Sunday, September 27, 2009

Corris and Dinas Mawddwy – musings 28th June 2009

Today we visited the Corris Railway and Museum and the Merrion Mill at Dinas Mawddwy. This led to reflections on the nature of the past and its presentation, and also on continuities.

The line of the Corris Railway after closure was not at all obvious. A wide shelf, often below the road level, alongside the main road between Corris, Pantperthog and below, roughly fenced in slate, provided the main sign, and between 1982 and 2009 much of this was altered, with the provision of skid rails and the widening of the road over parts of the site. My first recollection, on my visits in the 1980s, was of the building at what is now called Maesporth Junction, with the eventual appearance of a short length of rail. Compared with the Talyllyn nearby, this seemed both a forlorn hope and a token attempt at preserving some sort of remains. After final closure in 1948, and subsequent demolition, two locomotives and some rails had been salvaged by the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, and it seemed unlikely that revival would ever happen.

We began at the only station, with its accompanying museum, visiting the latter before and after the rail journey. This was in exceptional heat, and we sat in one of two carriages, on wooden bench seats, talking to a lady from London who owned two separate weeks of a timeshare at Plas Talgarth, and was enjoying the second one. She said that the timeshare grounds were well-maintained, but that the timeshares themselves were almost impossible to sell. She had not considered buying the rights to the intervening week, as she barely had time to get away from her other commitments. Like many retired people, she had become so involved with voluntary work that she could not get away for long, and she had had to find someone to over her for the two separate weeks when she was away. She said that she was planning to downsize and that if she moved she could get away from her voluntary commitments. It made me wonder about the "voluntary" nature of "voluntary commitments".

The journey along the line was disappointingly short – two straight sections and a bend, with no overbridges or underbridges – indeed, the Corris had few, if any, of these. There were views across the valley of a large modern house and a well-screened caravan park. It was not long before the train arrived at Maesporth. This, historically, was the point where there was an engine shed, and there was now the preserved version and a new shed which had just been completed with some Objective One and WAG money. We were shown round by a volunteer, a younger middle-aged man in a waistcoat and bowler hat. The chequered and complex history of the Corris lines, from horse-drawn to locomotives, was sketched, and the modern locomotives, for which all the money had been raised by volunteers with some wealthy benefactors. It was stressed that money and volunteers were sought, and this was one of the few preserved lines that did not have departments, so that volunteers could work on track or locomotives as they wished, and the driving of the latter could be carried out at a much earlier stage than on other lines. There were plans to extend the line south to the Forestry Commission site at Tynycoed, at which visitors could park to take the line up to the museum.

One feature mentioned by our guide was the concerns about the Talyllyn; pressed, he pointed out that it had experienced financial problems and had had to sack the general manager and appoint a previous one on a voluntary basis. Considering that the first general manager, Tom Rolt, was paid on a limited basis in 1951-2, as were presumably his successors, this seems to be a step backwards. I wonder if this is a consequence of the recession and the reduction in tourism, or because the Talyllyn is static as an attraction (bar the rebuilt museum at Tywyn) and the new Welsh Highland seemed about to open fully [actually, not until 2011].

Our guide stressed that the employee who used to fire the engines in the shed at Maesporth worked a 14.5 hour day, with leave only on part of Sunday! I have read about the very low pay to those at the Centre for Alternative Technology, and that this is one of the few operations that actually pays anyone. Maybe these tourist attractions – for that is what they are – are based on minimal or no pay, at levels that may not prove sustainable.

We returned slowly to drink coffee and buy two books at the Museum. This was an oddly old-fashioned building and exhibits, one a carriage that had been used as a henhouse for many years, and some excellent models that showed, for instance, the way the working line had looked at Pantperthog. It was all somewhat miscellaneous, and did not tell the story in any structured way, but was nevertheless interesting, as an example of a museum inspired by amateurs.

