Holiday viewing

The half-term holiday began at three o’clock, not that it seemed to create much excitement among the students. Some meandered out of the gate in clusters, some were still lingering in the school grounds an hour later. I had been wanting to ask what they thought about the fact that Crackerjack was returning to BBC television, but suspected the question would have drawn a mystified response. I asked members of the tutor group what they might do with their time, some said they would lie in bed until midday.

School holidays in the 1970s brought extra children’s television; children’s television now is not what it was. The idea of programmes on demand would have seemed the essence of a childhood heaven.

Children’s television in the 1970s was rationed and it was serious.

The special indulgence by the BBC was to show programmes for a period each morning during the school holidays, but they would be cultured and they would be improving. White Horses was screened one summer and Belle and Sebastian also got summer airings (unless the memory is unreliable). In the memory they were the height of sophistication, pictures of a world far more exciting than the depths of rural England. White Horses came with the sultry tones of the female singer who sang the unmistakable theme tune. In the memory, they were both French series, only forty years later did I discover that White Horses was Slovene and that the white horses were Lippizaners.

Belle and Sebastian was French, even an ignoramus like myself could be certain of that, it was Belle et Sébastien and the primary school teacher taught that “et” was French for “and”.

Belle and Sebastian had characters who were suave, who dressed like people from magazines. What had England to offer in response to French sophistication? The Double Deckers.

In retrospect, the programmes most suitable for someone like myself were the anarchic ones – The Monkees, The Banana Splits, Crackerjack. The subtlety of White Horses and Belle et Sébastien would probably have been more appreciated by those who knew what a Lippizaner horse was and who knew what words are not French.

However, as an indulgence to an old ignoramus, the sweet sound of Jacky singing the theme tune brings memories of days when the end of the school day meant racing out of the gates and when a school holiday seemed to last forever.

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Daylight delight

“Look at that – it’s 5.30 and it’s still daylight,” exclaimed a colleague as we left a meeting at school.

We smiled at being delighted at the days growing longer – didn’t the days always grow longer?  Wouldn’t the world come to a sudden end if its orbit were so changed that the daylight did not come back?  wasn’t it a statement of the obvious?  Wasn’t it like looking at the grass and saying, “Oh look! It’s green”? Nevertheless, there was a childish thrill at the light in the western sky. It mattered that the light was returning.

And it wasn’t just the light. The snow day on 1st February had been a reminder that this was still an uncertain time.  Spring has been tentative in its appearances; perhaps frightened at a sudden final flick of winter’s tail.

Driving home from Worle, I willed the light to last.  The motorway is much easier to drive and Sedgemoor easier to cross when the daylight lingers. As the Equinox approaches, the days begin to lengthen at a gallop, four minutes a day, a half an hour a week.  Perhaps it should not make a difference: why would most of us need to worry?  We are not framers or market gardeners. We are not trying to grow crops, not are trying to tend livestock, or watch for the moment when herds can return to fields.

Yet there is something of the primitive that remains in most of us, there is something deep-rooted in our psyche that delights at the bright mornings and the sunlit evenings.  It is only the Gulf Stream that allows so many of us to live so far north; were we in Canada, we would be on the ice of Hudson Bay; were we in Russia, we would be under the Siberian snow; in the southern hemisphere, we would be among the peaks of Tierra del Fuego.

There were daffodils in bloom at the end of Windmill Road on 22nd December, a winter variety, but daffodils all the same. A new crop has appeared this week, spring daffodils to catch the eye of those passing through the village. A religious person might feel that the appearance of such blooms had a sacramental quality about it; that they were an outward and physical sign of the springtime that is at once temporal and spiritual. This evening there was even a hint of warmth in the air. a scent of the bright days to come.

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Telling everyone your business

There was a notice in the carriage of the train from Bristol asking that people would use their mobile phones with sensitivity towards other passengers. The woman in the next seat obviously thought that it didn’t  apply to her, or, perhaps, that everyone was interested in her wholesale greetings card business and that everyone would have been glad to hear about her print runs of 10k and 20k. It was a relief when the person whom she was calling told her that their signal was breaking up. The relief was short-lived, she immediately phoned someone else and started talking about brochures that were going to be significant for everyone who used them. A cutting terminated that call.

The train had free WiFi, why was there a need to make the calls at all? If there was an urgency about the orders, then an email would have been just as fast, clearer in its information, and would have provided sender and recipient with a precise record. Perhaps the caller needed to convince herself of the importance of her work, how business depended upon talking loudly in a crowded railway carriage.

There was a time when all business would have been privately transacted. If you were visiting an office and the phone rang, the person whom you were visiting would have told the caller that they would call them back. It would not have been thought appropriate for private business to have been done in a place where crowds of strangers became aware of the dealings.

