28: SOWING AND REAPING:
I could not have spent more than three months of my life at agricultural camps and yet they are printed indelibly on my mind. Certainly, I am surprised that no one has written a study of them or a Ph.D. thesis - maybe someone has done so? However, if so, I guess the method used would be to list the number of camps set up throughout the country, the percentage of the population attending, their ages, the class composition, the cost effectiveness, the rate of production.... Maybe a few of the persons, now elderly, who had spent their holidays at them would be interviewed. They would be asked whether they had found the work hard, the living conditions spartan, the food adequate, the recompense welcome... Camp organisers would be approached and also those farming during the war. Such a study would have its place in the archives, but it is unlikely to tell my story.
The Ministry of Agriculture posters exhorted the people:
PLOUGH NOW BY DAY AND NIGHT
GROW FOOD FOR THE NATION
FEEDING STUFFS FOR YOUR FARMS
KEEP OUR SHIPS AND MONEY FREE
FOR BUYING VITAL ARMS
One of the few books which I have found to contain a page or two on agricultural camps, although a little biased against the ‘townies’ who worked at them, states:
"Townspeople responded to the call to ‘Lend a hand on the land’ during their summer holidays. farmers welcomed them during harvest when a great deal of heavy, but simple work had to be performed in the shortest possible space of time. their value was, at other periods, arguable, to say the least. girls turned up dressed as for a picnic and were incapacitated in a matter of hours. The countryside which looked so idyllic from bus or train provided the smelliest, hardest work most townsfolk had encountered in their life. Some stuck it out, glad of the chance to earn a few shillings’ pocket money in the fresh air... Servicemen from camps in rural areas were considerably more useful. Released from the tedium of barrack life, they gave a good day’s work in return, for the bad worker was simply returned to barracks. from 1941 onwards there was the exotic addition of prisoners of war dressed in their blue dungarees with large green patches. Italians were far more popular than Germans. Most actively glad to be out of the war and the guard over them was of the sketchiest. A working party of perhaps thirty or forty Italians, scattered over a wide area with a single soldier technically in charge, became a common sight." (53)
I am sixteen years of age when I go to my first agricultural camp and Pat is only fifteen. We apply to go to a camp at Alton, Hampshire and are sent a railway warrant. However, we must pay for food and board and will receive from farmers one shilling per hour for our work. In high spirits, we board the train on a Saturday morning and on arrival at the station jump onto the platform, collect our bikes from the guards’ van, wheeling them with one hand, lugging a case with the other. Four boys wait for us, watching as we walk along the platform. We have noticed them sitting in the next carriage of the Pullman train, but have ignored their stares whenever we pass along the corridor. "Carry your case?" a redhead asks Pat. His accent is London. And she gladly relinquishes its weight. the boys themselves are travelling very light, their belongings in small battered suitcases. A fair-headed boy is good enough to carry my case and so we find our way to the camp, walking up a country lane until we spy a field set out with khaki coloured bell tents, as if it were a harvest of giant mushrooms. Later, I am to write carelessly to my mother: "We got off with four boys at the station and they carried our suitcases..." Of course, I mean ‘got off the train’, but my mother takes ‘got off’ in its colloquial sense which is ‘flirted’ or worse! And so I am to return home to a tirade which is aimed at my scrawling writing and loose phraseology! "Mr. Taylor says that if that’s the result of a grammar school education, he doesn’t think much of it!"
Having reported to a Nissen hut used as an office, Pat and I are directed to a bell tent which we are to share with four other girls, the straw palliasses placed with one end against the centre pole and the other end against the circular canvas. Having dumped our cases on the mattress, we go over to the dinner hut. Most of the workers are girls like ourselves, but there are a sprinkling of teenage boys and we sit with the boys we have met at the station. The boys’ names are Gary, Stephen, John and Richard, and Pat spends the next half hour in calling them by the wrong names. This is one of her favourite ploys for when we are out with boys she calls her boy by every name she can think of, except his own. After he has corrected her for the fourth or fifth time and is showing signs of annoyance, Pat puts on her Scarlett O’Hara voice and says plaintively "poor silly ole me, I know so many boys I just can’t remember all their names!" This drives the fellows wild for her, Pat says.
