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Saturday, 1 January 2022

Aunty Bina’s Farm

NEW MONTH OLD POST
First posted as on 14th October, 2014
About 1300 words. Contains local dialect.
 

In a quiet southern corner of Yorkshire where the tributaries of the River Humber lock fingers with the Vale of York, there lies an expanse of pancake-flat country that geographers call the Humberhead Levels. It was once the bed of a glacial lake. Stand on the slightest rise and to the East you see the welcoming, chalky yellow-green hills of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds. Look to the West and you can just make out the menacing, inky-brown smudge of the Yorkshire Pennines.

In winter, there is little protection from the North and East winds that blow up and down the Vale or in along the estuary. In autumn, thick fogs rise up from the fields and drift in from the rivers. In summer, the baking sun cracks the earth into deep fissures. Spring reveals the richness of the soil. Parts of it are warp land, where turbid river waters were once diverted into the fields to leave layers of fine, fertile silt.

The region is dotted with remote villages and isolated farms. Aunty Bina lived at the end of a long lane that stretched straight and level from my grandma’s village, past silent fields of sugar beet, wheat, potatoes and fallow grass. Hardly anyone goes down that lane now if not in a motor vehicle or dressed in lycra, but in days gone by we walked from the village, a good two miles, me and my brother running happily ahead of grandma wheeling baby cousin Anna in her pram. It lives in my imagination as an expedition through an extraordinary landscape. 

Anna had been staying with us while Aunty Bina was in hospital for an operation. It was supposed to take 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 a lot longer. We loved it. It was like having a new baby sister. She learned to walk and talk before she went home. Neighbours thought my mother had had another baby. 

We visited regularly for Bina to see Anna. It meant we could play on the farm with cousin Brian. It never failed to bring new adventures. Some of the buildings were two hundred years old. 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 trees to scramble over. 

In summer you could channel mazes and crawl through the long wheat, provided Brian’s dad, Uncle Ben, didn’t spot you. The one time he caught us flattening his corn just before harvest there was hell to pay, especially by Brian after we had gone home.

Uncle Ben worked hard lonely hours on the farm, and had the farmers’ pragmatic acceptance of life and death. Once, making our way along the lane, we spotted him across a field, standing motionless with his gun, “shuttin’ t’crows an’ t’rabbits” [shooting crows and rabbits]. He had sheds of egg-laying hens, but, for farmers, there is 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 against the wall. I never thought to ask what happened when they got old, or what became of the litters of kittens produced by the semi-wild farm cats. In later years, he bought white Charolais calves and raised them like his own family, but in the end they were always sold on for slaughter and replaced by younger ones. He called them “be-asts”, splitting the word into two syllables.

I once sat behind him at a wedding and marvelled at the breadth of his back, like one of his ‘be-asts’. He thoroughly knew his job, the diverse skills involved, how to operate complicated machinery, how to calculate quantities of feeds and fertilisers, how to fill in government forms, 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 to raise Charolais, even when he was “pushin’ eighty”, as Bina put it.

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

I once drove my dad there and Ben came in saying, “Ah cou’n’t see who it wa’ from ove’ thee-’re across o’t’ field, except it were a rich bugger wi’ a new car an’ a scruffy bugger wi’ whiskers.” [I couldn’t see who it was from over there across the field, except it was a rich b- with a new car and a scruffy b- with whiskers]. I wish I’d been brave enough to tell him the new car was mine.

This confrontational humour came straight out of pre-war village life, from the days of communal field work, laughing, joking and exchanging banter as they forked hay or straw on to horse-drawn wagons. But by the nineteen sixties things had changed. Farmers worked long hours on their own, driving up and down, up and down on their tractors. So Ben saved his acerbic wit for visitors. If you were in tune, he was one of the most amusing 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’?” [You don’t take sugar? Why do you think we grow it?]

“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!” [We work hard raising be-asts for market and you dare to say you are a vegetarian!]