We talked to the very vocal and affable man behind the counter, who had come there with his wife, from Rhyl, about 1.5 hours drive away. He revealed that he had been out of work for about 12 months, and I wonder how he affords the journey to Corris – maybe his expenses are paid, and I hope so. He proved to have interests that crossed with mine – he was President of the sailing club at Foryd, which Denbighshire Council was hoping to improve. He had a love of non-fiction books, and a large collection. And he was trying to find out about his father, who had died 30 years ago, having been in the Great War. He had tried to find out his war record, had been to a regimental museum, and had seen a book there, which he wanted to read again, but could not find through the internet. He was surprised when I pointed out that any book could usually be obtained through inter-library loans. I suggested that he should contact my sister about genealogy, since he wanted to find descendants, if any, of his father. As we were talking, an older man came and showed him a photograph in a railway magazine of himself on the locomotive Katie, which is used by the Duke of Westminster at Eaton Hall. The track there is just used for pleasure, but he said that it used to run parallel to the main drive at Eaton Hall and across the fields to Balderton, over land that has been partly sold. What was strange is that we had seen Katie at Whit, and that an earlier Katie had inspired Tom Rolt, who visited other narrow lines and co-founded the TRPS, on a line less than 10 miles away…… Coincidence has a long arm. In different ways, all three of us were engaging with very different pasts, as was, indeed the railway and the enthusiasts who backed it.

We made our farewells and drove up a long and remote road before Aberfelleni, with many dramatic slate workings, one apparently in use, and then through the forest to Aberangell and north to Dinas Mawddwy. Our destination was Merrion Mill, in the remains of the terminal station of the branch line to Dinas. Just before it began to pour with rain, we got into the mill, and there I found an odd booklet, Arriving at Dinas Mawddwy, that in fact dealt with the railway and the mill building.

Like the Corris, the GWR had taken over the branch to Dinas and removed passenger traffic in 1930, in the face of bus competition, while damage caused by the Dovey floods had led to total closure in 1951 (against 1948 in the case of the Corris. The Dinas line had been built to exploit the same veins of slate as the Corris, and it too had been the subject of plans for ambitious extensions northwards, to Bala in its case as against Dolgellau for the Corris. The Corris Railway Society had been formed in 1970, and has steadily revived elements of its line, but the Dinas line was the subject of quite different approaches.

Even before final closure, a group of farmers had taken over a terminal quarry building, now the Merrion Mill. From 1946 they began to weave wool there, the produce of their own sheep, with the control and guarantee of prices in mind. This lasted, on a limited and reducing scale, until 1963, after which a Yorkshire firm took over, modernised the building and machinery, until it became insolvent in 1965. Another firm took over in 1966 and restored the mill and many of the station buildings; from 1974 this planned to run a short preserved line from the Mill. This operated in 1975 but not for long afterwards, due to increasing costs and limited viability. It seems that this was run as a commercial operation, and it is interesting that this started and ended before the Corris had laid a single rail over its line. The booklet makes it clear that weaving continued at Merrion Mill, but not when it ended (although its last edition was in 2004, little seems to have been updated since the first in 1974). The Mill is now a large shop, with a tea-room, selling woollens, other clothes and memorabilia.

Both the Corris and Dinas quarries began as part of speculative efforts to exploit slate an other resources (part of the “improvement” of the area, explicit in the case of Dinas), and in a way they have ended as part of late 20th century tourist development. They have now also become enmeshed with a past, in ways that remain indeterminate and ambiguous.

Old Novelists Interred Once More - September 20 2009

Yet more musings, as I begin to rid myself of some old books…

Some time in the early 1970s, while I was still at school, my mother told me about novelists that she had read in the 1930s and 1940s. She had very few examples of their work now, and the libraries, even then, had removed many of these from their shelves. Charity shops were just about beginning – the Oxfam Shop was always the one that people cited – but there were more shops that simply sold old books, rather than antiquarian or first editions at vast prices. As an aside, it is only recently that one of the last shops that I can recall to be billed as selling “Old Books” – Stothert’s of Chester - closed, citing Internet sales and rates as a reason. Their shop on Nicholas Street is now occupied by a hairdresser.

