Things that should not give you a fright

The dark evenings draw in. In childhood, the darkness always brought fear for me, but not a fear comparable with other fears.

The sign for The Dolphin pub In Langport is a reminder of the fears. It is still mounted on a wall. The pub itself closed some years ago, but its distinctive and disturbing sign remains a feature of the street. The pub first appears in records in 1778, so perhaps an Eighteenth Century craftsman imagined that the fearsome beast he carved resembled a dolphin.

A fearsome beast it was, a child passing in a motor car thought it more resembled a monster from the deep than a friendly creature like a dolphin; its red fins and ferocious teeth being the stuff of a small boy’s nightmares.

Creatures from the sea were not as frightening as gas pipes. The primary school at Long Sutton stood on the village green at the corner of which stood a house where a mother and her son had died following a gas leak. It was not a leak in their house, for they had no gas supply, but a leak from the gas main that passed down the street.

The curtains of the house seemed always drawn, making it impossible to imagine what it might be like on the inside; but the sight of the house became something frightening, asking questions about how many gas pipes there might be about which we did not know and how many of those might pose a threat. It was a source of relief that the village to which we moved in 1967 had no gas supply.

Monsters from the deep and gas from the streets might have been sources of fear, but neither were nearly as potent as thunderstorms with their threat of bolts of lightning. The farmer who had lived at the foot of the hill which our road descended was always recalled as a quiet, softly-spoken man, a man who had worked hard all his days; his family were gentle people, people who laboured hard and who spoke kindly of all.

It was said that it was a pitchfork that had caused him to be struck. He had been carrying hay out to cattle and it was said that the iron prongs of the fork had served as a conductor for the bolt of lightning that had killed him. At the first rumble of thunder, a fearful child would run to the house, if lightning could strike on a farm so close to our home, who knew that it might not strike again?

Fifty years later, it is hard to imagine a primary school child fearing very much, least of all sea monsters, gas pipes or lightning bolts, perhaps there is a new set of things that give people goose bumps. Perhaps the dark will regain its power!


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Chip days

Weighing in at eleven stones thirteen and a half pounds on my sixtieth birthday, I realised that I had missed my target of being at the upper edge of the Body Mass Index band for my height. I should be no more than eleven stones and ten pounds. When the final three and a half pounds are lost, I shall celebrate with a bag of chips.

Chips were always the way of celebrating a special moment.

I remember an August evening outing to Charmouth in Dorset. Three or four cars filled with family members went to walk on the beach of the seaside town. There was an amble down the riverbank before reaching the sea. Chips in newspaper were the treat at the end of the evening. During the the journey home in my uncle’s van he pointed out how to spot the Somerset cars – the registration letters YA, YB, YC and YD suddenly seemed everywhere.

The village Sunday School outing to Weymouth was another special moment  (going to Sunday School was not a requirement – in fact, I’m not sure there was a Sunday School). The day was rounded off with tea in a café – fish and chips and peas and bread and butter.

There were family trips to Lyme Regis where the taste of vinegar blended with the salt of the sea air, and the smells of fish landed on the harbour wall mixed with that of the diesel oil of the solitary fishing boat.

In university days, chips meant Friday. The uncle, in whose house I lodged, would bring armfuls into his London home at teatime. “Now, who’s for what?” he would say; pretending that he had forgotten the order on his way home.

In theological college days, food served in the college on Fridays was so bad that the extravagance of going to the Wimpy could be justified. The fish and chips came with tea served in battered aluminium pots and with slices of white bread thinly spread with butter. The food left you feeling full for hours afterwards.

The years passed and chips came from a takeaway each Christmas Eve, there not being time to cook. The opening of the wrapper became part of the annual rituals. It did not seem Christmas when moving to the country brought an end to a custom that had lasted more than twenty years.

Chips unfortunately became a too frequent occurrence. My weight rose to more than thirteen and a half stones. A cardiologist wagged his finger and suggested that it was time they disappeared from the diet, along with the over plentiful supply of cakes and buns that filled the days of clerical life.

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A delicate boy

Intervening in a fight at school for the second time in two weeks, I remembered that there was a time when I would have been advised not to do so, I would have been told that I was “delicate.”

Suffering from severe asthma when fourteen years old, Somerset County Council’s education department deemed it appropriate that I be sent to a special school in Devon.

Heathercombe Brake School was split into two sites, the junior and girls’ school occupied a lovely location above the town of Teignmouth; the boys’ school was in a forbidding grey building in the heart of Dartmoor. Neither school was large, there were just eighty pupils at the boys’ school when it was at is peak, but there were also a number of children’s homes where those but in the three decades of the school’s existence, hundreds of people must have passed through the school’s care.

The Trust that owned both schools, as well as the homes, had five stated objects, the first of which being:

to help children who are sick, delicate, maladjusted or suffering in any way from neglect or an unhappy or unsuitable environment.

It was an extraordinarily broad statement of purpose which might have encompassed tens, if not hundreds,of thousands of children. It became focused upon the words “sick” and “delicate,” the prospectus for the boys’ school spoke in such terms, and that for the girls’ school did likewise.

We were delicate children, an adjective that seemed to to determine our present, and was expected to shape our futures.

