Discover more from I Am My Niche - Rod Fleming
Earning my pocket-money
I loved chores when I was a kid; they brought me cash to buy stuff!
I remember growing up in rural Scotland during the 1960s with great fondness. But it wasn't all playing in the woods and guddling trout at the House of Ten Thousand Dreams, you know. We had our chores to do.
What they were depended on the season. In the cold part of the year – which in Scotland is from October to May and beyond – my first chore, after I got back from school was to light the fire in the living room. This was not straightforward. Firstly, I had to ensure that there was enough kindling wood, which there usually wasn't. I also had to fill the coal-scuttle.
So it was out to the coal shed, which was near to the house. Unfortunately, the coal shed had no lights, which, in view of its leaky roof, might not have been such a bad thing. But it did gravely hamper the procedure. The other issue was the cats. As you might remember we had a floating population of these, often a dozen and a half strong, who used the coal shed as their easement. They also used various other locations, giving me a certain hostility towards the feline race to this day.
Things were easier in the lighter months. While the evenings were 'lichty', there was enough light admitted through the open door, but in dead of winter it was usually dark by the time I got home.
Dad had some sort of deal with a local joiner and always had plenty of pine matchboarding which some gentle soul had sawn up into eight-inch lengths. All I had to do was to chop these into narrow sticks using the ancient hatchet that hung on a nail on the back of the door. This was a task that became increasingly fraught – with attendant risk of involuntary dactylectomy – as the 'nights drew in'. Around mid-October I would have to begin using a storm lantern or a torch.
With a small pailful of kindling wood duly chopped in one hand and a full scuttle of coal in the other -- and not too much cat poo on my shoes, if I were lucky, I would make my way back to the house.
We had a warming oven in the kitchen stove and in winter this was used to dry the kindling. So I would take out what I needed for the day and replace it with the wood I'd just chopped. This is a smart move, by the way.
The living-room, the scene for my daily fire-lighting, was invariably cold as a morgue by that stage, so, shivering, I would first rake out the ash in the fire, setting aside any unburned coals. I would crumple newspaper and set the dry kindling on top. I could tell when it was dry by the noise it made when I tapped a couple of sticks together. Finally, I would first place the unburned coals on that, then fresh coals from the scuttle on top.
Then it was time to light the paper and hope I'd got it right, and that the coals were not too wet. If all was well, the paper would catch, then the kindling, the part-burned coals from the night before and eventually the new ones.
Unfortunately this rarely happened – or at least, quickly enough – so I had to use the time-honoured standby. To tell the truth, this was the most fun in the whole procedure but I had to be sure Dad wasn't home yet, since he had a dislike of chimney fires. The trick was to set a hand-shovel on the front grate of the fire so that it would lean on the breast above the aperture. Then one spread a newspaper, usually the Courier and Advertiser, over this.
This fire was a 'Baxi' which meant it drew air from a vent outside the building, on the other side of the wall. That made the fire more efficient and drew less air from the room. Well, with the Courier spread in front, the draught was immense and in seconds the fire would be roaring. If all went according to plan, in a a couple of moments the most stubborn of coals would be alight and I should have triumphed.
If all did not go to plan, the Courier would catch alight and launch itself up the lum like an avenging Lucifer; I would jump back, hoping not to hear the deep rumbling roar that signified that we did indeed have a chimney fire. To my credit, I only managed this once. My mother's words? 'Whatever you do, don't tell your father.' Luckily he was late home that night and so did not see our lum squirting flames into the night sky like a Roman Candle.
With the fire lit and Hestia propitiated, I could relax, usually, unless I had extra homework. I would sit as close as I could to that fire, without actually igniting and try to recover some warmth. I'd switch on the television and watch some of the children's shows, like Fireball XL5 or Supercar. Then came The Magic Roundabout, just before the evening news. Usually by that time the living room was nice and cosy and when my father arrived he would smile and note the excellent fire, then take his seat to watch the News.
Lighting fires was not my only task, however. Country life is busy and was probably even more so in the sixties than it is now.
In the mornings, my first chore was to go down to the hen-houses and collect the eggs. I really enjoyed this.
