When I was in my teens, it was the pirate radio stations and Radio 1 much of the time, when I was in my room at any rate. Like many teenagers, I reckoned that I couldn’t concentrate on my homework if the place was silent, so it was music all the way. Downstairs – goodness, when did Radio 4 start? I remember the Home and the Light stations, though I’m not sure what programmes were on which. But the radio was on a lot of the time. All the stuff that’s still being repeated on Radio 4 Extra, from the Goons to the Archers, My Word to the Navy Lark. And music – I suppose a lot of people of my age remember Sing Something Simple and suchlike. H’m. I don’t remember thinking much of it then, have no idea whether it was as dreary as my memory recalls – it carried on for years so it can’t have been all bad? It must have been my father’s choice, because after he died the radio was played rather less, though my mother liked the comedy and quiz shows at lunchtime and early evening.
My father was the Archers fan, not she, though I listened to it from soon after I got married to a couple of years ago, nearly, when Nigel was arbitrarily killed off and I stopped – not because it was ruined without him as because the producer rather cynically killing off a favourite character to mark an anniversary of the show made me think, Alice-like, “But they’re nothing but a pack of cards.” Not that I’d ‘believed’ in them, but the courtesy of illusion and the suspense of disbelief was broken. I catch a bit of it sometimes, but it doesn’t engage me any longer and if any of the drearier characters is on, I switch straight off.
So, while the Sage was at work and I was a housewife at home – this is about 30 years ago – I had the radio on all day more or less and I really enjoyed it. But then he sold his partnership in his full-time auctioneering business and struck out entirely on his own, and then we moved here and we decided that he’d semi-retire and work as much as he needed to for enjoyment and income, but to have a simple lifestyle that didn’t need much of the latter. And I’ll come back to that another day, but stick to the point here, which is the radio.
Because, that almost finished off my radio-listening, except while I was cooking dinner in the evenings, because the Sage was mostly about – which also made me a much less efficient housewife, by the way, but that would also be a digression. Again, it didn’t seem polite to be engrossed in a radio programme (he wasn’t interested in it) when he was with me. In addition, and I wonder if anyone else has noticed this too, people don’t think it matters if they interrupt your listening. So, if I was cooking or ironing or whatever and listening to a programme, and the Sage or maybe my mother (who lived next door by this time) came in, they would start talking straight away – and how is it that this always happens at a crucial point? If the television is on, it is more of a presence in the room and people look to see if it’s a good time to speak, but music or radio is disregarded.
I could carry on about the peculiar things that happen in the name of ‘comedy’ on Radio 4 now, but I’ll only depress us all.
Then there was the time she and the men were sitting down in the field for lunch. “What you got, Fred?” someone asked an old codger (who was probably younger than I am, come to think of it). Fred inspected the meagre contents of his sandwich sourly. “Piece of bread, cut with a hammy knife,” he said – which entered the family phrase book.
I’m not even sure how long she was in the Land Army, now I come to think about it. It’s a funny thing, she had so many stories about her early life, but they were always the same ones and it’s only been in the last few years – since she hasn’t been about to ask – that I’ve realised how many gaps there are.
Hang on, I can work some of it out. She’d have been 18 when she went in, I suppose, if she was coming up to 16 when the war started, left school the next summer because education had just about come to a dead halt and went to secretarial college for another year, and then volunteered before she was called up. So it must have been two or three years, because I do know what happened next.
As I said, she was stoical about pain, and sympathy for ailments wasn’t forthcoming in any case, so she endured the pain she was in until it became unbearable. As a result of that, by the time she was taken to hospital, her appendix was in a bad state and it was a tricky operation that she took some while to recover from.
And it wasn’t long after that when she caught measles, and I know she was aged 21 then. She was living back with her father then, which was just as well because she was terribly ill. She said she was blind for three days, delirious and very ill indeed, and the doctor called twice a day. Though I’m not sure what good that did, it must have reassured her father. Remarkably, her sight recovered completely – she had excellent sight, far better than mine ever was, and she was well into middle age before she needed reading glasses and never needed them for distance.
This must have been in 1945, if she was born in November 1923. The doctor said that she had to take a long break from farm work while she convalesced, and then the war ended anyway, so she never went back. I suppose her things were packed up for her and sent on – she was surprised to be told to send all her uniform back to *wherever* – the Ministry of … look, I don’t know, this isn’t a carefully researched article, it’s just me waffling as usual. Anyway, I’m not waffling at random, the point is that her badge was missing, and when she’d sent off her rather worn out breeches and belt and shirt and so on, they pointed out that, if she couldn’t produce it, she had to pay for it. She wasn’t entirely thrilled about that, but she refused to pay and they didn’t press the point.