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

“If t’Blue Line bus ‘adn’t started comin’ thro’ t’village, th’d ‘ave all bin imbecil’s ‘cos o’ t’inbreedin’.” [If the Blue Line bus hadn’t started coming through the village they would have all been imbeciles because of inbreeding]

If ever I had an accent like that, I’m sorry to have lost it in pretentious jobs and places. One day over the phone, I was dismayed to hear Ben telling Bina “th’s some posh bugger askin’ fo’ y’r on t’phone.” Bina defended me. “Why, it’s not anybody posh,” she said, “it’s on’y our Tasker,” and then to me said “I suppose y‘ave to talk like that when y’r at work.”

One way to handle Ben’s prickly comments was to ignore him. That’s what Bina did, but there were others who returned as good as they got. One day, they were visited by ‘our Mary’, an overweight elderly relative, and an equally overweight friend, who arrived side by side on bicycles, gliding slowly along the lane, tyres bulging to bursting point, saddles submerged in the overhanging folds of their abundant bottoms, skirts gathered under to reveal thighs wobbling like jelly as they pumped against the pedals.

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

“Bugger off Ben Smith, y’mucky farmer blattered up in cow clap,” came the reply. “Get back on t’land whe-‘re y’belong!” [Go away you dirty farmer covered in cow muck. Get back on the land where you belong]

When you think what else they spread on t’land, that’s a pretty good put down.

34 comments:

  1. If my 2022 is as good as this post I shall be the happiest man in Scotia.
    Gave me a flashback to that great novel by Raymond Williams, *Border Country*.

    The Humberhead Levels bestow a beguiling distance on those *menacing* Pennines rather like Priestley's prelude to The Good Companions.
    Remote villages and isolated farms, my idea of Arcadia.

    I could hit men who make remarks to women with weight issues (especially vulnerable youngsters) but Mary could counter-punch.
    *A mucky farmer blattered in cow clap* is verbal counter punching.

    Incidentally, Tasker, I discovered a marvellous writer over Christmas.
    *Innocence Two Novellas* by Frank White (1927-2019) is a find.
    Stanley Middleton meets Alan Sillitoe by way of Barstow. Terrific.

    Wishing you and your family a safe and happy 2022.
    Jack (John) Haggerty

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    1. Pleased to see you back. I thought you had disappeared. Thank you for the book tip.
      'Our Mary' or 'Aunty Mary' as I called her, my mother's half-cousin, was not someone you would argue with. Very pretty when young. Possibly my first crush when I was about 8 and she around 40.

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  2. Well worth republishing. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you. It was torture getting it into shape.

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  3. Very enjoyable indeed although I found the vernacular easier than having translation repeats 😂.

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    1. Thanks. Is it that you understand the Yorkshire easily because you're Northern? I know what you mean about the vernacular - I've now put the translations into a smaller font to help distinguish. I don't know whether it's any better.

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    2. Presumably. I've never really had problems with accents from 'The North' except some Geordie which can even stump a Makem. I think making the translation smaller did make it a bit easier to follow.

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  4. Is Bina short for Sabina? I knew a couple of older Yorkshire relatives named Sabina. Pronounced to rhyme with miner.

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    1. Spot on. Actually I've changed names for privacy reasons but in the family we did have a Bina pronounced to rhyme with miner and short for Sabina. She had a sister called Maria pronounced to rhyme with higher.

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  5. Replies
    1. Thanks. It's as best as I can do it. It would be fantastic to have had a tape recording.

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  6. Tasker this is beautifully written! Memories such as this, particularly with the dialect, are valuable pieces of history. Life changes so quickly and I believe it is important to pass down such memories.

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    1. Thank you. They were definitely of their time, along with many many others with similar speech patterns and humour, all gone.

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  7. I so enjoyed that Tasker, beautifully written and evocative. A definite 'Long Read' for the Guardian.

