Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Rockin', rollin nostalgia many miles away

I’ve just tracked down a recording on You Tube of the Seekers singing Morningtown.

Do you know the song? In the right mood you could describe it as sweet. In another mood, you’d just think ‘what is this cloying drivel?’ Not something to say too loud: I like Australians and they like to think that whatever they do, they do better than anyone else. They’re often right, though perhaps not as often as they believe. We need to humour them, so it would be wrong to suggest that this Australian group from the sixties was anything but extraordinary. Let’s just say that the song can seem extraordinarily cloying.

Strangely, it’s precisely that cloying quality that gave the song its importance to me.

The British army stages an annual endurance event called Ten Tors, in which young people walk 35, 45 or 55 miles, depending on age, in teams of six across tough terrain on Dartmoor, in Devon, south west England. Dartmoor is one of the few wild areas left in the country and has the magic of anywhere that has not been tamed, that you have to treat with respect – it can kill you if you don’t – while enjoying its flashes of sudden beauty.

Typical Dartmoor terrain, with the Devonport Leat that takes water to Plymouth

Ten Tors takes place over a weekend and an essential part of it is the Saturday night spent out on the moor, sleeping if you’re lucky, shivering in the cold and wet if you’ve sacrificed protection against the elements to a desire to keep your pack light. Your aim is to visit ten of the granite outcrops called tors, getting a card stamped at each one.


The first time I did Ten Tors was in 1967. I hadn’t trained hard enough. Within the first few miles, with thirty still to go, I realised that I was already in far more pain than I should have been. By the evening, I was exhausted. We slept, using the term loosely, wrapped in space blankets, under polythene sheets, with rivulets of moisture trickling down necks, shoulders, thighs, and calves, while gusts of wind regularly blew under the polythene. The following day, I found a team-mate in front of me and another behind, and they forced me to keep up a decent pace for five or six miles, until their own energy flagged and they couldn’t push me along any more.

Well, we made it in the end, and later I was delighted that we had. At the time, though, I had no sense of elation. I felt lousy physically, and humiliated morally: I had performed weakly, delayed my team and made their own expedition more painful.

There had only been one moment of comfort and Morningtown had been central to it.

It happened at about the second Tor. I was already in trouble. As we reached the Tor, I heard a team of girls resting on the rocks and singing Morningtown – sweetly, of course. These weren’t sirens displaying their charms on the rocks, singing sailors to their destruction. They were fourteen year olds like me, shapeless in their oilskins, and they weren’t even great singers: their voices were pretty but slight, only just audible where the Tor gave shelter from the wind. Even so, the song conjured up a world a long way from where I was. It represented kindness and gentleness. Everything that was different from the cold, the wet, the brutality I was going through and which was, as my gut told me, going to get worse.

What I particularly liked about the moment was that I knew it was transitory. I’d never see them again. We were only in the same place for a few minutes. I didn’t know who they were, and though I remember them, I’m sure they don’t remember me. I was given a brief respite and it left a memory that stayed all the longer because the moment had been so fleeting.

That’s why Morningtown means far more to me than the song itself deserves.


Mark Reynolds said...

If you want to embed Youtube clips so they shownup in your post, there's a box on the upper right hand corner called "Embed" - cut and paste that in your post, and the video will show up on your blog.

Great story, by the way. I've a similar memory from Halifax - though the singer was a trained soprano, and I wasn't camping. Also, I've no idea what she was singing. So I guess it's not very similar at all. I'll bore you with it some other time....

Awoogamuffin said...

I played the youtube video as I read the post, giving it a nice soundtrack, and it lasted just enough time.

I remember you telling me this story before, but I don't think I was paying attention... it worked better this time (maybe the soundtrack)