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Sunday, 1 April 2012

England After the War

An introduction to Summer Day

For a long time I have wanted to write about my childhood home. I tried memoir; I tried writing about my mother's life. I began to think much too late in life about what it must have been like for her, a young woman brought up in the city, to find herself in an isolated part of rural England with no-one to whom she could relate. Of course, to begin with it would have been just another in a long line of unpleasant changes wrought in the lives of English men and women by the war. You just had to make the best of it, think yourself fortunate by comparison to those still being subjected to nightly air raids and the soldiers, sailors and airmen facing death and injury at every hour of the day and night. One day it would all be over and life as it was lived before the war would return. Later, when realisation dawned that returning to London was not a practical option, she must have experienced moments of despair at the loneliness and the constant grind of having to undertake everyday chores when the means to carry them out were so limited.

As a child I was blissfully unaware of any of this except perhaps in those moments when her anxiety overflowed into impatience with my contrary ways although I would certainly have had no notion of what might have been behind such outbursts which were, in any case, no more frequent than those of any parent frustrated by their children's behaviour. For me and, later, my sister the bright meadows that surrounded our cottage and the stream that flowed behind it, tumbling over two precipitous waterfalls and through a small gorge were a wonderful playground. We saw nothing out of the ordinary in the fact that all our waste was disposed of by tipping it down the steeply sloping side of that gorge. We enjoyed fresh vegetables from the garden with no real appreciation of the back-aching work that our mother had undertaken weeks before, digging, forking, weeding, raking and hoeing in order to make it possible.

We played hide and seek in the farm buildings that overlooked the small windows of the cottage with its thick sandstone walls. The fact that the floors of sandstone flags laid directly onto clay were often wet with rising damp was taken for granted in our innocence and ignorance. Like any other boy I took delight in tormenting my sister with the rag-like spider-webs that festooned those outbuildings with their aroma of manure and rotting hay.

Peace and Quiet Spells Loneliness

The fact that we might see fewer than half a dozen vehicles on the lane on most days and that all of them were familiar to us: the farmer from across two fields or his son; the milkman who delivered fresh milk, not in bottles but ladled from a stainless steel bucket with a metal pint measure straight into our enamel jug. The postman's red van making daily collections from the letter box along the lane and the baker's van making twice weekly deliveries of bread baked locally. The rare sight of a vehicle that we did not recognise was a source of excitement to us children and looking back I can easily see how this absence of contact with the outside world would have been deeply frustrating for an intelligent woman who had once looked forward to a career as a leading hand and perhaps in time a supervisor in a garment factory.

The farmer who owned the land and the cottage would visit daily in winter when he used the pasture to fatten a dozen or so bullocks. Through the late spring, when the grass was being allowed to grow prior to harvesting as hay, we saw much less of him. In any case, those daily visits were no more than a brief walk through the yard on his way to check up on the beasts. I remember the smell of the Shag tobacco he would smoke in thin hand-rolled cigarettes. He rarely, if ever, used manufactured cigarette papers. A torn piece of newspaper or the corner from a white paper bag usually sufficed. A torn tweed jacket, sweat-stained trilby hat, dung stained flannel trousers and week-old stubble complete the picture of this man who surprised us one day with his ability to play the piano quite beautifully by ear.

Hay-making was an annual event that began with the arrival of a small green Fordson tractor with a mowing machine in tow. A few days later the rows of cut grass would be tossed and turned using pikes (pitchforks). A couple more days of drying in the July sunshine and it would be time to gather the sweet smelling dried herbage into piles called cocks. Then it would be loaded onto a horse drawn cart and stacked in the Dutch barn. Finally it would be time for the annual summer pantomime of which the leading player was the mechanical hay rake.

This device consisted of a row of curved tines mounted between two large iron wheels. It was used to gather up any hay that remained on the ground. The width of the machine across the wheels was several inches more than the space between the walls of the former pig-sty on one side of the field entrance and the bullock's winter quarters on the other. Too heavy to be carried through this gap, it had to be manoeuvred through in a series of arcs that involved a lot of head scratching, a great deal of sweat and a vast amount of cursing and swearing. This latter aspect of the performance had Mum trying to keep us away from the show but it was far too enthralling to be missed and no Buttons or Puss-in-Boots ever had a more appreciative audience.

Frost, Snow and Floods

Childhood memories are always filled with sunshine but there were days when we were confined to the tiny interior of the cottage watching rain run in rivulets down the outside of the window whilst Mum tried to distract us with books, jigsaws and such games as Ludo and Snakes and Ladders. In winter the windows would be covered with delicate leaf shapes as moisture froze on the inside as well as the outside. Sometimes the stream would break its banks and form a lake around the cottage making it impossible to access the spring from which we obtained our water.

Entertainment and information came via the wireless which required two batteries. The first a 120 volt DC unit about the size and weight of two bricks stuck together. Beneath the cardboard outer casing were 80 1.5 volt cells linked together and embedded in shiny black pitch. This was always referred to as the "high tension" battery and required infrequent replacement. The other battery was a lead-acid accumulator, an early form of rechargeable unit that had two lead plates inside a thick glass vessel full of acid. Charging was carried out at the garage in the village about three miles away. A charge lasted about a week so we had two of the things, one in use and one on charge. This necessitated a weekly trip, on foot, to the village and back carrying the accumulator.

In the winter of 1946/7 we were snowed in for several weeks. I should have started school after the Christmas holidays but was unable to do so until the Easter break was over. We relied for supplies on one of our neighbours who brought essential goods up from the village on horseback. There were no helicopters to drop food and drink to stranded house-holders in those days. The summer that followed was one of the longest and hottest experienced in England for many years.

Thinking about my childhood I wanted to write something that evoked as much of this as possible for my grand-daughter's generation and for those of any age who, perhaps, envy country-dwellers. I remembered that one of our neighbours had a glass eye, the consequence of a shooting accident. And I recalled how a family pet had to be disposed of when we eventually moved away from the cottage. Putting the two events together I came up with the idea of a boy distraught at the prospect of his pet being "put down" and causing his father to be injured. Believing he is responsible for the injury - which he supposes is fatal - he runs away.

It began life as a short story entitled Bad Boy written during a series of workshops with the Laois writer and creative writing tutor John Maher in the spring of 2009. It eventually appeared in the anthology Pulse of Life, published in November 2011 by the Laois Writers' Group. But in that form there was a long unfilled day between the shooting incident and discovery of the boy. I wanted to explore what might have happened during those hours; to the boy, to the dog and to the other family members. I also wanted to gain a better understanding of the boy and to examine the attitudes of some of the people he encounters. The result is the 61,500 word novel Summer Day which will be available to download free of charge at Smashwords throughout the month of April 2012.

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