England’s premier railway line!

In childhood years, we thought the railway line that passed by my grandfather’s farm at Pibsbury was the most important line in the country.

As a teenager,  I remember someone from elsewhere challenging my description of the railway as “the Taunton to Paddington line.”

‘No, it’s not,” I was told, “it’s the Penzance line.”

Undoubtedly, there were times when the train ran non-stop from Paddington to Taunton before going on to other places, but it became hard to imagine that there was once an express service from London to Somerset; hard to imagine thar Taunton station once required a multiplicity of platforms.

I remember a train journey that must have been long after that era, for the train had stopped at Castle Cary in east Somerset on its journey from the capital.  It must have been winter time, for beyond the carriage windows there was darkness. Pulling out from the lights of Castle Cary, the British Rail diesel locomotive gathered speed as it rolled westward.

In former times, the progress along the line would have been monitored by the stations passed. There would have been the halt at Alford and the stations at Keinton Mandeville and Charlton Mackrell. In the daylight, the crossing of Somerton Viaduct would have been obvious, before passing the town’s station and going into the long tunnel. Emerging from the tunnel there would have been the little station serving Long Sutton and Pitney, then Langport East station, before Langport Viaduct and the flat moorland leading to Athelney. The cuttings after Athelney would have been passed before the train ran beside the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, reaching Creech Saint Michael and then arriving in the county town.

Such a possible marking of the journey was long past, no station remained between Castle Cary and Taunton. The only certain landmark was the tunnel at Somerton; the noise of the train reverberating from the walls. Beyond that point, progress was hard to judge.

Not wearing a watch in those days and finding the passing of time hard to judge, there was a feeling that it was time to move my book-filled suitcase to the door. The 1970s British Rail carriage was sparsely filled; it was not as though there was a crowd to  negotiate, but there was always an irrational fear of still being aboard the train when it pulled out of the destination station.

Clearly, judgement of time and distance was awry, for having slid back the door from the seating area to reach the open area at the carriage doors, there seemed an interminable wait before Taunton was reached. Feeling faintly ridiculous at having moved so early, and fearing that someone might wonder what had prompted such strange behaviour, I stared earnestly out into the impenetrable darkness, as if knowing something unknown to anyone else on the train.

Opening a 1922 edition of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, recalled that journey, recalled the places passed in the darkness, and, confirmed what I knew as a child, being the first page of Bradshaw, our line was undoubtedly the premier line.

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A beautiful solution to crime

There was an instinctive sense of beauty in childhood years.

The countryside in mid-Somerset is not classic picture postcard stuff, but there are sights and landscapes that have a special quality.  Every village and every town has at least a handful of medieval buildings.  Daily life is lived in a direct encounter with nature.  Music and art and literature, the conventional channels for the conveyance of beauty, are often superfluous on spring and summer days when flowers and trees are a riot of colour and shapes.

How important is such beauty in creating a society that is safe to live in?

Crime rates were, and remain, low.  It is not that rural England is especially privileged: during the 1981 riots over poverty and alienation  in English cities, the unemployment rate in parts of Cornwall was over 20%. It is more that life is lived in a different context.  The brutal ugliness of many urban landscapes has no sense of timelessness, no sense that life is more than a banal existence.

Dostoevsky’s character Prince Myshkin is mocked for his belief that beauty can save people from the worst:

Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love!

Myshkin’s concern with the reality of the Russia in which he lived and his hopes of transforming that world threaten his relationships:

If I hear you talking about capital punishment, or the economical condition of Russia, or about Beauty redeeming the world, or anything of that sort, I’ll–well, of course I shall laugh and seem very pleased, but I warn you beforehand, don’t look me in the face again! I’m serious now, mind, this time I am really serious.” She certainly did say this very seriously, so much so, that she looked quite different from what she usually was, and the prince could not help noticing the fact. She did not seem to be joking in the slightest degree.

Myshkin, The Idiot of the book’s title is naive in his understanding; the world is quite simply not the place he imagined it might be, but is he so wrong in his hopes?  Doesn’t the encounter with beauty change people for the better?

For generations working people organised to allow beauty to be accessible to all – the national parks movement in England from the 1930s, the reading rooms, the educational associations, the libraries, the summer camps, the ramblers’ groups, the choirs, the brass bands – yet having achieved the goals, it seems almost as though the struggle was given up.  Reality television and tabloid stories now fill the hours which were once taken with companionship and culture.

Would the world be a better place with a little less government policy and a little more beauty? Or is that just plain idiotic?

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Black Friday is about separating you from your money

The group of three students laughed and began to sing The Fairytale of New York.

If there were ever an anti-consumerist Christmas anthem, it must be it: two drunks without a cent to spend sharing their dreams on a cold and bleak Christmas morning, not much scope for success by slick advertising campaigns.

The need to constantly reinvent our consumerist culture underlines its essential futility. Despite there being no Thanksgiving holiday on this side of the Atlantic, advertisers decided there would be a “Black Friday.”

Even school students complain about the silliness of a day which is about no more than shopping. Presumably, these generations who are becoming streetwise at earlier and earlier ages will force executives to abandon that marketing ploy and develop some other excuse for bombarding communities with advertising for things that are neither wanted nor needed. Black Friday must already be waning in its influence because next Monday is “Cyber Monday.”

