Author Archives: Z

Jane in the Land Army – 6

As I write, we’re going through an unprecedented worldwide experience and, here in the UK, our freedom is being curtailed considerably, for reasons most people accept and appreciate. When there is a war on, citizens also understand that they have to give up personal freedom for the greater good. But there is a line beyond which the bully, jobsworth or, as they used to say, Little Hitler, takes a pleasure in stepping and an experience in the 1940s was one that Jane never forgave.

Some 25 or more years ago, the WI debated, at their AGM, whether it was supportive of the introduction of identity cards. Each WI is entitled to send a voting delegate to the AGM, who will vote in accordance with the wishes of her society and so, the month leading up to the occasion, the motions put up for debate are discussed at the meeting. I murmured to friends that Mummy would have her say on the subject and, in a very few words, said why – and so she did, and this is the story.

It was midsummer and young Jane was driving a flock of sheep along the lanes from one field to another. The weather was hot and she was wearing an open-necked shirt and shorts, her curly brown hair bobbing to her shoulders, enjoying the peace of the day. The village policeman cycled up behind her, stopped her and demanded her identity papers. She hadn’t got them.

He had known her for years. There was no doubt that he knew who she was and he could also see she was at work. But he was a bully and she was technically in the wrong. So he stood her there while he gave her a dressing down and she had to watch the sheep scatter. It took her the rest of the day to round them all up again and take them to the field where they were peacefully heading in the first place. So to her, identity cards gave the less pleasant people in authority free rein to harass the innocent whilst the guilty would have forged documents and go free.

I can’t remember how the WI vote went, though.

Jane in the Land Army – 5

Bobby knew he was doing valuable work for the country on the farm, but it was still not easy being at home when the other men his age were off in the Forces. He had poor eyesight, so wouldn’t have been on the front line either – my own father was in that situation, so was in the RAMC; the medical corps.

A young woman was visiting and she was a keen and experienced rider, so Bobby and she rode off for the afternoon over the fields. A rabbit jumped out, the horse shied and the girl fell off. Everyone who rides falls off once in a while and she laughed it off, but Bobby had seen her hit her head – no riding hats in those days. However, she insisted on remounting. They were a long way from home and so they set off again at walking pace. However, she suddenly went pale, said she felt ill and fell off again. It was obviously serious, she was unconscious. Bobby galloped off to get help and she was carried off to hospital, where she died. Her skull was fractured in the first fall and the second one was fatal. Bobby was devastated, particularly as the coroner criticised him at the inquest. She was an only child, too.

It was a truly mixed farm. They just had one pig, but they had cows, sheep and chickens, as well as arable land. They’d have grown most of the feed for the animals as well as corn and vegetables to sell. I know this because my mother used to tell me about milking the cows – women tend to be good at this, apparently, as their hands are usually smaller, the skin is not so rough and they treat the cows more gently as a result. There was one occasion when she was milking a particularly bad-tempered cow – of course, it was when the pail was full that the cow kicked, knocked it over and Jane off her stool. “You sod!” she said, and everyone else looked round at her like a Bateman cartoon. First time anyone had heard her swear.

Jane in the Land Army – 4

It was a family farm, as I said – mother and father and two sons, though one of them was in the army for a time. Mother was quite a tough cookie. I don’t think Jane liked her much. Jane was an animal lover and she had difficulty in accepting that farm animals were born to be eaten. Or to have offspring that were eaten: that was what they were for.

I know I’ve told you before about her stepmother, whom she hated. When Jane was a child, they kept chickens and she had a favourite. One Sunday lunchtime, the stepmother took pleasure in telling little Jane that the favourite chicken was the Sunday roast. Jane couldn’t eat a mouthful of course and never forgot it. So maybe that was behind her sensitivity, which was not common at the time.

A pig was kept on the farm, because it ate up all the whey from cheesemaking, the leftover potato peels boiled into mash, the lower quality grain and pretty well everything else. And it had a cheerful life in its sty over the summer and became pork and bacon for the winter. Jane avoided the pig. But on her third year, walking through the farmyard, she caught that year’s pig’s eye and couldn’t resist going over, scratching its face, rubbing its back and getting to know it. She told me that she almost starved that winter. The pig was her friend, so she couldn’t eat it. The farmer’s wife, whose name I can’t remember, would make no concessions and gave her no alternative food. So whatever bread and vegetables were available, the occasional egg and, literally, crab apples and berries from the hedgerows were what Jane lived on. She never did become vegetarian but she found the connection between animals and food very difficult.

