The third week of term

The days seem to rush by. After two full weeks of the autumn term, where would we have been?

The memories of the summer holidays would have rapidly receded. When you are at primary school, a fortnight is an eternity, but what thoughts would have filled the days as the autumnal equinox approached this week?

School was a serious matter. Learning was a serious matter.

Trained in the 1930s, our teacher treated the education of the twenty or so children in her class as a matter of the utmost gravity. The classroom was not a place for levity, and, unless you wanted a slap, it was not a place for failing to do exactly as instructed.

Among the gravitas and the silence, there must have been a great deal of learning, or, at least, attempts at learning, though it is hard now to remember how most things were taught. On the third week in September, what things might have occupied the timetable?

Even the concept of a timetable seems absent from those times, undoubtedly the teacher had schemes of learning planned, but the sequence did not seem apparent. There were fixed times in the week for particular activity.  The final act on a Monday was to copy the week’s spellings from the Word Perfect textbook, they would be tested after break on Friday.

On Wednesdays, Mr Shield, who had been a member of an RAF bomber crew during the war, would come to teach us art. He had been a teacher in civilian life and enjoyed coming to schools to teach art in his retirement. His great passion was the pigeons he took to local shows and sometimes he would bring some of them to school in small, box-like cages so that we could sketch them.

On Fridays, the ageing clergyman would walk the short distance from the vicarage to oir school, which was under the control of his parish. The parish was in the patronage of an Oxford University college and the rector, a kindly and gentle man, probably found it difficult to engage with a class of rustic children. He would read from the Prayer Book catechism and, if we had sat in silence, then read from CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 

The classroom teaching was supplemented by BBC Schools programmes on television and radio, was there a television programme called Science Box? There was certainly a radio programme called Singing Together, it was the highlight of the week.

There must also have been other teaching, yet, apart from the class reciting the times tables, no memory remains of arithmetic. History classes linger in projects on the Sumerians and prominent Victorians. Learning cursive handwriting with ink pens was a lesson abandoned at secondary school, as soon as it was possible to do so. Apart from a comprehension exercise on The Water Babies, English lessons have been forgotten.

What pages might we have been turning on the third week of the autumn term?

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Stupid television

Being someone whose knowledge of classical music is derived from clips played in episodes of Morse, from compact disc compilations given free with newspapers, and from television theme tunes, there are not many pieces of music that I recognize, but there are a few.

So even though the a piece of music had begun unannounced, I recognized it from the first couple of bars – it was the theme music from the ITV television series This Week.

This Week  was a current affairs programme that went out at peak viewing time in the days when television news was something to be taken seriously and wasn’t a broadcast version of a glossy “celebrity” magazine.  The theme tune, the intermezzo from Jean Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, seemed to be a statement that this was serious television, that the content of this programme was to be taken as seriously as the composition that introduced it.

Something got lost along the way.

ITV maintained that it was commercial pressures that meant that they could no longer find the resources or the viewing times for such programmes and seized the opportunity provided by lighter touch regulation to go for whatever might be popular, no matter how absurd or how demeaning the programmes might be. The television schedules came to be filled with dross, with whatever it was that the public demanded, and television came to be the fulfilment of the sort of programming foreseen in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It is now hard to imagine that ITV once produced such series as Brideshead Revisited.  Now, detective series are presented by ITV as “drama.”

Claiming that they must retain popular approval, the BBC chose to chase their commercial rivals to the bottom of the pond.  The BBC news becoming more and more domestic and more and more personality driven. The Six O’Clock News is now little more than a magazine with content tailored to a domestic market.

The downward spiral seems to be inexorable, if Big Brother was the bottom of the pond, then Love Island must have sunk into the mud.

It seems ironic that an entertainment series would have taken the name of the oppressive power in Nineteen Eighty-Four. While the series is about looking in on people, it reflects a fulfilment of the nightmare drawn by Orwell in which people’s lives are completely controlled.

There is a sense of decay, an end of civilization.  If snooping sensationalism and celebrity soundbites are what now pass as public discourse,  then something really has been lost.


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The dignified and the efficient

Once, I nearly bought his book.  A paperback edition, it was not unduly expensive. Flicking through the pages, though, it seemed very dry and very precise prose. It didn’t capture the imagination of a young undergraduate and was put back onto the shelf. His writing was probably more accessible than many of the titles sold by the academic bookshop, certainly much more so than the texts on philosophy, but Nineteenth Century writing on the English constitution seemed far removed from the reality of England in 1979.

Perhaps it was the title of the book, The English Constitution, that created problems in the mind. The very first lecture on political history had made the point that Britain had no written constitution. Rather than there being any written code, the governance of the country rested on a system of “common law and precedent.” There was no explanation of what such terms might mean, or perhaps it was a case of a lecture being a process of the lecturer’s words being written on the page of the student’s notebook without passing through the brain of the student on the way.

