Bristol now and then

A week in Bristol before I meet my son, the longest time I have been in the city, familiar from my childhood on.

First in the mid-1950s when I surprised my parents by choosing Bristol rather than the more exotic Cardiff for our excursion. A few memories of the special train from the Sussex coast and being with my father on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which captured my imagination.

And later, after we moved west when Bristol was on the outer rim of familiar Somerset, visited on train spotting trips and on the few occasions I travelled north.

I have long memories of Bristol Temple Meads station, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s fine structure from 1840, curiously mock-Tudor but still redolent of the Great Western Railway.

The long platform close to the exit where the trains from Bath Green Park arrived. Walking down to the other end to see Castle, Hall, County and King Class steam locomotives parked in the south sidings.

And later, on the same platform feeling adventurous on my way to the North East, to interviews at Durham and Newcastle universities (when I sealed my fate by telling the philosophy department that I was interested in Hegel).

And academic trips to and not just through Bristol, to the university to attend a seminar on Shakespeare with other sixth formers from all over Somerset, feeling inferior in the presence of the far more fluent, wanting to shine but painfully aware of having nothing to say.

An interview at Bristol University to read English Literature. I don’t remember much about it but I remember clutching a rather fine edition of a Thomas Hardy novel in an ante-room (I don’t remember which but I’d like to think it was Jude the Obscure).

It was probably on that trip that I visited cathedral-like St Mary Redcliffe. My teachers would probably have been surprised seeing only a gauche immature teenager adorned with the fashions of youth yesteryear and missing the other stiller presence capable of awe.

To some extent, Bristol with friends too, wandering around the curiously named Christmas Steps with a schoolfriend whose parents had moved there. And, mulish 18-year-old when taken by my parents to see a pantomime (a curious choice but it would have been a better memory if I’d been generous and gracious).

And after moving to Sweden, being in Bristol with my travel sick daughter Anna, who richly rewarded the inflexible coach driver who refused to stop by ensuring that he had a longer stop than planned at the next coach station to restore order in his vehicle.  We were on our way to Bristol Zoo to see a white tiger but maybe that was another trip.

At some point I’ve wandered around Bristol with Pevsner looking at buildings, probably when I was going to visit my nephew in south Gloucestershire. And recently to see the grave of the Bengali Rammohan Roy who died on a trip to meet the city’s Unitarians and who lies in a rather splendid tomb at Arnos Vale.

I am looking forward to this week to get a better grasp of the city and tweak the past by tidying up my Bristol memories.

Sarehole Mill and Tolkien

Sarehole Mill, one of the last two working watermills in Birmngham, well known for its own sake and for its associations with Tolkien whose early years were spent in what was then Birmingham’s surrounding countryside.

Walking through the Dingles to the Mill, then seeing the Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s new Tolkien film at the nearby cultural centre felt a natural follow-up. It met with mixed reviews and my own feelings were also mixed. It has its poignant and beautiful moments but was far too sweet for my taste and some of the magic of Tolkien got lost among the character stereotypes that passed review, Tolkien, the orphan, Tolkien, the sensitive public schoolboy among his band of brothers, Tolkien, the lover faithful to his romantic dream, Tolkien, the student of genius overcoming barriers to find his path through academia and Tolkien the soldier on the bloody Somme and his loss of the dear.

Tolkien’s name caught my attention, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. “Reuel”, friend of God or one who is intimate with God in Hebrew, a family or middle name in the Tolkien family, was given by the Tolkiens to all their children. Reuel is another name for Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, a priest of Midian and father of Hobab (sources: Exodus and the Book of Numbers).

And the name Tolkien itself, of Germanic origin, the family coming from Kreuzberg near the then Königsberg, some of its members later moving to Danzig (Gdansk) and then England.

A Polish Tolkien scholar, Ryszard Derdzinski has written about the origin of the name, related to the village of Tolkeiny, later in Eastern Prussia, its name a combination of personal name and suffix, perhaps “son of”. And “tolk” itself means (in Russian, German and Swedish at least) interpreter or negotiator, making son of “the interpreter”.

Derdzinski’s article looks well referenced and scholarly but his enthusiasm for his subject makes me wary, although his hypothesis seems not unreasonable (but sufficiently pleasing to encourage attempts to disprove it).