Times that last

Perceptions of time change: long and boring moments are brief in retrospect; days filled with activity, where not a minute drags, can seem a week long when reviewed.

If Einstein is right, our perceptions of linear time, whether it be brief or lengthy, are no more than perceptions, but those perceptions can count for a lot: in perception, time comes in different forms.

Fifty years ago, the pop singer Donny Osmond sang The Twelfth of Never.  The declaration of undying love wasn’t really rooted in chronological time though, was it? It wasn’t a case of the young pin-up making a lifelong commitment, at least it didn’t seem like that. It was more that the moment was one outside of time, a moment that would remain there long after chronological years and human decay have swept away whatever there was between the lover and his beloved.

A neighbour in the 1990s, sat drinking a mug of tea on his 80th birthday, “Do you know, Ian? if I had known I was going to live to 80, I would probably have lived my life in a very different way”.

It would have been intrusive to have asked what he might have done differently. It seemed unclear whether the statement was a statement of regret or just a detached philosophical comment.

Having served in the Royal Air Force Bomber Command through the Second World War, his life was lived through those years with an intensity unknown in peacetime. Was he saying that, had he known he would live more than fifty years beyond the end of the war, his life would have been more relaxed, more easy going?

How many people are there who live lives of ease and then who reach a particular point and say, “I wished I had done more with those years”?

The same chronological sequence, the same period of years through which two different people live may seem very different lengths time. Chronologically, there is no doubt that the time period has been identical, but qualitatively the periods may seem hugely different. There can be those Twelfth of Never moments, occupying perhaps only a short time, perhaps only days, that fill the whole landscape when the years are viewed in retrospect. A single moment can change the nature of a year, of a decade even.

There are times inside of time and times outside of time. The times inside of time are always brief.

There is a moment in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when it emerges that Elrond, the elven king, is six thousand years and, if, like me, at heart you are still a fifteen year old, you think, “Imagine living six thousand years!”

But even elves only achieve immortality by sailing West to the Grey Havens, and what is six thousand years in the big scheme of things?

Chronological times are brief, finite. Even if you understood Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and were able to travel at the speed of light, so slowing down the passing of time, you would still come to an end eventually.

It’s the times outside of time that last; the times beyond time. Donny was right it is those moments that count.

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Esoteric revival

Browsing the shelves of Waterstone’s, there seems more space devoted to the esoteric than to traditional religion. Perhaps a measure of the mood of the times, the rejection of all authority. Perhaps it is a vindication of the old maxim, “When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”

Why believe in the sort of thing found on the bookshop shelves, though? When there is instant Internet access offering  possible answers to every imaginable question, why do esoteric concepts from pre-modern times still have a hold on the imagination?

Conversations in the classroom reveal that secondary school students are nothing if not eclectic in their ideas about things that might be described as “spiritual.” The selection of books in Waterstone’s would strike a chord with those who share their thoughts about life after death in discussions during our lessons.

When I was a child, there was a range of odd beliefs in our community. Stories of ghosts were more plentiful. Accounts of sightings of Roman soldiers were common, though the legionaries must only have been visible from the knees upward as the surfaces of the roads are much higher now than in the Second and Third Centuries. Past residents of houses also seemed to put in the odd appearance, usually in the same spot each time.

Perhaps things are more rational than they were in the past. No-one I know would now claim to have met Merlin and tales of Arthur and his knights riding from Cadbury Castle are no longer heard. Even Glastonbury has become a rather humdrum mix of New Age paganism and plain silliness.

Perhaps the esoteric and has become popular because it offers people a touch of excitement. The stuff of the books sold in Waterstone’s is attractive because it is completely removed from the mundane business of everyday life in the Twenty-First Century. Perhaps people need something exotic, something mysterious, something that pushes the bounds of the imagination.

Fifty years ago, science provided an alternative reality, the space race offered the prospect of the discovery of planets and stars and galaxies. Space was the final frontier, and within the lifetimes of those of us who were young we thought that frontier would be crossed. It never happened.

Science turned inwards. Technology was applied to the manufacture of consumer goods. Smartphones were revolutionary, but they were not Captain James Kirk and the Starship Enterprise. In the absence of rational diversions, the irrational offers excitement, even if it is only an amalgam of old superstition and modern imagination.

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The story of a clock

It sat on the mantlepiece of the front room of my grandmother’s house. Slate with marble inlay, it is not of great value, I have seen similar for £20-£30, but it has been a continuing source of fascination since I was given it after the death of my grandmother in 1987.

It is the sort of clock presented to people in late-Victorian times for the brass plaque at the front reads:

Presented to QMS C Bennett
MS Clerk, on his retirement from Her Majesty’s
Service by the Members of the Sergeants Mess 50 RD
as a token of their regard and esteem. 7th Dec. 1886

Quartermaster Sergeant Charles Pinder Bennett was my great, great grandfather. He served in India and his son, also Charles Pinder Bennett, was born on 23rd November 1877 at the British cantonment at Bellary in what is now the state of Karnataka.

