As we enter the New Year memories of the Christmas season still linger. We have had greetings from members of the extended family of Mill Grove around the world, and many have called in over the holiday period. Among those who arrived was a person I will call Samuel.He lived as a child at Mill Grove in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and after catching up on our respective family (and work) news we quickly found ourselves reminiscing. We talked of holidays, school, and people we knew in common. It was during this spontaneous sharing that he came out with the comment at the head of this article. He explained that before he came to Mill Grove he had stolen things as a way of life. It was part of the struggle for survival, and his father had taught him no better. On reflection he told me that he always knew stealing was wrong, but it had become so much part of his existence that it was fast becoming an integral part of daily living.
Then he and his siblings came to live at Mill Grove. It was a huge upheaval and transition: from a rather chaotic household, to another which was far more orderly and disciplined; from an East End working class neighbourhood, to one much nearer the leafy suburbs; and from one culture to another. But he has never wavered in his view that it was this move that made all the difference in his life.
We laughed when we recalled the time we were on holiday in the West Country. It was the first time he had ever been to the coast. We were staying in a caravan that overlooked the sea. On our arrival the tide was in, and the calm sea could have been taken for a massive lake.
On Sunday morning, however, he woke me up with urgency to tell me, “It’s gone!” It took a moment or two to realise what exactly had gone missing, but when I looked out and saw the long stretch of white sand that had been covered by the sea hours before, I tried to reassure him. “It will come back”, I reassured him. “How do you know? Where has it gone?” he asked looking me straight in the eye.
At this point there came what Basil Bernstein in his work on language codes describes as a clash of cultures. I tried to explain that there was a pattern to the amount of water in any place at a given time, and told him of tides and tide tables. He did not look particularly convinced, but he could see that I was not half as worried by the absence of the sea as he was.
That was when I made what turned out to be a fundamental mistake. I told him that it was all to do with the moon. He thought I was joking. And he tried to get me to laugh with him at the ridiculous idea that the little silver object in the night sky could possibly have anything to do with the mysterious disappearance of the sea. When he realised that I was not party to a joke, he slowly moved away, convinced as far as I could see that he was just going to have to work this all out for himself.
By lunchtime the sea was indeed back and it was not long before we were paddling and splashing in it (he couldn’t swim). Of course day by day the tide ebbed and flowed, and he tried to make sense of what was happening, not least, where it all went to. Later in the week, at low tide, we had a barbecue on the beach by the light of the moon. But nothing could convince Samuel that there was any possible connection between the tiny crescent above us, and the black waters lapping nearby, on which it cast a silver ribbon.
All the same, over the months and years, he began to trust the place and the people at Mill Grove, especially my father, in many other things. Perhaps most important of all was the fact that you could rely on what he said, and that patterns of life were predictable. It was always for him about living in a different environment, rather than this new place becoming a substitute for his original home. But here was an alternative way of living that was to form a vital foundation in his future life.
It was not easy. School and study were always puzzling to him, and when I was talking with his older sister a while ago, she told me that she felt that he had learning difficulties that had gone undiagnosed. There was the challenge of how far to tell the truth about a situation, and how far to be loyal to kith and kin despite the evidence before your eyes. There was the riddle of how to live in a faith community when you had been taught to take life as it came without recourse to any hint of the transcendent (except of course folk religion). And all the time there were explanations given to questions (for example, about tides) quite unlike the abrupt responses he had received in his childhood.
And now here we were, looking back nearly fifty years with the benefit of hindsight, and quite a combined experience of the world. Neither of us will ever know how his life would have turned out had he not come to Mill Grove. Perhaps Samuel’s innate sense of fairness would have seen him through. And his siblings have remained connected and supportive over the decades, as well as over considerable geographical spaces.
He has known human tragedies, losses and anger-provoking frustrations, but year by year we find ourselves sitting down together over a mug of tea and chatting in just the same way. We smile now at times when he was white-hot with anger and intent on imposing his own rough and ready justice on someone whom he felt had betrayed him. We have paused to reflect on a death in his family. But always we get back to childhood memories and the place and people he is convinced saved him from a life of petty crime caused by an unequal struggle for survival.
His is not the story of everyone who lived at Mill Grove. Indeed it is different from that of his siblings. There are those who feel that they were not helped enough, perhaps not listened to, or understood. But it is his considered view, and it has shaped and inspired his journey through life ever since. I still hold to my view that the tides are caused largely by the moon, and he says that I am welcome to believe it as I may. We smile as we part, unaware of what the New Year holds for either of us, but pretty sure that at some stage in the next twelve months we will be chatting again. And that sustained conversation could just be a key to the whole process.