In memoriam: Private Henry Lines

‘Their name liveth for evermore’.

It was Rudyard Kipling’s idea to put words from the Hewbrew Scriptures’ book of Ecclesiasticus on the Stone of Remembrance in each war cemetery.  Kipling similarly composed the lines, ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known Unto God’, for those whose remains could not be identified.

Perhaps the gravestone inscription has become more significant than that on the Stone of Remembrance and that it is now only God who remembers the names of the fallen. Perhaps Alan Bennett’s line in The History Boys is true and that it was never about ‘Lest we forget’, but was instead ‘lest we remember’, that all of the monuments and ceremonies were an opiate against the horrific and painful realisation of the full horror of what had taken place.

In June days last summer, I meandered along the Western Front, from the flat fields of Flanders to the deep valleys and ridges of the Somme.  The object was to visit the graves of those from the little Somerset village I called home.  An additional grave was on my list, that of Private Henry Lines.

The name of Henry Lines had been encountered in the parish of Napton in Warwickshire.  He had been an uncle or some similar connection of Bob, a man researching his family tree.  Henry Lines had been a member of the 10th Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment and had died at the Somme on 30th July 1916.  I believe it was the first action in which he had participated.

The mortal remains of Henry Lines were interred in Caterpillar Trench Cemetery, as is the case of so many of the cemeteries, it is a place of tranquility and beauty, an experience incongruent with the events that had taken place there.

I went to Henry Lines’ grave and stood in silence before taking a photograph of the headstone. The photograph was emailed to Bob, who was unsure whether any family member had ever had the opportunity to go to Henry Lines’ last resting place.

Conducting genealogical research last month, I discovered that the General Register Office has wills online, dowloadable for £1.50.  I took the opportunity to find Henry Lines’ will.

As would have been the case with countless other soldiers, Henry Lines wrote his will on Page 13 of his paybook. It is an unremarkable will, leaving his money to his parents, but there seemed a deep poignancy in the few lines.

Bob died before I discovered the will, there are now only a couple of remote family members who might remember his name.  The declaration ‘their name liveth for evermore’ seems now to have become hollow.  Perhaps there is reassurance in the belief that God knows the name of Henry Lines.

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I knew I was right

The girls of my tutor group were  trying to choose a song for a spring concert. To my surprise, the first song they considered was Candi Staton’s  Young hearts run free.

‘Ladies’, I said, ‘this song is forty-eight years old’. They looked at me in a bemused way, the age of the song was considered unimportan.

I nearly told them about Disco stomp and Hamilton Bohannon.

Hamilton Bohannon was an important figure in my social education.

At the age of 14, I had caught on early that girls had subtly different tastes from boys.

The male of the species might have been listening to Status Quo or Queen (fifty years later, the latter do command a significant female listenership). However, most females in the 1970s preferred something softer. They liked love songs and ballads and, in 1975, they liked disco music.

When you are very plain and boring and girls were a mystery, the best way to ingratiate yourself with young ladies was to say you liked the same stuff as they liked.

Here was where Hamilton Bohannon and George McCrae and Minnie Riperton and the Three Degrees and Barry White, and others too numerous to mention, came in.

Being able to talk about the songs meant buying the 7″ singles so as to know the words and to be able to say you had the record. While other guys were buying tracks by rock bands, I was looking for Tamla Motown.

In 1976, when it appeared in the charts, I bought Young hearts run free.

By 1979 the ploy no longer worked, one girl I knew was less than impressed by my being able to recall Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’.

I moved on to The Jam and The Clash and stuff that was considered more serious (and which had strongly political content, to chime with being a student at the LSE). However, for a while, the strategy had worked!

For years the records remained hidden away in an attic box.  How could someone who had seen AC/DC live at The Monsters of Rock Festival in 1981 admit to having a secret copy of the Three Degrees?

When I reached the age of 40, I decided it didn’t matter anymore what people thought, and bought lots more Motown CDs.

Someone I knew in the 1970s once recalled, ‘Do you know what I remembered about you? How you loved all of those soul tracks’.

It doesn’t seem likely that it would work fifty years later

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Callers recalled

‘My brain is addled’.

A third bout of Covid during the summer has left my mother in a fog, short-term memory has become patchy at times, but recollections and anecdotes remain clear

‘It was after the war. We used to get men calling at the farm, something to eat, somewhere to sleep. Apparently, they left a mark on the wall outside to show that the next passer-by would receive a welcome.’

The men she described, we called tramps, but I do not remember it as having a pejorative meaning. A tramp was simply someone who tramped along, dressed in old and sometimes ragged clothes and carrying his few possessions in a bag or bundle.

If they arrived at the Crossman farm at Pibsbury, they would be given bread and cheese and tea and milk and would sleep in one of the stone barns.

