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Feather's Miscellany: Some Reflections On Life At Eighty

"One great change in my lifetime has been the loss of religion in many people’s lives. It seems that years of affluence have led to an utterly materialistic view of life. On the other hand, youngsters are more involved in voluntary charity work overseas than my own generation were...''

John Waddington-Feather looks back over eight decades.

Having reached, by the grace of God, the ripe old age of eighty, I thought I’d pen a few thoughts about life. I was born in St John’s Hospital, Keighley, in 1933 and raised in a small terraced house in the same town till I left home in 1954 as a two-year conscript in National Service. I’ve much to thank God for being raised in that home by devoted parents, and for my education in a town which valued education and the welfare of the young. Its schools in my lifetime produced many eminent scholars, and skilled engineers and craftsmen who serviced local industries.

My parents left school at the age of twelve to enter a woollen mill and tannery respectively; my mother as a weaver, and my father as a labourer, one of whose jobs was standing up to his waist in hen and pigeon muck turning raw hides in a tan-pit. Later, he and his brother went to night-school where they qualified as auctioneers and valuers and set up their own business.

My parents were determined their children should have the education they’d missed; and my mother wove in a mill till she was sixty to send three sons to Leeds University and a daughter to Edgehill Teacher Training College (now Edgehill University). At the same time she looked after my father, who’d been badly injured in the RAF early on in the war and was an invalid the rest of his life.

I started Eastwood Council School at four where I was taught the Three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) in the mornings, and at break we drank a bottle of free milk. Then after a free school lunch, we slept on beds in the afternoon under a glass veranda, which had been added to the Infants Dept. It had been built a year or two before I arrived to combat tuberculosis, which, like rickets, was rife then in the grimy, industrial towns of West Yorkshire. We slept outside under a glass canopy in all weathers, unless it was too cold. But as a result of starting school so early, I could read and write by the age of five.

In the Infants Dept not only were we taught the Three Rs, but also the basic elements of music and art. We learned songs, played simple percussion instruments and were taught how to hold a pen and paintbrush by very competent lady teachers.

My education continued in the Junior Dept across the way, which I entered about the age of eight. There, my learning skills were developed more as English, history and geography were added to the curriculum. These were supplemented by regular visits to the local well-stocked, educational museum in the park nearby, which was also our sports -field after school.
I ought to add that right through my schooling each day began with an assembly, which included a hymn, a bible reading and prayers. Not only did school assembly give a sense of community, but it also enabled us to pray for our contemporaries who’d contracted T.B. and been transferred to a school sanatorium in the countryside near Keighley; and during the war we prayed for our fathers, relatives and neighbours who were serving in the forces or had been killed or taken prisoner. Prayer had real meaning then.

In 1944 I won a county minor scholarship to Keighley Boys’ Grammar School. And again I was fortunate, for KBGS had a high reputation for learning and teaching. During the 1920s and ‘30s it had sent working-class scholars like Asa Briggs to universities and colleges throughout Britain, and continued that tradition while I was there from 1944 to 1951. I owe much to all my teachers for which I’m very grateful.

In the sixth-form I specialised in History, Latin and English Literature, but all the way up the school I’d been taught by first-class teachers of music, art, woodwork and sport. The result of their schooling was I won a county major scholarship to Leeds University where I graduated like my two brothers; and in the army during National Service I won a county cap at rugby playing for Sussex, in the days when county sides were full of internationals doing their National Service.

All that was sixty or seventy years ago and the world is a very different place today; better in many ways but not so good in others. Computers have replaced books in many cases. Styles of popular music and the arts have changed. Dress has altered and is more colourful than the austere clothing of my youth.

Speech itself has changed greatly and I certainly can’t understand what pop stars are saying as they leap up and down, playing their electric guitars to an audience jumping up and down before them.

Perhaps the greatest change has been in social mobility as the old class-system broke down in the 1960s. That certainly has been a change for the better for it doesn’t matter if you speak with a regional accent, or which school or university you went to. Promotion at work depends on how good you are and how well qualified. The Old Boy network has largely disappeared, but others have taken its place based on wealth and power.

People are assessed on the size of their wallet and their celebrity status, not what they are – hence the recent spate of paedophile scandals involving well-known celebrities. Values certainly have changed in my lifetime but not always for the better, when half the homes children are born into now are run by single or unmarried parents.

One great change in my lifetime has been the loss of religion in many people’s lives. It seems that years of affluence have led to an utterly materialistic view of life. On the other hand, youngsters are more involved in voluntary charity work overseas than my own generation were.

So all in all, I believe life is much better and I can only hope that the current period of recession will restore some old worthwhile values: values of economy, conservation of countryside and wildlife, less wastage of resources, more tolerance and care, and a sense of community and neighbourliness which was such a vital part of my youth.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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