Jumpers

They might both have come from Marks and Spencer, but the navy blue pullover was a much better shape than the sky blue one. Of course, it was the navy blue one that I managed to shrink, leaving the disliked sky blue one to stare accusingly from the cupboard, as if demanding to be worn.

The pattern to which the sky blue pullover is knit is odd, I am never sure whether I have put it on back to front. It has become a pullover for wearing in the house where no-one will notice if it appears baggy or misshapen.

When I was young, I would have been delighted at having a pullover from Marks and Spencer about which to complain. For some years, the pullover I wore around the house was a hand-knitted one that was a dark chocolate brown in colour. It endured so long because it was made from very coarse wool which felt more like the pile of a carpet than anything from the fleece of a lamb.

The pullover was a familiar companion, much liked by the chocolate brown dog that was our family pet. The pullover was so tough that it was possible to have tugs of war with the dog. The dog would pull at one end of the sleeve, and I would pull back, chiefly because my arm was still in the sleeve.

Jumpers like my chocolate-brown home knit were functional.

None of us would have thought about fashion or style, there would have not been enough money for such considerations. A jumper was about keeping warm. If it was oddly-shaped, or oddly-coloured, or had oddly lengthened sleeves from the tugs of the dog, it didn’t matter. Who was there to notice? Who was there who would have said anything?

As long as the pullover kept you warm, and you were prepared to let it be a goalpost for games of football in the neighbouring field, then that was all that was required.

The passing years brought a greater awareness of fashion, but never a capacity to dress fashionably. In the company of my cousins, I always felt myself a Wurzel Gummidge figure. Even if I had had the money to buy clothes different to those that I wore, I wouldn’t have known what to buy.

If there were a single symbol of my youthful years, then it would be that old brown jumper. Battered and not quite right, it might still have a contemporary relevance.

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Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

Walking to Sainsbury’s at Saint John’s in Worcester, I passed a brand new Mercedes Benz estate car. Sleek and shiny, there was not a speck of dirt on it, despite the wet roads of the past week. Inside, the driver sat typing a message to someone. Perhaps the price of driving a brand new Mercedes is having to deal with e-mail at eight o’clock on a Saturday evening.

I pondered for a moment how much money you would need to earn to drive such a car, would £100,000 cover it? Probably not, by the time you had paid tax and national insurance, and then paid your mortgage and other bills, there wouldn’t be much left for the masterpiece of German engineering.

Janis Joplin’s lyrics came to mind:

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.
So, Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

“Skip, you wouldn’t be able to afford the tyres,” said the voice of my late Dad.

He was right. A salary of £24,373 wouldn’t cover the maintenance and insurance of such a car, let alone the first month’s repayment.

I have never driven a Mercedes Benz and even if I had the money, I can’t imagine I would ever buy one. Dad would ask me, with good reason, why I would need such a car.

Dad believed that the function of a car was to take someone from Point A to Point B. The only car he ever said he would like to own was called a Chord. I think it was an American car from the 1930s. Dad’s philosophy of motoring was typified in the fact that in 1976, he bought two Renault Dauphine cars, one for £30 and the other for £25. From the two, he made one car that ran. (That it was 1976 is clear from the logbook of one which is still in a drawer of the desk on which his computer still stands).

My present car, a nine year old Peugeot diesel, was bought a year ago, when it had sixty thousand miles on the clock. In the past year, because of lockdown, it has only clocked up another eighteen thousand miles. I hope it will keep going for another four years, by which time it will have totalled around 140,000 miles (only half of the 280,000 miles covered by my last car).

A Mercedes covering such a mileage would leave me broke. All the same, it would be nice to have a chance to sit in a brand new one.

 

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Night flying

Only helicopters now appear in the night sky above High Ham, but they seem to have been enough to have annoyed the newcomers to the village who objected to the noise.

Once the sounds would have been far more intimidating than the beating blades of a helicopter.  Fifty years ago, the sound of jet engines would have been unremarkable, their flights frequent.

The planes were familiar because Saturday morning work was normal for the technicians working for Airwork Services and occasionally a small boy would be allowed to go to work with his father.

Security cannot have been stringent, nor health and safety concerns a priority, for a child of no more than five or six years of age was allowed onto the base and into the hangars.

The de Havilland Sea Venom and Sea Vampire jets never seemed troubling. The ground crews got on with their work and a boy stood and watched, forbidden to touch anything. The yellow and black handles located above the seats that would be occupied by the aircrew had a frightening charm; what thoughts might pass through the heads of those forced to pull on them in order to eject from their aircraft?

