BY ANDREW CHRISTOPHER MILLER
Fifty Miles is a Long Way
‘Let the word go forth from this time and place … ‘
President Kennedy’s rhetoric had held my attention and fired my ambition in a way that the crusty and pompous tones of our own country’s great and good never would.
‘ … the torch has been passed to a new generation.’
If the American marines had been only half-hearted about accepting their president’s challenge to walk fifty miles in a day then the young people of Britain would show that we were up to it and would step forward.
A friendly rivalry between the two countries and a way of honouring their assassinated president was how Gopher had put it in morning assembly. And a chance to prove what we were capable of. It would reflect well on the school he said, show the ‘character’ of its pupils. And now there was the possibility that the event might even feature on the television, on South Today.
‘That’s the only reason you’re doing it,’ said Dick. ‘So you can be on the telly’.
I protested. The immensity of the challenge had impressed me straight away. The outrageous notion of walking fifty miles had been conceived far away from the parochial concerns of our provincial grammar school.
‘You were just the same,’ sneered Dick, ‘when you went in that marathon twist competition up on the esplanade last year and they only ended up showing a couple of seconds on the local news’.
Although Dick was probably right, I did not want to concede the point publicly and lose face in front of our friends. And it was true that I had secretly hoped the camera would single me out dancing furiously to Chubby Checker. But I had been younger then, a whole year younger.
Only Terry and Dick were showing any enthusiasm for the walk. The others – Paul, Ernie and Simon – exempted themselves with various lame excuses.
‘There was that doctor woman, what was it, Dr Barbara Moore?’ said Ernie. ‘Always on the news. Walking from Lands End to John O’Groats’.
‘A nutcase,’ added Paul. ‘Called herself a vegetarian. Didn’t eat meat.’
‘No protein’ said Dick. ‘Sheer folly. Essential for body strength.’
We were all sitting in the long lounge of Dick’s parents’ bungalow out along the beach road, drinking coffee. His father, Mr Towers, was the manager of one of the banks in the town centre. ‘Towers Towers’ we called Dick’s luxurious dwelling. We often ended up there after the pub or at my house which was a far less spacious alternative. In truth, I sometimes found these friends tedious company. But if there wasn’t a dance on anywhere, it was Hobson’s choice. Either go out with them to the Brunswick, where we could get served, or stay in and watch the television with my family. Simon could sometimes instigate a bit of political debate by regurgitating views expressed in his father’s Daily Telegraph. And Dick had a slightly more adventurous streak in him than the others, even if it was wrapped up in a lot of fussy and conformist procedures that he had picked up at Sea Scouts. None of them had a girlfriend nor ever had yet as far as I knew. At least, I kept making an effort in that respect.
In the school assembly our headmaster Geoffrey McPherson MA (Oxon) – Geo McPherson for short or, to be even more abbreviated, Gopher – expanded upon his grand plan for the fifty mile walk. Preparation was essential and Mr Michaelson, who was also a captain in the school’s army cadet force, was commandeered to give specialist advice. Stout walking boots were essential. Plimsolls totally inappropriate. Things called blisters were probably the greatest enemy, contesting that position only with something known as low moral fibre. Acting on these recommendations, I bought a bottle of white spirit from the hardware shop and, for a few evenings before the walk, rubbed this into my feet after washing them in a bowl of hot water.
On the big day, I joined the crowd on the seafront at a quarter to six with the dawn still to creep in across the bay, having walked from home thus notching up a first, extra mile already. I sought out Dick who was with his parents at the road side with their car while others stood about in groups with vacuum flasks or khaki knapsacks. The air was full of hearty laughter and raised voices insensitive to the stillness of early morning on the levelled water. Mr Michaelson’s bonhomie and encouragement seemed forced and paternalistic and I was relieved when Gopher stepped up to cut a white ribbon that had been stretched out between two prefects.
‘The best of luck to you all,’ he said. ‘Let’s show everybody what the school can do.’
For the first few miles, the string of walkers along the main road was concentrated enough for Dick and myself to be able to hear the banter from in front and behind. Over this first hour, the dawn gained a presence, rendering the orange light from the sodium lamps superfluous. I concentrated on keeping my stride regular and purposeful and was surprised soon to find myself as far from home as I had ever wandered on foot. The line of walkers began to extend in length as it crawled upwards towards the hairpin bend on the road that crested the Ridgeway hills.
After eight miles we skirted Dorchester, Hardy’s Casterbridge, as the streets were becoming busier with people engaged in regular morning routines, the commonplace separated from us by some transparent but impenetrable screen. Dick and I agreed to walk at our own pace, perhaps to reunite further on in the day, and he then began to draw ahead of me as our route turned eastwards towards the fully risen sun.
Just a mile or so outside the town, I crossed an old stone bridge, the water in the small stream beneath almost hidden beneath a tangle of crowfoot and water cress. Here, or certainly hereabouts, Fanny Robin had collapsed exhausted as she dragged herself, heavily pregnant, towards the garrison town in search of Sergeant Troy. The fictional resonated deeply for me, the jingoistic pride driving this walk and my exhibitionist vanity seemed far less worthy and more contrived.
