Early risers

“Two weeks until Christmas, sir.”

A mood of eager anticipation seems to exist among most of the school community. One student, describing themselves as “the Grinch” complained that it was just a time when the family could fall out with each other more than they usually did, but such voices are a small minority.

Arriving at school between 7.15 and 7.30 each morning means arriving in darkness; leaving for home between 4.30 and 5.00 means leaving in darkness.  The daylight hours are passed in the confines of the school grounds. On weekdays, the outside world has become a place seen in street lights and headlights.

It is in the world of darkness, twilight and shadows that the early risers have become an encouragement.

I am not the first on our road to leave for work. By the time I depart at around 6.30, the next door neighbour has been gone ten or fifteen minutes. Although the village is deeply rural, to pull out of a junction without looking would invite a collision, there is a steady stream of traffic lights. By the time the narrow winding byway that passes itself as the A39 is reached, there is sometimes a need to pause and wait for a break in the traffic. At the traffic lights before the motorway is joined, every lane will be filled with cars. The early risers are plentiful.

More encouraging than the headlights of vehicles are the buds and blossoms now appearing. On the road out of Somerton, last Christmas Day, the verges were filled with daffodils in full bloom. Only when they were passed did the thought occur that it was December and that daffodils were flowers to be expected in February and March.

Stopping the car to take a picture of the daffodils that Christmas morning, the times seemed out of joint. If the daffodils bloomed in the darkest days of the year, what else might we expect? The summer turned out to be one of the hottest on record, but in between lay those days in March when the so-called “Beast from the East” covered these temperate regions in a blanket of snow.

Yet, no matter how uncertain the weather, there seems something irrepressible in those early rising plants. They are a declaration that winter is passing, that even if it lingers, it has lost the battle and that everything is coming to life again. I still like to see the snowdrops, but if you can have daffodils in December, it’s even better.

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Antipodean confidence

A jigsaw puzzle of Australia. Perhaps it had come as a Christmas present. Unlike most jigsaw puzzles, it was not square or rectangular, but was the shape of Australia itself. For a primary school-aged boy, the shape made the puzzle more interesting, putting in the pieces that formed the outline of the Australian coast. The puzzle was very visual, there were pictures of Australian wildlife koalas, kangaroos, and other creatures that seemed very exotic to a child in 1960s England, together with important landmarks, like the Sydney Opera House.

The puzzle’s most intriguing place of all was called “Woomera.” The picture beside the placename was of a rocket blasting off and I was told that it was the base for Britain’s space programme. When the news seemed full of stories about the United States’ Apollo missions and when Mission Control Houston and the Cape Canaveral launch site, the thought that Britain might have its own spacecraft caught the imagination of a young boy.

Of course, Britain’s space programme was not the stuff of boyhood speculation, Woomera was more a missile testing range than a rocket base, there would be no British spaceships heading for the Moon.

There had lingered in the thoughts of a schoolboy the idea that his country was still a major power. It had only been a generation before that Winston Churchill has boasted of the country having five million men in the armed forces. It had only been a generation before that a quarter of the map of the world had been coloured pink. It had only been a decade before that Britain had still celebrated an annual Empire Day.

Rather than inspiring a false confidence, Woomera should have been an indicator of the way in which Britain’s place in the world had changed. No longer was there an area shaded pink that might provide the location for a rocket base, instead there was a dependence upon a friendly dominion.

To a schoolboy, it seemed baffling that a country that had won two world wars should have become so weak; no-one explained that it was the winning of the wars that had brought the weakness, draining the country of its reserves. Even if the realities of the post-war word had been explained, such economic niceties would have been lost on the jigsaw maker.

Woomera remains a word that is evocative of Dan Dare and the space travellers of the comics, a place significant in the imagination, of not in the world beyond the living room where the jigsaw was made.


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Hardy’s countryside

Visiting Dorchester recently brought memories of the world evoked by the writing of Thomas Hardy. Hardy writes with an extraordinary eye for the detail of rural life. It is not hard to imagine the scenes he describes.

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy describes Gabriel Oak being disturbed from his sleep by the barking of a dog and the frightened. bleating of a flock of sheep. There is one thing for which Oak instinctively reaches, the double barrelled shotgun that lay close at hand. For what else would he have reached? Shotguns were to be found in every farm. To have gone to an agricultural dwelling in Hardy’s Wessex and not to have encountered a gun would have been an odd thing to have happened.

Ninety years after the time of Hardy. the shotgun was still an everyday sight. At our family home farm at Pibsbury, between Long Sutton and Langport, there was a passageway that ran between the farmhouse and the dairy. It was a repository for miscellaneous “useful” items placed there by my grandfather, it was the place where the shotgun was to be found. A conventional 12-bore in calibre, its double-barrels were a polished, dull black and the wooden stock was a rich chestnut colour. The gun had a frightening fascination for a small boy, it meant both danger and safety.

