Tuesday 7 February 2017

The worm forgives the plough

One of my illegitimate ancestors - really I should be on Who Do You Think You Are? on the telly - married into a family of landed gentry in Wexford. Their family solicitors in Dublin were the firm of Collis and Ward which ceased trading in the 1980s, had their dusty offices knocked down and replaced with an extension to the Mont Clare Hotel. It turns out that John Stewart Collis (1900-1984) was the son of one of the partners. That Collis had literary pretensions and wrote the then definitive biography of George Bernard Shaw at the age of 25 and followed that up with similar works on Tolstoy, Strindberg, & Havelock Ellis.  When WWII broke out he turned down a commission in the Irish Guards and went to work as a farm labourer, first in Sussex and latterly at Tarrant Hilton near Baldford Forum in Dorset. He wrote up his experiences of the passing of 1,000 years of agricultural custom and experience in a book While Following the Plough.

That was bundle with second book of autobiography and re-published in 1973 as The worm forgives the plough. I was looking for something else on Amazon and was taken by the title, so bought it and I've just finished reading the first section. After a whole long year filled with learning experiences, Collis finds himself on the highest point of the 1,000 acre farm and falls to recollection:
When I was fairly high up I could see over the greater portion of the farm. And as I gazed across, I realised that I had had dealings with every field: there I had harrowed and rolled, there couched, there hoed, there made hay, there drilled, there ploughed - and here now were my ricks. I did not feel a beginner or an amateur any longer. I was well on the inside of the wall. I would no longer make idiotic mistakes: not now would I leave a prong lying on the ground, or throw it down the wrong way up from a rick, nor walk on the wrong side of a horse and take a gate-post away, nor fail to examine the plugs of a tractor that would not start, nor be absent-minded about implements I was using, nor drop things as I went across the farm, nor try and lift sacks in the wrong way and put them down untidily, nor start hiling up and down instead of round the field - nor wear shoes! Standing there with the straw water-fall well in hand, I could look down on the company below feeling very much part of the proceedings and no longer an outsider.
If couching, drilling, hiling, and hoeing are barely English to you, then you'll have to buy the book to find out what they mean. That's a fair synopsis of the book: a middle aged man wrenches his lily-white hands from their accustomed quill-pushing and makes them wrestle a horse-drawn plough across a field. In the process he realises that money matters very little, but a job well done is deeply satisfying. Despite being a dreamer and not a little clumsy, Collis manages to learn new skills and be almost as useful as the farm-labourers born to the life.  When forced to shift for himself because he's the only person within shouting distance, he can get a tractor going and work out how to drive it straight across a featureless field. He is full of admiration of the can-do handiness of his fellow workers and after a year or two is equally appreciative of his new self. Jakers, he can build a rick! It's sweet.

It is sorry contrast with the way things are now. When a farmer may not save his own seed without the threat of having his ass sued by Monsanto because he has might have some of their genetically modified seed in the mix. Or where John Deere will charge $100,000 for one of their GPS-enabled quadraphonic sound-system tractors but not give you the freehold. You're still obliged to take it to an authorised dealer rather than fixing it yourself with some duct tape and baler-twine. The tractor, you see, has a computer aboard and so is subject to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act DMCA. [via TYWKIWDBI] The world turned upside down.

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