Looking for Four Strong Winds

The sun crossed the celestial equator into the southern hemisphere this evening. Even the most beautiful photographs of the harvest moon over the Somerset Levels cannot disguise the fact that the dark days are coming

I remember a friend returning from a visit to the Canadian Province of Alberta at the time of the autumnal equinox.

“What was the weather like?” I asked

“Beautiful, just a touch of frost in the mornings, but blue skies and fine days.”

It is the stuff of a song sung by Neil Young song. The atmospheric Four Strong Winds declares, “Think I’ll go out to Alberta, weather’s good there in the fall.”

It’s a song from the folk revival of the 1960s, which perhaps explains its capacity to endure, to speak to people long after its time.  Four Strong Winds has a melancholic mood, but it seems always to have something liberating about it. It seems a declaration that the year is not dying, that life is still there to be lived to the full.

Going out to Alberta is the opposite of closing the curtains and switching on the television. It is depressing that whilst former generations saw Saturday and Sunday evenings as occasions for going out, for, at the very least, calling with family and friends, people now see the hours as a time to sit and watch mediocre television, for mediocre it is.

Would anyone sit and watch an amateur league soccer match on television, or a live broadcast of a band playing in a pub? Why then watch the formulaic programming that dominates the schedules with the affected gravitas of its judges and its pretence that the results are matters of importance?

Maybe going out to Alberta is not an option for most people, but surely they can manage more that just sitting and watching dross. Surely, there comes an autumn when people say, “Enough, there has to be more to life?”

The lyrics of Four Strong Winds tell of someone whose life has become stuck in a rut, someone whose relationship has come to an end, someone who has made repeated efforts to re-capture the magic of former times, but who now realizes that it is time to break out, time to find freedom from the things that break the spirit.

The first frosts can be a reminder not of winter, but of a sense that it doesn’t have to be this way. Get up, turn off the television, go for a walk, call with someone, stand and look at the night sky; do anything except sink into the quagmire of another winter.

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Anally retentive rules for changing the sheets

The weekend is a time to get washing and ironing done.

The rules of the apartment complex bar hanging any washing outside, so a change of bed linen requires having time to allow the wash cycle to complete and for tumble drying it. The small indoor clothes airer is not adequate for a duvet cover, fitted sheet and pillow  cases.

It is hard to imagine what rules for such activity might have been devised by the housemaster at the special school for the sick and the delicate on Dartmoor that I attended from 1974 until 1977.

Were the housemaster to have undergone Freudian psychoanalysis, terms like “anally retentive” would have arisen.  He had an obsession with things being done according to each and every detail he stipulated, this included the making and changing of beds.

Beds came with cotton sheets, heavy woollen blankets and heavy, dark counterpanes.  Beds were to be made according to the exact instructions he set down.  The top sheet was to be folded back over the blankets at the point where the blankets met with the space occupied by the pillow.  The counterpane was to be tucked in at the foot of the bed with 45 degree hospital corners.  At night time, the counterpane was to be folded back at exact right angles to the line of the mattress.

Perhaps the obsession was defensible in terms that it kept the rooms looking tidy, there being an almost military air about the stern lines and exact angles.  What was completely absurd was the requirement concerning the changing of the beds.

Every week, a clean sheet was left on each bed. The bottom sheet was to be removed, the top sheet transferred to the bottom, and the fresh sheet put on top – all of which would have been reasonable, were it not for the requirements concerning the bottom sheet.  Instead of simply throwing it into a laundry basket, it had to be folded into a neat rectangle, no more than a foot long, and placed at the bottom of the bed, where it would be collected.  Failure to fold the sheet according to the prescribed dimensions, or to ensure that it did not appear unduly creased, resulted in some absurd and arbitrary punishment.

The sheets were part of the absurd and arbitrary control of our lives.

Our school was a special one for people with asthma and frail health.  It was not cheap, back in the mid-1970s, fees were around £2,000 a year, as much as a working man was earning.  Fees were paid by local authorities, who deemed a special education necessary because each of us had missed so much time at ordinary schools.

