We are not the men our fathers were?

Falling asleep at the wheel when mowing isn’t something you do often. I’ve never managed it. My father did. He was mowing whilst I was greasing round the forage harvester. The field he was cutting was on a slope, so I could hear the tractor get nearer and then get further way as he was mowing. Then I realised the note hadn’t changed.
So I went to investigate. Now some people reading this won’t know the details, but as you come to the end of a run when you’re mowing, you lift the mower, turn the tractor to line up for the next run and then lower the mower again. All this is with the tractor running at ‘pto rev’. So the mower, (A two drum mower with two drums spinning) was making a lot of noise, and the tractor engine was making a lot of noise.

Because my father had come downhill on one run and was going uphill on the next, he had to change gear. So he’d come downhill, got to the end of the run, picked up the mower, turned the tractor, dropped it out of one gear, and in the brief spell when the tractor was out of gear before going into the next gear, he’d fallen asleep. Given that by that point we’d had well over a week of starting at 5am and finishing at between 10pm and 11pm with some meals eaten on the move, this isn’t entirely surprising.

So I walked up to the tractor, knocked the revs off and then knocked the power take off out of gear so the mower slowed down and stopped. The ensuing quiet woke my father up. At that point I asked if he wanted me to finish off the field but he merely commented that he’d had a nice nap so felt good to go.

My Grandfather’s generation was as bad. He was once clearing a gutter out. He picked up a fence post that had fallen in and several inches of a nail stuck into his arm. Carrying the fence post with him he walked across two fields to a neighbour who got him to the doctor who got the nail out of him.
But neither generation thought this sort of thing was unusual. My father had volunteered for the RAF in 1939, but they’d discovered he was a farm worker and sent him back. I remember in the early 1980s the pair of us went to a farm sale. There my Dad met somebody he’d last seen in 1938. They’d worked together for a couple of years and the other chap had had enough of farm work and had joined the army. He’d spent the war fighting in Burma, and as the sale continued, he and Dad had forty years of catching up. Burma had been rough on him, he didn’t look well then, and he died a couple of years later.

But that brings me to the banana slide. In Barrow Park they had a banana slide. You see the picture, more than twice the height of a man, with no safety rails and just good old fashioned concrete to land on. When I was in the first year of secondary school we were still allowed in the children’s play area so could go on the slide. The basic rule was if you were still wearing shorts, you were young enough to be allowed into that area.
We had a whale of a time on it. One lad would fetch the wrapper from a block of butter or marge and he would slide down the slide first, sitting on the wrapper with the greasy side down.
Then we’d all pile down behind him, and by the time the first ten or a dozen had been through, it was polished. I’ve been down that slide and shot straight off the end, the technique was to get your feet under you so you came off the slide running rather than just hit the ground.

Of course the slide has gone now. I must admit I don’t remember any serious accidents, certainly nothing that demanded hospital. They had one of those heavy wooden playground roundabouts as well. The photo is just one I’ve found, it wasn’t ours. I remember that being just green. I also remember they were more dangerous than the slide because if you got your foot under it, it could hurt.

From memory the girls tended to monopolise the roundabout and the boys just played on the slide. It might have had something to do with the fact that the roundabout was more forgiving for somebody wearing a school skirt.

I remember talking about our time on this equipment to somebody a generation younger than me and they just looked horrified. The question was asked, “How could they install such dangerous equipment for children?”
Given that the men who had installed the equipment were men who’d jumped out of a landing craft and run up a beach under fire, how dangerous would they have regarded it?
Similarly, due to blind chance, quite a number of Barrow lads ended up in the 1st Airlanding Brigade and took part in the fighting around Arnhem, (A bridge to far.) But they went in not by parachute but in gliders. This was apparently terrifying, you hadn’t a clue what was happening, and every so often you’d be shot at and shrapnel would go through the thin plywood fuselage. Then to put not too fine a point on it, your glider crash landed and you were in the middle of a war. Of the 2,526 men of 1st Airlanding Brigade who left England for Operation Market Garden, there were 230 killed, 476 evacuated and 1,822 were missing or prisoners of war. Banana slides? Not a problem.

