Saying ‘goodbye’ to Christmas

Walking up a city street on the evening of 6th January, there had been a large white elk peering down from the top of a wall that ran beside the street.  Perhaps it was intended to be a reindeer; it was white plastic and illuminated, a decoration marking the season.

In the Somerset of my childhood, it would have been thought bad luck not to have had the  Christmas trimmings down by Twelfth Night.  We would have recalled at the idea of keeping the full season of the Nativity and leaving the crib in place until 2nd February, the day when the church remembers Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem when he was forty days old. We used to think that it was risky that a boy whose birthday fell on 8th January was allowed to keep up the Christmas tree in his house until his birthday party was over.

What is odd in 2023, in a post-Christian society, is that there is still a residual inclination to keep a Christmas holiday that concludes with the Feast of the Epiphany on 6th January, the day when the Wise Men from the East are remembered (or unwise, if you actually read of their crass stupidity in going to the thug Herod and telling him of their mission). 

Being honest, an elk, or a moose, or a reindeer, or whatever the white plastic figure was intended to represent, is probably more symbolic of the season celebrated by most people.  The past two weeks, for most people, will not have been filled with thoughts of shepherds and magi, instead they will have been a midwinter festival.

Apart from the aesthetic qualities of snowy landscapes, perhaps images from places of snow and ice are symbols of the hope that winter can be conquered, if creatures can survive in the worst of climes, then humans, with their ingenuity, will have no problem in enduring the worst that a cold season can bring.

Perhaps the time has come for a name for the season that is more representative of what it is that people actually believe, babies in mangers are not the stuff of most seasonal conversation.

Detaching the word ‘Christmas’ from activities and experiences that are at direct variance with the story that is told does not mean one is abandoning the traditional Christmas, rather one is trying to recover a sense of the Bible story, free from men with white beards dressed in big red coats, and free from the extraordinary excesses of the past two weeks.

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Safe from gas

Apparently, Uncle Pat had begun his working life with the local gasworks and had then gained a job as a fitter with the Gas Board, converting homes to natural gas. It was a project that seemed to take a long time, for he moved to live in Ashburton in south Devon for some years to work in the conversion of homes there.

Uncle Pat’s work seemed always to be a ‘good thing’, the word ‘conversion’ suggested that there was a mission being undertaken.

The home farm was lit by gas in the 1940s. My mother recalls a moment from the early years of the Second World War. A younger sister had climbed over the side of the cot in which she had been placed to sleep and had fallen. Mercifully, the fall was onto an adjacent bed and she was unhurt, but the fall had shaken the house so much that the light from the delicate gas mantles had been extinguished and my grandmother had thought that a bomb had fallen nearby.

Restoring the light to the house had been a simple matter of relighting the mantles, but the people who lived in our community were pleased when electric lights were fitted in every house. It was more than about convenience. There was always a sense of fear about gas, a sense that something that brought life could also bring danger – and even death

The danger of gas produced in our local town, at the gasworks in Langport where Uncle Pat had begun his careeer, was well-known to anyone who lived in our area. There had been a mother and son living in a house on the village green in Long Sutton who had died following a gas leak. The most troubling thing about the incident had been that the family did not even have a gas supply to their house. The leak had been from a pipe that had passed by in the street outside.

To a boy who found the stories of gas leaks worrying, it seemed that the best option of all was to be in a house which had no gas supply of any sort. It certainly seemed best to live in a house which was near no gas main. When we moved to High Ham in 1967, a village three miles from the nearest gas main, there was a sense of relief. Uncle Pat would not have to come to protect us.

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Going to Broodseinde

Christmas is past and thoughts turn to summer.

Sailing from Rosslare to Cherbourg on 3rd June, I am planning to pay my respects at Juno Beach in Normandy before going to the Western Front. More specifically, going to Flanders, to Broodseinde, where both my great grandfather and my grand uncle suffered gunshot wounds.

Only yesterday did I discover that Clem had been wounded in action.  GSW his record says, gunshot wound. Why hadn’t we ever been told he had been hit by gunfire?

Memories are clear of Uncle Clem. He had always seemed old, but perhaps anyone over forty years of age had seemed old to a primary school child.

Uncle Clem was seventy-five years old when he died in 1972, which I suppose was a good age to have reached five decades ago. It was a particularly good age to have reached for a man whom we were told had shrapnel in his lungs fom his time at the front.

Uncle Clem was only sent to the front because there was a shortage of men. He had joined up at the beginning of 1916. Being trained as a baker, he had been assigned to the Army Service Corps.

Whether it was Napoleon Bonaparte or Frederick the Great that said an army marches on its stomach, the fact is that without supplies, no army can function. From April 1916 until July 1917, he remained with the Army Service Corps. Then in the summer of 1917, he was transferred to the Royal Fusiliers, to the Second Battalion (City of London Regiment). His records say that there was an adjustment in his pay to ensure he was not out of pocket in being sent to the front (presumably bakers were paid more than men at the front).

