Home Thoughts from Augustów

The most unlikely things can remind you of home and sometimes the reminder is strangely appropriate. We had been in Augustów in North East Poland, a land of lakes and forests. It is a small town with a small railway station situated in a forest a couple of miles outside the town. It was hot and humid. A handful of people waited for the afternoon train to Warsaw. It was quiet. Then the train appeared, you could see it coming when it was nearly a mile away coming down the straight section of track, almost like a mirage as it shimmered in the intense light of an August afternoon.

We clambered on, with the platforms at track level and the steep steps up it is a clamber and found a compartment on the half empty train. We had companions, a Dutch couple who, evidently relieved that they finally had people they could talk to, quickly engaged us in conversation. This was just as well for them as they had begun their journey in Lithuania not realising that the train had no restaurant car. We shared our sandwiches and water with them.

After a while the conversation die away and I started working on some of my poems.

“Could i have a look at your poem?” asked the Dutch gentleman who introduced himself as Henk.

“Sure” I said handing him a copy of a poem describing a visit to Köthen in Germany, a town where Johann Sebastian Bach spent six years and where he composed most of his secular music. He read with interest for some minutes saying nothing.

“I’ve been to Köthen” said Henk finally “ and, you know, you could turn this poem into a song. It reminds me of a singer songwriter.”

He furrowed his brow as he tried to remember the name. Then he said

‘Clifford T Ward.’

In that moment, as the train rattled through the countryside of North Eastern Poland, I was taken back to Bromsgrove where I grew up and to the summer of 1973. The big news in the town that summer was that an English teacher at North Bromsgrove High School was about to became a pop star. Clifford T Ward, originally from Stourport on Severn, appeared on Top of the Pops while still working as a teacher. His autograph was much soght after, even for those who, like me, were too young to go to the High School. If you didn’t you needed an elder sibling or a friend with one.

Actually I had already been reminded of him this year. A few weeks ago I spent a morning in Wolverhampton City Archives reading the Express and Star from the summer of 1973 whilst researching a feature. There I found an interview with Ward. After his appearance in Top of the Pops he had put in his notice at the school and said that he was turning his back on teaching without regret. The rigidity of the education system, he said, was stifling children’s creativity. I wondered what he would think these days of national curriculum, league tables, SATS and so on. To me the school system of 1973 suddenly appeared as a land of lost content. But still…….

Ward never became a big star but built up a loyal following. He was a shy man who did not enjoy live performance and this many argue held back his career. Sadly he died of MS in 2001, aged just 57. But he is remembered, and his music enjoyed, around the world, among others by a Dutch economist from near Groningen who talked about it with evident enjoyment on the train from Lithuania to Warsaw. Clifford would surely have smiled at the thought that his Home Thoughts from Abroad had inspired just that.

Here he is.

Clifford T Ward, son of North Worcestershire, RIP.