No need for statements

He seemed to need to make a statement. Someone had mocked him for being suburban, from Camberley or some such place, and he had assumed it to be an implication that he had come from somewhere that was not significant.

At that time, at the end of the 1970s, one of the punk bands had recorded a song called The Sound of the Suburbs.  The song was a caricature of suburban life, but he had used it as inspiration to compile a list of all the bands at that time which came from the London suburbs. He had written, ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’ across the top of a piece of paper, and below the title had written the names of each of the suburban bands, and had then stuck the piece of paper to the wall of his room.

It was an odd statement to make: who was worried about from where he had come? Who would be impressed by a handwritten list of pop groups of which most people had not even heard?

In those days before the advent of multi-channel television, and long before the arrival of the internet, it was possible for people or places famous in their own locality to be completely unknown in the neighbouring county, even fashions moved from city to city gradually rather than there being uniform shifts across the country.

But did it matter whether one came from a place regarded as significant?

Growing up in the land of Arthur and Alfred, there was always the sense of coming from somewhere special, but special to whom? There were few people from outside Somerset who regarded it as a significant place (and many more who regarded it as a place of rustic yokels!).

If people did not think our place as somewhere important, as somewhere from which kudos might be derived, then we had little regard for other places. Just because somewhere had been the site of historical events, or the birthplace of major historical figures, or was the home of people whose pictures might fill the pages of the newspapers, did not mean it was any better than our place.

There were moments when conversations seemed at the level of sticking lists of pop bands on a bedroom wall; attempts to assert the importance of one’s own place, demonstrating a need to make a statement.

Few people now have heard of Alfred or Arthur, or all the other stuff that was important in those teenage years, and even fewer care. Decades past, much youthful angst may have been avoided if there had been an awareness that it did not matter from where one came, what mattered was the person one was – a reality that writing lists of names could do nothing to change.

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Two smoking barrels

Darkness had fallen around the isolated farmhouse and the young single woman who lived there felt a sense of menace. Already there had been a prowler and the headlights she saw stopped outside created a growing sense of anxiety. When would the intruder step from the car? What would happen next? The music had that familiar ominous mood that one associates with thrillers.

In the shadows, the woman peered through one of the sash windows that she had opened.

Why had she opened the window? The answer became apparent as she discharged both barrels of a twelve bore shotgun at the prowler’s car, which sped away.

Of course, it was fiction, an episode of the crime series Vera, but at last there was a character with whom I could identify.

The women among whom I grew up would have responded in such a way. When my mother was grabbed by a man on the way home from a dance, my aunt did not scream for help, instead she took off one of her stilletto shoes and struck the man on the top of the head with the heel. It became apparent that they were not called ‘stillettos’ without reason. When the police arrived, the man, who was very drunk, pleaded with them not to tell the police what had happened. Were it to happen seventy years later, the man would be making a complaint of assault against my aunt.

With the legal system so stacked against the victim, there must often be the temptation to act similarly to the character in Vera, not that most of us would have 12 bore shotgun to hand.

Criminals always pick on vulnerable people, the isolated, the elderly, the defenceless. Crime is highest in the poorest areas because people have not the resources to protect themselves or their property.

Robberies have become frequent in my small home village, two robberies in a week from the vacant house down the road which has been undergoing renovation. The items stolen are usually tools or farm machinery, but the stories create a mood of fear among older people. Who knows when thieves, already noted for their brazenness, might decide that there are people’s homes that would offer opportunity of profit?

When will it stop? Perhaps when those who steal find they have no market for their goods,  when people stop buying goods they must know to be stolen. Perhaps when people are inspired by Vera and fire a shotgun out into the darkness.


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Dead man’s handle

The rain relented and the grass had dried sufficiently to allow for an attempt to cut it.

For years, the garden would have been attacked with a rotary mower that had a 325 cc Briggs and Stratton engine. It was indestructible, there was nothing it would not cut. My father would point out that it had an engine larger than many motor cycles. The exhaust pipe would get burning hot and there would have been steady puffs of blue smoke.

The dangers of lawn mowers were always emphasized, but no-one thought there was a serious threat from something so domestic.

It was the experience of clerical colleagues that made me realize that cutting the grass could have life-changing implications.

There was one whose cylinder mower became clogged with damp grass. The blades would not turn and he neglected to disengage the gear before attempting to free the mechanism. The blades were loosened and their turn took with them the tops of two of his fingers.

Worse than that experience was that of one of those who had been through college with me. Cutting the lawn of his house in rural Ireland one afternoon, he put his rotary mower over his foot, severing his big toe.