My father had a sideline at his garage, selling fresh produce. Wartime rationing had been in place in the UK until 1954 and I was born in 1956. The memories of war and hardship were still close and one of them was rationing. In principle, all farmers and large-scale food producers had to register with the Government and the sale of their produce was controlled. Many items could only be purchased using 'coupons' from a ration book and those who tried to circumvent this could suffer severe penalties, including prison.
However, the Government, under the 'Dig for Victory' scheme, enthusiastically encouraged individuals to grow their own vegetables, to keep hens for eggs and to raise rabbits, pigs, sheep, goats and even cows. None of this was rationed and so smallholdings were set up all over the country. People turned their back gardens into allotments that could easily feed a family, with surplus to spare. Councils across the nation had for years been renting out allotments, something that had been going on, at least in England, since the 1600s and had spread. Typically, a council allotment was roughly the size of two tennis courts or about one twentieth of an acre.
If you've ever done it then you know that smallholding life is one of feast and famine. For months, the garden produces nothing, then all of a sudden, one is awash with courgettes that are rapidly taking on the scale of barrage balloons. Even the Government recognised that it was pointless to punish people for their success in doing as they had been asked, so a healthy 'garden gate' economy developed and thrived, even after the war had long ended and rationing itself was a thing of the past.
My father never had a 'garden gate' shop, but he did have a garage with petrol pumps and plenty of passing trade. So he sold eggs and seasonal vegetables out of the office. I'm fairly sure some jobsworth from the Cooncil would have something to say about that now, but then we still had that 'pulling together' attitude and anyway, half the Cooncil were customers! Any fruit and vegetables that didn't sell were dropped off at McKnight's the greengrocer by my father on his way home in the evening. This led to a number of other deals being made – ah, the webs we weave – which we shall discuss presently.
Anyway, back to the eggs. To collect these I had to venture down the path past the old garden tool shed, past the little orchard and down a narrow lane behind a beech hedge. Here were the henhouses, three of them, twenty by forty feet in size, though by that time we only used one.
In the summer months, when the sun had risen hours before and the world was all crystal light, this journey was a pleasure; in winter, when it was still dark, freezing cold and the paves on the path treacherously slick, it was not. But arrival at the hen-house made up for it.
Unlike the coal shed, the hen-houses had electricity. I was never quite sure of the logic behind all this. But at least I didn't have to use a torch to find the eggs.
The hens were what might be called 'semi free range'. They lived in the hen-house but in boxes around the walls, while the floor was covered in deep litter. This was made of sawdust and hen droppings and generated a lot of heat, so that even on the coldest January morning the place was positively tropical. There was also a pungent odour, which I can still smell now, fifty-five years later. It was not unpleasant, though.
The floor was just packed earth, with the litter on top, and so the hens constantly scraped around for worms, which came up from below. This was an excellent place to find the much sought-after 'brandling' worms, which had bands of yellow and pink on their bodies and were well known to be the best worms of all for fishing – a property I often made use of.
With the hens – Rhode Island Reds – clucking around my feet, I would make my way along the walls, lifting the lid of the boxes and taking the eggs. Sometimes I got several dozen in a day. When I'd done the tour, I'd carefully set down the basket by the door and then check the feeders. If any were empty I had to fill them from the sacks kept in one of the unused hen-houses, using a bucket kept for the purpose. I'd check that the water troughs, hen sized, were working – they were fed from the mains and only once can I remember them having frozen – and put 'grit' in the bowls. Hens use this in their gizzards to help them digest food. Then, all done, I'd switch out the lights and make my way back up to the house. Some of those eggs would quickly be on the table!
Mowing the Lawn
The other major chore, at least in summer, was Mowing the Lawn. Our lawn was not huge, about sixty feet square, but it was big enough. My father liked to see it nice and neat, with those laid stripes. Mowing the thing with a hand mower would of course have been impossible, especially for a lad of eight or nine, but we had the technology!
Lurking in the new garden tool-shed (to distinguish it from the old one) was the perfect remedy. This shed was not a traditional stone one like the other, but a corrugated iron construction that had once been a car garage. So it was about sixteen feet wide and twenty-four long. Here was kept all the machinery we used in the garden, some of which was arcane and bizarre, like for example, the weed-killing flamethrower (seriously). I'm sure things like that must be illegal now. But it was also where we kept the doughty Ransomes motorised lawnmower.
