Jammy doughnuts

Bags of doughnuts would come from Alan’s baker’s van. Once a pale blue van from the Co-operative Retail Society, it had become a grey one when when he had begun to work for himself. Alan had a surname, but it was a word that had involved the letter “z” not being sounded as what I thought the letter “z” should sound like, so it was easier just to call him “Alan.” (Names not sounding as they should was always a confusing phenomenon, a school headmaster called Jack Dalziel had a name that sounded nothing like what was written on paper – in school he was simply called “Jack,” probably more because few people knew how to say what sounded like Dee-Ell, than as a nickname).

Anyway, Alan would call with fresh bread three times a week. Uncut, crusty loaves that still bore the scent of their baking. Times being what they were, treats were not always plentiful, but occasionally we would be allowed a bag of doughnuts. They were bought in precise numbers; never more than one doughnut per person.

The eating of doughnuts was a serious affair, to be undertaken at the red formica-topped kitchen table with plates to catch the crumbs. Doughnuts were not something to be rushed; each mouthful was eaten with relish. The sugar that inevitably gathered around the mouth of a small child would be gathered with a lick of the lips. Care would be taken to eat the doughnut in a particular way, trying to keep the jam until the final bites. A misjudged bite might result in jam being lost, it landing on the plate, or worse, on the kitchen table.

A bag of Tesco doughnuts lay on the kitchen worktop when I came home from work this evening. At £1 for four, they must be a fraction of the cost in real terms that they had been in the 1960s. People would think nothing now of spending £1 on a bar of chocolate or a fizzy drink. Taking a doughnut from the bag and eating it whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, there was a moment’s memory of being a few feet from where I stood, sat at the kitchen table with a doughnut from Alan’s van.

It seems odd, in retrospect, that something as mundane as a doughnut could have brought such a sense of delight, its taste and texture lingering in the mouth fifty years after it was eaten.

 

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Voices in the gloom

There is a joy in hearing children’s voices emerging from the greyness of an autumn evening. Every last minute of daylight is spent in the company of friends. Roller skates and bicycles are used on the road with a casual disregard for the fact that cars occasionally come and go. Drivers are expected to give way to the younger road users. The exceedingly mild temperatures for mid-October mean that t-shirts are still the normal wear; the days of warm clothing and waterproof coats are still to come.

There is a reassurance in the presence of the voices. Children still choose outdoor life when it is possible, still prefer their bikes and their skates to sitting in front of a screen, holding a console, engaged in pointless electronic battles with non-existent enemies. Nothing can beat real games with real people.

In a moment when past and present roll into one, there is a memory of such an evening fifty years ago.

The summer of 1968 had brought delight – a blue RSW 14 bicycle. Having reached the age of seven the previous October, I had been able to sign the withdrawal slip needed to take money out of my Post Office savings account toward the cost of the purchase. The bike had been used for countless hours over the course of the summer, but the shortening days had meant the opportunities to ride up and down Windmill Road at frantic speed were becoming limited.

Having an October birthday did mean there was a monent to which to look forward in a long autumn season that would drag its way to the Christmas holidays that seemed a lifetime away. My eighth birthday that year brought the promise of being able to ignore the dark evenings – I had lights fitted to my bike for my birthday. Lights meant being able to head out into the darkness and join others cycling the roads around the village.

In retrospect, it seems extraordinary that an eight year old boy and his contemporaries were allowed to head out on their bicycles on dark evenings. Fifty years later, there are still no street lights in the village; in 1968, there were far fewer houses and those there were did not have the numerous bright electric lights that are now the norm of modern homes. Dark evenings meant a real darkness, but with dynamo powered lights on your bike, darkness was no problem.

Darkness now brings the disappearance of the voices – the times have changed.

 

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This is the Shire

“Riverton” says the signpost to the new housing development. It sounds like somewhere from the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien, somewhere from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. It would not be hard to imagine such tales unfolding among the fields and villages of Somersetshire.

The stories of Tolkien leave some people cold; his creation of Middle Earth with its history and language seems, to some, a work of eccentricity. Perhaps it is growing up in the land of Arthur and Merlin that makes Tolkien seem special. The Shire is a picture of the rural England I know. It is a picture of cottages and gardens and farms and tight-knit little communities. The hobbits are little people, ordinary people, unsophisticated people; people without power or status; they are the broad shouldered stockily built, yeomen farmers of Wessex.

It is said that Tolkien believed that England once possessed a mythology to match that of the Nordic or the Celtic peoples and that he sought in part to create a mythology to match that of other nations. Yet his work is far too subtle and developed for it to fall into company with myths from elsewhere. Tolkien doesn’t tell mythical stories, he creates a complete civilisation and culture. He re-creates a pre-industrial world where mechanisation is the work of evil powers, it is mechanisation that produces the warriors of darkness.

