1947-’48: Dad’s posting shifted, from Royal Naval Air Station (R.N.A.S.) Culdrose in Cornwall, to R.N.A.S. Yeovilton, Somerset. We took a tiny white cottage among other tiny white cottages in the village of West Coker, a mile or so from Yeovilton. I must have been five. I recall little: womb-like warmth in the coal-fired kitchen stove; draughts and frigid rooms elsewhere; the near-sacred importance of a hot water bottle. I recall a conversation between my elders on the subject of rationing—how it served to camouflage poverty in a place that was more a hamlet than a village at that time.
Two Cokers, one poet
There are two Cokers. West Coker has a much more famous twin, East Coker, and these two hamlets had been sharing half their name at least since the Domesday Book of 1086. Later I discovered that T.S. Eliot had written a significant poem, East Coker, (where he is remembered on a plaque in the Church of St. Michael). Eliot describes “… the deep lane / Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon, / Where you lean against a bank while a van passes, / And the deep lane / insists on the direction / Into the village …”
Thus far, Eliot was correct. The thousand-year-old lane ran narrow and deep between its villages and between its banks. But there was more. Why did Eliot not record it?
For me, West Coker was a constant, unbreaking, unbroken sound, a lonely, sepulchral hum, or a mournful soughing of winds rehearsing a rising and falling wake in the wires strung along that narrow lane. Although they resembled musical notes on a score, the birds on those wires—starlings, for the most part—made few sounds compared to the strings comprising this strange, monotonous instrument. In my life’s recall, that sound in that place was among the very few that never seemed to stop.