Now this was not a lawnmower as you know it. Although it bore the legend 'Gazelle', there was nothing light, delicate or dainty about this thing. It was so big that I had to peer over the handle-bars and it was powered by a Villiers two-stroke engine of one hundred and twenty-five cubic centimetres. I wrote that out in full just to convey some of the awe which this thing inspired. That's as big as a learner motorcycle in Britain today.
The Gazelle had a twenty-four inch cut and a huge back roller, which provided the drive and also was responsible for those nice lines that my father liked to see. It weighed a ton, at least to an nine-year old boy.
Starting the Gazelle was a ritual, as was usual with implements of that era. First I had to check the fuel level and top it up if necessary. This I did from the two-gallon can of two-stroke petroil mix kept under the bench. If this were empty I was supposed to go and tell someone, but after a while I figured out how to make the mix and did it myself. Nobody seemed to notice.
With the fuel tank topped up, one then opened the petcock itself and 'tickled' the carburettor. This meant pushing down a tiny plunger on the float bowl till mixture ran out. Then one carefully wrapped the starter cord onto the drum and pulled. Usually, unless the spark plug had fouled from idling too long, it would start on the second or third pull.
The Gazelle had two controls on the handlebar. One was a throttle, which I usually kept about half way, since any more meant I should have to run. The other was the clutch which, unlike a car's, was engaged only when pulled in. This was a 'safety feature' and as far as I can recall, the only one. It at least meant that if for any reason the operator let go, the machine would stop. That this worked had been proven to me when poor Jim, our gardener, dropped dead behind it and the Gazelle waited patiently, as if it imagined he would get up; but of that, more anon.
Finally, one had to attach the grass-box to the front, to collect the cuttings and then, with the engine roaring, one pulled in the clutch and off we jolly well went, hopefully in the right direction, scattering all before us.
Actually mowing the lawn took about an hour and a half, I think, although it's hard to remember. Far worse was having to do the 'edging', which fortunately only needed to be done once a month or so.
My father was an inveterate collector of mechanical gadgets and it was not so very long before he decided to add to the collection of arcane equipment in the new garden tool shed. One day I came home from school and there it was, parked out in front of the house: a shiny new, two-tone metallic green British Anzani Lawnrider! Oh joy! The gardening gods must have taken pity on me, after seeing me running around chasing the Gazelle. This thing had a seat!
Needless to say, after a quick read of the instruction book, I had figured out that this was not so very different from the Gazelle. It had a Villiers 150cc two-stroke engine which was easier to start than the Gazelle's, as it had a recoil starter rope, but otherwise was similar. The cost of one of these in 1963 was £115, or just over two thousand pounds in today's money.
The Lawnrider was basically a tricycle, with the engine, blades and drive wheel replacing the front wheel and the essential roller (for making those lines) supporting the seat. This used the driver's weight to get more perfect lines. Clever, huh? It was steered through a pair of handle-bars and on these were the familiar throttle and clutch levers. The difference was that this machine had a clutch lock so the driver could relax his death grip. I noted that the manual said, in big letters, that the clutch lock should not normally be engaged as it over-rode an important safety feature. But I was nine.
The machine had a lever which raised or lowered the cutters to it could travel to the work area on paved ground and the usual screws and so on for setting the height of the cut.
Come Saturday and my father gave me a demonstration of how to use the beast, proudly mowing half the lawn. But that was all he needed to satisfy himself with his shiny new toy. He left the rest to me and went off to potter in his wine-making shed – of which more later.
The Lawnrider was not just a bauble for my father to impress his friends with, it was, for me, my chariot. I would roll across the lawn (at two miles per hour) waving my sword or sometimes my lance. But whereas operating the Gazelle had been pretty hard work, especially for a boy, and I had to keep my wits about me to avoid scalping the lupins, the Lawnrider was...well...too easy. It was kinda dull, like. One had to be careful at the edges of the lawn, to avoid allowing the front drive wheel to drop into the decorative borders, but otherwise...
