“This isolation – it’s driving me up the wall…” So some seem to complain during this strange time of what’s called ‘Lockdown’ while others relish the opportunity to be free of the world and its crass stupidity. What makes the difference? Would I find myself halfway up a wall, I wonder, if I were stuck in a two-room flat with somebody I didn’t much like instead of being here surrounded by garden & roaring trees, with paths that disappear round corners, and a friend who cares for me?
Of course I know very well that it could all be a New World Order conspiracy to keep us all under lock & key and simultaneously reduce the surplus population while they finish off taking over the world, but the desperate, the criminal Right, Johnson aping the monster Churchill, those who make profits from the work of Wage Slaves, the plain ignorant egged on by the mad media, are all mounting a campaign to end the Lockdown. There are anti-lockdown parties & demonstrations attended by crazy fools who seem to want to prove their immunity, while to avoid the Plague – let’s not give it a fancy scientific name but call it what it is – a Global Plague – it strikes me that, it’s sound policy to keep one’s distance.
in the Co-op
steering clear of people
who steer clear of me
Though I have braved the Outside once or twice, I’ve hardly been beyond the gate at the top of the drive for seven or eight weeks – not even to look at the river. Even less than before, I do not know what day of the week it is – the artificial distinctions to do with time have completely ceased having their slender hold on me. With a bit of poking and shifting of stones the rock gardens are blooming nicely in the unaccustomed sun and all the surrounding trees, with May gales, are roaring into leaf. A bullfinch insists on making its single silly tweet, woodpigeons & chaffinches, egrets & herons, share our isolated space. The gulls go up the river at daybreak and back in the evening as they’ve done for thousands of years.
Today is the 6th day of May 2020. On this day in 1956 – sixty-four years ago – at this moment in the afternoon, I was on a train journey to Preston, Lancashire, to submit myself innocently without complaint, since it got me out of my uncongenial daily money task, to so-called ‘National Service’. Except for knowing that I had to keep ‘shit’ from going up my rifle barrel – a mysterious idea planted in me by John Manning who had started being a soldier before me (how could you possibly gets poos up your rifle?) I knew nothing about what was in store for me; it seemed like the start of a sort of holiday. During the course of the next two years I am quite certain that I did nothing for the Nation (an abstraction therefore meaningless anyway) but the experience did a great deal for me. There was an initial phase of marching, firing rifle & bren gun, and night manoeuvres during which you just had to become more of a machine than usual. Oh, where are you now, Corporal Fury? – who always pretended to live up to his name… “Pick those feet up or I’ll tear yer arm out and beat you to death with the soggy end!” Serjeant Cary will be long dead for certain and the buildings to the right of Fulwood Barracks square (for bashing) are demolished… After the first ten weeks, I entered into twenty months of what amounted paradoxically to glorious freedom, first at Wilton Park, near Beaconsfield then in Cove, Farnborough, Hampshire. Many men who underwent the experience of pretending to serve Queen & Country (abstractions – how they haunt the mind) found it a life-shattering time but I made it all up as a warm kind of story for myself. Invent the world before it has a chance to invent you – long-time principle…
Of course, up to the age of 18, the world had tried desperately to invent me and in some respects had succeeded; after all there I was that afternoon, sunny, just like today, on my willing way to join the Queen’s Military Machine – it was just something you did when you got past your eighteenth birthday. But I think that even then I had adopted the position of mere observer – as in a dream, it was all happening to somebody other than myself, indifferent onlooker, Having-escaped-drudgery-I, Going-on-a-train-journey-into the unknown-I, Being-committed-I, Feeling-detached-I, Being-absent-I, Having-a-small-sense-of-excitement-I, Reading-Wells’-Short-History-of-the-World-I, all overseen by what I would now call Meta-I – the ‘I’ that can slip back 64 years and pick up from where it left off with each & every memory.
Though the world carried on with its damned efforts to invent me afterwards (and succeeded in small but sometimes catastrophic ways – no getting away from it, old man) I did begin to build up a barrier against it in an other-than-conscious kind of way which has served me well ever since. For a start, coming to understand that the Military Machine is utterly absurd and life-irrelevant, I emerged from those two years a committed pacifist and shortly afterwards decided to be an anarcho-socialist; if somebody tells me what to do I might conform to the request but the result will always be different from what they imagined they’d intended. And, given the free time, I began to read in earnest.