Jane lived in and life was not particularly easy, not that anyone expected it to be in the early 1940s. On a farm, they probably had better food than anyone else, because the ration book didn’t apply so strictly as in the shops. As I said the other day, she swapped unwanted clothing coupons for her unwanted tobacco (or whatever) coupons with an old farm worker; the one who made her drunk on cowslip wine. I’ve never tasted cowslip wine myself. Those flowers are rare now, compared to then.

I know I’ve written before about the awful accident that changed Bobby’s life, but it’s in the context of Jane’s story, so I’ll tell you again tomorrow.

Jane in the Land Army – 3

As I said, Jane didn’t have or want a boyfriend, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t have a social life. Every weekend, there was a village hop, as they called it, at the local community centre – not sure if that was the pub, village hall or what. I never asked. My dears, if you are lucky enough to have a living generation above you, think about questions you need to have answered! When you lose them, you’ll realise that no one knows the answers to them any more.

They had great fun, they danced and chatted and it was all, as far as Jane was concerned, very innocent, because she didn’t want anything more. She didn’t want to take risks and she wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship at that time. She, Bobby and anyone else at the farm went along on a Saturday night, had great fun and then walked home, chatting and singing. She remembered a particular occasion when the field had just been ploughed and they walked along, one foot on the ridge and one in the furrow, almost helpless with laughter.

A lasting regret, however, was one occasion, much later in the war once the US had joined. A young black soldier asked her to dance and she refused. She felt awfully embarrassed but she knew her reputation would be ruined – all the same, she knew she was wrong at the time and she never stopped regretting it. She wished she’d been braver, it was just a dance and there was nothing more to it.

Jane in the Land Army – 2

She was sent to a farm not too far from Weymouth – I never thought to ask her how much she got home to see her father or other friends. Why does one only think of this sort of thing when it’s too late?

It was a family farm and the son Bobby was excused Army call-up because he was an essential front line worker. There was a second son and he was called up for a time, but I think he returned to the farm later. Other workers on the farm were older men, past the age to be called up, and Land Army girls. When Jane turned up, they assumed she’d be wet behind the ears and only able to throw food to the chickens, but she was determined to do anything they could, and so she could. No tractors because of fuel rationing, but they had a big heavy horse, a cob and, rather oddly, an ex-polo pony called Monsieur de Talleyrand, who was very quick on his feet and lively, but I’ve no idea what work he was actually capable of. The heavy horse, which I think was a Shire, pulled the wagons and heavy machinery. My mother learned to drive him – she was already an experienced rider – and prided herself on her abilities. Such as going at a trot to an open gateway, pulling a laden cart and carrying on through it with inches to spare. She also proved her worth when it came to harvesting root crops. The men chose the big tools and she was left with the smallest one, but she bent down to the job and it was far quicker. She also learned that, if everyone was working together side by side on the rows, it soon became a competition. So you stopped, took a swig from your water bottle and stood and stretched, and soon everyone was in a different place and unaware of who was quickest.

Once, she was sowing wheat in a hillside field near the road. She got to the end of the day, marked the place and went home. Next day, she realised that, whilst she knew where she had stopped, she hadn’t marked the line of the drilling. So, that whole summer, there was a place where the rows went off at a different angle and she – and the farm owners – were teased thoroughly. Everyone thinks they’re the first to say the witticism that the recipient has heard a hundred times. It palls.

Later, other girls did arrive from towns and cities and they were pretty clueless. The old farm workers had various jokes – sending them to shut the five-barred gate to cut out the draught in the middle of the field, going to buy a left-handed pitchfork, that sort of thing. I’m not sure how long any of them lasted and she never mentioned any friendship she had with any of them. She was always drawn more to the company of men, in a completely non-romantic way. She thought of herself as one of the blokes. Yet she knew she was attractive – slim, with curly brown hair, she was sometimes likened to Deanna Durbin. But she was uninterested in having a boyfriend and rather despised the girls who were known to be “easy.”

Jane in the Land Army – 1

I can’t remember if I told you about my mother’s Land Army experiences, so I’ll assume you can’t either. If I’m repeating myself, I apologise – but then there are stories she told many times herself, which is the only reason I remember them. I do know I’ve said some of this – but this is a way of escape from our current difficult times. To previous difficult times, but that’s another matter.

