There’s a black and white photograph of my grandfather. He is standing on open ground. Perhaps it was taken on a trip to the seaside, or on a visit to somewhere in the countryside. He is wearing an old sports jacket, corduroy trousers that are worn with wear, heavy black boots, a V-necked pullover and an open-necked white shirt.

It is a photograph that might have been taken in the 1950s, or even in the years after the war. More likely, it is from the mid-1960s, after he and my grandmother had moved from Chiswick in West London to Yeovil in Somerset.

Calculation of his age is alarming. He was born in a workhouse in Isleworth in November 1906, which means that he would have reached his sixtieth birthday in the autumn of 1966. For years, I have looked at his photograph and thought him an old man, and now realize he was only the age that I will be this year.

Papa died in February 1972, when I was eleven. He seemed an old man, but was only sixty-five. My memories of him are of a silver-grey haired, moustached man sitting in an armchair beside the glass-fronted fire that made the room seem always warm. Papa’s passed his time stamp collecting, working in the garden, and, occasionally, going fishing.

Perhaps he was old before his time. His mother’s poverty and anonymous father means his upbringing cannot have been easy. His Jewish identity brought persecution from the Blackshirts in the 1930s. His years in the National Fire Service in London during the Second War brought horror and trauma. He spent time in psychiatric care in the late-1960s, suffering from what would now be described as post traumatic stress disorder. In the 1960s, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, it being suspected that he had been diabetic for years.

In memory, he was a man who never, ever raised his voice. Perhaps his health made anger something too demanding, perhaps he had seen too much of the brutal realities that life could present to become annoyed at trivial things. For years, I had assumed that he could not drive, only on the anniversary of VE Day did I discover that he could drive, but did not do so.

And yet, despite everything, there was a gentleness, a contentment about him. Boisterous grandchildren cannot have been easy for him, but he always smiled and spoke softly to us.

When he died, he was cremated and his ashes scattered. Were there a grave, I would go to it and ask the many questions for which I shall never find an answer.

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Dust to dust

Availing of the government’s provision that I could drive in order to meet another person outdoors, and also that I could go for a walk. I drove to High Ham to have lunch in the garden with my sister and then to Huish Episcopi to visit family graves.

Huish Episcopi churchyard is where generations of my family have been laid to rest. It is a place with a meaning far more profound than anything that might be found in the traditions of the church. Records of family members run back four centuries, the family presence undoubtedly extends centuries further back.

Walking among the graves at the west end of the church, I came across the grave of the Revd Joseph Stubbs. British History Online says that Stubbs was vicar from 1892 until 1923. His name was familiar because he preached at the funeral of my great-great-great grandmother, Harriet Crossman. This was a report of the funeral:


A REMARKABLE FAMILY The interment of the late Mrs. Harriett Crossman, relict of Mr. Thomas Crossman, of Ham Down, Huish Episcopi, took place on Saturday afternoon last, at the Huish Churchyard. The Vicar, the Rev. J. Stubbs, officiated. A large number of relatives and friends of deceased were present. On Sunday morning the Rev. J. Stubbs preached to a large congregation, founding his discourse on Ecclesiastes xii, 7, “The dust shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit- to God who gave it”. Special reference was made by the Vicar to the life and character of the deceased. With regard to the late Mrs. Crossman, he said that as far as he could accurately ascertain – and he had taken a good deal of trouble to do so – her family and descendants consisted of 12 children, 96 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren, 56 great-great-grandchildren, and seven great-great-great-grandchildren, making in all a total of 259. The Vicar said that this was a proof of the remarkable vitality of the family, which he thought was possibly without a parallel. During the whole of her life the deceased had set a noble example of piety and earnest religious conviction to her numerous descendants, and to all who knew her. Mrs. Crossman’s age was 97 years, and she had seen as many as eight generations. With the exception of failing eyesight, deceased retained all her faculties until the day of her death.

Died NOVEMBER 16th 1897 Aged 97 years
Interred in St Mary’s Churchyard,

Huish Episcopi, November 20th, 1897.

The seven great-great-great grandchildren mentioned would have included some of my grand aunts and uncles, though not my grandfather, who was born in 1913 and was some fourteen years younger than his next sibling.

Standing at Huish, there is a wonderful sense of continuity, mortality and place.



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There’s a grey van coming down the road

Perhaps it arose from a feeling of consolation that Monday had been safely negotiated. Nothing too bad had happened at school. The spellings to learn for Friday were not too complicated (learning the spelling of sixteen words was the only homework ever given, how did we eve learn enough to pass any exams?). If not actually sunny, it wasn’t raining. There was a sense that teatime on a Monday was a good time and there was still Star Trek to look forward to on BBC television at ten past eight (Why did the BBC have such odd timings for programmes? The news was the only thing that started on the hour).

Monday teatime would not have been complete without David Macey coming down the road in his mobile shop. The shop was the interior of a big grey van. It was a 1950s vehicle with a long nose and long wheel base. It was the sort of van that might have served as a horse transporter.

