Dwelling places

The lane adjoining the house is more a track than a lane, unsurfaced, it becomes rutted mud in winter weather. Decades of holes being filled with gravel or hard core have not seen much improvement in potential driving conditions.

The lane leads only to fields. There is no right of way over it, other than to landowners gaining access to their land, and there would be no point travelling it unless you were going to a field, because, at the end, you would need to turn around and drive the bumpy way you had come.

No-one lives on the lane, but last year a family bought a field near the lane’s end and now come and stay there, in a caravan or in a tent. It seems odd that anyone would want to stay at the far end of the lane. There are no amenities and little to attract anyone to do so.

Dwelling places in our community were always of varying quality. Before we moved to the village in 1967, we lived on the family farm at Huish Episcopi. Across the road, there was a tarmac lane that led down onto the moorland. On the lane there was a bungalow, built from corrugated iron and without mains electricity or mains drainage, it had been a family home. Nearby a more substantial dwelling still housed a family, their house was lit by gas, there was no option ofvthe electrical appliances we were beginning to take for granted.

When we moved to the village, it was still a time when fruit and potato picking still brought transitory workers. Gypsy families in wooden caravans would arrive in September and move on during October. Encamped in a farmer’s field, their lives seemed exotic and filled with colour when compared with the dullness of our own daily lives.

At the end of our road, in the midst of weeds and briars, there was a house that was uninhabited. No-one ever went near it because it belonged to an old lady who lived in a cottage behind the village church. Every day she walked to our road to check the house, everyone knew her, a gentle eccentric whose manner was probably unnerving for a small boy.

Of course, there were plenty of fine dwellings in the village, houses from the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, but none had the fascination of the different and the way unusual. Perhaps, in fifty years time, those living in our house will recall the people who camped up the lane.



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Riding westward

The evening sun on Maundy Thursday brings thoughts of John Donne and his poem Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward.  The poem evokes thoughts of journeying towards an horizon where the sun is low in the spring evening sky.  It evokes thoughts of travelling into Devon from here in my native Somerset; through the rich, lush farmlands of the middle of the county.  To the south looms the dark, bulk of Dartmoor; continue westward and one will cross the Cornish border and reach the Atlantic coast with its high cliffs and wave swept beaches.

From his London home, Donne could never have travelled more than a fraction of such a distance in a day.  How far might one cover on horseback through a countryside of unmade roads? Forty miles on a good day?

It’s hard now to imagine John Donne: the politician, lawyer and poet, who became a priest of the Church of England. Donne’s earthy poetry, delighting in the physical attributes of his lovers, being succeeded by the deep spirituality of poems like Riding Westward.

Perhaps Donne is an embodiment of the qualities of all of us: the earthy and the heavenly.  Perhaps it is through earthiness that we are best able to express the heavenly.

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

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Primrose life

Primroses growing at the roadside find a resonance deep in the recesses of the memory, not anything religious, but that sense of irrational optimism that filled childhood years. Primroses bring a sense of the springtime of the year, primroses announce the coming of days that would be very different to the cold darkness of winter in a village that seemed very isolated to a small boy. Primroses always declared the return of the light evenings, of trees shrouded in blossom, of nature rousing itself from its slumbers. Primroses would bring days of playing outside, football in a neighbouring field, bicycle rides on the narrow roads, playing at the house of a friend. The primroses seemed always the greatest of spring flowers.

Primroses always grew under the hedgerows along the roads around the village. At primary school, primroses were the flowers used to decorate little Easter gardens made from moss and stones, with crosses fashioned from ice-lolly sticks.

The sight of primroses, the flourishes of yellow along the green banks of the country lanes, always bring back poignant memories of Miss Rabbage, our schoolteacher who lived alone and drove a little Austin A35 car. Miss Rabbage loved primroses.

One spring evening, back in the mid-Noughties, I decided to search for Miss Rabbage in the BT Phone Book, I had a vain hope of finding her and being able to say “thank you.” Miss Rabbage had retired at the age of sixty at the Easter holiday of 1972. Even in the mid-Noughties, Miss Rabbage would have been in her nineties, if she were still alive. My efforts were in vain, I could find no number, and, even if there had been a number, what would I have said? What do you say after thirty or forty years?

As it turned out, it was only two years ago in 2017 that I discovered Miss Rabbage had died in 2003. Only upon finding her grave on a summer’s evening did I discover that her Christian name had been “Eileen.” It had never occurred to me before that Miss Rabbage had a name other than “Miss Rabbage,” it would have been strange to have heard her called anything else. Were there people in the village who would have spoken her Christian name?

