Archive for August, 2016

All Our Trades Are Gone

August 9, 2016

This title comes from a poem by Mick Fitzgerald. Read the blog, then listen to the June Tabor version of it, as a song. It’s on YouTube and the link is at the end of this piece.

It can be a strange and random collection of events and thoughts which trigger these blogs. Sometimes it’s the song title for the blog’s title, or the song’s words, that come first. Sometimes a title only arrives after the thing is written. This one and its title arrived at about the same time.

Currently it is high summer. I’m fit and racing reasonably well. I’m also racing reasonably often, which possibly marks me out from most other 62 year-old sprinters (and the majority of other plain 62 year olds, come to that!). My commitments to the local Masters League are over for the season; I’ve no big international event looming, and the British Masters Championships are still six weeks distant. As a result, I’ve been doing what, I realise, I’ve resorted to for a very great deal of my athletic career: I’m seeking out good Open Meetings.

Nowadays, I’m almost spoiled for choice, even within an hour’s drive from home. It wasn’t always so. The first Open Meetings I attended regularly were in the mid 1970s. The best were at Crystal Palace (entries by post, with a stamped addressed envelope to a posh address in London), and the toughest were at Wimbledon track. The ones I had most success at, and also much pleasure, were, however, on a bone-hard “redgra” track on the University of Kent campus, just outside Canterbury. My records of what and who I raced, and my race times etc, were all lost in a flood that hit the flat I lived in until 1981. I know I ran my lifetime best 400 metres there in 1977. Records of those kinds of events have never made it to the internet. Same with my three fastest ever 200 metres races, all at Crystal Palace. The events hardly ever even got picked up by Athletics Weekly, and a national rankings system like “Power of 10” were not even then a fantasy pipe-dream. Even my long-established running club’s magazine tended to ignore performances run at open events, even if raced in a club vest.

The simple basis of most Open Meetings is “turn up, pay your entry fee, get a race”. I recall they used to be pretty strictly in age bands, and never mixed gender. It’s my great delight that, these days, it’s your declared target time upon entering that determines who you race. That opens up the reality of fiercely competitive, very well-matched, mixed, all age racing. Thus it is that I’m often (far and away) the oldest in mixed races with an age range from about 15 to 60+.

I used to love riding the big Honda motorbike I then owned, to those old Canterbury open meetings. They tended to be in May, June and July. Most seemed to coincide with long, warm summer evenings. I guess that if it was going to be wet, I just stayed at home, of course. Pre-motorways and pre 21st century traffic, Kent’s countryside was a very different place. Fruit growing was still a staple of local agriculture, and “pick your own” strawberries had become big business, in particular. Often, driving down the A20 and on the roads over to Chilham and Canterbury, you’d enter a stretch of road where the air was deeply infused with their scent.

But not all were picked by families on an afternoon out. These were still the days of many, many gypsy encampments by the roadside. The gypsies would earn an income from fruit picking, and later, from picking hops, potatoes, peas, etc. They’d move on as the seasons ripened elsewhere, and all was safely gathered in. During the evenings, that share of the picked fruit that never found its way to the landowner’s stores often used to be sold by gypsy families from roadside tables. There were a couple of these I often used to stop at, to buy a huge, cheap punnet of strawberries, raspberries, and occasionally cherries too. The sellers were genuine gypsy people, as opposed to the kind of “new age” travellers usually seen today. They were amusing, charming folk, always keen to engage in conversation and share local news and information. Surnames like Lee, Brazil and Scamp abounded. Those who stopped to buy were always addressed as “Mush“.

Injury ended my days as an itinerant athlete back then. Social and agricultural change ended the ways of the real Kent gypsies. In the last ten years or so, I’ve come back to a semblance of my travelling days on a summer’s evening, now to Bromley, Dartford, Tonbridge etc. The old Canterbury track is long gone. But the fruit and the gypsies are gone too.

Do listen to this. The connection will be obvious: “All Our Trades Are Gone” – June Tabor and Friends, recorded from BBC4