I wish I had some photos of her when she was a girl, but I’m afraid not. In later years, my grandfather lost his sight and he decided to get rid of all ephemera. My mother, who was about forty by this time, was very upset when his housekeeper told her that he’d had a bonfire and burned all the photos and other papers from her childhood and pre-marriage youth, including pictures of her grandparents and parents. I know what her grandmother – her father’s mother – looked like because I have her portrait (one of those portrait-sized photographs, coloured up) but all I know of her beloved grandfather is that his blue eyes twinkled when he was about to tell a joke.
All the same, they were great fun and she reminisced with pleasure about the social life at the weekends. If it gives a flavour of the innocence, she said they particularly enjoyed walking home through a ploughed field, one foot in the furrow and the other on the ridge, bobbing up and down until they almost fell over with laughter.
The farmer was a young man called Bobby, who had inherited the farm from his father – mother was still fit and well and ran the house and farmyard. Bobby would have volunteered, but had poor sight and was more use to the war effort where he was. Jane and Bobby were good friends, but there was nothing else between them and I don’t think that she would have got on with his mother, who was tough and unsentimental – it was she who wouldn’t give her an alternative to bacon.
There was a dreadful accident once, when there was a young woman staying on the farm. I can’t remember why, because I seem to recollect she was American and I can’t think how she’d have come to be in England at that time. She was lovely apparently, a pretty, laughing girl, and she loved riding. But one day, out for a ride with Bobby, she fell off her horse. She landed hard and Bobby was concerned and said they should turn back and wanted to walk back with her, but she laughed and remounted and said she was fine. But she wasn’t. She fell again. “I have hurt myself this time”, she said, and she fainted. Bobby had to leave her on the ground and galloped back for help. She died in hospital later.
The coroner was critical of Bobby, who blamed himself too, but there wasn’t much he could have done. He could have left her after the first fall and gone for help, but she insisted she was fine. I’m not sure whether it was a fractured skull or a subarachnoid haemorrhage, but it’s quite likely it would have killed her, whatever he’d done. To make things as much worse as they could possibly be, she had been an only child.
Although Jane was strong, she wasn’t that robust, because she suffered badly from migraines. She wouldn’t often have been given time off for a ‘sick headache’ though, she remembered being literally sick with pain and then carrying on with her work again. There were several hot summers in the 1940s and she wasn’t good in the sun, she had a fair skin and didn’t do well in the heat. But she was immensely stoical and had a high pain threshold, so just kept going.
There’s a bit of judgement about a sweet tooth, don’t you think? Those who like savoury foods best tend to look down, so often, on those who love sweets. I think it’s a matter of perceived sophistication, and I haven’t a vast amount of patience with anyone who thinks their taste is better than someone else’s. Some of my family are glad that I quietly add a little lemonade to their glass of champagne because they think it makes it taste better, and that seems fine with me.
The other thing that people are a bit judgemental about is the lark and owl thing. It’s a fact that some love to get up early and others are best at night, so like to sleep in. So?
I wish I was better in the morning, I love the dawn, but I wake up in the evenings, those who see me only during the day don’t see me at my most enthusiastic. And if given the choice, I’ll choose savoury, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t got a sweet tooth too. So I’ll sit right on the fence and I like what you like. I know, what a creep.
Anyway, the other thing I was going to mention was that I said to the Sage last night, shall we have another blog party next year? And he said he’d like to. So – well, I hope so, and I hope you can come. I love having made friends through blogging, it’s a completely unexpected benefit.
The autumn was also the time for the pig to be slaughtered for the winter. Jane was very soft-hearted and loved animals, but bacon was the mainstay of the winter diet on the farm, so she simply avoided the pig. But one summer day, she went past its sty and it was standing on hind legs, front trotters on the gate, and she couldn’t resist. She went over and scratched it behind the ears, gave it something to eat, talked to it … and she was scuppered. She couldn’t eat a mouthful of pork or bacon that winter. She said that she was starving, resorting to searching for berries and crabapples in the hedgerows. The farmer’s mother thought she was silly to be so sentimental, wouldn’t let her have anything as an alternative (I have no idea, you’d think that she’d be given extra potato and they’d be glad she wasn’t eating the meat as it’d be more for everyone else) and she went hungry.
She despised the black market, by the way. She swapped coupons – did you get coupons for cigarettes, or would it have been sweets? – with an old man for his clothing coupons, but she never had an illicit pair of stockings or even food. The Sage’s mother, with three young children, had a telephone code with a farmer friend when there was a little extra butter or a few eggs, but Jane wouldn’t have dreamed of it.
