Going on a trip with Sid

The mood of summer still lingers: deep blue skies and bright sunshine. We went to Watchet, where we had lunch in a cafe that served the sort of food that you might decide to have at home, and then to Minehead, where we walked the length of the seafront. Butlin’s was buzzing with people there for a music weekend and the coffee shop to which we went for hot chocolate was full of people of a certain age. Driving back, on the edge of Taunton, I spotted the pub where we used to stop with Sid

Sid used to organize the outings in our village, where there was no public transport. Sid never learned to drive, relying on a workmate for the daily journey to the shoe factory in which they worked. Perhaps it was the lack of a car that prompted him to organize the outings, although if that was the whole explanation he might just have planned trips for his own family; perhaps he was an innately sociable person. Sid organized day trips to West Country destinations. The thought only occurred years later that, to fill a bus, there must have been a few dozen people who joined him, a not inconsiderable proportion of a small rural community.

The outings were usually to seaside towns, places where you could hire a deck chair for the day to sit on the promenade, or on the beach; places where shops were filled with things one would never find in local shops; places where cafes, like the one in Watchet today, served fish and chips with peas, provided strong tea in aluminium pots, and bread and butter on side plates. They were outings where people boarded the bus in the morning with greetings and laughter and left the bus at the end of the day tired and contented.

Memories linger of a trip to Exmoor or Minehead or North Devon, somewhere west of Taunton, anyway, where the bus stopped at a pub on the return journey and where a fourteen year old boy was allowed a glass of shandy. The pub, I am now certain, was the Cross Keys.

Such outings seem to have been a well established part of local culture. My mother recalls the post-war years when my grandfather, a small farmer, could never have afforded a family holiday, but would book excursions with Sandford’s Coaches and he and my grandmother and the family of seven would go off for the day. Riding on the buses and travelling on the roads of Somerset in those times, the journeys would hardly have been to distant places, but, sixty odd years later, they are remembered with affection.

If someone like Sid put up a notice today that there would be a coach outing to the seaside, how many signatures would there be? A handful? None at all? Who would want to travel by coach to a seaside town when a car journey would be so much simpler? Yet there was something about Sid’s outings that has been mostly lost in our times, that community bond, that sense of enjoyment of something to be shared, that sense of equality and common purpose that only a bus journey can bring. It’s that stuff about gaining the world and losing your soul, but that’s now mostly as old fashioned as the coaches that carried us to the seaside.

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Watching black and white television

BBC Radio 6 this evening featured a news story that, “as at 31 March 2018, 7,531 black and white (mono) TV Licences were in force”. I didn’t realize that it was still possible to operate a black and white television, the story brought back memories of this night forty-one years ago.

Wednesday, 16th November 1977 was a cold autumn evening. Night had long fallen by the time the kick off of the football match was due. As it does tonight, and beyond the upstairs window of our house a thick darkness covered the Somerset landscape. Thick cloud meant that the absence of any moonlight contributed to the gloominess of the moment. England were to play Italy in a qualifying match for the 1978 World Cup and our television was not working. Ordinarily, this was never a problem, my father’s years as a radio and radar engineer meant he made quick work of television problems, parts would be adjusted, wires would be reconnected. The problem this night was that my father was 600 miles away working at Kinloss, an RAF station in the North of Scotland as part of some NATO exercise.

The television screen was no more than a grey fuzziness, it was as impenetrable as the darkness outside. In 1977, television still came in two formats: the UHF signal gave a picture formed by 625 lines, primitive compared to the digital pictures with which we are now familiar, but considerably more refined than the 405 lines of VHF. The advantage of VHF was that the signal seemed more flexible, apparently, years later, it was still used in rural parts of Ireland  to try to reach remote valleys.

The problem that night seemed to be that the aerial was not working. Switching the television to the VHF channels there might be a chance of doing something for a signal. Attaching a spare length of aerial cable to a wire coat hanger and hanging the hanger on the handle of the metal window frame, all that remained was to plug the cable in. “Hey, presto,” it was not perfect but the match could be watched; my father would have been pleased. England won 2-0, but it did not secure them a place in the following year’s finals.

Black and white televisions had the best programmes, those watched by tens of millions of viewers. Nothing on a digital screen has a fraction of the audience of many of the weeknight programmes. Were it possible to recapture something of the golden age of television, it would be worth watching it in monochrome.

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The investiture of the Prince of Wales

It could have been a prop from one of those 1960s science fiction series. There was a rectangle of tubular metal which had a wheel at each of its four corners and from each of the four corners there rose four long legs, each a greyish brown colour similar to the base rectangle. The legs disappeared into a box at the top that was the colour of light wood, although whether it was wood, I never discovered; only initiates were allowed to push it from one room to another.

If Dr Who could travel through time in a blue police telephone, what couldn’t he have done with something on wheels? There always seemed a great sense of ceremony in it being moved; perhaps it was unstable and the funereal pace at which it moved reflected a concern for personal safety, perhaps there was concern that any damage would cost a huge amount of money, perhaps it was simply a matter of fear and trepidation at the possible consequences of not doing as one was told.

Once the manoeuvres had been completed with a solemnity that would grace any ceremony, the double doors at the front of the box were opened and the power was turned on.

