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Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Get back on t’land whe’re y’belong

Aunty Bina's Farm

Four great rivers, the Trent, Ouse, Aire and Don, lock fingers with the Vale of York across an expanse of low-lying land known as the Humberhead Levels. In winter there is little protection from the cold winds that blow uninterrupted up and down the vale, or along the estuary from the North Sea. In the autumn, thick fogs drift in from the rivers and rise up from the fields. In summer the baking sun cracks the soil into deep fissures. Parts of it are warpland, where turbid river waters were once diverted to flood the fields to deposit layers of fine, fertile silt. Some call it ‘pancake country’ because of its never-ending flatness. Stand upon the slightest rise and in one direction you can see the chalky yellow-green line of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds. Turn the other way, and you can just make out the grey-brown smudge of the Yorkshire Pennines.

The region is dotted with remote villages and isolated farms. Aunty Bina’s farm was along a deserted lane that stretched straight and level from the village where my grandma lived, past enormous, silent fields of sugar beet, wheat, potatoes and fallow grass. Hardly anyone goes down that lane now except in a motor vehicle, but in days gone by we walked from the village, a good two miles, me and my younger brother running happily ahead of grandma wheeling baby cousin Anna in her pram. In my imagination it was an expedition through a strange and extraordinary land. It came back vividly, years later, on reading about the distant tracts of Tolkein’s Middle Earth and the care-free floating islands of C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra.

Cousin Anna had been living with us while Aunty Bina had been in hospital for an operation. She was supposed to have been in for just a couple of weeks, but things went wrong and it was four months before she got out. Even then she was still too ill to cope with a one-year old, so Anna stayed with us for longer. She had learned to walk and talk before she went home. Some of our neighbours assumed my mother must have had another baby. It meant, though, that we visited the farm frequently for Bina to see Anna. It also meant we could play on the farm with cousin Brian.

I loved going to the farm. There were sweet smelling hay stacks to climb and burrow in, quiet shady barns to explore, nests of semi-wild, warm, furry kittens to stroke and befriend, and away across a field a mysterious, dark wood with fallen tree trunks to scramble over. In summer, when the wheat grew long, you could make mazes of channels and trenches to crawl through and hide, so long as Brian’s dad, Uncle Ben, didn’t spot you. He was usually somewhere out on the farm, but the one time he caught us flattening his corn just before harvest time there was hell to pay, especially by Brian after we had left.

I liked playing with Brian, despite being twice his age. I never found it hard being with younger children, possibly because my brother was quite a lot younger too. It was only awkward when another friend my own age was present, when it seemed both embarrassing and inconsiderate at the same time; embarrassing because playing with the younger friend risked ridule from the older one, and inconsiderate because paying attention to the older friend was to ignore the younger one. I even became expert at entertaining baby Anna, provided none of my school friends were around.

If I could have analysed this more deeply at the time, I might have beaten Basil Bernstein to his concept of restricted and elaborated linguistic codes, the obvious idea that you talk to different people in different ways. I knew exactly what he meant when I came across it in some dull sociology text book years later. But, as they say, sociologists only tell us what we know already.

Aunty Bina and Uncle Ben had married at the church across the road from my grandma’s house on a snowy February day when I was little. They lived in a series of smallholdings of gradually increasing size, one of them a winding walk along the river bank. Later they took the farm at the end of the long lane, where some of the farm buildings were at least two hundred years old.

Ben was a hands-on farmer, accustomed to hard lonely hours on the land, with the farmer’s practical toughness towards matters of life and death. Once, making our way along the lane, we spotted him in the distance, across a field, standing motionless with his shotgun, daring any crows or wild rabbits to covet his crops, or as he would have said, “shuttin’ t’crows an’ t’rabbits.” He had sheds of egg-laying hens, but for farmers, there can be no room for sentiment when a hen’s egg-laying begins to decline. He had a series of farm dogs, loud, ferocious, vicious things that sprang up at your face on chains, snarling as you edged past, back against the wall. I never thought to ask what happened when they got too old, or what became of the litters of kittens produced by the semi-wild farm cats. In later years, he regularly bought white Charolais calves, and raised them almost like his own family, but in the end they were always dispatched off for slaughter and replaced by new ones. He called them “be-asts”, splitting the word into two syllables.

He was a big man. I once sat behind him at a wedding and marvelled at the breadth of his back, just like one of his own ‘be-asts’, the result of years of hard physical work. But he knew his job thoroughly, the diversity of skills involved, how to operate complicated machinery, how to calculate quantities of feeds and fertilisers, how to buy calves, when to sow and harvest crops, when the weather said to wait a little longer, and when the weather said it was all right to hide indoors out of harm’s way and play pool with Brian, or watch cricket on television. Aunty Bina would have been quite happy to retire to a little cottage in the village, but Ben would not entertain the idea, and continued raising Charolais for market, even when he was “pushin’ eighty”, as Bina put it.

