Present moments

Nov 6th, 2009 | By | Category: Personal Columns

The morning of 6th November had always a sadness about it.  The bonfire that had burned brilliantly the night before was a pile of grey ashes.  If the night had been dry, a few embers might remain that would glow orange if you blew on them.  It being November, there had probably been rain, or at least a heavy dewfall, and the powdery wood ash would stick to your shoes if you trod on it.    The odd remnant of the Standard Fireworks would be found in the garden; the bright colours that had filled the box bought in a Somerton newsagent’s scorched black.

Bonfire Night was never a big deal; the fire was built from the dead cuttings from trimmed hedges and the pyrotechnics came one item at a time; one Roman candle, one Catherine wheel, one rocket, each of them was savoured.  However ordinary in retrospect, the occasion was special at the time.  Perhaps we were easily pleased.

Special moments in the year weren’t too frequent – Christmas; the annual village outing to Weymouth; going camping in Devon, the next county – but every one of them was remembered and pondered for long afterwards.

Perhaps the inflationary principles that apply to money, apply also to experiences.  The more the money supply is increased, the less worth each banknote has.  In a similar way, perhaps the more the supply of experiences is increased, the less memorable each of those experiences has.

On the other hand, perhaps the passing of the years has magnified memories, perhaps they did not occupy then the place they now occupy in the landscape of reminiscence.  Maybe the memories remain clearly, but the moments themselves – with the exception of Christmas – were approached without a great sense of anticipation and were marked without a significant awareness they might be of the stuff that would be recalled decades later.  There would have been no consciousness on those 6th November mornings that bonfire embers and spent fireworks might ever be worth being recalled.

Yet, whatever revisionism goes on in the mind, there was an intensity about past moments when travel and experiences were limited.  Turning to the familiar words of E.L Carr’s A Month in the Country, one of the most atmospheric novels ever written, the “Sunday School Treat”again captures the imagination.

There was a throaty smell blowing off the bilberry shrubs and withering heather when we disembarked on a sheep-cropped plain high up in the hills. There was no shelter from the sun, but it was dinner-time and the women and girls unpacked hard-boiled eggs and soggy tomato sandwiches wrapped in greased paper and swaddled in napkins. It was Mr Dowthwaite (for you laboured for your prestige amongst the Wesleyans) who built a downbreeze fire of twigs and soon had tin kettles boiling. Then he struck up the Doxology and, when we’d sung it, we settled to some steady eating.

Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woollen underpants and astonished their children by larking around like great lads. The courting couples sidled off, the women sat around and talked. So eating, drinking, dozing, making love, the day passed until evening came and the horses were led from their pasture. Then, as the first star rose and swallows turned and twisted above the bracken, our wagons rumbled down from above the White Horse and across the Vale towards home: the Sunday-school Treat was over.

We would have laughed at people recalling memories of going on an outing by horse and wagon and sitting in a field while children played games, just as a 21st Century generation would laugh at stories of a coach trip to Weymouth.  There are moments as significant and intense for children today as were the special moments of the past, but perhaps in a landscape dotted with moments, the special ones are harder for the onlooker to discern.

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  1. How about Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee – very evocative.

    I think it is more difficult now for older children to enjoy the simpler things in life, my little ones were thrilled in the early autumn to be allowed to help pick the pears that they had watched grow through the spring and summer. For several weeks the first question the 4 year old asked me whenever I saw her was ‘can we pick the pears today?’ This question was always accompanied by excited leaping and jumping about.

    I think a lot of children and young people would still be thrilled to be included in a trip to the seaside on a coach, most of them want to be part of something – included.

  2. I have all of Laurie Lee’s books – I think, though, Carr, because he is writing fiction, is able to get inside the thoughts of the people in a way that’s not possible in biography

    I think the idea of a coach trip together is still great fun – but I can’t imagine many people signing up for one. I don’t think there would be too many willing coach trippers to Weymouth from my home village

  3. Thanks for reviving the memories of parish outings to Weymouth! The great curve of Regency boarding houses echoing the curve of the sandy beach; the encampments of hired deck-chairs and wind breaks; the candy-floss,icecream and seafood stalls; struggling underneath a towel to change into togs. One year I remember losing my new flippers in the sea, but mirabile dictu finding them again as the sea went out. Inevitably some would be missing when the time came to go home, and we would all have to wait until they were found. And then bumping back through the Dorset roads along the Piddle valley.

