Callers recalled

‘My brain is addled’.

A third bout of Covid during the summer has left my mother in a fog, short-term memory has become patchy at times, but recollections and anecdotes remain clear

‘It was after the war. We used to get men calling at the farm, something to eat, somewhere to sleep. Apparently, they left a mark on the wall outside to show that the next passer-by would receive a welcome.’

The men she described, we called tramps, but I do not remember it as having a pejorative meaning. A tramp was simply someone who tramped along, dressed in old and sometimes ragged clothes and carrying his few possessions in a bag or bundle.

If they arrived at the Crossman farm at Pibsbury, they would be given bread and cheese and tea and milk and would sleep in one of the stone barns.

There is a story that one cold night, my grandfather took pity on a passing gentleman and allowed him to sleep on the settee in the living room, where there was the warmth of a log fire. On discovery at there being an unexpected house guest, my grandmother flew at my grandfather, did he not realize that they could have been killed in their beds or had all their valuables stolen?

The story became a matter of pride for my grandfather.

In more recent times, one gentleman used to call each year with a chapel family in the hamlet of Henley.

Strongly evangelical Christians, they attended worship each Sunday and expected visitors to join them.

One summer Saturday, my mother, a hairdresser by profession, received a call. The gentleman had arrived with the family and he had been given a bath and clean clothes and they would be grateful if my mother would give him a haircut. My mother explained that she did not generally work on Saturdays, but was prepared to make an exception.

The gentleman went to chapel the next morning looking altogether different from the appearance he usually presented.

My mother’s recall of the gentleman is of a man who was educated and cultured, a man who had seen much in his lifetime. The gentlemen were always enigmatic figures, no-one was ever sure from where they had come or where they were going. What had caused them to take to the road? What family or friends had they left behind?

Perhaps there are still gentlemen out there, somewhere, tramping along.

Posted in Unreliable memories | 1 Comment

Bread and butter

Salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper,
French almond rock.
Bread and butter for your supper,
That’s all mother’s got.

The words of the skipping song surfaced in my memory. Perhaps primary school was the last time I heard it sung. Of course, it would have been the girls that sang it, it was generally only they who skipped, it was certainly only they who had the degree of agility to skip at the speed set by the rhythm of the song.

Perhaps the song was responsible for the notion that bread and butter represented meagre fare, that it was what one ate if there was nothing else in the larder, that it meant you hadn’t the money for anything more substantial.

The song surfaced in my memory because I decided upon bread and butter for lunch.  There is ample food remaining from Christmas in the refrigerator and cupboards of my mother’s kitchen, but it seemed time for the excess to stop. Weighing more than thirteen stones and feeling a tightness on the waistband, some frugal weeks seem necessary.

Two slices of brown bread with no more than a skim of butter, I picked up the plate and my mug of tea.

Bob came to remembrance at the moment I took a bite from the first slice.

Bob had a farm of good land and a house that would have made a fine home for a family, had Bob ever been given the opportunity of meeting someone.  Canada had offered him a future, but his parents played upon his conscience, ensuring he stayed at home until it was too late to begin a new life.

Bob lived frugally, his kitchen had remained unchanged in at least fifty years and his lean frame reflected the plain diet that was part of his daily life.

‘I have no biscuits and no cake to offer you with your tea,’ he said, ‘but you’re welcome to a slice of wheaten bread and butter.’

The bread was fresh, the butter soft, the taste was pefect. The bread and butter was the finest fare that one might have been offered.

Perhaps it was the spirit in which the bread and butter had been offered, perhaps it was the mood of the gentle, softly-spoken man that added taste to the food.

Bread and butter was all that Bob had to offer, but meagre fare it was not. The next lunch of bread and butter will be eaten without thoughts of skipping.

Posted in The stuff of daily life | 2 Comments

Above the waters

‘Risk of road flooding’ declared the black letters on a bright yellow sign.

The persistent rainfall would undoubtedly top-up the already filled ditches and rhines that criss-cross the landscape of the Somerset Levels.

It is hard to imagine how the country around would once have appeared in the times before the Abbot of Glastonbury determined that the wetlands should be transformed into productive farmland. A large scale ordnance survey map of the area is a page covered in blue lines, the network of waterways appears like a diagram of veins and arteries in the human body.

Of course, there was always flooding here, the authorities would not have dotted twenty-one pumping stations around district if there were not a danger of the drainage system being unable to cope with the accumulation of water from the rainfall on the surrounding hills. However, the floodwaters have become more common and more hazardous. Ten years ago, the floods made the national news, the village of Muchelney was cut off from the outside world for five weeks, local people collected supplies to send by boat to the marooned villagers.

Flooding in the past weeks is early, it has left the ground sodden and heavy, the prospect of a traditional ‘February fill-dyke’ is one that could present considerable problems for those who live in the local communities. The recent floods closed even main roads, including the A303, an arterial dual carriageway. Local towns, the streets of which were built in medieval times, could not cope with the sudden increase in traffic, simple journeys could take an hour.