This was our primary school television. It was black and white, but for a school of forty pupils in the 1960s, it constituted a major item of expenditure. It had come complete with the stilts on wheels that allowed it to be moved backwards and forwards between our two classrooms. Both BBC and ITV had excellent schools programmes for television; one of them had a clock that counted down the minute before the programme started. Except for Picture Box, I don’t remember the names of the programmes. There was no question of watching anything else on the television, for the simple fact that there was nothing else to watch. As soon as the schools transmission was over, the channels reverted to the test card.

However, if there were to be a major event, the BBC would cover it and Miss Rabbage would let us watch. On 1st July 1969, we got off lightly with school work, the television was turned on and we watched the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales live from Carnarfon Castle. None of us knew what an investiture was, but it was a lot better than arithmetic and Charles Kingsley.

Only in 2006 did I see for the first time see pictures of the investiture in colour. A polychromatic Charles looks much younger than the black and white stilt borne images that I remember.

I wonder if, on his seventieth birthday, he knows that, in the summer of 1969, he got forty rustic kids off schoolwork?

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Avoiding PE

Fifty or sixty students stood lined up outside the sports hall; girls in one line and boys in the other. A teacher stood at the front, giving stern instructions about getting changed quickly for the PE class that was to follow. It was a moment that prompted feelings of fear, an old and long-forgotten sense of apprehension was revived. I hurried to the next class, not wanting to dwell on thoughts of physical education lessons from schooldays in the 1970s.

PE was a favourite class for some people, for the muscular and the strong and the athletic and the lithe, it was a chance to spend an hour away from the confines of the classroom. For someone who was frail and asthmatic, it was a time that could not have passed too quickly.

The PE teachers were not bad people; in fact, their understanding of the capacities and constraints of the human body probably gave them a greater sense of empathy with their pupils than was possessed by some of those who taught us more academic subjects. It was just that they could not make someone into something they were not. Memories of the first year at secondary school are still haunting: football, basketball, gymnastics, athletics, cricket – it was hard to know at which I was worst. The only certainty was that my name would never appear on any of the team lists that would be posted each week on the school noticeboard.

Having the lack of an aptitude that demanded anything by way of physical strength, agility or speed meant that PE became a subject to be avoided as much as possible. When my asthma became so severe, that I was sent to school on Dartmoor, the greatest disappointment was the amount of physical activity on the timetable. Exercises outside every morning, gymnastics on Wednesday, football or cross country running on Saturday mornings. Cross country running was the worst – Heatree House, High Heathercombe, Hameldown, Jay’s Grave, Heatree Cross – it was gruelling.

Relief came in the autumn of 1976. Taking examinations a year in advance, I had gaps in my timetable. My teacher told me to adjust my timetable so as to attend the classes that were necessary. Her benign approach allowed me to attend classes that were interesting and to completely avoid particular teachers. The year had well progressed before she realised that PE was one of the subjects I had decided was unnecessary. Her instruction that I might join the rest of the class at the gym was said with a smile. Perhaps even the PE teacher had given up on me by that point – the painful memories evoked by the lines of students this morning were not repeated in those final seasons of secondary education.

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Coming home late from the war

Uncle Jack and Auntie Gus; their polished granite headstone in Huish Episcopi churchyard does not tell a fraction of the story.

In memory, they were an old couple.  They would be sat in two armchairs beside a warm coal fire.  Uncle Jack would keep a supply of cigarettes in a wooden bureau.  The two shilling piece from my grandfather would release a packet of twenty that had to be run with back to the farmyard.

Uncle Jack walked with some difficulty.  It would not have been polite to have asked “why?”  No-one ever told me the story of what had happened until long after he had died, by which time it was too late to have asked him about his memories, though, being a quiet and modest man, he would probably never have told them.

It is odd now to look at their ages.  They seemed so old, yet in the first memories of him he was only at retirement age.  He died when he was 71, Auntie Gus when she was 73, and people thought they had lived to a good old age. Perhaps they had, perhaps their memories of youth were so powerful that it would seem to them that they had lived many, many years.

They were engaged at 16.  Imagine dying at the age of 71 and having been committed to the same person for 55 years.  Those were days when “youth” had not really emerged as a concept; “childhood” emerged in Dickens’ time, and “youth” would develop its own identity with groups of young people from the 1930s onwards.  In 1916, being sixteen years of age was to be an adult.

The Great War was at is height and Uncle Jack joined the army and was sent to the Western Front.  The official age for enlistment was eighteen, but there were many younger than Jack in the trenches.   Jack was captured by the Germans, but appeared on no prisoner of war lists.  Everyone presumed he was dead: Auntie Gus refused to believe this could be so, “I knew he was alive” .

The young Augusta, clung on to the belief that one day he would come back and they would be married.  The war ended in November 1918 and there was no sign of him.  He was to return home in 1919.  He walked back through the chaos of post-war Europe from the coalmines in Poland where he and many others had been working as forced labour.   Leaving the mines, he had no identity papers and tied rags around his bare feet, and walked a hundred miles before finding someone who could assist him in his journey homewards.

There was a family story that he was carried through the streets of Langport, shoulder high, when he came home.  Who knows?  Maybe it was one of the few happy stories from those bleak times.  The Great War had been followed by the Spanish Flu, which had claimed more victims than the fighting, taking its heaviest toll amongst the younger and fitter whose ranks had already been reduced by the conflict.

Uncle Jack and Auntie Gus lived more of life between 1916 and 1919 than many people would in decades; how would one ever tell such a story in stone?

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