The mobile phone seems to have changed business etiquette entirely. Perhaps the making of loud calls is a piece of deliberate exhibitionism. Perhaps it’s like the days when stock exchanges were filled with clamour and shouting, when dealers did their buying and selling for the whole floor to hear; the more active you were, the better a dealer you appeared to be. Perhaps the discussion of cards and brochures in a railway carriage is a latter day form of the self-advertisement that would be shown in the days of open outcry on stock exchange floors.

Presumably, the time will come when loud mobile phone conversations will be limited to certain carriages. Perhaps, as in the days of traders at exchanges, everyone will stand up, waving one hand in the air as they use the other to hold their phone to their ear. Perhaps everyone else will be left to enjoy the tranquility of the sunlit spring afternoon.


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Going to the doctor

The surgery was on The Hill in Langport. Cars must have been considerably rarer, for I never once remember there being nowhere to park on the street outside, on the steep descent from All Saints’ Church to Bow Street.

There was an appointments system, but, if you really needed to see someone, you could arrive at the end of the appointments and there would always be a doctor who would see you. It was mystery as to how they found time for all their tasks. The same doctors who did morning and evening surgery also did house calls, local clinics (including one in our village pub), and, if called out on a emergency, would come to homes in the villages in the dark hours of the night; a familiar face would appear in suit and tie and carrying a Gladstone bag.

Perhaps demands upon the time of the doctors were far fewer. The National Health Service was only twenty years old and generations used to counting the pennies and the shillings before calling a doctor would have only thought of making an appointment if it were absolutely necessary.

The surgery wasn’t just a place of general practice, it was our local emergency unit. When seven years old, I fell across a bicycle, its brake lever piercing my cheek to the extent that I can still feel the scar inside my mouth. When I was twenty-seven years old, I ducked under scaffolding and stood up too quickly, gashing my head open on a protruding bolt. On both occasions, the stitching up was done at the surgery. “Is there much baldness in your family?” asked the doctor stitching my head. “No”, I said. “Good,” he said, “these stitches aren’t very neat.”

The surgery included a dispensary, a room viewed through a white-painted hatchway. There were no blister packs or sealed plastic bottles, the pharmacist put pills into round cardboard pill boxes, and made up potions that were dispensed in glass bottles. Medications were less common then, drugs now taken for granted were not available. As someone who suffered severe childhood asthma and allergies, the available prescription drugs were not plentiful. Hay fever, which caused extreme discomfort every summer, was something that just had to be endured.

Perhaps the range of treatments available was much narrower than it is now, perhaps the medications that could be prescribed were far fewer, but perhaps the paucity of options was more than compensated for by the confidence we had in the doctor. For us, there was little a country GP did not know or could not do. Perhaps our confidence in the kindly man sat at his leather-topped desk was a healing in itself.

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Swallowed by a big black snake and other nasty realities

“They all went sailing ‘cross the lake and all got swallowed by a big black snake.” I used to love that line, and the bit at the end of Frog went a courtin’ that said that there was bread and cheese upon the shelf and if you wanted anymore you could sing it yourself. The web pages of  BBC Schools Radio no longer have any reference to them all being eaten, a pity it made the song interesting for primary school boys.

Singing was important in the days at High Ham Primary School. I could never play the recorder, and I was definitely not allowed near the Glockenspiel, playing it was reserved for a very talented girl called Audrey, but I could sing along with everyone else in my primary school class. Every week the wooden wireless in the classroom was turned on and we listened to  Singing Together, on BBC radio for schools.

Singing Together has remained is deep in the consciousness of those of us of a certain age.  In retrospect, Singing Together was a deeply subversive programme. There were traditional, fun, sing-along songs, things like Antonio, it’s raining again. But there were also some songs that gently challenged our Anglo-Saxon view of the world, songs like the 17th Century Huron Carol that tells the Christmas story as if Mary and Joseph belonged to one of the First Nations peoples of Canada. There were even songs that were downright radical and would surely have prompted an editorial in the Daily Mail if it had been know that primary school children were encountering such lyrics.

My first encounter with the horrors of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s was in the words of The praties they grow small. I remember feeling aghast that Britain, which I had always been taught stood for freedom and justice, should trample people in the dust. My sister, eight years my junior, recalls the words of Blackleg miners, how such a song got past Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher is a mystery!

We are losing that culture of communal singing.  The moods evoked by the silly songs and the tales told in the folk songs cannot be sustained by a culture focused upon listening to downloads. When we don’t sing anymore, it is not just music that we have lost, it is the loss of something that bonded people together, something that was enjoyed communally, something that is recalled with fondness five decades later.

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