Respect for your elders

Outside of your family, adults were divided into two categories: there were those addressed as “auntie” or “uncle,” many of whom were not family members but were given the titles as a sign of their close friendship with your parents; and there were those addressed as “Mr” or “Mrs” or by their professional title, such as “Doctor” or “Major.” (The one exception to the formality of professional titles was a retired brigadier general in Long Sutton who was referred to as “Brig,” perhaps when you have attained such a rank, you can afford a little informality).

That was it, there was never a thought that we might Christian names. There were two lovely ladies who lived on our road, next door neighbours and the closest of friends, and yet I never ever heard them address each other as anything other than “Mrs Brooks” and “Mrs Cullen.” There seemed a profound respect for each other in the way they spoke to each other, a statement of great regard in their politeness. It was only recently that I discovered Mrs Brooks’ Christian name. Even had I known it in adult life, it would never have occurred to me to say anything other than “Mrs Brooks.”

Perhaps we were excessively formal, perhaps we put up with prejudice, mistreatment and discrimination in the name of respect, but in a search for equality we threw out politeness and courtesy. It is striking to see how other societies still preserve traditions that demonstrate respect.

In France, conversation with adults is governed by clear rules of respect. Children may address each other as “tu,” but to address an adult as “tu” rather than “vous” is a breach of etiquette, a lack of respect. Similarly, in Germany, “du” may be used in a family, but others are addressed as “Sie.”

Further afield, the courtesy is even more marked. Visiting Rwanda and Burundi a number of times, there was a deep culture of respect for those who were older. People address each other with a great formality and no-one would speak without being invited to do so and without speaking of their respect for those with whom they are meeting.

Politeness doesn’t mean a return to a deferential society where some people regarded themselves as superior and expected others to look up to them, it means showing everyone proper respect because you see everyone as having dignity, no matter who they are and no matter what their background may be. Courtesy and respect are radical ideas.

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Reflections of my Dad

Pushing my hand into my pocket for my car keys, I caught a glimpse of myself in a window and it was my Dad looking back. With the passing years, I realize how much like him I have begun to look and how even my mannerisms are inherited from him.

If it is not possible for behaviours themselves to be transmitted genetically, then there must be some element within the genetic coding that predisposes a person to behave in a certain way.

If there is an abiding image of him, it is of him standing in the kitchen, ready to take my mother somewhere. He is wearing a pale blue windcheater, an open necked shirt and pale grey cotton trousers. He has his wallet and his car keys in his hand, and is impatient to go. He has been ready to leave for at least half an hour before it was necessary. It is an image that expresses much about him that I seem to have inherited.

Dad was always early, sometimes absurdly early. If he was planning to catch a ferry, he might be at the port three or four hours before boarding commenced. He would always insist that time must be allowed for potential traffic jams or accidents. He hated cities because he hated traffic, he would drive miles extra to be able to roll along at a sedate forty miles per hour. He would listen to the traffic news on the BBC local radio stations and seize upon reports of congestion as evidence of the need to leave even earlier than he had planned.

Holding his wallet and keys meant that they could not be mislaid or forgotten. Dad developed routines for doing things, places for keeping things, because he knew he had a capacity for forgetfulness. An image returns from the summer of 1989 when I had gone to visit them, his watch and wallet and change and keys set beside each other overnight.

The capacity for forgetfulness seems to be hereditary. This afternoon, I went to Sainsbury’s for bread and returned with milk, tomatoes, breakfast cereal and cheese, and no bread. The obsession with earliness seems similarly to have been passed down in the blood. I would always prefer to be an hour early than to arrive five minutes late. Arriving at school at seven o’clock each morning, I am always delighted to have avoided the traffic.

Dad lingers in unexpected ways.



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An end to the journey

A row of 1930s detached bungalows sits beside the West Coker Road out of Yeovil. Elegant properties, they would once marked the outskirts of the town.

One of these bungalows was always a source of fascination for a child staring through the rear window of his father’s car. It was either the one that stood nearest to the town or its next door neighbour.

The source of fascination was something utterly ordinary. Each bungalow had a driveway that ran beside the building to a garage at the rear. The fascinating one had a trellis fence across the driveway, no car could pass the bungalow.

Every time we travelled along the West Coker Road going to or from my grandmother’s house in Nash Lane, I would look out for that driveway. I could never have explained the reason for a fence being of such interest.

Perhaps the trellis fence was a reminder of the railway level crossing gates that once had been a familiar sight. Yeovil once had four railway stations. Perhaps the closed driveway evoked memories of the white crossing gates barring the progress of traffic. The Beeching cuts closed the line from Yeovil to Taunton and the stations at Hendford Halt and Yeovil Town. Only Pen Mill and the Junction remained. The lines would be recalled with fondness, yet our family never travelled by train even once.

