High Ham was a very small village. There were forty-four children at our two teacher primary school and we grew up in a community where everyone knew everyone else. Miss Rabbage, our school teacher would have told us that the population of our village was just three hundred people.
If you were a schoolboy at the village school, neighbours knew who you were. They knew where you should be on light summer evenings, they also knew where you should not be.
When a community only numbers three hundred, it means that not only do you know everyone, to a greater or a lesser extent, but you also know everyone else’s business as well. Farmers would have heard how much their neighbour had sold livestock for at the market; they would have known how many gallons of milk their neighbour got from their cattle (even I would have known that, you just counted churns at the farm gate). No-one could have bought a new car, or new farm machinery, or had work done on their house, without everyone knowing.
There were no very grand houses in the village, but there were some very fine houses set back from the road, behind very firm stone walls. Perhaps such houses were homes to people who were sufficiently affluent or sufficiently solitary to live their lives apart from those of us around them, away from the gaze of other people in the village, but most people in the village seemed untroubled at living under watching eyes.
Matters that might need discretion or concealment were not frequent and, if the wagging tongues of the community talked about one person, there was consolation in the fact that someone else was being left alone. Hearing the inconsequential gossip, we might have smiled at Oscar Wilde’s comment that “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Except there were few people in our community who would have known much about the works of Oscar Wilde.
To have attempted being boastful or deceitful in such a community would have been eccentric behaviour. Perhaps deceit was possible in one of the towns, in places where it was possible to be anonymous, (or almost anonymous, even in Taunton, there might be a neighbour shopping or selling livestock at the market). In the village, being unknown was not a possibility for most people.
Stifling, it may have been at times, but there was little capacity for dishonesty.