So my Mother suggested various authors whom, she said, had been popular in her youth, but seemed to be no longer so. Jeffrey Farnol’s The Broad Highway (1910) was one; this has lately been reissued and its text fully available on Gutenberg. The author that has remained fairly popular, J B Priestley, could still be found on the library shelves – I read Angel Pavement (1929) and The Good Companions (1930) at her suggestion. Priestley (1894-1984) was still then alive, and I recall reading The Magicians (1954) and The Image Men (1968) as fairly recent novels rather than as old books in need of discovery. There is now a J B Priestley Society, formed by his son in 1997. There is also a Society for Francis Brett Young, whose regional novels, many set in the West Midlands, were popular in the 1930s. I read one or two of these, with well-evoked settings but unmemorable narratives.

There are no such societies for some of the other authors, almost forgotten, to whom she introduced me. I think that I had already come across Dennis Wheatley, with his Black Magic books, like The Devil Rides Out, and tall tales like The Eunuch of Stamboul. But I had not heard of authors like Hugh Walpole and L A G Strong. Strong’s Dewer Rides seemed impressive, and a favourite, about Ireland, was The Bay. I acquired books by Strong in the closing months of 1974, when I was at university, and also in Wallasey and West Kirby. I read some of these, but did not get too far with Walpole, whose writing style was stodgy.

This stodginess did not prevent me from seeking to acquire all of Walpole’s novels; the collector’s instinct had taken over, the hunt more important than the “bag”. I recall arriving at University, in a strange town, and finding a rather dusty charity bookshop in the town. The old man who ran it, who must by now be long gone, told me that he read old novels every day, and introduced me to Mrs Henry Wood, author of the best-selling East Lynne (1861), and others. One time whilst I was there I mentioned Walpole, and a youngish man in the shop said that he, too, was seeking books by Hugh Walpole. His name was Terry, and he proved to be a university lecturer; he and his wife invited me to dinner at their home, where they talked about Hugh Walpole. I think I visited one or twice more, with a spare copy of a Walpole novel, and then I lost contact.

I had also espied, on my parents shelf, a book named And Berry Came Too (1936), by Dornford Yates. Yates’ novels and short stories were fantasies of two kind: light romantic comedies set in country houses, and the desperado adventures (“ripping yarns”, one writer has commented) in Ruritania of upper-class clubland heroes akin to those of Buchan and Sapper, or even as forerunners of the later James Bond. I collected these for many years, and even bought the biography after it appeared in 1982. The biography confirmed the nature of the author – ineffably snobbish and racist – but readable.

I am not now entirely sure exactly why I collected these books. Partly it was the wish to fill shelves, to have something that expressed something of me. And partly, I had some sort of notion that I could study these books and find some continuing value in them. Perhaps also it was a way of connecting with the world of my mother, although talking to her tonight she has few memories of these authors or even recommending them.

It became clear to me long ago that I would never have time to read most of these books, let alone write a critical study. I have many other books on my shelves, and in boxes in the loft, that represent projects that I will never complete. So, it is time that these found another collector, although I suspect that the relevant collector will be the one who empties the skip. It is, even now, a wrench, disposing of these books, a discarding of something that had meaning once. But, with the meaning gone, it is wasteful to keep the evidence for what I already know.

I will retain a small representative sample, notably Strong’s The Bay, and Angel Pavement. Most of the rest will probably disappear from public view, as well they might. It is likely that only curiosity, or students of the history of reading, as against literature, will inspire interest in these sorts of books in future.

Heritage and Sligo – some musings on 2 July 2008

This was partly a diary entry, partly an opportunity to reflect upon my views of conservation, on what was the fourth full day in Ireland.

The weather forecast had indicated a day of torrential rain today, and when it turned out not to be raining, we had decided to go to Enniskillen. When I accidentally turned into the wrong road, past Knockvicar, and there seemed to be the first signs of sun, we decided to take the smaller road to Sligo, through the hills, and then decide where to go. Bordering County Leitrim, which itself borders Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, our decision would have been made for us 20 years ago. To cross the border would have been difficult, entailing queues and perhaps searches. Instead, I spent the day with our UK passports in my shirt pocket. Noone has asked to see these; on my third visit to Ireland I had travelled on an out-of-date passport, and risked being sent back to my own country, presumably to the North. No such problems today; but I wonder how many of the holiday homes so much in evidence in Sligo and Leitrim are patronised by UK citizens from the North rather than by people from the much more distant cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. We will be visiting the Erne on the North, which before the Troubles was a growing holiday area. I recall a somewhat quirky TV programme in which someone from tourism in the North was extolling the virtues of the Erne – apparently filmed from a boat in which he was on his own.

