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Rustic rumblings.


THE LATE POET, Ted Hughes, has luckily ‘scaped whipping at the hands of our elite parasites, namely the (anti-)British Library, for tenuous links to slavery, a charge that could have chased his ghost all the way out of academic acceptance into oblivion.

The Library in its drive to purge every ounce of perceived racism out of our culture had initially revealed that Hughes’s name was to be included in a dossier of people guilty of having benefited from slavery or the sins of colonialism, because researchers had dug up some remote ancestor from three hundred years ago — one Nicholas Ferrer. Ferrer and his family had been involved in the London Virginia Company, one of those licensed companies that set up colonies and traded in North America. It is, therefore, in fashionable groupthink, an unspeakable stain on humanity.

However, no sooner had this news been broadcast than the parasites themselves received a whipping and, realising they had overstepped the mark, issued an apology to his widow and family, saying they had “removed the spreadsheet pending a review of this research.” Heaven knows who remains on that spreadsheet and who’s going to be added.

So Big Ted looks like he’s safe for the moment. He’s not one of my favourite poets but he’s the only one who shares with John Kennedy the accolade that I can remember where I was when I heard about his death. It was on the radio as I was driving down into the little village of Benniworth in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Feeling suitably moved, I considered how an elegy would sound. The imp in me couldn’t help resorting to E J Thribb-style directness, and I came up with:

So. Farewell
Then Ted Hughes.
Or Big Ted
As some of us
Lesser Poets
Called you.

You wrote
Lots of dull poems
About fish and sheep.
You should really
Have been a chef.

Perhaps my finest achievement.

Big Ted’s poetic stamping ground was the countryside, which in his lifetime saw further depopulation as people decamped for the cities and removed themselves even more from the natural world. Nowadays the countryside is more familiar as a holiday zone or an open palette for environmental extremists to paint their utopian fantasies on. Increasingly, it’s becoming a retreat for the middle classes wanting to escape the foetid diversity and disease of the metropolis.

Barely a week goes by without the weekend papers carrying articles about urbanites struggling with septic tanks and the like in their newly acquired rustic properties. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that since most people in the countryside live in normal houses with water, gas and electricity connected to the national networks they could do so themselves. Perhaps they think that ruralising themselves properly means buying a detached property which hasn’t been modernised since the last war. Most of us would take a look and say, hold on, you mean I have to organise looking after a septic tank and pay for oil to be delivered to another tank to heat my AGA? No thanks.

I did once spend a week in a rural property which had no facilities apart from one cold tap in the kitchen but this was nearly fifty years ago when I was in my final term at school. A friend was the son of a large local farming family and the cottage we stayed in belonged to his grandparents, who had moved down valley to flatter, more arable land in the 1960s. This friend, let’s call him Hobson, invited me and another schoolmate, let’s call him Jobson (for no other reason than this has nothing at all to do with Hobson-Jobson) for a jaunt in the Upper Sticks of Swaledale. The kind of thing teenage lads used to find fun.

The fun entailed living in rather primitive conditions. The cottage, eleven miles up country, lay sequestered on the steep side of Swaledale just below Fremington Edge. There was no proper track between the last vestiges of the road and the building. The cottage had no electricity, no gas, no lighting, no indoor toilet, and the aforementioned single tap. The roof and structure, thankfully, were still sound.

We took with us paraffin lamps and torches for light; some paper, sticks and coal for a fire; sleeping bags and extra blankets; and various other necessities. No television, no entertainments apart from books. We made the evenings bearable by driving down in Hobson’s Land Rover every night to the nearest pub and returning (over the limit) in the dark.

I think we passed the daytime in reading, wandering about and taking walks. Hobson had some minor agricultural responsibilities in that his grandparents were still grazing a flock of sheep on the fields, which we had to keep an eye on. Hobson had also brought with him a young, wall-eyed, untrained sheep dog which he insisted on keeping locked up in the barn most of the day. The two of us watched with great amusement as he took the dog out one morning into a lower field to see what he was like with sheep. He chased them all everywhere like a mad thing. We could hear Hobson cursing. Finally he could take no more and we saw him pick the dog up and throw it over one stone wall into a sheepless field then, retrieving a ewe that had escaped into an adjacent field, hauled that up and hoyed it over another wall. These walls, by the way, were a good five feet or more in height, and a pregnant ewe is quite weighty.

At another time, I had to go out and count the flock. There should have been fifteen of them. I counted fourteen. I counted again and there were definitely only fourteen. I returned to tell Hobson who, in true Yorkshire famer tradition, berated me as an oaf because the world his wife and his grandma knew there were fifteen and I was obviously an arithmetical blockhead. I told him to go and count the bleaters himself. Out he went. Back he came some ten minutes later, silent. Eventually I got him to admit one had vanished. It later reappeared with a lamb, having somehow escaped, given birth and readmitted itself to the flock. To this day I am still convinced the other ewes were in on this.

Somehow we survived the cold water, the stink of paraffin lamps and their limited light, the uselessness of a small fire, the cold nights spent on bare floors, and the basic diet (supplemented by beer and sandwiches). We even survived the ancient sanitary arrangements. There was no indoor toilet. The privy lay a few yards away across the yard. It consisted of a hole in a plank. Since it had not been used for a decade there was no smell but you could see the pyramid of desiccated antique residue inside. Jobson and I took great delight in pelting the privy with stones when Hobson was inside. The larger the stone the greater the execrations. Such were our simple pleasures.

Our contemporary urban refugees won’t have to experience anything like this. Probably the worst thing they’ll have to put up with is having bad broadband and mobile cover or finding any shops or pubs open any more. They’ll also find that the countryside is dreadfully white and therefore racist, and finding any slave owners among its indigenous peasantry may require considerable research. I’m sure they’ll cope once they’ve sorted out their septic tanks.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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