‘Do you remember the time we took you to the youth club and you stood looking gormless?’

There was no answer to be made, there was no memory of such a moment, no belief that it had ever occurred. There is a recollection of being invited to go and deciding to stay in and watch television, but it is hard to contradict three independent accounts.

There was something unsettling in the question. It had been good-humoured, but had raised doubts.

The doubts had been exacerbated by making a careless, unnecessary comment that had caused offence to someone.

Standing watching the musicians on the stage from afar, there was a sense of a need to be somewhere secure, to be sitting watching a detective programme, to not feel threatened or uncertain.

Solitariness always seems more attractive; no-one to offend and no-one to cause hurt.

The post-doctoral researcher seeking to share ideas on education of people with learning disability asked those at the seminar to take out a sheet of paper and a pen and to draw concentric circles, placing oneself in the middle circle and then placing those with whom one was familiar into circles of friends, their closeness or distance from  the centre reflecting  the strength of friendship.

There was a notepad in the backpack underneath the chair and a pen in the inside jacket packet, but it was more comfortable to appear to have neither pen nor paper, for the circles would reveal the extent of the isolation.

There had been a shadow over the proceedings of the day, an anxiety about the guesthouse car park. In the midst of a medieval city, parking spaces are not plentiful, and what if it became necessary to ask someone to move their car so as to be able to leave?

There had been an intention to go somewhere to watch television coverage of a football match, clusters of people in England colours sat outside the pubs.

The intention faded, much better to return to the guesthouse room, to close the door, to feel secure.

Two of the papers at the seminar had been given by people with an autism diagnosis, both of whom had recognised in adulthood that there were situations with which they struggled, small things that might cause them undue anxiety.

Having realised that relationships are difficult because it is always impossible to understand what the other person might be feeling, there is a sense that there might be an explanation. There is an awareness that the capacity to cope in challenging pastoral situations might arise not from compassion, but from an incapacity for empathy.

The seminars may have been an important personal lesson.

Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

Down the line

Upton.  It is a hamlet that once had a railway station.  Long Sutton and Pitney, the station was called.  It was convenient to neither village and there were probably travellers who were less than happy to find themselves 2-3 miles from where they wished to be.

There is talk of a reopening of a local station, one that will serve Langport and Somerton.  Upton has been mooted.  The logic of choosing Upton would be hard to fathom, what would be the point of having a station that is not near either town?

Whatever the fate of local railway plans, there is nevertheless always a fascination in railways; each line, each station is imbued with a sense of something indefinable.

There are moments when one can stand on the bridge at Upton, looking at the line toward Paddington running through deep cuttings, and ponder the industry demanded in building lines such as it, the ambitious investments, the technical skills, the hard labour, the countless  people for whom the railways brought work – and the hope.

Maybe, in rural areas, hope was the most significant factor: expectations of wealth for investors, aspirations to become successful among entrepreneurs, access to markets for factories and farmers, jobs for those who were prepared to travel. The prospect of travel itself changed communities; shopping, excursions, even holidays.

Perhaps in some future time when the means of transport have been revolutionised, the railway lines across the landscape will be regarded by future generations in the way monastic and ecclesiastical ruins are regarded today, as artefacts of a society whose ways and customs were very different. Perhaps the archaeologists in centuries to come will excavate sites where stations once stood and ponder the lives of those who travelled from these places, perhaps children will stand in museums and watch hologram trains making sedate progress along cuttings and embankments.

Perhaps the fascination is about connecting with deep childhood memories. Perhaps it is about standing with my mother on the platform of Langport West station when not yet four years of age. Perhaps it is about watching the level crossing gates of the station at Martock swing open to allow the passage of a train, and to discover decades later that the line closed in 1964. Perhaps it is about being at Weymouth while very young and seeing a train travel the line through the streets on its way to the docks.

There is something in a railway that connects with memories of security and inexhaustible hope.

Posted in Out and about | 1 Comment

Summer in Beare

It is the fifth week of the school holidays for Irish secondary schools, depending on the school in which one teaches, there now remain six or seven weeks. To be honest, a return to the routine and laughter of a classroom in the south Dublin suburbs would be attractive, there have been moments in the past year that have been among the happiest of my life.

While there is leisure to ponder the passage of the days, schools in England continue to while away the summer days in the classroom.  The voices of children from the village primary school are clearly audible through the kitchen window.

It is hard to discern when it was that the English decided that the summer did not begin until the best days of the season were past.  Even at primary school, there was an awareness that Midsummer’s Day was 24th June, which always seemed a depressing thought when summer holidays were still a month away.

Certainly, in the past, there was a sense locally that June was the month to celebrate summer.

Beare is a hamlet below Turn Hill, at the western end of the ridge on which the village of High Ham stands.  Perhaps its physical detachment from the village always allowed an independence of spirit.

In 1598, the German Protestant evangelical rector of High Ham, Adrian Schaell, wrote disapprovingly of the Midsummer celebration of the feast of Saint John the Baptist.

