By NIGEL WHEALE.
A RAM HAS been loose and wandering the lanes for a few days now. I mention it, George says I can have the creature – if I catch it. It’s an island ram, with an untraceable number, not known on the mart records. So it’s left to dodge in and out of a field, graze the verges. I notice another sheep walking in a very small circle, round and round for a good while: its eyes were pecked out by ‘hoodie’ crows, but it still managed to raise several seasons of lambs. A third sheep eats down on its front knees, it will have a story too. Farm names in England often don’t seem very distinctive – ‘Home Farm’, ‘New Farm’ – but on the island, the names of houses and settlements can go back centuries, to Old Norse. There is a lively trade in ‘island books’, but one of the hardest to get hold of is the definitive History of Island Farm-Names. My text is a xerox of the Library copy. The visit is to Todds Zir, from the Old Norse, ‘Toddi, his ground’, first recorded 1420.
The farm looks like one of those smallholdings kept up for sentiment and lack of any other options, by the size and state of the house. Located on a byroad near the centre of the island, the place feels somehow remote, even though you are rarely more than a few hundred yards from another settlement anywhere here. The track to the house is lined with ragged sycamores, closely planted but ravaged by the winds. It’s fine to walk through them and hear breeze among branches again, a rare sound on the island, where it’s unusual to find many trees around houses, or many trees at all. The sycamores have been planted in the last twenty years, because they are not to be seen in an aerial photograph of the steding, which so many small farms here display on a sitting-room wall. The same company still does the rounds, and knocks on your door every few years with a demonstration print of your property, captured from above.
Old roofless byres and three rotting caravans, now trapped inside the grove of sycamore, two decaying cars packed full of rope, timbers, fencing, then tangles of rusted machine, the track muddy and unsurfaced, tricky to negotiate on dark evening calls. There’s even an old house-shaped hayrick, covered in netting – nobody makes hayricks now, and this one moulders away. ‘I’m sending you to the Mucky Ferm noo yu ken your way aboot better,’ Margo, my tough manager, had told me. Twenty or more ducks patter and quack around the yard immediately in front of the house and byres, a thin layer of duck shit across the stone slabs, and an unknown number of scrawny cats and kittens mixing in. Feeding time is around five o’clock, when you make your way through a scrum of small creatures quacking, yowling and battering at the kitchen door.
On the end of the byre wall next to the house hangs a wooden yoke, with a rusted tin ladle dangling below. The entrance to the house is partly sheltered from prevailing wind by the two byres, a narrow stone pavement running between them, sometimes covered with a partly opened hay bale, hens pecking among the straws. These confined spaces between parallel stone walls not much higher than your shoulders, the windows scrupulous with their light, are intensely moving to me – the scenario for so much sheltered labour, doors passed through countless times. The corridor at Todds Zir is relatively wide; in more exposed situations the older farm buildings can be so close as to barely leave room for passage, like the desperate clutch of buildings at The Craw’s Nest on steep slopes above Hoywick. Its tenants had abandoned the raw place in the mid-nineteenth century, went on to do very well in New Jersey.
STANDING AT THE edge of world-famous archaeological sites on the island, looking down into the micro-maze of passages linking cramped huts of a Neolithic settlement, or the defensive huddle of small hut spaces around Iron Age brochs and ‘wheelhouses’, these circulation areas and passageways are haunted by the memory of movement, purposeful activity across millennia. The long low house at Todds Zir could be a TV adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm. A small, overgrown front garden with a massive stone wall, inside it a collapsing porch, a couple of old street lamps to light the yard area, a satellite dish rusted into the stonework. The door to the house is oddly suburban, with a meaningless number ‘5’ screwed on, and a memory of blue paint, worn away to the grey grain of wood.
