Bring back the bobbies

It is said that the men responsible for smashing the windows of a neighbour’s vintage car did so in frustration that they could not remove the car from the shed in which it was stored. It is said that the same men were responsible for burning a nearby hay barn at the end of the summer of 2017, a barn that was filled with three hundred tons of hay bales that were for winter fodder. The men are not outsiders, they are not strangers, their names are recognisably ones from the local community; people know their families and their backgrounds.

Have we become a lawless place? Were we more honest in times past?

I doubt it. Why would there have been police station at Langport and Somerton and a police house in Long Sutton if there had been no work for the officers to do?

Police Constables Pearce and Sparkes were based in Langport station. They were household names. They were men who spent time out in the neighbourhoods, calling at farms, known for responding directly to situations. They seemed to possess almost divine qualities in their omniscience and omnipresence. Their networks must have been very effective, for there seemed little that they did not know. Perhaps the compact area they were expected to cover enabled them to be familiar figures.

In memory, PC Sparkes is like a policeman from the television series Heartbeat. He wore a black peaked crash helmet with goggles, a leather coat and big gauntlets and he rode a big motorbike which went down the road with a throaty roar.

It seems remarkable now, but the local police force felt able to be entirely open about their activities. The FM waveband was used for their radio communication; the radiogram in our house included FM in its wavebands and it was possible to sit and listen to stories as they unfolded, or, sometimes, to the idle chatter of officers working the hours of a quiet shift.

A police presence has all but disappeared from our community. No policeman has lived in Long Sutton for at least forty years. Langport station was closed and sold a generation ago and the site redeveloped. Somerton police station is used as an administration building. If there are police officers assigned to our area, their names are a mystery.

The answer to rural crime is not more security measures; it is not expecting people to phone reporting lines; it is not to blame trends in society; it is to look at what was good practice, what kept crime to minimal levels. The spirit of Pearce and Sparkes needs to be revived.


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Not ringing a bell

The church bells were ringing at a quarter past six on a Monday evening. Practice night is Wednesday, the cause for them to be rung at teatime on Monday was a mystery. “Perhaps it’s the invasion,” I said.

“That was Mrs Hawker’s job,” my mother replied. “Mrs Hawker was to go to the church and ring one of the bells if there was an invasion.”

“How would she know to do so?”

No-one seemed sure.

Turning to Hansard, I found a House of Lords debate in 1943, initiated by the Archbishop of York who wanted the ban on bell-ringing to be lifted. The Archbishop was supported by Lord Mottistone who said:

I think I can make good my case, In the course of conversation with an intelligent soldier I said to him: “We are all puzzled about this question of the ringing of church bells.” He replied: “Oh well, the Prime Minister likes to be able to tell you to ring the church bells to celebrate a victory.” I said: “Yes, that’s all very good no doubt but that is not going on.” To this he replied: “Of course, as a military expedient it is; frankly ridiculous. For be it observed.” said the soldier, “that if you want a warning to warn you of the presence of the enemy, certain things are essential. The first is that you must know whence that warning emanated; secondly, you must know that the means of giving the warning are in good order, In the case of church bells, neither of these conditions is fulfilled. If I am to be asked to regard this as a serious matter, then I must ask that all the 12,000 churches shall be properly guarded by the military, in order to ensure at all moments that the bells are not rung by Fifth Columnists or reckless people. Secondly, I must be given authority to put those 12,000 belfries in order.” I said: “Do you understand that in many cases the bells will not ring?” He replied: “Yes, I am advised that in a great number of cases either the ropes would break, or the bells would fall through the roof on to the heads of the people below.”