The school was run by fundamentalist Christians who regarded it as their duty to educate us in their faith.  Morning assemblies, evening epilogues, worship twice every Sunday, no opportunity was missed to preach to us their version of the Christian Gospel.

Their work was presented to us as charitable, we were reminded of the generosity of those who had established the trust that had founded the school. There was never any reference to the fact that it was the taxes of working people that were funding the whole operation.

In the first decade after leaving, I had a very benign view of the school, I might not have agreed with their theology, but they sought to do the best they could.  Forty years after leaving, it is hard to be so sanguine.

I personally recall no real physical abuse, the odd staff member might have been over-enthusiastic in punishments, but there was nothing systematic.

There was persistent bullying, to which the staff mostly turned a blind eye, as was normal in the 1970s.

More seriously, there was an ongoing emotional and psychological battering.  Staff considered it reasonable to have strange and arbitrary rules, like the folding of dirty sheets.  I once had to clean the gym for three days because a friend lent me his football boots to play in a match.

They considered it reasonable to subject us to a borstal-like regime in the remote Dartmoor buildings that accommodated the school.  They considered it reasonable to constantly preach a version of Christianity that regarded even other Christians as doomed to eternal damnation.

Since those days, changing sheets has recalled the grimness of fundamentalism.

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The English aren’t really royalists

Why was it necessary for the media to carry stories of the will of the Duke of Edinburgh being sealed for ninety years? As much as there was no public interest to be served in the details of the will being made public, there was equally no public interest yo be served in the will being locked away. Whose business would it have been to know who received bequests from the late Duke/

As much as they might lay claim to be royalists, many, if not most, English people seem to regard the monarchy with intrusive curiosity rather than with solemn allegiance.

The relationship between the people and the Crown has often been shaky.

The execution of King Charles in 1649 would not have been possible if it were not for the fact that the Parliamentarians commanded the support  of a large element of the  ordinary population. Forty years later, the fact that James II was the reigning monarch was not sufficient to prevent seven leading peers to invite the king’s son in law, William Prince of Orange and his wife Mary, daughter of James II to take the throne. Religious conviction far outweighed allegiance to the king.

Twenty-five years later, after the death of Queen Anne, George Louis of Brunswick-Lüneburg, the Elector of Hanover, was invited by the Whig government to become king. King George I was not popular, he was said to mistreat his wife, and to devote too much of the Crown income to the maintenance of his two German mistresses.

George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830, and who had been Prince Regent during his late father’s illness, prompted one biographer to write, “With a personal income ‘exceeding the national revenue of a third-rate power, there appeared to be no limit to his desires, nor any restraint to his profusion.” His wife Queen Caroline, had to suffer the indignity of her carriage being stoned in the street.

In more recent times, the public reaction against the Crown at the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales suggested a people very fickle in their loyalty.

The story did not go away, there are people who still believe that there was a plot to murder Diana. Motivations which were advanced for such a conspiracy include suggestions that Diana intended to marry Dodi Al-Fayed, that she intended to convert to Islam, that she was pregnant, and that she was to visit the holy land. Organizations which conspiracy theorists suggested were responsible for her death included French Intelligence, the British Royal Family, the press, the British Intelligence services MI5 or MI6, the CIA, Mossad, the Freemasons, or the IRA. It was suggested that the intent of some of the co-conspirators was not to cause death. Alternatively, Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed were believed to be alive and living incognito! None of which speculation suggests a respect and trust for the Queen who would have needed to be complicit with any of the fantastic ideas proposed.

Much loyalty to the Crown probably owes much more to the extraordinary dignity and integrity of Queen Elizabeth, than to inherent royalist sentiment. When she is gone, it is hard to imagine what will happen.


Posted in This sceptred isle | 6 Comments

The fading memories of bombers

It’s Battle of Britain Day, although there seemed little acknowledgement of the anniversary.

In our area, it was not the Fighter Command who rose to meet the Luftwaffe who were the presence of air forces, but aerodromes from which both fighters and bombers flew in the war of attrition against the Nazis.