After the meal, we explore the terrain, walking with the boys over the fields to clamber to the top of a haystack. Pat returns to the tent for something forgotten, but the boys sit looking at me and without Pat I am at a loss. I do not know what to say. "Aren’t you afraid to be alone with us?" Redhead asks suddenly. He dangles one leg carelessly over the side of the stack. The fair boy sits with knees drawn up, his arms around them. The dark boy half sits, half lies. The youngest of the group lies prone. should I be afraid? I don’t know. "No!: I say embarrassed, hoping that Pat will soon return. "I expect you want to get married, like all girls!" declares Redhead "and not have to work any more. take your old man’s wages." "Yeah!" chimes in Fair head "grab his wages on a Friday." "I work!" I reply defensively "I’m in an office." "In an office!" they jeer. "That’s not work!" I say desperately "when a girl’s married she has to do all the housework and look after the children..." "Housework!" exclaims Redhead. "That’s not work!" and the other boys agree with him.
At night I lie on a straw palliasse covered with rough army issue blankets alongside four to six girls on their mattresses. The boys’ tents are in another part of the field. Our heads against the canvas, our feet against the centre pole. From above we must resemble the patterns of people shown in Hollywood spectaculars. In the morning we will find the ground damp from dew, so that clothing must be laid at night on the mattresses, or hung from the tent pole, although many a time I dress in the morning in cold, wet clothing! Morning comes too soon, for we have been to a local ‘hop’ in a church hall the night before, a dance which had not begun until 9 p.m., and it is not until after midnight that we fall onto our palliasses. Clothing pulled on hastily for a run down the field in the fresh morning air to the communal washing hut in which basins and running cold tap water are provided. A quick wash and a comb pushed through our hair. This is in a large hut set out with trestle tables, the meals served over a counter behind which is the kitchen. Chattering, clattering, scattering, nattering... It is as if the Pied Piper has led us all to this place, a space filled buy energy as we mop up our breakfasts and, between mouthfuls, spill out words about yesterday, today. The boys joking, engaging in witty exchanges aimed at impressing the girls, the girls listening and laughing.
After breakfast, we walk together across the field, taking in the smell of cut grass, warm hay, manure... until we arrive at the gate to tumble out onto the dusty road to await a tarpaulin covered lorry which will take us to the day’s work at neighbouring farms:
There’ll always be an England
While there’s a country lane,
Wherever there’s a cottage small,
Beside a field of grain... (52)
As we ride, we sing and sometimes the lorry is so crowded that I stand leaning out over its tail-board, to hold onto its tarpaulin roof. My voice stirring the warm air, passing over hedgerows, fields and herds of cows which moo in recognition:
"What d’you know he smiled at me in my dreams last night
My dreams are getting better all the time..." (52)
Too soon, we arrive at a field of golden uncut corn, stirring in the gentle breeze and beckoning us onwards, on and on and on! The tractor is travelling on the perimeter of the field, cutting the corn and throwing it out in tied bundles. round and round and round, until like a children’s puzzle of lines leading to the centre of a drawing, it will turn on its own axis to sever the last of the grain. Our job is to pick up the bundles and stand them up to dry by leaning three sheaves against one another. Often, on reaching with relief the end of such a line, I turn to find that all the sheaves which I have stood up so carefully, have toppled over and lie this way and that on the stubbled ground. Then I must start all over again, and also catch up with the bundles thrown down since from the tractor! This work is called shocking up, or stooking. In a short story about the camps which I am to write in the early 1970s while a student at Sydney Webb College of Education, I say: "Pat never appeared to be working very hard, but her corn stood up as if by magic, and she ended the day as fresh and cool as she had begun it...!"
After a while at this work, I tire and when the tractor disappears up the field and out of sight, I sit down until the man on the tractor is seen above the corn, or I hear the noise of its engine. Then I jump up and make frantic efforts to catch up with my work.
Alton, Hampshire, the County which holds Portsmouth, the scene of my mother’s childhood in whose shadow I have been raised. The fire, Flora’s frenzy, the children’s screams, Harry escaping through a window as the building burns. The sailors, my mother’s prescience of disaster, the family’s grief - all this lives with me and now my own presence is demanded at the scene of the crime! Perhaps I will quench the fire, save the children, bring Harry to justice! And so, on a Saturday, when we are not working on a farm, I persuade Pat to cycle with me to Portsmouth, some fifty miles away by the circular route which we must take. However, I do not tell Pat this, for she is not a serious cyclist. My bike is a Raleigh, pre-utility, with low shining silver handlebars, spokes and inner wheel. It has also cable brakes. Pat obtained her bike only to keep me company, and it is an utility model on which all the chrome is painted black and the brakes are standard. And so we set out for Portsmouth. There are no signposts for these have been removed with the intention of confusing German parachutists fallen from out of the sky. Therefore, I must find my way ‘blind’, having ascertained the general direction to the coast. Fortunately, it is unlikely that we will be mistaken for Nazi parachutists for they are said to generally disguise themselves as nuns! Therefore, every little while I climb off the bicycle and ask a passerby along a country road whether we are travelling in the right direction. "Ask him how far it is!" Pat calls. She is sipping water from a bottle, for by now she is complaining continually. Unlike me, she has no impetus behind her to drive her forward, and no vision just out of sight. All Pat knows is that the day is warm and she is weary.