I find it extraordinary that in this time of Global Plague reports suggest that people are only just discovering books! Discovering books! There’s a thing! I realised long ago that my dear dead friend Ed Percival’s description of me as a ‘chain reader’ had accurately defined me for fifty years: when I’m reading one book I’m already deciding what to read next.
The act of ‘Reading on a Summer Lawn’ has been an annual delight all that time; these last few weeks having been like summers of long ago (sunny from beginning to end) I’ve been doing just that, currently not having to think about an author to read next but just continuing to take a book from my large collection of JBPriestley’s works – novels, essays & reflections – which I have been storing up for years.
I’m currently reading Margin Released which is, JBP emphasises, not an autobiography but an account of fifty years focusing on his literary life from 1910 when he was 16 to 1960. There’s much wisdom that’s both so relevant to the world as it is now as well as to my own life that it keeps on prompting parallel thoughts:-
There are many parts of the world, far too many, where a square meal is a marvel; to people who have nothing a little of anything can seem a shining bonus; but when we have reached the level of living most of us know in the West, we should tell ourselves, defying the advertisers, that nobody is having the wonderful time we are encouraged to imagine. Even to those smiling couples for ever being served cocktails and canapés by air hostesses, life is just going on. We change its quality from within ourselves, not by going somewhere and buying something. But now we spend billions encouraging illusions and stoking up envy, and most of them would be better spent providing a square meal and a whole shirt on some other continent where want is real and needs no advertisement.
Still applies… When will people wake up? Imagine the plight of those stuck in refugee camps at this time. Unimaginable horror.
Perhaps the only advertisement that ever really fascinated me was one I saw during these … years; it was in a newspaper, quite small, plainly worded, without any suggestion of glamour, and it was for a forester. Do not ask me now why I thought then I could be happy as a forester.
JBP applied for a job as forester to escape the drudgery of working in a wool merchant office but didn’t get it. And the parallel for me? After quitting the Army, when I was passing the time being paid for being a Civil Servant in an Income Tax Office every day and hating it, I fancied a job in the Milk Marketing Board I saw advertised in the Eastern Daily Press – I saw myself whistling down country lanes early in the morning to collect milk churns from trailers parked at field gates, stopping to look at hills and woodland vistas, being Richard Jefferies, driving through little villages, intent on spending the rest of the day writing great poems after dumping the churns at some central collection point – but of course I couldn’t drive and had no intention of learning how to… End of an idle dream, one of many to come.
The first few pages into Margin Released reminded me of much to do with my own past, especially today when sixty-four years ago in Preston at around 4.30 in the afternoon on a similar sort of day I was carting the new me in a kitbag across Fulwood Barracks square to a dormitory that no longer exists except in my mind.
I didn’t know this at the time but it seems that Fulwood Barracks was the last and largest of a chain of barracks built in the North West in the wake of the Chartist riots of the 1830’s. They were obviously still afraid of a mob insurrection because they wouldn’t let me cycle round the square when I visited the place sometime in the early nineties and saw that the buildings on the right had gone. And the Loyal Regiment is no more.
The Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) (until 1921 known as the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment) was a line infantry regiment of the British Army that was in existence from 1881 to 1970. In 1970, the regiment was amalgamated with the Lancashire Regiment to form the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment which was, in 2006, amalgamated with the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment and the King’s Regiment (Liverpool and Manchester) to form the Duke of Lancaster Regiment (King’s, Lancashire and Border). (Wikipedia)
So much of JBP’s life overlaps mine & so many of his ideas chime with me.
He left school early as I did – though most of my fellows seemed undeterred, it just didn’t seem possible that I could be a university student. It seemed as remote as Christminster was for Jude. Though I didn’t think it at the time, I was just a humble little learning machine; the headmaster, ‘Percy’ Rundle, thought otherwise and was disappointed when I left school, but my father, a humble fellow too, could only think that I should follow him into the Civil Service which I did till 1961, shifting to being a bank clerk of sorts till 1964. Strange decade that still haunts me.