Jane was still at school when the War started. Al was saying to me today, how sorry he was that Squiffany’s 15th birthday was spent quietly in isolation with the immediate family, but Mummy was only 15 in September 1939. It scuppered her hopes of a university education and I don’t think she took exams at the end of the school year. A London school was evacuated to the south coast and they shared the school with the existing pupils. The latter were there in the morning but had to leave their text books behind for the afternoon pupils. And the headmistress was very agitated and held practice evacuations several times a week, so lessons were spasmodic.

So she left school at 16 and went to secretarial college in Weymouth. The college was in sight of the harbour and there were regular “dogfights” over the bay. I suspect that the evacuees had gone back to London or elsewhere by that time, it wasn’t the smartest move to have sent them to the South coast in the first place. She said that the tutor, a rather fussy chap, used to wring his hands and say “oh ladies, ladies, do come down” when the girls all used to rush up to the flat roof to watch the aerial battles. Until one day, when a plane was shot down and hit the water in flames, and they realised that they were watching real life and it wasn’t a bit of fun at all.

When she was approaching 18, she realised she’d be called up to the Forces. She was shy and unsophisticated and felt completely out of her depth, so volunteered for the Land Army instead. Her grandfather had been a farmer and she was a healthy, outdoorsy girl who relished physical work.

Legless

Tim and I chat over dinner, often for quite a long time. It’s a two-person dinner party and occasionally we disagree, even more occasionally quite strongly, but usually it’s a stimulating discussion and we laugh rather a lot. Tonight, for reasons I don’t quite remember, we got on to swearing and blasphemy, both in English and Italian and, at some point, Tim remarked that my mother (then aged about 25) must have led a sheltered life.

Yes, she had, actually. When, aged 23, she and my father got married, she didn’t drink tea or coffee and she didn’t drink alcohol. She certainly didn’t smoke – I’m not sure how I’d cope with no vices at all, but she was a perfect example of those virtues – if virtues they are.

It doesn’t mean she never slipped, however. When she was in the Land Army, she was friendly with an old man and used to visit him with a small gift once in a while. Nothing less than completely innocent, obviously. He was a farm worker who should have been long retired, but carried on working because there was a war on and most young men were in the Forces. He used to give her his clothes coupons in return for – well, I’m not sure what was couponed. Tobacco? If it was, that would have been it.

One evening, she called round and he offered her a glass of his homemade cowslip wine. She didn’t drink at all, she had probably never tasted alcohol. Still, it was quite innocuous, or so she thought, and delicious, so she accepted another glass or more. And when she got up, she found her legs didn’t work. She was fine as long as she sat down, but her legs let her down quite badly. The moral of that story, of course, is never to accept a glass of cowslip wine from a nice old man.

I had a similar comeuppance once, though no old men were involved. We had dinner with friends – she’s not the best cook but she’s the most brilliant hostess. Her brother had brought a bottle of Irish whiskey and we polished it off after the meal. I felt fine and we sailed home, Russell and me, chatting merrily. R hadn’t drunk much, being The Sage, obviously, so was fit to drive under the limit. It was a Saturday night and my mother was invited to lunch the next day. This was one of the most embarrassing Sundays ever. I was legless. I felt fine when I was lying down and I felt awful standing up, I wobbled and was dizzy. I managed to get whatever we were eating into the oven, and then I lay on the sofa. My mother arrived and I had to apologise. She and Russell finished cooking and then brought me a plate of food, which I ate with good appetite. All I couldn’t do was be upright. It was peculiar, because I felt fine until I tried to use my legs.

My mum was very understanding. I expect she remembered the cowslip wine.

Z motivates myself

The only thing to do was to regain motivation. So I made a list of household jobs, ranging from the everyday or every week to the one-off. It includes emptying the dishwasher but not preparing food, because I want things to tick off reassuringly, but to challenge a bit. Anyway, we managed seven today. A daily thing will be emailing/messaging or phoning friends.

Today’s good things –

1 The first load of wood has been delivered for the new fence down the drive. I’m so sorry you won’t see it this summer, but I’ll post pictures, of course. I asked for the better quality wood and I’m very pleased with it. It’s attractive and also smooth – when grandchildren finally visit again, they will certainly run their hands along the rails as they go down the drive, so I didn’t want them to get splinters.

2 Tom Tree Surgeon phoned to bring forward the date for judiciously cutting back the oak. He wasn’t able to do it on the original date because the cherry picker broke down, so he arranged for early April, but he says that he can see oak buds swelling and doesn’t want to wait that long. I like Tom, he cares about trees.