Whatever distance I am told, I halve for Pat’s ears. "Only fifteen more miles" I say, when the distance is thirty! The country through which we pass means nothing to me. Towns and villages are no more than places on the way to my goal, my place of pilgrimage. Downhill from Alton, nowadays coloured yellow on the map for it is 400 miles above sea level, our wheels whizzing round, the breeze through our hair, to Bentley, green and 200 miles above sea level, following the road from Bentley we cycle on the flat to Thursley, through Kingsley, downhill again to Petersfield, uphill at Buriton and then free-wheel down through Sloughton to Waterlooville, Westbourne, Hayling and we are there - PORTSMOUTH! The town spread out before us. We do not look for the sea, for at this time barbed wire separates beach and sea from towns built in their honour.
By now it is late in the afternoon and like it or not, we must cycle back to Alton. I look down and along the streets, gaze into shop windows, hoping to be led to the scene of the fire, but this is a town like any other and I do not know the name of the street in which the tragedy took place. "Let’s get something to eat!" Pat says. "I’m famished!" And so we find a restaurant over a shop and each order fish and chips. Then we mount our cycle for the long pedal home. Next day, at the camp, I boast that we have cycled ‘one hundred miles!’ This puts us into the advanced cycling class! But, my main pleasure is in having stood on Portsmouth ground. Perhaps on the very spot trod by my mother, my grandmother Rachel, my unknown to me grandfather, my Aunts and Uncles and the dead Flora and her dead children.
Sometimes, we work with farm labourers who treat us tolerantly and with some amusement. But they are not unfriendly and I can remember a broad, weathered man sharing with me his dinner of fresh bread and cheese when I admit that I have forgotten to collect a packed lunch before leaving the camp. We are all sitting together in an open barn, the smell of the hay and the countryside around us. He asks Pat her name and when she tells him, the man laughs "you want to see our guv’nor - he’ll pat you on the ask no questions!" The man chuckles and Pat bristles, but not seriously. I am impressed that the farmer and his men call each other by their first names, for I come from offices in which everyone is given the title of Miss, Mrs... or Mr. and only staff on the same level use each other’s first names. But, of course, at that time in the villages, generation followed upon generation so that the children played and grew to adulthood together.
Past has let the redhead and his mates know that they are too young and unglamorous for her, which they take badly. "You think you’ll find a soldier!" jeers Redhead. "Well, you’re only little girls!" "I’m seventeen!" says fifteen year old Pat. That evening, after work, we set out for Aldershot, Pat telling the boys that we have dates with two soldiers. Aldershot is wall to wall with soldiers, for it is a military town. the doors of pubs are open and through the doorways spill the sounds of soldiers voices and women’s laughter. "We’ll go and have a drink" says Pat, pulling me towards a pub and we push through the crowd to the bar. "We’ll drink beer or they’ll think we’re too young’" she whispers, and so we drink the first of five half pints at one crowded pub after another, none of the soldiers exhibiting any interest whatsoever in such young girls, and by this time we are drunk. In high spirits we board the train back to Alton. "Tell the boys we’ve been out all evening with soldiers" warns Pat. The boys are lined up at the camp gate, watching our progress up the road, Pat walking carefully and me hopping, skipping and jumping. We push past them. "We’ve been out with soldiers all night" says Pat. "We’ve just left them!" The boys follow us into the camp and I, excited by drink, dive under a line of barbed wire, judging the distance badly and tearing my loose fitting blouse all the way down the back. At first, this makes me laugh, but then I burst into tears, throwing myself down on the ground, crying and crying and crying. Past drops down onto the grass alongside me and we weep and we weep and we weep, as if we will never stop, not until the end of time.