Sligo was soon reached; with a population one-third of that of Wallasey, and yet crowded and congested, so that we did not park. Instead we drove along the coast to Strandhill, a small seaside resort that reminded Sara somewhat of beach resorts in Anglesey. A very wide and steep slipway led down to a stony beach, beyond which there were wide if poorly-accessed sands. Prominent signs erected by Sligo County Council warned visitors against swimming, and stated that “There is no lifeguard on duty”. A young woman sitting cross-legged on the sea wall gave the lie to the latter, while there were numerous people in the water, sea-canoeing, surfing and swimming. This is a country in which there are dire penalties for breaking laws that seem rarely to be enforced, like those fining gum-chewers 150 euros for not depositing their gum in a bin. At Mullaghmore we followed the dog round with a plastic bag, and a young woman commended us, but said that the law on dog mess was rarely adhered to. Perhaps the direct flouting of planning principles, in the provision of suburban housing in unserviced locations, reflects this disdain for inconvenient laws.

We had coffee outside a pub, which, like many in Ireland, proved to be much bigger than it looked from the outside, and watched a group in black ties leaving a wake that had evidently taken place there. Families seem more together here, and people friendlier – perhaps one result is less evidence of abusive children. It is an irony that a country that regularly elects a conservative government (albeit sometimes with leftish-nationalist leanings) and is so dominated by the Catholic church, both anathema to me, should feature such friendly, polite and generous people.

A reminder of a different kind of conservatism awaited us at Lissadell House, which we visited on impulse. It was described in our out-of-date guide as being in a forest, belonging to the Gore-Booth family, and having teas served in the basement kitchen. Only the former remains true, and since the house and 200 acres were sold by the surviving Gore-Booths in 2003, for 3.7 million euros, much has changed. It has been acquired by two barristers and is being developed as a much more modern heritage attraction.

One less attractive feature was the need to park (anywhere outside the official car park was strictly subject to wheel-clamping) and then to the far end of the “Coach House” to find out the charges for visiting the house (and indeed the separate charges for the exhibition and gardens). 6 euros each, for a guided tour of the house, seemed not so bad, although it was a rushed tour of about 45 minutes, and Sara, walking with a stick, had to walk a fair distance to get to the front of the house. A small party assembled there, and we were conducted quickly round by a female guide who told us that she took tours round every day from 1030 onwards. Sara commented about one feature, and was surprised when the guide told her, warmly enough, that many people never asked anything or commented at all.

The public rooms in the house proved, frankly, ugly and cold, with the exception of a central room used as a music room, which was breath-taking. Much more interesting was the story of the family, very much an English family, but, unlike many whose houses were burnt down (one reason why there are so many fewer country houses in Ireland than in the UK), the English estates were used to support the Lissadell estate and some of the excesses of absentee landlordism were avoided. Quite what “heritage” this now represents for visitors from the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland, is unclear. In England, most country house owners were English, as were their tenants. That the English owners of Lissadell were concerned about possible rebellion is shown by the bars across some of the basement windows.

Yet concerns about Irish rebellion were much closer to home. Two Gore-Booth sisters brought up at Lissadell during the Victorian era were to prove rebellious. Eve, the younger sister, was to become a suffragette, but her older sister Constance, was to become a revolutionary. Having been trained by her father in shooting, she turned this into support for the Easter Rising of 1916, for which she was condemned to death, her sentence only commuted because she was female. After release, and married to a Polish aristocrat named Markewicz (the family had had him investigated, and discovered that he had the right to the title but no land or wealth went with it) she became successively the first female M.P. in the Westminster parliament and then the first female TD in the new Dail. Representing Sinn Fein, she did not take up the first seat and was part of the Anti-Treaty forces, but when she died in 1927 (aged 59) around 400,000 people lined the streets of Dublin before her funeral. Countess Markewicz had been disowned by her family, but he story is part of the “heritage” of Lissadell, commemorated in an exhibition there. Why she joined nationalist forces for a nation that was not hers is uncertain, as, indeed are the reasons why she went against the interests of her class. Over 80 years after her death, one wonders at the meaning of her life at this house, and indeed, with Irish politics still nominally divided along neo-nationalist lines, what Irish visitors make of her is unclear. Probably the barristers who own the place now see her as a quaint if misguided figure, as many revolutionary figures from 1968 and after are now viewed (although not by figures like Sarkozy).

