The start of a great enterprise

In childhood days, the world was centred on our small corner of Somerset. What place could be more important than one that claimed Arthur and Alfred? What shire of England could be more sacred than the green and pleasant land trod by Joseph of Arimathea and the young Jesus of Nazareth?

Of course, the passing years brought a realization that childhood imaginings bore little relation to reality. Yet the odd notion remained, one of which was that Bradfords, now one of the country’s largest building supplies companies were local, and local as being from Langport.

My mother was so certain that my notion was correct that I decided an online search was in order. The Bradford Group will hopefully not mind the text of their “History and Background” page being reproduced:

16th Century

The story about the Bradford family and the company they founded can be traced back to the mid-16th Century. The Bradfords were Yeoman and Freeholders in Kingsbury Episcopi, Somerset. The first to appear in the parish register was of one Nicholas Bradford who was born during the reign of Henry VIII and died in 1586 in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Probably the first Bradford to have started trading other than purely as a result of farming, was one William Bradford, born 1750, who lived at Thorney. William Bradford owned quarries at Pibsbury, which produced lime for fertiliser, and chartered small vessels to carry Welsh coal to Bridgwater.


During the reign of George III, William Bradford married Ann Richards, who was the granddaughter of William Richards, the Lord of the Manor of Stapleton in 1650. She joined her husband in the running of the business and took over from him when he died in 1806. Shortly after this she was joined by her son Job.

In 1819, Ann died, and in the following six or seven years barge traffic became more and more profitable along canals which were being built on a large scale, prior to the advent of the railway.


By this time, the Great Western Railway line had been opened from Taunton to Yeovil, and Jabez started the Yeovil branch of the business in 1853. His brother William Theophilus Bradford joined him in the business, whilst their brother, John Wesley Bradford remained with his father at Thorney.

There was a moment of delight that a childhood perception was confirmed.  The land at Pibsbury on which William Bradford owned limestone quarries in 1750 was land that became part of the Crossman family farm in the Nineteenth Century. In the 1960s, a small boy wandering the fields at the back of the farm would have known not to wander too near the quarries. It would never have occurred to him that a major company began among these pastures.

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Dying enigmatically

Catching up with material from earlier in the week, I discovered a BBC Culture article, Sylvia Plath: the literary icon destined to remain an enigma. Six decades after her death, there still seems a readership for such speculation, (admittedly, by reading the piece, I must be among them).

But isn’t every person an enigma?

Back in the 1990s I had a friend in Northern Ireland who twice attempted suicide.  On one occasion someone realized he had taken an overdose and called an ambulance.  When they arrived at his house he was still conscious and he sent them away.  Without the power to physically arrest him, they had to wait until he had slipped into unconsciousness  before re-entering the house and taking him to hospital.

He was eventually to die as a result of an assault by Loyalist thugs who decided to break into his flat and beat him with baseball bats with spikes driven through them because he was gay.

Had he survived, I wondered if he would have again made an attempt on his life.  We had once discussed the issue.

“If you are feeling bad, anytime. Just pick up the phone. Just call.”

He had shaken his head. “If I was able to pick up the phone, I wouldn’t need to call.”

Only one person seemed to accept him as he was – his mother.  On the eve of his funeral, she phoned.  I did not know her, but he must have mentioned me at some time and my odd English name must have remained in her memory.

“I just wanted to talk to someone who knew him,” she said.

We talked – about his love for books, about his constant studies, about his love for films and music, about laughter.  What we did not do was to try to analyse, or explain, or rationalise, because neither of us had an understanding of what might have prompted his suicide attempts, nor had we the vocabulary to express how we felt at his murder.  He was a quiet, private, gentle soul; it seemed inexplicable that anyone would have attacked him.

For a while afterwards, I would call at the nursing home in which she lived and she would recount some fresh set of memories, some piece of quirkiness from his young days.  Mostly the visits were about sitting and listening, sometimes sitting in silence; there was not much that I could contribute.

News stories of tragic deaths seem beset by people needing to comment, as though it were possible to reverse events by some process of lengthy analysis.  Should the person dead be prominent,  then the comment will endure for years. But who cares what  so-and-so says?

Why is there always felt a need to have the answers?  Why must there always be a search for significance or meaning or purpose?  People are enigmas, and will remain so.



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Jacobites are needed

Do people still join postal “book clubs?” Do you remember the sort of thing? As an introductory offer, you could have four books for a nominal sum and then were obliged to buy a book a month for the next year.

Starting secondary school in 1972, I was allowed to sign up for something called the History Guild. I can still remember three of the books I chose for the introductory offer, a dictionary of British history and histories of the First and Second World Wars by Liddell Hart. In the year that followed, one book remains firmly in the memory, Culloden by John Prebble.

To a twelve year old, it seemed a mystery why the rebellion led by Charles Stuart was called a “Jacobite Rising.” Why was Bonnie Prince Charlie a Jacobite? No-one explained.