"Soldiers got them drunk!" say the boys in awe. An older woman urges us up from the ground, taking first my, and then Pat’s, arm. a woman somewhere in her thirties, taking time out of her life to spend it in this camp, for there are rumours of some tragedy, a deserting husband, or a dead child. Pat and I have taken a dislike to her, for she represents the authority from which we have escaped momentarily and, therefore, generally we respond rudely to her remarks and advice. "You can’t tell us what to do. Mind your own business!" Her response to this rudeness is to show us only sharp edges, to become ever more censorious, so drawing from us even more insulting responses. Now, here she is kissing us goodnight, tucking us in under the blankets! I am touched by her kindness, but embarrassed by it in equal measure. I am relieved when morning comes and all returns to normality and our adversarial relationship with this woman once more resumes. We do not mention her kindness of the night before, nor admit that it is remembered.
Pat and I must have gone together to at least three agricultural camps before I begin to go on my own. At one camp, our job is to strip down the hop plants to make them ready for the growth of hops. A job hard on the hands. Perhaps it is here where a group of British soldiers pull up beside Pat and me as we walk through the village. "Come for a ride up the hill, girls?" the driver asks. We hesitate and the driver says earnestly "You’ll be all right with us, that’s a promise." He looks first into Pat’s face and then into mine. We climb into the truck which speeds, rattling up the hill, the ground sloping away on either side. On arriving at its plateau at the summit, the soldiers ask us to come to the radio station. One of the soldiers tunes into another base radio and says "we’ve found the spirits of the hills! Beautiful young girls, we’ll ask one of them to speak to you." Grinning, he calls Pat over and I hear a one-sided conversation, a soldier whispering to Pat to say she wears green garlands in her hair. Perhaps the soldiers know, or feel instinctively the buried centuries of history, myth and legend surrounding hills. That Scandinavian trolls dwell beneath small hills and fairies, dispossessed spirits, dwell under mounds which resemble the graves into which all must disappear sooner or later:
All those airy shapes you now behold
Were human bodies once, and clothes with earthly mould;
Our souls, not yet prepared for upper light,
Till doomsday wander in the shades of night. (54)
A lean, dark-eyed soldier invites Pat to take a walk, but indignantly the others intervene. "No, you don’t! We all stay together. We know what you’re like!" The dark-eyed youth persists, more to tease his mates I think, than in lust! "I’ll take the girls home" says the driver firmly, and we climb into the truck to be sped down the hill and dropped outside the camp.
Perhaps it is this kindness and sense of responsibility towards us which later, while at another camp, is to allow us to flag down an American convoy with nearly disastrous results. For, after all, we have been raised in the belief that men are the natural protectors. Men are the guardians of this world and the next, the doers, the founts of all wisdom, the mainspring of art, music, literature, architecture, sport, politics.... courageous defenders of countries and populations. We girls could emulate men only by becoming androgynous, and once grown into women even this escape is denied us. This we accepted, even in the face of contrary evidence. This I accepted, in spite of the feminism inculcated in me by my mother, who also had a greater respect for men than she did for women. As professor Higgins asks in My Fair Lady: "Why can’t a woman be more like a man?"
At agricultural camps, I meet people from all over the country, many of them finding refuge for a few weeks. a girl whose broken nose has mended badly, leaving the bridge dipped and flattened in her sallow face. She has escaped to the camps to hide from a violent husband and there has found a protector. a short, thin man, the expression on his narrow face, anxious. They walk together holding hands and sit opposite one another at the long tables for meals. They sit without speaking, there is no need for speech between these twin souls. The fourteen-year-old boy who spends the term-time at boarding school and the holiday times at camps. He tells pat and me that his father is an Army Officer who ‘likes women’. "I’d like to dress up as a woman one day and meet him, just to see what he does"! he says, half-innocently., ‘Blondie’, a young man with curly fair hair, fresh complexioned, pudgy and shy. He assists at the camp, although whether voluntarily or on the pay roll, I cannot remember. Blondie welcomes Pat’s and my teasing attention. "You can’t call a man ‘blondie’!" Pat’s brother Douglas is to tell her when we arrive home.
At Faringdon, Berkshire, we meet Lieutenant David Parkin of the Pioneer Corps who is spending his leave at the camp. Above average height, blue-eyed, fair-haired, he is attracted to Pat and she plays her usual game of calling him by the wrong name. We walk up a green hill, a blue sky enveloping us, the birds singing, the grass soft beneath our feet. "John!" Pat calls out to David. Her big eyes innocent. "No, Andy! Oh, no, silly me, Michael.....!" David’s eyes become bleaker and bleaker and his mouth forms an angry line. He tells us that he has no family and before joining the army had lived in lodgings. "I’ve never been able to vote" he says bitterly "because I’ve never been on an electoral register." This takes us into politics and while Pat looks at distant horizons, I speak socialism, but David is a Managerialist. He sees the world after the war as belonging to the technocrats and Managers. perhaps this is why he complains that the Canadian troops, stationed in the village, fail to salute him as he passes through. Discipline is lax. to myself I think "good for them!"
