Chris Stewart, George Henderson - Slightly Foxed Issue 25

Farmer George

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Back in the Seventies I fell under the spell of farming. On those long, lonely agricultural nights I would pore for entertainment over weed identification charts, tractor maintenance manuals and George Henderson’s The Farming Ladder (1944). Recently I decided to read the latter again, to see how both Henderson and I had fared in the intervening years.

The Farming Ladder describes the author’s experience of restoring a dilapidated farm in the Cotswolds between the wars. It’s an oft-told story, but Henderson brings to it the authenticity of a real farmer. He takes us from his first unpromising sight of Oathill Farm with its cold barren fields and shabby buildings, right through the relentless process of turning it into a going concern and a model of good agricultural practice. On the way he paints a revealing picture of farming in the Forties and, unintentionally, a portrait of himself, the archetypal Forties farming man. The book is also an impassioned plea to farmers to cherish and respect the land (Henderson’s capitals). To me, with my incipient longing for the soil, Henderson and his book were an inspiration.

In his time Henderson was something of a farming guru, and The Farming Ladder achieved the status of a classic. Sales of the book and its successor, Farmer’s Progress (1950), were swollen by demobilization, when thousands of young men, returning from the war to a desperate economy, considered taking up farming. As a result Henderson was able to boast that, while it took him a day to earn a pound on the farm, with his pen he could earn it in an hour. A pound an hour? That was a pound for a thousand words, for Henderson wrote as he lived; at a pace few men now could maintain.

Henderson’s working day started at 4.30 a.m. and continued until 7 p.m., or until darkness fell in times of harvest. Sunday was the only day off, once he had fed and watered the livestock. He was a driven man, living

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About the contributor

Chris Stewart, never up to making a living from the land, has found himself obliged to supplement farm income by cunning use of the pen. A recent article in the Spanish press said that Señor Stewart writes much as he shears sheep . . . with which he was well satisfied.

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