A further “heritage” is one whose details are contained in a folder of press cuttings on the billiard table in the room where the tour is assembled. The “Lissadell affair” indicates the strange nature of ownership and the legal fictions that surround it. What seems to have happened is that the Gore-Booths owned the estate into the 1939 war, in which two of the heirs were killed. This left an heir, Michael, who had been declared insane in 1944, and, it seems, spent most of the rest of his life (he died in 1987) in a mental hospital in England. Other family members lived at Lissadell, at least in summer, but Michael was declared a ward of court, and upon inheritance on 1952, the Court Solicitor was deemed to manage his affairs. This was challenged by a family member, living at the house, who alleged mismanagement at the estate, including the sale of timber without proper accounting or re-planting.

In 1961 this was the subject of inquiry, but with no opinion issued until 1965. When it appeared, this opinion accused the family member of interfering, claiming that she had no right to live in the house or interfere with the affairs of the estate. It was suggested that she was only allowed to live there because it was assumed that these would be Michael’s wishes; but it was also suggested in the press in 1971 that, had Ireland had an Ombudsman, the “Lissadell affair” would prove a classic case of maladministration for it to investigate. To me, it demonstrates some of the falsities and fictions around the notion of “ownership”. Who, ultimately, owns our environment- if not all of us? When mental incapacity meant that the legal owner could not be entrusted with ownership, a strange branch of the state, with strict trusteeship duties, was forced to intervene and consider, or determine, what that owner would have done had his mental capacity been adequate. What appears to have resulted is the rundown of the Lissadell estate – although how far that would have happened anyway, and how legitimate were the “interests” of that “estate”, are different matters.

There were some connections with Lissadell and W B Yeats, and indeed the area around there has been dubbed “Yeats country”, as though his spirit still animated the place. Sara commented, when we passed a signpost for his grave, that often the burial place, or places where an author had lived, provides no clues, or even produces false clues, about that person’s art or inspiration. Indeed, the area must have changed so much in the almost 70 years since the poet died, that it is hard to envisage what it must have been like. What Yeats would think of modern Irish society is also unclear.

He would probably not approve of the European Union, although our visit to Murraghmore, off the main road, brought a reminder of this. Murraghmore’s remote location, as a headland overlooking a bay, has been much compromised by the erection of numerous modern bungalows, some apparently as holiday homes. We decided to visit the beach, which has a surviving dune system behind it, but our attention was caught by a bin from which crows, no respecter of waste management policies, had pulled out various items of rubbish, which lay strewn around. A noticeboard stated that a substantial part of Murraghmore Head is a Special Area of Conservation; it stressed the inadvertent damage caused to the dunes by dogs, by trampling and by the casual and agricultural removal of sand. Despite the "traditional" nature of the latter, it is now discouraged. We had a reminder the following day of a similar EU policy protecting habitats, with bans on the hand-digging of small quantities of turf. This indicates a clash between two approaches to conservation, one stressing cultural links with environmental practices, the other overriding such practices in the interests of a largely inanimate nature.

A final point of discussion was presented by our final stop of a long day’s journey. After eating in a largely deserted pub in Bundoran, we followed a scenic route through the hills towards Lough Allen. We drove past a Waterways Ireland sign to Spencer Harbour, and turned round to follow a driveway to one of only two harbours on Lough Allen. Lough Allen is the highest of several lakes on the Shannon and has played a part in the hydropower scheme that was one of the Irish Free State’s first major infrastructure investments, involving its earliest parastatal, the Electricity Supply Board. The adjustment of levels on the Shannon was critical after this scheme was completed in the late 1920s, and one consequence was the cessation of navigation through the Lough Allen Canal, through which the last boat passed to the Shannon in 1932. The levels of Lough Allen and of the small Acres Lake, downstream, were kept much lower preventing the use of the Canal, which became derelict. The ambiguities in hydropower, its effect on nature conservation and on water transport should be stressed.

