Natural justice

Year 7 students have a well-developed sense of fairness; and an even sharper sense of something being unfair. So it was with the history test this morning, as we tallied up the scores. Each question had a specific number of marks beside it. On the front of the question paper there was a forward slash and the number 42. Scores were to be recorded as out of 42, those inclined to calculate their percentage could do so for themselves.

One student stared intently at the paper, he seemed to be counting and recounting the marks he had gained. His greater concern was the marks that he had lost. He raised his hand. “Sir, how can the score be out of 42, when there are only 33 marks on the paper?”

Not having prepared the paper, I had not thought to check the sums. He was right. There were only 33 marks. His total was 28/33 not 28/42. He smiled at the correction, so did all the others in the class. One boy was delighted that his score of 22 represented 66% -it was the highest score he had achieved since he had started at the school.

Memories came back of days at primary school when there was an instinctive sense of fairness in the class. We might not have challenged the teacher about the number of marks in a test, but, then, the situation would not have arisen. Our teacher had a meticulous eye for detail and would have spotted the mathematical error immediately. Fairness extended to owning up to actions, particularly if someone else was in danger of being blamed for something you had done.

The passing years seemed to erode that feeling that things should be fair. By the end of school days there would have been an indifference to how many marks there might have been on a test paper, and the only rule regarding behaviour was not to get caught. Perhaps the current Year 7 students will be different, perhaps they will retain a natural sense of justice, an instinctive feeling for what is fair and what is not.

A senior colleague remarked that Year 7 students were more mature in some ways than their Year 11 counterparts. It’s as if that as we get older, something is lost. As if we need to recover the wisdom we possessed before the onset of adolescence and the times of silliness. Perhaps if we had retained a passion for fairness, it wouldn’t just be test scores that were challenged.

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Mr Keach’s England

Mr Keach came to mind this afternoon. The class at school read through the account of the passion of Jesus from Saint Mark’s Gospel. The text from the Bible was broken into parts for a narrator and the various characters who were there in Jerusalem on that Thursday evening and Friday. There was neither great seriousness in the reading nor great respect for the story. At one point, I stopped the reading and commented that this was something sacred for many people and asked that they at least treated it respectfully.

Irreligion is not new. JL Carr’s beautiful novella A Month in the Country is set in the post-Great War period. Mr Keach, the prickly vicar in the story knew it was not wise to be  overly religious. He confronts Tom Birkin, the narrator of the story. It is the summer of 1920 and Birkin’s mind is filled with the hideous images of the Western Front, images that have driven out any last vestiges of traditional religion. But perhaps it was not just the Great War that destroyed the church in England, perhaps the English with a tradition of rationalism and free thought, had little time for traditional religion. Keach certainly thinks so:

The English are not a deeply religious people. Even many of those who attend divine service do so from habit. Their acceptance of the sacrament is perfunctory: I have yet to meet the man whose hair rose at the nape of his neck because he was about to taste the blood of his dying Lord. Even when they visit their church in large numbers, at Harvest Thanksgiving or the Christmas Midnight Mass, it is no more than a pagan salute to the passing seasons. They do not need me. I come in useful at baptisms, weddings, funerals. Chiefly funerals – they employ me as a removal contractor to see them safely flitted into their last house.’ He laughed bitterly.

‘But I am embarrassing you, Mr Birkin,’ he said. ‘You too have no need for me. You have come back from a place where you have seen things beyond belief, things which you cannot talk of yet can’t forget, but things which are at the heart of religion. Even so, when I have approached you during your stay here, you have agreed that it is very pleasant weather for this time of year, you have nodded your head and said that your work is progressing well and that you are quite comfortable in the loft. And you have hoped that I shall go away.’

Perhaps it was not such a bad thing to be a vicar in such circumstances. Tom Birkin had the good fortune to live in a country where he could discuss the weather and wait for the moment when the priest would move on. The English propensity not to be religious had created a society where people assumed freedom to make their own decisions; where clerical power was diminished by a general air of indifference to ecclesiastical authority.

Irreligion becomes a problem when it becomes a complete lack of respect for the religion of others. The English frequent incomprehension of news from Asia, Africa and even the United States stems from a tradition of irreligion stemming back to at least the Eighteenth Century.

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Miss Everitt was never rash

Miss Everitt came to mind today. It is 18th January, the day when the church remembers the Confession of Saint Peter, Peter who once put on his cloak before jumping over the side of a boat into the water.

“What sort of person was Peter?” asked Miss Everitt one day when I was in the infants class at High Ham School.

“Please Miss, he was rash”.

(Where did a small boy of seven, maybe eight, years of age, in a tiny rural community, learn a word like “rash,” if not from the teacher?)

“Yes, he was rash sometimes.  Anyone else, what other things would we say about Peter?”

Arriving in her blue Ford Anglia each morning, bespectacled and stern, Miss Everitt took education seriously.  There was never homework, but there was hardly need for it.  The school day for infants ran from 9.15 until 3.30.  Apart from breaks, the day was filled with active teaching, there was rarely a moment to drift, rarely a moment when concentration was not demanded.

Miss Everitt would have “ladders” on the mantlepiece, league tables formed from cork board in which labels were pinned, your name could go up or down, according to how well you were doing.  Never being at the top, the ladders were never very encouraging.

A friend had cardboard football league tables with the clubs’ names being printed on labels with tabs that could be inserted into the slits in the card after each Saturday’s results.  For some reason we had a bizarre, and utterly irrational, dislike of Charlton Athletic, about whom we knew nothing, and would put them at the bottom of Division 4, regardless of the result.  There would have been a desire at times to similarly manipulate the classroom tables, but one would not dare have touched anything; Miss Everitt would know if something had been changed and would know who was responsible.  Miss Everitt always knew who was responsible, no matter what the misdemeanour.

