Sunday, November 27, 2011

Warminster folk

Welcome to Warminster

It's tempting coming from a cosmopolitan city to look down on country folk as being simple, narrow-minded, boring and lacking culture (except skittles) and sophistication. But I do feel bad being so harsh on Warminster, Wiltshire (like here and here); okay, so it does consist of the elderly, the disabled, the moronic and the terminally dull, but there are still some good people there. Some of them exude a quiet dignity, grace and contentment you don't often see in the city. In other words, they seem happy. They like to tell a funny tale (usually the same one multiple times), and are warm, giving and entirely unpretentious.

Take Arthur. Of gypsy stock, he was literally born in a circus tent some seventy-six years ago. His parents were gypsies and it's said his pregnant mother was actually dancing before she gave birth to him. And when she did it was on a bed of hay. Then she continued dancing. People were tougher back then.

Arthur's had a colourful life. He was a semi-professional football player and was offered a professional position at Crystal Palace but Arthur's wife, Maureen, didn't want to leave Warminster. 'It's always the women who hold us back' (we joked, some time ago). Arthur married Maureen – whose parents had sawdust on the floor of their home – in his early twenties. Since the football he's had a variety of (mainly menial) jobs: driving trucks for the nearby M.O.D; unpacking bananas in supermarkets; working in local factories. He used to swim across Shearwater lake every day, before and after work. Arthur's also been a singer and actor, and still sings and acts, when they let him, for the local theatre. Even in his seventies, a head full of bright white hair, he keeps busy, as a pheasant beater and still doing some driving. Over the years Arthur has seen UFOs, aliens, ghosts and a huge green man straddling a road as he drove between his legs. He's never been abroad and didn't have a passport until a couple of years ago. It's his ambition to go to the States, 'where the cowboys are'. But he can't find anybody to go with.

One of Arthur's favourite stories is about the deadly, tropical spiders that used to be found in the banana boxes when he worked in the supermarket unpacking them. One night in bed he was woken by a noise on the floor in his bedroom: a spider had got in (from his coat?) and was creeping across the carpet. He got up, threw a blanket over it and stamped on it. A variation on the story involved a friend of Arthur's who stuttered. The two men were in Arthur's home and the man with the stutter pointed to a spider on the floor and wasn't quite able to get the words out: 'T-t-t-t-here's a sp-sp-sp-sp-spider o-o-on the f-f-f-f-floor!' I have heard Arthur's spider stories more times than I have met him.

One of his best and oldest friends is Tom. They still play skittles together sometimes. Tom walks like John Wayne with his bow legs. His wife, who actually can't feel her own legs (but apparently walks fine), wants Tom out of the house all day, every day, so he amuses himself by doing odd jobs like removals.

The man who walks around town singing was in a car accident some years ago and has lost much of his memory. Though he seems loopy wandering around singing, whenever I visit Warminster I find his voice reassuring and soothing. I've overheard him talking to people in shops and he seems surprisingly lucid, talking about his daughters and local matters, so I'm not sure exactly what's wrong with him. He's certainly got a good voice.

Small towns have more than their fair share of gossip, intrigue and scandal. Sometimes the locals are a bit too desperate for gossip. We were alerted recently to a rumour about Jane Silbury, old school friend and mother of three, having a nervous breakdown and seen 'wearing strange clothes and talking nonsense' – but it was a false alarm: she's been wearing strange clothes and talking nonsense most of her life.

At my ex-partner's secondary school, Kingdown, back in the mid-1980s, 50-year-old Heather Arnold, head of maths, became obsessed with fellow maths teacher Paul Sutcliffe, 39. In a fit of jealousy, she butchered his wife Jeanne and their eight-month-old daughter Heidi with an axe at their home in Westbury. The next morning she taught her classes as usual, before going on the run and eventually being caught by police. On her way into court in 1987, some 150 people jeered Arnold and threw 'oranges, dog food and coins' at her. The slightly-built and grey-haired woman broke down in court when she was handed a double life sentence. (She has now apparently been released.)

Kingdown school has now cleaned up its act but in the 1980s and 90s it didn't have a lot of luck with its teachers. Besides the maths teacher being a murderer, two other teachers, Mr Lucas and Mr Kirby, were probable paedophiles (Lucas certainly was; Kirby had an affair with a student and used to talk about sex all the time).

There have been several other grisly murders in recent memory which really affect small towns like Warminster or nearby Westbury (or Hungerford – not that far away – the sleepy, pretty, Berkshire town will forever be known as the place where Michael Ryan killed sixteen people with rifles and a pistol in a Rambo-style massacre in 1987), including the death of Billy the homeless man. Billy lost his job, home and wife, eventually becoming a homeless alcoholic. One night, after getting into an argument with another homeless (and mentally ill) man, he was brutally beaten to death. Another homeless man, Rory, was a brilliant mathematician who looked like a big bird and was usually to be found perched on railings or in the cricket pavilion in the park. He couldn't take normal life; he was a tragic character and some thought he just faded away and died (happily, he is actually alive and well).

Former soldier Miles Evans murdered his nine-year-old stepdaughter, Zoe, in 1997. Her disappearance sparked what was then the biggest ever police search for a missing person. Zoe's body was eventually found in a badger sett near her Warminster home.

There has also recently been a spate of middle-aged (or older) men hanging themselves in the area. This sometimes happens in places where there's not much to do. When people retire (or get made redundant or get divorced) they have even less to do. It's no accident that Warminster's premiere website, Warminster Web, has the phone number of the Samaritans directly above its masthead.

Names have been changed – except for the murderers and paedophiles.


Mel said...

Well, it's a darn sight more interesting than Putney. What have you got? Eh? Still heading this way for Christmas, are you? I'll alert the lynch mob...

Barnaby said...

It sure is. We got nothing round here. And I'm looking forward to a Wiltshire Christmas. Let them do their worst.

James said...

Imagining a band of zombie "elderly, disabled, moronic and terminally dull" types emerging from charity shops into the gloom of Warminster high street at dusk, Thriller style, chasing Barnflakes down the street.

That sort of thing would never happen in Putney.

Barnaby said...

They'd never catch me. Unless they're driving electric wheelchairs.

Mel said...

I would really love to see that happen here though - maybe it will.

Anonymous said...

Not totally accurate as Rory didn't 'fade away and die'. He is very much alive.

Barnaby said...

I'm glad to hear it. Sorry for the inaccuracy.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you could correct your ‘inaccuracy’!

Barnaby said...

Sorry – corrected.