Travelling the road that passes through Hambridge and Westport, it was hard to imagine that there had once been canal traffic from the River Parrett to the wharves at Westport. The places seem remote from the commerce of the Twenty-First Century.

Drawing near the village of Barrington, the ground rises, at the top of a ridge stand a line of former council houses, they are identifiable as such because there are identical houses in most of the local villages. I grew up in one such house, it is still home to my family.

The houses date from the 1920s, not a time of economic abundance, each village has six, or perhaps eight such houses, three or four pairs of semi-detached houses with substantial gardens. The feature of the houses that has become apparent as the waters have risen is that they are all built on ridges that rise above the land around.

Perhaps there was an old wisdom about where to build that has been lost with the passage of time and the desire to transform a rural area into suburbia.

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The intolerance of the ‘tolerant’

The Christmas lights are going up in my home town of Langport.

Well, I call them ‘Christmas lights’, according to the organisers, they are ‘winter festival’ lights.  This is simply a piece of secular bigotry.

Of course, they would argue that the name change is in the name of ‘inclusion,’ but inclusion of whom? Certainly not the inclusion of the majority of people in the world.

Christmas is indeed a Christian festival, but the secularists take delight in disparaging Christian ideas as often as possible, despite the fact that were it not for the Judeo-Christian heritage of the country in which they live, they would not enjoy the freedom of speech that they now take for granted.

The nonsensical claim put forward by those who want to replace ‘Christmas’ with ‘winter festival’, is they are showing sensitivity toward those of other religious traditions. Were it so, they would not seek to take ‘Christ’ out of Christmas.

A second year student in an English secondary school might quickly tell them about the respect felt by Muslims toward Jesus (peace be upon him). Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the final prophet, but Jesus is the prophet who will come as judge at the end of time. Showing disrespect toward Jesus is showing disrespect towards Muslim for whom the Gospels are holy books.

Another student who had studied Hinduism might point out that for Hindus Jesus is a prophet who brings light to the world. One need not be Christian to see Christmas as the coming of light into the world.

The only people who seem to have a problem with the term ‘Christmas’ are the secularists, who with a breathtaking disregard for the wishes of the majority, assume their opinion is normative. ‘Sensitivity’ seems to be a term to cover the imposition of their ideas upon everyone else.

Oddly, one of the arguments that secularists would put forward is that there is a need to safeguard the heritage of local communities.

So what about the heritage of the people of Langport?

I can trace my local lineage back to the 1500s, the Crossmans were in North Petherton in the 1500s, in Middlezoy in the 1600s, and arrived in Langport in the 1700s. Generations of my forebears lie beneath the soil of the local churchyards.

Don’t the traditions of local people matter? Don’t those for whom this place is deep in their identity have a right to be respected?

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A distant investiture

According to the radio, the King of England was seventy-five years old today. Once, when he was a young man, he was the focus of the rapt attention of S.pmerset schoolchildren

Our school television could have been a prop from one of those 1960s science fiction series. There was a rectangle of tubular metal which had a wheel at each of its four corners and from each of the four corners there rose four long legs, each a greyish brown colour similar to the base rectangle. The legs disappeared into a box at the top that was the colour of light wood, although whether it was wood, I never discovered; only initiates were allowed to push it from one room to another.

If Dr Who could travel through time in a blue police telephone, what couldn’t he have done with something on wheels? There always seemed a great sense of ceremony in it being moved; perhaps it was unstable and the funereal pace at which it moved reflected a concern for personal safety, perhaps there was concern that any damage would cost a huge amount of money, perhaps it was simply a matter of fear and trepidation at the possible consequences of not doing as one was told.

Once the manoeuvres had been completed with a solemnity that would grace any ceremony, the double doors at the front of the box were opened and the power was turned on.

Our primary school television was black and white, but for a school of forty pupils in the 1960s, it constituted a major item of expenditure. It had come complete with the stilts on wheels that allowed it to be moved backwards and forwards between our two classrooms.

Both BBC and ITV had excellent schools programmes for television; one of them had a clock that counted down the minute before the programme started. Except for Picture Box, I don’t remember the names of the programmes. There was no question of watching anything else on the television, for the simple fact that there was nothing else to watch. As soon as the schools transmission was over, the channels reverted to the test card.

However, if there were to be a major event, the BBC would cover it and Miss Rabbage would let us watch. On 1st July 1969, we got off lightly with school work, the television was turned on and we watched the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales live from Carnarfon Castle. None of us knew what an investiture was, but it was a lot better than arithmetic and Charles Kingsley.

Only in 2006 did I see for the first time see pictures of the investiture in colour. A polychromatic Charles looks much younger than the black and white stilt borne images that I remember.

I wonder if, on his seventy-fifth birthday, he remembered that summer of 1969 and had any idea of who might be watching.

Posted in Unreliable memories | 3 Comments