Rust and nostalgia

Nearly forty years old, the horse transporter rolled down the motorway between Weston—super -Mare and Highbridge. Travelling between fifty and sixty miles per hour, it was probably at its maximum speed. “W” registered the first time around, it must have been registered between 1st August 1980 and 31st July 1981.

At such an age, it should have had a vintage feel about it, a suggestion that riding in the cab would carry passengers to a bygone age, instead it was square and boxy and ugly. Rust streaks ran along the paintwork. In a time when rust on a car has become a rare sight, it is odd to think back to times when it was the scourge of motor vehicle owners.

Perhaps the transporter was a more fitting reminder of the realities of the past than the sort of vehicles that appear at vintage shows. The times when it would have carried horses to gymkhanas or hunt meets or point-to-points or race meetings were not the times recalled in nostalgia.

1980 was not a prosperous time. Unemployment was rising rapidly, inflation was over 20% (train fares went up by 20% twice during the year). In the cities there was a growing sense of alienation and discontent. The Saint Paul’s area of Bristol exploded into rioting that year; violent unrest would be much more widespread the following year, bringing demands for urgent change in places like Brixton in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, and Toxteth in Liverpool.

There was not much about the times for which to feel nostalgic. It was the year of the Iranian hostage crisis, the assassination of John Lennon, the Moscow Olympic Games that were meaningless because of the American boycott.

It is hard to recall much that was positive about 1980, perhaps a rusty lorry is the best symbol for that year.

If someone should decide upon taking the horse transporter and restoring it, then it might be taken along to vintage fairs where people recall with fondness the times that are gone by.

Nostalgia is an industry that rewrites history, that pretends things were when they weren’t. Often those enthusiastic about recalling the past are those who lived through little of the realities of the times.

Perhaps those sitting in the cab of the horse transporter will look back in forty years’ time and recall with nostalgia their times travelling up and down the motorway. Perhaps they will recall 2019 in terms similar to how I felt about 1980.


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Downtown delight

The “Friday Free for All” on BBC Radio 6 is an hour long show in which Steve Lamacq plays listeners’ requests, no matter how unusual or diverse they may be. The eclectic nature of the show meant the playlist this evening included Petula Clark’s song. “Downtown.”

“Downtown” was a song with which I grew familiar via the medium of my aunt’s pale blue transistor radio, one of those that had a round tuning dial on its front.  It sat on the sideboard in the kitchen and seemed a channel of constant cheer; DJs were always upbeat and the music always happy.  Particular songs captured particular moments; family parties were accompanied by a Dansette record player, the records played were by the artists we had heard on the radio.

Petula Clark seemed always present.  “Downtown” captured a world of excitement beyond our imagination, it exuded positive feelings and optimism.  There is an abiding memory of stealing handfuls of raisins from one of the set of airtight tins, with sketches of London sights on the front, in which my grandmother kept her cookery supplies while the voice of Ms Clark filled the kitchen.

“Downtown” reappeared, years later. Living in Newtownards, Co Down for three years in the late 1980s, the local commercial radio station for Northern Ireland had its studios in the town.  In the summer of 1986, stations still closed for the night, and, arriving back in the town at one or two o’clock in the morning after driving from Rosslare on the way home from France, there were the closing moments of Downtown Radio’s late night broadcast.  The DJ closed the programme by playing the station’s signature tune and the melancholy mood of that August night was lightened by Petula Clark; for a moment, I was away from a Northern Ireland which was filled with an internecine conflict where the protagonists were political extremists and religious fundamentalists and I was back on the farm and the whole world was filled with excitement and without fear.

My aunt who still listens to her radio in the kitchen was eighty last month and according to the Internet, Petula Clark is eighty-six. Of course, they are both forever young, and Petula Clark is forever singing from my aunt’s transistor radio, forever filling my grandparents’ farmhouse with happiness.

Petula Clark will never be a day older than the young woman whose voice through the years captured some sense of indefinable hope, a voice that still does so.

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Secure weeds

The late summer sunshine and the mild nights have prompted growth in the garden, particularly growth among the weeds. Weeds between paving slabs are always the most challenging, difficult to hoe and not easily pulled. The temptation is to scuff them away, to knock the tops off, leaving the root and stem still in place, able to grow again as the weather permits.

Auntie Shirley would look disapprovingly at scuffing. Eighty last month, Auntie Shirley has always been methodical and thorough in all she does.

Auntie Shirley always cared for my grandmother’s garden, a small, neat enclosure at the front of Rose Cottage. A monkey puzzle tree stands at one corner, a path made from large stone slabs leads to the garden gate which opens out onto the road.