Sometime in in the early 1970’s I saw PWRundle’s name in the Times Educational Supplement and wrote to him; he replied to say that he was glad I had ‘joined the ranks of the pedagogues…’
Like JBP, ‘…I have a reputation for energy & [what he calls] fertility: I have written a great deal because I have always had ideas for work to lure me on. Not that these ideas were good; many were indifferent, some terrible, but I have never been without them…’ But a rejection slip from Time & Tide when I was sixteen gave me the more or less permanent cast of mind that there was no point sending anything I wrote anywhere. With that attitude, even if I’d had his genius, I couldn’t possibly be the least bit like JBP who had enormous outward stickability. My own stickability is inwardly dedicated – I have always done things to suit myself. On the other hand, to the subjects I did like at Kingston Grammar School, like him, I brought ‘…a great deal that I discovered for myself outside school…’
JBP says he was ‘self-confident’. I don’t quite know what that means; did I have a state of mind that could be called that? I was not at all out-going; my mother invented me as ‘shy’, a label that dangled from me till I did a successful NLP reframe in 1991 – I should have taken full account of the moment when Mike Rustin described me as a ‘listener’ way back in the fifties! I always acted for myself, never thinking about consequences or ambition or anything like that. But I certainly was ‘confident’ that things just happened, you went from one thing to another – you could not possibly drift along in any other way. At the National Service Medical, thinking that it would be like going back to school and give me time to study for A Levels and a degree, I signed on for the Royal Army Education Corps without realising that it meant becoming a teacher but in eight splendid weeks in Wilton Park near Beaconsfield I was ‘trained’ to become a professional educator of sorts. My first practice lesson which I was given half-an-hour to plan was to teach ‘parts of speech’. I started by making a ‘speech’ – something like this: “Crikey! After eight weeks, I am quickly going to be what I think will be a good teacher and when I’ve finished talking in the way I’m going to you’ll find out why…” (interjection, preposition, pronoun, adverb, verb, adjective, noun, conjunction) Then I analysed the parts of my speech with reference to the labels and got the class to construct similar sentences for themselves; if I had to teach the same topic today I probably wouldn’t approach it much differently…
Accommodation was in warm & homely huts; I can’t remember where the teaching happened but I do remember the leafiness of the place that great summer of 1956 before I went to Farnborough.
It would have satisfied my usual feeling for the Spirit of Place if I’d known the history of Wilton Park when I was there. I have no recollection of it, but the house, known as the ‘White House’ because of its striking plastered exterior, was a fine Georgian Palladian mansion seven bays wide by three floors high built in 1779 by Josais Du Pré, a former Governor of Madras. It passed down through the Du Pré generations quietly sitting in the beautiful parkland I did know, till it was demolished in 1968 to be replaced by the tallest building in Buckinghamshire – a nasty15-storey War Officers’ accommodation block which I was horrified to see when I cycled there on some long journey in the 1990’s. It has in turn been demolished!
The War Office acquired Wilton Park before the War. Nissen huts were built for staff of other ranks. From 1943 high ranking prisoners, among them Marshall Messe, Field-Marshalls von Rundstedt, Busch and Rudolph Hess, were housed in a compound comprising low, flat-roofed brick and concrete cells.
At the end of 1945, what I knew as ‘Camp 300’ was taken over by the Foreign Office and became a centre for the ‘de-Nazification’ of Prisoners Of War.
Then there was ‘Camp 20’, a single storey building that after the war was named ‘Shean Block’ for some reason. It housed ‘IS9’ Military Intelligence School – for providing information to escapees and keeping tabs on important prisoners of war.
When I was in Wilton Park for those few months which seemed a lifetime, it was always a little mystery why there was a Camp 20 (where they stored the rifles we might need in case of attack) and no camps 1-19 and why there was a Camp 300 (where they kept the rifle bolts carefully labelled to correspond with individual rifles) and no discernible Camps 21-299. In the event of an IRA attack which was deemed imminent somebody on guard duty was detailed to run to Camp 20 to get the rifles and match the bolts up to prepare them to fire at the enemy.
It’s all now an ‘Executive Housing Estate’. The builders said: ‘Wilton Park is set to become a highly desirable new residential destination’… Their vision for Wilton Park was to create ‘…a well-connected private estate set in a rural landscape, with a welcoming public park at its heart for the benefit of local residents and for those who choose to make their home in this remarkable location…’ They said it would be a ‘…traditional ‘English country estate’ with existing mature trees retained, open grassland and wildflower meadows providing an attractive and tranquil parkland…’ All that’s left of the past is a road called Dupre [no accent] Crescent.
