Unsaid words

Going through stuff written over the years, I discovered a poem I had written for my Dad. Of course, I never told him that I had written a poem for him and he would have been embarrassed at the thought of such words. Neither of us were ever demonstrative in our expression of our feelings and after a lifetime of things being unsaid, it would have been difficult for either of us to have found the capacity to express what we wanted to say.

Dad’s health was poor for many years. He was invalided out of the Royal Navy in 1962 and, as a civilian, had continued his work as radio and radar technician on naval aircraft at RNAS Yeovilton.

Dad’s health was always better when he was at the seaside and someone somewhere determined that it would be beneficial to him if he worked at RAF Manby in Lincolnshire.

The postings to Manby, a station close to the Lincolnshire coast, would last weeks at a time and his absences were times that I hated.

I remember the eve of one of his departures and the tears I shed at the thought he was going away. In the Noughties, looking back on the pain of that moment, I wrote a poem I called Manby bound. The lines are of little literary merit, but I wish now that I had shared them with him.

You would not remember that day, now.
Going away again, was too much
for a five year old, uncomprehending,
his father’s departure.

The tears on that spring evening
as abundant as the rain
on Somerset moorland,
permeating everything, damp, cold.

Perhaps embarrassed, you walked,
through the barton, with its cloak
of mud and manure.
‘Let’s go up to the field’.

A cow stood, ankle deep,
amongst tufts of green.
Her calf tethered; twine
defining its world.

The ground sucked down the boots
of a small boy who wished
his grip on his father’s hand
might be nearly so firm.

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Lung questions

Do you remember the BCG test?

It was 1973, the second year at secondary school and we queued outside a classroom waiting our turn to receive the Sterneedle test. It was a spring-loaded instrument with six needles arranged in a circle that was inserted into the inside of each person’s forearm. We joked and laughed as we each emerged from the room with a neat set of six holes in our skin.

The following week, the test was assessed. Everyone else had a negative result, I tested positive.

Letters came to my home. There was concern that I had suffered tuberculosis. A letter came summoning me for an X-ray examination in Wells. In memory, the X-ray was undertaken in a big blue van. Perhaps that is a piece of misremembering, perhaps it is true. The National Health Service had a Mass Miniature Radiography programme using vans to go out to communities to screen people for TB.

I remember standing against the X-ray machine, worried that I would get the wrong result for a second time. No-one talked openly about what might happen if it was discovered that I had tuberculosis, there seemed to be a veiled suggestion of hospitals and long-term treatments.

The X-ray proved to be negative, the threat of being sent away receded. The conclusion reached was that I had a natural immunity to TB. The source of the immunity was never fully explained. A suggestion was made that drinking unpasteurised milk on the farm as a child had led to an exposure to bovine TB, but it was never confirmed. Perhaps it was possible to be simply immune to an illness.

Escaping being sent away when it was found that I did not have tuberculosis, I did get sent away the following year when my asthma deteriorated and my absences from school became lengthy. The school to which I was sent on Dartmoor was austere, but probably a place of warmth and comfort compared with the descriptions I have heard of TB hospitals.

Five decades on from the close encounter with TB, I wonder now if the test result on that school day still has any relevance. Would it be possible that an immunity to tuberculosis, whether inherited or acquired through exposure to it, might have created a defence, if not a full immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus? Internet searches have given no hint of an answer. It would be intriguing to think that those six needles could retain importance so many years later

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The way we see policemen

The students in the class talked about their experience of the police. “If you wear a track suit, sir, they will always stop you. If you are a middle class person, in a shirt and jeans, no-one will bother you, but if you are one of us, you will always be picked on. And if you are black, you haven’t a chance.”

The police have a thankless task and I doubted they were nearly as oppressive as the students suggested, but their tales of being picked on recalled a memory from my childhood.

I loved going out with my uncle as he did the farm rounds: checking livestock; drawing water from wells; moving electric fences; delivering bales of hay; tying gates firmly.

One summer’s evening, he had parked at the roadside and gone from the van to check cattle, telling me to stay in the van. It was a fine summer evening and I sat looking out at the hedgerows and watching the occasional car that passed. The quietness was broken by the sound of a motor cycle pulling up. It seemed a strange thing: who would be stopping behind the van on this stretch of country road?

A fist came down on the roof of the van and a man’s face appeared, glaring in through the open driver’s window: the helmet and goggles and dark uniform of a member of the Bath and Somerset Constabulary. Policemen terrified me, and here there was one only a few feet away.

“What are you doing here?” he barked.

“Waiting for my uncle,” I said, trembling in fear at the aggressive apparition.

“What’s he doing parked here?”

“Looking at cows,” I answered.

“You tell your uncle, I want to see him.” He slammed his hand down on the roof and stamped his way back to his motor bike. The machine started with a roar and sped down the road. As soon as it was out of sight, I opened the van door, slipped through the nearest gate, and headed across the field back towards the farm: I wanted no more encounters with constables.