Enter the kitchen, which often has a smell of the byre coming off dirty boots lying about; fading boxes labelled ‘Colostrum’ and ‘Volostrum’, dietary supplements for cows and sheep, and a couple of Farmer’s Weekly posters of selected breeds. A perpetual breeze filters through a half-inch gap across the top of the window frame. Immediately to your left is another door, beyond it, the sound and scents of shifting cattle. The ‘long house’, sometimes ‘black house’ arrangement: animals at one end, taking two-thirds of the space, then the living area next to the byre, immediately accessible by this interior door, with no need to be exposed in poor weather. Knock at another blue door, and into the main room — I want to call it the ‘parlour’, a room you last entered during the 1950s, or before. A dirty black range inside a big recess, shapeless chairs and a sofa, moulded to the form of the sitters. The woodwork is yellow-brown, blurred with decades of cigarette smoke. A small black-and-white cat and a pale grey-and-ginger quean are the only creatures regularly allowed in here, one generally in front of the orange glow of a portable halogen heater, the other sharing the mountainous sofa with George, where he is often stretched at length, reading a paper or watching the huge flatscreen opposite.
There are layers – ‘strata’ – of old consumer technology that have settled on shelves and in corners around the room – radios, cassette players, stereo systems, entertainment centre stacks, all woven together in tangles of leads. Dusty ‘miniatures’ of liqueurs and whiskies, micro-ornaments of sheep and a collie, the inevitable clan of family photos, none framed, the routine, symmetrical pair of china doggies, a scale model of a ploughing team, and over the pelmet of the rear window, dozens of dusty sports trophies, mostly for football. I am here to assist Jimmy to get up in the morning, administer his medication during the day, and help him back to bed in the evening – the maximum visits of four times a day, at the moment. His ‘care curve’ will inevitably increase, and soon. I’m confined to a corner of the dining table, which is laden with everything for the day’s meals, never put away. All of the eating gear is covered over with a tablecloth, mysterious lumps and bumps, this touches some ancient memory: where and when did I see this before? I clear a small corner of the table, deal out and then record Jimmy’s doses from the blister-pack. At two or three dinner-times each week, brisk female relatives are preparing food in the kitchen, or carrying it through for the three brothers at table, who eat rapidly, purposefully.
On the staircase, hung with a wildly florid wallpaper, peony blooms on a dark green ground, a locked gun cabinet next a tall thin glass-fronted case, inside a single racket and shuttlecock. Also, a large, nineteenth-century studio portrait: an intimidating, whiskered man – the grandfather from the island further north? – and standing next to him, a girl, about twelve years old, who stares out with the meaningful gaze that only old or ‘anthropological’ photographs seem to capture, some quality of the iris caught in a particular way. Her urgent regard, genuinely ‘piercing’, brings her out of the picture, full of a question, but already knowing. There are so many astonishing photographs in these island houses, remote, pre-digital images, taken long before One-Hour-Processing. The young parents and the row of five, closely spaced children, from one to seven, smiling in sunshine from the top of a stone dyke. A daughter with genuinely film-star looks, in her WRVS kit. Two competitive sisters, so stylish in the clothes of 1943, laughing with that wry joy from any time at all.
Many island households have a ‘creepy’ in the sitting room, put away in the corner now, a decorative piece of nostalgia, something to trip over. A simple stool, used at one time in the milking parlour, and as a plaything for the children, their only ‘toy’, one plank with two solid end pieces for legs. The Todds Zir ‘creepy’ follows the pattern, but is a much more solid piece, and still in use. The ingenious brother, George, made it, fitted out with a seat concealing a compartment full of all the tools and gadgets he needs immediately to hand.
Jimmy sits by the range in the parlour, rarely moving now, and then with difficulty; Joe’s chair is opposite him, at the other side of the range, while George takes the sofa, generally stroking a cat. On Thursdays, as across the islands, the two local papers are bought early. I arrived mid-morning one ‘paper day’, just as George was finishing with the week’s Islander: ‘That’s the two-minute silence over for another week. Not much in it again,’ the customary comment. The half-hour sessions every evening from Voice of the Island are also followed closely, and the occasional TV documentaries featuring the islands. On the night of 13/14 October, 1939, just a few weeks into the war, a 29,000-ton battleship was hit by four torpedoes from German submarine U47. Over seven hundred crew lost their lives, including many ‘boys’, apprentice sailors aged between 16 and 18. For the seventieth anniversary, an hour-long documentary was broadcast throughout Scotland.