Such musings increased as I moved further into territory that was new to me and I was only shocked from my silent soliloquies by the sudden shriek of a car horn close behind me. It was Ernie and the others in his parents’ car.
‘Up the workers!’ shouted one of them.
‘Onward Christian soldiers!’ another.
I was cheered by the moment of companionship but irritated by their clichéd immaturity. Within a very short time, however, I then began to feel deflated by the thought that I too could be cruising along on an upholstered car seat.
All morning in the long lead up to lunchtime, following a bearing that carried me further and further from our starting point and all familiar landmarks, I was sustained by reverie and thoughts of eventually turning towards home at Lytchett Matravers. Here I would stop for lunch and here, when I did finally arrive, I found Dick with three prefects and Mr Michaelson dispensing bluff, good cheer and cups of coffee.
We had been advised during preparation for the walk not to sit down at rest breaks so I forced myself to remain standing while I ate the cheese and pickle sandwiches that my mother had packed into an old knapsack borrowed from Dick. The two of us then set off, agreeing to stay together to bolster each other’s determination, knowing that the miles, past the thirty and then the forty mark and then still more, would gorge themselves on our very last drops of strength and resolve.
We passed Wareham after another hour or so as I occupied myself with calculations, proportions of the journey completed and remaining and the likely times of arrival at various landmarks. Out of time with my forced footfalls, the numbers floated in an unfocused mist, dissolving each time I neared an answer.
On a minor road somewhere close by, TE Lawrence had lost control of his motor cycle, had parted man from machine as each grazed and sparked furiously across the asphalt on their separate, final trajectories. Today the road beneath my boots seemed solid and malevolent as if pushing up deliberately to compact the bones of my shins and thighs.
Up ahead, swaying from side to side and shuffling onwards alone, was a boy called Robert whom everybody knew as Crinkle because of his wiry, frizzled hair. He was an isolated and not particularly popular member of the sixth form. His father was a local dignitary, the managing director of a large nautical engineering firm that was the region’s largest employer. It was commonly believed that some favouritism or special link had been behind Crinkle being allowed to stay on at school to sit his A-levels for an unprecedented third time in an attempt to raise his grades.
Out here on the road though, yoked together in weariness, we were all three equally exhausted and walked onwards in silent determination. At the top of a slight rise in the road we could see a perfectly positioned bench facing south west. From here, under the fading afternoon sun, the town was distantly visible, Portland a brooding hulk, huge and sullen in the sea beyond. We debated the wisdom of sitting down and decided that nothing, not fatigue, cramp nor blistered feet, could now prevent us from completing the remaining miles.
As we sat, saying little but savouring each numb second of our ten minute rest, a grey Wolseley pulled up the incline towards us and indicated its intention of stopping.
‘Oh God! It’s Gopher,’ said Dick.
The last time, the only time in fact, that I had spoken individually with Gopher was nine months earlier, a humbling request made in his office at the end of the summer holidays. I had promised to apply myself more fully and improve upon my pitiable ‘O-level’ results if I could be allowed to stay on at school and enter the sixth form. Gopher had listened without expression, his eyes magnified by his spectacle lenses, the dimple in the centre of his chin pulling in my attention like a whirlpool. I was asked to repeat my surname as he hitched the dusty black gown back up across his shoulders and then ran his finger down the left hand column on a large sheet of paper on the desk in front of him. Stopping about half way, he placed a foot ruler on the page and followed it across a number of columns with his index finger. He cleared his throat and said that my performance marked me out as somebody the school would not normally consider to be ‘sixth form material’. And then as I hung my head he stipulated the degree of application and sheer hard work that would be the condition for granting my request. When asked if I understood, I forced a ‘Yes, sir’ trying hard to make this assent sound more than a resentful grunt.
Now, Gopher was walking towards us slapping his rolled up driving gloves into the palm of his left hand. He was wearing a pullover with a cravat beneath an open shirt, the first time I had ever seen him without a collar and tie. His gaze settled on Crinkle whom he approached first.
‘How are you, Robert?’ asked Gopher, smiling encouragingly. ‘Only another seven miles. Keep at it, you’re nearly there’.
‘Yes sir,’ replied Crinkle meekly, gazing at his feet as if in shame.
‘And Towers,’ he said, working his way along the line. ‘Good lad, keep it up. Back to it!’
‘Yes sir,’ said Dick, still able to summon an enthusiastic and open grin.
‘And, eh, how about you … um?’ he asked, turning towards me. ‘No sitting about. Not the time to give up now.’
But it was. Dick and Crinkle pulled themselves back onto their feet, groaning from their aches and placing their weight carefully onto the sensitive soles of their feet. Not one spark, however, fired through my being. The other two made feeble proclamations of worthy intentions while the late afternoon air pressed heavily onto my eyes and ears and I lost the struggle to remember who I was and where I had mislaid my very last scrap of self-belief.
Telling You How To Live
Something like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Not an obvious copy but something that would look exciting and attention-grabbing on posters or noticeboards outside a dance hall. In the charts even.
Our group needed a name.