Much more frightening than the presence of actual jet aircraft were the stories of the Sea Vixen fighters. For an impressionable boy, the Vixens brought with them the dangers of a crash. An image from a nightmare that still lingers from those times is of a Sea Vixen ploughing into the ground sideways at the back of a friend’s house, plumes of smoke coming from the underside of the aircraft. Each time the nightmare occurred, wakefulness would arrive before the plane exploded.

The thought of a Vixen jet engine at night would have aroused a sense of fear; seeing only red and green wing lights, who knew where it might come down? Unlike most childhood fears, years later, the fear of Sea Vixens was discovered to have been a reasonable one; their safety record was not good and there had been fatal crashes.

Yet in a clear, still darkness, even the fear of the Vixens and their unpredictability would not have been sufficient to dispel the mood of reassurance brought by the sound of night flights. Small boys knew little of the threat of missiles carrying nuclear warheads. The jet aircraft crossing the sky were there to protect us; the sound of them came as comforting as a nursery lullaby.

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Multi-coloured hairdos

The lady walked along the pavement in a purposeful manner. In days of lockdown, when almost everything is closed, when there are few places to which to walk, it was encouraging to see someone moving with determination, to see someone enjoying the brief sunshine of the November afternoon.

Perhaps the most uplifting thing was her hairdo. Her hair was cut short and dyed in three coloured stripes – white, shocking pink, and lime green. The hairstyle seemed a statement. Perhaps it was a response to the closure of all the hairdressers on 5th November, perhaps it was a reflection of her own personality. Whatever the reason for tricolour style, it was a declaration of the indomitability of the human spirit.

The hairdo recalled memories of my childhood years.

My mother had worked a hairdresser in Langport, spending time doing both gents’ and ladies’ hair, before young children came to absorb all of her time. Once we were older, she returned to occasional hairdressing work, sometimes at home, sometimes in people’s houses.

Mostly, the people who came for hair styling were women in their retirement years. Often, they were widows whose husbands had died long before their time. One woman’s husband had survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp, only to die while still a young man.

I remember those who came to the house because, if I was home from boarding school on the long holidays we had, it was my task to make cups of tea while the clients were under the drier.

The styling the women wanted was always intriguing to a teenage boy.

The 1970s were a time of glam rock followed by punk rock. Younger people wore their hair long, or extravagantly styled.

The women who came to get their hair done had a distinctness of their own. Perms and shampoos and sets and rinses were the order of the day. The rinses involved plenty of colour. There would be gun metal greys, and blues, and purples.

Oddly, those who were happy to tint their hair in shades of blue or purple, thought it odd that young people might choose flamboyant colours for their own hair.

However conservative or outrageous hairstyles might have been, the fact that people took so much care always seemed an optimistic statement. The 1970s were a time with a grimness of their own, but there were still plenty of people who were not going to be depressed by the stories on the television news.

A white, pink and green hairdo says that there are reasons to be cheerful.

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Which stories do you keep?

My mother is a treasury of oral history. With an unrivalled knowledge of our complex family tree, where cousins marrying cousins mean a tangle of connections, she can also talk her way along each of the roads of the village, recalling the families who lived at each of the farms and cottages.

Following the death of my father in March of this year, there is a keen awareness that story tellers do not remain forever. I need to record my mother’s local history, either digitally or on paper.

But where is the line drawn between oral history and personal reminiscence?

Do stories like those of the cider house kept by a great uncle count as oral history or are they just a piece of family tradition?

And what do you do with stories that are just personal recollections?

One of my favourite recollections is one that she tells of a cycle ride through icy fog from her work at Harvey’s hairdressers in Langport, to her home at Pibsbury, on the road to Long Sutton. It is on the Somerset Levels, Pibsbury is a place with a pumping station to deal with winter floods.

As my mother rode her bicycle around Pibsbury Corner, she saw a car had skidded on the icy road, and, out of control, had gone over the bank of the catchwater.

Rushing to try to help, she found the car balanced precariously, and stood on the bumper to try to add weight to the rear of the car. A couple were in the car and while my mother did her best to balance the car, first the woman, and then her husband, climbed over the seats into the back.

The local vet, returning from a call, stopped and saw what had happened. “I am heavier than you,” he said to my mother, “I’ll stay here – go to the garage and fetch Bob Atkins.”

My mother pedalled to the garage where Bob Atkins had a breakdown truck. “Go and find Dick Weller,” he said, “tell him to come and help.”

My mother went to find Dick Weller – and then went home. There was no further need for her.

The couple stayed with Dick Weller and asked that my mother call in the next day so that they might offer their thanks. My mother was working late, so there was no opportunity to do so, and there the story ended.

Do such stories merit recording?

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