Serious fearin’

It was Steve Wright’s, “Serious Jockin'” (that’s jocking without a “g”) on Radi0 2 this afternoon. At 4.15 each Friday, calling himself “DJ Silly Boi,” he plays forty-five minutes of disco and dance music from the past four decades. It is sometimes unsettling.

Forty years ago, there weren’t many things that inspired fear. Going to football matches, where full scale fights between rival groups of fans might involve dozens or hundreds of young men,  was never a worry. All you had to do was to stand to one side, watch the game and no-one took any notice of you: it was easy to be invisible. Attending rock concerts never prompted a moment’s hesitation, people went for music, not hassle. The only hostility would be towards police officers charged with the thankless task of searching likely suspects for cannabis.

The sort of music played by Steve Wright was far more threatening than a fight between rival groups of football fans, or a gang of bikers gathered for a gig, it was the sort of music favoured by people who dressed in a particular way, who went to particular discos (as they were known then) and who were into particular ways of dancing. I’m never quite sure, but they always seemed much more cosmopolitan, much more sophisticated. I always avoided such company and I would never have had the confidence to set foot in the clubs. I always had the wrong clothes, anyway. Far better to encounter a greaser looking like an extra from the cast of Easy Rider, with big boots and studded leathers, than to encounter one of the in-crowd.

Steve Wright knows that his listeners are an ageing generation and speaks a plain English. But there are other radio stations, where programme presenters arouse that sense of being intimidated; the ones who speak with their own patter, their own language, their own vocabulary, a language which would have excluded people like me in those far off years, those who play music that would have filled 1970s dance floors lit by glittering lights.

Such fear is entirely illogical, the people who went to the discos weren’t particularly cosmopolitan or sophisticated; they were just people who would have spent their money on clothes and looked forward to the weekends, dressing up and enjoying nights out.  They were not aggressive, they were not violent, they were hardly dressed for a fight, anyway, the slick venues the attended were policed by bouncers at the door.  So why should the disco music cause discomfort? Perhaps it is that most primeval of all fears, the fear of the unknown.


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A low flying minibus

Mrs Dyer would be hard to match.

The A361 at Pedwell is a two lane road. Were it not for the 30 mph speed limit signs, turning out onto the road, from either of the side roads that join it, would be a hazardous undertaking. Oddly, immediately you turn off the main road to cross the moor, the speed limit ends. Legally, you could drive at 60 mph, though to do so would invite a damaged sump or broken suspension. It is a road across peat moorland with a series of dips and rises and a propensity to cave into the ditches that run alongside it.

However, between the River Cary and the bends at the bottom of the hill that rises to High Ham, there is a stretch of road that is straight and relatively flat. Perhaps the soil beneath it is different from the black peat, perhaps it was built with firmer foundations. It is here that Mrs Dyer would push down hard with her right foot and the needle of the speedometer of the brown minibus would hover around 60 mph.

To attempt such a speed in my Peugeot 207, with just a few inches of clearance between the surface of the road and the front bumper would probably be to invite irreparable damage to my car, which has 260,000 miles on the clock and which has to be nursed along.

Mrs Dyer would accelerate for the fun of it, because she knew that we enjoyed the sensation of hurtling along. Mrs Dyer was always fun, always smiling, always positive, always with a kindly word for those of us she drove to and from Strode College each day.

Somerset County Council always had an eye to saving money, and in the second of the two years I attended Strode, Mrs Dyer was expected to drive us to a pickup point where we would meet a larger bus, rather than drive us herself. Frequently, on the return journey, she would drive to the college herself to save us the extra journey time. There would have been no extra mileage payment for her, but it saved us about half an hour each evening. In retrospect, I have a sneaking suspicion Mrs Dyer would have driven us for no payment, that was the sort of person she was.

An abiding memory was of her handing out Christmas cards on the last day before term ended. I have put a £5 note in one of them she announced, as she handed out the cards. I was delighted to discover the money tucked inside my own card, supposedly handed out at random. I always suspected she knew I had no money.

Are there still Mrs Dyers out there, people who make the world happy by being happy? Or have we been engulfed by a universal mood of whinging and grumpiness?

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School toilets and other smells

There is a new toilet block being built at school, a state of the art place. It will never smell like the toilets at our primary school in High Ham smelt in the 1960s. They smelt of Jeyes Fluid.

Jeyes Fluid always evokes images of High Ham Church of England Voluntary Controlled Primary School with its two classrooms divided by a corridor leading to the cloakroom. Infants to the right, juniors to the left; was there knowledge worth learning that was unknown to our teachers?

