Well-built

There was a moment of hurt. A local parody website carried a photograph including members of my family. It was labelled, “Autumn Fashion Collection, 1975,” and underneath someone had commented, “ooh, aargh.” My grandfather on whose farm it was taken would have laughed off such thoughts, he had little regard for the outside world and its fashions.

Grandad stands on the left-hand side of the photograph, a broad-shouldered man in flat cap, sleeveless pullover, white shirt, brown trousers and heavy black boots. The nine men with him include my two uncles, it is threshing time and every available hand was needed.

He was a well-built man, so too were the machines with which he worked, except they had all seen better days. The machines were old, nursed along by affection and necessity. Sometimes things would slip, shear, break; running repairs were accepted as a normal part of the working day.

The gathering for the threshing was necessary because Grandad still used a reaper-binder. I remember one morning when he had had brought it to a field of barley, two or three men with him to assist with the harvest. It was a labour intensive business, one man to drive the Fordson tractor, one man to operate the binder, one or two men to follow behind, picking up the sheaves and putting them into stooks. It was a day that could not be lost, for the other men had their own work to do.

Hardly had the day started when the binder stopped. The blades were not working, the barley was not being cut. Long years of experience of the machine meant Grandad straightaway knew the problem. As he corrected the fault, something slipped and he gashed his hand. A handkerchief was taken from his pocket to cover the wound, he tied it around with binder twine and the day’s work proceeded.

By the end of the day, no part of the handkerchief was left white. Returning to the farm at evening time, my father was waiting to collect me. Seeing my grandfather’s hand, he suggested a visit to the local doctor’s surgery, where emergency attention for local farmers was part of the everyday activity. The cut required fourteen stitches to close it. It was a matter of fact, not something for comment: we did not mention it.

Grandad was one of those few farmers who actually retired, though his death at the age of seventy-seven meant there were not many years away from the hard daily labours of the land. In the photograph, he would have been sixty-one years old, as solidly built as the machines which still appear at the vintage shows.

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A whiff of autumn

Autumn has come early. There were three bonfires visible yesterday evening, smoke drifted across a field at the front of the house, this morning the rain is heavy and persistent. Perhaps the summer will manage one last gasp before September and the beginning of autumn.

I could never feel as sanguine about cooler and shorter days as did the singer Roger Whittaker who in the song, The Last Farewell said,

I shall watch the English mist roll in the dale

How could anyone enjoy watching mist roll through a valley?  On autumn mornings in our corner of England, the mist is a blanket of greyness that lies across the low lying moorland. It spreads dampness over every surface it touches. It penetrates and chills and shows a reluctance to go elsewhere. If the temperature drops below zero, the mist might become freezing fog, making progress difficult and dangerous.

Perhaps Whittaker envisaged something gentler. Leaves of ochre, red and gold, the scent of bonfire smoke on crisp mornings, walks through lanes and smoke from cottage chimneys, seemed more the stuff of romantic notions of misty valleys. Damp November mornings here in Somerset would hardly have inspired a song lyric.

Had Whittaker sung about mist in the summertime though, the song would have had an altogether different mood. If, instead of grey clouds and heavy rain, there had been mist rolling early on a morning such as today, it would have been the harbinger of a bright day with blue skies. Late summer mist along these Somerset lanes might be cool and damp but it will often fade to reveal lush green meadows or white fields of grain. Going through the mist, there might be glimpses of rabbits and pheasants running for cover from the oncoming car.

Mist can make familiar roads mysterious. Shapes change; houses passed every day have a different air about them. Concentrating on the way ahead, attention can be drawn to things that had been previously slipped by unnoticed. It seems odd that something that obscures things can sharpen awareness of their existence. Mist demands a sharpened concentration, an early morning drive on the M5 motorway can be filled with spectral shapes appearing from behind only to hurry ahead without thought for safety. Pale red lights can mark dark shadows ahead that take on the form of vehicles as you get near.

There is a paradox in the weather; summer mist is a shrouding, but also a foreshadowing of a glorious day. There is neither mist nor sunshine today, just the the sound of rain and the smell of damp more typical of an English summer.

 

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If I won the Euromillions

Standing at the end of the fruit counter in Tesco, out of the way of any other shopper, I ticked off items from the shopping list.

“There,” a voice said. Looking up, I realised a woman had placed a large box of strawberries in my trolley.

“That’s very kind,” I said, “if you are paying for them.”

“Oh,” she said, hastily removing the box and taking them to where a man stood waiting with a half-filled trolley. He glared at me, as if it were my fault, as if I had been about to make off with their kilogram of strawberries. Not even a smile at the mistake. Perhaps someone had stolen the fruit from his lunchbox when he was a schoolboy.

Reaching the checkouts and placing the shopping on the belt, a pleasant young man started scanning my purchases. “Going anywhere nice, today?” he asked.

“Yeovil Town, this evening,” I said, “if that counts as nice.”

“Who are they playing?”

“Aston Villa – a League Cup match.”

“Sounds alright,” he said.

“And I’m going to win the Euromillions jackpot while I’m there.”

“That sounds good, how much is it?”

“£80 million, I think.”

“What would you do with £80 million?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I knew a family once who had a hundred and fifty million and they were so miserable that they bought their old mother a blow heater instead of putting oil in her central heating tank.”

