Going to the doctor

The school holidays meant being able to collect my prescription myself. Low dosage statins seem such an ordinary medication now that it seems an annoyance that they are still only available on prescription. Buying them from a pharmacy would probably be cheaper than the £9.15 prescription charge. Of course, had I not eaten a surfeit of cakes, biscuits and fried food over the years, I would not now need tablets to deal with the plaque built up in my coronary arteries.

It had been months since I had been at Langport Surgery, before the arrival of the virus. It was a shock to go into the octagonal waiting room and find it virtually devoid of content, every fixture and fitting seemed to have been removed. The secretarial staff and dispensary have always been behind glass, but even screened by thick glass, the person handing out prescriptions still wore a visor. The message was clear, this was not a place to linger.

It was hard to imagine how Covid-19 would have been handled in the old building that had served as a surgery until the building of the present premises in 1992.

The old surgery was on The Hill in Langport, a steep street that leads from the town to the parish church at the top. There was no car park, patients were required to park wherever they might find a place to stop. The doorway was reached by walking down a wide alleyway that ran between the building and a stone wall. The waiting room was small and frequently very crowded. The dispensary was through a hatchway in the waiting room.  After a consultation with the doctor, medicines would be available within a few minutes.

Perhaps people didn’t go to the doctor very often, perhaps people were healthier, but there was never a problem in getting to see a doctor. If you didn’t have an appointment, you could turn up and sit and wait. Once one of the doctors had finished his list, he would see those who had arrived without prior arrangement. Perhaps the accommodating attitude arose from the fact that most people didn’t have a telephone in their house and making an appointment could be difficult for someone who was ill and had to use a telephone box.

Had there been a pandemic fifty years ago, our entire local health system would have been difficult to sustain.

I look forward to seeing Langport Surgery as it was before Covid-19, its comfort and design a reassurance to those coming to see the doctor.

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Theme music recollections

The unmistakable sound of the theme music of Inspector Morse was played on Classic FM. It brought many happy memories.

Detective stories have been part of my life since first I ever read a novel. Amongst the adventures of Captain W.E. Johns’ Biggles that I would borrow from Langport library, there were tales of the detection of dastardly criminals. Hergé’s adventures of Tintin had exotic plots set in places far beyond the imagination of a boy in rural Somerset. Television offered few options – there were Z Cars and Softly, Softly – Stratford Johns always got his man.

Teenage years brought Agatha Christie – reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles while in bed with mumps at the age of fourteen still looms large in the memory. (Detective fiction must have been detrimental to health in the Dartmoor school I attended, for within three months I was in bed again with severe chicken pox). The Sweeney was high in the television ratings, though car chases were more prominent than sleuthing – Regan knew his villains, it was a matter of pinning charges to them.

By the time of sixth form college in Street, Bergerac was on the television. Detection given a suaveness by its location on the island of Jersey. Not that detective stories were something to admit to reading, the English tutors were very snooty about crime as a literary genre, it ranked in their estimation with Westerns and romance.

It was dear old Morse who reopened the world of the detective stories after ten years of reading literary novels. Morse on television would be watched with the subtitles turned on so as to get the details of every piece of music; the music was vital to Morse. John Thaw was so much Morse that when he became ill, there was no option other than that the chief inspector would die with him. The words that Inspector Morse is dead were the saddest I read in years.

Passing years meant not needing to care in the slightest about what people thought of what I read. No-one was much bothered if I read piles of thin Inspector Maigret paperbacks instead of thick 19th century novels. Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford became as familiar as Morse, while her alter ego, Barbara Vine provided stories of shadow and darkness.

Poirot, an insufferable character in the past, became a comical and likeable egotist in the volume of 50 stories that sits on the bookshelf.  Midsomer Murders tends to be more light entertainment than detection; if it’s real detection, then Oxford, with Endeavour and Lewis, is the place to be. In recent years, the delightful Montalbano on BBC 4 has provided many happy hours of entertainment.

Attempting to understand the attraction of the detectives, they seem an escape into a world where the good guys win; a piece of escapism from the world around us where justice is about as likely as Poirot being humble, or Morse playing pop music.

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A caricature peers from a shop doorway. It is unmistakably that of Ronnie Barker in his television role as Arkwright in the BBC Television comedy series Open All Hours. It is thirty-five years since the penny pinching shopkeeper who had a constant eye to making a shilling last closed his corner shop, but his image remains fresh and recognizable

A shopkeeper did not have to have the characteristics of Arkwright to be well-known in a local community. Shopkeepers were key members of a community. In rural areas, in times before the near universal access to cars, the shopkeeper was one of the most significant people you encountered every week.

In our village, Mr Spearing kept the shop. A genial man who seemed old even when I was young, he was gentle and softly-spoken. The old fashioned shop front included his name engraved in Gothic letters in the glass above the door: S.Spearing. It was said that his Christian name was “Simon,” but not once did I ever hear anyone address him in such an informal way.