As I made my visits during the following days, the wartime outrage had sent another shockwave, seventy years delayed, through the elderly population. Nearly every household had a view about the horror, and often, vivid stories. Jimmy had heard the ‘thump’ of the main explosion, seven miles away over the hills. Freddy James, with the labile, uncontrollable mood shifts of some stroke victims, began shaking and his face crumpled as he spoke about his grandmother ‘greetin’ at the news of all the young deaths, and he wept again too.
The large flatscreen is nearly always on, often, and perhaps just for my benefit, with the sound off – Jeremy Kyle, Paul O’Grady (island-wide mourning when Buster died), the mystifying Deal or No Deal, football and rugby for preference, and then the hinterland and backwoods of the Skyview catalogue, The Countryside Channel, Men and Sheds. At one house, I was later told, the family would switch channels to something ‘educative’ when they saw me pulling in to their drive – just to please their oddly learned care-worker. During one visit to Todds Zir, it’s the work of a farrier on Rural Life, tacking nails into a raised hoof, smoke and steam curling from horn. With the blurred near-whisper of late Parkinsonian speech, Jimmy observes in his gentle tones, ‘It’s an awful smell, that.’ Another time he watches a female apprentice saddler skilfully sewing leather with two needles: ‘I’ve done that plenty times,’ he says, spreading his huge, wide hands, then some details about the usefulness of pig’s whiskers, which I can’t begin to make out. Too much speech is lost to me here, and Jimmy’s life of knowledge fades away in this murmur.
Leaving after one evening call when we put Jimmy to bed, the track under the sycamore grove was really dark. Through the pattern of branches, Saturn courted a crescent moon, and it was difficult to make out my car through the blackness. I was late for the next visit, seven miles away, so I accelerated down the back lane, but round the next corner had to brake so as not to run into the rear of five barrel-shaped Shetland ponies, trotting purposefully along. I’d been delayed on visits before by cattle moving between fields, but these ponies seemed to be unaccompanied, I tried to drive by, they predictably speeded up, and I began to worry that I would force them down to the dangerous junction with the main road, a quarter of a mile away.
The ponies were roans, with beautiful pale manes and smooth coats, and looked well cared for. Just when I was about to stop and turn back to make a long detour, the group slowed and turned right into the gateway of Brae House. As I drove by, the ponies were spreading out across the kempt lawns around the rather grand place; no one was likely to round them up here, because the showy building was now empty, too expensive to maintain. I was already running late, but felt I couldn’t leave the ponies at risk of trotting back into the lane, perhaps then on to the fast main road. I pulled up at the next farm, a few hundred yards down the lane, and knocked at a lighted kitchen door. A dog barked inside the house, but after several minutes, nobody had answered, so I walked into the farm yard. Light streamed from the doorways of several large sheds, the noise of stock moving about in hay, occasional lowing. I walked towards the first shed, and as I came into the open door, there was a chaotic rush of young heifers desperate to escape to the further end of the byre. I retreated just as quickly from the staring eyes and snorting breaths. It was feed time, the people of the farm were at work somewhere in the sheds, and I didn’t want to interfere with the routine. But I tried one more barn, and peered more cautiously around another open door. A calf lay dozing in deep litter, in the next stall cows nosed in a feed tray, shifting gently from side to side among straw. A quiet warmth, contented creatures, I remembered the intense feeling of one smallholder who kept a few cattle on one of the smaller islands: ‘I so respect the baests,’ she’d said, that complicated attitude to ‘livestock’, half-wild creatures raised to be slaughtered, but given, exactly, respect.
