I wrote this 20 years ago. Maybe things have changed and maybe I was unfair.

I don’t think I have ever told you much about my early life, though I did elude to it a bit in one of my stories. Well I was born up in the north east of England a place called Newcastle, a large industrial city, now alas a poverty stricken slum area. In the 50’s it was a ship building, mining, and steelworking Mecca.

We lived in a small village called Wylam, about 8 miles from Newcastle. Dad acted as butler, cook, gardener and general handyman, mother as maid, etc. to a retired solicitor, Howard Solomon. We lived in grandeur in a huge house called Stanley Burn House.

At age 5 I attended the local elementary school, however  ‘Uncle Sol’ as I knew him was not happy with that situation feeling that the ‘regular’ school was no place to get an education, so at the grand old age of 7, I started commuting on the train to Newcastle, then by bus to Gosforth (a suburb) to attend a private school  ‘Eastcliff Grammar’.

The private thing only lasted 2 years, my benefactor died and we relocated to the south part of the country.

In 1980, just prior to moving to Canada, I took a nostalgic trip back to Wylam, I’m a firm believer in not going back, but broke my own rule and went back to rediscover my youth. Stanley Burn House is now a private nursing facility, it supports about 20 elderly patients, one of which was a lady called ‘Jean Sparks’, Jean used to run the local pub, on several occasions we would all go there on a Saturday night. In the UK kids are not allowed in the bar, but Jean would let me sit in her private lounge and watch the TV. It was an interesting little visit. Wylam sure had changed. The railway station long since gone. The shop closed. The fields where I used to play, houses. Fascinating but so destructive to the memories. I spoke to no one, made no attempt to find anyone who might remember me. It was just a quiet nostalgic visit.

I did something similar in 1990 when I was forced to go back to England for a week. I went back to visit West Hendred, the village where I lived from age 9 through age 20. Another interesting but again destructive adventure. I started off with lunch at ‘The Hare’, tough walking into your home and not recognizing anyone, I looked at the bar and years of long forgotten memories came flooding back, the hours of happy times spent in this room talking with the local characters.

A pint of beer and a sandwich later, it is out into the cold that is winter in England. West Hendred 15 mile from Oxford, population 300, basically one street. The Hare was at the ‘top’ of the village. Well, down the road of
memory destruction I head. The village shop, I went to school with the owners son, closed up, a private home. The farm yard where we used to help out at harvest time, gone, the barns converted into chic homes. Twilley Springs, a small spring fed pond, supporting a population of rare 7 spined sticklebacks fenced off and private. What a shame, what a wonderful place for kids to play.

The village school, long since closed, the school, when I attended it boasted two classrooms and a roster of 16 children. Yes I should not have been surprised by its demise. Down past the church (built 14th century) that at least seemed to have stayed the same, no, I was wrong, now apparently there is no vicar, services are held only on alternate Sundays. The Church the very heart of village life, that too gone.

I head across the field to where the brook is, ahh the brook, how many countless hours were spent fishing for trout. We had a strict catch and release policy,  the brook was small and would have been simple to over fish. This was where I faced the worst of what had changed, that lovely spring fed chalk stream, brown and foaming, the sure sign of pollution, run off from the fields, farmers using pesticides. I can tell that no fish has lived in this steam for many a year.

Hmmm things change a lot in 15 years. You know the odd thing is I could see nothing that had changed for the better. I sat for long minutes watching the filthy water flow its destructive course.

I decide that to complete this destruction of memories I will now go talk to people I knew, first stop Mr. Prosser, musician , Welshman, singer, ex headmaster of the village school. Now in his late 70’s, but his mind still razor sharp. Shame to see the ravages of time. The flesh I could tell becoming very weak indeed. An odd visit, it was as if he had been with me on my journey, all of he places I had seen he talked about. The village no longer having a shop, the inconvenience this caused the older folks, The pub not being the same, no longer was it a warm and cozy place, now merely a place of commerce , Fred the farmer’s death, the sale of the valuable building plots, the lack of a spiritual leader, the death of a community. As the death of the brook had effected me, I saw that it was only a symptom of a larger problem. The village had died, but why, why had the community allowed this to happen. Deep in thought I take my leave and head to my final appointment.

Long time friend, some time mentor, Jim Spey. Ex BBC news reader, ex codebreaker during world war II, a Scotsman proud of his heritage, always resplendent in kilt and dirks. 50 years my senior, but a better friend I cannot think of, I had phoned him the previous day and offered to buy him a drink. 5:30 in the Hare.

I am a few minutes late, the walk back up the village either took longer than it used to, or maybe it was just that I was preoccupied with what I had seen, somehow trying to put off the inevitable meeting with an old friend. Was I heading to the destruction of yet another memory.

Yes 10 years had wreaked their destruction on a proud old man. The kilt not quite pressed, the bronze buttons not quite polished,  his skin had taken on that waxy complexion of yet another person waiting to die. Society had also taken it’s toll on him, they had taken away his driving license, they had humiliated him in the national press. Driving to his sons house the previous year  he had become confused and ended up driving for 10 miles the wrong way on the  M1 (a very very busy interstate), his punishment, no more driving and the ignominy of  seeing his story in the national press.

Yes it was hard for him these days he told me. His sons rarely visited, he came to the Pub most evenings just for some company, though the company he sought had stopped going there years ago. Money was tight, he could afford a pint of beer and a shot of his beloved scotch whiskey, he had learned to make this last, to savor each precious moment of human company. The scotch could be further eked out by adding some coffee. Hmm this was something that surprised me, in all the years I had known Jim I never saw him put anything in his drink, not even ice.

A sacrilege he would say, ruining good scotch with ice!

Twice a week he would walk to the next village East Hendred, here he would make his small purchases, money permitting maybe even a small bottle of scotch. Our time together came to an end all to soon, 7:30 my ride arrived, and into the darkness I headed, alone in my thoughts of a village that had died, a community that had frittered away so many precious aspects of life.

In 93 I returned to the UK once again, this time to bury my Father. Ten days before Christmas. The weather was in mourning with me, the wind sharp and cruel, the rain coming down in torrents, yes this was the England that I left, this was the England that I had grown to dislike. On a cold wet Monday I went to the dreary little funeral home in Wantage. I came to pay my respects to a man I loved, yet again all I saw was commerce, ah you are the son, and at what address shall we send the bill to you. My god, for people in the death business they could have shown a little more compassion. After spending a few moments with my father I exited back out into the wind and rain. Wantage was where I had gone to high school, Wantage was where I had spent my late teens , it had been my social center.
I stood in the center of the town square, and looked around, I recognized almost nothing, as best I can recall, Lloyds bank was the only store front that had not changed.

The cute little pub ‘The Post Office Vaults’ where we had socialized as teens now a chic  mall of arty shops. Yet more memories gone.

That evening I put on a heavy jacket and went for a walk in the rain. I had much on my mind, tomorrow’s funeral, facing that final proof of mans mortality. Yes England had indeed become a frustration to me, I could not see me ever returning with any permanence, a drab land, populated by drab people. A society actively destroying it’s self. Maybe it’s just progress, maybe it’s evolution, I don’t know, but it disturbs me. Snatches of George Orwell kept springing to mind, the drabness of 1984, the futility of animal farm, the self destructiveness of keep the aspidistra flying. Orwell had not written works of fiction he had written about the land he lived in.

 

 

 

Be Sociable, Share!