There were guns in the locality that were used for game, the shooting of rabbits, or pigeons, or pheasants. Occasionally, there would be clay pigeon or skeet shooting, but on most farms the gun was a utilitarian piece of equipment. Perhaps cartridges were expensive, perhaps there was not much time to put the guns to other uses, perhaps there was not a great inclination to do so, but the shotgun would only have been lifted against foxes and rats.

Words of warning regarding the shotgun brought a hesitation about approaching it, and certainly there would have been no thought of ever touching it, even though to have picked it up would have brought no danger, live cartridges were stored beyond the reach of inquisitive hands. Dead cartridges might sometimes have been found when walking the fields after someone had crossed in pursuit of game. Orange or blue, brass caps with the smell of cordite, there was a strange sense of wonder in handling a cartridge, to imagine that something so inconsequential could have such a devastating impact.

Never was there ever a suggestion that a gun might be used to defend oneself against a threat from another person, although there must always have been an awareness of that possibility; the Western films that occupied much of the air time frequently depicted cowboys firing shotguns. Yet the shotgun always brought a sense of security, perhaps it derived from those childhood memories. Perhaps, like Gabriel Oak, it was something for which one might instinctively reach, in imagination, if not in fact.

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Primary school sunsets

Primary school teachers are among the most important people on the planet: to be honest, it is hard to imagine anyone more significant in the shaping of generations of people than those who taught them at primary school. Primary school teachers must also be among the most long-suffering of people on the planet: how they put up with the daily experience of classroom life is a mystery, lesser mortals would have run screaming from the building. The thought of facing day after day in a primary school classroom is enough to send shivers down the spine, how would you find the required energy and the necessary enthusiasm to sustain the constant good cheer that is the hallmark of primary school life?

There must be particular pupils who are the bane of the life of the classroom teacher. There are those who get into trouble, against whom sanctions are possible; and there are those who are excessively smart, in the face of whom the teacher can only smile benignly and hope that someone else might ask a question.

It is not hard to imagine there being “smart” questions this week. Most pupils would be able to suggest the date of the winter solstice; most would be able to suggest that the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere was around 21st December. One of the challenges brought into school by the Internet is that there are countless websites providing information to inquiring minds. An inquiring mind is the sort that would follow websites like www.timeanddate.com with all the information it provides about sunrises and sunsets, and seasons and calendars.

Such mathematical exactitude is the sort of thing that appeals to those who ask awkward questions of teachers whose focus is literacy and numeracy and who have dozens of more pressing concerns to address. The mathematically exact will have noticed that whilst the days continue to get shorter until 21st December, something odd happens. This week, the sunset stops getting earlier and by the time of the solstice it is two minutes later than it is this weekend. It is later sunrises that lessen the lengths of the days. It is not hard to imagine a hand being raised and a voice from the back of the classroom saying, “Miss, why do the evenings start getting longer this week?” Perhaps the best response from the teacher is to suggest that it should be a research project for the inquirer who can then return and tell the class about their discovery.

Who would teach in primary school?


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Happy high-pitched sound

At five o’clock each Friday afternoon, on BBC Radio 2, Steve Wright closes his 45 minutes of Serious Jockin’ music with a sound familiar to discogoers in the 1970s: feedback. Feedback at the end of the evening was that high pitched tone that came through the speakers as wires were unplugged and equipment was disconnected. I had always imagined that feedback was a phenomenon confined to inexperienced microphone users, who made the mistake of standing in front of the speakers, or to the sort of pub venue that I attended where sound equipment might not have been the best or the newest available and where sudden ear-splitting sounds might have been among the hazards of the evening. The broadcasting of recorded feedback, on the country’s most popular radio station, at a peak moment every week, suggests that such noise was a much more common experience than I had imagined.

Nothing is done by chance on a radio programme to which millions of people are listening, certainly nothing is done by chance by one of the country’s most experienced broadcasters. If Steve Wright signs off with the sound of feedback, it is because it is a sound that will find a resonance with a significant proportion of the audience.

Like the smell of blackcurrant, which some of us drank in pints of lager; or the smell of lime juice, that was added to vodka; or the sight of coloured lights, that were reflected across the ceiling and walls of the hall by one of those multi-faceted mirror balls that were hung from the ceiling; the sound of feedback came from happy evenings. It was a punctuation mark at the end of a gathering where there would have been frequent laughter and occasional romance. It was the sound that announced that the moment to feel beat, that moment of feeling exhausted exaltation (or is it exalted exhaustion?), had come.

In sixth form college discos at pubs and rugby clubs, it would be one o’clock on Friday morning and there would be a need to be at classes in the morning. (Thursday nights was the usual night, venues had more grown up events on Friday and Saturdays). The sound of feedback would tell us that a happy evening had been had by all who heard it, for those who were not happy had gone home, or they were in the toilets being sick (sadly, an experience I once went through).

The momentary sound of feedback just before five o’clock each Friday must recall millions of memories across the country.

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