It is all baffling. What motivates the annual spending frenzy and burst of frantic hyper-activity?

Sometimes, people without religious convictions have articulated what it means for them, words like “family” and “childhood” are cited. People of a more pagan persuasion are more frank; it is mid-winter, the solstice is past, the days are lengthening, the sunshine and the warmth are returning.

Perhaps there is more integrity among the pagans and their celebration of the solstice than in those who persist in talking about “Christmas,” whilst doing everything possible to exclude its religious content.

There are often comments posted on social media suggesting that Muslims, or other religious groups, are responsible for such terminology as “Happy Holidays”, despite the fact that Muslims are explicit in their declaration that they have no problem with the religious celebration of Christmas (Jesus is honoured as a prophet in Islam who will return at the end of time).  The “Happy Holidays” lobby owes much more to those of an aggressive secular inclination than to any religious-based objection to Christmas.

The exclusion of Christmas cribs, and other Christian symbols, from places like hospitals, arises most frequently from those who are simply intolerant of Christianity yet claim their intolerance arises from a desire to be “inclusive.” Inclusive of whom? One might ask.

It would be interesting one year to monitor the seasonal activities of the aggressive secularists, theirs is  the most illogical of behaviour. What is it they are celebrating?

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the logical outcome produced by those whose only belief is in material things. They are about parting you from your money.

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Saying ‘no’ to veganism

I must declare an interest. My mother’s family have been farmers for generations, raising stock, milking cows, growing crops, in a small area of Somerset, definitely since the Eighteenth Century, and probably for centuries prior to their recorded activities on the land.

Perhaps, then, I have accumulated centuries of prejudice against those who would presume to criticise my family.

I know of no-one who cared more about animals, or had a greater love for the natural world around him, than my late grandfather. I would defy anyone to claim they were better at caring for animals than a man who called each of the twenty cows in his dairy herd by name, or that they were better environmentalists than someone who would spend cold winter days laying hedgerows by hand.

It is galling, then, to see vegans present themselves as people who care for animals and as people who protect the environment. They do neither.

Human beings have been omnivores since prehistoric times. An omnivorous diet has not only been what has sustained humanity through millennia, it is what permits the survival of countless millions of people. Fishing communities, indigenous peoples in inhospitable terrains, there are numerous examples that could be cited of lives that could not continue without animal produce.

Veganism is not an option for many people, nor should it be for those who believe in the conservation of rural landscapes.

William Blake’s ‘Green and pleasant land’ was not something that occurred by chance, it arose from centuries of work by farmers, hard work, often unrewarding work. The vegan vision is of numerous landscapes gone to waste, for many areas are suitable only for grazing and without the work that goes into sustaining that grazing will become places of thistles and docks. The vegan vision is of the disappearance of livestock, for no-one can afford to maintain stock for no reason. The vegan vision would bring the destruction of rural England, the end of farming across much of the country.

There is an unscientific anthropomorphism in vegan objections to farming. Animals are accorded a status equal to that of humans. Given the choice between saving the life of a human and that of an animal, some vegans give the impression that they would save the latter.

Inevitably, vegan choices are choices that affect market prices, but they would be loath to accept that their desire for imported foodstuffs such as rice inevitably affects the cost of those staples for poorer people. Nor do they acknowledge that their diet requires the considerable processing of foods.

If vegans wish to pursue their anti-environmental lifestyle, rejecting millennia of human development, that’s their choice. I’m not going to go around putting up posters highlighting the destruction they would bring, perhaps it is too much to expect that they would show a similar tolerance in return.





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Learning lines

Fifty years ago this term, Miss Stanley was the English teacher for Form 1 Br at Elmhurst Grammar School. Miss Stanley loved literature and reading and words. Being among the dullest in the form, it was only in later years that I realised how good a teacher had taught us.

Fifty years ago, Miss Stanley taught us Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. Going through the lines of the Jabberwocky with my First Year class this afternoon, I thought it was probably the only poem I could remember from my schooldays.

Perhaps the learning of poems was not part of our education. More accurately, perhaps it was just not part of my education.

In schooldays, my daughter developed a habit of reciting poetry to herself while standing and waiting for things. There were two poems that recurred, both demanding greater skills of retention than the Jabberwocky.

The most frequently recited when we stood on railway platforms was W.B Yeats An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Perhaps Yeats’ protest against the pointlessness of the Great War had a point of contemporary reference for a secondary school student in the Noughties. The unwinnable conflicts being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed as futile as the wholesale slaughter of 1914-1918.

The other poem she would recite was more baffling.  Perhaps it was taught in school Irish classes, it was an Irish translation of Oliver St John Gogarty’s The Ship.

Tháinig long ó Valparaíso.
Scaoileadh téad a seol sa chuan.
Chuir a h-ainm dom i gcuimhne
Ríocht na gréine, tír na mbua.

‘Gluais,’ ar sí ‘ar thuras fada
liom ó scamall is ó cheo.
Tá faoi shleasaibh ghorm Andes
Cathair scáthmhar, glée mar sheod.

Perhaps its meaning was not important, how many people in former times understood Procul Harum’s song Whiter Shade of Pale? Perhaps it was the sound of the words that mattered. Perhaps to be always looking for meaning was to be too literalist.

Perhaps learning the Jabberwocky set off fifty years of not understanding poems.

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