I do not know what action the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, is going to take in this matter, but I think I am entitled to make a challenge to him as Leader of the House. If what I have said is true—if no sound military opinion can be found to say that we ought to rely upon church bells as a warning—I think that we ought to be told. If it is alleged that there is some sound military opinion which says that we should rely upon church bells as a warning, then let us be told the name and rank of the military officer who says: “We desire to rely on church bells as a warning.” I know that I am placing the noble Viscount in a difficult position, because I am perfectly aware that there is no such military officer in existence. Nobody who considers the matter can possibly regard this as a sensible method of giving warning of the enemy’s approach, unless the steps which were described to me are taken to ensure that it shall be efficient. Imagine the enemy arriving, and it being said that the church bells must be rung. You will first have to ask whether the Germans have fulfilled the necessary conditions, because I am told that there are three or four different conditions which must be fulfilled before the bells are rung. Finally, when the military Commander gives the order for the bells to be rung, imagine the fantastic moment when the man runs to the belfry, pulls at the rope, and down comes the bell and cracks his head. Are we going on playing this childish opera bouffe, and thus robbing ourselves of a certain measure of pleasure and satisfaction?

Lord Geddes cast light upon how the “childish opera bouffe” had become a nationwide practice:

I think it was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff who said: “How are you going to get these Local Defence Volunteers together if parachutists suddenly appear?” and somebody in the room—not I, but I could not be sure which of the others—said, “Why, we will ring the church bells, until we cart think of something better.” That was early in May, 1940, and the War Office have been thinking of something better ever since. That signal at that time was supposed to be used only in the Counties of Kent and Sussex and in the rural areas, but somehow or other the order became more or less sacrosanct, and spread all over the country. It was trimmed and pruned, and sprouted new legs and arms, and it became one of the essential pillars of the defence of the country. It is a complete mystery to me why that should be so, but I am assured by War Office representatives that it is.

The debate was of no avail, responding on behalf of the government, Lord Croft stated,

We share the desire of the most reverend Prelate that church bells should again come into general use, but so long as we are convinced that this is the only signal which can be regarded as a distinctive and definite warning no alteration in the existing arrangement can be made.

None of which answered how Mrs Hawker was to know when to ring the bell and how Fifth Columnists were to be prevented from causing a panic in the village.

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Getting the right news

My uncle’s television was a source of perplexity: it insisted on showing programmes from Plymouth. Each evening, he would sit down to watch the news and instead of the familiar faces from BBC West in Bristol, there were the presenters from BBC South West in Plymouth. It should have been a straightforward matter of simply adjusting the preferences, but repeated attempts to set BBC West as the default channel were of no avail, it simply reverted to Plymouth. It refused even to show BBC West as a choice among the other channels. “I have solved the problem,” he declared one evening, “I’ve got a new television!” The reappearance of the local news was a by-product of him switching from BT to Sky, but it was reassuring to see the Bristol presenters talking to us about our locality instead of Plymouth presenters talking about faraway places.

While among the millions of holidaymakers journeying from London, the Midlands and the North there may be many who would see the south-west of England as a region that starts at Gloucestershire, or Wiltshire, or Somerset, when you are living in the middle of the Somerset Levels, there is not much common feeling with Plymouth, and even less sense of community with Cornwall.

Perhaps it was our primary school teacher who prompted the inquiry, but I remember learning when I was quite young that our village was one hundred and twenty-five miles from London. A holiday in Saint Ives when I was twelve brought the discovery that the Cornish town was one hundred and thirty-three miles from our village. Distance alone was enough to suggest that we belonged to different communities.

BBC South West primarily covers the counties of Devon and Cornwall with their population of 1.7 million people.

Devon and Somerset may have much in common, on the west Somerset border with the farmland of mid-Devon, it is hard to discern where the county line has been crossed. Small towns and villages, mostly untouched by the tourist industry, are tucked into the rolling landscape.

However, Cornwall is a very different proposition: seventeen of its neighbourhoods rank among the 10% of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. Much of the county is wild and rugged and not easily accessible: the railway to Plymouth, not a single mile of motorway, and roads that become jammed with summer traffic. Cornwall is a fine place for a holiday, not such an easy place to earn a living, and not much from its news that would interest a Somerset farmer.

Sky television obviously have a better understanding of the need for a television to carry the right evening news.



