Anne – Berringford, Somerset
Anne pushed her hair back from her eyes and looked up. Yes, it was raining. Early October rain. Very early October. Not cold. That would come, though, in November. She had walked for a couple of hours over the Mendips and was nearly home. Ahead were the flat green fields that stretched from her village, Berringford, as far as the coast. Her country. ‘God’s own country’, Uncle Henry had called it one evening just after Easter as he had looked across the fields to Weston and the setting sun. Anne looked up. Beyond the line of the shore was the Bristol Channel, a streak of white and brown on its way down to Exmoor. She could hardly see the hills of Wales across the sea. What did they say here? ‘If you stand on Tollbury Hill and the mountains of Wales look close, it is going to rain. If they look a long way off, it has just rained and if you cannot see them at all, it is raining!’ Who had told her that? Was that Uncle Henry too? It sounded a bit like him.
All mountains have their own weather lore. Remember Rip Van Winkle? ‘Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers’. Those were the Catskill Mountains where Rip Van Winkle fell asleep for twenty years after drinking from the flagon of liquor at the game of nine-pins with Hendrick Hudson and the old Dutch settlers. And so we become part of the place where we live, like the trees and the woods.
She looked down again, smiled, concentrated on the stony path in front of her, for it was slippery now, and pulled her hood over her head. Then she carried on, walking faster as the rain fell harder.
‘Come on, Anne. Don’t give up. Never give up. Just another twenty minutes. You’ve done Dark Down, the backbone of the Mendips. You’ve passed the peak of Tollbury. The rain is pretty bad, but the rain has never mattered! The weather never matters. What matters is to be able to go on. To face things. To face tomorrow. To face starting something new. To keep going. Pull your hood tighter. Keep the rain out. One more rise, and I can hardly see it through the rain, and then it’s down the hill, across the A38, careful of the traffic, the cars come down the hill very fast there, up the muddy lane, down the wide rocky road they call the batch, through the cottage garden, which seems someone’s home and, in fact, is someone’s home but the footpath still runs through it, and then down the little path between the high hedges. Back home. Back to Erewhon and to tea and the fire, and there will be toast, and then you have to get ready for tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow is Monday, but it’ll be OK.’
It was OK, and next day Anne left home and went to Oxford to study law.
The best years of your life and ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
I was always Uncle Henry, and I still am, I suppose, though now I’m a great uncle if we’re strict about it. I saw Anne, well, I saw them all, Anne and her parents, three times a year, at Christmas, at Easter and then once in the summer. This was our pattern, and it lasted for many years, through the 50s and early 60s, all the years of her childhood anyway. It’s still the normal shape of the year for me, I suppose. Every year the same! You see I live in Chiswick, and they lived in Somerset, in the village of Berringford at the foot of the Mendip Hills, so there was a distance. It took much longer to get about in those days. In the 50s and 60s England was a much bigger place than now. The journey from Somerset to Yorkshire took a whole day. We would drive slowly through the cities, through the towns and through the villages We saw church towers from a distance and then we came up to them. We saw the big gardens of the houses just outside the village and then the pub and the post office and the pond as we reached the centre. There were no motorways then, you see, and I think we were all the better for it. We savoured England as we drove through it. We knew where we were.
Not that often, was it, three times a year? But at least I was always available. I may not have done a great deal with my life, but I’ve always been around when wanted. I suppose that’s something. It’s not much, but it’s something, and in spite of all the dreams we have when we are 18, in the end we have to rely on these little things. They matter, the small things we have actually done. I hope they will pull us through.
Anne finished school and was just about to go to university, I remember. That’s not an easy time, you know. Going back over 60 years, I remember how I felt when I started. Is it that long? That sounds an awfully long time, but the years just pile up, you know. They accumulate.
You expect so much of university, and, to make things worse, people expect so much of you! They tell you that you’re about to embark on the best years of your life. Embark! It’s a place, not a boat for heaven’s sake. Well, they are for some people, I suppose! The best years, I mean. I enjoyed them, but then I am middle of the road; neither clever nor stupid, neither full of energy nor lazy.
‘It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean.’ That’s from ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Nerissa was right. She was in the mean too, I suppose.
My English teacher at Waterbury, Mr Morgan, used to say that the ordinary characters in Shakespeare existed just to show us our place among the others, the great ones. He said that we are really on the level of the servants and the country yokels. I think he was exaggerating a little, but he had a point, didn’t he! He made us think. How he hated it when we retailed the views of the critics in our essay. ‘But what do you think?’ he would say. ‘I’m not interested in what the book says. What do you think?’
Anyway, like Nerissa, I am middle of the road and there’s something to be said for it. Where would we all be without the man in the street or the man on the Clapham omnibus? How could the great ones stand out if there were no ordinary people like us to stand out from?
So she went to university. Yes, perhaps they are the best years for some. But they are not a happy time for a lot of others, and I don’t think they were for Anne. I have a suspicion that she wasn’t happy at Oxford, though she never said much to me. Young people have such a capacity for suffering, such a capacity for putting themselves through the mill. When you’re old, you can’t even suffer with intensity! Thank goodness! University! It can be three years of purgatory, self-inflicted purgatory, but none the less painful for that!
Ah well! Let’s go on. Yes, I think we’d better move on.