Robin Mills met David Bracher at Chaffcombe, Somerset
‘Although my mother was living in Welling, Kent, in 1947, I was born in the Mother & Baby home in Tunbridge Wells because, as I understand it, Woolwich hospital had been severely damaged in the Blitz. As a mother of an illegitimate son, she was banished from her home and left to fend for herself, living in different parts of the country, working as a telephonist. A very close relationship developed between us, and I have wonderful memories of summer holidays in Eastbourne, Bournemouth, the Isle of Wight and Guernsey.
My life took a turn for the worse when I was 5 or 6 as, following my mother’s marriage to an army serviceman, we moved to West Germany. My best memory from that time was my scooter, which had inflatable tyres! The worst was the physical abuse at the hands of my step-father. After two more children and a third on the way, my mother decided to return to England. Thanks to the Army we were found temporary accommodation in a B&B in Blackpool for about a year, then to an army married families hostel in Wiltshire, where we stayed for over 3 years. This gave me a chance to begin catching up on the disrupted start to my education, which was to have a lasting legacy on my academic progress for many years. Although our return to England gave my mother and me more time together, it also meant that I found myself sharing parenting duties as my half-siblings were much younger than me. Fortunately, for my enquiring mind and sense of adventure, life at the ‘camp’ in the depths of the countryside offered endless new opportunities for me: watching cows being milked by hand, being chased by farmers, blackberry picking, hunting for birds’ nests, egg collecting, rearing injured animals and trying to photograph birds on their nests. I enjoyed my two years at the camp’s primary school, where I started to learn the basics and developed a strong interest in wildlife, increasingly watching animals and particularly birds in their habitats, fuelled by receiving bird books as presents from my Mum, notably those by the Kearton Brothers and Peter Scott. By the age of 11 I had acquired well-developed skills of identifying birds by their call and songs, winning a competition on the TV. One of the most significant moments was a day spent with Peter Scott at the Wildfowl Trust Slimbridge, the visit being arranged by Mrs McNee, mother of Patrick McNee the actor, in her role as social worker for the army camp. This visit helped cement my life-long interests in birds.
Photography has been another life-long interest, starting at around 8 years by my mother letting me use her camera whenever I wanted. The regular use of a camera over many years set me up for A Level Art studies and later my photojournalistic endeavours as a teacher training student at Goldsmiths’ College in New Cross, London. From 1967 to 1971 I amassed over 1,000 35mm monochrome images of student life, leading to the successful publication of my book ‘The Way We Were’, which, together with many other images I took at the time, has reconnected many people with those student days which were so formative. Using a camera confidently has enabled me to obtain wonderful images, some quickly taken, and on some occasions, to gain access to events normally out of bounds to the public. The best example was at Brands Hatch Racing Circuit in 1969, when I waved my camera, said ‘press’ and walked right into the Paddock and onto the track, obtaining some great images of the drivers, cars and start of the race.
From a musical and social perspective, Goldsmiths’ punched above its weight in being able to book some of the biggest music acts of the late sixties. I hung out with the students who booked bands such as Cream, Manfred Mann, Yes, King Crimson, The Who, and Muddy Waters and was the unofficial photographer for many gigs. When Muddy Waters arrived we did our best to make him feel at home before the gig, although he didn’t say a lot. But taking a great interest in the image on the poster we had printed for publicity, eventually, he said,”y’know, that ain’t me.” To our horror, the poster used a photo of John Lee Hooker by mistake, but far from walking out in disgust, he took no offence, shook my hand and went on stage. The pyromaniac Crazy World of Arthur Brown was another memorable, if somewhat scary, act, as the ‘fire’ was transferred to the kit of their supporting act, damaging the drums!
As students, we took part in many of the political demonstrations of the day. The Labour government proposed a freeze in teachers’ pay in 1969 which had us on the streets of London. I had come from a little town in Wiltshire, where youth clubs and punch-ups between mods and rockers were the main excitement, to a dynamic London college, where there was a melting pot of culture, art, music and politics. I have no doubt it shaped my life in many ways. I was also greatly inspired by the teaching from well-known educationalists at Goldsmiths’ which had a lasting effect on my teaching and academic career.
After Goldsmiths’ I started teaching in London, then in Wiltshire, where it soon became clear that as I was often working with pupils from troubled backgrounds, sometimes outside of the classroom, I would need a degree to progress. I studied for a BEd at Bristol University, however unexpectedly found myself drawn into an academic career, embarking on a Master’s Degree. In those days Education Authorities could provide funds for in-service training, and I was lucky enough to tap into them just before they ended. The Master’s included counselling, but it was suggested that, because of my aptitude for the subject, I could become an Educational Psychologist, which eventually led me away from teaching. I took a post in Warwickshire, then later came to work in Somerset, the generic post including an embryonic project providing behaviour support using a fresh relationship between schools, the local authority, and different agencies such as the police and social services, as well as the families and children. As a result, I was asked to create a policy document for Somerset looking at how to cut exclusion rates in schools and to provide a ‘Fresh Start’ model for its implementation. This was recognised nationally, and later I undertook a Doctorate using the research project as part of my dissertation. Both my wife Val and my mother were there when I received the Doctorate, something I could not possibly have achieved without either of them. During my doctoral studies, I was privileged to be invited to become a lecturer at Bristol on their EP training course.
Val and I met in 1993, the year I moved from Warwickshire to Somerset. She has helped me to achieve so much through her belief in me, her exceptionally strong work ethic and aspirational approach to life. We are sociable and active people and belong to a group of similarly inclined people in our village, all of whom will organise or help out with whatever needs doing. Our village hall has become the focal point for village activities, there being no pub, shop, or post office. About 7 years ago we started Vinyl Music Nights in the hall, which includes supper, drinks, and dancing to some of my many records. A highlight last summer was putting on Gordon Giltrap, a brilliant guitarist and entertainer, and personal friend from Goldsmiths’ days.
Retirement has offered me an opportunity to do some of the things I most enjoy in addition to spending time with my wife and family. Playing chess in a U3A group, solving chess problems, and crosswords with Val keep the brain alert. Table tennis in our village club or in competitions is excellent for our physical and social needs. Our players are supported brilliantly by Yeovil TT Club and their wonderful coach, Micky Dinmore. Living in a Conservation Area offers me so many photographic challenges throughout the year. Life with my wife Val in our ‘quiet-looking’ village is never boring!’