First a bit of back story. Some thirty years ago I lived and worked a hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales. If you don’t know this part of the world and you like wild spaces you should visit. The Dales are a series of river valleys flowing, more or less northwest to southeast in North Yorkshire. Tourism and hill farming are the main occupations.
I was married at the time (although he was more conspicuous by his absence), so I ran our small farm. Now the dale where I lived was extremely traditional. There were things that womanfolk did and did not do. They did not run a farm but they could act as helpers when required. This usually meant standing in a gateway in the freezing cold as sheep or cattle were being moved; flapping your arms, to prevent the animals getting through the gap, all the while not knowing your better half had stopped for a gossip with the neighbour who just happend to be driving by.
Women did not drive around in a battered old Landrover – they made an appointment with their better half to drive them where they needed to go. If it was not convenient they were permitted to take the one and only bus and, on return, walk the mile home, down an unlit rough track, laden with enough stuff to feed an army – because of course, only womanfolk could unravel the mysteries of the kitchen stove. They did not go into a pub on their own and when accompanied by said better half they were permitted to enter through the beery portals,they could only sit in the room on the right because the snug was men only.
However, they did participate in the church flowers rota, the school run and the women’s institute to say nothing of the endless cleaning, washing and cooking – all of which was done with a smile on their lips and murder in their hearts. As I said it was, at that time, a very traditional place.
As a woman to whom rule breaking came as naturally as breathing I was, at different times, an oddity, a misfit, a hippy on the hill and a woman “as wants a good seein’ ter”. As far as my sisters-in-strife were concerned, I was a potential Jezebel who, never having her own man around, might well be tempted to borrow one of their lusty specimens. Despite all this we rubbed along together and after about three years I even managed to get a “good morning” out of most of them without them doing the three Hail Mary’s stuff. Mostly I think, I provided the occupants of the snug with a source of amusement as they watched my new fangled farming ways.
What none of these lovely people knew was that I also wrote a Saturday column for one of the larger regional newspapers in which I described life and the people in the Dale. I used a pseudonym so I felt safe doing so and was always careful not to be too specific. Now we come to the crux of this tale and a warning to all of you writers out there who garner material from “real” life.
It happened that one autumn I needed to take some stock down the dale to the local cattle auction. This was most definitely a men-only event – legitimate women i.e.wives – avoided the place. Nevertheless, needs must and so I turned up with some half dozen young cattle that I couldn’t afford to keep over winter. My farming neighbours were out in force that Saturday and the auctioneer made the most of the event by reminding everyone repeatedly that there was a lady present.
My turn to bring the animals into the ring arrived. The idea was that the seller walked the beasts around the ring – showed them off as it were – for buyers to assess. The whole process was generally an occasion for banter, ribaldry and back-chat. A couple of my neighbours had ringside seats and as I walked past them I could hear them commenting:
“that one’s got a good arse on”
“Which beast or t’lass?”
“I could mek summat of that”
“Aye well, it’d bed down nicely”
At each sally, they nearly pissed themselves laughing. I got a bit fed up of this and delivered one of my well-known devasting ripostes:
“Bugger off and die, fuckwit.”
In my next Saturday column I wrote about this event (in much more refined tones) but perhaps a tad less carefully than usual. The following week I found myself on the receiving end of even more peculiar looks and there was a stronger than usual air of disapproval that trailed after me. After a particularly hard day I nipped into the pub for a sandwich and a drink and felt umpteen pairs of eyes boring into my back as I sat at the counter chatting to Colin, the landlord.
“What is it this time?” I whispered and, in reply Colin pulled out the Saturday paper, much mangled and thumbed over and showed me my own column. He said simply,
My neighbour took it particularly hard. Ever after, if he saw me talking to anyone, he would sidle up and whisper:
“Watch what yer say. She’ll be puttin’ it all down and it’ll be in t’paper.”
Why am I telling you all this? Because yesterday, finding myself in the vicinity of my old stamping ground I made a detour to see how it had changed. It hasn’t much – except that the Acropolis Coffee Bar has lost its red formica-topped tables and has been somewhat gentrified since my day. However, after my tour I had a coffee there and was musing about the old days when I became aware of a thin, prune-faced man dressed in the famers’ Sunday best – check shirt, waistcoat, twill trousers, Barbour coat and wellies – looming over me.
“Aye, it is you” he said with a certain grim satisfaction, “Thowt so.”
To my eternal embarrassment he then announced to the coffee shop as a whole
“Tha needs to watch what tha says to thissun. She’ll tek it down in writing and ‘old it aginst yer”.
He coughed himself silly – my old nemesis and neighbour.
Who says “fame” is transient?