Shortening miles

Leaving the school at Burnham after the meeting, I put “home” into Google maps. It told me that I would reach High Ham in thirty-three minutes. It was just before five o’clock and the traffic would be busy, there would be no motorway driving on the journey. The only explanation of the possibility of being home in half an hour was that the distance from our house to Burnham-on-Sea had grown shorter; either our hill had moved west or the Bristol Channel had moved east. The conviction that the miles had grown shorter was borne out of childhood memories: Burnham was a place you could go on a day trip, it would hardly have been worth all the effort demanded to prepare for a day out if you were only going thirty minutes from home.

The suspicion that someone was playing topographical tricks deepened as I drove south on the A38. A veteran of Britain’s trunk road system, from the days when motor cars were the preserve of the more affluent and road transport had not yet superseded the railways, the A38 still has some beautiful wrought iron road signs. One such sign, announcing to drivers that they had reached West Huntspill, had distances to the next town, south and north. Above the black letters of village name, the sign said, “Bridgwater 6,” below the name, it said, “Bristol 26.” Bridgwater to Bristol on the A38 was only thirty-two miles – this was baffling.

Anyone who grew up in Somerset fifty years ago knew that not only was Burnham-on-Sea a destination for an outing, but that Bristol was a place far removed from our everyday lives. Visits to Bristol were infrequent, and only made when absolutely necessary. The volume of traffic and the size of the city made it an intimidating place for those accustomed to very quiet rural communities. It would not have been hard to find people who had not been to Bristol for many years; it might have been possible to have found people who had never been to Bristol.

It is not just the speed of travel that has shortened the miles (though speed is not something you would associate with driving through Bristol itself), it is the thinking of those who make the journeys. To drive thirty miles is not considered to have gone far; anything less than an hour’s drive is considered local. Looking at a map now, the world in which we lived our lives  in the 1960s was a very small place.


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Dogged travelling

Mid-afternoon at West Wick roundabout: the approaching weather front with its snow-laden clouds had meant staff had been advised to leave school early. Perhaps it was the early departure that meant seeing the motor cyclist, perhaps he went through the roundabout at that time every day. The motor cycle was a Honda 50. It was a “G” registration, “G” at the end of the registration number. Rough calculation suggested that the Honda had first been taken on the road in 1968-69, fifty years ago. How many journeys had it made in half a century?

A low-sided rectangular box was fastened to the motor bike behind the rider’s seat. Its sides were the height of a Jack Russell terrier, this was apparent because there was a Jack Russell standing in the box looking at the other cars at with an air of indifference. Had the rider been wearing a flat cap instead of a full-face crash helmet, the scene might have been one from the first days of the Honda 50’s journeying.

Hoping to get a shot of the canine pillion passenger, I edged forward but the lights turned green and rider, Honda 50 and Jack Russell set off towards West Wick. No-one else seemed intrigued at a dog who rode contentedly through busy traffic; perhaps it was a familiar sight, perhaps it was something they didn’t think noteworthy.

It seemed a moment that captured many moments from the past. A favourite uncle who had worked for ICI in Cheltenham had been a keen rider of a Honda 50. He worked on shifts in the factory: 6 am-2 pm or 2 pm to 10 pm. Riding to work for an early shift one morning, he had seen a workmate standing at a bus stop and had sounded the Honda’s horn. Anyone, who has ever heard the horn of a Honda 50 will know its sound is more a tweet than a blast, yet my uncle found himself stopped by members of the local police force for sounding a vehicle horn in a built-up area before 7 am.

The dog evoked many more moments. Farmers would rarely have gone anywhere without their dog. It was not necessary for the dog to be needed or for the dog to have work to do; the dog expected to be present. At the sound of car keys being picked up, the dog would have leapt into the back of the Land Rover or onto the passenger seat of the car. To many bachelors, the dog was a constant friend.

Perhaps the West Wick Jack Russell could have told many stories of its own. Perhaps it could have told of all the places it had taken its owner.

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Eating badly

The hamburger seemed to come complete in a cellophane wrapper. All that was required was to take it out and heat it in a microwave oven. There was even a slice of cheese, that appeared more plastic than cheese-like.

“Healthy eating, sir?”

“Pure protein,” he laughed. (There were probably a lot of other contents as well, carbohydrates and fat being among them, but it’s more than forty years since I do d that lesson at school).

“It’s the only chance I get to eat rubbish,” he said. “I was going to go to MacDonald’s, but this was cheaper.”

I recalled the healthy lunch policy adopted by the school board of management when I was working in Dublin. Chocolate of any sort was only allowed as a treat on Friday. From Monday through to Thursday, there was no chance of a Penguin or a Viscount, or any of the dozens of similar chocolate-coated biscuits that occupied half an aisle in the supermarket. Children would come with lunch boxes that included things like raw carrot and raw broccoli and sit and eat contentedly.