Physical illness seemed to be regarded not merely as a constraint upon physical activities, but also seemed to be perceived as constraining our intellectual development and potential.

When meeting with a careers’ teacher and suggesting I would like to become a journalist, I was given a leaflet on how I might become a trainee book binder. The fact that book binding was the work of skilled artisans and that I had no aptitude for anything demanding manual dexterity was completely ignored. The teacher believed this was an appropriate path for me to pursue, and that it was not for me to be inclined to do otherwise.

Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Lift” suggests that such attitudes towards the “delicate” were not confined to the West of England. Heaney’s poem describes the funeral of a woman, and the walk toward the grave, where four female friends of the woman step from behind an hawthorn bush to take the coffin on its final steps. The deceased woman is described thus:

Favourite aunt, good sister, faithful daughter,
Delicate since childhood, tough alloy
Of disapproval, kindness and hauteur,

She took the risk, at last, of certain joys –
Her birdtable and jubilating birds,
The “fashion” in her wardrobe and her tallboy.

Regarded as delicate since childhood, her independence had been circumscribed by the definition applied to her life. Freedom had come only through the enjoyment of watching garden birds and an idiosyncratic way of dressing.

Recalling days at Heathercombe Brake School, Heaney’s words are troubling. How many lives never reached their full potential because such potential was thought beyond those who were “delicate? How many people missed the chance of certain joys because they feared to take a risk?

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Somerset is safe from alien attack

The Somerset Live website had a link to a page on 48 UFO sightings in Somerset. It was disappointing, a piece of clickbait, the page to which it linked was a government site from 2009. No new reports of flying saucers.

Flying saucers probably seem as quaint and old fashioned to a 21st Century generation as ideas of fairy folk would have seemed to the UFO enthusiasts.

In England of the Sixties and early-Seventies, UFOs were in vogue. “Sightings” were frequent and were the topic of everyday conversation. Warminster was said to be the UFO capital of Britain, something troubling in childhood years. Warminster was in our neighbouring county of Wiltshire, which meant that unless UFOs descended vertically, their flight path probably took them over Somerset. Each report was a cause for fear.

Of course, the fear was irrational, as are most childhood fears. It is hard to imagine children now being troubled by tales of UFOs, but the black and white television science fiction programmes had the capacity to instil terror in an innocent whose knowledge of the world extended hardly beyond the boundaries of the parish.  Logic should have said that either Flying Saucers did not exist, and could not therefore be a cause for anxiety, or, if they did exist, the technological expertise of those flying them was so infinitely greater than that of those of us living below that if they had been inclined to attack us, they would already have done so, to devastating effect.

What seems odd, in retrospect, is that a phenomenon that rested on no more empirical evidence than the Loch Ness monster should have so captured our imagination. Perhaps there was a feeling of insecurity at the scientific revolution, perhaps there was an even deeper sense of security at the social and intellectual revolutions that had arrived in the 1960s. Perhaps the UFOs were a projection of fears of being overwhelmed by forces that were beyond our understanding, though that would hardly have been the case for a child not ten years old, he was just afraid of the alien beings that might appear from the Flying Saucers and shoot everyone with their ray guns.

UFOs seemed to disappear almost quickly as they appeared. By the time the film “Close Encounters” appeared in the late 70s, they were the stuff of popular entertainment rather than something reported in the pages of tabloid newspapers: Warminster was no longer a dangerous town to be near. Somerset was a safe place to be.

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Barometric pressures

“My Nan left me a barometer in her will. I have it hung on the wall and I tap it and announce to my family that the needle is going up or down. I haven’t a clue what it means.”

The message read out on the breakfast show would have found a resonance with many listeners for whom a barometer on the wall was a common sight in younger days.

The barometer occupied a place of importance inside the front door of the farmhouse. It was in the corridor in there was also the hall stand upon which rested the black Bakelite telephone. The number, Long Sutton 217, was easily remembered, it was recited every time there was a call.

The barometer was treated with a sense of gravity comparable with that with which the telephone was answered. Each morning my grandmother would tap on the glass of the barometer that hung on the wall of the farmhouse and ponder the result with a serious air.

Falling pressure meant the approach of changeable weather. In Somerset changeable weather meant rain and rain might mean the loss of hay or harvest.

It was not as though the weather forecast was not listened to on the wireless in the kitchen at breakfast and lunchtimes, or watched on the television evening news on the television in the sitting room. Certainly, weather forecasts lacked the accuracy of those now constantly available online, but how was the daily check on the barometer any more accurate?

Perhaps my grandmother had read the hall barometer for so many years that even the slightest fall or rise of the needle was enough to tell her the prospects for day ahead. To have looked out of the kitchen window would only have confirmed what the needle had told her.

On a small farm, where money was not plentiful and where mistakes could make the difference between a small profit and a significant loss, my grandmother could have given a ready explanation for the seriousness with which she approached the daily tap on the glass.

Presumably, before people’s Nans had barometers, there were numerous local ways of telling what the weather might be, ways passed down from generation to generation.

With three different weather apps on my phone, I would feel no need to tap the glass of a barometer, even if I possessed one. In a generation’s time, will anyone remember the significant part they once played in people’s lives?

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