3 Well, there isn’t much more, actually, apart from the various things from the to-do list. But a cheerfully tranquil day with Lovely Tim, a brave face when I want to be with all the people I love, a good night’s sleep, they’re all going to count, even if it would look a little desperate to give them each a number. Ordinary life isn’t meant to be itemised. But –

4 The birdsong is lovely in the spring.

Z lacks motivation

I’m not the most motivated of Z’s, it seems. I did fanny bloody all this morning. I did pull myself together and cook lots of food this afternoon, for the sake of using up raw and leftover stuff, so we’re pretty well sorted for a bit. All the same, having realised we’re down to our last lemon, I’ve put in an order for the greengrocer, hoping that after dinner isn’t too late. But if it is, we will make a quarter of a lemon last.

Alex and family are in quarantine because he and Dilly have bad coughs. They’re both rather front line. Two of the children have colds, but that isn’t anything extra, probably. It’s Squiffany’s birthday on Friday, poor darling. But we are all sensible – how could any of my family be anything but sensible? – and she will make the best of it. I’ve sent her a present and I appreciate Amazon, however evil it is. I’ve sent a few random presents to spread the love, as well.

Having said I can’t make it to next week’s meeting, others agreed and then it was decided to try videoconferencing. That disconcerted me. i don’t like seeing myself online – but yes, fair enough, having said I’m staying at home, I can hardly say I can’t be there for an online meeting. We trialled it this afternoon and I found that my browser wouldn’t support the app, but it’s dealt with now. Trying again on Friday, when hopefully there will be more than three of us. And then ready for the actual meeting on Wednesday. I have no idea how necessary this is, particularly now that schools have closed for most children and that exams have, as sensibly as anything else that has been decided, been cancelled.

I know, I said only yesterday that the current events are not what this blog is about, but it’s all that’s on my mind at present. I will do better, I assure you. I will finish with a few positives.

1 I spent an hour or two cooking this afternoon, so that’s meals sorted for most of the week.

2 I’ve ordered lemons from the greengrocer (that’s by no means all I’ve ordered, of course) on the assumption that Tim doesn’t run out of gin.

3 I have had some lovely online chats with friends and we are bucking each other up. I like to think that this is something I’m good at, but I also appreciate backup for me too and I’ve received it.

4 It is spring and nature is lovely at this time of year, every year, no matter what.

5 Pollution must be way down.

Z cheers a chick

I could use this as a diary about “how I feel” but i’m not going to. This has always – well, mostly – been a cheerful and outward-looking blog and that’s how it’s going to stay. I know people enjoy it when I reminisce and I’m trying to think of something to reminisce about that I haven’t already done. Hmm. I’ll come back to you. Or if you can think of any subject, do suggest it.

But, as for today. During the strong winds that went on for weeks, several ridge tiles blew off the barn/garage complex. I know, that’s not a great way of describing it but it’s quite a sizeable area, it’s quite old – I suppose there were stables and workshops originally and the present workshop is where a piggery used to be, apparently. Anyway, I spoke to my friendly neighbourhood builder, whose daughter has joined the business with him, a few weeks ago and they turned up today. She’s the one who clambers about on roofs nowadays. The tiles hadn’t broken, luckily – there were about eight in all and they were from the end rather than along the top of the ridge, so it was quite straightforward to get at them. I’ve known T and his family for as long as I’ve lived here, they and their children are much the same age as me and mine.

The foster mother hen and chick have been getting very impatient in the smallish coop – it’s supposed to be big enough for four hens to live in, but the poor things wouldn’t much care for that and I can’t think where their food and water would go. Last summer, Tim and I constructed a wood and wire run to attach to the coop, which we draped netting over, but we can’t find that anywhere. I’ll ask Wince if he’s dismantled it or else where he’d put it, but I didn’t want to wait a couple more days until I see him. So we carried the dog crate we bought for Eloise cat last summer when she was confined after her op and put that in front of the coop instead. It gives them an extra 4 foot by 2 foot space in the open air on grass and I can edge it from side to side a bit when they destroy the grass. We had to block it in with bricks and cover over part of it so that their food doesn’t get wet with rain or dew, but it’s much better than they had. I’ve got a horrible feeling that the chick looks more guy than gal, but I haven’t any others to compare it to and it’s too early to know really.

I was a bit tired and headachy tonight – I am perfectly well, but due a good night’s sleep – so didn’t cook the fish I’d bought. Tim scrambled home-laid eggs instead. Tim is good. Totes adorbs, in fact. I don’t mind being confined to barracks with him in the least.