At the time of his retirement, he was a Military Store Clerk, as might be expected of someone holding the rank of Quartermaster Sergeant. Records online suggest that he was born around 1838, so would have been in his late forties when he left Her Majesty’s Service, perhaps an age at which most professional soldiers would have retired. He served in the Second Afghan War from 1878-1880, an experience that would have been sufficient to age most men. He died soon after his retirement, perhaps in 1887. His wife is shown as a widow in the 1891 Census.

What memories would the retirement clock have brought for Eliza and Charles Bennett’s young family?

Charles’ wife Eliza, may have been Eliza McCann from Brecon in Wales, but they do not seem to have met in Wales, their marriage was in New Zealand in 1864. Eliza Bennett was of an age similar to her husband. In the 1891 Census, when she was living at Cowley in Oxford, she is shown as being 52, so was born around 1839; young Charles was 13 at the time. A decade later, the Census shows Eliza as keeping a boarding house in Cowley and Charles was working as a cycle factory hand.

The clock was passed to Charles at some point, perhaps upon the death of his mother and was brought to Yeovil by his wife, my great grandmother, when she moved from Chiswick with my grandparents.

The 20th Century story is clear, but in the thirty-odd years in which I have had the clock, I have never discovered the beginning of its story. I had assumed “50” referred to a battalion number and “RD” was an abbreviation for a regiment, but I have never found a regiment with such initials that had fifty battalions.

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Car spotting

My aunt provides a useful corrective to our versions of the past, an alternative interpretation of the memories that are recalled, an incisive questioning of vague stories, sometimes a blunt contradiction of assertions. Sometimes, though, my aunt will share insights and recollections that are completely new.

“Your Dad must have talked to you constantly when you were in the car with him, he must have pointed out everything you passed and told you the make of every car. You could name every car.”

“I could?” I had no memory of such conversations, perhaps they were so commonplace that they were not notable.

“Yes. We took you out one day when you were young and you told us what every car was.”

The recollection was credible, among children I would always have lined up with those inclined to geekiness, a member of the ranks of the nerds.

“I remember Uncle John explaining the Somerset car registrations to me: Y, YA, YB, YC, YD. Once he had told me, I drove him mad one evening when we were going somewhere by saying, ‘there’s a Somerset car, and there’s another one, and there’s another one.’ I think he wished he had never told me.”

Pondering my aunt’s story of me being able to identify all of the cars we passed, I wondered how many I really knew.

Perhaps there were not so many cars to name in the 1960s, how many makes were there? British cars dominated the market, foreign models  were not so plentiful. I do not remember any Japanese cars and the only German cars I recall are Volkwagen Beetles and Mercedes Benz. Undoubtedly, there were dozens more, perhaps it was just that they were not so common in our small corner of Somerset.

Not only did the range of cars seem much less diverse, the design of the cars seemed much more diverse. The make of an oncoming car could be discerned long before it passed by, who could not recognize a Ford Anglia, or a Morris Minor, or an Austin Cambridge?

In retrospect, designs seemed much more about distinctiveness than about function, certainly they were not designed for their aerodynamic qualities.

Diversity of design seemed accompanied by a diversity of colour. The paint schemes of Twenty-First Century cars seem rather dull, rather uniform compared with the colours used in the 1960s. Two-tone paint schemes no longer seem to be in vogue.

A boy out with his aunt today might find naming every car much more challenging.


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Working till you drop

One of the advantages of growing up in a farming community is that the idea of “retirement” is a very fluid concept. There is no fixed age, no expectation that one will stop work on attaining a certain age. The younger of my two uncles was seventy-five last week, to suggest that he might stand aside from farm work would invite a sharp answer.

While growing older, an unwillingness to consider oneself as “old” always seemed a spirited response to chronological decline..

A happy memory of people refusing to consider themselves old remains from the years of my ministry in Dublin.  Tea in china cups was drunk and cake was eaten in a visit to a Dublin house where two sisters sat looking through old school photographs.

Faces from the 1930s stared at the camera with a freshness that could have come from that morning.  It was hard to imagine that the members of the lacrosse and hockey teams had probably been long ago called to a different league.

The sisters thought they recognized some of the faces that stared earnestly at the camera lens.  They had played tennis and hockey and gone horse riding, though neither had played lacrosse.

“My friend Kay used to play in that team”, said one sister pointing at the hockey XI.  At eighty-eight, she was two years the younger of the pair.

“Where did Kay live?”

“Oh, she and her husband still live in England”.

The younger sister pondered for a moment, reflecting on thoughts of Kay.

“Do you know”, she said, “Kay and her husband took their car and caravan across to France every year until last year.  I can’t think why they didn’t go this year.”

“Kay was in your class at school?” I asked, wanting to ensure I had understood the story correctly.

“Oh yes, we are the same age.”

It would have seemed the height of impertinence to have suggested that at eighty-eight years of age, Kay might have felt that her caravanning days were done.

It had been a special moment. Watching the face of that indomitable little lady for whom age was no barrier whatsoever.

Kay would have been better understood in North America, where seniors in the United States and Canada assume that a full and active life is the norm until stopped by death, than on this side of the Atlantic where to be in receipt of a state old age pension is perceived by some people thought to be “old.”

I shall take a careful note of when my uncle finally ceases work, and hope to outdo him.

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