Walter Bagehot, writer of The English Constitution, was a Langport man who gained national fame as a journalist and essayist. Writing against the background of parliamentary reform, he sought to identify the principles underlying the governance of the nation. As editor of The Economist for seventeen years, he developed economic insights that proved relevant more than one hundred and forty years later, including “Bagehot’s dictum” that central banks should lend freely in times of financial crisis. It was a concept that found expression in the policy of quantitative easing adopted by central banks after the financial crash of 2008.

Bagehot’s text was significant in the education of the young Princess Elizabeth. Bagehot believed governance was exercised by “the efficient” and “the dignified,” he wrote:

No-one can approach to an understanding of English institutions unless he divides them into two classes. In such institutions there are two parts. First, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population, the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and, next, the efficient parts, those by which it, in fact, works and rules. Every institution must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind and then employ that homage in the work of government.

The Crown plays the role of “the dignified,” the government is “the efficient” part.  Were Bagehot commenting today, he might have questioned if the government still fully merited the label of “the efficient.” What he would not have questioned is the dignity of the Crown.


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Seventy years – how did she do it?

6th February 1952- 8th September 2022. More than seventy years, how did the late Queen put up with it for seventy years?

Some fifteen years ago, I had the privilege of spending ten days at Saint George’s House within the walls of Windsor Castle. It was a time filled with a sense of history, a sense of beauty, and a sense of wonder at how someone could live their entire life in public gaze.

Saint George’s Chapel, the cathedral-sized place of worship in the castle with its own bishop as dean, is a place steeped in history, tracing itself back to the 13th Century.  It is filled with the graves of English monarchs, including the grave of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and their daughter Princess Margaret.

At the time, I wondered if the Queen of England, who was then over 80, stood at the grave of her parents and sister and remembered happier times. I wondered if there was a moment for saying a few words and for shedding a tear, I wondered if she was ever given space and peace and quiet?

I have never understood the relationship of the English with the Royal Family. On the one hand there are countless people who would declare themselves avid supporters of the monarchy.  Ob the other hand, it is often those self same people who seize upon every piece of gossip and rumour carried by the vile tabloid press.

If people did not read such stories, if they did not buy the newspapers and magazines that carried nothing more than idle gossip, the press would very quickly cease to run them, yet the slightest story sparks flurries of excitement on the front pages and on the television and radio news.

I often wondered if the Queen ever had recourse to the press complaints body, or to the broadcasting standards authorities, over the stories that are distortions and the others that are simply lies?

It is confusing, if you respect someone, then you respect their right to privacy and their right to having their own inner life. You can’t claim to respect someone if you splash every poisonous piece of malign speculation all over the newspapers.

To have remained in office for seventy years must have demanded incredible powers of perseverance. If I had been in the Queen’s place, I would have called it a day a long time ago. I would have taken my family money and told the State that they could take what was theirs and I would have gone to live in Paris, where they at least have respect for style.

Seventy  years, how did she do it?

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Earliest memories

A friend suggested writing a memoir. ‘What of?’ I asked.

More important than memoirs are memories. Memoirs might, or might not, interest someone else (mine would fall into the latter category). Memories, on the other hand, can be deeply important to the person recalling them.

The Internet is a boon for the business of memories, it allows cross-schecking. It allows the possibility of verification of what year something may have happened, and sometimes more precise dating.

So an online search was able to tell me that the time I recall stopping to allow a train to pass at level crossing gates in Martock must have been when I was three or four years old.  The station closed to passengers in June 1964 and to goods the following month, although, before its complete closure, the line was used for training in the winter of 1964-65.

From a similar time comes a memory of a moment standing on an empty platform with my mother at Langport West station, which was on the line from Yeovil to taunton that passed through Martock.  It has to date from before 13th June 1964, because that was the Saturday on which the last passenger train departed from the station. My mother tells me that we were going to Taunton to visit my father who was in hospital. The oldest I could have been, in that clearly recalled scene, was three years and eight months old.

Why do steam trains loom so large in those early memories? Perhaps to a small boy, they had often seemed to be fearful machines, prone to making loud noise, or sudden bursts of steam.

From that steam train era comes a recollection of a day trip to Weymouth. There was a  train that went along the line that went through the streets on its way to the harbour, from where ferries left for France and the Channel Islands, and there was a fire engine, its bell ringing loudly, which passed us on its way to a call in the town.

My mother’s recollections go back to when she was even younger.

Asking my late grandfather about them seeing an airship, my grandfather had responded, ‘How do you remember that, Ruby, you were only two? I had taken you out to Aller with me on the bicycle. On the way back, we were at Whitehill when it went over. I stopped and we stood and watched it for a long time.’

It was a story that was often questioned. Was it imagined? Was it a retrojection of a later moment? One local telling of it by a man in our village had embellished the story to the point where it was said that Adolf Hitler had flown over.

It was the possibility of an online search that had offered the possibility of verifying the memory. The British airship experience had ended in the early 1930s, the famous German airship the Hindenburg had ended in flames in 1937. How then could there possibly have been an airship over Somerset in 1939?

A search of the web confirmed that a German  Zeppelin had flown over Yeovil before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Reconnaissance pictures it had taken included photographs of the Westland aircraft factory.

Such memories have a deeper fascination than mere memoirs.


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