Friday, June 27, 2008


It seemed astonishing to me, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, that I would actually be allowed to drive a tractor. And not just a quick turn about the yard, either, but driving one properly, out in the fields for hours at a time, doing real work for real money. I couldn't believe my luck.

Wise men, those local farmers. They knew that they could get a boy to shovel cow dung from dawn till dark if there was a chance that he'd be allowed to take the tractor out next day and spread the muck. Wiser still to know that a boy would sit on that iron seat in all weathers, a bit of sacking draped across his head and shoulders (no cabs in those days) and still glow with the privilege of being in charge of such a mighty machine.

Fordson Major! Massey Ferguson! I loved them then, and I love them still. The Fordson was the scarier of the two. It was a beast, blue with orange wheels, taller than a man, and before you could scale the heights of it and park your skinny ass on that great scalloped seat you had to get thing going. No joke, my dears, on a cold January morning, and the starting handle covered in slippery white rime. I was never a tough kid, nor a particularly brave one, and so it took some effort and commitment to swing that handle over - knowing that if the engine kicked back it could break your leg, let alone your wrist. But I was bright enough to take instruction, and always made sure I kept my puny thumb over the top of the handle rather than grasped around it. And then, when the engine coughed and choked into life, and the frozen yard was filled with its heavy pumping beat - always that clickety-clatter at the top end - well, it was music to me. And the fresh winter air smelled better than ever, somehow, mixed with diesel.

Then you clambered up the iron mountain, aware that you were out of scale with it all, the footrests just a little too high, seat too deep and broad, steering wheel too wide. Using the clutch was like using a footpump. The top of the gear lever felt as big as a baby's head beneath your hand. Out to the fields then, with a trailer load of beets for the cattle, or dung to spread, and the hope of a similar job when that was done. Hope, too, that you didn't tip the damn thing over on the steep slope of the pasture, because then you would surely die. Although on balance it might have been worth it. The very early Fordsons were notorious death traps, although the ones I knew were later models, and a slight improvement over this from Wikipedia:

"Prepare to Meet Thy God."
Not only was the Fordson a challenge to start and operate, but it also quickly developed a bad reputation for its propensity to rear up on its hind wheels and tip over, which proved disastrous - and sometimes fatal - for its operator.
Ford Motor Company largely ignored the issue for a number of years as criticism mounted. One farm magazine recommended that Ford paint a message on each Fordson: "Prepare to Meet Thy God." Still another listed the names of over 100 drivers killed or maimed when their Fordsons turned over.
It wasn't until much later that Ford finally took heed of the critics and made modifications, such as extended rear fenders dubbed "grousers" intended to stop the tractor from turning over in a tipping situation, and a pendulum-type "kill switch" to cut power to the engine in such instances.

But where the Fordsons were scary monsters, the Massey Fergusons were much more friendly, and a real joy to drive. Electric start! Two gear ratios! The so-called 'little grey Fergie' was as smart as a terrier, quick and intelligent, cheap to run. Harry Ferguson's revolutionary thinking meant that the TE20 didn't just haul things along, but also powered its many attachments. It didn't need the brute force of the Fordson in order to get the job done. Thanks to hydraulics, ploughs could be raised and lowered, making it possible to get right into the awkward corners of fields, and the onboard PTO shaft meant that baling machines and the like were powered by the tractor rather than the drive wheels of the machines themselves. When the TE20 was first introduced, Ferguson reps travelled the country demonstrating its innovative features to groups of admiring farmers who instantly took the wonderful little machine to their hearts. I know of no other single piece of equipment that had such a measurable effect on modern farming. Every farmer had one, and it was universally loved. I'd buy one now and keep it as a pet, if I had a big enough kennel.

Yes, and I'm only half joking. The Fordson Major and the little grey Fergie were standard kit in that part of Somerset I come from, and every boy I knew was fully conversant with both. They were holiday entertainment for some of us, a career gateway to others. As it turns out I've probably spent more hours drawing tractors than I ever did driving them. I'm still not entirely convinced as to which was the better choice.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jewish Uncles

Writer friend Robin Slick made me laugh recently when she said that nowadays Simon and Garfunkel looked like they could be her Jewish uncles - Uncle Mo and Uncle Schmo.

This morning's Guardian carries a feature on the lyrics of Bob Dylan, alongside a performance review of Leonard Cohen, currently touring the UK. Here are two more Jewish uncles, venerated and venerable, still both plying their schtick. It's interesting to see how they've all weathered the years.

I wasn't really aware, when I was young, that the great songwriting triumvirate of Dylan, Simon and Cohen happened to be Jewish. I don't think many young UK fans had the kind of radar to pick up on the fact, or that it would hold any significance for those that did. It seems no more than coincidence to me now, although questions of faith have often been prominent in their work. Cohen turned to Buddhism, Dylan became born again, with a fearful washed-in-the-blood-of-the-Lamb vengeance. Simon seems to remain as circumspect as ever whilst still namechecking God every once in a while.