Perhaps the trellis fence was symbolic of something deeper than level crossing gates, perhaps there was some subliminal meaning that is unrecoverable after a gap of more than fifty years. Who knows what thoughts pass through the mind of a small child who hasn’t yet the vocabulary or the understanding to articulate the ideas passing through his head?

A telephone conversation with a university academic had been the catalyst for the recollection. He had commented that people usually did doctoral studies at the beginning of their career, rather than at the end.

It had not occurred to me that I was at the end of my career. I feel as though I haven’t done anything yet, as if decades have slipped by while I was waiting for things to start, as though there would be something new and exciting just around the corner. In my second year of secondary school teaching, I had not seen myself as someone at the end.

Perhaps the trellis fence was a symbol in the subconscious anticipating a time when there would be an end, when even the ordinary would no longer be possible.

Using Google Streetview, I went down the West Coker road. The trellis is no longer there.

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Dressing like a teacher

Miss Rabbage and Miss Everitt always dressed sensibly. Cardigans, blouses, skirts, flat shoes, their attire in the late-1960s was that from a former generation. At secondary school, there were signs of fashion among younger members of staff, wider ties, brighter coloured shirts, flared trousers, but the senior staff members remained suit and tie men. Even at sixth-form college, jackets were still the order of the day for male lecturers and jeans were not be seen.

I have often wondered about what message the way you dress sends out.

Sometimes male teachers look like plain clothes police officers. I remember seeing one such officer on a June evening at a school in the Dublin mountains.

He had lowered his newspaper and had turned and watched us as we pulled into the car park.  Closely cut silver, grey hair, a good quarter inch clear of his ears; a neat grey suit, white shirt, plain tie: was he a former soldier or had his whole  career been in special branch?  Satisfied with whatever he had seen of us, he had returned to his newspaper.

There had been no need to notice the “CD” plate on the back of his grey Mercedes; this man made it clear to anyone present that he was there and that he had noted their presence.  Walking from the car park, thoughts had arisen as to whether his jackets would be cut in such a way that the holster under his left arm did not spoil the line of his suit, or in more peaceful times would there be no .357 revolver to carry?

There had been no pretence at being undercover, even the car had appeared  armoured, at least against gunshots, the thickened glass gave the windows a deeper hue than normal.

The man used his appearance, his car, and his presence to convey a clear message, “I’m protecting a child from the British Embassy, don’t mess with me.”

Does the way teachers dress suggest a protector role? Shouldn’t there be something more poetic?

I once attended a poetry seminar led by two academics which prompted thoughts about how people dress makes a statement about the how they think.  The woman speaking had unstyled greying brown hair that hung at waist length, her baggy black tee shirt and matching trousers were worn for comfort.  The man wore an open necked shirt and pale trousers with a tweed sports jacket, his mane of grey hair was brushed straight back from his forehead; at the side it was tucked behind his ear,s but strands at the back of his head pointed in random directions.

A clear message of the way they dressed was, “we are not worried about how we appear, what is important is what we say.”  What they had said had been excellent.

Perhaps there is a compromise, a synthesis, a middle ground. Of course there is a need to be a protector, but there also needs to be a message that creativity and originality are possible.

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Batman’s birthday

Batman is fifty-five years old today. It was on 12th January 1966 that ABC in the United States broadcast the first tale of the caped crusader. When the programmes appeared on British television, my father, who was fond of Spoonerisms, used to refer to the lead characters as “Ratman and Bobin.”

Batman caught the mood of the times. Back in the 1960s, television seemed full of heroic figures.  There would be police drama series where the coppers were always straight and the crooks were always caught; there would be war films in which the central character would triumph against overwhelming odds and make a Shakespearean-style tribute to his dead comrades at the end; there would be cowboy films in which the good guys wore white; medical dramas where no-one died; science fiction series where aliens always lost.

Hardly a programme, or a film, would pass without the good guys winning and the bad ones getting their comeuppance.  Robin Hood was best at extracting victory from impossible situations. (James Bond’s situations were worse, but he would always produce some gadget; that seemed somehow to be cheating).

Growing up on tales of the legendary King Arthur (and the historical King Alfred and Sir Francis Drake) there developed a habit of looking for heroic characters in life. There was a searching for people who would know how to cope in every situation and would know how to extricate the right result from whatever plight it was in which one found oneself. On such a diet of stories Batman and the other super heroes did not seem so improbable.

Of course, there were no heroes who would arrive at speed or swoop in from the sky, there was no-one whose physical strength and intellectual power could transform a situation.  There would be no masked stranger who would arrive in a black car with a companion who would fight alongside him.

Perhaps it was part of the spirit of 1960s England that heroes of any sort seemed in short supply. The end of the Empire and the economic decline of the country provided little inspiration for heroic tales. Looking overseas was no more productive, watching television stories from Vietnam, it was hard to even know what a hero might do.

The nearest I came to an encounter with Batman was the Gotham Cafe in Dublin, and its walls were adorned with covers of Rolling Stone magazine rather than pictures of a hero who felled his opponents with “zaps” and “pows.”

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