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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