There is a story that one cold night, my grandfather took pity on a passing gentleman and allowed him to sleep on the settee in the living room, where there was the warmth of a log fire. On discovery at there being an unexpected house guest, my grandmother flew at my grandfather, did he not realize that they could have been killed in their beds or had all their valuables stolen?

The story became a matter of pride for my grandfather.

In more recent times, one gentleman used to call each year with a chapel family in the hamlet of Henley.

Strongly evangelical Christians, they attended worship each Sunday and expected visitors to join them.

One summer Saturday, my mother, a hairdresser by profession, received a call. The gentleman had arrived with the family and he had been given a bath and clean clothes and they would be grateful if my mother would give him a haircut. My mother explained that she did not generally work on Saturdays, but was prepared to make an exception.

The gentleman went to chapel the next morning looking altogether different from the appearance he usually presented.

My mother’s recall of the gentleman is of a man who was educated and cultured, a man who had seen much in his lifetime. The gentlemen were always enigmatic figures, no-one was ever sure from where they had come or where they were going. What had caused them to take to the road? What family or friends had they left behind?

Perhaps there are still gentlemen out there, somewhere, tramping along.

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Bread and butter

Salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper,
French almond rock.
Bread and butter for your supper,
That’s all mother’s got.

The words of the skipping song surfaced in my memory. Perhaps primary school was the last time I heard it sung. Of course, it would have been the girls that sang it, it was generally only they who skipped, it was certainly only they who had the degree of agility to skip at the speed set by the rhythm of the song.

Perhaps the song was responsible for the notion that bread and butter represented meagre fare, that it was what one ate if there was nothing else in the larder, that it meant you hadn’t the money for anything more substantial.

The song surfaced in my memory because I decided upon bread and butter for lunch.  There is ample food remaining from Christmas in the refrigerator and cupboards of my mother’s kitchen, but it seemed time for the excess to stop. Weighing more than thirteen stones and feeling a tightness on the waistband, some frugal weeks seem necessary.

Two slices of brown bread with no more than a skim of butter, I picked up the plate and my mug of tea.

Bob came to remembrance at the moment I took a bite from the first slice.

Bob had a farm of good land and a house that would have made a fine home for a family, had Bob ever been given the opportunity of meeting someone.  Canada had offered him a future, but his parents played upon his conscience, ensuring he stayed at home until it was too late to begin a new life.

Bob lived frugally, his kitchen had remained unchanged in at least fifty years and his lean frame reflected the plain diet that was part of his daily life.

‘I have no biscuits and no cake to offer you with your tea,’ he said, ‘but you’re welcome to a slice of wheaten bread and butter.’

The bread was fresh, the butter soft, the taste was pefect. The bread and butter was the finest fare that one might have been offered.

Perhaps it was the spirit in which the bread and butter had been offered, perhaps it was the mood of the gentle, softly-spoken man that added taste to the food.

Bread and butter was all that Bob had to offer, but meagre fare it was not. The next lunch of bread and butter will be eaten without thoughts of skipping.

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Above the waters

‘Risk of road flooding’ declared the black letters on a bright yellow sign.

The persistent rainfall would undoubtedly top-up the already filled ditches and rhines that criss-cross the landscape of the Somerset Levels.

It is hard to imagine how the country around would once have appeared in the times before the Abbot of Glastonbury determined that the wetlands should be transformed into productive farmland. A large scale ordnance survey map of the area is a page covered in blue lines, the network of waterways appears like a diagram of veins and arteries in the human body.

Of course, there was always flooding here, the authorities would not have dotted twenty-one pumping stations around district if there were not a danger of the drainage system being unable to cope with the accumulation of water from the rainfall on the surrounding hills. However, the floodwaters have become more common and more hazardous. Ten years ago, the floods made the national news, the village of Muchelney was cut off from the outside world for five weeks, local people collected supplies to send by boat to the marooned villagers.

Flooding in the past weeks is early, it has left the ground sodden and heavy, the prospect of a traditional ‘February fill-dyke’ is one that could present considerable problems for those who live in the local communities. The recent floods closed even main roads, including the A303, an arterial dual carriageway. Local towns, the streets of which were built in medieval times, could not cope with the sudden increase in traffic, simple journeys could take an hour.

Travelling the road that passes through Hambridge and Westport, it was hard to imagine that there had once been canal traffic from the River Parrett to the wharves at Westport. The places seem remote from the commerce of the Twenty-First Century.

Drawing near the village of Barrington, the ground rises, at the top of a ridge stand a line of former council houses, they are identifiable as such because there are identical houses in most of the local villages. I grew up in one such house, it is still home to my family.

The houses date from the 1920s, not a time of economic abundance, each village has six, or perhaps eight such houses, three or four pairs of semi-detached houses with substantial gardens. The feature of the houses that has become apparent as the waters have risen is that they are all built on ridges that rise above the land around.

Perhaps there was an old wisdom about where to build that has been lost with the passage of time and the desire to transform a rural area into suburbia.

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