  4. I agree with you on the supply of experiences, I too remember looking forward to the Weymouth trips, getting up early on the morning of the trip,my Mother and Gran getting everything ready whilst I waited up on the road looking across to’ Cooks Hill’ to catch the first glimpse of the coach…The clock tower on the seafront…dropping off and picking up point…..The walk to the toyshop just off the seafront where I could choose a new ‘Corgi Toy’….

  5. I took my kids to Weymouth once back in the 90s. In my memory, there were merry go rounds and other assorted attractions on the seafront, I think I must have imagined them – a conflation of what there was and what I wished there had been! I even looked for the toyshop and couldn’t find it.

    My most magical memory of all was the trains that ran on the street to reach the British Rail ferries and, as the years have passed, I’m not sure I didn’t imagine seeing them!

  6. This is why my children have been especially lucky, living on a large blog of land, they have had the ‘country’ around them all the time, bikes horses, hillsides, even now the simple pleasures are things they enjoy as much as the technological wizardry of Guitar Hero and Playstation. I do remember Sunday School picnics as a child though and May Day celebrations. These days, our bonfire is on the June Queen’s Birthday weekend but no fireworks without a license.

  7. Perhaps we should go on an imaginary trip somewhere, I’ll drive.

  8. I’m sure there are virtual reality games where you can go on a coach outing!

  9. well I don’t fancy the sound of that, I’ll stick to the one in my imagination!

  10. Ian, there was a permanent fairground at Weymouth but it wasn’t on the seafront it was right over on the back of the town where the coaches parked up during the day, I can remember once we were dropped off in the car-park and then had to walk back to the car-park to get back on the coach and can remember having a ride…I remember there was a railway bridge to go under to get to the fair…..Its probably now a Tesco!!!!!!!!

  11. You might have told me that in 1994 so a three year old boy was not left disappointed!

    I looked at Weymouth on Google Earth – its geography seems all changed. The railway terminates a good distance from the seafront and where your fairground might have been looks as though it has been built up.

  12. Sorry Ian………I could have predicted the fate of the fairground……(National house builders I expect!!!)There is a picture at my Mothers taken looking back towards the coach with the faiground in the background and with Cliff Crossmans Mother and someone else in the foreground….I will try to get a copy to you somehow if you would like to see it!!!!

  13. Do you know, I have no recall whatsoever of getting off the coach in Weymouth or getting on it again, though I do remember walking towards the river. In my memory we somehow just materialised at the seafront!

    Did we stop for fish and chips in Dorchester, or is that something imagined?

  14. Do you not remember walking past the lake with all the swans either Ian??? It was probably the excitement of getting to the beach which is the overwhelming memory…….It was a superb beach for building sand castles, the sand just the right consistency………Unlike our closest beach at Burnham-On-Mud…….I think it was Dorchester we used to stop at for fish and chips, if not it was Yeovil,and a few pople, Maisie one of them used to disapper for a swift half too…Which lead as I remember to an awful row one year between her and the Reverend Payne on the coach.

  15. I remember the moment with Maisie! It was in Dorchester and we had parked near a pub and there were words as she stepped onto the bus!

    I don’t remember lake or swans or anything like it!

  16. It was always blackberries for us. Purple stains, pricked fingers and scratched arms. An audience of baffled looking cows. Ravensdale is where I remember, but I’m sure it was all over the place.
    These days it’s raspberries we hunt for, alongside a well fertilized bridle path. The idea of picking raspberries still seems slightly exotic to me.

  17. Raspberries are definitely exotic!

    Ravensdale as in Co Louth, close to the border? Only in recent years would we have ventured off the main road in those areas. We would have been fearful in times past.

  18. Its amazing how that incident stuck in our minds, for me I think it was the Reverend Payne, I had never seen him lose his temper before, I seem to remember the poor old chap was never quite the same afterwards.It must have been the late 60’s….

  19. I never knew much about him – he was just part of the scenery! Did he spend his closing years more or less housebound?

  20. Yes I think he did Ian, I seem to remember he suffered a stroke, I think his wife carried on doing things in the community, he also used to come into the village school once a week to do some religious teaching. I dont know what happened to him in the end, I must ask my Mother the next time I see her.

  21. I seem to have big gaps in my memory! I know I was away at school, but even from the times at home, nothing much remains.

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