The nearest airfield to us was Weston Zoyland, used by both the RAF and the USAAF in the Second World War. Surrounded by undergrowth, shrouded in ivy, the few remaining airfield buildings there become less and less visible as the years pass.

Perhaps the ownership of the land is unclear, perhaps the deeds lie gathering dust in a distant office, perhaps no-one wants to claim responsibility for the pockets of rough land and the ruinous structures.

Once they were the property of the War Office, or the Royal Air Force, or whichever branch of government that was responsible for airfields and their associated installations. The purpose of the short, squat tower-like buildings never seemed entirely clear, when aircraft flew took off from the runways built across flat Somerset moorland, the function of each building would have been more apparent.

In my younger days, the buildings brought an ambivalent feeling. There was something reassuring about their presence: they were a declaration that my family and my neighbourhood had been part of something for which the aircrews would take off into the darkness, uncertain of what dangers may await them.

The reassurance came with a dark shadow. The bomber crews sustained heavy losses; the aircraft returning fewer in number than those which had departed. The bombing missions might have been against military targets, or they might have been against cities whose streets were not so different from those of London, where my grandfather had been a fireman during the Blitz.

The airfields in our community had brought with them their own dangers, Luftwaffe attacks in the area might be against the airfields, or might be against much more vulnerable targets. In 1942 the Cow and Gate milk factory in Somerton had been bombed by a bomber flying at roof height in daylight; eleven of the forty people working in the factory had been killed.

Each brick in the airfield buildings tells a story of times now disappearing from memory.  The drone of aircraft engines and the sound of airfield vehicles and the bells and sirens of alarm and the thud, thud, thud of anti-aircraft guns and crump of explosions are sounds now only to be imagined. It is good such fearful noises are no longer to be heard, but their absence, and the gradual disappearance of the runways, and the year on year decay of the buildings, brings with it a forgetfulness.

To have served in the forces between 1939 and 1945 and still to be alive means being at least ninety years of age. In the next decade or so, the bricks will be the last reminder, still in their original place, of events that once seemed so fresh in the memory.

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Music, music and more music

A song by Bo Diddley was played on the radio. Its mood seemed timeless, rooted in its own decade, it seemed music that might be played at any time in an indeterminate future.

No-one in our family was musical. In our house, my mother was the only person who could sing, the rest of us would have been hard pressed to have carried a tune in a very large bucket.

Yet there was always music.

We had a radiogram, a prized purchase in the late-1960s. It had a radio with a three band tuner, Medium Wave, Long Wave and FM, and it had a record deck that allowed the playing of records at 33 rpm, 45 rpm, and 78 rpm.

To the schoolboy looking at it, the 78 rpm option seemed an odd inclusion. Could you even buy 78 rpm records anymore? Being a child whose perspective was always that of the present, the thought did not occur that there were many, many people whose collections would have included many 78 rpm records.

A visiting uncle and aunt had to be shown the new radiogram and there was great hilarity as the lid was lifted. Some mouse seeking refuge from the outside world had found its way into the record deck and made a nest by chewing up the pages of the instruction booklet. If there were features of the radiogram that were not obvious to a user, then we would never know what they were.

The radiogram in the living room and the transistor radio in the kitchen played music.

Although he would only have been eight years old when Glen Miller’s aircraft disappeared, my father had a collection of Glen Miller records, which, in my memory were 45 rpm, perhaps they had been re-released. There were Long Playing discs of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue. Other American songs included Hey Paula, sung by the duo Paul and Paula (it didn’t seem a very original name for the group

From our own side of the Atlantic Ocean, I remember Val Doonican’s Walk Tall and Only the heartaches, as well as The Bachelors’ Diane. There were rock and roll and Lonnie Donegan records

Looking back now, the selection of records seems odd. The sort of records my parents played seemed almost to have stopped at a point in the early-1960s. No Beatles, no Rolling Stones, although my father enjoyed the music of both The Rolling Stones and The Animals.

Perhaps it was the radio that did it, perhaps when BBC Radio 1 was launched in September 1967, there was no longer an inclination to buy discs. When there is music, music and more music for free, why spend money?

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