Words Mark Hooper
Illustration Fanny Gentle
Mark Hooper learns some country wisdom. ‘Come and work on the farm,’ said Tom. The way he talked, it was hard to refuse. And, for a holiday job, it meant proper money, with little opportunity to spend it, since we’d be working every available hour of daylight.
Which also meant the chance of a decent tan – as important as the money when you’re 17. I wasn’t exactly what you’d call the outdoor sort. The first time I was let loose on a tractor, I drove it straight into a haystack. But I was honest and I worked hard and Tom had put in a good word, and before long the farmer, George, an amiable, pipe-smoking sort, had taken me under his wing.
To say we worked on ‘the farm’ isn’t quite accurate. Rather we worked on several farms that George rented out to grow wheat on. George had his own land too, but the animals on his farm amounted to a few oversized pets he hadn’t had the heart to kill, including the biggest pig I’ve ever seen and a tame duck that wore nappies so it could freely waddle around the house.
The farms we did work on straddled the borders of Somerset, Devon and Dorset. They varied from vast flat fields to tiny wedges of hillside, and each posed their own unique problems. George sold the wheat for thatch, which meant it had to be cut, handled and stacked in the old-fashioned way. Or maybe that was just George’s excuse for employing us as cheap labour. He soon amassed a casual workforce of students and schoolkids with next to no relevant skills other than a decent work ethic and a good sense of humour.
The job seemed simple enough. We followed the thresher – a rattling death trap of metal and twine that pre-dated the Great War – as it spewed sheaf after sheaf of wheat behind it, which we arranged into wigwam-shaped ‘stooks’ to dry them out. Then, a day or two later, we’d return to load them with pitchforks onto trailers and drive them back to the farm.
Our days were split between intense idleness and hard, sweaty, backbreaking work. If it rained while we were in the fields, we’d shelter under trees until George could get an accurate local forecast from the Met Office. In those long hours with nothing useful to do, we’d pass the time by watching the storms blow in across the Quantock Hills, comparing packed lunches and talking about girls. When it was dry enough, we’d put away our lunches, return to our stooks and continue talking about girls.
Once the threshing was done, we’d start the job of loading the wheat onto trailers. This meant lifting them by pitchfork, first no more than a few feet off the ground, but as the trailer piled higher, so the task became more difficult. Once we got to the point where only Tom could fling the wheat high enough for those at the top of the trailer to catch, it was time to take the load into the barn. As tiredness and boredom set in, we’d work out ways to lift entire stooks in one go, wedging our load in a triangle between two pitchforks.
From time to time, to give themselves a rest, or at least a change of scene, a few of the more experienced lads would beg the farmer’s son, Gavin, to let them have a go at ‘the easy job’ – loading the wheat on top of the trailer. If we were on a flat enough field, Gavin would relent, but only while the trailers were still low and only for short periods. We soon discovered why.
There was an art to loading that was far more complex than we’d assumed from ground level. Each sheaf had to be laid butt outwards, creating as straight aside as possible, with the ears interlocking in the middle to hold everything together. This ensured that the load never slid off, even on the steepest hills.
Out of some masochistic code of farming honour, no ropes could be used in this process. The loaders would take great pride in building stacks of wheat high above the roof of the tractor cabin, often 20 feet in the air, and then riding back to the barn on top of them. On several occasions, a wizened farmhand would come back down the lane, cackling about the bloody students who’d brought the whole lot down in the lanes. (Contrary to what you might expect, landing on your backside in the road was preferable to taking a tumble in the fields, where sharp stalks of newly cut wheat lay in wait like the punji-stick traps in The Green Berets.)
Loading wasn’t a job I went out of my way to volunteer for. I’m not a natural volunteer at the best of times, and I preferred working on the ground where, it appeared to me, there were fewer opportunities to mess things up.
But inevitably I ended up taking my turn on the top. Surprisingly, far from being ‘the easy job’, it proved to be just as much of a workout. Keeping a firm foothold while reaching for flying wheat coming from all angles was tough on the calves, while working at a constant stoop was just as backbreaking as wielding the pitchforks. On top of all that, there was no chance of a tan, because you had to wear long-sleeved shirts, buttoned up to the collar, to protect yourself from being covered in tiny papercuts from the ears of wheat.
Then, of course, there was the added pressure of working at a constant pace, all the time knowing that if you screwed up and the load toppled, it meant an hour’s work lost for everyone; and everyone would let you know about it. But I soon got into the rhythm, and Gavin gradually started giving me less instruction, even turning down the corners of his mouth and give me an appreciative nod once in a while.
Eventually, he decided we’d gone high enough. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘here’s the real test: let’s see if we both make it to the barn.’ He tapped on the cabin roof and Eric, the eldest of the farmhands, lurched the tractor home. Back at the barn, George picked the intricate jigsaw apart and immediately wanted to know who’d been responsible. It was a fair cop. He turned to look at me with what I thought was a face like thunder.
‘You’re a natural!’ he beamed. I was a loader. Within a few short days, Gavin would only take a break if I was there to supervise whoever took over. After a few weeks, I even attempted banter with Eric. No one was quite sure how old Eric was, but conservative estimates put him at around 70. He was certainly the only man old enough to understand the Edwardian technology of the thresher.
By far his most striking feature was the cartoon-like bump protruding out of the middle of his forehead. It wasn’t the sort of thing you felt you should mention, but Eric didn’t exactly avoid drawing attention to it, since he used it as a convenient second nose whenever he wanted to prop his spectacles upon his head. The only information he ever gave us was that it was ‘a war wound’ – although which war remained unclear.
Over the weeks, Eric mellowed towards us. He still swore in answer to anything we said, but he at least showed a grudging respect for our work rate, and even defended us when George accused us of slacking. George took everything Eric said – including this – with a pinch of salt.
Finally, after three solid weeks of glorious sunshine, I got the chance to show off my newly acquired farmhand credentials. From my vantage point on top of the load, I saw an entire field of cows all suddenly sit down at once. It was the weirdest thing. I leaned over to bang on Eric’s cabin roof. ‘What now?’ moaned Eric. ‘Eric, the cows are all sitting down,’ we squealed. ‘So?’ ‘Doesn’t that mean it’s about to rain?’ ‘How should I know?’ he replied, before adding with perfect logic: ‘Go ask the buggers!’
Sure, I know how to load a very specific crop of wheat in a very specific way. But that doesn’t make me a farmhand, just a part-timer who listened to what he was told. The only natural was Eric. Of all the knowledge he imparted to us that summer, that one final lesson alone has stuck with me over the past 20 years: You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.