The use of Lough Allen for freight transport has long ceased; one curiosity is the derelict brickworks next to Spencer Harbour, which has the remains of timber landings next to it, but which were probably never used after the nineteenth century. Its use for leisure transport has returned, at considerable expense. Gentle campaigning by the IWAI led to restoration of the first section to Acres Lake in 1994, and the new lock, with variable rise, into Lough Allen ten years later. I had already visited Acres Lake and met an angler there, who confirmed that the lake level had been greatly raised to permit restoration, while extensive new jetties had been provided. Despite this, there was one boat moored there and one hire boat that arrived whilst I was there.

Spencer Harbour also featured a solitary moored boat, and there seemed to be one boat at the harbour distant on the far side of the lake. Shannon harbours are very different from installations on British waterways; they usually feature access roads and car parking, w.c. and shower blocks, and extensive staging. The environmental impact of this engineering is unclear, and it is noteworthy that WI now plan to extend navigation up from Lough Allen towards Annagh, with the need for dredging and some rock removal. To “restore” navigation is thus to change the environment and perhaps damage tranquillity and modify landscapes, with some impact on wildlife. Ironically, this is to try to increase patronage by visiting boats, whose numbers seem to be declining. Like much “development” in Ireland, this does not always serve to assure greater sustainability.

Reflections on folklife - from 6 July 2008

Further musings, from a holiday in Ireland.

Today I visited the National Museum of Ireland’s Country Life museum at Turlough. The setting for this is odd – parkland next to a major road, with a Victorian house, Turlough Park House (from 1865) in restored parkland. Next to this is a modern building set into a hillside, designed by the Architectural Services of the Office of Public Works, and a credit to them. This, and the museum, opened in 2001, many years after the first collecting of artefacts began; a large building, not accessible to the public, houses much of the collections. We attended a guided tour, and our guide stressed that only a small part of the collection was on display.

Before the tour, Sara and I watched a video made in 2001. The commentary was thoughtful and careful, and stressed the hard conditions that used crafts and processes that may be described as “folk”. The worst example was that of men working to convert mud to turf for burning. There was, however, a comment that viewing the artefacts left by these processes link us to the people and their way of life. Sara was sceptical about this; it did seem to suggest some sort of spiritual or sentimental connection.

This link did reflect a distinction made about the NMI’s work. Collecting had accelerated after 1949, with a stress on the disappearance of traditional methods of work, but less upon the preservation of historic artefacts. One display demonstrated this, in that new items were made to order, by established craftsmen, rather than the donation or procurement of items that had been in regular everyday use. Another made a careful distinction between the artefacts and the collecting of evidence about the ways of life. It is stressed that most of these ways of life have disappeared, outside areas, like Muckross House Traditional Farms, in which these are conserved. Another is the continuation of practices like thatching, using reeds harvested alongside the Suir, partly encouraged by the conservation of listed buildings that are thatched.

I drew several conclusions from the Museum. One is the idea of “folk” and the small-scale, rural-based, work that it involves. This excludes industrial and transport work – thus millers, brewers and canal and rail transport, significant to Irish rural development, are not included. It refers to “the popular traditional way of life”, but this does not, it seems, include politics and class (and indeed religion). There are references to the conflicts during the period in which rural life in Ireland is considered (1850-1950), but this is not related to people’s lives, techniques and developments. We were conducted around two rooms in the “Big House”, with some reference to land reform and the declining support for the estates which supported Turlough Park, but again this was not reflected in the changes in agriculture, power development and techniques that form the subject of an small exhibition on the lowest level. It seems that the poverty depicted and the techniques used grew out of the land and the hardships that working it brought. And, apparently, it was technical change, rather than developments within capitalism, that brought about the decline of some practices. One might assume from this that the end of some quaint practices indicate a loss of connections with the land, a loss of collective and co-operative support, and even a loss of some essential Irishness. This could articulate ideologies similar to that of the English rural idyll (and its Scottish and Welsh variants), with some of the contradictions that such perspectives embody.

