Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mindful Of Th' Unhonour'd Dead

This is a true story. My great-grandad told it to my grandad, my grandad told it to my mother, and my mother told it to me. They didn't want to let the memory of such an unrecorded incident die; and since I have no children, I am doing the next best thing and putting it on the web, so that he who runs may read.

My great-grandad was the son of a farm labourer, born in the West Country at the end of the nineteenth century. He left school at twelve, like all his ilk, and went to work for the landowner who employed his father and owned their cottage. What else could he do? He'd been educated at the village school, owned (and its syllabus dictated) by the same landowner, attended (whether he liked or not) the village church, owned ditto. He'd learnt to read, write, and do simple arithmetic; maybe a few dates of kings and battles, for history, and the British Empire countries, for geography. Course, he was a freeborn Englishman, he had a choice: he didn't have to work for the man who owned all the land as far as he could see. He could have joined the Army or the Navy, or left home to work in the industrial Midlands or North, in even worse conditions, or starved. Which was also the choice of anyone unwise enough to upset the squire. Greatest Empire in history, right?

He may not have had that much initiative, but he wasn't stupid either. He didn't just unthinkingly accept things: The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate, sort of thing. That may have meant All Things Bright And Beautiful for the landowning class, but my great-grandad had a different experience.

When walking back home from work one evening with the other labourers (children worked the same hours as adults, and you worked when farmer needed you, no nonsense about unsocial hours, Bank Holidays, Holydays, or weekends) my great-grandad noticed one of the other guys, an old man - in his seventies; no retirement age nor Old Age Pension before 1911 - crying. The child was shocked, and asked why.

The old boy replied that farmer had taken him aside and said, "You are too old and infirm to be worth your wages to me any more, so I am letting you go at the end of the week."

Now this old chap - his home, a tied cottage, belonged to his employer. He would have to get out then and there. The cottage was in lieu of cash wages, all but a few shillings, because he had the use of its garden to grow vegetables for his family, and maybe keep a pig. Milk he might get from the farm, if the employer was generous, likewise leather for shoes; he would be allowed to collect wood for firing (cooking and heating and washing) but there would never be enough cash money to save anything. And there was no other employer around, apart from the fact that he had no other skills. No Unemployment Benefits, Disabled Benefits, Income Guarantees then. Trade Union? For farmworkers? You must be joking. Any children he might have would be as poor and trapped as he.

So what was his future, after a lifetime of service? To go to the workhouse, where he and his wife would be separated, placed in communal dormitories, and allowed to see each other for maybe an hour once a week, at compulsory Sunday church service, and to stay there until they died. To see his children and grandchildren even more rarely, possibly never. Their few possessions sold, given away or scattered, even their clothes replaced by the shameful compulsory uniform of the indigent.

That scene took place in the twentieth century, just before the First World War. Over and over again, probably. In a country which was then a world leader, rich and powerful, able to command the luxuries of the earth for its ruling classes. And people wonder why working people left the countryside for the towns in their thousands, why trades unions were so militant, why after the Second World War, the Conservative Party was thrown out of office despite Winston Churchill's war record.

What happened to my great-grandad? The First World War came along; he got drafted, as did every man who could be spared by the landowner, who thought the least he could do, being patriotic, was send "his people" off to war. He survived the Western Front, unlike most of his peers, but he never went back to the village. And he never forgot those tears.