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Essays & Articles - David Drew-Smythe
© 2001 - All Rights Reserved

Forty Years On - reflections on a childhood

A walk up from the village leads to wrought iron gates and a squat, square lodge. The driveway dips downhill into the valley. There are fields then woods on either side to an old slate bridge on a left hand bend. The foundations of the bridge were laid in the thirteenth century. Here, the woods take over and canopy the sky.

The damp cool of moss and lichen, cobweb timbers that fall and rot then strike and grow, interlaced with fern and bramble, bracken, oak and sycamore, are all festooned with ivy. The gnarled barks and spirit faces take on different shapes through the dusk; an eagle here, a lion in silhouette, and slate. Always slate. Slabs and juts and slides of it; soft, sharp and angular. Here is the damp smell of centuries. Here is mystery and mysticism. A piece of Mabinogion. Here, by the bridge, it begins, Celtic and mysterious. This was my childhood and its ghosts still haunt the house; its spirit still stalks the woods and wanders through the fields.

Beyond the bridge are gaunt slate walls that border on a paddock, thick with dock and scrub. These are the ruins of kennels; a complex for hunting hounds, heavy coated, hardy Welsh hounds whose ghostly baying can still be heard in the winter winds. In the lee of the ruin stand two horse chestnuts and when the sun beats through them the stream plays dip and dapple in their shade. Beside the stream, I am nine years old again. Here were breakfast trout, pigeon pies and rabbit stews. Here I learned to be a hunter. In the fine mists of Welsh rain, in the blaze of an autumn’s change or under muting snow, this segment is eternal.

By the paddock gate are three small pines. They lean sideways towards the sun, roots clinging deep to mulch and leaf mould. Their cones were yearly prizes among the collectibles of youth. And so the driveway splits. Tarmac left and slate track right. If you’re dressed up and come for drinks turn left. That way leads to the courtyard and the front façade laced up by Virginia Creeper, changing with the seasons. But if it’s business with mares and foals or stallions or Pony Club, go right. The drives run parallel with one long stable block between them, built of slate and loam and jackdaw nests, ending in the bell tower. Here sits the wise old owl and his mate who over the years gave me one chick to hand rear. The youngster imprinted and so did I. I’m sure owls live here still after all this time. There are still pellets on the grain store floor.

At either end of the block, slate steps reach up to the loft. They are overrun with grasses and valerian. Sun drenched in summer, the faded whitewash presides over the cobbles and straw of the stable yard with its symmetrical block on the other side. Looseboxes, tack-room, garages and a furniture store; some of ours and cast-offs from those who lived here before us and died here too. Relics. A treasure trove of trivial things that childhood made use of or that sparked an interest, lasting or just momentary, until the next thing was discovered. A den in the spinney or among the rhododendron bushes, complete with oak table and fireside chair. A rope and a old ice-pick, so essential when working on the slate face in the miniature quarry near the river’s source above the bridge. And there were large glass battery jars, ideal for a vivarium. In them I could put lizards, newts, toads and frogs or slow worms caught sun baking on the low slate walls of the courtyard.

It was slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. Rats’ nests. Hunting with the terriers. Finding bantam eggs in the old chest of drawers, rounding up the guinea fowl and picking blackberries from the bramble trailers at the broken window. An opiate. Wild. As free as the first summer swallow that swept through the stable yard watched by the hunters and the point-to-pointers; free for the season; the season of youth.

Shadows lengthen. Behind me the dingle burns with autumn, a sight I’ve missed for too many years. But it’s never left me. I was the one who went away. From here, the first man went into space. John F. Kennedy was shot here and here I lost my innocence.

From the slate-slabbed kitchen comes the sound of the first record I ever bought. I worked for the money clearing nettles from the yard then wore the grooves to a frazzle, rather like the family’s patience. We were weaned on seventy-eights and on breakables. HMV and Parlaphone. You knew where the scratches came just as you knew where to be at a certain point when the record stuck. You could rescue the singers that way and put them out of their misery. And that’s where I was when the news broke on Kennedy. Bending over the record player; Kathleen Ferrier was in agony.

We had Dixieland scratch-beat and Schubertian hisses; click concertos all played from a magic mechanical box with its secret store of needles and the hidden handle to prevent experimental hands from cranking it up like a car. It sat in the lounge. The parquet floor fragmented orchestras and made disconnected voices echo. T. S. Eliot reading T. S. Eliot had a ring about it reminiscent of the remote and sinister tones of Jerome’s Dancing Partner. But in the kitchen was the Dansette. It was live and electric and went at thirty-three or forty-five as well as seventy-eight. And didn’t we have a wonderful time paying seventy eights at thirty-three and vice versa! At the flick of a switch, Noel Coward became a Chipmonk while Al Jolson, at forty-five, became a monster from outer space on a dark night when the wind was howling round the house. Only this was all in Mono-sound and the television was likewise Monochrome, like all today’s antiques we wish we’d saved.

There was a pre-Great War motorcycle in one of the stables. I used to sit on it for hours with its elongated chassis, its pullies, levers and its shocking shock-absorbers. Omniscience would have seen it saved along with the tin toy trains and clockwork cars, hand painted soldiers made of lead and all the things we see today which find their way to auction. At today’s values, it was a rich childhood. But no money in the world could buy that most priceless of treasures: actually growing up here. Here in this house; in the stable yard where stallions battered the cobbles in their mating dance; in the walled garden where I kept the fox cub I rescued from a deserted earth and a goat; in the kennels where I kept a faithful friend, a golden Labrador who grinned and whose tail wagged her and not she the tail. She was mine from the puppy days and she learned to walk to heel as well as chase the goat. She retrieved my first rabbit when I’d given the rabbit up for lost; and her for a dead loss. As I think of her, her spirit takes me through the woods back to when I was a hunter, alone and content to be that way because I was not alone with so much around me.

It’s not something you can share, that solitude. If someone had walked beside me then, all of it would have been changed. I can only share now that single camera lens; that moment behind one pair of eyes that snaps a feeling, which captures a point in time and sets it in its place. The cracking twig as the dog fox bolts through the bracken; the heavy scent; the flash of rust on green - and the snort of badgers at high moon as they cavort round the sett - the tingle in the belly at first seeing all these things - and the rookery across the narrow valley with its dark clump nests against the sunset; their structured society and all their clamouring - and the jackdaws in pigeon holes along the stable block - all set in their place too.

To walk at dawn across the park and see a chestnut stallion throw up its head and canter up the hill is to see the dawn set on fire. The mixture of mist and sun and nostril steam amidst the silver sparks kicked up from the morning dew is to touch on paradise for just the briefest second. A moment crystallized in the camera of the mind. To show a photograph would be to divorce it from the moment and the smell and the morning with its new beginning and the taste of Spring in the air.

A curlew calls. Over the field a lapwing dips and dithers. An air of stillness falls on a peaceful place where there’s still time to stop in the lane and chat car to car. What does it matter if Dai, the blacksmith, drives up behind? There’s no hurry. He reads the paper. His father was the blacksmith before him. He joined the army to shoe their horses and ended up shoeing tanks. In the evening the old man still comes to the bar and sings with the best; best voices and best Welsh bitter.

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