Why have I bothered to research Wilton Park after all these years? Because whenever I go back down my time-line I see/hear/feel/smell/taste more or less exactly what I did in moments in my past. I walk the leafiness of Camp 300 for example back to the sleeping quarters among its trees. It causes a certain nostalgic dismay when I find that a place no longer exists in the way feel it should. I have noted that others are unable to locate the NOW of THEN so my obsession may seem somewhat crazy. Something in me is always stuck in past images waiting to develop in some way different from how things have in fact turned out. I often wonder what I’m going to be when I grow up.
Anyway, having accidentally risen quickly to the rank of Serjeant in the RAEC in Wilton Park, when I got to 9TRRE Southwood Camp, Cove, near (now itself a housing estate), I rubbed shoulders with people who imagined themselves to be in ‘authority’, one or two of whom I have described as ‘salt of the earth’ (just misguided) but some of them I discovered (objectively) to be complete idiots, though I would never have allowed myself to say so at the time or even think it. While early on I had chosen to be subservient to people I thought of as ‘in authority’, the army experience helped me at least to guard myself against subservience – and I continue to have what I regard as a healthy disrespect for anybody who sets themselves up as (let’s say) a ‘superior know-it-all’.
After the army, without thinking about it, without grasping the opportunity for a radical break, I drifted back into the drudgery of an Income Tax Office in Bermondsey, then Sutton, Surrey; the two years which should have released me into something completely different sailed away like some well-sealed floppy space vehicle into the beyond of Beyond. Then there were five years out of time.
However I did become something different; the ‘I’ that had no real inclination to make something definite out of life, just drifting, started to fancy the idea of being a full-time teacher. I never thought of myself as ‘having a career’ – one of the boxes people seem happy to dump themselves in to bolster a frail identity. But I came to identify myself as doing a bit of teaching from time to time and whenever Being-a-teacher-I came across what it regarded as a ‘good idea’ it was invaded by a virtual question of which it was not at all aware at the time – ‘how can I frame this or that idea in order to be able to teach it so it makes sense to other people?’ It has served me well.
JBPriestley says of his father who was a teacher ‘…whatever he knew – and he knew a lot – he had to teach…’ which was something JBP did in his own way; the BBC talks in WW2, lecturing tours in America and so on.
His father trained as a teacher in the 1880’s at a time when Education was seen as ‘…a prize, a jewel, not a modern convenience laid on like hot & cold water. He belonged to a generation that believed we could educate ourselves out of muddle & wretchedness & black despair into the sunlight forever…’ Ten years after I left school that’s how it was for me!
In 1964 I was lucky enough to go to James Graham College of Education in Farnley, half way between Leeds & Bradford, where I think the tutors still had JBP’s father’s view of things pedagogic. After readings from RSPeters, we were set tasks which were clearly designed to have us thinking about crucial questions like – Does education exist to fit people into society or to help them to change it? Of course I was firmly of the latter point of view; what other angle could there possibly be? I got good marks for my essay on the subject! Likewise for the one on the subject of the nature of The Educated Man (or Person as we’d say nowadays) which still says what I think now.
Now, of course, the site where I came into my own is a housing estate. Conversion to Housing Estates seems to have followed me around!
Writing around the same time as I was at James Graham, JBP says: ‘…Most of the demands for more & more education I have read these last few years do not suggest anybody is worrying about our civilisation and the sort of minds at work on it, but only about competing for bigger & cheaper bombs & rockets, faster jets, cars that have telephones and electric shoe cleaners…’ Maybe I was among the very last group of trainee teachers to be offered the scope to make up their own minds about the point of Education – certainly very few people with ‘power’ these days would want young teachers asking such stupid questions when it’s clear that Education is about preparing young people for working life – which they are hellbent on extending into life till you drop.
In the middle section of Margin Released, JBP has an account of his WW1 experience and narrow misses. On convalescence in Rutland he wrote ‘…everything that happened to me around that time was both absurd and dreamlike, not in any world I could take seriously…’ words that precisely described my ‘National Service’ two years! And my distraction from real life as a desk-tied quill-driver (as Conrad described office slavery). And it aptly describes Plague Lockdown time!
When Bertie, my cat, came in last night I said to him, “Had a good day then?”
He said, “Yes, thank you, Colin…”
I said, “What did you do?”
He said with a gruff voice that I can’t imitate, “I went for a walk round The Forest, poked around in the pond for a bit and then read one of your books…”
I said, “Was it a good book?”
He said, “Yes, it was quite mice…”
The dream I was I was in the middle of finished there. I woke up laughing at my own joke.
It is reported that people are having more dreams during Plaguetime…