I should explain that societies discuss the motions chosen for debate, vote and their delegates go to the AGM, which I think are held in the Albert Hall, but if I’m wrong someone will correct me. It takes up the whole of the May meeting, so we don’t have a lecture or whatever that day. I say ‘we’ but I haven’t been a member for several years, though I’ll start going again some time, I daresay.
To set the scene – it was high summer and a blistering hot day. Jane had to move a flock of sheep from one field to another some way down the road. The sheepdog rounded them up and they set off. Along came PC Jobsworth, wanting to see her identity card. She was wearing – well, I don’t know, but it can’t have been her breeches, must have been a skirt because she didn’t have pockets and so she couldn’t produce her card. It was the local copper, he knew her and, as she said, even the most determined spy wouldn’t be likely to round up 100 sheep with a dog and drive them down the road. But he wouldn’t listen, and bent her ear for a considerable time, while she had to watch the sheep wandering in all directions.
The point was, of course, that the person most inconvenience by id cards is the honest citizen.
She was good with animals. I’ve already mentioned the horses and that she took particular, justified pride in driving a cartload of hay through a gateway where any error would mean disaster. The cows liked being milked by her too. Hand-milking, of course. She was gentle and knew the personality of each cow. One was knows as a kicker though, timing her kick to when the pail was nearly full for maximum disaster. And it was inevitable, Jane was caught one day. Over went the pail and over went Jane, flat on her back. “You sod!” she exclaimed – which went all over the neighbourhood, no one had ever heard her swear before.
Being small and wiry, she was sometimes at an advantage. Most of the labourers were too old to be called up, but they were all experienced farm hands. One tip she soon learned was, when hoeing rows of vegetables or harvesting crops individually (such as turnips), don’t compete with your neighbours but find your own rhythm. So let your neighbour carry on while you stand erect to ease your back, or take a drink of water, and then don’t try to catch up. You’ll both work more efficiently, though there’s no harm in being near enough to carry on a conversation.
There was a tractor and various mechanical aids, but a lot of the work was done by hand or with a horse. One early mistake was in sowing corn one spring. Being careful to keep the rows straight (you fix your eye on something in the hedge at the end of the row, a splash of colour or a distinctive branch), she didn’t leave the final row uncovered and so the next morning, though she knew roughly where it was, she couldn’t start parallel to it. Of course, it happened to be on a slope visible from the main road and her shame was on show for the whole year – the farmer was teased more than she was, however.
She used to choose a short-handled hoe which the men scorned to try. It was a convenient height and she was able to speed along the rows faster than anyone else.
She used to talk about the harvest, when the dust and chaff got into everything. Even tying a scarf around her face didn’t keep it out of her nose and everyone would sneeze in the evenings. It was a dirty, dusty job, but the satisfaction of adding to the war effort – far more than she would have as a pen-pusher in an office – and helping to keep the country fed was consolation for that.
I was fairly lucky regarding morning sickness. I felt pretty rough for the first few months when I was expecting Weeza and lost half a stone, so my final weight of 10 stone was actually only a gain of about 20 pounds. I ended up at the same weight when I was pregnant with Al, but gained an extra half stone in my ‘practice makes perfect’ pregnancy with Ro. However, it shifted quickly enough, I never had any difficulty in snapping right back to a slim waistline.
My mother had a different experience, and would have a great deal of sympathy with Katie Kambridge. She was dreadfully sick through much of her pregnancies. If she’d had babies a few years later, she’d certainly have been offered thalidomide – but she’d not have taken it. Like me, she was ultra-cautious regarding any drugs.
Remarkably, few people knew she was even pregnant. She and my father ran a hotel in Weymouth at the time Wink and I were born, so of course sales reps used to call regularly. She told us of one, who called every three months and was surprised to see a baby in a pram. “Looking after it for a friend?” “No, she’s mine.” “Oh, you’ve adopted, congratulations.” “Thank you, but she’s really my own baby!” She was worst affected by her first pregnancy and hardly put on any weight at all, remarkable as Wink weighed 9 lbs 8 oz. She did need to go up a size, from 12 to 14 when I was on the way, but then I was a hulking 10-pounder. Re-markable. Everyone thought I’d be a six-footer.
I’ve been distinctly ashamed of having weighed more during my mid-forties to mid-fifties than when I was 9 months pregnant with Ro. But it’s gone. It mustn’t come back. Nag me, loves, if necessary, won’t you? Thanks.