So I took off to Bledlow Ridge, a village on the spine of a hill, and zig-zagged down the eastern slope. There was hardly any breeze and the February sun actually warmed my face. Near the top, my route descended to a hollow where the public footpath had been churned up by big-wheeled vehicles. Logs were stacked at the side. Suddenly, I don’t know what triggered it, there was the sense of an earlier time.This post was previously published in 2008, when bloggery was often a vehicle for the anonymous author to share intimate confessions to total strangers. Not me, I always had readers who knew who I was, especially a few who disputed my veracity, or requested censorship.
As a hitch-hiking student in the early Sixties, I’d be picked up by drivers with sometimes bizarre or lurid anecdotes, knowing we’d never meet again. As a captive passenger for the duration, I’d listen like a priest behind a screen. The world has changed a lot since then. Here’s a thing from my own past, worth bringing to light again for the same candour revealed in readers’ comments.
Belonging (February 29th, 2008)
The day after posting my last (The Snowdrop Garden), I felt cleansed, as a Catholic might feel after a visit to the confessional. Burdens removed, joy restored. I published only a small selection of what I’d drafted, but had never felt such catharsis from writing.
So I took off to Bledlow Ridge, a village on the spine of a hill, and zig-zagged down the eastern slope. There was hardly any breeze and the February sun actually warmed my face. Near the top, my route descended to a hollow where the public footpath had been churned up by big-wheeled vehicles. Logs were stacked at the side. Suddenly, I don’t know what triggered it, there was the sense of an earlier time, from my early childhood, or perhaps of another life which I never lived.
Cocks crowed, dogs barked. Birdsong echoed across the clearing. “I have everything,” I felt, but knew the feeling belonged to that time and place. I was merely passing through, but imagined someone in olden times building a cairn or wayside shrine to mark the spot. Perhaps I might find some fossil or rusty relic to take home as souvenir. It was just a thought: I kept on walking.
There are moments when my mind is reflective like a pond, its surface rippled by odd memories or a sense of familiarity. My childhood, in retrospect, seems to have been sustained by little more than such special moments. For a few months, at five years old, I was fostered in post-war Holland, 1947. Looking back, I never felt more secure than in that firmly-principled family where I could go places on my own and generally wander. Such must have been the sense of complete safety after the recent Liberation. I saw horse-drawn milk-carts and a smithy where on my way from school I’d be drawn to watch the farrier making a horse-shoe and nailing it on a horse’s hoof whilst still hot. I would happily have stayed with my “aunt” and family just as I would have happily stayed in Australia before that. But my mother brought me back to England to a life unutterably bleak and lonely. Such was the pull of my destiny. What can I do now but embrace it?
Of late I’ve been reclusive, passing the time of day only with neighbours, many of whom hardly speak English; every day a perennial exile, a retired man pottering unnoticed in his tiny plot, venturing out only on trivial errands. So it was a big deal to be assigned to attend a training workshop presented by the eminent British Standards Institution, BSI, now subsumed into ISO.
The topic was “Business Continuity Management”. I had no idea what it meant. It was held at a luxury hotel and golf complex in Northamptonshire. There I met the other thirty-five delegates, each with a background in rarefied forms of management consultancy, a profession which had employed me in the Eighties.
I’d planned to keep quiet throughout the day, just take a few notes and keep the Powerpoint handouts to send to my colleague as requested. At one point though I found I had something worth adding to the discussion, suddenly realizing that I had once participated in a business continuity exercise, without knowing what it was called.
It was at Eurotunnel, before the Channel Tunnel opened for business, and concerned what should happen in an emergency, with a train broken down under the English Channel, or Le Manche as they call it on the other side. We were to suppose an unknown number of injured passengers. How to co-ordinate the rescue? A selection of employees & consultants took part; keeping in touch by telephone with the English and French emergency services and civic authorities fronted by the Mayors of Folkestone and Calais.
We ran the whole exercise from one room in Folkestone, scattered around a ping-pong table supporting a Lego model of the undersea railway. These diagrams give an idea of the structure.
Despite best efforts, the complex co-ordination failed, with a believable outcome. Injured passengers were taken out of the tunnel and left untended on a platform at Folkestone. Simultaneously a team of paramedics went in from Calais to look for them in vain.
My tale seemed to make a vivid impression At the next break, when we queued for coffee, a tall man introduced himself to me: an ex-cavalry officer who now advised Royal Signals on their responsibilities for communications. We were able to converse very easily. I mentioned the American armed forces who are so dependent on satellites for almost everything, and he smiled. The strength of the British Army, he said, was its poor communications which put local officers on their mettle and created heroes. Ah yes, I said, like the Light Brigade: we are famous for heroic cockups, or was it Lord Tennyson who made The Charge of the Light Brigade famous through his poem? Oh, he said, Tennyson wrote another poem, The Charge of the Heavy Brigade in which the British had done another insane charge and actually won; but that poem was not so famous, and we had sustained even heavier losses. We briefly touched on the misfortune of winning a war: losers seem to benefit more. I mentioned that Milton’s Paradise Lost was a better poem than Paradise Regained. He said he has Paradise Lost on an audio tape he listens to in the car. He reads Homer’s Odyssey whenever he can, little bits at a time (surely the only way!). He said his father had read to him when he was young and now he reads to his children: rare authors whose names I failed to note but when uttered by him seemed uniquely magical. I didn’t even get his name, this literary cavalry officer.
Could I have been like this charming man with such poise and perfect manners, if I’d have been raised in a prosperous nurturing family? I told him of the tattered banners captured by my great-grandfather at the battle of Tel-El-Kebir, and being in the cadet force at school—as he had too—and the true reason for my teenage pacifism. It wasn’t a hatred of killing but a hatred of arbitrary authority. I was astonished at my own words for I hadn’t till that moment realised this. He smiled and understood perfectly, as if he were no stranger to such thoughts. I think there was a subconscious connection between us that made me say it.
That this encounter made such an impression on me was, I now reflect, the truest snobbery: the urge to belong and be accepted. I have been so long out on a limb, adrift from the herd—every possible herd—that I have sought to belong to nothing but Nature herself. I have secretly claimed descent from the Australian aborigines, as an excuse for feeling alienated. But in the last few days I have found I belong to several fraternities: my street is one, the ranks of senior citizens is another—in the supermarket an old man told me his vividly tragic life-story whilst we waited at the checkout. So I must have changed somehow. Perhaps I no longer carry the scent of a Steppenwolf. Or maybe the officer was just humouring me? Perhaps his old-fashioned English manners charm everyone equally? I say no, it was special, but my subsequent dream tells me that unconsciously I’m still insecure:
I walk into the office chatting with a colleague, who looks very much like the model and actress Liz Hurley, once the girl-friend of Hugh Grant. If that cavalry officer were a woman, she’s the one he would be. She goes into a cupboard to hang up her coat, while I continue talking to her through the closed door, raising my voice. She doesn’t come back out. I look round and all my other team colleagues, who were sitting in our section, have disappeared too. A couple of staff from another project look up disdainfully across the open-plan office to see me talking to myself.