Factory workers, clerks, shop assistants, manual workers, those awaiting University entrance and students - taking time out to ‘lend a hand on the land’. As the banner headline of a Sunday newspaper announces, ‘all human life is here!’ Sometimes, two, or maybe more, cultures clash. My father, while I am away, sends me newspapers and magazines, writing a short note in the margins in his small, neat handwriting. He sends me The New Statesman and Nation and I sit in the communal tent reading the more interesting columns, such as ‘This England’. "I thought people round here only read comics!" sneers a young man, a University student. The day before I had been reading the pull-out comic section from an American newspaper and laughing over the Katzenjammer Kids. I look at the sullen face of the young man and say breezily "Oh I like to read serious magazines as well as comics. I like both."
Apart from local hops, at one of the camps we are picked up on a Friday evening and taken to a dance at an American base. At the local hops we generally meet a few British servicemen. I will always remember the rear gunner in the RAF unable to keep still, over-exuberant, calling out loudly. His mates whisper "he’s flak happy". Rear gunners are not expected to live for very long. when the planes are shot down they are the first to be killed. The tension of each mission accumulates in the souls of air crew, so that long before they have completed their expected number of missions, their minds and imaginations are flying into another sphere. However, at the village hops there are never more than half-a-dozen servicemen and the American base is a whole new ball game. At these dances there are hundreds of GIs. They push vinegary beer upon us, ask us to dance or go for a walk. After a time, and depending to some extent upon how much beer they have drunk, the GIs become very busy with their hands, reminding me of the old joke: "We went for a walk in the moonlight, we sat down on a bench, he held my hand, and then I had to hold his!" Durer’s painting of praying hands receives international acclaim, but these hands can be said to be ‘preying’ and I am relieved with the coach calls to take us back to the camp. But this experience teaches us nothing, and so we are to meet GIs again in a more dangerous context.
I awake one morning with cramp in my left foot. I go to work, but limp all day and at the end of the day, hobble. On returning to the camp I ask at the office if there is a doctor in the village, the man in charge shrugs in reply. "Why don’t you go to the Radcliffe in Oxford" he suggests eventually. We decide to hitch-hike, walking along the country lane until an RAF articulated lorry stops for us. Sitting in the back, we bump up and down while the lorry wends its way through country lanes, stopping at last outside Oxford. pat tries to give the driver some money, but he refuses to take it. "I’m only too pleased to help our British girls" he says and Pat rewards him with a smile. We must have spent some two to three hours at the Radcliffe and at last I emerge with my foot bandaged in crepe. I have pulled a tendon, a condition which occasionally plagues me to this day. We wander around oxford and go into a cafe for spam and chips. At last, we decide we must hitch-hike back to camp, but no one will stop for us. Soon it is dusk and we have been walking for what seems like hours and my foot is beginning to hurt again. We are desperate, when suddenly a convoy of American Army trucks swings into view. Pat thumbs madly and I copy her, although I have some reservations. The first four trucks drive straight past us, but the fifth and last, stops. The driver leans out of the cab and shouts "get in the back girls."
A dozen pair of hands pull us aboard and we find ourselves in the midst of a truckload of GIs. "Hey, isn’t this all right!" says one, feeling for Pat, who slaps away his hand. I find myself sitting on a soldier’s lap, his hands exploring my body. "Smoke?" asks a soldier, holding out a packet of cigarettes. I don’t smoke, but take one, the soldier lighting it for me, and I press the lighted end down firmly on the wrist of the soldier on whose lap I am sitting. He drops me on the floor. the truck stops and the driver’s mate pulls down the tail-board. "Hey! We want one of those girls in the cab!" he shouts "or we’re not budging!" "There’s safety in numbers" I tell myself and stay where I am. Past gets up and climbs out of the truck, while I watch her go. When the truck starts up again, several soldiers reach for me and I push the lighted cigarette against one after the other. The cigarette as deterrent. As a weapon of war! But it doesn’t stop them feeling me, and so I burst into tears. "Leave the kid alone" a soldier mutters. I can see him in the gloom. A middle-aged man and sensing sanctuary, I climb onto his lap, to cling to him as if I were a child. Soon the truck stops and the driver and his mate accompanied by pat come round to the tailboard. "Where are we?" I call out to Pat. "In the American base at Wantage" Pat replies. She is worried and pleads with the driver. "Let us go home, our mothers will be terribly worried. I promise we’ll meet you another day." "OK" replies the driver "you can go home soon, but we want you to come for a walk first." The soldiers jump down from the truck and my protector gives me a hand. He stands beside me and puts an arm around my shoulders. "Scram!" says the driver, looking at him hard, and reluctantly my protector withdraws his arm, muttering "they’re only kids" and slowly walks away. I watch him go. "Come on" says the driver and Pat and I follow him and his mate into a coach.
