I remember an old farmer commenting about lads ‘helping out.’ “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy, three boys is no boy at all.”
I know of a couple of farms round here that used to get a lot of lads ‘helping out.’ With village farms where the village was a community, not a dormitory suburb, it was common. I remember talking to one chap, he commented that of all the lads who’d passed through the farm, all were in work but not one was in farming. As far as he could tell, all of them would be earning more than him. Most were working for plant hire companies, or on the highways or in similar trades.
What is noticeable is just how switched on and flexible you need staff to be, and if nothing else the lad working a bit will pick up self-reliance, learn that there’s no such thing as demarcation, and nobody is too important to push or pull when pushing or pulling is called for.
I can remember a farmer locally who was also a local councillor. He hit the roof when one boy in a local school told the careers master that he wanted to go into working on farms. The teacher told him, “Then that’s a total waste of an education.”
The farmer went into the school and formally complained. After all could the teacher work out the Metabolisable Energy of a dairy cow diet, spot and treat Ketosis, deliver a calf and stomach tube it with Colostrum, work out a breeding programme to take advantage of modern genetics, and trim a cow’s feet?
But there’s another side to this issue. In simple terms, nowadays there isn’t a lot of room on a farm for the person who isn’t on top of their game. The days when you could have a lad who was willing but not too bright spend a day mucking out bullock hulls with a fork and a barrow have long gone. Now when the job’s done, because of fewer staff, less money and larger farms, the lad with a barrow might be a contractor with a skid steer loader combined with a serious tractor and a big muck spreader. The contractor could be paying the leasing on £100,000 worth of kit. He’s a businessman and his phone hopefully never stops ringing as people are booking him.
But we still have the not too bright lads. Intelligence is the classic bell curve. The chart shows it nicely.
An IQ of 85 is marked because in 1959, the American Association on Mental Deficiency set 85 as the I.Q. below which a person was considered to be retarded. There is discussion about where the line should be drawn but there is a general feeling that there is somewhere on that curve below which the person just cannot cope with society.
Given the fact that now over 50% of each year group in the UK go to university, and some bright people don’t go to university, it’s obvious that universities are drawing from people who are ‘below average.’
At the same time the job opportunities for those lower down the bell curve are diminishing. I saw some discussion of men who were executed in the USA. (I chose this because it’s a useful data source, other countries don’t necessarily talk to these people. At least the US court system has to.)
Billy Dwayne White, executed in Texas in 1992, had an I.Q. of 66. After being hired as a kitchen dishwasher he was fired when he could not learn to operate the dishwasher. Family members reported that “if one told Billy exactly what to do and took him to the place where it was to be done [he] could do some work. If he were left on his own and not specifically guided, he could not do it.”
Johnny Paul Penry, on death row in Texas, with an I.Q. measured variously between 50 and the low sixties, at one point worked greasing the bearings of cart wheels. “I was good at this,” he told an interviewer proudly.
Another capital defendant “hid his mental retardation for most of his life by working at a very repetitive job as a switcher on the railroad. He lied about finishing high school. He was actually in special education classes and did not finish the sixth grade. He was drafted into the army and discharged because of his mental retardation. He lied about his service record. He often made things up so that people would not suspect mental retardation.”
· “Joe,” a mentally retarded man, admired tough-talking local drug dealers and sought to befriend them. One day his drug dealer “friends” gave Joe a gun and instructed him to go into a store and take money from the clerk. They told him, however, “Don’t shoot the guy unless you have to.” Joe hid for a while, then entered the store, but he forgot his instructions. “He panicked and couldn’t remember the plan. He shot the guy and forgot to rob the store.”
When I was a lad I can remember the bin lorry coming. It had a plank on the back and the crew stood on that. I suppose this was fair enough when it’s just working its way down the street, but they used to stand on it as it drove three or four miles out down the main road to start picking farms up. I remember my Dad chatting to the foreman who he’d know from farm work. The foreman and the driver were both bright enough. The others in the crew, perhaps six or seven of them, were distinctly below average.
But they had a job, they were paid a wage, they were independent, and they had homes and families. They had their self-respect and they had the sheer exhilarating joy of riding on the back of the bin lorry at a hair raising thirty miles an hour on the main road.
But what do they do now for a living? I know one chap, I remember him saying, ‘I’ll never be anything but semi-skilled.’ He’s never held down a paid job, but has worked in charity shops etc. He never will hold down a job. He’s in his forties, living with his parents and when they die, the council are most unlikely to house him in their house so he could even finish up homeless. He doesn’t need to be in an institution. He might even have made it to being foreman on one of the old bin lorries. He could certainly aspire to that job.
He’ll never have a family, no woman is going to marry him, they can do better. Indeed I suspect his only family will be his sister and her children. His sister, a one parent family, managed to get a flat. Ironically she too has never really worked (a little casual bar work or temporary shop staff) but she’s made a cracking job of rearing her children, the oldest of whom has gone to university and they will all hopefully do well. But with increasing automation and the arrival of the robot, what’s going to happen? Is perpetually unemployment going to be pushed further up the bell curve? What is going to happen to these people? Because the lad who’s a bit slow but can sweep up with a brush can be replaced by a robo-vacuum cleaner.
On the other hand the accountant, the middle manager and the journalist can be replaced by algorithms.
Now I’ve spent enough time doing dirty jobs in the rain. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the dignity of labour at this point. It’s surprising how often those who do have an indoor job with no heavy lifting.
But people need a reason to get out of bed in a morning. If you’re going to decide that fifty percent (to pluck a figure out of the air) of your population exist purely as consumers, then frankly, lockdown has given us an unwanted insight into that world. If you’re offering people a life which consists of benefits, a flat, and a Netflix subscription, wouldn’t it just be kinder to suggest they open their veins in the bath?
There again, what do I know? Check with somebody who knows how the system works.
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.”