The rural location of the farm must have been the reason why the antique iron gate and railings were not taken during the Second World War, to be melted down for use in the munitions industry. (The war years were a time when Stanley Baldwin, the former prime minister, had faced criticism that the ornamental gates and railings of his home were judged to be of artistic merit and were not cut down and taken away. As it transpired, much of the metal gathered around the country proved to be inappropriate for the manufacture of tanks and aircraft).

Auntie Shirley would have regularly painted the ironwork, kept the flower beds in neat order, and weeded the garden path. The garden path demanded particular attention, kneeling down on the stones with an old table knife, Auntie Shirley would carefully have removed all traces of weeds.

The image of Auntie Shirley working a knife between the paving stones to dislodge even the tiniest of weeds is one that evokes a sense of absolute security. Perhaps it is because it is associated with childhood years and the irrational exuberance that would have filled the heart of a young boy. Perhaps it is because it was the path to the farmhouse which was a place of welcome and happiness, a place where uncles and aunts and cousins would gather in summertime and where there would be happy teas in the kitchen. Perhaps it is because there is a feeling of timelessness about Auntie Shirley being in the garden; Crossmans have been in the parish for at least four hundred years, new generations of them will carry the name forward for years to come.

Whatever the reason, the weeds between the paving stones seemed a thing of happiness.

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Why not beauty everyday?

Somerton has a memorial to the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. A wrought iron ornamental lamppost and flower tub stand in front of a neatly kept hedged garden. Presumably, the length of Queen Victoria’s reign meant that the local civic authorities realised that it had been a long time since a coronation had been marked. Interestingly, there is no memorial to the coronation of King George V in 1911. Perhaps it was too soon after the previous such occasion for local funds to be spent again.

In the High Street in Street, there is a mosaic on the wall made by local children to mark the millennium year of 2000. It is a colourful piece of art and the eleven year old contributors, who are now thirty years old, must recall their work with fondness.

Somerset’s commemorative signs include those marking its nine “thankful villages,” parishes where all those who went away to serve in the Great War came home alive. (The Somerset total of nine is the highest in the country; there are only fifty-four parishes in total that were counted “thankful”).

Centenaries, jubilees, royal occasions, war memorials, there are countless commemorative monuments around the country. Sometimes they are intended as no more than prompts to remember; sometimes they are intended as objects of beauty, as local celebrations of moments that are passing.

If the intention is to create a thing or place of beauty, though, why confine it to particular dates? It seems a pity that in many places the last endeavour at beauty was the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, or her golden jubilee in 2002, or the millennium in 2000. Why wait for particular dates to add something of beauty to the life of the community?

In High Ham, we have a millennium wood. It includes a pond and benches for local children to gather to attend forest school. It has been an imaginative way of bringing into the life of our village something new, something that would enhance the lives of local people for generations to come.

Perhaps local authorities could be urged to have such projects on an ongoing basis. Perhaps there could be a regular audit of how local councils have worked to bring beauty into the lives of those who live within their jurisdictions.

There are many studies that show that beauty makes people happier, that it creates stronger communities through creating a sense of pride. If that is the case, then everyday should be a day for a monument.

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Catching eels

It was a surprise to discover from a television programme that eels had become a critically endangered species. In teenage years, we thought eels were a nuisance, they seemed so resilient that we could not have imagined that they would ever be endangered. How could a creature that could survive crossings of the Atlantic to breed in the Sargasso Sea, and that could find its way into our obscure waterways ever be threatened?

Fishing with rod and line in the River Yeo to the east of Langport, we rarely caught anything of note (we rarely caught anything at all, an odd perch, roach or dace, but always very small ones). The one thing that would regularly be landed was eels. There were some fishermen who had a special interest in eels. There was a National Anguilla Club whose activities must have been reported upon in the Angling Times, the weekly fishing newspaper, for there is no other way I could have known of the club’s existence.

In some parts of the county, eels were caught in large numbers to be sold for food. The local name for the activity was “rayballing.” Earthworms were tied together using a ball of wool and the ball of bait would be fastened by wire to the end of a wooden pole. The bait would have been lowered into the water and pulled up from time to time. The teeth of the eels would be caught in the wool and they would have been lifted, wriggling from the water. The eels would have been knocked free from the bait against the side of a tin bath in which their number would accumulate until the catcher was content with his haul.

Eels were extraordinary creatures. There were tales of their migration across land to reach isolated ponds and lakes, stretches of water that could only be reached but lengthy periods in the open air. Even if the eels could survive, how did they know where they were going? How did they know the direction in which to crawl? How did they know that water awaited?

The thought of eels making terrestrial journeys seemed an unlikely one until a visit to the French city of Bergerac one autumn. In the middle of a street market, a fishmonger had a tank of live eels among what he was selling. From time to time, an eels would climb up the side of the tank and attempt to escape down the street. In between serving customers, the fishmonger would step down the street, pick up the escapee and throw it back into the tank.

The end of the eels would be the end of something quite different from any other creature.




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