Pat and I sit close to each other on the long seats, the GIs standing over us. the soldier pulls me down to the front of the coach and tries to pin me down on a seat, but I struggle and wriggle away, running across to a seat on the other side. The soldier follows and takes hold of me again. I can hear Pat arguing "don’t you respect women?" she is arguing. "Don’t you have any sisters?" "Sure I do" the driver replies "but what’s that got to do with it?" Suddenly, the driver shouts "duck!" and the soldier throws me down on the floor to lie behind me. a light shines along the coach, lighting up the windows and seats one by one. "All clear!" calls the driver as the light disappears. We scramble back onto the seats. Pat speaks, and the tone of her voice is happier, relieved. "You know you’re not supposed to be here!" she says. "You could get into terrible trouble. You could even be court-martialled!" "I’ll risk that!" says the driver "you just get down on the floor when I tell you." I have taken the opportunity provided by the diversion to sit next to Pat, and now I cling to her. The soldier trying half-heartedly to pull me away. "Duck!" shouts the driver again and we crouch down on the floor as once more the searchlight shines through the coach. When we stand up again, the Driver says "OK, I guess you girls can go home." He sounds defeated. We follow the two men out of the coach. "It’s cold!" Pat says, shivering, for we have on only thin cotton dresses. "I’ll get you a blanket" says Bud and he disappears into the hut to reappear a few minutes later carrying an Army blanket. before handing it over her says "If anyone asks you how you come to be here, say some Officers brought you in. don’t tell on us." fervently, we agree. "Cross my heart!" we both say. the driver and his mate turn to leave, but before going, the driver says wearily "I don’t know why you girls thumbed down our lorry." "We wanted to get home" Pat says.
Walking close together, the blanket thrown over our shoulders, we follow the main path by the light of the full moon. "If we’re challenged by the guard on the gate, what do we say?" I ask Pat. "Friend!" she says, decisively. But, when we arrive at the gate there is no soldier on duty, gun over shoulder, and so Pat puts out her hand to operate the catch. "Hey!" a voice shouts behind us and we turn to see a short, fat, middle-aged GI striding towards us. "Where did you come from?" he asks. a promise is a promise and so Pat says dutifully "some Officers brought us in here." the GI looks us over. "What were their names?" We can’t remember. "Was one dark and the other with red hair?" he asks. "I think that’s them" Pat says, and I know that she has her fingers crossed. "Well, you’re stoopid gurrls" the GI says "young kids like you should be at home with your mothers." Pat and I stand shivering under the blanket which will keep slipping from our shoulders, and so the soldier steps forward and ties the two ends under our chins. "that’s better" he says and opens the gate to let us out.
We find ourselves in a country lane. "How are we going to get home now?" I ask peeved. tiredness and coldness are making me bad-tempered. "If it wasn’t for your stupid foot, we wouldn’t be in this mess!" Pat snaps. "It was you who thumbed down the lorry" I accuse. "I didn’t notice you refusing" Pat says sarcastically. For the first time in our friendship we are quarrelling, and I want to cry. We walk across a field, finding our way by the light of the moon and at last come upon a house, the moonlight shining upon a garden seat at the side of a neat garden. "Let’s sit down for a moment" I ask timorously and Pat, without replying, flops down, pulling me, in the blanket, down with her. Involuntarily we close our eyes and the next time we open them it is morning and the sun is shining. Tied in our blanket, we make our way down the garden path to a gate to struggle through one at a time. "Let’s take this off!" I say as we reach the road, and Pat pulls out the knot binding us and folds up the blanket, which she hands to me to carry. We are looking along the road, wondering which direction will lead us to Faringdon, when a mail van comes into view and we run to meet it. "We want to go to Faringdon, can you give us a lift?" Pat gasps, breathing hard. "Hop in" says the mailman, a young fresh-faced fellow, as if picking up two girls at six o’ clock in the morning is all in a day’s work.
