Thud and blunder

'As soon as you had gone on your way people would creep out of hiding, put dynamite in the rock and make vast off-stage noises'
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The Independent Online

I lived in London for 20 years, and although I have many memories of the place, they are not as visceral as the memories of my childhood and youth – there are no smells or sounds, for instance, which immediately take me back to London. With earlier days, it's a different matter. As soon as I smell any trace of hops emanating from a brewery, I am transported back to the streets of Wrexham, where my father worked in Border Breweries, where the coopers trundled the barrels across the yard with a strange creaking, echoing noise, and where a railway arch crossed the middle of the brewery, taking little steam trains down a branch line to Ellesmere. All gone now. The brewery, the coopers, the railway line, my father too, all gone.

I lived in London for 20 years, and although I have many memories of the place, they are not as visceral as the memories of my childhood and youth – there are no smells or sounds, for instance, which immediately take me back to London. With earlier days, it's a different matter. As soon as I smell any trace of hops emanating from a brewery, I am transported back to the streets of Wrexham, where my father worked in Border Breweries, where the coopers trundled the barrels across the yard with a strange creaking, echoing noise, and where a railway arch crossed the middle of the brewery, taking little steam trains down a branch line to Ellesmere. All gone now. The brewery, the coopers, the railway line, my father too, all gone.

(The other day I was taken to the Mid-Hants Railway, also called the Watercress Line, which runs from Alresford to Alton in Hampshire, and somewhere around there I smelt hops, so there must have been a brewery nearby, and that, combined with the music and odour of the steam engines brought on a near fatal attack of nostalgia.)

But I still get waves of déjà vu, or at least déjà écouté, when I stand outside my front door today because it faces towards the Salisbury Plains, and I can sometimes hear the distant booming of guns. Quite often the Army is at it up there, with tanks or artillery or whatever they need to practise, and if the wind is in the right direction you can hear the almost subliminal booming from 20 miles away. The more ill-fitting of our windows actually vibrate with the distant shock waves, and I am immediately transported back to my days in North Wales.

Not that there was any war going on in the hills above Wrexham. Oh, there were strange craters up on the moors which were said to be caused by German pilots dropping their surplus bombs on the way back from Liverpool, but I don't really remember them. What I do remember is the peace-time explosions coming from somewhere up beyond Minera. (Minera is, I think, the Roman word for "minerals". The Romans did dig for tin and other minerals round there. Has the name survived unchanged for two millennia? It seems impossible.) And where the booming and blasting and banging was coming from was Bwlchgwyn, a place where there was a huge stone quarry way up in the hills, a great white canyon which was always dead quiet when you passed by that way and seemed unpopulated, but where you knew that as soon as you had gone on your way people would creep out of hiding, put sticks of dynamite in the rock and make these vast off-stage noises.

I suppose I should think of Iraq when I hear them at it on Salisbury Plain, but I think of Bwlchgwyn, because I have never lived next door to a war. Although, if ES Turner is to be believed, you don't actually have to live very near to a war to hear it. In his lovely book Dear Old Blighty, which tells about life back home in Britain during the 1914 to 1918 war, he says that the shelling in Flanders was easily heard in Kent. Sometimes it could be heard in the Surrey Hills and very occasionally on Wimbledon Common and Hampstead Heath, which is a full 150 miles away from the Ypres salient.

And yet the sharpest sound memory of my youth is of a peculiar rending and whining noise which came across the fields one day to our house. I asked a friend what this horrible noise was. He said it was the sound of a giant who was coming across the country grinding up everyone's bones and eating them.

"Everyone?" I said. "Us too?"

"Oh, yes," he said. "We'll all be dead by tonight."

I was six or seven. He was older. I believed him utterly. I was convinced we were all going to die. I couldn't believe that my mother was so calm on this, the last day of our lives. I finally asked her tremulously when she thought the giant would arrive.

"What giant is that?"

I told her the whole story. I took her outside so she could hear the sound for herself.

"Darling – that's the timber yard across the way!" she said. "They're just sawing logs. Your friend was pulling your leg."

I hope for his sake it was 1 April, but just to be on the safe side I never talked to him again.

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