Fordyce Maxwell: Fred’s mother fed a family and ‘dressed us respectably’ on 17 shillings a week

ONE exasperated comment about George Orwell was that he couldn’t blow his nose without moralising on the parlous state of the handkerchief industry.

So I try not to moralise. 
But I still tend to make connections and comparisons, as happened last week 
when attracted to the first episode of Diary Of A Joskin on Radio 4.

I recognised “joskin,” meaning yokel, from the last page of farm worker Fred Kitchen’s autobiography Brother To The Ox, a plain tale, plainly told as its final paragraph indicates: “I thought a bit, and I thought a bit; for I couldn’t see how any one would be interested in a farm joskin, and then I settled down in my spare time to write my story. And this is it. I hope you like it.”

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In 1940 Fred and his family were living in a tied cottage on £2 a week. I start the day with porridge as part of what I think is a healthy lifestyle, Fred and family started with porridge or some fat bacon and milk because it was all they could afford. Supper was much the same.

Forty years earlier his mother fed a family and “dressed us respectably” on the 17 shillings a week his father got as a cowman. How she did it, Fred concluded, “was a mystery only another mother could solve”.

Fred did many jobs on farms including, his first love, working with horses.

Horses mean stables and cart-sheds and the morning I listened to the Radio 4 reading I visited one of many farm steadings in Scotland that in recent years have been converted to up-market housing.

A lovely conversion it is too, now impeccably run as a top class bed and breakfast. I was there, an occasional day job, to hear how members of Farm Stay Scotland are boosting efforts to interest even 
more visitors from the UK and abroad in on-farm holidays.

We also enjoyed – I 
declare the perks – some splendid examples of the local and home-made produce paying guests now expect: scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, haddock, bacon and sausage, scones, jam, chutney, fruit…

Reaching for a mental equivalent of Orwell’s handkerchief, I compared my breakfast with Fred’s, and the archway with French windows I was looking through in centrally heated comfort at snow to Fred hitching horses to a cart or plough under a similar arch on a similar day.

Far away and long ago, 
and farming, farmers and farm workers have had to change and adjust since 1940 in ways Fred couldn’t have dreamed of. And mainly for the better. But his plain tale is worth hearing and remembering.

Twitter: @FordyceMaxwell

• Last week Fordyce... found out that he had something in common with Prince “Countryfile” Charles – an addiction to walking. He’s trying not to worry.

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