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Always a Healthy Bugger

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It all began in a butcher’s shop in Shipston-on-Stour. In 2000 Sheila Stewart had written an excellent little book about her old daily help, Country Kate, to record for posterity ‘the richness of the speech of ordinary folk before “the media world” faded out their lively observations and perceptions of the real world’. Her butcher in Shipston-on-Stour then urged her to track down Old Mont, an Oxfordshire shepherd born in 1902 who sang unaccompanied in a pub ‘out Enstone way’. She did so, and over the next two years made numerous visits during which, on fifty tapes, she allowed the old shepherd to encapsulate the spirit of a passing age.

The result is a book that would have delighted Thomas Hardy and William Barnes. Lifting the Latch distils the essence of a life faithfully recorded in the subject’s own vernacular. (Some will, perhaps, have difficulty in ‘translating’ some of that vernacular into current English, but there is so much of interest in the origins of the words he uses that this soon becomes a welcome burden, and one not without humour.) By allowing this amazingly gifted son of the soil to tell his own story Sheila Stewart has provided a fascinating insight into the social history of a period of profound change.

All the things we take for granted today, and in particular the mobility which allows us to travel hundreds of miles in a few hours, were unheard of before the Great War. The horseless carriage was in its infancy and the railways scarcely touched the lives of those tied to the soil, many of them for seven days a week. This accounts for the cohesive strength of the village community. Local people seldom strayed outside it. Children thought nothing of walking five miles to school. A bicycle was a treasured possession. Beer was eight pence a gallon and a three-bedroom cottage could be bought for £50. Mont’s father was a boot-maker, one of several needed in a village where walking was the norm. Mon

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It all began in a butcher’s shop in Shipston-on-Stour. In 2000 Sheila Stewart had written an excellent little book about her old daily help, Country Kate, to record for posterity ‘the richness of the speech of ordinary folk before “the media world” faded out their lively observations and perceptions of the real world’. Her butcher in Shipston-on-Stour then urged her to track down Old Mont, an Oxfordshire shepherd born in 1902 who sang unaccompanied in a pub ‘out Enstone way’. She did so, and over the next two years made numerous visits during which, on fifty tapes, she allowed the old shepherd to encapsulate the spirit of a passing age.

