Reading and Wellbeing: Ben Batten’s ‘A Bussa of Blessings’ | The Hospice of St. Francis

Reading and Wellbeing: Ben Batten’s ‘A Bussa of Blessings’

‘A Bussa of Blessings’ is the title of the autobiography of Chesham poet and retired English teacher Ben Batten who for more than fifty year was Head of English at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School.

In the Cornish dialect a ‘bussa’ is a large salting pot and the book is arranged in fourteen chapters each with the title of something in his life which the author is thankful for. As you would expect from someone who prizes words several of the chapters have direct literary associations, namely ‘Reading’, ‘Writing’, ‘Performing’, ‘Teaching’ and ‘Speaking’.

Ben Batten seems to have understood from an early that his skill with language would become one of the most significant things in his life and he isn’t able to recall a time when he couldn’t read. He was read to from birth, at school he was taught to memorise poems by heart and from a very early age the sounds and rhythms of beautiful language became a fixed part of his mental furniture. The books he would take to a desrt island would be the King James Bible of 1611 and the Methodist Hymn Book which are both repositories of the most memorable and meaningful words he has encountered.

In his career as an English teacher he was privileged from time to time to witness the moment when a class became totally immersed in a text and he cites a couple of moments when a student first comes across a special scene in literature, an occurrence which can only happen once in anyone’s life:

‘The first is in The Merchant of Venice, at the point in the trial scene where Shylock is about to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio and stands knife raised, until Portia turns the tables on him. The second is in Of Mice and Men, when George shoots Lennie in order to save him being lynched by a mob. At this point I have seen boys trying to find ways of preventing their peers from seeing them weep.’

Memories like these are ones which will stay with a child for the rest of their lives.

Another special thrill is the first time a child has the chance to perform in a school play. One of the anecdotes in the book recalls a school production of Macbeth which had to be halted because the boy playing the lead was hospitalized due to acute appendicitis. Knowing how much this opportunity meant to the young actor, Ben delayed the production by several months until the young actor was ready to resume the role.:‘The look of my young Macbeth was something I cannot adequately describe but never forget’.

Ben’s own creative awakening came later in his life during 1983-84 when he spent a year on secondment at the Central School of Speech and Drama when he studied for an Advanced Certificate in Speech and Drama. Part of the course was a weekly session on writing poetry taught by Gerald Benson, one of the writers behind Poems on the Underground. This galvanised him into writing poetry again, which he hadn’t  done for years and also into writing short stories, several of which went on to win prizes in literary competitions and eventually he went on two produce two poetry collections and a book of short stories.

Ben acknowledges the therapeutic value of creative activity which emerged in his life when his wife Sue was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia in the early years of the new millennium. Many of his poems after this date are about her; she died in 2016 and he was helped in his expression of grief after this time through writing poetry. At the end of her life Sue was cared for at the Hospice of St Francis which is why the proceeds of ‘A Bussa of Blessings’ are donated to this charity.

The way that the memoir is written and presented make it a life affirming reading and a solid testament to a life well lived pursuing worthwhile enthusiasms, showing love and being of service to others. We are proud to sell the book at Chapter Two and it is a fitting tribute to the power of words and community spirit.