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    1. I wish! I enjoyed writing it, even though as mentioned above it wasn't easy to write.

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  8. Is Tasker your real name then?

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  9. Very enjoyable reading and it clearly shows the pragmatic and stoic nature of the farmer.

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    1. Thank you. They had to be stoical, possibly insensitive. Even those in the villages, who weren't farmers, used to keep pigs and hens and many would dispatch them themselves in the days before the animal welfare act. We are cushioned from this now.

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  10. When did Uncle Ben start manufacturing his rice products?

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    1. Boom boom. I would love to suggest the kind of response he would have given you to that but I'd probably get kicked off Blogger. Something perhaps along the lines of what Prince Philip once said.

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    2. The dialect needed no translation for me as it was the language of childhood. Did Prince Philip say, "Ever considered Spicy Mexican rice Uncle Ben?"?

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  11. This was a beautiful 'capture' of people in their place and time. Such fun to read! I love 'characters' and your Uncle Ben sounds like he was quite a character.

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    1. He certainly was a character. I have avoided some of his more his more extreme remarks but I don't think he was ever malicious. At his funeral, one those attending came in a wheelchair, and one of the wheels came loose. We enjoyed speculating what Ben would have said about that.

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  12. Great read, Tasker. Had no trouble understanding the dialect. Probably because of years interpreting the various dialects of relatives from places like the London's East End to the farmers in the NE kingdom of Vermont. Upta (up the) mountain. And then some. :)

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    1. Many thanks. It may be easier to understand written than spoken. They sometimes add subtitles when these regional accents appear on tv. Strong Barnsley can take some tuning into.

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  13. I can't get my head around what to say, such conversation as that is normal for me round here. Am I supposed to apologise. go away and bury myself in a hole or try to laugh about it? I wasn't going to comment at all but in the end had to say something. The bracketed translations were not necessary for anybody I wouldn't have thought. They rather spoilt it and insulted the speaker in my opinion.

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    1. And the final shot from the other man would not have been seen by Ben as a put down at all, and nor specifically by the man who said it, it was just two people talking in theirc own language and both parties would have been happy with it, end of story and normal conversation would carry on.

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    2. Maybe it should be "a pretty good reply", which it was, and Ben would have thought so too; I'll think about changing it. Yes it was normal conversation in pre-gentrified farming villages, but outsiders thought it rude and aggressive. When his son took a girl friend home it was "What the 'ell do you see in 'im then, he's a bloody ugly sod". The obvious answer "he takes after his father" would have been fine, but many would be embarrassed or offended. If I am judging then it's judging those who would belittle how these communities used to be and think themselves better.

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    3. It was *normal conversation* as you and Rachel agree.
      Surely there is a middle way between Hate Speech on the one hand and the Thought Police on the other?
      Uncle Ben is a gift for any writer though today he would be sent on an Anger Management Course. Anger Management is a good idea for very aggressive men, don't get me wrong, but not for Ben.

      I watched a video where a man replayed a private telephone conversation between Alec Baldwin and his daughter.
      Out of context Baldwin sounds very heavy, but my parents and teachers spoke like that when I misbehaved, and it is wrong to broadcast a private conversation in the context of the tragic death of Halyna Hutchins.
      *Why I think Alec Baldwin pulled the trigger on purpose - Viva Frei Vlawg.*

      Haggerty

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    4. Some people just don't get it. They are incapable of getting it. They can't imagine how it is possible that robust teasing can be a sign of affection.

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    5. *Clint's idea of a good time is sitting on a pick-up truck, watching his dog bark.*
      Don Rickles Roasts Clint Eastwood.* YouTube.

      Rickles robustly teases Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
      Haggerty

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  14. I had a good laugh at that, reminded me of home :)

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    1. I laugh about it too, although as replied to Rachel, above, I'm laughing along with the people and not at them. They saw the funny side of simple things in the world without malicious intent. Thanks for commenting.

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