“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Apr 14, 2017 | Blog

That famous quotation from L P Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’ is poignant – but also a bit meaningless.  I’m not sure it’s true, either: the past can seem strange to us, looking back, but foreign? And did we do things so very differently?

I journeyed into my own past the other day, visiting The Salisbury Museum.  I worked there for over a year when I left school, when it was the College of Sarum St Michael, a teacher training college.  Younger even than the students, I was terrified when I found out I had to take lunch at the High Table, surrounded by the lecturers, bursary staff and the principal.  A galumphing seventeen-year-old with a stammer, I was too shy to do more than mumble responses to the various well-meaning questions fired at me. I was almost too nervous to eat! Isle of Wight 1971 adjusted and cropped

From June 1970 till August 1971, I was a library assistant in the training college library.  I had to stick date labels in all the new books, type catalogue cards and file them. In the dim office that overlooked the college kitchens, I printed class numbers onto the spines of the books, using an electric stylus that got dangerously hot. My fingers were covered in blisters until I got the hang of it, and then the task became quite soothing.

The college librarian was the best mentor I could have asked for. Encouraging and enthusiastic,  with a terrific sense of fun, Kit had worked in the States, knew the Warne family – they’d published Beatrix Potter – and wrote in her spare time.  She asked to read the historical novel I’d written when I should have been revising for my O-Levels, and urged me not to give up on trying to get it published. I re-wrote it during that long hot summer of 1970 and although it still remained unpublishable, I learned not to be too precious about my writing and to be ruthless about cutting scenes that didn’t work.

But I wasn’t entirely happy, even though I was working in a splendid old building in the shadow of the world’s most beautiful cathedral.  At the training college’s request, I’d left school to work there as soon as I’d finished my A-Levels, missing out on those last few weeks when you say your goodbyes to friends who then scatter to the four winds. As, indeed, by September, most of them had. Suddenly, even in a city the size of Salisbury, I felt very alone.

The prospect of leaving home depressed me, even though I wouldn’t be starting at the Polytechnic for another year. I was excited about moving to London, but scared too.  Would I be able to keep up with the rest of the students? How would I find my way around? Could I lose weight and smarten up before I got there?

I worked my way steadily through the Polytechnic reading list: books about literacy, the history of printing, the sociology of work, an introduction to semantics (to what?).  Jo Little at Salisbury Library was brilliant. She got me all the books I asked for and I dutifully read them. Even the one on epistemology. (The what?) Needless to say, when I arrived at the Poly, I was probably the only student who HAD read all the way through the reading list.

During my time working at the teacher training college, Kit took me to a sherry party at the Bishop’s Palace, to the Cathedral Library and to the children’s booksellers Barton & Watson, run by Joan Barton – herself a prolific poet – and her friend Barbara Watson. Their bookstore was – if I remember rightly – in their garage, in the shelter of Old Sarum.  Kit let me take a lot of responsibility for the School Practice Library, a collection of children’s books the students took into school when they went on teaching practice, and she gave me the chance to arrange displays and exhibitions – not all of which were successful!  Those 14 months working at the training college were invaluable experience.

My memories of working at King’s House – the building that now houses The Salisbury Museum – are mixed, bitter-sweet.  My first proper job, a turning point in my life, the last year I can truly say I was living in Wiltshire. Going back through the Close the other day, I thought how much smarter everything looks, how much more cherished. There are picnic chairs and tables on the lawns in front of King’s House – heresy in 1970 but how better to enjoy the cherry blossom, the birdsong, the simple sweetness of the air there, in the shadow of the Cathedral?

So much for the past being a foreign country.  Most things change, of course they do, but many things stay, comfortingly, consolingly, very much the same.

By the way, Jenny Head and Anne Johns have written a comprehensive and very readable history of Salisbury Training College – Inspired to teach: the story of the College of Sarum St Michael 1841-1978.