Uncle Ben’s rural toughness applied to his dealings with people too. He could seem rude and aggressive if you were not used to him, and more than one relative refused to have anything to do with him. We used to tell ourselves we went to the farm to be insulted. As I got older he always looked me critically in the beard and said, “You scruffy bugger! What’s up? Can’t th’afford a razor?” And when it started to go grey it was, “Why! Bloody ‘ell! Look who it is! It’s bloody Father Christmas.”

I once went with my dad in a new car I’d bought, and he came in saying, “I couldn’t see who it wa’ from ove there across o’t’ field, except it wa’r a rich bugger wi’ a new car an’ a scruffy bugger wi’ whiskers.” I didn’t dare tell him it was my car, and I was both the rich and the scruffy bugger.

I don’t know how many of Brian and Anna’s prospective girl- and boyfriends he saw off with his dismissive manner. One of Brian’s girlfriends was a teacher. You can imagine the likely scene when he eventually took the educated young lady home to meet his father.  

“What the ‘ell do you see in ‘im then? He’s a right ugly sod! Still, you won’t bugger up two ‘ouses.”

Ben’s confrontational style of humour came straight out of pre-war country village life, stemming from the days when field workers were always in the company of others, laughing, joking and exchanging banter as they laboured in groups, forking straw on to wagons drawn by horses. But by the nineteen sixties things had changed, and farmers worked long hours on their own, driving up and down, up and down, on their tractors. So Ben saved up his acerbic wit for visitors. If you were in tune with it, he was one of the wittiest people you could ever hope to meet.

“What! y’don’t ‘ave sugar in y’tea? Bloody ‘ell! What d’y’think we grow it fo’?”

“Vegetarian? Y’r a vegetarian? We wo’k our bloody guts out raisin’ t’be-asts fo’t’market, and y’come in ‘ere sayin’ y’r a vegetarian!”

Ben had been born in another village, some distance across the river, and implied he only married Aunty Bina to improve the local blood line.

“If t’Blue Line bus ‘adn’t started comin’ thro’ t’village, th’d ‘ave all bin imbecil’s ‘cos o’ t’inbreedin’.”

If I ever had an accent like that, then regretfully I lost it living in other parts of the country. I was unaware just how much until one day, over the telephone, I was dismayed to hear Ben telling Bina “th’s some posh bugger asking fo’ y’r on t’phone.” When Bina came on the phone I could hear her defending me. “Why, it’s not anybody posh,” she told Ben, “it’s on’y our Tasker,” and then to me said “I suppose y‘ave to talk proper like that when y’r at work.”

Farmers had to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Life was unforgiving and there was no place for layabouts and moaners. You just got on with it, no matter what problems chance dealt you. Aunty Bina had a bad leg which started when she fell off a stepladder at one of their early smallholdings. It damaged the blood supply to her hip, but it wasn’t properly diagnosed at the time, and the bone died. That’s why she had been in hospital. She had a hip replacement that didn’t work, and ended up with an immobilised hip and permanent abscesses on her leg and foot. But she still did her jobs, limping around the house and farm without complaint, even when in later life the treatment for the abscesses raised the levels of copper in her bloodstream, causing partial sightedness. She once wrote me a letter from hospital, mentioning she had had a “minor” stroke, but not to worry because she had seen the doctor straight away, and had been all right since. “She wants bloody shuttin’,” Ben would say.

Ben had his own problems, blood pressure, farmer’s lung from years of exposure to hay and fertiliser dust, and he was not allowed to drive because of epilepsy. I once saw him cutting winter turnips “fo’ t’be-asts” and was shocked by his breathlessness, and the colour he turned. But he, too, just got on with things. In any case, even with epilepsy, farmers are still allowed to take their tractors on public roads, and he would if he felt so inclined, holding back long queues of impatient drivers, desperate to overtake.

The best way to handle Ben’s prickly comments was just to shake your head and ignore them. That’s what Aunty Bina did, but there were some who returned as good as they got. One day, they were visited at the farm by ‘our Mary’, an overweight elderly relative, and a similarly overweight friend, who arrived side by side on bicycles, gliding slowly down the lane, tyres bulging to bursting point, suspension compressed to the limits, fat thighs straining at the pedals, saddles submerged inside the overhanging folds of their abundant bottoms.

“Look who it is!” shouted Ben from his stackyard. “It’s t’bloody Rolly Pollies.”

“Bugger off y’dirty farmer all blattered up in cow muck”, came the reply. “Get back on t’land where y’belong!”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty good put down.

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