelessly discarded.

Books always had a feeling of security and trustworthiness, perhaps that feeling was initially derived from the attitude to reading of my parents, but the idea has a logical basis.  Books are tangible, solid; hard copies, in contemporary parlance.  For a book to be in your hands demanded a whole chain of human action and presence, ending in the location where you happened to  be.  There were the printers and distributors and sellers, and while the first two were anonymous and remote, the bookseller was very tangible flesh and blood. A bookshop might be wary of selling material that would bring the business into disrepute,

My Dad would happily acknowledge that electronic communication is wonderful.  The ability to click a mouse and immediately access news stories from every imaginable angle brings a whole world of knowledge unattainable by turning to the pages of a book. But the international is impersonal and intangible.

The process that leads to a book being in your hands gives those books a sense of authority, a sense that they can be trusted.  Web pages can be changed in a moment; stories believed and trusted can disappear. The permanent nature of books demands that they be reliable.

The easy access to the web and the ability to post just about anything means that material that has been posted online has not the same authority as books because it has not demanded the process of writing and printing and distribution that gives authority to books.

My Dad readily picks up the phone to the broadband provider to complain if the speed of the connection is slow, but he does not rely on that connection for his understanding of the world. Turning to his shelves, he knows what he reads is more trustworthy than what he encounters online.


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