The disastrous Battle of Passchendaele was drawing to a close when Uncle Clem was hit by gunfire on 30th October 1917.

No-one ever talked about his war service. No-one ever spoke about what had happened on the Western Front for him to carry injuries that affected him for the rest of his life. Perhaps there were so many war wounded, anyway; perhaps the memories of the Second World War were still so raw that no-one wanted to talk about the Great War that had preceded it.

Yet until yesterday, I believed he had been hit by shrapnel from an artillery barrage. Perhaps it was an easier tale to tell, an impersonal random, shell falling on a trench demanded no further explanation. A gunshot wound to the right hand side of the chest would have been a more personal recollection which he perhaps preferred to forget.

The wounds took him back to Le Treport and then to a posting with the Labour Corps. Returning to life in Pitney in 1919 must have seemed like paradise after Passchendaele.

Reading the records, it is odd to think that the gentle and quiet man who would sit at Aunt Ella’s tea table and chat and laugh with a small boy had once seen a place that was hell on Earth.

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Where would I go now?

During the past week, I have spent more time sleeping than awake. Even when up and dressed, I have contrived to doze off whilst sitting in an armchair.

Perhaps it has been the cocktail of medications, the usual tablets for hypertension, statins and anti-depressants, combined with steroids, antibiotics, omeprazole, and anti-nausea tablets. By yesterday, I was struggling to remember which day it was, but perhaps that was just the time of year.

The course of medication for a chest infection and an ear infection is now complete, but there remains a severe feeling of weakness, an unsteadiness when I stand up. It must be close on fifty years since I felt so unwell.

A week of the school holidays remains, hopefully the upward curve of improvement will be a steep one and the new term will begin with energy levels somewhere near normal.

In the 1970s, the downward curve had been a long one.

It had been the best part of two terms since I had spent more than two days together at school. Missing much of the spring term in one school, I had transferred to another, where I missed most of the summer term. The return in September had been brief, asthma had become severe, and by half-term Somerset County Council’s education authority had decided strong mesaures were necessary.

On 11th November 1974, I started at a school deep within a valley of Dartmoor. The county council were paying the fees, which were equivalent to those of a public school.

The school was austere, arbitrarily disciplinarian, fundamentalist in its Christianity, but for a fourteen year old who weighed less than seven stones and who had not reached five feet in height, it became a place of sanctuary and restoration. The school’s emphasis on exercise, exercise and exercise allowed a gradual building up of strength (and left an abiding love for the hills of Dartmoor).

I’m not sure what would happen to someone like me now, perhaps medication has advanced to the point where moorland runs and endless hours of football are not necessary. It is hard to imagine any local authority would consider paying the sort of fees that were paid by the councils who sent children to the school.

Were there somewhere I might go for a few weeks, somewhere to pass the hours reading and walking and sleeping, I think I should like to go there. As it is, there is rent to be paid and work to be done.

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Boxing Night Past

It is odd that it was 2016, six years gone in a blink.We had come to Somerset on an early morning flight to mark my father’s eightieth birthday.

There was a meal at my sister’s house in Ilminster. The table was laden with food sufficient to feed twice the number for a week.

The evening passed and the clock struck nine. My father’s car was covered in ice, the temperature had dropped sharply in the clear night air. The passing years meant it is was I who would be driving. In a teetotal house there was no fear of being over a limit; the absence of alcohol was not even noticed, so different is the culture. (Perhaps in some future time the caffeine in the numerous mugs of tea we drank will be determined to have had some detrimental effect).

The road from Ilminster to High Ham was familiar, even in the darkness of a December night. The village of Westport seemed sleepily quiet. It was intriguing to discover in Bradshaw’s canal guide that a waterway had once carried laden barges from here down to the River Parrett, from where the produce went to Bridgwater and then the sea.

Hambridge has many family memories. The village hall was the venue for receptions and parties, caterers providing whatever fare might be required. Ireland seemed a strange place, having wedding receptions at hotels.

The main road was reached at Curry Rivel. The fleet of red and white school buses that emanated from the village would bring hundreds of children from the district to the secondary school at Huish Episcopi. The drivers were familiar faces to successive generations of pupils. Of course, they had surnames but to those boarding the buses each day, they were always “Mike,” or “Fred,” or whatever.

Langport was our home town. Its single medieval main street would have once provided shops selling everything one could desire. Langport once had its own bank and in Walter Bagehot, author of The English Constitution, it produced a writer who made a lasting contribution to political life.

At the top of the street, a ninety degree bend once passed a television shop. A clear memory from childhood is the first colour televisions appearing in the shop in the late 1960s; vast, bulky boxes the price of which far exceeded the pocket of a working man.

Passing the former premises of Kelway Nurseries always brings memories of two summers spent working in the fields there. Heading toward Somerton, we branched left to join the road that leads to High Ham and to home.

All was changed, and yet nothing had changed. Looking up into the night sky, there is Orion and The Plough – definitely unchanged.

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