I am lucky enough to have worked with men of that generation. I remember working at hay time, one of them men helping was a police sergeant who’d already put in a full shift but was up for three or four hours of hauling bales by hand to keep his hand in. Others were fitters in the shipyard, or worked for the council on the roads or the bins. But looking round there’s a lot of good people of a younger generation working in agriculture now. Running their own businesses and doing a good job. I suppose you’d expect it, they’ve been properly brought up. But I’ve come across others, out of town, who aren’t afraid to put in a long day in the rain. Talking to them, next summer they might go to university, hopefully they’ll do well there, they’ve got the work ethic.  


To be fair, most of my co-workers over the years have been Border Collies, and they do have a work ethic.


More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”


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31 thoughts on “We are not the men our fathers were?

  1. Doug Jacquier November 6, 2020 at 5:56 am Reply

    Of course we are not the men they were, Jim. Men are shaped by their times and necessity. As Boris and Donald drag us inexorably into the abyss, the days of the chinless wonder living life on a screen are numbered and the men of steel that we wonder about from previous generations will be staring back at us from the shaving mirror.

    • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 6:39 am Reply

      Certainly I’ve been impressed by a lot of young people I’ve met. They’ve just buckled down and got on with life, building up their own businesses and pulling their weight in a family concern.
      It’s good to see

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt November 6, 2020 at 6:28 am Reply

    Work ethic – and physical strength. The machines are just at the limit – women could use them when they had to, as did kids (you probably did) – but it was harder, so the adult men, when available, did those jobs. I’m guessing. I’ve never been a farm wife. I have utmost respect for the work ethic of anyone who survives on a farm.

    • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 6:41 am Reply

      People can grow into it. I’ve watched sixteen year olds with no farming background put in long hard days, come back next day for more. Yes on their day off they slept most of it 🙂
      But it did wonders for their self respect

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt November 6, 2020 at 6:45 am

        I’m sure you need to build up some calluses!

      • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 8:36 am

        They’re self-building, just do the work and they appear 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt November 6, 2020 at 10:40 pm

        Same as the ones on my fingertips when I play the guitar (badly).

      • jwebster2 November 7, 2020 at 5:38 am

        Yes, do the work and they appear 🙂

  3. jenanita01 November 6, 2020 at 9:43 am Reply

    Farmers seem to be a different breed of men, one we could use more of, I think!

    • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 10:37 am Reply

      A friend and I were discussing this and her comment was, ‘Only the tough ones survived this long’

      • jenanita01 November 6, 2020 at 7:20 pm

        When the going gets tough…eh?

      • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 7:57 pm

        yep, the others curl up and die
        As an aside there was apparently a hair dresser called Curl up and Dye 🙂

      • jenanita01 November 7, 2020 at 9:11 am

        Many customers?

      • jwebster2 November 7, 2020 at 9:14 am

        Over 300 likes on facebook 🙂

  4. jenanita01 November 6, 2020 at 9:43 am Reply
  5. Stevie Turner November 6, 2020 at 1:00 pm Reply

    The younger generation have been nannied too much by ‘Elf & Safety’. I remember those old roundabouts. We would all crouch down on the wooden steps, somebody would throw a stick down, and then others would try to pick it up as they came around and see if they could collect more sticks than anybody else. I also remember the steel climbing frames with concrete flooring underneath, and how we were all sure-footed as cats.

    My father in law once mowed his lawn, but caught his toe in the blades and the toe came off. He picked it up and drove to the hospital, but sadly they could do nothing for him except treat the stump.

    • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 1:38 pm Reply

      Certainly attitudes have changed, I think we’re too risk averse, but by failing to grasp the nettle can put us at risk of far greater dangers

  6. Cathy Cade November 6, 2020 at 1:29 pm Reply

    We retired to the Fens from London ten years ago and it’s been educational. Our house is one of a terrace of former farm cottages in the middle of acres of flat fields (to the horizon) and my husband loves it!
    Tractors and heavy machinery pass our front garden from before dawn until well after dark, seven days a week at certain times of the year. This autumn, cleared fields are quickly being tilled and replanted (last year’s heavy rain made fields unusable for a while). At harvest times, some of the equipment resembles a small processing plant and some of the drivers look barely old enough to leave school.
    Farming is no doubt safer and more efficient with such equipment, but working hours don’t seem to have reduced. As a former police officer, my husband has often worked long shifts at unearthly hours with no prospect of leave (he tells me his current sleep patterns are merely catching up) but he’s impressed by the activity around us.

    • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 1:36 pm Reply

      I was first put behind the wheel of a tractor to drive it at the age of eight. By the time I left school I’d had a lot of experience 🙂
      I suspect the youngsters have similar experience.
      The machinery is used as a ‘multiplier’ in that it means you need fewer men to do the same work but in a shorter time to catch the weather window.
      Working hours will not have dropped per day. Also with fewer people, there isn’t the sense of working with a community. You often don’t see anybody else except perhaps at a distance

  7. Cathy Cade November 6, 2020 at 2:00 pm Reply

    My husband once told me you don’t need a licence to drive a tractor. (As a class 1 Advanced police driver, I assume he’d know. Although his knowledge could be 20 years out of date.) We wave across the dyke to tractors bearing down on us across the field. The dogs say hello.

    • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 5:15 pm Reply

      To drive on fields you don’t need a licence. But I took my test on a tractor at the age of 16, The full licence for a tractor acted as a provisional licence for a car when I was seventeen

  8. Cathy Cade November 6, 2020 at 2:01 pm Reply

    My husband once told me you don’t need a licence to drive a tractor. (As a class 1 Advanced police driver, I assume he’d know. Although his knowledge could be 20 years out of date.) We wave across the dyke to tractors bearing down on us across the field. The dogs say hello.
    No farm livestock around here though, unless you count the llamas in a field up the road.

  9. Cathy Cade November 6, 2020 at 2:02 pm Reply

    oops! sorry for the repetition. Don’t know how I did that. 😦

    • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 5:16 pm Reply

      Don’t worry, we cannot have too much of a good thing 🙂

  10. joylennick November 6, 2020 at 2:08 pm Reply

    Thanks Jim. Always Interesting…Life was certainly more of a stamina-test in the past. I was asked by a friend to ‘adjust/titivate’ his grand-father’s memoir “From the Prairie to Passchendaele,” of his time as a farmer in northern Canada in the early 1900’s. Born in Kent in 1893 (one of 12 children), Aged 17, broke with few prospects in the UK,, he emigrated to Saskatchewan. Blizzards & temperatures of 45 degrees below were not unknown. Despite the hardships, he grew to love the life. Enlistment in WW1 saw him in the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion, and fighting the Germans in Passchendaele nearly cost his life. He eventually lost his right arm as a result of his injuries, was decorated, and retrained to be an accountant, Sadly, he contracted Parkinson’s disease, so couldn’t even type with his left hand. No problem! He discovered a head device for typing – hence his Memoir…He married and had four sons while in Canada, returned to Kent, UK and continued in business with much success. He typed his Memoir aged 83. Quite a man! Cheers! x

    • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 5:18 pm Reply

      The weak ones had laid down and died forty years before.
      I must admit that Remembrance Services bring men like him to mind. Yes, those who had fallen, but those who came back and rebuilt their lives and the lives of those around them. We will remember them!

  11. joylennick November 6, 2020 at 2:11 pm Reply

    Many apologies…Didn’t even give the poor man a name?! It was Fred Knight.

    • jwebster2 November 6, 2020 at 5:19 pm Reply

      May he rest in peace and rise in glory

  12. joylennick November 6, 2020 at 5:37 pm Reply

    Thanks, Jim. Keep well. x

  13. Eddy Winko November 9, 2020 at 7:00 am Reply

    The picture of the slide brought back some memories, as did you mention of haymaking, which I remember helping with in my early teens, old family friends who had continued farming long after my Grandfather had moved onto other things, the link remained.

    I always smile to myself when we have visiting children, and the look of horror on face of the parents as our eldest (6 years old) starts climbing trees and encourages others to do the same 🙂

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