Those of Jewish origin are as prevalent in UK arts and culture as in the States, but I don't know that Jewishness is something that we take much notice of over here. It came as a surprise to me to learn that Sgt. Bilko's character was intentionally Jewish, and that to Americans this was an important element of the humour. I just thought Phil Silvers was very funny. Likewise Lenny Bruce. I'm a few years too young to have been able to appreciate Lenny Bruce when he was at his peak, and this may be the reason I never saw his Jewishness as being central to his act. Again I just thought he was brilliant. Plus he swore a lot, much to my schoolboy delight. Jewish Americans have an underlying culture, rich and self-referencing, that doesn't exist in quite the same way over here.

Of the three aged uncles, Uncle Paul still holds the middle ground to my mind, bridging that gap between the often wilfully tossed-off scribblings of latterday Uncle Bob and the more precise and thoughtful haikus of Uncle Len. Simon is probably the most musically accomplished of the three, the most experimental in terms of exploring world rhythms and influences, and the most accessible in some ways. Yet he's difficult to feel close to. I don't know why. There's always been an air around Simon of someone admired rather than loved.

And then there's poor old Uncle Bob. Stick frail he's become, his pockets apparently empty of the pearls he once cast before us. It's hard to remember how funny he once was, especially in some of those early songs, '115th Dream' for example, where he couldn't even get past the first line for collapsing into helpless giggles. 'I was riding on the Mayflower, when I thought I spied some la-ha-ha-ha-nd...ha ha ha...start agin...' Not many laughs left in the guy nowadays, although I've enjoyed some of his radio shows.

It's Uncle Len who turns out to be the revelation. Once famous for writing songs to commit suicide by, he now seems as jolly as you like, cheerfully admitting that he's having to tour because his agent robbed him of $5 million whilst he was off being a Buddhist - which equanimity is a pretty good advert for Buddhism itself. I recently heard Cohen being interviewed by an utterly crass Radio 2 DJ, whose identity I won't give away, except to say that he's famously on 'in the afternoon'. It was a lesson in good humouredness under the most trying of circumstances. Plainly Mr. DJ had only the vaguest idea of whom he was talking to, giving every impression that he was working from a crib sheet hastily thrust into his hand just before the start of the programme. But Cohen came through it like a pro, affable and intelligent, ready to chuckle both at himself and the less than perfect world around him. Good old Uncle Len.

In fact, good on them all. Good old Uncle Paul, still crazy after all these years. Good old Uncle Bob, still a rolling stone. And good old Uncle Len, still my man. Oy.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


I'm hip to the jive (as everybody kno) and so I was delighted when The Gents were asked to play at Hep Cats Holiday this summer. It looks like so much fun that I rather wish I'd booked a chalet for the weekend, along with my fabulous dancing partner Gina de Gamage, (see above) but it's too late now. I suppose I'll have to make do with my old pal Mike Stand instead, who's a little on the skinny side for me, and not much of a mover.

The weekend's sold out, but it might be worth keeping an eye on the obituaries columns - some of these original hepsters are pushing their luck, not to mention their pacemakers.

In a flurry of other little gigs this summer, I've also signed up for a Glad Band reunion. This is currently pencilled in for Friday August 8th at Tiverton Cricket Club, where an old friend of ours has somehow managed to become chairman. I wonder how long he'll remain in that position, given what an appearance by the Glad Band usually entails. We first got together around 1969, so the acrimony runs to about the same depth as that of the Eagles. Not so the depth of pocket, unfortunately. The band started off with nine members, I think, and now we're down to four. We'll see who survives this latest round.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Age Banding

For those who might not be aware of it, children’s books are now to be ‘age banded’, ie each book will be prominently labelled with the age of readership for which the publisher intends it. 7+, 9+, and so on. Note that I say ‘publisher’, because I’ve yet to hear of any author, teacher, librarian, independent bookseller, or reader who thinks this a good idea. I suspect that it’s a scheme that has been hastily hatched between publishers and large chains, in a lazy and ill-advised attempt to boost sales.

Children have differing reading ages, and tastes, and no child of, say, 10 years old is going to want to be seen reading a book that has a label saying 7+ on it, no matter how much they might love that book or how appropriate it might be for their reading ability. Conversely a 7 year old who has been told that he has a reading age of 10 (and whose parents are certainly going to let people know it) may struggle with the content of a book labelled 10+ even though he is capable of reading it.

Some sort of guidance is both helpful and necessary, but surely books already speak clearly enough for themselves? How do we as adults choose what to read and what not to read? We study the cover, we read the blurb, maybe look at a few sentences from the text, and we listen to the recommendations of others. This same process is perfectly suited to children’s books. Age banding can only stigmatise developing readers and restrict the more confident.

Big name authors are refusing to have their books labelled in this manner, and have enough clout to be able to threaten publishers with revolt if such a scheme goes ahead. Fortunately their names head the list of the hundreds who are protesting against the practice. If you’re interested in adding your own, then go to:

No To Age Banding