The camp is silent, for this is Sunday and all are allowed a long lie-in to recover from the week’s work. we creep into the tent and put on our pyjamas and get into bed, my palliasse having become as soft as feathers during my absence! When I awake, the tent is empty and my throat is sore. The whole camp knows our story and I emerge sleepy-eyed to fame and notoriety! Pat might as well have announced the whole sorry tale over the camp loud-speaker! An older man asks us, concerned, "did they do anything to you? Should we make a complaint?" Hurriedly, we reassure him. "All’s well that ends well!" I would not risk my mother hearing of my stupidity!
Towards the end of our stay at Faringdon, Lieut. David Parkin becomes very ill and is put onto the relatively new anti-biotic drugs. day after day he lies on his palliasse, alone in a tent, while the rest of the camp goes about its daily business. On returning home from work, I creep into his tent and try to talk to him, but realise that he cannot reply and I am wearying him. when the time arrives for Pat and me to leave the camp, he is not yet recovered and we leave him lying in sickness upon his straw mattress.
When Pat begins to go about with Goo’s step-daughter to be, Yvonne, for the most part to the French Officers’ Club, I go alone to agricultural camps and while for the most part, I stand, like Ruth "amidst the alien corn" I can recall also harvesting potatoes, that staple food whose failure in Ireland from blight in the nineteenth century helped to populate America! For the most part, we followed behind the tractor as it lifted the furrowed black earth to reveal beneath the pale potato. But, at one farm, the efficiency mad farmer had ploughed up before we arrived and the potatoes, in lines, warmed in the sunshine. Each of us are given a row and we must race each other to the end, lifting potatoes as we go, as if this is a team game. the farmer, a sinewy, weather-beaten man urging us forward. In the next field, a group of German prisoners-of-war on the same task, but at a more leisurely pace. "We’re working harder than the Germans!" a young man complains to the farmer. "We’ve got to work harder than them if we’re going to win the war!" he replies.
After I lose my job with the Surveyor, I spend six weeks at an agricultural camp. I had been assisting my father in the bookshop at 12 Little Newport Street, moving between the dusty piles of books placed haphazardly on any and every available surface, including the floor. Moving carefully between them so as not to send books tumbling about me. But, it was not easy to help my father for he was unable to delegate or explain to me the basics of a trade which he had learned empirically, gleaning knowledge almost unknowingly from the buying and selling of books over many years. Therefore, he was unable to impart to me in a structured manner a trade which he had learned piecemeal. Added to which, he would brook no interference in the disorganisation of his shop. Sometimes he sends me on an errand, or to HM Stationery on High Holborn, to pick up an order. I walk down Long Acre, through Covent Garden where the market men wear flat caps and unload vegetables - potatoes, cabbages, carrots... or fruit, carrying them in baskets balanced on their heads. All is bustle, the men moving backwards and forwards, pulling their burdens from the back of open lorries. They smile at me kindly and one time, when something, maybe a mote, or even a beam, flies into my eye, a market man jumps down from a lorry and taking from me the handkerchief with which I am pulling at my eyes, extracts the irritant. Perhaps this kindly experience among the fruit and beg encourages me to volunteer for an agricultural camp at Banbury, Oxfordshire.
Two of the girls with whom I share a bell tent at this camp are named Barbara Smith and Joan Hicks. Barbara is the quieter of the two, taller than me, a long face, soft brown eyes and hair and a milky complexion. She works in a shop. Joan is smaller and slightly cross-eyed, but her liveliness, the manner in which she tells a story, the fleeting expressions across her face, hide her plainness. She tells me that when she and Barbara first left school at the age of fourteen, the Labour Exchange had sent them for a job in a mortuary. She rolls her eyes, her body movements indicating surprise and fear, tinged with later appreciation of the humour of the situation. "the smell of the disinfectant knocked us back!" she says in her Staffordshire dialect "and there were all those bodies!" Her eyes open wide and I see marble slabs on which body after body lies as if in sleep. "We didn’t stop there!" Joan says. Instead, she took a job in a factory.
We go into Banbury, and I am delighted to find that there really is a Banbury Cross. "Ride a cock horse, to Banbury Cross..." Someone tells us that the lady in the nursery rhyme came from a local family named ‘Fines’. I go with Barbara and Joan to the cinema to see Oliver Twist and together we make fun of the film’s mawkishness.
Some time later, I am to stay with Barbara and her family in Walsall. The Shell Guide Book Staffordshire by Henry Thorold (1978) states:
"One of the pleasant surprises of Walsall is to find...shady streets lined with great plane trees, early 19th century stucco houses and terraces and especially to discover the great Doric stucco portico of the County Court, which was built for the Walsall Literary Society in 1831...."
