John Masefield’s So Long to Learn recalls moments from his childhood days. The memories seem to belong to a lost age of innocence:
Sometimes I was taken on a mud-lark up the mill-stream, dressed for the occasion in my oldest clothes and strongest boots. Passing under the viaduct, I came to that water, as it ran through a pasture turned up into red heaps by multitudinous moles. Here, for hours, one could sail home-made boats down the stream, prodding them with sticks when they stuck, and getting filthy and happy beyond easy description.
At the end of the mud-larks, when all the ships had been sunk, or had gone downstream out of reach, we walked home happy and filthy.
Masefield’s capture of moments from the 1880s, evoked recollection of times spent in mud in the 1960s
On my grandfather’s farm, there was a large Dutch barn at one end of the barton, which was filled with fodder for the winter. Behind the barn, a line of elm trees stood on the bank of a small stream.
Calling it a stream is probably to use too grand a word, it would certainly not have been comparable to the millstream of which John Masefield wrote. Perhaps, when winter rains had raised the water levels, the stream was deeper, but for much of the year, it was barely more than a trickle, a couple of inches deep and no more than eighteen inches wide.
Yet the water course, however it is described. was sufficient to provide me with hours of entertainment. In old clothes and wellington boots, I would stand in the water ready to launch my boat races.
Having home-made boats, John Masefield was considerably more sophisticated than O was. For me, sticks sufficed as boats that might be raced along a length of the stream, the width of which allowed for three sticks to compete at any one time.
My father had rowed for Thames Rowing Club when he was a boy in Chiswick, so I knew about the annual university boat race which took place along a stretch of the Thames that my father would describe in detail. We would watch the race on the screen of our small black and white television each year.
I would name two of the sticks “Oxford” and “Cambridge,” and, because it sounded appropriate, I called the third stick “Westminster.” I knew nothing of any of the places, but would hope that Westminster would win because it was not allowed in the proper boat race.
Reading Masefield’s account, there was a flicker of sadness in realizing that we had differed. His races had taken place in the company of friends. Mine took place in my own company, a foreshadowing of later solitariness.