Price and value
Way back, at the end of the thirties, after leaving school and getting a job, I travelled daily to work on the train. Not one of your modern diesel or electric inter-city transporters, not a sprinter which stops when the wrong kind of snow or autumn leaves fall, or a pay-train, more like a bus than a proper train, but a train with soot-grimed carriages pulled by a locomotive which poured thick black smoke from a stubby funnel and clouds of white steam from various orifices about its body. LMS or LNER was painted on its side.
Running through the carriage compartments, from front carriage to guard’s van, was a red chain with the forbidding message printed below it, “Communication Cord. Penalty for improper use £5”. At the time I wondered what happened when the cord was pulled; did the train squeal to a sudden halt; were fines ever levied. That was in 1939. Eleven years were to pass, to the summer of 1950, before I was actually a passenger on a train when the cord was pulled – improperly.
The Sheffield Star and Telegraph newspapers ran, for a number of years following the war, an annual appeal to send children from poor families for a day at the seaside during the summer. Cleethorpes was the chosen destination. The chief organiser was one “Uncle Timothy”, if memory is remains true. I believe this was a nom-de-plume. In real life, among other pursuits, Uncle Timothy served as a Sheffield City Councillor.
On several successive Saturdays around June and July, a special train left Midland Station for Cleethorpes packed with children, supervised by adult volunteers, mainly teachers. Thus it was I went one Saturday to the seaside, along with twenty excited twelve and thirteen year olds from the Sheffield Flower Estate. In spite of the idyllic names of roads in that area – Bracken, Bluebell, Daffodil, Foxglove, Heather, Hyacinth, Lilac, Primrose – it was, and still is, a Sheffield Council Estate where ugliness of poverty blights the area.
On arrival in Cleethorpes the children were fed, presented with ten shillings worth of vouchers to spend in the fun fair and turned loose on the town. At teatime they gathered for fish and chips and ice cream, were addressed by Uncle Timothy who, shouting to make himself heard over the din, thanked, on the children’s behalf, the generosity of the benefactors; then all of us were shepherded back on to the train for the journey home.
We hadn’t been travelling on the return journey to Sheffield for very long when the train slowed and eventually juddered to a halt. Shortly the guard appeared. Our carriage had been identified as the one in which the communication cord had been pulled. Eventually a boy owned to having jerked the cord in the lavatory, pleading, improbably, that he had mistaken it for the flush.
He was lectured sternly on the risks to life and limb, and the dire consequences which would follow a repeat performance. Mercifully no fine was imposed, and the journey proceeded without further incident. No doubt the culprit felt the risk had been worth it. Possibly he boasts of it yet.
It was then I realised that the name “communication” given to the emergency chain was ill-chosen. According to the dictionary, communication includes the exchange of ideas to facilitate greater understanding and sympathy. It is a means of spreading knowledge. It is also, as the old saying has it, a “two-way process”. The communication cord is geared to a one-way message, with an assumption that it must hardly ever be used – more an absence of communication than a channel for greater understanding.
There are those who view religious experience as available through the communication cord. There for emergency, seldom to be used, penalties for improper use, and afterwards the journey can continue just as before. But emergency only communication is not the most satisfactory way of life.
It was on that journey back, another failure of communication came to my notice. One boy in my party, his name has gone but let’s call him Paul, sat next to me. During that return journey,
Paul proudly showed me what he had purchased during the day.
There were small parcels of cheap knick-knacks as gifts for mum, dad and young sister, of little monetary value, but priceless in that they represented Paul’s wish to share the pleasure of the day with his family. Paul was described as not very bright, but he knew what many brighter had yet to learn, that true delight comes when pleasures are shared.
Then, when the presents had been stowed away, Paul produced a small package about the size and shape of a cigarette packet. Inside was a block of rough wood.
“I was done with this,” he said.
I was puzzled. “Where did you get it?” I asked.
He explained it came from a machine which contained a large number of valuable prizes in a glass case. For a penny you got access for a short time to a crane with a grab on the end, which could be manoeuvred among the prizes. With luck or skill a prize could be grabbed, raised carefully from the pile and dropped into a hopper, thence to be retrieved by the lucky player. Paul had lifted a prize which turned out to be the block of wood – hence his remark about being “done”. His hopes of something better had been raised, only to be dashed again.
I looked at the package and written upon it was a printed message. “Give this to the attendant in exchange for your prize”. Poor Paul. His rudimentary reading skills were unequal to the task of translating the message, so he had come away with the block of wood and without his prize. The message had been given, but not received. The prize had been his but he had not the knowledge to claim it. Possibly that is a parable.
True and satisfactory communication involves skill and care by both the giver and the receiver. If messages are clumsily given, they will not be understood. If receivers are unwilling or unable to comprehend, or are obstinately obtuse, then communication breaks down and the message is lost.
Among the many joys of seeing a young child grow gradually through childhood to maturity, is that of observing the growth in the ability to communicate, first hesitantly, then more confidently, and eventually, God willing, with fluency and intellectual agility. Whatever years are given to one born today, during that time he or she will grow in ability to communicate in a multiplicity of ways.
Today, communication to and from that young infant is rudimentary, confined to basic needs like food, warmth, comfort. But shortly, all too soon some will say, by word, written and spoken, by gesture, by arts and by science, and by many ways beside, communication will be enormously expanded.
And as that happens, so will knowledge grow. But knowledge in itself is not important. It is only a step on the way. In the book of Job there is a line which goes “Knowledge is the beginning of understanding”. To stop short at knowledge is to be stunted. Mr. Gradgrind in Dicken’s “Hard Times” thought learning facts was the sole purpose of education. But just as communication is the key to acquiring knowledge, so is knowledge the door to understanding. It is the understanding which is important; knowledge is merely the means to the end.
A character in a play by Oscar Wilde speaks of “… knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Many here today will believe, with conviction, that the world is not simply a mechanical creation, with a scientific explanation. There are values to be encompassed. Price is a matter of fact; value a matter of judgement and appreciation.
I suppose there are many motives why parents chose to bring their children to a church service to be named, but surely a prime motive must be, or ought to be, because they wish the child to grow from communication to the acquisition of knowledge and thence to understanding; an understanding of the difference between price and value.
All children, should walk through the world with awe and reverence, wondering and marvelling. Children will grow to communicate with those they see and hear around them. They should learn to be attuned to that which they neither see nor hear, but of whose presence they are assured. They should learn of values – of truth, beauty, tolerance, compassion, mercy, and the rest. But what they are and become depends not only on acquiring skills in communication, but in the care and skill we employ in our communications with them.
A child is born, and officially welcomed into the family of God. We all have a duty to ensure that as the child is valued today, so shall he or she grow in the ability to truly communicate, to understand and marvel, and to achieve adulthood able to distinguish between price and value.
Fulwood Old Chapel: 22 Dec. 1991
Hucklow Old Chapel: 22 January 1995
Mexborough: 14 May 1995