At the back of the van, there was a step up through the rear door, which allowed people to come into the shop.  Inside the van, along both sides, there were wooden shelves which were filled with groceries. David Macey himself would stand at the front end of the shelves, collecting the pennies and the shillings that would be spent.

Perhaps we were very frugal with whatever money we were given, perhaps there had been nowhere to spend money over the weekend, perhaps parents did not mind finding the few extra pennies required to buy sweets from David Macey’s van on a Monday. Barrett’s Sherbet Fountains were 3d each, armed with a sixpence, I could buy one for myself and one for my middle sister (our younger sister still being too young to cope with the intracacies of eating white sherbet powder with a stick of licorice).

It is hard to imagine David Macey made much profit from the gaggle of children along our road who would crowd into his van to buy sweets. Perhaps the older customers, stepping into the van to buy food offered bigger margins. Perhaps it was remarkable that the mobile shop had kept going in times when almost every household in the village had a car.

The memory that remains from those Monday evenings is of an overwhelming sense of wellbeing, of being utterly contented with a thruppenny sherbet fountain. Would that there were still such vans with such a capacity to bring happiness.




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Home learning

It’s hard to imagine that there were encyclopaedia salesmen. There were regular salesmen who would come to our house, selling hardware, brushes and cleaning products, and occasional callers selling clothes from suitcases, but no-one ever called selling encyclopaedias.

If someone had called, they wouldn’t have found a buyer. We had two sets of encyclopaedias, one was bound in brown covers with gold print. It was old, probably from before the First World War, and was filled with words beyond the comprehension of even the most curious of schoolboys. The other set was Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, it had blue covers embossed with silver print.

The compilers of the Arthur Mee series had firm ideas about what children should do with such an abundance of printed knowledge, they should learn it. At regular intervals, there would be exercises to be completed, questions about what might have been gleaned from the entries that had been read. I would take a piece of paper and a pencil and try to write answers.

I was suspicious about some of the entries, thinking that some of the knowledge seemed to be very out of date. I discovered from an online search that the first edition of the Children’s Encyclopaedia was published in 1908, which might have explained the dearth of information about the two World Wars, topics which greatly fascinated me. It would also explain the lack of entries about jet planes, Formula 1 cars, and space travel, the sort of thing that would have been more interesting to a boy than histories of long dead kings and queens and the geography of the British Empire.

What the encyclopaedias with their dry content and difficult questions did achieve was to foster a love of learning for its own sake. There would never be a school test or examination in the random stuff that I would read, but it would never have occurred to me that learning things was about getting grades. One of my most treasured possessions was a globe with the nations of the world marked in different colours and the capital city shown for each. I would never sit an exam that asked where Mali or Chad were, but that did not mean the hours spent looking at that globe were not time well spent.

Having prepared lessons to upload onto an online platform tomorrow, I wonder if sometimes I would do better to tell students just to go and find out some random things for themselves. It won’t get them grades, but it might show them learning things can be fun.


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The heart of daftness

“Glastonbury 5G report ‘hijacked by conspiracy theorists,” said the BBC headline. Anyone who has walked down Glastonbury high street will be unsurprised by the story that there are people in the town who believe that genetic material can be transmitted by telecommunications signals. To point out that such a possibility is the stuff of Star Trek would be of no avail, they stick to their belief that RNA carrying the Covid-19 virus can be carried by mobile phone signals.

Turning to Frank Barrett’s book Treasured Island last night, his humorously intended comments seem well-founded. Visiting the mid-Somerset area, he writes:

Wells is one of those places in Britain that seems to lie on the border between sense and non-sense. Glastonbury, a few miles away, is firmly in the land of Nonsense; it may even be the capital of that strange country. But once you reach Wells, you are aware that daftness is not terribly far off.

As is the case with many who visit Glastonbury, Frank Barrett seems not to know of what to make of the Glastonbury retailers. He writes:

When I first visited the town in the early 1970s, Glastonbury was a normal, working place with several shops selling the leather goods and sheepskin coats made at local factories, for which the area had become well known. Now these factories have gone and most shops here seem to sell things like scented candles, dreamcatchers and a selection of ‘mystical’ paintings and sculptures that inhabit the cramped artistic space that lies between ‘weird’ and ‘awful.’

In one of the mystical shops, I asked the lady at the till about the Glastonbury Thorn, which is said to grow from a staff that Joseph of Arimathaea plunged into the soil after arriving in Glastonbury. The tree blooms every Christmas; a blossom is cut from one of the tree’s branches in a special ceremony December and sent to the Queen. It seems I had touched a raw nerve: ‘There’s been a few thorn trees in Glastonbury and some berk keeps damaging them,snapping off the branches and that. What sort of nutter does something like that?’

As she asked me this I glanced at her bookshelves and spotted a slim volume: Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop: And Other Practical Advice In Our Campaign Against The Fairy Kingdom. Perhaps it’s goblins, I suggested.

‘Goblins? Yes, you may be right. They’re just the sort of nutters who might do something daft like that.

Frank Barrett is, of course, right. Glastonbury is in the land of Nonsense, and is perhaps its capital; it is the embodiment of daftness. The thesis that 5G signals are responsible for viruses would sit well with the pre-modern, anti-scientific paganism of the town.


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