I saw a badger for the first time in my life the other day. Except for a mere twenty years in London, I’ve always lived in the country, yet I’d never seen one before. I was cycling home along the Kennet and Avon Canal when I saw it, about four miles south of Bath. It ambled out of a wood by the banks of the Avon, waddled across the field towards me and stopped to root around in some diggings It was brown and not very big, which surprised me, but it was a badger all right. This was about 4pm, when people start cycling home from Bath along the canal. One such came up behind me and stopped.
‘Badger,’ I said.
‘Brown,’ he said, surprised. ‘Not very big, either.’
‘But a badger all right.’ I said.
‘Only ever seen one before,’ he said, ‘when I was on sentry duty at Timsbury. I was on guard one night, and I could hear this crashing all around me, but couldn’t see anyone. It was pretty scary.’
We went on talking, and the next time we looked round, the badger had gone. Bicyclists are a friendly lot on the canal, and so are the boat people. It’s only the fishermen who never have a civil word for anyone. My four-year-old son asked me one day what the fisherman was doing. ‘Go and ask him. ‘ I said
‘What are you doing, man?’ said my son. We are still waiting for an answer. I sometimes wish for a similar degree of reticence on the past of the fishmonger who calls in the village once a week and manages to get all the Top Ten Clichés of the week in his opening greeting… ‘Hasn’t it been hot, how are we keeping, did the storms get you, don’t we need the rain then?’ Etc… and also smells of fish so much we know he’s there before he rings the bell. No self-awareness, fishmongers, unlike the cheesemonger in Bath’s covered market, whom I asked the other day whether he grew impervious to the aroma of cheese.
‘I might,’ he said, ‘but others don’t, I am referring to my friends. The few I have left. Cheesemongers are not the most popular people. For instance, I am going to see George Shearing tonight and I don’t have time to get home to Bristol and have a bath before the concert, so I‘ve warned the box office people that they must leave seats clear all round me,’
George Shearing was one of the sure-fire jazz attractions in the Bath Festival this year - I know this because Radio 3 had already asked me to go and interview Shearing, before the concert, in the summer cottage he rents every year near Stow-in-the-Wold. Shearing has been blind since birth (an interviewer once asked him if he had been blind all his life, and he replied sardonically, “Not yet”) and left London just after the War to seek and find his fortune in the USA. One of the men he left behind in London was a violinist called Mac McCoomb, who now lives in Bradford-on-Avon and whom I met (where else) while bicycling along the canal.
‘I’m one of the few real cockneys you’ll find hereabouts,’ he tells me. ‘I played in London all during the War. George Shearing was around on the scene then. To be frank, though, we didn’t reckon George Shearing much as a pianist. We’d use him if we couldn’t get anyone else. But I hear the Americans took to him in a big way…’ As we sat in George’s garden, listening to and smelling the countryside, I asked Shearing if he remembered a musician from the War days called Mc Coomb. He didn’t.
I think I have found out where the badger was going. I have made friends with the lady who does the (voluntary) gardening on the platform flower beds on Freshford Station, a mile away. Everything about Freshford Station is voluntary. Even the trains only stop there by request – you actually have to put out a hand, and the train obediently stops, like a bus. A friend of mine once hailed a train there and it stopped 20 yards beyond the station. The guard stuck his head out of the window, yelled furiously, ‘We don’t stop here,’ and signalled the driver to move on
‘How’s the station garden going?’ I asked her at the last WI market.
‘Badly,’ she said mournfully. ‘The badger comes down out of the woods and gets all the pansies.’
Yes, it’s swings and roundabouts down here in the jungle.The Oldie 16th June 1992