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NOSTALGIA: a brief excursion into autobiography

I lived for most of the 1950s in the English county of Norfolk. Mother was the district nurse/midwife and so I saw the lot of very poor families, some abuse and cruelty although on the whole villagers were accepting of strangers and as there were few if any Black families those who arrived, largely professional people from the West Indies found ready acceptance. There were still characters abroad in those days including one old boy who begged for pints of bitter outside one of the village pubs. I remember he still wore the smock traditionally worn by farm laborers in earlier days. He was well in his nineties. I loved to chat with him about the village and his memories.

In 1953 my grandfather bought us a television so we could watch the Coronation. My grandson now has the Coronation Chair shaped money box we all received at school in commemoration of her Accession. I was bullied because I wasn’t into sports and loved reading and poetry and as the only child of a divorced mother (a great scandal) was subject to some taunts. Yet I loved serving or singing in the choir in our ancient parish church, going to the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham and even a Billy Graham rally all to the astonishment of my less than churched mother. The round of Prayer Book services, sung psalms, the calender of lessons for feasts and fasts, all in olde English was the stuff of my teen religion. I still remember the psalms in the Coverdale version with the appropriate tunes and lapse therein when not paying attention. When I was near death three month ago it was the old Prayer Book prayers which came to my aid. After eight years in TEC I still remember little of the Rite 2 prayers. They haven’t yet sunk into my subconscious.

After the dreary post-war years of the Labour Government (not their fault) the return of Sir Winston Churchill to power and the subsequent availability of “candy” in any quantity seemed to usher in a stable world. We’d lost India, Pakistan and Burma, but the Empire in 1955 seemed to be something permanent. I did know something of the wicked side of colonialism as my father’s family were from the West Indies and one of my history teachers was a left wing Cambridge graduate who shook us up with tales of misrule. I think I thought him a “spoil sport” then but later came to a more balanced view I hope.

I witnessed little class distinction or perhaps as the nurse’s son who spoke “The Queen’s English” I occupied one of those indeterminate places in English rural society of those days. The “squire” had sold the manor house which anyway wasn’t much of a place, so there was no one around to whom one was obliged to tug one’s forelock. I went to a minor boarding school as a weekly boarder (I came home each weekend) and rubbed shoulders with farmers’ and bankers’ sons few of whom were destined for an academic future. Mercifully for me there were two or three inspired teachers among a mediocre lot. There was some corporal punishment which would draw screams of horror today. The headmaster, always gowned, wearing a mortar board was known as “God” and one stood still and took of one’s cap when he passed by his eyes riveted on the path in front of him. The corridor to his office was called “The Sacred Way”. We mere mortals, if summoned to his presence to be caned, were obliged to walk around the outside of the building and enter through a dim door affectionately termed “Traitor’s Gate.” After college I returned to my old school briefly as a master and remember trembling as I walked down the “Sacred Way.” The Head returned to me a pipe he had confiscated when I was caught smoking as a 6th former (12th grade).

I fell in love with classical music in my teens and even learned to play the organ, a skill now long gone. Listening to Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony while looking out on green fields and hay ricks seemed magical to this youngster. It also proved an escape from my well-meaning, unhappy and demanding mother who couldn’t stand the sound of it.

We were not subject to the barrage of media information of all sorts our youngsters experience today. The countryside was lovely and the world seemed much less complicated. To me in many ways therefore they were the “good old days.”

And I nearly forgot freedom. As a toddler of nearly five years I tottered down the lane to the ancient parish church of St. Peter ad Vincula in the small Devonshire village to which we had been evacuated. I would go to thee sea shore and gnarled fishermen would pick me up and drop me in their boats as they fished for crab and lobsters in waters sometimes inhabited by Nazi submarines. My worried mother -father had been captured at Tobruk and finally was placed in a German prisoner of war camp where he was part of many escape attempts -scolded me for being so adventurous but secretly loved my ability to strike up a conversation with anyone anywhere.

As a teen each Saturday, rain or shine, I would clamber on the ancient bicycle given me by a parishioner and ride for miles exploring ruined castles and houses and old parish churches, or stop to buy buns in the local bakery, the aroma from which filled village streets. At fourteen I was free to hop on a bus, and for a few pennies go the sixteen miles to Norwich. I would stand in the hauntingly lovely cathedral where I was confirmed, or wander through the stalls in the Medieval market, or imagine olden times as I sat in the graveyards of one of Norwich’s many ancient churches.

I was free in a manner few youngsters experience today. Crime and fear dominate the programs provided for so many young people. Their parents fill their waking hours with activities to which they are ferried by weary mothers or fathers. This way of life is as responsible as anything for depriving young people of a vivid spiritual life. They have little time to be servers or acolytes, learn the faith in youth groups. Granted the Evangelicals still seem to attract many to their rather regimented boot camps. In later life it won’t be learning the rules of soccer that saves a life, but a faith experienced in the beauty of holiness.

Tragically the sort of freedom of space and place I was lucky enough to experience isn’t available to our young people. Granted I was brought up in a place where the past lived in its buildings, something only available to those living on our eastern seaboard. Yet I still think it is possible for parents to buck the trend and encourage in their children a sense of time and place and awe; their passport to the reality of that other world which so closely surrounds us in the Communion of saints.