It would be a decade later, when studying New Testament Greek, that the schoolboy’s question found an answer. James in Greek was Iakobus, thus those who maintained that King James II and his Stuart successors were the rightful monarchs were Jacobites.

There were at least three James in the New Testament, the most prominent being James the son of Zebedee and brother of John, the writer of the Fourth Gospel.

James’ brother John must have become a much more eirenic figure in his latter years for his account of the life of Jesus has nothing to suggest that would have deserved him and his brother being described as “sons of thunder.”

Perhaps James, who is remembered by the church on 25th July, also changed. The James encountered in the Gospels would have been closer to someone who would have joined in the armed rebellions of the Jacobites of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries than to the philosopher and theologian his brother became.

When the group were not welcomed in a Samaritan village, Saint Luke writes, “When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus rebukes them. He also rebukes them when they ask to sit on his right and left hand in heaven.

It is appropriate that the Galilean fisherman who was son of Zebedee and brother of John lent his name to a troublesome and rebellious tradition. A son of thunder, James is an unreasonable person, a discontent person. James wants more.

A schoolboy reading about Jacobites might have identified with Iakobus.


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Dead famous singers

It is the tenth anniversary of the death of Amy Winehouse. On 23rd July 2011, her name was added to those of the so-called “27 Club”, famous musicians who died at the age of twenty-seven.  Among the others to die at the age are Brian Jones, formerly a member of the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain.  Each will remain forever young figures.

The sudden death of artists seems to bring a wave of interest in their work.

Elvis Presley’s final single Way down, recorded in 1976, was a minor hit the following summer and was falling in the charts when news came of his sudden death in August 1977. Sales immediately escalated and the song reached No 1 in the charts. The murder of John Lennon in December 1980 was followed by massive sales for successive single releases.

Listening to tributes to Amy Winehouse, there is a sense that people’s perceptions of artists are changed by the artists’ demise. People previously indifferent become interested, even the critical became charitable.

Being dead obviously brings with it the advantage of never looking old, of remaining forever the figure from album covers and posters, of being remembered for one’s best work. Being dead means one’s catalogue is complete and one’s work will never be diluted by later less successful, less energetic, less inspired songs.

But why have posthumous hits a continuing fascination? More than fifty years after her death, why is there still a delight in hearing Janis Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee?

Perhaps there is a psychological explanation for posthumous recollections of artists. Perhaps it stems from the ancient fear of speaking ill of the dead. Perhaps it is about safeguarding against one’s own fear of death by keeping alive the memories of those who have died. Perhaps it is about preserving part of the culture in which one has shared.

Perhaps the continuing popularity of dead artists, the sale of their records decades after their death, is about a desire that has been with us since ancient times, the desire to hold on to youthfulness.

As long as the artists remain with us, as long as their work still finds a place on the airwaves, then something of our younger years remains alive.

Presumably those of us who treasure the memories of Janis Joplin will be superseded by those of us who remember Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who will in turn be superseded by those who of us remember Amy Winehouse.

Strangely, perhaps dead popular artists contribute to our sense of well-being.

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Natural survivors

A flock of gulls alighted on the school playing field. The absence of children meant there was nothing to disturb them as they basked in the warm summer sun. Some had found scraps of food. A magpie joined them. “Magpies punch above their weight,” commented my colleague. They might, but when confronted with the aggression of six gulls, a single magpie can only flee.

Gulls are survivors. They adapt, they grow, they organize, they act collectively against threats (taking to the air to drive away a buzzard that circled overhead).

Other less sentient creatures are also survivors, rats, cockroaches, viruses. Natural selection determines their existence. Defeat one variant of Covid virus and another emerges, that which survives is that which survives.

There is an absurdity in the anthropocentric understanding of the world, the vain belief that homo sapiens, our species, present only for a tiny fraction of our planet’s history, should represent the final iteration of its story.

Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach, tells of the final days of humanity, those left in southern Australia after a global thermo-nuclear war has eliminated all signs of life elsewhere. The last survivors are awaiting the clouds of radiation that will bring an end to their lives. A naval officer believes it to be the end of the world, in an oddly upbeat retort, a scientist asserts that is nothing of the sort:

“It’s—it’s the end of the world. I’ve never had to imagine anything like that before.”

“It’s not the end of the world at all. It’s only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

“I suppose that’s right. . . .”  He paused, thinking of the flowering trees that he had seen on shore through the periscope, cascaras and flame trees, the palms standing in the sunlight. “Maybe we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this,” he said.

The scientist said, “That’s absolutely and precisely right.”

Humanity is not just silly, it is arrogant in its assumptions that the planet exists for human convenience. Its religious creation narratives are used to undergird a culture of exploitation and irresponsibility, yet, in the end, it will be exploited nature that endures the predations of humankind.

It is two hundred years since Shelley published his sonnet Ozymandias, a poem reflecting on the futility of human aspirations to permanence.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Perhaps flocks of gulls and Covid variants are now the things that speak the warning once spoken by shattered stone.

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