Spearing’s shop was an old-fashioned establishment. There was a wooden counter and the stock was displayed on shelves on walls behind the counter. On the left-hand side of the counter there was a glass display case with a white wooden frame. It contained the confectionery and children be expected to ask politely for the bar of chocolate or packet of sweets that they wanted.

Mr Spearing must have stocked frozen as well as fresh food, for I remember once being dispatched on my bicycle to buy Brain’s Faggots for our tea. (Farming families would have had their cooked meal at lunchtime and called it dinner; families whose parents worked out of the village sat down to dinner in the evening and called it “tea”).

Perhaps Mr Spearing should have had a character closer to that of Arkwright, he always seemed too soft-hearted to be a successful businessman. The image of Arkwright that lingers in the memory is that of the grimace and the raised eyebrow, the expression of disappointment at a sale not made. The memory of Mr Spearing that lingers is that of a gentle smile and a kindly word.

The gaps between the television character and the Somerset shopkeeper is as wide as can be imagined, yet if someone had drawn a caricature of Mr Spearing, it would have been as distinctive as that of Arkwright.

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Instagram brings more from time

Instagram has photographs of my home area of Somerset that convey a sense of the extraordinary beauty of the place. Sometimes the photographs present places in ways that I had not been able to see. Of course, Instagram creates the capacity to enhance images, to apply filters, to adjust colours, to make the mundane beautiful, but there is something more. Sometimes what I see in a photograph does not correspond to what I see when I look at the scene that has been photographed

Once I tried to explain that I could photograph something and when I looked at the image on the camera it was different from what I saw with my eyes. It was an explanation that brought a look of bafflement, justifiably so.

The assertion was illogical, how could something appear different in an unadjusted photograph from its actual reality? But, didn’t everyone have such experiences, didn’t people look in a mirror and see one person and then look at a photograph and see someone who appeared differently from the person they had perceived in the looking glass?

The argument did not seem convincing, the bafflement seemed to have been augmented by a degree of perplexity. Introducing an additional angle did not convince the listener. Suggesting a room had an appearance in reality that differed from its digital image brought a realization that the line of thought should not be pursued.

Perhaps it is something idiosyncratic, the idea that photographing an object might reveal qualities not perceived in an initial view. The use of Instagram has brought a capacity to find beauty in common and unlikely moments. Of course, there are the filters, and there is extensive scope to change light and colour and texture, but the essential nature of the subject is unchanged; a house is still a house, a stone is still a stone; a tree, or a river, or a landscape remain what they were.

Finding beauty in simplicity can imbue the stuff of everyday life with an interest, or even an excitement, that it might otherwise lack. It can prompt the stopping of the car in unlikely places to photograph images passed countless times. It can prompt a curiosity among passers-by as to why a grey haired man might want to stop and take pictures at such points. The suspicion he is more eccentric than previously imagined might be magnified, or perhaps a thought that he might know something of which they are not aware.

Richard Jefferies, the Nineteenth Century English naturalist who lived in our neighbouring county of Wiltshire, and who died at the age of 38, possessed an extraordinary sense of the beauty of the commonplace, he wrote

“The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable time.”

Jefferies’ words offer an affirmation of the propensity to stop and record Instagram images, it is in contemplating beauty that real life is found. The more time spent stopped at the roadside, the more is gained from time.

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Summer nights

Moths in the car headlights and warmth in the night air evoke memories of summer evenings in his childhood. Riding in his father’s car on switchback roads across the Somerset Levels, the moths marked the conclusion of the day for a small boy; they came with summer and heat and the promise carried by summer days. Yet, even now, more than fifty years later, it is still unclear what that promise might have been.

Moth nights were accompanied by scented soap. Days out in his grandfather’s fields brought strict injunctions from his mother that under no circumstances was he to go to bed without washing, and washing properly, no quick dab with the flannel.  The scented soap was that of Wright’s Coal Tar, a brand that must have been regarded as particularly efficacious in removing the dust of the day from the limbs of a small boy. Days spent among cornfield stubble would have left bare arms and legs scratched and there would be a liberal splash of Dettol thrown into the hot water to ensure the cleansing was thorough. The sting of the disinfectant as his thin arms were submerged in the sink is something that still lingers in his memory. There would be a grimy scum around the washbasin after he had pulled the plug to let out the water, it must be well washed away before thought could be given to leaving the bathroom.

Always a small boy, the asthma that had arrived with measles at the age of five had brought with it weak lungs and a ragbag of allergies. Haymaking time brought fits of sneezing and eyes closed with red puffiness, dust from the corn harvest could have similarly detrimental effects. Even the farm cats could bring watering eyes and the familiar wheeze.

Harvest time was more aspiration than reality for the boy. He was too small and too weak to be of any assistance. While there were boys his age who could lift hay bales, he struggled to lift a bale of straw. But there was never any suggestion that he was not welcome, there was no suggestion from those who worked hard at harvest time that the boy might be better at home reading the books of which he was so fond. Perhaps the world was sometimes a more inclusive place in those years.

The promise of summer still lingers, a promise that still instils hope.

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