I pretty quickly forgot those admonitions about not engaging the clutch lock in normal use and so I was basically just sitting there with the engine droning away, only stopping every second pass to empty the grass box. Once the thrill of charging (at two miles per hour) across the lawn with a bamboo pole tucked under my arm wore out, it was all just a bit...dull.
I was not different from any other little boy my age and so soon I began to scheme up mischief. No, I didn't plan to mow my father's roses or anything like that, because even then I was not that daft. But there were other ways to have creative fun, n'est-ce pas?
A feature of Saturday television in those far-off halcyon days before the Internet, was Saturday afternoon scrambling. For those who don't know, this is the time-honoured sport of taking large motorcycles, stripping off all the unnecessary weight, putting on knobbly tyres and chasing each other around empty fields. All good fun and something every boy should enjoy. But between the races there were often trick motorcycling demonstrations, including routines like the Human Pyramid and so on. One particularly intrigued me, where the rider turned in flight, as it were, sat on the handlebars and piloted from there, while another pilot jumped on the seat and stood there with his arms out. Now this was intriguing.
I tried sitting on the handlebars on my bicycle but I fell off. 'There must be another way' I mused. 'Oh I know, what about that Lawnrider?' After all, it didn't fall over, or at least it never had. Far better platform to try this sort of thing on.
I imagine that those of you who are parents might guess what happened next. The following Saturday came along and it was time to mow the lawn. I think it must have been September, because it was a little cool and I was wearing a thick sweater. Anyway, after I'd got about half the lawn mowed, I put my plan into action. I engaged the clutch lock, lifted myself up, swung my legs round the seat and hoisted myself onto the handlebars. And there I was, travelling backwards, mightily proud of my acrobatic abilities.
I had forgotten that there was a bit of a bump where a tree root came close to the surface.
Now usually this did nothing more than cause the handlebars to twitch a little and that is exactly what it did. But it caught me completely off-guard and the next thing I knew I had tumbled backwards into the grass-box. That was not in itself so bad, but the impact of my fall caused the box to unhook from the machine. So now I was being pushed along the ground with my torso and head in the grass-box and my legs kicking at the mower, trying to keep it off.
The Lawnrider seemed upset at me, possibly in a fit of pique and it did not appear impressed with my resistance, as it pressed on towards me. To make a bad situation (I'm sure you'll concur) even worse, my thick oiled-wool sweater got caught in the cutter blades, which immediately began chopping it up and dragging me towards them, presumably with the intent of doing the same to me. I realised that Something Had To Be Done Quickly. Even I am not that slow, you know.
Somehow and with a lot of effort I managed to get my legs down without letting my back fall into the mower and with all my strength I pushed on one side of the Lawnrider's engine housing. To my amazement (and great relief) it turned to the right, allowing me just enough space to get away to the other side, sliding along on the grass-box, which my head and shoulders were still inside.
I rolled out and with a certain cold anger – how dare the beast have so used me – lost no time in jumping up and disengaging the clutch lock, so the infernal monster stopped. And there we stood, for a long moment, glaring at each other. But then I snapped myself back to reality. There was the matter of covering my tracks to attend to and quickly, before anyone came out to see how I was doing.
First I had to reattach the grass box, which fortunately hadn't been damaged. I then had to go over the last two passes again, to straighten out the kinks in the lines that my antics had put in. I might have been shaking a bit, but I did have the presence of mind to realise that my mother had better not see that oiled-wool sweater in the state it was in. It looked like it had been mauled by a tiger. I should have to get rid of it discreetly and make up some sort of story. (I think I said I lost it while out fishing, which was plausible at least.)
I finished the lawn and carried on. I never told either my mother or my father about any of this, in fact I never told a soul. I think many of my activities would have been curtailed if anyone had found out.
Before we move on, from the business of me doing my best to get myself turned into flying mince while my parents were distracted, there is one other denizen of the New Garden Shed that I feel I need to discuss. In case its ghost comes to haunt me, like. The New Garden Shed was in a corner of the garden that was surrounded by hedges and a wall and was the main vegetable allotment. As such it had two large cultivated areas separated by a slabbed pathway to the new garage, where the cars lived. I hope you’re getting this.