Healthy lunches are not the first priority for some students at the school. Having food at all would be welcome for some of them.

Waiting to go into assembly, one student looked pale. “Are you alright?”

“I’m not feeling well, sir.”

“Did you have breakfast this morning?”

“No, there was nothing to have.”

“What do you usually have?”

Weetabix, sir.”

There can have been no Weetabix this week, for the same student had said on Monday that breakfast had been creamed rice. It had been creamed rice or a burger, and the rice had seemed nicer.

The student said they would go and say they felt sick and that someone would do something. The relevant people seem aware of the situation; it’s wasn’t for an unpaid student to interfere, not there was anything I could have done, anyway.

Someone passing through the town would think it a model of southern English prosperity. The refurbishment of the seafront and the pier by the local authority cost some £85 million; there is money when it is wanted for projects that suit the town’s self-image. Look at the government’s index of multiple deprivation website, and there is an are of the town that ranks among the poorest 1% in the country. The same website shows that the local authority has the third highest level of inequality in the country.

There are no votes for any politician in ensuring someone doesn’t eat creamed rice for breakfast, but it can’t be beyond the wit of institutions to ensure that no-one stands hungry at school. Even a microwave burger would be better.

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When it snowed in Somerset

The weather forecast is for a dusting of snow tomorrow. It brought a conversation recalling the days of 1978 when a blizzard swept across the West Country, cutting off entire rural communities for days. The fall of snow was not heavy by the standards of countries that were accustomed to such weather, but the gale force winds had driven the snow before them, leaving huge accumulations between hedgerows at the roadside and against walls.

On Saturday night, it was wintry, but the roads were passable. Getting up on Sunday morning to go to the filling station where I pumped petrol at the weekends, my father told me I might as well have slept in: our country road was a series of drifts, nothing was going anywhere.

The following week was one when there was little to do other than look out at the whiteness and wonder when it would end. One day, I walked with my father as we made our way across fields that were almost snow-free to Langport, our small local town. We went to the surgery to collect prescriptions for various older people and then walked back in the eerily bright winter light. There were stories told in Langport that the road to Taunton was completely impassable and that a helicopter had landed in Langport car park to collect an emergency case bound for Musgrove Park Hospital. The BBC responded to the situation by establishing an emergency radio station in Taunton, its regular broadcasts of information, messages and advice were something very different from what one might now expect from a radio station. It is hard to imagine the isolation many people must have felt. Our house, like most of those around, had no telephone. There was no possibility of calling friends and asking them how things were where they lived.

The weather grew milder as the days passed, the roads were cleared, and, after a week of inactivity, life returned to its regular pattern; petrol was again pumped on the Sunday morning. Returning to the routine was a delight after the week of being trapped. The further education college I attended reopened on the Monday morning and everyone gathered with their own stories. Life in our small village seemed to have been dull and uneventful when compared with the tales from elsewhere, although there may have been a touch of embroidery in some of them.

Were there to be such snow now, the inconvenience would be as great, but the sense of isolation would only be a fraction of what it was in 1978.


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Sky gazing

The night sky was once a frightening place – its imagined terrors arose from black and white television programmes and the imaginings of local people.

The 1960s were the times of the space race. The stories of the Sputnik and Apollo programmes provided a background for science fiction programmes telling of travel to distant planets and alien invasions of the Earth. Expeditions to far off galaxies were not troubling to a boy watching them; the prospect of creatures arriving in flying saucers was much more troubling. Of course, should alien invaders have arrived, they might just as easily have come in the hours of daylight, but it was the night sky that seemed much more ominous. The presence of a naval air station in the district meant there were always aircraft coming and going – who knew if among the lights of the Fleet Air Arm flights there were not spaceships carrying Martians, or some other hostile species? Who knew that there were not silver craft armed with lasers flown by beings equipped with ray guns? It was said that Warminster in the neighbouring county of Wiltshire was the centre of the country for the sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects, in a spaceship the distance from Warminster to our village of High Ham might have been covered in a matter of seconds.

The threat of aliens coming from above combined with the dangers brought by unknown people within the community. Leaving our house one night, my uncle looked across to the sky in the north. There was a glow. “What’s that strange light?” he asked.

“Perhaps it’s the hippies in Glastonbury doing black magic,” my mother suggested.

Of course, it was simply the glow of streetlights, which were not so plentiful at the time, but it created a sense of fear. Hippies were strange and troubling figures for our deeply conservative community. Some were undoubtedly interested in what would now be considered the esoteric, but it was as much absolute nonsense then as it is now. It never occurred to me to ask why someone interested in black magic would wish to create a glow in the sky, wouldn’t such a public display have betrayed the presence of the practitioners?

The night sky is now a place of wonder. Above our village, which hasn’t a single streetlight, the sky is dark and immense, infinity fills the view and the thoughts. An occasional naval helicopter or high-flying airliner are all that passes below the stars.

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