Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In the bleak midwinter

click photo to enlarge
"In the bleak midwinter,
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;"
from "In the Bleak Midwinter" by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), English poet

My current reading is "Between Earth and Sky: Poetry and prose of English rural life and work between the Enclosures and the Great War." This book, by Neil Philip, was published in 1984, and is an interesting anthology about the lives of the rural population during that significant period in our country's history.

The range of the selections is quite broad - traditional rhymes and songs, quotations from novelists, poems by "rural" poets and the more exalted, snippets from official and unofficial surveys of country people, and, most importantly, the voices of the rural workers themselves. Some of the writers, such as Hardy, Cobbet, Flora Thompson, John Clare, and Richard Jefferies will be familiar to anyone who has an interest in this period. However, two sources were new to me, and provide extracts that make the reader want to weep. The first is a publication called "How the Labourer Lives" by Rowntree and Kendall (Nelson, London, 1913). One of the chosen pieces describes the cottage economy of a North Yorkshire farm labourer's family. The father worked 12 hours a day, ate reasonable food at his place of work (valued at 7 shillings weekly), and took home wages of 9 shillings a week to feed, clothe, house, and warm his wife and five daughters. He drank tea at home, ate no food there, and watched helplessly as his family subsisted on mainly turnips and potatoes, with tea, milk, bread, butter and "sad-cakes". During the week of the survey the only "meat" to reach the lips of the wife and children was a cod's head that they had been given. An equally heart-rending extract comes from "The Whistler at the Plough" by Alexander Somerville (James Ainsworth, Manchester, 1852). This is based on a survey of agricultural labour originally undertaken for the Anti-Corn-Law League. In an interview a youth who describes himself as "sixteen a'most", tells the author how he works from 4 in the morning until eight in the evening for three shillings a week; how he lives in the stable loft with other lads with no heat of any sort; has a change of bedding once a year; and eats bread and lard for every meal, except once a week when he buys potatoes that the "master" allows them to boil.

Reading the extracts reminded me that, whilst living conditions in this country have moved on considerably for everyone since those times, there still remain people - politicians and employers - who think that it is right to pay less than a living wage for a week's work. And by living wage I mean enough to feed, clothe, house and keep yourself warm, with sufficient left over to spend in a way that makes you feel you are part of the society in which you live.

I took the photograph above on a walk through the Fenland lanes and fields. The small Victorian cottage sheltered behind the wind-bent trees and ramshackle old sheds made me think of those extracts. For much of the year a smallholding such as this is growing vegetables and flowers, and its fruit trees are flourishing. But in the colder, darker months, with the wind whipping across the open ground, the roads iced over and snow drifting against the side of the buildings it is much less idyllic, and a century or a century and a half ago might have known the conditions described above. With that in mind I prepared this sepia-tone version of my almost monochrome colour image.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 55mm (110mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/400
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On