My uncle had returned by this point and called out to me, “Where are you going?”

“Back,” I shouted, “there was a policeman.”

In retrospect, it seemed a strange interlude. What did the policeman expect when he stepped off the motorbike? Had he wished to speak to my uncle, why had he not simply called at the farm? When he saw no-one in the driving seat of the van, why did he not simply get back onto the bike and ride off?

In retrospect, it seemed not much more than an attempt to intimidate a child; an attempt that certainly succeeded. For years it left me with a suspicion of police officers, I was convinced that they regarded bullying as part of their duties and developed an irrational sense of fear and guilt whenever in their presence.

How many more children were intimidated by oafish behaviour? How many grew into adulthood with a deep suspicion of those in whom we were meant to trust?

Is the experience of the students now so far removed from the experience of a small boy in rural Somerset in the 1960s?

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Riddles

“When is a door not a door?”

“When it’s ajar?”

“What’s big and red and eats rocks?”

“A big red rock eater.”

“How do you make time fly?”

“Throw the clock out of the window.”

The silly riddles from childhood days are still easily memorable. Perhaps they had been around for years when I first heard them in the 1960s. The pun on words, the creature that sounds like something from Dr Seuss, the flying time that sounds like something from the pages of The Beano: none were particularly funny or clever, but they made us smile.

It is years since I last heard a riddle. Perhaps children no longer ask and answer riddles.

I talked to a Year 7 class this morning about their engagement with social media. They talked about using TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. Some followed particular influencers, they followed, although no-one could explain why they followed an influencer, other than to say that it was because other people did. Two of the boys talked about the YouTube channel that they watched and how they enjoyed the videos.

The class of eleven year olds seemed infinitely more sophisticated than those of us who grew up asking and answering riddles. Presumably, if you are the sort of person who is among the eight-four million followers of one of the influencers, you would not be impressed by simple plays on words.

Perhaps they are more sophisticated, perhaps they are also less resourceful.

One of the students talked about the addictive qualities of social media, how many people felt a need to be engaged with the online communities from the moment they woke in the morning to the moment that they went to sleep at night. Such addictions can only be detrimental to the intellectual and imaginative powers of those whose world is bounded by a smartphone screen.

Riddles were among the activities of children who were forced to depend upon their own resources for amusement. It would be the 1980s before electronic games found a wide market and came to command a significant portion of children’s time. Prior to the advent of electronic technology, there was a requirement for a much greater exercise of mental capacity. Even board games demanded much greater thought than simply pressing buttons on a console or a phone keypad.

Perhaps there are still students who ask riddles. Perhaps the riddles have changed and are now as sophisticated as the technology the students take for granted.

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A future in which Grandad could drive

The times being what they are, everything has become hard to predict, particularly traffic. Traffic depends on the times at which people travel and when few companies, institutions and people seem to follow the hours that were once conventional, then traffic jams seem to occur at unexpected times – times like 3.45 pm.

It was probably a combination of schools having staggered starts and finishes and people leaving work early, but at quarter to four traffic on the roundabout on the Tewkesbury Road in Cheltenham was at a standstill. The traffic light controlled roundabout is three lanes wide and is approached by four lane roads, so the potential for congestion is considerable.

Approaching the roundabout, I caught sight of a car stopped across the oncoming lanes. There was a yellow box, but it doesn’t mean you can drive out of a shopping centre and sit stationary across a road.

An old man sat behind the wheel, a white haired lady sat beside him. Slowing to almost a halt, I let him pull into our lane of traffic before he brought oncoming traffic to a halt. He edged slowly forwards. The rear of his car was badly battered. The back window was gone and a large sheet of blue polythene covered both the window area and the lights. Sitting in the right hand of the three lanes, he signalled his intention to pull leftward. The indicator was barely visible and there were nearly three collisions as he made his way to turn left on the roundabout and went on his way toward the centre of Cheltenham.

The man seemed entirely oblivious to the possibility of his causing congestion or an accident, or both.

The man’s driving style brought a smile as I remembered my grandfather. Dying at the age of seventy-seven in 1991, he had spent years driving in a very distinctive way.

Family tradition said that Grandad had taken seven attempts to pass his driving test. Whatever the number of times he had sat with the examiner, it was always a surprise that he held a full driving license.

Grandad drove with a determined manner. Looking straight ahead, he regarded roundabouts as places where he decided where he was going and continued without hesitation. Sitting alongside him one day as he drove me to Taunton station, we reached a roundabout at the edge of the town and went through the roundabout with a look neither to the right nor the left.

The advent of computer driven cars offers a future in which people like Grandad will be safe on the road and old drivers in Cheltenham will not be negotiating the Tewkesbury Road roundabout.

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