The school had a definite set of smells to go with each season: the conkers from horse chestnut trees on the village green in September; the glue with which we stuck crepe paper to toilet roll tubes to make “candles” in the week before the Christmas holidays each December; the coke carried in scuttles from the bunker to feed the pot-bellied stoves in the cold days that marked winter fifty years ago; the school milk from third of a pint bottles that had been left near the stove to warm; the scents from the school playing field as the county council tractor and mower cut stripes across the football pitch when the spring days returned; the chlorine in the water of the swimming pool with its blue plastic sides which was put up at the beginning of each summer term; the perspiration from kids in the Langport area junior sports, held each summer at Huish Episcopi, kids anxious not to let down our little school in competition against places hugely bigger than our own.  But amongst all the smells, none compares with the Jeyes Fluid.

Jeyes Fluid brings memories of cleanliness and memories of discipline.  It went with the toilets and the cloakroom, where you were not to be without permission. It was the smell of the school after everyone had gone home at the end of the day and the cleaning began; it was the scent you caught when arriving for a new day.  If it is possible for smell to have moral value, then Jeyes Fluid was the smell of virtuosity; it was the smell of hard work and strict instructions.

Are associations between smell and memory different for every person, or are there certain links that are unbreakable? Is there a generation for whom Jeyes Fluid will always be the smell of education? Are there still primary schools where it would be possible to step back fifty years? No school toilets today could have such a power.

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Believing all sorts of stuff

A wooden garage door at the roadside was decorated with corroding brasses, souvenirs from visits to various places. A visit to Ireland had added a brass from Bushmills Distillery and a plaque bearing the fading words “céad míle fáilte.” The metal ornaments included three horseshoes, one of the nails holding the largest of the three had been lost and the shoe had fallen so that its heels pointed downward.

In younger days, a horseshoe hanging in such a way would have been thought to be a sign that something bad was likely to happen. Good luck would have been thought to have run out through the heels.

Unproven old wives’ tales and irrational superstitions seemed plentiful when I was young. It seems strange now what was accepted without question. Perhaps it was just the case that everyone thought that what adults said was authoritative, but there was never a moment when I asked why people believed things that didn’t make sense, things that were often just plain daft.

No-one ever explained why a horseshoe was thought lucky, nor why chimney sweeps and black cats were also thought to bring good fortune. If a black cat crossing the road was a harbinger of good luck, a white cat would have the opposite effect. White cats were fortunately in short supply; in our neighbourhood, tabbies were the standard farm cat.

Physical conditions could be caused or addressed in random ways. Sitting on a cold stone wall was said to cause piles; dandelions caused bedwetting. Dock leaves were thought to be the remedy to nettle stings, and stinging nettles were thought to be a treatment for arthritis.

Some things were definitely a cause for fear. A white owl was said to be the call of the dead. On late summer evenings, as days shortened and nocturnal birds set off on their nightly hunts, barn owls were a frequent sight and a frequent source of anxiety about who might die as a consequence of them being seen.

Why did we believe so much that was patently nonsense. The 1960s were a decade filled with space exploration and technological advance, but in our small rural community folklore and superstition still seemed dominant. It seems odd that we could have watched the television coverage of the Apollo missions and not have questioned the things among us that were obviously absurd.

Turning the horseshoe would not have made one whit of difference, unless people still believe in “luck.”


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A land of huorns and ents

The dawn sunlight shone above the moorland below, the clear, sharp colours in the sky contrasting with the blanket of greyness at ground level. There was a moment’s temptation to stop the car and just to ponder the expanse of mist and silhouette. If J.R.R. Tolkien had not found inspiration in the Norse and the Welsh sagas, standing on a Somerset hilltop looking into the sea of mist that covered the Levels might have prompted thoughts of mythical creatures.

Tolkien writes of Huorns and Ents, trees that are sentient, trees that have the capacity for thought and speech and movement and action. After the destruction brought to their lands by the wizard Saruman and his armies, there is a sense of ecological justice in the revenge the trees wrought upon their erstwhile destroyers. In The Lord of the Rings, the coup de grace at the Battle of Helm’s deep is administered by the huorns :

Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. Between the Dike and the eaves of that nameless wood only two open furlongs lay. There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees. …

The Orcs reeled and screamed … Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.

The Two Towers, Chapter 7, Helm’s Deep

There were moments more mysterious, strange trees moving through a countryside, eliminating all trace of the evil that had been among them:

… in the middle night men heard a great noise, as a wind in the valley, and the ground trembled…. But in the morning … the slain Orcs were gone, and the trees also. Far down into the valley … the grass was crushed and trampled brown … but a mile below the Dike a huge pit had been delved in the earth, and over it stones were piled into a hill. Men believed that the Orcs whom they had slain were buried there; but whether those who had fled into the wood were with them, none could say…. The Death Down it was afterwards called, and no grass would grow there. But the strange trees were never seen in Deeping-coomb again; they had returned at night…. Thus they were revenged upon the Orcs.

The Two Towers, Chapter 8, The Road to Isengard

Watching the black shapes that loomed and disappeared as I drove through the fog, it would not have been hard to believe in battling trees.

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