Neither shall it be impertinent to say somewhat of a certaine obscure chapple at Beare, destroyed within these fifty yeares, which chapple as I thinke (being moved by this conjecture) was dedicated to Jhon Baptist, because, never but uppon the eveninge of the nativitye of Jhon, the parson of Pitney was wont to mumble over eveninge prayers, that on the night after they mighte play at wrestlinge in Sedgmoore, and the holy day followinge he was wont solemly to celebrate masse before many youthe at that time there assembled in great multitudes that after dynner they might try masteries in runninge for ramme appointed for the course, which whoso excellinge others by runninge could take, compted it his owne, as the reward and recompense of his obteined victory.

Some five centuries on from such rustic sport, there seems an attractiveness in young people gathering for a church celebration and a sporting competition.  (Undoubtedly, there would have ensued drinking, drunkenness and carnal activity, but those things now happen anyway). It seems a memorable way of marking the summer.

Posted in Out and about | 2 Comments

Our late member

Were I not resident in Ireland, I might be a prime target for Tory canvassers.  A Financial Times subscriber who teaches in a private girls’ school and who paid for the public school education of his own children, I should be in the mainstream of Conservative voters, but the Conservative Party now is a far remove from that which I knew as a child.

I remember our Member of Parliament coming to visit our village primary school, perhaps in the summer after the June general election of 1970. There was an excitement about his visit.

English members of parliament had large constituencies of eighty thousand or more voters. The expectations of their constituents were that members of parliament were to do their work in parliament. If one had a problem with which it was thought they might be able to offer help or advice, then the thing to do was to write a letter and they would respond on paper embossed with the distinctive House of Commons portcullis.

There were such letters in our house, my Old Labour supporting father was a man who would have put pen to paper and the Member of Parliament would have responded even though he would have been aware by the tone of my father’s letters that he was probably gaining no votes in replying to the questions.

He was the Member of Parliament for the Yeovil constituency (in which our village was situated before boundary revisions moved our village to the new constituency of Somerton and Frome for forty-one years and from thence to Glastonbury and Somerton). On the day of the 1983 general election, against the background of a Conservative landslide, the changes allowed the Liberal Party to capture Yeovil, but our Member of Parliament had retired by then. He was also a member of the cabinet, serving as Minister of Transport, in the government of Edwbut ard Heath.

The thought of a government minister coming to our school was exciting.  Our village was not the most significant of places and our school had only forty pupils. Given the weight of ministerial and parliamentary work in those times before members of parliament had teams of assistants, there must have been many more attractive ways of spending a Saturday.

John Peyton duly arrived to open the fete, saying the requisite few words appropriate to such occasions.

It was a disappointment to a primary school boy, he was not an imposing or dramatic figure. He might have been a country doctor or solicitor.

Exciting or not, Conservative or not, my family respected him. Whatever they thought about the party’s policies, there was a respect for the Conservative Party as a party that had integrity and that would be prudent in its management of the economy. There was no love for the government, but there was an expectation that it would act responsibly.

It is against that background of trust, even if it was frequently coupled with dislike, that their comes a sense of complete bafflement at the present Conservative administration. It is hard to imagine what men like the late John Peyton would have made of a party that has become a refuge for spivs, sharp operators and populists.

Posted in This sceptred isle | 3 Comments

Change for the worse

Do you remember ZCars?

It was my favourite television programme when I was a child. In my (faulty) memory, there were Constables Roach and Bannerman in the main car and Quilley in the panda car. Back at the station, Sergeant Bert Lynch was at the front desk and Inspectors Watt and Barlow were behind a door marked C.I.D. Even now the opening bars of the theme music have a power to evoke the mood of those childhood days.

One thing about the programme grated with a pedantic primary school boy, the place names. They weren’t so much place names as place descriptions, Newtown and Seaport. The writers would never have got a job on Midsomer Murders.

The only mitigating factor in my mind was that there were real place names that did not seem any more imaginative, among them a place we often visited, West Bay. Surely, on such a dramatic coast as that of Dorset with its Jurassic cliffs and its great Chesil Beach, there might have been someone who could have found an ancient name with a more poetic quality than West Bay. Dorset has a plentiful supply of colourful place names, could the supply have not extended to the coast?

It is forty-one years since I was last in West Bay. Were I to resort to Google, I might find the exact date, the cricket World Cup was taking place at the time and it was the day that India won their semi-final, in the warmth of a June day, I listened to commentary on the radio.

West Bay was a familiar place because of my father’s love of sea fishing. He was never more content than when standing on a shingle shore casting a line far out into the sea. That day forty-one years ago was probably the very last time that I accompanied him on a fishing trip. I was married in September that year and moved to the bleakness that was the Northern Ireland of the time. Opportunities to visit England became infrequent and visits to my family were resented.

Tomorrow, with an uncle and a cousin, I am going to West Bay to eat fish and chips on the harbour wall. I am told that the place is much changed for the worse, that apartments now mar the landscape. Even if there had been no development, the change would have been for the worse because there will be no chance to walk along the shoreline and talk to a man with a fishing rod who loved the tranquility of those moments.

Posted in Unreliable memories | 3 Comments