Anaesthetised by shock, he picked up the toe, got into his car, and drove to the post office. The postmistress drove him to the hospital where he hoped they would be able to reattach the lost toe. The damage was such that there was nothing that could be done other than to bandage the wound. It took him weeks to learn to walk again.

Approaching the lawn mower with appropriate respect today, I realised that it was years since I had last used a petrol lawn mower.  I took care to check the petrol tank was well-filled, and that the spark plug clean, and I was cautious not to flood the engine. Repeated pulls of the starting cord were of no avail. The engine would not fire.

My sister, the usual gardener, suggested I brought the mower too the back door.

With her leg in plaster, it seemed unlikely that the mower would be more responsive to her efforts, but I brought the mower so she could reach it from her wheelchair.

Holding a yellow bar against the handle, a short tug from her started the engine. The yellow bar acted as a dead man’s handle, without it being held, the mower would not start.

What past injuries might have been avoided by such a device?

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There’s no ghost in my house

It was February 1967 when we moved to High Ham. I was six years old. The memories of the move remain vivid.

Moving away from the family farm on which I had spent my early years was something I dreaded. The distance of a few miles seemed far greater, such was the upheaval in my life. It meant a different school and the loss of the familiar security of the daily life of the farmyard.

More than the upset caused by the move, there was the fear created by the house to which we were moving. Built in the late-1920s, it was only forty years old, but it came with a fact that frightened a six year old boy – a previous occupant had died as a young woman. It had been through illness rather than an accident or crime, but that did not change the reality that we were moving into a house that I feared might be haunted.

Of course, there was no logic in the fear, the farm from which we were moving dated from mid-Victorian times, it had a far greater potential for ghosts and had seen various tragedies, but logic is not a strong characteristic of the thought processes of a six year old.

Ghosts were the only thing I feared more than aliens. Each night, I would pull my sheet and blankets up over my head, although the difficulty of breathing caused by asthma meant staying beneath the covers was not feasible for very long.

Not once did I encounter a sight or noise or movement that might have been a ghost. Even the most active and fear-filled of imaginations did not conjure any spectres.

Walking up the stairs this evening, there was a sense of a movement, a shadow, at the top of the stairs. No shape or form, simply a moment of shade across the light.

There was no-one else upstairs. Work commitments and army cadet camp mean there are only three of us in the house and neither of the other two persons currently have the physical capacity to climb the stairs.

Of course, it wasn’t a ghost. There is an idea in theoretical physics that time happens all at once, that ideas of past, present and future are a convenient illusion to stop everything piling up. If there was a movement, then the person responsible was not a ghost, they were simply someone living in their own moment whose shadow was glimpsed in my moment.

If someone could have suggested that to me when I  was six, it would have saved a lot of wheezy breathing.

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Burying Max

In thirty years of parish minisry there were people about whom I came to be increasingly cynical and others who remained a constant cause for admiration, among the latter were gravediggers.

A fascination with gravediggers probably began with reading William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The sharpwitted characters appealed to an egalitarian spirit and English stoicism. The flesh and blood gravediggers I encountered had the wit and philosophical approach of their fictional Elizabethan forebears. The one thing I never appreciated about gravediggers is the sheer amount of physical effort it takes to dig a grave.

Max, my sister’s beautiful German Shepherd dog died on Monday night. He had been at home with my nephew playing with his favourite yellow tennis ball and lay down and died with the ball between his paws.

My sister and her husband returned from their holiday in Cornwall and at midday yesterday her husband and I set about digging a grave under the trees at the top of the garden at my mother’s house. It has been the final resting place of a succession of family dogs and there could be no question of Max being laid to rest anywhere else.

The pile of tools would have equipped a professional grave digger: spades, a long-handled shovel, a pick axe, a 14 lb sledge hammer and post hole digging bars for breaking the ground.

The ground was hard, the soil criss-crossed by tree roots, the sub-soil was composed of stone and heavy clay. Digging a grave was not the sort of experience I had imagined.

Eventually, we agreed that an acceptable depth had been reached. Max was laid gently into the ground, with his blanket, his bone, and his yellow tennis ball.

Stepping back from the grave, I spoke to the dog. ‘Max, there are people who say that dogs don’t have souls, that they don’t go to heaven. They are people who don’t understand the Bible. Saint Paul said the whole creation is awaiting redemption and that obviously includes dogs.  So, Max, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection we commit your body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.

Throwing the final handful of soil into the grave, I stepped back and picked up my spade.

With gentle reverence, we filled in the grave, and then covered it with the turves of grass we had cut at the beginning.

Undoubtedly, my burial was a heretical action, but I have long since stopped worrying about those who would purport to talk about heresy. Shakespeare’s gravediggers might have agreed with me,



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