A yellow warning sign at the roadside of the A39 threatens road works beginning on 7th January: as the schools return next week and the weather worsens, as it generally does in January, resurfacing work seems in prospect. Such work has always the power to arouse childhood fears.
The fears relate specifically to the the big machine that emits clouds of steam and that is used in the application of the tar. It evokes memories of being a small boy in my grandmother’s farmhouse on the day when the A372 road here in Somerset, between the town of Langport and the village of Long Sutton, was being resurfaced. There must have been notification that this was about to happen, for I was filled with apprehension at the coming of the tarmac machine that must have seemed like some mechanical dragon. When the minutes came when the machine was passing the front of the house, I hid behind the settee in my grandmother’s front room – I can still feel the texture of the fabric against my hand.
Freud would undoubtedly have some strange explanation for such an irrational fear still persisting after more than fifty years. There were lots of other irrational fears – mostly relating to ghosts or aliens, or a combination of both. Perhaps they arose from being a small child in the days when television was gaining national popularity, perhaps they also arose from the plethora of ghost stories that existed in our district.
Deep in childhood memory, tarmac machines, ghosts and Martians occupy a category that is also occupied by blood. Perhaps there was some childhood incident that brought the fear of blood. Perhaps it was the time when I went to the school dentist and was given gas and awoke with a mouthful of blood; perhaps it was the moment when pushing my bicycle up the steep Stembridge Hill, at the end of our road, I stumbled and fell across it and the brake lever cut through my face, requiring stitching inside my mouth as well as outside; perhaps it was just a surfeit of stories from the war.
Do children fifty years later still have such fears? It is hard to imagine that the Martians figure large in thinking, and ghosts have been reduced to a comic status. But what about other phobias? Is a fear of blood still commonplace? Can there be anyone who approaches road works with trepidation?