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.
As I grew up, I began to understand the harsher aspects of farm life. I remember my father’s tears after he had to put down his favourite dog.
I myself had to perform the same heart-breaking task, and I shot a fox and disposed of it in the same manner. Neither my father nor I fed the dogs to the pigs. They had their own personal space at the bottom of the vegetable garden.
The dogs were workers and not really pets, but old Billy was allowed to sleep in the kitchen next to the pot-bellied stove and he always loved a tummy rub and a back scratch.
I did have my own pet. A cat I called Jemima though everyone else called it Slasher. My father carried it out of the barn one day after it had been abandoned by a feral mother. He was about to kill it and chuck it in the pig pens when I spotted it and after vehement protestations and a long lecture about whose responsibility it was to feed and look after the creature, I was allowed to adopt it.
Feeding was the first problem. We ended up giving it creamy, raw cow’s milk, filtered through a rubber teat on my old baby feeding bottles.
The practice of giving cats cow’s milk is frowned on today, but Jemima thrived on it and soon moved on to the daily minced beef or pork that my mother used in her award-winning pies.
Jemima was half feral. No one could get close to her but me without almost losing an arm. She was a wonderful mouser and could have been a champion ratter if such a title had existed. She was never quite part of the family but I loved her. She lived until the end of the war and was still catching vermin up until the day she died.
In nineteen-twenty-six, the country was riven by the General Strike. Though the majority of strikers worked in the mines and docks, some farm workers were encouraged by activists in the Communist party to hold sympathy wild cat strikes.
The issue never surfaced on our farm, even though the agitators tried to persuade some of our workers at the Old Bull in the village. My father never forgot their loyalty. Our workers didn’t need to hold wild cat strikes anyway. Jemima performed wild cat strikes every day of her life.
Nothing much happened over the next few years and our farm life went on just as it always had. Then, in nineteen-twenty-nine, Wall Street in America suffered a catastrophic crash and the economies of the entire world went into meltdown. What followed was known as The Great Depression. Millions of workers lost their jobs, wages were cut across the board and most working-class families suffered immensely.
My father did his best to help our workers. He never forgot the loyalty they showed to us a few years earlier and now he repaid that debt. He kept their wages at the same level but all had to work an extra hour a day, especially at ploughing, sowing and during the harvest. We still kept the rituals of mother’s birthday and Christmas, where, as an added bonus, my father produced a couple of giant turkeys.
Old Joshua Cohen, who had worked well past his retirement date and who my father had put on light duties some years before, had finally thrown in the towel at the age of seventy-one, his arthritic-ridden hands not able to hold a cup, let alone a scythe. He was left with only a pittance of a pension and no way to pay the rent on the cottage he had lived in with his daughter and three grandchildren.
My father, in his usual way, quietly sorted things out. He bought the cottage from the landlord for one-hundred-and-ninety-five pounds and gave Old Joshua a rent-free contract for the rest of his life. His daughter was given a job at the farm helping my increasingly fragile mother perform her tasks.
So, the farm survived the Great Depression though my father did have to sell off ten acres from the top fields to the owner of the neighbouring farm to get us all through a bad patch in the winter of nineteen-thirty-three.
In the early winter of nineteen-thirty-seven, my mother’s strength finally ran out and she died in my father’s arms whilst the doctor was hurrying towards us. She had been bedbound since the previous autumn. My father and I, along with Old Joshua’s daughter, Miriam, used to spend hours reading to her. She’d drift in and out of consciousness but my father insisted we read on. Amazingly, when she woke up, she’d be in the same place of the story as the reader.
My father took her death badly and he took to drink. I was sixteen at the time and I found myself running more and more of the farm’s affairs. It wasn’t a problem as I helped my father with so many things over the years. I could start a cold engine on the old truck that was parked up in the barn to protect it from frost. I had already learned to do the books (my father checked them religiously every week and seldom found an error.) I had worked in the fields with the farm hands, I could talk to the foreman without him getting uppity about things. I actually think he respected my knowledge. He called me The Corn Dolly, as they all did, because of my habit of hiding in the cornfields when I was dodging some task I didn’t fancy performing.
So, although my father’s absence didn’t make the running of the farm any easier, we were one man down after all, we did manage to get by. For the first few weeks after my mother’s funeral, he spent most of his time at the Old Bull, drinking pint after pint of dark beer. I used to drive up in the truck to find him if it ever got too far past closing time. I found him in hedges, in a field and even propped up, fast asleep against an iron lamppost.
Soon though, he became a home drinker. He sat in the armchair in the living room looking out over the distant hills, a bottle of whisky on the table at his side, another bottle on the floor.
The landlord of the Old Bull dropped them off on a daily basis. I got the bill once a month. He hardly uttered a word. I did my best to try to coax him off the spirit but I was wasting my time. He wanted to be with my mother again, nothing else mattered.
By autumn nineteen-thirty-seven I had my own, life-changing, problems to worry about. I was pregnant and the father wasn’t around.