The First World War and the wholesale mechanisation of destruction, is thought to have had a great impact upon Tolkien, yet his civilisation reaches much further back than the preceding Edwardian or Victorian ages.

Bilbo Baggins has no desire to leave is home; his wish is for his hearth and his books. It is easy to understand why no hobbit would wish to venture outside of the Shire for all they could possibly desire is there. Tolkien’s world is one in which peaceful coexistence is possible; in which diverse groups can inhabit the same space, though preferably not the same house, for hobbit houses are compact.  The Shire is a place  in which characters can be ruggedly independent and still live in strong communities.

Tolkien offers a vision of an idyllic agrarian, pre-industrial society. Of course, no such idyll ever existed, but the enduring appeal of his work suggests there is something in it which still strikes a chord with people generations removed from the land. Driving along the Polden Hills in autumn sunshine, there is almost a sense that hobbits and elves could well inhabit these lands.

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En Route

It’s probably here somewhere, tucked away among my Dad’s books and papers. It is a book called En Route. It was an out of date edition brought by my father from the air station at which he worked.  It was a handbook of airports and aerodromes and airfields and airstrips; a comprehensive directory of all the places where it might be possible to land an aircraft.  It had details of the lengths and directions of runways, of the landing surfaces, of what lights there were, of what radio facilities there were.  When you are an awkward teenager with limited social skills, the book was a treasure trove.  It was possible to imagine being a pilot in some part of the country having to make an emergency landing and taking out his faithful copy of En Route to decide where best to attempt to put the plane down.

It was not as though I had ever been in an aeroplane; I would be 23 before I ever flew anywhere, and that was a British Midland flight from Belfast to Heathrow, hardly the stuff of adventures.  The nearest I ever got to a cockpit was sitting in the front row of a KLM flight to Amsterdam in the days when the door could be left open and it was possible to see the crew at work. Yet, if I could find the copy of En Route, I would still leaf through its pages, searching for those old wartime stations where the wind still carries the sound of returning Lancasters and for those remote locations where Cold War V bombers waited silently for the orders to scramble.

The book is probably no longer published; most of the places are probably now under the tarmac of new roads or the gardens of new houses.  A decade ago, an acquaintance in Dublin told the story of his twin-engined plane losing an engine and he asking permission from air traffic control to make an emergency landing.  Diverted from the commercial airports, he was instructed to land at the airstrip of a flying club.  He did so – just.  The runway was too short and as he overran, his undercarriage collapsed and his propellers were mangled in the grass.  There was a temptation to say, “There used to be a book called En Route”, but what use was something in another country, thirty odd years ago?

Maybe it’s all on computer now, maybe as you fly along you can get details of where you can land nearby.  It would be nice to think so – nice to think the captain doesn’t have to say, “does anyone know where I put the book?  We’re in a spot of bother.”

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The bandsman

Friday mornings, between 6.45 and 6.50 am, he drives across the moor. The car, a small Vauxhall hatchback, is heavily laden. Large red canvas bags fill the rear of the car. Cymbals from a drum kit rest on top of the bags. Presumably, after work each Friday, he joins companions to be the drummer in the band to which he belongs. After a day’s work, it must demand stamina to go to play a gig.

In 2013, an RTE radio feature recalled the times of late dances in Ireland. The interviewer talked with men who had played in bands in the 1960s and 1970s, those who would come home from work and wash and change before getting in a van to travel a couple of hours to a hall or hotel where they would be playing. One venue held a regular dance from ten until four, another went on to five or six, people travelling home in daylight. One band member recalled regularly arriving home at seven or eight in the morning and washing and changing before heading out for the day’s work.

The Vauxhall only carries the drum kit on a Friday, late night gigs are the activity of weekends.  Did people have more energy in former times?

Revellers now might spend all night at clubs in their home towns on Friday or Saturday night, or on holidays in the warmer climes of places like Ibiza, but they will then return to their homes or to their hotels and sleep until the afternoon. If you drove through the streets of most towns in the early hours of a weekday, people would be scarce; the days of dancing until dawn seem long past.

Have we lost our staying power? How many people now would go to an all night dance on a regular basis and then go home to change  for work? Perhaps they were sleepy at work, perhaps bosses were less demanding, perhaps they were just fitter.

Maybe fitness is the difference, people used to manual work all day and then driving, or sometimes riding a bicycle, to a dance hall,  were presumably considerably physically stronger and presumably possessed far greater stamina than most of us today.

How it felt to work all day, and then to play in a band, or to dance all night, before going to work the following day, shall for evermore remain one of life’s imponderables. The man in the Vauxhall has far more energy than I ever possessed.

 

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