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Picking potatoes in schooldays

It must have been the autumn half-term holiday of 1973. A friend said there was a day’s work picking potatoes for a farmer at Huish Episcopi. We cycled to the field and spent the day picking potatoes. Even for a thirteen year old in the company of friends, it was a tiring day’s work. At the end of the day, we were given thirty-seven and a half pence each, the farmer had come with the right change. Presumably, in former times, he had paid boys seven shillings and sixpence for the day and had continued to pay the decimal equivalent. It was a derisory sum of money, a few pence an hour. Opportunities for spending money were limited, the pennies were probably spent on sweets from the village shop.

In our community, as in every farming community, casual farm work was seasonally available, and always badly paid. Reading British History Online it seems that there was a long tradition in our parish of children doing poorly paid work on the land. It notes the work in autumn that was done a hundred years before we went potato picking:

Harvesting apples, potatoes, and turnips provided employment for parish children in the 1860s and were the cause of absenteeism from the parish school. In the 1870s the blackberry crop had the same effect.

“Ah,” I thought, “hard work on their family farms, or for farmers who would have paid the children’s fathers whatever the children might have earned. We were lucky having the money to ourselves.”

Re-reading it, a date from undergraduate history days came to mind: 1870. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 had provided for free education for all children aged 5-13, prior to it, education provision had been haphazard.

Through the efforts of Adrian Schaell, the rector from 1570-1599, our village had its first school in the late Sixteenth Century, which was endowed with money left by Schaell. Two centuries later, the parish school had 145 children on its books, with an average attendance of 87. The schoolmaster in the 1860s was often paid in kind, presumably with produce from the farms. The figure of 87 as an average attendance would have concealed the reality of the situation, suggesting a typical day was one when two-thirds of the pupils were present and one-third were absent: instead, there would have been times in the year when almost all the children would have attended, and other times when hardly any were present.

Thirty-seven and a half pence was a poor return for an aching back, but at the end of half-term we were back in the comfort of our classrooms, no need to face carrying baskets of apples, or picking mangold wurzels to ensure the cattle had fodder for winter.

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Reasonable force

“You see that story of that policeman attacked with a machete? That shouldn’t have happened. He should have used his taser before that man got near him to nearly kill him.”

“There was one evening, it would be twenty-five years ago now. Anyway, I went into town and parked in the car park. I got out of the van and there was a terrible fight going on. There was a big fellow giving a hiding to a smaller man and there were people standing watching.”

“There was a young policeman, standing by himself, telling the man to stop and the man wasn’t listening and the policeman seemed frightened about doing anything.”

“Anyway, I had been at the farm supplies place. I went back to the van and picked out a new pick axe handle. I told the man who was beating up the other man to stop, or he would have his ribs broken.”

“He ignored me, so I gave him a swipe across the side and said he would get another one, if he didn’t stop. He turned on me with a knife, which I hadn’t seen before, and I gave him another belt across the side. He doubled over and the young policeman took his chance to put handcuffs on him.”

“‘I’ll be at the Legion if you are looking for me,’ I said.”

“Anyway, I was sat in the Legion and at about quarter to eleven these two policemen appeared. ‘Can we have a word, sir?'”

“They wanted a statement, so I said, ‘Well, I saw the fight and I didn’t know the bigger man had a knife.'”

“‘Sorry, sir, I didn’t hear that,’ said the policeman.”

“Oh!” I said. “I saw this man attacking another man with a knife and realised I had to do something to stop him.”

“Anyway, they took my statement and I never heard another word about it.”

“I shouldn’t have hit that man – but what was worse, me hitting him, or what might have happened?”

Of course, had the incident occurred now, and not in the 1990s, the entire incident would have been filmed and posted on social media. The young policeman who was timid about intervention in the fight would probably have been sent on a course on dealing with conflict. The squarely-built farmer who brought the fight to an end would be almost certainly be charged with assault. The victim of the attack might not have survived and the attacker would have faced a much more serious charge.



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