Lots of words, words, words

The pavement is cracked, uneven, uncleaned. Walking down the road, there is a feeling of the 1970s having returned. Derelict property, closed shops, waste gathered in doorways. Looking at a patch of pavement, there was a moment of wondering how it might be described, what words there would be that would capture the staining, gum and discolouring.

Miss Everitt would have asked us for words to describe things. Questioning, questioning, questioning, Miss Everitt encouraged, pushed, cajoled, her class of twenty unpromising pupils. Once she read the story of Peter jumping into the lake to reach Jesus who was on the shore. “How would you have described Peter?” asked Miss Everitt.

I raised my hand. “Rash,” I said. (I had just learned the word).

“A very good word,” said Miss Everitt.

Miss Everitt taught the infant class in High Ham Primary School, she must have spent forty years travelling from her home in Somerton to come to our two teacher school. Forty years teaching successive generations of children lots and lots of words.

The passage of five decades has brought a realisation of how much the learning of words has meant, how much difference the efforts of that primary school teacher made to the lives of at least one of her pupils.

Were it not for the teaching of Miss Everitt, and Miss Rabbage in the junior class, even television programmes would have been a challenge. Children’s television in the 1960s was very shaped by Reithian values. Television was about entertainment, but it was also to educate and to inform. Classic literature would be dramatized; magazine programmes like Blue Peter were filled with opportunities for learning.  Words were plentiful and complex and demanded attention.

Miss Everitt’s words were the foundation for the educational experiences of the years that followed. The words were building blocks for an understanding of the world and communication with others. The more teaching developed vocabulary, the better equipped were those who left the classroom.

Perhaps teachers comparable with Miss Everitt and Miss Rabbage are now rare, the teaching profession no longer commands the respect it enjoyed fifty years ago. Perhaps, more significantly, the context in which teaching takes place has changed beyond recognition. There is little that is Reithian in the programming of the satellite channels, nothing whatsoever in most of the electronic games. Children spending hours each day on social media have little exposure to challenge or opportunities for learning.

When the schools return in the coming week, extended days or special catch-up programmes will not have nearly as much impact as equipping children with words.

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Toll the bell

The GCSE Religious Education syllabus includes a module on life and death, which is how this morning the Year 10 lesson was about funerals. Talking to the class about the elements of a Christian funeral, I realised I could not convey to them the chilling nature of some of the moments. There seems no moment more chilling than the single strike of a church bell, but how would one convey that feeling to a group of fifteen year olds?

The tolling of a single bell is a sound of grief. A single strike and a lengthy pause before the next as mourners file into church. There is in the sound a sense of finality, a sense of one’s mortality.

The toll of the bell always finds strange resonances deep within the memory. Echoes from childhood are heard at unexpected moments, snatches of verse, half sentences. “I”, said the fly, “with my little eye”. I hated that poem.

Why did school children in the 1960s get taught Who killed Cock Robin? It’s of dubious historical origin, little literary merit, and there must have been not a few children who found it disturbing.

“Who killed Cock Robin?” “I,” said the sparrow,
“with my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin.”

“Who saw him die?” “I,” said the fly,
“with my little eye, I saw him die.”

“Who caught his blood?” “I,” said the fish,
“with my little dish, I caught his blood.”

“Who’ll make the shroud?” “I,” said the beetle,
“with my thread and needle, I’ll make the shroud.”

“Who’ll dig his grave?” “I,” said the owl,
“with my pick and shovel, I’ll dig his grave.”

“Who’ll be the parson?” “I,” said the rook,
“with my little book, I’ll be the parson.”

“Who’ll be the clerk?” “I,” said the lark,
“if it’s not in the dark, I’ll be the clerk.”

“Who’ll carry the link?” “I,” said the linnet,
“I’ll fetch it in a minute, I’ll carry the link.”

“Who’ll be chief mourner?” “I,” said the dove,
“I mourn for my love, I’ll be chief mourner.”

“Who’ll carry the coffin?” “I,” said the kite,
“if it’s not through the night, I’ll carry the coffin.”

“Who’ll bear the pall? “We,” said the wren,
“both the cock and the hen, we’ll bear the pall.”

“Who’ll sing a psalm?” “I,” said the thrush,
“as she sat on a bush, I’ll sing a psalm.”

“Who’ll toll the bell?” “I,” said the bull,
“because I can pull, I’ll toll the bell.”

All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.

The sound of the bell always brings the words to mind, “I”, said the bull, because I can pull.” The chilling memories of childhood fear come to mind. The Year 10 class would have been mystified.

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The lack of a vernacular

Looking around the classroom door, a boy with his head on the desk in front of him looked familiar.

“Is that Johnny with his head down, ma’am?” I asked the teacher.

“Aye. It is. He came in here with the two arms the one length.”

(It was a reading lesson and the student had brought no book with him).

“I love that expression. Seamus Heaney uses it in The Republic of Conscience.  It must have been popular in Co Derry. Heaney used it in a neutral way, but it can be a real rebuke.”

“My ma certainly used it that way. There would always be enough food in our house to feed ten times as many as would be there, but if someone came to visit and brought nothing, she would say, ‘Do you see her? Coming here with the two arms the one length.'”