The old farm at Todds Zir had supported a family of nine, but was now occupied by just the three brothers — Jimmy, suffering from Parkinson’s, Joe and George. Joe, I’m later told by Robbie, another of my ‘service-users’, who haunted the farm as a child and teenager, was known as ‘Joey the Whizz’, a star of the local football leagues. George, I also learned, had been the curator at the Island Farm Museum, and the condition of his own farm suddenly began to make more sense. There was always a basket of kittens by the smouldering peat fire at the Island Museum, they were always seemingly content to lie curled up with their mother. The kittens were the star attraction of the visit, delighting children and adults alike; hens wandered around freely in the yard outside, a sheep would occasionally jump up onto the low, grassed roof of the long byre to graze the roof turfs. A few years earlier, there had even been farm-brewed beer to taste, but a coach full of German tourists visiting the Museum had enjoyed the brew to excess, and so the Northern Constabulary took a dim view of the optional treat. After George’s retirement, a new brisk regime was installed at the Farm Museum, the basket of dozing kittens was replaced by a basket of facsimile kittens, the hens and sheep were penned; rigorous hand-washing instructions were posted in the restrooms.
The Todds Zirhouse would probably be razed and completely rebuilt, if it was ever sold, the female sisters and cousins who cooked and washed and cleaned there when they could, despaired of the place. An island carer colleague pointed out where the priorities were – ‘They’ve got the latest tractor’. I have to take off my shoes on the next visit, not to walk duck-mud into a well carpeted house. What selection of the past are the brothers retaining? Or more accurately, what version of Island pastoral am I hoping to find here? Working with the elderly is always at some level a complicated ‘family romance’: wanting to find something of our grandparents in the men and women we visit, and sometimes, more painfully, finding something of mother or father. Certainly, hoping to come across the rooms, furniture, and smells of childhood. There is one lobby, the entrance to a wooden bungalow in Rindall, that is exactly the savour of my best friend’s council house, in 1957 – indescribable, but also unmistakeable.
Todds Zir is so evocative for these kinds of reason; it preserves a memory of pre-war and mid-century life for the brothers, but with some aspects that can seem like neglect. The dog is a pitiful creature, scruffy and sometimes soaking, as it waits hopelessly for a chance to be let into the house. I stand for a few moments in the twilight under the ragged line of sycamores, the blessed dark sky overhead, and the perpetual stir of air here. The dereliction is hidden in the darkness, and the lights of the ben shine reassuringly behind me. What is it that is so moving to me here?
During one of my first visits I’d noticed twelve bee skeps in the small, enclosed space at the back of the house. Most farms used to keep them, Jimmy said, and told how a neighbour had brought a cheap swarm from ‘sooth’ many years ago, which had infected and destroyed a good number of hives in the locality. The Todds Zir hives seem so far to have escaped the devastating infections and ‘colony collapse’ that is causing anxiety nearly everywhere else. Then on one visit during October I came into the parlour to find a rusted drum, maybe four feet high, dominating the middle of the room, a screw-press mechanism on top of the barrel, a spigot below. Beneath the tap was a jar containing not more than an inch of honey; a drop hung from the tap, slowly gathering. Jimmy, George and Jo were in their customary places, apparently watching the progress of honey to jar. George observes, ‘It’s more than seventy years old, that drum, and none the worse for it.’ We talk about bees and the current anxieties about disease and decline in bee numbers; the Todds Zir hives have been inspected already, and by a female apiarist from Germany, which bemused them.
Four hours later, I return for the midday check visit, and the three brothers are still seated around the press; the honey dripping to the jar is perhaps an inch higher. I watch the level rise at each visit during the day, and by evening the jar is nearly full. At my final visit, after I’ve done the business, Joe takes one of the jars from the crowded table and hands it to me, ‘Try that,’ he says, ‘And even if you don’t like it, they say it keeps fine for ever, like whiskey. There’s an awful lot o’ work in it for the bees, one of them only maaks barely a drop in a teaspoon for all its life.’ I’m thrilled and effusive; when I try the honey later, it is surely the sweetest and most delicate I’ve ever tasted: is this accurate, or is sentiment adding savour to what might be a quite routine product? I don’t think so. The honey press becomes for me another way of understanding the quality of time for the elderly, this purposeful watch during several days as honey almost imperceptibly drips into the recycled jam jars: honey-time, the viscous time of honey.
Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). An archive of his work for the Fortnightly may be found here.