An excellent exhibition demonstrated the gap between the idyllic depiction of rural life in such films as The Quiet Man, and the harsh realities, shown mostly in photographs. Yet it is recording, through photography and tape, has perhaps reinforced some of the nostalgic view. It is easy to forget that photographs were posed, showing people proud of heir appearance or of techniques that they developed, or bemused, unaware that their appearance was being recorded and would be displayed on the walls of a museum in 2001. Taping, sometimes video recording, also involves selectivity, in the subject’s account (and their practice of story-telling) and the editing of that account. Elderly people may well be proud of memory, keen to reminisce, pleased that their memories and opinions count in a world that has changed so much and passed them by.

This brings me to my final concern, one that is rarely discussed explicitly. What are we (and who are we?) to make of all this loss, the ending of techniques, the loss of meaning of objects, the disappearance of whole ways of life? Is it to be regretted, and, if so, why? Is it, like John Seymour’s book on Ireland that I am reading, over the loss of self-sufficiency, of simpler ways of life? Or is it that these lives now have no meaning, indeed had no part to play in the construction of modern Ireland? One thing that is certain is that at least some of the artefacts have survived, that some memories have been expounded and retained, that much of the infrastructure of story-telling has also been carefully collected and kept (although, perhaps, out of context), and that much is understood about techniques and their relation to artefacts.

Without the artefacts, and the histories that set them in context, much would be lost. Whether that would be the source of grief – with lives led but forgotten – if they had been allowed to vanish, is unclear. Maybe there is a need for judicious forgetting, for an end to the romanticisation that some elements in the built environment can now bring about. Maybe the realisation of what the lives of distant relatives (even, possibly, my own) involved, might lead today’s peoples of Ireland people to re-appraise themselves. And maybe, like the Famine, which was not the stuff of conscious memory 50-60 years later, it is best not to allow forgetting to take place. For what is not celebrated is the victimhood of the people depicted, trapped in a world of unremitting poverty. Did any fight back and seek to change some part of their world? There is much evidence of this, even if this was primitive rebellion. Beyond the man-trap, there is little to indicate much about opposition. Maybe that may lead the observer to consider their own world passively.

I could have written much more about Yeats, Joyce and other representations, but left it there.

Many Septembers - some musings

Sometimes I feel the need simply to set down some scattered musings, lightly edited, and this piece has been inspired by events and commemorations this September.
The beginning of September 1978 marked a very significant day, the first day that I began work, full-time and permanently. 31 years later, I still cannot fall in with the view that “work” is some sort of panacea for personal concerns. I have never revised my opinion of paid employment, despite the official enthusiasm for “work” as the cure for all ills. Bluntly, paid employment can be hell, with its only virtue being payment, which the Americans rightly call “compensation”. Compensation is for time lost, time wasted, a life taken away by others, and often damaged health. Despite its wondrous qualities, so many people are physically ground down by the wondrous work, which forms a critical factor in the stark differentials in life expectancy between manual workers and those more privileged. That said, I have always found work to be a great source of satisfaction, but it is not paid work directed by others, but work which I carry out for its own sake, for my satisfaction.

Well, it is now two years since I opted to work part-time, and have been able to pursue my own sort of work with much less reliance on paid work. And it has been a lesser period since paid work became a small part of my life. One morning this month, for the first time ever, I woke up and, half-asleep, wondering what to do tomorrow – and then realised that I was to attend my workplace! It is good to have cut down the job to the stage when it is containable, and when a visit to the office is like a series of reunions. But I retain no illusions about the real nature of paid work.

September 8th 1895 was my grandfather’s birthday; he actually lived to the age of 84. The last British survivors of the 1914 war, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, died very recently, and when I read this it felt odd that a man that I had known, into my own adulthood, would now be the oldest man in Britain if he was alive today. On the day I write, there are only 6 people who were born before Grandad, two from Japan and four from the US. All are women, the oldest man living being born after Grandad. Henry Allingham, born in June 1896, had been the oldest man in Britain until he died.