But this is not the Walsall which I see, for it is not the Walsall to which the Smiths belong. They live on a Council estate on the outskirts, an estate on which each house is a copy of its neighbour. Pete Seeger sang Little Boxes in which he referred to middle-class housing, but I have always thought the song more applicable to accommodation built for the working-class. Hemmed in by the estate, the Smiths are unaware that Walsall received its first Charter from Edward III and that a tablet in Bradford Street records the birthplace of Jerome K. Jerome. Nor do they care. They have troubles of their own. The Smiths are of that community ministered to by ‘Sister’ Dora, who in the absence of medical care for the working-class devoted her life during the 19th century to caring for the impoverished of Walsall, whose health had been stolen by industry, poor living conditions and malnutrition. Sister Dora died in 1878 and now her statue gazes out over the ‘better’ part of the town, for the middle-class are always willing to honour those who, by their charity, screen the worst excesses resulting from policies advantageous to the middle and ruling class.
Barbara has two younger sisters and their father had been killed while working on the railway. recently, Mrs. Smith had remarried a man named Smith, also widowed, and his teenage daughter and young son have joined the family in their three-bedroomed house. I share a bed with Barbara and her step-sister Eileen, a bright, lively girl with a mass of dark hair and we laugh and talk each other into sleep. The Smiths make me very welcome and take me to the pub and to the fair. At the fair, I am imprisoned in a seat many feet above the ground, the gig wheel having stopped in mid-motion. I am terrified, clutching at the restraining bar, my knuckles white. I am convinced that my feet will never again touch ground. Gritting my teeth I control my fear, for I cannot admit this lack of nerve. At last the wheel swings round and I, somewhat shaken, climb out onto the ground.
While staying at Walsall, I cycle to Pelsall to visit my father’s second cousin, Harry, and his family. They had changed their name from Lahr to Law, during WWI, because of anti-German prejudice. At that time, my father had lost sight of Harry. Harry’s father had died, leaving a widow and three young children and Harry had been taken into the German Orphanage at Dalston. His sister Ida had been taken by her mother to relatives in Germany, and only the youngest, Adelheid, remained with her mother. My father had visited Harry at the orphanage, but while my father was interned for four years in WWI, Harry left school and the Orphanage and my father did not know where to look for him. It was not until WWII that Harry traced my Uncle Henry, who brought him and his wife Florrie, to the bookshop. Henry, himself, standing a little way up the road, just out of sight, because of the quarrel with my father which had sundered their relationship.
The Laws, who had been bombed out from Birmingham, rent two adjoining cottages in Pelsall, set in a half-acre of ground. One cottage for Florrie, a Birmingham woman, Harry and their only son Howard, and one for Florrie’s elderly mother and Aunt. Florrie is tending the garden when I arrive and she turns as I walk up the garden path. I see a middle-aged woman, grey hair pulled back, a long plain face, clumsy frame, large hands. She is delighted to see me and I enter the cottage for tea. I do not meet Harry on this occasion, for he is a long-distance lorry driver, travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles and bringing back with him plants for his wife’s garden, from every part of the country. However, their son, Howard, a boy of fifteen, appears. He is a fair-haired, gangling boy and he takes me for a walk around the village, without speaking. Howard, for all of his short life - he is to die at the age of forty-two - lacks words. Perhaps the non-stop talkativeness of his mother had locked him into silence. Florrie is some years older than her husband. She had been working at a hostel into which came Harry, a boy who was in obvious need of care and attention. At first she had mothered him, for she was a kindly soul, and then she had married him. In those days he had welcomed her continual chatter for it returned him to a lost childhood. Now, he could bear with it only because her continual spillage of words formed no more than an interlude between his travels alone in his cab.
In the following year, Barbara comes to stay with me at 9 Wilton Road, but I refuse to give up my normal activities and take her to a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. A demonstration like all those I have been to over the years, crowds milling about, sellers of political newspapers shouting their wares, banners, the speakers high on the rostrum... Police maintaining a stringent eye, for an assembly of the people is a concession, not a right. Barbara is confused by all this demonstrating and the meetings to which I take her. But, fortunately, my mother fills the gap between Barbara’s expectations and my interests by taking the girl with her to the shops and out on the domestic round. By this time I am employed and so while I am at the office she takes Barbara to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower. When Barbara returns home, we correspond for a while, but our letters become fewer and fewer until they dwindle away altogether.
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