Here we grew peas, beans, cabbages, cauliflowers, kale and so on. That took about half of the land and the rest of it was given over to potatoes. (This is Scotland.)
The peas, beans and the brassicas were harvested as they ripened, from late June through to September and then in October it was time to lift the tatties. This was backbreaking work but the heavy part was always done by the gardener, Jim or Janet, or later a hand from the garage making some overtime. I was in charge of picking up the tatties and putting them in baskets. These would then be stored.
This would make for an energetic weekend, but the work was not done with the lifting of the spuds. No, the soil had to be tilled ready for planting. Now less creative types (perhaps those not enamoured with noisy machinery, poor fools) would have got out the spades and double-dug the lot, as I regularly helped my chum Kenny Powrie with at his place. But not for my Dad, that.
Instead, we had the most fearsome beast in the shed, a rotovator. But not just any rotovator; we had a Howard Gem. For eleven months of the year, this monster hunkered on her hurdies at the back of the shed, lowering malevolently at all and sundry. Then would come the time to get her out, clean the plug, and start up.
Now to give you an idea of the scale of this dragon, she was fitted with a six hundred cc JAP side-valve four-stroke engine. Six hundred. There are cars with smaller engines. She was definitely big and mean.
The design was basic enough. There were two large drive wheels in fifteen-inch rims fitted with blocked tyres like a tractor’s. These were mounted on a central axle, fitted behind the engine so that it was just in front of the centre of balance, with the engine itself hanging out before. Behind this axle, on a belt-driven subshaft, were four sets of rotating blades. The shaft was covered with a steel housing and the blades (strictly ‘tines’ but I know you’re all townies) were hidden behind a rubber valance that came down to the ground. This was definitely a Good Safety Idea. At the back of this was a vertical bar with a shoe on the bottom that could be moved up or down to adjust the digging depth.
Because this was a four-stroke, it used neat petrol instead of petroil mixture. The starting procedure was to remove the plug and make sure it was nice and clean, replace it, open the fuel tap on the tank, which was a long cylindrical one above the motor and tickle the carburettor till fresh fuel flowed out. Then there were two actual starting methods. One was to use a cranking handle inserted into the crankcase and the other was the more familiar pull start. This one was not a recoil, so you had to wind the rope every go. I confess I could never master that infernal crank, even though Dad laughed at me and said, ‘Don’t rax it! Let it work for you!’ But I had not his considerable talent as an engineer.
In fact, starting a big old four-stroke single is always the same, and it’s much easier than a two-stroke. Fuel on, choke on. Kick, turn or pull the engine just over compression, making sure the ignition is off so it doesn’t kick back. Then reset the starter, switch on and give it a good swing. With any luck the beast will fire.
With that all done outside the shed, one engaged the drive wheels and opened the throttle. There was a lever just before the operator’s knee and pushing it down lowered and engaged the blade shaft. Then a good handful of throttle, engage the clutch and off you go, like some fearsome rider of a roaring dragon, scattering all and sundry and crying whatever it is dragon-riders cry. ‘Geronimo!’ would probably do.
Tiamat would cultivate the plots in just about an hour, then I’d switch off the fuel, drain the carburettor, wash her down and put her away till next time.
I was only nine and I wondered sometimes what my schoolteachers might have said, had they seen me of an autumn Saturday, steering Tiamat (I should have been quite invisible, hanging off the bars behind her) through clouds of dust as she blatted her way up and down the plots, while I grinned from ear to ear. These days they’d probably arrest my parents; but that is for another time, my dears.
Nobody can say I didn't earn my pocket money, but it’s not really work if you love doing it!
These chores and a few others were rewarded every Saturday morning (in arrears) by the payment of my pocket-money. This was a whole five shillings a week (25p) or a little less than eight pounds today. This was not a fortune, though it was substantially more than most of my classmates had. But I worked for it, hard. I can honestly say I have never been a socialist and I think these early experiences taught me that if I wanted something, there was no point in waiting for someone to give it to me, I had to earn and save for it.
Next time we’ll talk about the fun part of money — spending it.