“Two arms the one length,” comes from a seanfhocal, an old Irish Gaelic saying. Expressions from the Irish language endure in the Hiberno-English spoken in the Republic of Ireland and mingle with the Ulster Scots of the North. Succinct, they convey a whole realm of meaning.  “Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile,” commented a school principal when I commented that someone was very good at raising funds. Raising my eyebrow, she translated, “one black beetle knows another.” I laughed at the comment.

Once, England would have been filled with such a vernacular. Perhaps outside of the broadcast and social media, there is still a wealth of expression.

Teaching in Cheltenham, it is encouraging to see the number of dialect words still in everyday use among the students. “Cushtie” lingers in use long after the disappearance of Del Boy from the screens. The “gavvers” are unpopular with boys who think the police pick on certain people.  “Dinlo” may be prefaced with an expletive which leads to the departure of the student from the room, it has the power of the Irish “amadan” as an expression for a stupid person. To be cross, confrontational, is likely to lead to the accusation of being “larey.” Looking up the various words used on a daily basis, many of them seem to come from the gypsy community, perhaps they reached the town through the horse racing fans.

Somerset would have had its own vernacular when I was young, in earlier times, there must have been an oral culture as strong as that in Ireland. With the influx of people from all over England, the community has been diluted and the words have been lost.

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The anniversary of colour

It was on 3rd March 1967 that David Attenborough, the controller of BBC 2 television, announced that the station that summer would commence broadcasting some programmes in colour. The colour broadcasts would begin with the coverage of the All England Tennis Championships from Wimbledon.

I remember that summer of 1967 when the first colour televisions appeared. The only place where most of us could have watched them was through the window of Mounter’s television shop in Langport.

The colour television sets were huge and the cost of put them far beyond the reach of most ordinary people. However, if colour television sets were visible through the windows of the local electrical shop, then some local people must have been buying them.

To have had a colour television set must have been a source of constant fascination, to see things in a way you had never seen them before. Even to stand in the street and look through the plate glass shop window, watching the images cross the screen, was fascinating for a boy. No sound was necessary, the pictures were entirely novel.

Black and white television images may have begun their gradual disappearance, but elsewhere monochrome pictures endured. In the 1970s, with the advent of the automatic photo booths, black and white photographs were the stuff of romance. Thirty or forty pence would buy you a strip of four pictures that might be shared with favoured friends. The shadowy innocent photos of one’s amour were a far remove from the digital images that are now instantly shared.

Perhaps the advent of colour television and cheap colour pictures was the loss of an age of innocence. Black and white still seems the preferred medium of many photographers; it has qualities, a capturing of nuances that polychrome pictures somehow miss. Yet it also seems that monochrome pictures are useful for their capacity to transform scenes from being mundane to being artistic; there is not the starkness, not the cold reality conveyed by full colour.

Perhaps, politically, a monochrome world was easier. Black and white pictures were more effective in concealing the worst of unpleasantness, rendering harshness in shades that could conceal the full ugliness of a sometimes violent reality. Perhaps, if colour pictures had been earlier available, history might have been changed by a full realisation of the horror. Images of violence and death seem more manageable when conveyed in black and white.

Had colour television arrived thirty years previously, the pictures seen through the windows of television shops might have brought the news from Germany into a much sharper focus, they might have provoked a world determined on indifference.

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It’s been too long

Can one feel saddened at opening a box of tea  bags? If so, then there seemed a moment of deep sadness in opening a box of PG Tips.

The rhyme printed on the cardboard seal has little by way of poetic quality and much by way of the evocation of ordinary, everyday life taken away by the government.

“My door is open, my kettle on,
Come on over, it’s been too long.”

Banal and trite it may be, but it would convey the mood of countless thousands of people. The chance to just sit with a friend, at a fireside, at a kitchen table, on a garden bench, would be a chance to recapture dear moments.

“It’s been too long,” has never been a more apposite comment. It’s been too long for families whose loved ones have drifted into the shadowlands of dementia while those whose words might have held the odd moment of lucidity have been prevented from visiting. It’s been too long for those who have endured the pain of the loss of a loved while barred from having visitors who might have brought them some small touch of consolation. It’s been too long for those whose lives were already ones of quiet, lonely isolation whose only light moments were at the day centre or groups to which they belonged.

It’s been too long and those who stand in Downing Street for the evening briefings have no conception of what life is like for countless people who live lives of imposed isolation.

“Of course,” they would say, “we must have distancing,” but would they explain why people may walk the aisles of the non-essential goods sold by The Range, and W.H. Smith and Marks and Spencer, but those same people cannot be permitted to sit in the fresh air of someone’s garden? It is rank hypocrisy for the government to say that people may gather for the purpose of private profit but may not do so for the sake of ordinary human kindness.

Spending more than thirty years in parish ministry, I could point at having acquired no special skills nor particular attainments, what I did know about was drinking tea with older people. I drank countless thousands of cups of tea with older people. I learned how important it was to sit with a cup or a mug in hand and just be there. Sometimes, it wasn’t even necessary to say anything. Sometimes, we could just sit and stare into the fire. Just to have another human being with them had an importance no politician could imagine.

It’s been too long.

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