I was born on the 24th Sept 1919 in the family farmhouse, on the night of the first violent weather event of the autumn. The winds were so bad they took half the roof off our barn and deposited it onto the flock of sheep that were huddled down in a pasture a hundred yards away. We lost ten ewes and thirty barn dwelling chickens that night. My father later told me if I had been born a dog instead of a child I would have been named Storm.
We owned sixty acres at that time. The rain had a devastating effect on our newly harvested crops. It was a bad end to the year and not an auspicious start for the new arrival.
I was, to say the least, a difficult birth. My mother was in labour for forty hours, she lost so much blood it was a miracle she survived. The local doctor and the midwife who supervised the birth thought my father was about to lose both of us. When I eventually arrived, the trauma had been so great that I refused to cry, even after five upside-down bottom slaps. I was breathing fine, but I was stubborn and wouldn’t give in to their demands, even at that age. It was to be a trait that has stayed with me all of my life.
My father was frantic about the state of my mother. They were soul mates, in love from the first class they attended at the local school. He would have laid down his own life if it meant she would live.
As it was, she did survive. Just. She was never the same woman after, she was weak and prone to every infection going. Luckily the Spanish flu had almost burnt itself out the year before so she was spared that.
Growing up on a farm in the nineteen twenties gave me a far easier childhood than most working-class children. I was well fed, I got plenty of fresh air and was mostly isolated from some of the nastier bugs that infected the town children. I did get Chickenpox at four and a quite severe dose of Measles at six, but the sporadic epidemics of the deadly Scarlet Fever disease wasn’t really seen in our neck of the woods.
I always felt loved, despite my mother’s near-death experience though at times I did catch her looking at me with a strained look in her eyes as if she was remembering those horrendous two days. My father loved me unconditionally. I was half my mother and that was always going to be enough for him. I looked a lot like her and he would often sit in his huge high-backed armchair watching me play with Betsy my rag doll and remark that it was just like watching my mother play at school.
We had twelve farm workers and a few casual ones who would come in for seasonal work. The wages weren’t great and the days were long, some of the work was backbreaking but they were a happy crew. Twice a year, at Christmas, and on my mother’s birthday, my father would invite them and their families around to the farm for a celebration party. The farm workers’ wives used to come around to help my mother prepare the food. My father provided a barrel of ale and a few bottles of gin to help the party swing. We children had bottles of fizzy lemonade to sate the thirsts we worked up playing tag around the farmyard buildings.
We had a few cows at that time and the villagers would bring pails every morning for milk squeezed fresh from the cow. They could buy pasteurised milk from the local shop but old habits, as they say, die hard. No one to my knowledge was ever taken ill drinking our raw milk. Indeed, we used to drink it ourselves. It was much tastier than the small bottles we were given at school.
The farm’s main business was barley, corn and pork. We had twelve big sties, each holding a boar and ten sows. Occasionally we’d have two boars who had been raised together in with the sows, especially if they weren’t breeding too well. The sows were isolated when their time came and reintroduced to the boars a few weeks later. The piglets, to my huge disappointment and frustration, were bulked up for slaughter.
One night in the autumn of nineteen twenty-five, I was woken from my slumbers by a loud shout. My father had leapt from his bed, hared down the stairs, grabbed his shotgun and ran out into the yard. I rushed to my window. The moon was full and I had a perfect view of the farmyard and my father blasting the head off a young fox that had snuck out of the barn with a chicken in his mouth.
The next morning my father kept me well away from the barn, a place I used to love to play in, while he carried out the twenty, headless, legless, dead and dying chickens that were the victims of the fox’s frenzy. Thankfully, my own pet chicken, Dolly had survived the carnage. My father had found her on one of the barn beams. How she got up there we’ll never know.
Having not seen the bodies of the poultry, I found myself feeling sorry for the fox. I sat on the back step and cried at the sight of its poor carcass, lying where it had died. My father knelt in front of me and explained in quite stark terms for the ears of a five-year-old, why he’d had to do it. Then he dragged the fox by its brush, around to the pig pens, and hurled it over the wall of the largest of them.
I can still remember the sound of snuffling and scuffling that followed as the excited porcine sounder attacked their surprise dinner.
He looked at my puzzled face as he walked back towards me.
‘Pigs will eat anything,’ he said. Continue reading