As I’ve mentioned here before (and I’m sure it was just as interesting then…) I live on a farm. I am not a farmer, I just live on a farm. It is a very large farm – the bit I live on was originally 3 separate farms, but they have all been acquired by a single family, and two more of the adjoining farms are also owned by cousins of the same dynasty, so this is a very big set-up by UK standards – thousands of acres devoted to potatoes, wheat, barley, leeks, cabbages, sprouts and so on. Apart from a thriving riding stable and livery business, the only livestock here now are in a big indoor piggery a couple of miles from my house.
This is probably screamingly obvious to everyone apart from a townie such as I was when I arrived here, but the economics of farming have altered greatly over the last century; when I first moved here it was very clear that a small number of men with tractors and motorised equipment could handle all the work which had required a whole lot of manual labour before WW2, and much of the farm workers’ housing here had thus been sold off to reclusive people like me – mostly in the 1970s, in fact, but that is how I come to live on a working farm. In the last few years this has changed further – the farm now leases out most of its fields to be planted and harvested by specialist contracting firms – big, industrial-scale operators who own no land of their own, but rent acreage on a year-by-year basis. Thus the farm now has very few permanent staff – their involvement in the leased fields is merely in the preparation of the land – ploughing and so forth – for each year’s new planting. They do still harvest their own wheat, in fact, but otherwise our fields are regularly full of strange machines, and a great many young people from Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, you name it – British young people, it seems, are not interested in working that hard, thank you, and anyway it would impact their housing benefit.
Well, Old George was my next-door neighbour when I first moved here in 2000. He lived on his own, and, while not exactly antisocial, he liked to keep to himself. He’s dead now, but I often think about him. He was the oldest person I ever met and, in his quiet way, he offered a valuable reminder of what is comforting and what is scary about old age.
First thing I remember about him is that he never complained about anything, even when his eyesight was mostly gone and his hearing was dodgy and he was having difficulties with his balance, he was always cheery and polite, always put on his best clothes for church or for his weekly visit to the Buttercup Café in the village.
George was born in 1909, in the Shetland Islands – his family had a grocery business in Lerwick, and he was one of seven children. When I first met him he was 91, and he was at least as lucid as I was at the time. It became very clear, very quickly, that George did not appreciate people fussing after him, or doing things for him, so a great deal of secrecy and deceit went into the concealment of any favours anyone did him. I asked him what he did in the war, and he simply said he had been too old to be called up, so I didn’t pursue the matter, but after he was dead I read that he had served in the RAF (he was a sergeant) on motor rescue boats in the Mediterranean, based for a while in Egypt – not only that, but he had been decorated for gallantry in rescuing downed aircrew.
|RAF fast launch based in Egypt|
His family had moved to Edinburgh in the 1930s, in search of employment. George worked as an accountant for a well-known confectionery company, and after the war he moved to work for the hydroelectric company. When he retired from the power company he took a job at the farm where I now live. He had never married, and he had care of two of his sisters, one of whom was mentally handicapped, so he was concerned to keep up his income. He managed the farm office here for a good many years, well into his 70s, and is still remembered very clearly by any lorry driver who ever had the temerity to turn up late with a delivery, or who brought some kind of short measure. The farm’s books were invariably spot on – and woe betide anyone who compromised that situation.
When I met him his sisters had both died, and he had retired at last (by 91, we should hope so!). He had indefinite use of one of the farm’s own cottages, and remained fiercely independent. I used to be aware of him going for his daily walk down to the beach, or in the woods, and used to worry a bit about his safety, but one very real concern was that he was still driving, though his eyesight wasn’t nearly good enough. He had a little, sky-blue Ford Fiesta which he kept in the sheds across from my house, and one day – sure enough – he knocked a lady off her bicycle on the country lanes because he couldn’t see her. Fortunately she was not hurt, but he received a letter from the County Sherriff’s office, requiring him to present himself at the court to answer charges of dangerous driving. Typical of the man, he told me that he had written back to them, stating that he did not care for the tone of their letter (since it sounded as though he were “a criminal or something”), and that they had replied that if he would surrender his driver’s licence by return they would drop the matter and not pursue the charges – and he laughed aloud at his own cheek.
For a while he used to spend the Christmas period with relatives in Surrey – so a great deal of planning went into organising taxis and flights to get him down there. Since I was one of the keyholders for his personal alarm (provided by the local authority), I started getting phonecalls late at night from the social work department, saying that George’s electricity was switched off, and would I check that he was all right. I knew he was away, but went next door anyway to check his house was in order, and kept finding his power was switched off. I would switch it back on, and next night I would get another call, and again I would find it was switched off. After a few iterations of this, it became clear that another neighbour, who also had a key, was coming in each day to check his mail (i.e. snoop around?) and, being very safety conscious, was switching off his mains electricity.
We sorted out that misunderstanding, but it became very obvious that poor Old George wasn’t really able to cope on his own – his house was filthy, and one aspect of this which gave me the creeps was that in each room there was something like a giant hammock stretching between the picture rail and the central light fitting – about 10 or 15 years’ accumulated spiders’ webs. It was very tempting to get an industrial vacuum cleaner and smarten the place up a bit while George was safely in Surrey, but he would have been mortified, and would never have forgiven me.
Not coping comes under various headings, of course. At one point his regular taxi driver mentioned to the social work department that he appeared to have nothing to eat in the house, and a couple of well-meaning girls from the Council came and visited him and brought some ready-meals for his fridge. George, predictably, was very angry, which is understandable since he could not read well enough to identify what was in the packets in the fridge, nor how to cook it, and since his eyesight was so bad that he could not safely use his cooker without risk of burning the place down.
As time passed he had a couple of falls when out walking, and then one winter I kept finding his lights on at strange hours of the night – on investigation, it turned out that he was refusing to take his medication, and was very confused what time it was – some nights he forgot to go to bed, and on one occasion was found on the floor. This is difficult to think about now, since it sounds – even to me – that we should have done more to take care of him, but George would have chased us with a broom if anyone had tried anything more invasive than keeping a general eye open. He told me once that he had a standing reservation for a room at a nursing home in the village, but he couldn’t see why he would wish to go and live with a lot of old people.
“I’m sure I’ll have to go there one day, but I’ll be dead in six weeks if I do. I’m happy here - I love to see the deer crossing the farm roads, and I like to hear the tractors setting off at daybreak to work on the land.”
George was taken into the local cottage hospital around Christmas 2008 – I knew he would be outraged, but at least he would be warm and safe, and would get his meals and his medicine. He was still in the cottage hospital when his 100th birthday came around, and there was a surprisingly large celebration, involving press photos of the Lord Lieutenant of the County and all sorts of people who would not normally cross the street to speak to George. I got a brief chance to speak to him, and asked him how he was doing.
He said, “Well, I’m not sure – mostly I think it would have been a lot less bother if I had just shot myself when I was 80!” and he laughed, of course.
Obviously he couldn’t stay in the cottage hospital indefinitely, and it was just as obvious that he couldn’t go home again, so eventually he moved into the nursing home, as he had feared he would. I know that you expect me to say this, but it’s true – he didn’t last six weeks, he died within a month of being admitted to the home. Maybe he just lost interest. After he died there was a bit about him in the local paper – things that I never knew, and that he would never have dreamed of telling anyone. In his day, apparently, he had been an excellent golfer, and also a fine singer and fiddle-player, and his wartime activities were always a secret.
Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I imagine him lying awake next door, and I wonder what he used to think about.