Primroses recall Miss Rabbage and all the things she had taught us. Primroses recall the spring and how much it meant to a small boy in a little village deep in rural England.

It’s a fine time for primroses.

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Doing nothing

I think it was Michael Ramsey, who was Archbishop of Canterbury when that title meant something, who talked about his hopes for eternity and said that he was glad to read in the Bible that there were windows in heaven because he was good at looking out of the window and not very good at praying.

Looking out of the window seems a very profitable way of passing time, although not as good as sitting on a bench overlooking a river or the sea. A lady in her mid-nineties once told me with a sense of perplexity that a friend had told her that they could easily sit on a bench for an hour and watch the time passing. It seemed contrary to the entire Protestant work ethic which had governed her life that anyone would sit willingly and do nothing. I had pondered her comment and admitted that I could probably do so myself, that sitting in thought for an hour would not seem such a bad thing.

Doing nothing seems to have become increasingly difficult for people.  Boredom thresholds have shortened to a few seconds. Watch young people at a bus stop, watch them when them at break times at school, watch them when the bell rings for the end of lessons: immediately they turn to their phones. The addiction to electronic media is such that silent thought has become a rarity.

Perhaps it is not important. I spent countless hours in thought when I was young; hours spent looking out the window towards the Mendip Hills; hours spent staring into an undefined middle distance in the house; hours pondering nothing at all in the garden; and all of those hours produced nothing, except for a capacity for tolerating boredom.

Perhaps, though, there are some people whose loss of a capacity to sit in silent thought is a loss for all of us. People who have the capacity to be original, to be creative, to be incisive, to be subversive, will have thoughts to offer to everyone, yet if they never spend time in developing those thoughts, then it is to the detriment of all of us.

It is astonishing now to consider the universities of medieval times, when books and writing materials were rare and precious commodities, and to think of how much time was spent in listening and in thought. Committing material to memory, examining it in your mind, formulating arguments on the basis of what had been heard and what had been thought, must have been a demanding exercise, one which would be beyond the capacity of most of us today.

Our capacity to think perhaps depends upon our capacity to do nothing. If we can’t sit in silence, how much are we losing?

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Why would you go to Glastonbury?

The balance of the payment for this year’s Glastonbury Festival was due to be paid on Monday. Being able to afford the £250 price of the ticket only means having paid one small part of the cost: there is still a need to reach the festival, the traffic for which creates chaos on the country roads; and the cost of food and drink during the time there, none of which comes at supermarket prices.

It is forty years since I went to the Glastonbury Festival of 1979. The tickets that year were only £5, and, being locals, we were able to buy them in Glastonbury itself for £3 each. It wasn’t marketed as Glastonbury Festival that year, rather as “Glastonbury Fayre.” Locally, it was known as “Pilton Pop Festival;” Worthy Farm, the festival venue is outside the village of Pilton, some miles from Glastonbury. There had been festivals in 1970 and 1971, in the dying days of the hippy era, 1979 seemed like a different age.

Had the earlier festivals been free? I remember the International Times, the radical underground newspaper condemning the 1979 festival for being “commercial.” The term “commercial” was used by those who assumed themselves knowledgeable about music as a label for anything they did not like – generally, anything that was successful. The Marxist International Times objected to the idea that there was an admission charge to the festival, presumably regarding it as a piece of capitalist exploitation.

Facilities at the festival that year were basic; the toilets were unspeakable and the wash facilities were non-existent. No-one minded the facilities, though, we felt being there was enough, but why had we gone there? It had seemed a search for something that we did not find.

In 1979, the golden age of music seemed to have passed before we had been old enough to be aware of such a time. The Beatles had broken up in 1970; Jimi Hendrix, Joplin and Jim Morrison were dead before we became aware of their existence. There was a feeling that history had ended. Even in 1970 and 1971, Glastonbury had been a piece of nostalgia for time that had gone. It was not as though there was a shortage of talent at the 1979 festival,  on the final night Peter Gabriel, Nona Hendrix, Steve Hillage, Phil Collins, John Martyn and Alex Harvey took to the stage together, it was just that the times had changed.

We had imagined Glastonbury Festival to be a symbol of the radical, the alternative. We had imagined it to be a mark of protest, a mark of dissent. The previous month, Margaret Thatcher had been elected as prime minister and had promised a restoration of “Victorian values:” Glastonbury seemed counter-cultural.

Forty years on, Glastonbury Festival seems not to deserve the iconic status it has acquired. Social and political radicalism are absent. Prices have made it truly “commercial.” Radicals will find their own gathering places and music fans will find dates for concerts by the bands they want to see – and the fields at Pilton will continue to generate huge revenues fr the owners and promoters.

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