‘April is the cruellest month,’ stated a famous poem in its first line. T. S. Eliot, who wrote it, was as townee a poet as ever lived, and hadn’t the faintest idea of the literal truth of it for the countryman. ‘Breeding lilacs out of the dead land’ he goes on, and generally making things look deceptively pleasant in a doomed planet. Not since Browning have poets exuded cheery notions, unless it were G. K. Chesterton in a pub.
I once dined next to Mr Eliot, and dared to point out why April is the cruellest month to us country people. ‘We call it the Hungry Gap,’ I told him. He nodded politely, but I guess he didn’t take it in. Picture to yourself: what could a chap like that know of what it took to get the daily bottle of milk on to his doorstep, and what problems April poses to that effort. Once I even fancied myself as a budding poet; but going out on the land in the days when farm work was all arms and legs, showed me pretty soon that there was more poetry in keeping old Strawberry up to a thousand gallons or in trying to get the kale land ready for barley, than in sitting on one’s bum writing lines that scanned.
If poetry is needed, it seemed to me to spring as naturally out of the earth as flowers. That term ‘cuckoo barley’ for example, could anything be neater to describe barley that is got in on the kale land so late that the song of the cuckoo provides a syncopation to the rattle of the drill?
Hungry Gap it was: for by now many a haystack had been reduced to a tottering tower supported by ‘crutches’. The kale, what was left of it, was coming into flower and growing out of use. But one thing we did have, that I see very little of today – mangolds. Nowadays, come March, all the farming pages are on about ‘early bite’. But if you can’t keep up that ‘early bite’ of grass; if the weather turns against you on the cold numb clay, what then?
We relied on mangolds, reckoning we couldn’t turn the cattle out till past mid-April – and that was a month earlier than our forebears did around here. The mangold clamp, now opened, showed yellow and crimson shoots flaring from the globes. These had all to be cut off. Then we sat down with a beet knife and a bag over our knees, and scraped the mangolds clean. When the barrow was full we pushed it to the pulper, beside the neat-house. Then one set to turning the handle: the mangolds came out in slices; pink and white and crisp, like a salad.
All that work: it couldn’t be afforded today. But the cows looked so comfortable, eating each her heap of sliced mangolds, crushed oats and chaff. Then they could lie down and regurgitate and chew the cud and sigh with repletion. Nowadays cows are rushed through milking parlours, receiving a handful of cubes like the change that comes to you down a chute at the supermart check-out. I feel very like a modern cow, going through a supermart check-out, as my change rattles into the bowl. I only just don’t lower my muzzle and lick it up. It’s ‘Queue here’ for cows, pigs, humans. It’s ‘Hurry along there.’ As for hens, they are internees from birth.
The heap of mangolds shrank; the long barrow stand of kale was cut and loaded. The cutting was done with a billhook, and you could get a good half-pint of dew down your sleeve at each stroke – but who bothered about that? It was like cooling showers. We used every bit of kale – kept that handle turning, slicing the stalks in the pulper, laying their juicy marrow bare. Mixed with the sliced mangolds and chaff, the cows crunched them with avidity even in April, along with the rest.
The sound of those jaws grinding up the bits of kale stalk – that was a satisfying noise. Do people realize the satisfactions of the old life – the lovely noise of jaws? We wasted nothing that we grew. Burn straw? Burn chaff? Madness. The only things we burned were oat-flights and cavings from the thresher; the latter because full of weed seeds, the former because they were so light, they flew about. A horse snorting as he nosed into his ‘bait’ could blow one into his eye, as could a cow; and the vet had to get it out, or it could blind the eye.
What a lot there was to learn, of little vital details.
The life of the farmyard seemed to gather round that mangold clamp while one was at the job. Piglets came grunting, poking, prying, nibbling. The cockerel stopped, poised on one leg, with a sideways ‘What-ho’ sort of look. A mare passing in shafts would snatch a root that had missed the barrow and crunch it like an apple. And one day a bee came humming. Then it was time to turn the cattle out to grass. The remains of the mangold clamp were gathered up and put on the dung hill – old straw along with black little withered mangolds looking like shrunken heads.
Next to get the kale land ready for barley-seeding. There were those tiresome roots still lying where the stalks were chopped off. Once we had no disk harrows, only toothed harrows – and a piece of branch with a jag on its end, cut from the hedge.
This hedgerow stick could hook up the back of a harrow and release a clod or drop a lot of kale roots caught in it on to the headland, to be heaped and burnt – or forgotten. There was always something to be done before a job which looked straightforward could be done. A man had a good shut-knife to whittle various pieces of hedge-wood – for markers in drawing a first furrow, or for lifting a harrow, or wedging some part of some simple machine to keep it tight and functioning. That rusty spanner lodged in a cleat on the wooden plough was often used as a hammer.
We got past the Hungry Gap, of which that famous poet was surely quite unaware, as he poured some milk in his tea, then sat down and wrote, ‘April is the cruellest month’.
8 April 1972
Extract from A Countryman’s Spring Notebook
Adrian Bell © Archant Community Media Limited 1950–1980