“It could make you a miser,” he said.

“It could,” I said. “There are lots of stories of rich people who are incredibly unhappy and just have to have more and more money.”

He wished me a happy evening, though wasn’t upbeat about my prospects of winning the Euromillions jackpot.

“What would I do with £80 million?” I thought, as I pushed the trolley across the car park. I could buy Yeovil Town a nearly top class striker (it would cost a hundred million for the best ones), but then there would be no money left to pay him. Football doesn’t seem a place where £80 million would go very far.

Perhaps I could go in for some lifestyle choices.  I could buy all the strawberries so none would be left to be placed mistakenly in my trolley; or I could pay for a personal shopper to go to Tesco, so I would not have to go to the supermarket; or I could become a miser and do no shopping at all.

 

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Missing a river

Standing on the banks of the River Parrett one afternoon, there seemed something not quite right, something missing. In memory there had been a tributary running from the river, not the River Yeo, but something running toward the town.

In memory, there had been a regatta day, Langport Splash it had been called, and there had been a challenge to paddle a raft that was called The Unsailable Avalon. The raft consisted of plastic barrels lashed to planks to which a deck chair had been fixed. The winner would be the person who could board the raft and paddle it up the river. After a number of attempts, my father, who had grown up on the banks of the River Thames at Chiswick, had swum out to the raft, climbed aboard and propelled it with complete ease – his sangfroid had been such that he had kept a cigarette between his lips and had stopped for a smoke midstream, to the laughter of those who stood on the banks watching his progress. In memory, there was water on both sides of the land on which we stood. How could it have been so, anyone who knows Langport will tell you that there is only one river in the town.

Buying an old Ordnance Survey map, a 1930 edition that had been revised in 1946, there was a suggestion that the memory might not be mistaken. There had indeed been two rivers through the town.

Asking my mother, whose family are at least four centuries in the parish, she recalled the “catchwater” that left the River Parrett, flowed through the town under Little Bow Bridge, and then rejoined the river.

Having enough information for an Internet search produced detail of what my mother had described.

From the Parrett south of the town a ditch, known as the Portlake rhine by 1526 and later as the Catchwater, ran through the town and north-west over the Langport ‘moors’ to rejoin the river. The portion through the ‘moors’ was filled in 1966  and south of the Little Bow bridge it has been covered by a car park. The Back river, known as a common rhine in 1470–1,  runs west from the Catchwater south of the town and enters the Parrett above the Great Bow bridge.

The other memory of that regatta day was Lily the Pink being played over the public address system. Were that to be true, then if the song was Number One at Christmas 1968, then perhaps the Splash had been the summer of 1969. The book Langport and Huish Through Time includes a picture of the Catchwater before it was culverted, suggesting this took place in the 1960s; were it later, then the memory of there being a river on two sides in the summer of 1969 might be one not misremembered.

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Healthy eating

Spreading the fresh bread with butter and spooning on locally made jam, there was a memory of Tony. It was breaktime and we stood in the classroom talking about anything and nothing. There was hardly a subject that had not been exhausted; teenage boys boarding in a school deep in a Dartmoor valley hadn’t much to talk about in the first place. Perhaps it was a repeat of a previous conversation, or the re-working of a theme, but favourite food was the topic for the day. Tony talked about the baker delivering fresh Mother’s Pride bread in the morning and the delight of eating it with nothing more than thickly spread butter.

Healthy-eating enthusiasts would probably be unhappy at the thought of teenagers eating slices of white bread spread with butter so thick that the imprint of the person’s teeth was always visible. But healthy-eating enthusiasts would probably have not been much impressed by the school diet.

Breakfast always included cereal eaten with milk from the school cows, milk of a thickness that the present whole milk sold in supermarkets would seem a watery alternative. There was always something cooked, so cooked sometimes that it was easier to snap the rashers of bacon than to cut them. Slices of toasted white bread and butter bulked out any lack in the other food.

Lunch was of a very traditional variety, meat, potato and vegetable. The potatoes were usually good, the meat might not taste as most people would have expected, and the vegetables were usually of a non-descript taste, but there was no shortage of quantity. Pudding was from the crumble and custard or creamed rice and jam tradition, thick and heavy and sweet.

Tea was something cooked in the style of breakfast, along with plates stacked with white bread that might be spread with jam or peanut butter. 

Accompanying breakfast, lunch and tea, there were massive pots of tea which was poured into plastic cups and drunk with milk and copious amounts of sugar. 

At bedtime, it was tea again, with handfuls of biscuits for anyone who was still hungry at the end of the day.

Oddly, despite eating heartily three times a day, few people put on weight while at the school. The termly reports sent to parents included the height and weight of pupils and the report for the summer of 1975, a few months before my fifteenth birthday, showed I had just reached seven stones. Perhaps it was because we had all been sent to the school for health reasons, so tended to be underweight, perhaps it was because there was hardly a moment when we were permitted to be inactive, the huge number of calories we absorbed were burned off in the programme of daily exercise and the free time spent playing football at every opportunity.

Eating Mother’s Pride spread thick with Anchor butter would have fitted well with the regime to which we were accustomed, a regime that sent almost every one of us out into the world as people more healthy than when we had arrived.


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