The result is a book that would have delighted Thomas Hardy and William Barnes. Lifting the Latch distils the essence of a life faithfully recorded in the subject’s own vernacular. (Some will, perhaps, have difficulty in ‘translating’ some of that vernacular into current English, but there is so much of interest in the origins of the words he uses that this soon becomes a welcome burden, and one not without humour.) By allowing this amazingly gifted son of the soil to tell his own story Sheila Stewart has provided a fascinating insight into the social history of a period of profound change. All the things we take for granted today, and in particular the mobility which allows us to travel hundreds of miles in a few hours, were unheard of before the Great War. The horseless carriage was in its infancy and the railways scarcely touched the lives of those tied to the soil, many of them for seven days a week. This accounts for the cohesive strength of the village community. Local people seldom strayed outside it. Children thought nothing of walking five miles to school. A bicycle was a treasured possession. Beer was eight pence a gallon and a three-bedroom cottage could be bought for £50. Mont’s father was a boot-maker, one of several needed in a village where walking was the norm. Mont’s mother laid out the dead and assisted at the birth of children, never charging for her services. ‘There was no such thing as overtime in they days; you done it but they never recognised it.’ Family life provided the heartbeat of every village, and Mont was fortunate in his parents, and in particular in his mother whose values would have enriched any rural community. He grew up in a family of ten. Some of the boys became farmers, others soldiers or sailors, and one entered the domestic service of the Queen. The girls were virtual slaves in domestic service, though the war could have widened their horizons had they chosen to work in a munitions factory or on the land, and when the killing ceased there was a sad lack of husbands for them. The family house, ‘down Alley’, was the centre of Mont’s world, and his ability to describe village characters rivals Dickens himself: ‘There were Granny Abbot sitting patient in our kitchen, waiting for the last trump in her lace cap and ringlets.’ ‘In the last cottage down Alley lived Jesse Bennett, an old walking postman, all parcelled up in his braided GPO uniform, with his polished boots, gaiters, long black waterproof cape, and peaked chimney pot hat. You’d see that hat pecking along the hedgerows all over the district. He were a crusty old pwoosty to us children, frit the life out of us with his cursin ’n’ cloutin. Bore a grudge against everything. He could never pass an innocent bush or rail without giving it a bash with everything he had to hand.’ One cannot help wondering what the comforts of electricity, modern plumbing, central heating and convenience food did to those simple pleasures which Old Mont so enjoyed. The choir outing, the church festivals, the jamborees and the annual fair brought great excitement and helped to forge the close bonds that bound neighbour to neighbour in sickness and in health. Families really were families and parents took responsibility for their children. The pub was their parliament, and respected elders held court there, passing on the wisdom of their fields and woods to younger men, eager not to be found wanting when their turn came. The village school reinforced these bonds, and there in the person of Mr Glover was one of the most potent influences of Mont’s life. The lessons reflected the needs of the pupils.
Our old school boss, Glover, made us keep a needle and thread always in our desks. If ever there was as much as five minutes slack between salvaging the Empire or rocking a tree trunk, between furrows of mental arithmetic, spelling, drill, dictation, spouting poetry, practising pot hooks and chanting tables, ‘We’ll have a go at threading the needle!’ he’d suddenly announce. ‘See if the boys can beat the girls today. Needles up! Threads ready!’ Bull’s eye! I’d get him first time, but it warn’t often we paddle-fisted clathoppers beat they destined stocking menders . . . I grant it were a very enclosed world, but he opened the gate as wide as he could for each child. There must be many a dedicated teacher ploughing a lone furrow in today’s field of education. Plod on!
I hope that the Secretary of State for Education will read Lifting the Latch. It deserves to be required reading for every educationalist. The respect afforded to Mont wherever he went was by no means the norm. He was an exceptional man, supremely gifted in his chosen work, who might easily have been a leader of the Revolution had he been born in France a hundred and fifty years earlier. The gulf between rich and poor was almost as great in England during his childhood as it had been in France in 1789, though the English aristocracy handled things rather differently in a parliamentary democracy. On the very first page of the book Mont cannot resist the temptation to indulge, tongue in cheek, in gentle cynicism about one of the great days of his life, when the local squire presented him with a silver pocket-watch for unblemished attendance throughout his school career. Lord Dillon was the 17th Viscount of Ditchley. ‘He warn’t a bit uppish, but you could tell he were a Lord; he wore a nanny goat beard sort-of-do and a rich frock-cwoat. He’d come every year at school prize giving day, give us a bit of jabber about Christian living and learning, and throwin in the odd tale about the Empire. Sometimes he’d hand out a half-holiday and sometimes a silver watch. Not often a silver watch; you’d be very lucky indeed in they days of rampant pox, mumps and diphtheria to lift the latch of the school room door “never absent, never late” all your bwoyhood. I be always a healthy bugger.’ Old Mont maintained that there were four main openings in his life: home, school, church and pub. He grew up and flourished in a society which did not need security guards or alarm systems. The latch could be lifted on all those venues without fear of thieves. The values they taught were, in a real sense, trustworthy and unquestioned, values that enabled Mont to surmount personal tragedy and misfortune. An older shepherd would, over a pint in the pub, impart the skills of his trade. Mont’s school teachers enabled him to read and write fluently, and in church he acquired a knowledge of the Bible and the Prayer Book that in turn gave him the wisdom which informed his excellence as a carter and a shepherd, two highly respected positions. Above all his mother and father lifted the latch on the values that last: ‘We were all one in they days. Down Alley us all shared the same well, but each respected t’other’s water butt.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 14 © Dennis Silk 2007


About the contributor

Dennis Silk lives in rural Somerset, recuperating in retirement from thirty-nine years of boarding-school life. He is occasionally allowed out to cast a dry fly.

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