More encouraging than the tables were charts with spots, the spots being earned by attainments, though fifty years later, it is hard to remember what the attainments might have been. Encouragement was not a quality that was in plentiful supply, doing one’s best was the default position for being in Miss Everitt’s class.  If there were the slightest suspicion that maximum effort had not been applied to the completion of a piece of work, Miss Everitt would express her disapproval in forthright terms.

There was little patience shown towards those who did not meet expectations of literacy and numeracy.  One pupil, almost a year younger, but in the same academic year, was told in no uncertain terms that the work that had been done was not comparable with that of others in the group.  It seemed unfair when watching at the time, it seems even more unfair five decades later.  To be spoken to about work, when one had tried. was bad enough, to be spoken to in front of the whole class must have been a painful experience.

Perhaps the regime was harsh, stories from those in later years suggested a mellowing with the passing of time, but there are no memories of anyone being slapped and hardly a memory of a raised voice.

Trained in the 1930s, Miss Everitt was a teacher of a former age.  The world had changed beyond recognition during her classroom years, but the lessons she taught have endured through many years since; including the story about Peter jumping from the boat.  Over fifty years later, it still seems rash to put on one’s cloak only to jump into the water.  Miss Everitt would have had a word with him about such silliness.

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Somerset’s tsunami

The school humanities club today dealt with the tsunami of 30th January 1607. The waters hit the low-lying Somerset coast with such force that they swept fourteen miles inland, reaching Glastonbury. The Polden Hills became a peninsula and High Ham became an island. A contemporary account suggests a disaster of with devastating consrquences.

“Newes out of Summerset shire

In January last (towards the end of the moneth,) the sea at a flowing water meeting with Land-floudes, strove so violently together, that bearing downe all thinges that were builded to withstand and hinder the force of them, the bankes were eaten through and a rupture made into Somerset-shire. No sooner was this furious invader entred, but he got up hie into the Land, and encountring with the river Severn, they both boild in such pride that many Miles, (to the quantity of xx. in length, and 4 or 5 at least in bredth) were in a short time swalowd up in this torrent. This Inundation began in the morning, & within few houres after, covered the face of ye earth thereabouts (that lay within the distance before named) to the deapth of xi. or xii. foot in some places, in others more. The daunger that this terible tempest brought with it wrought much fear in the harts of all that stood within the reach of it, but the sudden and strange cruelty of it, bred the greater terror and amazement. Men that were going to their labours were compelled (seeing so dreadfull an enemy approching) to flye backe to their houses, yet before they could enter, death stood at the dores ready to receive them. In a short tyme did whole villages stand like Islands (compassed rounde with Waters) and in a more short time were those Islands undiscoverable, and no where to be found. The tops of trees and houses onely appeared (especially there where the Countrey lay lowe,) as if at the beginning of the world townes had been builte in the bottome of the Sea, and that people had plaide the husbandmen under the Waters.

Who would not have thought this had bin a second Deluge! for (at one time these inhabited places were sunke cleane out of sight. Hunsfielde (a Market Towne in the sayde Shire) was quite drowned. Grantham a village utterly over-flowne. Kenhouse another village covered all over. Kingson a thyrd village likewise lies buried in salt Water. So (besides other small cottages standing in vallies) is Brian Downe a Village quite consumed. Adde unto these peopled places, the losse of Marshes, Corne-fieldes, Pastures, Meddowes, and so forth, more then can bee numbred: the misery of it no man can Expresse.

In this civill Warres betweene the Land and the Sea, many Men, women, and Children, lost their lives: to save which, some climbed uppe to the tops of the houses, but the rage of the merciles tide grew so strong, that in many, yea most of the Villages aforenamed, the Foundations of the buildings being washed away, the whole frame fell down, and they dyed in the waters: Others got up into trees, but the trees had their rootes unfastened by the selfe-same destroyer, that disjoynted barnes and houses, and their last refuge was patiently to die.

A lamentable spectacle was it, to beholde whole heards of Cattle, struggling for life with the flouds, Oxen in great numbers were caryed away with the streame, and looked like so many Whales in ye Sea: their bellowing made a noise in the water as if it had bin a tempest, and that the Sea had roared. The flocks of Sheep that are utterly destroied by this Land-wracke are innumerable, none knowes the losse for the present but the owners of them: But the whole land wil I feare feele the smart.”

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From my sister’s house . . .

There is a familiarity in the drive from Ilminster to High Ham, even on a winter’s night. The village of Westport is always sleepily quiet. It was intriguing to discover when once reading Bradshaw’s canal guide that a waterway had  carried laden barges from here down to the River Parrett, from where the produce went to Bridgwater and then the sea. The canal is still visible, the hump-backed bridges that cross it are still intact.

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. Charles Marson, the Christian socialist and folk song collector, was vicar of Hambridge for years. I have tried to visit the church a number of times, each time it has been firmly locked. There is no sign or memorial to the famous onetime incumbent.

The main road is 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, even the owner and boss of them all was never more than “Jack”.

Langport is our home town. Its single medieval main street would have once provided shops selling everything one could desire, then it fell into decline, until enjoying a great revival in recent years. 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 brings memories of two summers spent working in the fields there. The company has moved up the road, and is still present at the Chelsea Flower Show each year . Heading toward Somerton, we branch left to join the road that leads to High Ham and to home. Venturing through the gateway at the ninety degree bend on Field road would be to walk on the site of a Roman villa.

All is changed, and yet nothing has changed. Look up into the night sky on a winter’s night, and Orion and The Plough are there- definitely unchanged.

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