Grandad was always somewhat boyish about his birthday, and it was always a special celebration. I don’t recall specific birthdays, just his emotion, from an outwardly unemotional man. I often look back over what little I know of his life, separated by generations, and wonder what he really thought about the world. And what of the events in his life, and that of my grandmother – where have they gone? It is all now so inaccessible, and I have only the shadowy imprint of memory. And yet – I knew well a man, who linked to times that are irreversibly gone. There is an intimacy in that, but also a gulf. Maybe someone will say the same about me at some point.

September 1939 saw the outbreak of war, and it is again interesting to think that nobody under the age of 70 could possibly recall the interwar years, and really noone under the age of 75 could have much more than the vaguest memory. My father would now be 87, and he volunteered in 1940; it will not be too long before there are few left able to recall the 1939-45 war. And yet, I grew up with this as a background, with bombsites that remained locally until the early 1990s, and with stories from a mother who had been bombed out twice in the blitz. It is all getting further and further away, and with that a loss of immediacy, of everyday recall for so few people.

The start of September was always an unhappy time for me. School would have begun again in the first week, and the long summer, always so highly valued, had ended. I recall feeling depressed at the start of each school year, longing for the Christmas break, and this dread was transferred to the beginning of winter when I started paid work. It was good to see this pattern broken when I ended full-time work, and I organised a short break in a Travelodge – our first – because it was possible so to do. I shall always favour the Bangor Travelodge, where we spent a Sunday and Monday night, and the much lower price for those nights, reflecting the limited demand. In September 2007 I went there gingerly, wondering if we would get a much worse deal and treatment from those paying the full price, but was pleasantly surprised. It seemed like such a new start, an entry into a new world, but so much would be overshadowed within a year.

September 1986 marked another landmark in my life – I became temperance. Initially, I was spurred by the feeling that drinking was causing me to gain excessive weight, but I had also grown too used to seeing pleasure as residing in alcohol. On holiday in Greece that summer I had drunk too much retsina and ouzo. So I stopped, for a week, as an experiment. I went along to a party which I found frustrating at first, because I was not drinking. Eventually I acted as if I was consuming alcohol, and was then accused of being drunk by one angry older man (drunk himself) before he stormed out. I realised that it was better to be in control, and have never drunk alcohol since. But it took a long time to adjust to being able to socialize and enjoy events without the lubricant of drink, and I am not sure that this did not contribute to depression later on. One thing I am glad about is that I stopped alcohol just before my father died that October. He was extremely pleased abut this. A moderate drinker himself, he had seen the blight caused by alcohol in others.

Finally, September 1989 was a very significant time, as I was just about to begin teaching, at Birmingham Polytechnic. (And I had moved house, in a tearing hurry, a move greatly regretted). I had previously booked a holiday in Northern Italy, and so spent this with work books, preparing my first lectures on a hotel balcony overlooking Lake Garda. I had little idea what would happen once these lectures was delivered, in a large draughty hall in Birmingham.

My abiding memories of Garda were of the almost permanent shadow in which the mountains placed the west shore of the Lake, and the odd conjunction between the picturesque scenery and landscape, and the lack of interest, indeed lack of life, in these areas. But I was also struck by an older couple to whom we talked on one of the lake boats. The husband, who was perhaps then about 70, said that he would not be there in 10 years time. Naively, I asked him why not, only to be admonished by Brenda. I thought it was sad that someone would know that they were in their last decade, albeit that this was realistic. I can still see this man on the boat, wondering what he was thinking, how he seemed so reconciled to his eventual demise. No doubt he is now long gone, but my sense of sadness, something that I had not really thought about up to then, has persisted. Most of my career in teaching has involved brief encounters, with people who remain largely anonymous, and whose fate in unknown. It has been 20 years of meeting and forgetting.

Postscript 2-1-2010: as at 31-12-2009, only three people (one Japanese, two US) are alive who were born before Grandad.
Postscript 8-4-2010: Today, only one person (Japanese) born before Grandad is still alive
Postscript 10-7-2010: Checking, I realise that since May 2010, the oldest person in the world now, was born in 1896. Somehow Grandad seems to have taken a further step away.