Neville John William Day 7 March 1922 - 26 November 1990
Dad’s pigs and the Onion Dance
Dad's smallholding sat on the edge of the desolate, straggling and struggling Fenland village of Marshland St James. A place where the horizon could clearly be seen twelve miles distant in all directions. Clearly seen providing there was no howling gale bringing dust storm, horizontal rain or snow. No wind at all often meant it was shrouded in mist. The area's near black soil was reputedly though the most fertile in Britain.
Just 28 acres but in addition to the livestock Dad experimented with almost all agricultural plants known to man in an effort to eke out a living for a family of five. Inseparable from his flat Harris Tweed cap, he never seemed to stop working and we both admired him for it and pitied him in equal measure. None of us would fail to answer his call for help if and when he needed it, night or day and from my memory it always seemed to be mostly before the sun had risen or after it had set.
Life was hard, astonishingly so by today's standards and Health and Safety Executive would have had apoplexy. Working sometimes in conditions of near zero visibility in bitter cold and often with machinery that might have been better located in the dungeons of le Marquis de Sade.
"Where's your Father gone?" I recall Mother once asking.
"Round the back of the Piggery. I think he's crying." I replied.
Thirty pigs, Four hundred laying hens, half a dozen over worked but happy cock birds, along with a couple score of ducks was the average livestock. Though we once had two or three sheep, a goat and for a short time even a Shire carthorse, though not all at the same time. A couple of nice mongrel dogs, oversexed rabbits of various colours and varying numbers, and at least three friendly mouser cats at any one time completed the menagerie. Ah! The cats. Therein another amusing little anecdote.
The cats were essential on a farm, particularly a farm breeding and keeping laying hens. To keep rats away, as every farmer knows. Only one cat was ever really treated as a pet and allowed in the house but all were always friendly and were looked after handsomely. One day though Dad returns from some trip or other into the village, maybe to fill the car with petrol. He was in a bit of a state. Just short of vexation, but only just. He had called in at Robinsons village general store to pick up a few essentials. Dad sat down at the kitchen table, looking puzzled. "What is it Neville? You look flustered." Said Mother.
Dad replied "You aren't going to believe this Barbara, but Robinsons are selling food for cats in TIN CANS!"
The date was sometime in the late fifties. The writing was beginning to show on the wall that despite Dad working every hour God sent, in all sorts of inclement weather, we were no longer able to make ends meet. And here was the height of decadence, right here in our not particularly wealthy village, of food being sold for cats, packed in tin cans. I don't think he ever got over it. Speaking about it time and time again for years to come. We had to admit. We could see his point. Our cats and dogs ate the same food as us and cat food sold in cans was never going to change that.
We suspected Dad's rearing and keeping hundreds of laying hens may have been responsible for his only known idiosyncrasy. He never ate eggs. Dad accepted eggs were a common ingredient in much cooking and which he ate but he would not eat eggs boiled, fried, scrambled, poached or even omelettes. He did not object to anyone else eating them, even in his presence and the matter was never discussed. It was of no consequence and just accepted.
Apart from apples, barley, blackcurrants, broad beans, carrots, gooseberries, pears, peas, plums, potatoes, raspberries, strawberries, sugar beet, wheat, and an ancient cherry tree, onions were one of Dad's favourite cash crops.
Onions were always planted in immaculately precise rows which Dad would step out with strides in the freshly tilled soil. Strides that had us all in stitches of laughter as we watched his silhouette, backlit by the setting sun, stepping them out on the top headland, with Groucho Marx style, one yard strides.
"I can smell snow!"
He was right of course. He always was. Our now five or six year old 14" flickering Ekco TV, Lister diesel generator powered and once the only TV in the powerless village, along with the BBC Six O' Clock News the night before, followed by the Weather Forecast, had absolutely nothing at all to do with it.
Good grief I was impressed. I still am.
Chris Latham-Smith 2022.
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