Paul suggested The Foursome but the rest of us found that too limp. Derek came up with The Groovers which we thought was better but still not exactly what we wanted.
We had been practicing in our front room and at Derek’s house for nearly three months and were proud of the repertoire we had built up, three songs from ‘Please Please Me’, two from the charts and a few rhythm and blues numbers that Paul had learned from his uncle’s collection. Spider’s dad had bought him a new drum set and carried it to practices in his works van, scowling at the rest of us whenever he unloaded the kit into our houses.
When the amplifier was switched on echoing feedback would wobble across the room, threatening to break some kind of sound barrier. I loved the deep rounded hum from warming valves and the matter-of-fact, technical smell of electrical dust. The shrieking sound from one plucked guitar string could be too loud for our ears, intense enough it seemed to prise the plaster from the walls.
We made plans, it was a period of great ambition. We talked about the route to bookings for local dances and Spider suggested his dad as a possible manager because of the business knowledge he had acquired from running his grocery shop. We talked about semi-professional status and whether we might have to leave school when we reached that stage. We talked a lot. And all the while nobody directly confronted the fact that I couldn’t play a musical instrument.
Something that should have been natural was missing. Instead of providing an easy rhythm, my guitar strumming created crashing sounds out of time, ruining the songs. Spider had already claimed the drums so I ended up with a special harmonica that played chords. All that should have been required from me was a chugging accompaniment formed from alternating breaths in and out. But even with this simplest of instruments my weedy, wheezing contribution remained an embarrassment.
I was sure that the others must have been wondering how to tell me that I was no asset to them. They might well have had their eyes on other potential and more promising replacements. And when the group landed a first booking to play at the lower sixth Easter party, I knew that a reckoning was being forced.
So I took preemptive action, announcing my decision first to my parents, to their obvious delight
‘I’ve decided to give up the group so that I can concentrate more on my A-levels’.
To Paul, Derek and Spider I presented a different rationale
‘I just think folk is the way it is going. That’s more the scene I want to get into’.
And there was some truth to both claims. Records by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others, were being played more often on the radio and I found their melody-driven narratives particularly attractive. I had even located a monthly folk club that was advertised in a pub up by the railway station and persuaded Paul to come with me one Saturday night.
He was not too impressed by the atmosphere he said. The long narrow back bar was laid out with small round tables and at many of these three or four people were sat on stools. At the far end was an upraised stage area and when we entered with our glasses of lemonade the room was in complete silence except for the singing of a man with a dark beard and chunky green cardigan. He played no instrument but his strong clear voice, as if powered by his bulky frame, filled the room with the story of a woman’s lover who had been tricked into enlisting in some historical war.
I recognised this as the type of song Bob Dylan talked about when people yelled ‘Judas’ at him for abandoning the musical persona of a folky, solitary, guitar-strumming troubadour. They were enraged by his transformation into a stick thin figure screaming with electricity about the distortion of feeling and authenticity in a society knotted up and twisted out of shape by paranoia, fear and greed. In reply, he defended his roots
‘All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die’.
That evening in the folk club, we heard many such songs, some of which invited our mumbled contributions to their choruses. Many of the people in the audience were older than us but certainly younger than our parents. Unlike the darkened dance halls where we usually spent our evenings when the opportunity arose, this room was fully lit.
Paul did not want to return the following month but I had felt comfortable enough to go there by myself the next time. I was impressed by the singers’ easy relationships with their audience, in fact by the lack of a firm demarcation between performer and listener. As the evening progressed one became the other, as various people stood to take their turn. Two girls not much older than me made a striking impression. A darker haired, shorter one picked out a guitar accompaniment where every note shone true. Her taller friend had the longest hair I had ever seen, ash blonde and completely straight almost to her waist. She stood erect with a startling confidence and sang to the back wall of the room.
They buried her in the old church yard
Sweet William lay beside her
And from his heart grew a red, red rose
And out of hers, a briar.
Songs about fishing for the whale, shipwrecks and sailors returning in disguise after years at sea to test a lover’s faithfulness. Escaping slaves following the drinking gourd. Enclosure of the land, press gangs and country boys lured into joining up. The callous indifference of generals, disasters at the mine, the dust bowls, strikes and scabs. Rebels hung on the Bridge of Toome.
The Bomb, the fallout shelter, love grasped in the moment. The assassinations, marches and solidarity. Life and loyalty at the margins, voices raised together, the peace-mongers
His ‘catechism’ Dylan called them. ‘Songs that could tell you how to live’.
The turning of the seasons, gentlemen of the open road, blossoms and garlands, the lark and the dove. High days and festivals, May Day, jigs and reels, the harvest, the winter feast, the wassail.
Some of these were songs with echoes of those I had heard and hated years before at primary school. Songs that had retained their husk and grain though, had not been ground and smoothed into a paste for easy consumption. Undimmed and undiminished despite the decades and the centuries.
They grew and grew in the old church yard
‘Til they could grow no higher
And at the top twined in a lover’s knot,
The rose around the briar.
Next week Chapter’s 16 Gainful Employment and 17 Above and Beyond.
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