Another memory surfaces: it’s in the speed-blurred slo-mo of good memories that lasted too short a time. It’s late summer, and the smell and feel of hay bales stacked around various stalls, the sound of the wooden balls hitting oversized splintered skittles and the laughter of the village children – all echo in time. The smell of the fire, which had been burning since before dawn, overlaid by the mile-wide aroma streaming from the pig that had been roasting on a spit since the moment the sun had first crossed the horizon. Everyone in the village was there, the sun shining from a cloudless sky and the unfeasibly large village hall holding its dark secret stalls of cakes all made by the actual and potential housewives of the village. No room in there for frivolity – it was the place where matches were made by the kitchen hatch over copious cups of tea and the rattle of china, and all in something like your Sunday best. Eligibility decided by the quality of the cooking. The Annual Summer Fete.
The beer tent, a haven for the men to lurk with large glasses of honest ale in their work-calloused hands; the village bobby taking his helmet off and raising a glass with the Lord of the Manor and poacher alike… I’m not talking crap retro-TV, set in some strange anywhen with sort of early 1960s ‘period detail’ and a soundtrack of reworked chart hits from the end of the decade, but a reality of the entire time.
“What the hell,” says the bobby, and accepts a scotch from the vicar. “What the Chief Constable doesn’t know won’t hurt me.” A roar of laughter as the gentle drunken revelry continues. One of the kids has a fairly new bike – a bright yellow wedge frame with chopper handlebars and all of us patiently and unselfishly wait our turn to peddle like crazy, zigzagging between our elders on foot, feeling the wind in our hair… then sometime later, hot and thirsty, we lurk in the shade behind the beer tent, and one of the dads eyes us up. He disappears, only to return a few minutes later, bringing a cool jug of cider and several glasses.
“Don’t tell anyone you got it from me,” he tells us with a wink, and departs leaving us to our own rite of manhood… but we all knew that it was an open secret, all we had to do to escape a sound telling-off was simply to avoid drawing attention to it and be sensible: a reward before our actions. Then, one of us returns from queuing for the pork rolls, and we sit and eat and drink quietly, looking through the gap in the hedge at the fields beyond. Fields with waist-high cereal crops, and looking like they go on forever.
And the air! In retrospect, I can smell it: like an explosion of pure oxygen behind the nostrils every time we breathed in – not that we noticed it at the time, of course. There were trees to climb and dams to be built up in the woods at the other end of the village – but that was for another day. Then another of us arrives, sits and flourishes a pint of beer to his mouth. Cocking his head sideways, he patiently listens to our gasping questions:
“Where did you get that?”; “How did you get it?”; “Who gave it to you?”; “Did you nick it?” and of course, “What’s it taste like?” – After a mouthful, he teases us, then – a little like in the communion service to be held in the church the next day – he passes The Beer around, and we reverentially take a sip and pass it on. Sip… pass it on. Sip… pass it on. Sip… SPLURT!
“Bleh,” intones Billy, grimacing. “Oi’m not drinkin’ that bollocks again.” We crease up with laughter which is innocent and somehow wise, knowing that one day, practically all we’ll live for is that recreational pint down the pub (years later, I worked as a barman there, and Billy always stuck with cider, he never got the taste for beer).
Break-time over, we stand slightly unsteadily, then start our racing around again, past the darts competition, the horseshoe throwing, the ‘fortune telling’ tent (the vicar’s wife ran that one), the tombola, the bottle stall… Little did we know that our world was safe and gentle; it was the only one we had, and although we lived in it fully, it was somehow transparent to us. We didn’t know that it was already being encroached upon, that the violence and cynicism from the cities was beginning to intrude upon our haven. Newspapers were reporting a connection between TV shows like Starsky and Hutch and violence; we thought it was a load of blather. Didn’t they know it was make-believe? Only now, more years later than I care to admit, do I begin to understand.
If you live in a city and see cities represented as violent places, you get the idea that you have to be violent there to stake your own claim upon your surroundings. We, however, seemed to have all the time and space we needed, so it was just… watching exotic faraway places to us.
I can remember taking a coach trip up to London to visit something or another, and passing through street after street of squalid houses, all falling apart in front of my eyes and feeling like I was in another country. People in turbans, people wearing the Ethiopian colours, people who weren’t white and shop signs in strange languages. Piles of rubbish bags leaning against the houses’ front doors. Was this what people kept on running to? (Even then, there was a lot of concern about youngsters ‘running away to London to seek for their fortune’ type stuff.) It was definitely a hostile environment as far as I was concerned – although, double-decker buses were extremely exotic modes of transport. Even to this day, I like to sit up top, above the driver, even on the shortest journey. Looking back, I think that there was so much we didn’t know: but it was alright that we didn’t know these things. We didn’t have the internet – many didn’t have telephones – colour TV was something the Americans had and we had two (soon to be three) TV stations to watch. ‘Fashion’ was something reserved for other people in those far-off clottings called cities. I can remember pronouncements on the latest wave of punk fashion in the late 1970s: the wearing of bin bags.
“Oi dunno wat ‘em thinks ’em is proving, Oi’d is puckled if Oi didn’t wear one of them,” said the contract muck-spreader for the area. We fell about laughing – it was true. He didn’t smell of body odour, but ordure – the pungent and honest stench of manure – the favoured fertiliser. Thoughts and memories like this make me realise that I have become too much of a sophisticate; and what annoys me so much about the many Folk Music Clubs I have been to.
Folk Music clubs mainly proliferate in urban and suburban areas, and wherever you go, they are full of accountants and middle management in chunky jumpers and lumberjack shirts singing sea shanties or songs of the land. People to whom a cow is an ‘agricultural whole-lactate unit’ or a sheep is a ‘wool-producing organism’. Number-crunchers who wouldn’t know the soul, the spirit of the land if it bit them on the nose. Not that I had much to do with it myself, but at least I did grow up there.
It’s all gone now. The once throbbing High Street, with a couple of convenience stores, banks, post office, hardware store and two butchers’ shops, are all closed. All but two of the pubs and one hotel remain open. Taking a trip there a few years ago, where there had been people’s gardens were more modern pokey-box pretend starter houses at five times the price anyone could afford. The only footsteps and voices in the High Street were ours, and there wasn’t even a tourist in sight. The silence was oppressive – it was like at the beginning of those black-and-white British movies where the entire population is ‘disappeared’…
“Listen, Caruthers,” Professor Alan Quartofmuck declared. Caruthers cocked his head on one side and puffed reflectively at his pipe.
“No birdsong,” he marvelled.
“Bingo!” exclaimed Quartofmuck and strode to the nearest shop, peered through the window into the gloom beyond…
I saw this decline begin in the early 1970s, as shopkeepers retired and their children went to university to become… other things in other places. I wept when I heard an oft-repeated phrase of those times in the news, ‘urban decay’ and wondered about my own little patch of he planet. Yes, we moved away. Yes, I became things and ended up somewhere else – but at least I’m not crammed into a city. That way, to my mind, Madness lies…
© Jeremiah Savant – used by permission
Jeremiah is ashamed to be British and has fallen through almost every safety net. Finally finding a voice, read his explosive memoirs...